I come to most of the music that I listen to as a Church pastor (my day job) and what has been termed a theo-musicologist (my hobby of writing about that place where God and music interconnect). Song of the month so far is Duke Special’s In A Dive, from his brilliant new record Look Out Machines. It ticks every box that stimulates my head, heart and soul.
The pastor’s heart sinks at the opening line “Jesus and his blood don’t mean much anymore…” I have watched for more than a decade as many friends have ditched their Christian faith. It has been hard to watch and most of the time I have felt some guilt at the mass exodus from Churches of very gifted people who once had a committed faith. As a Church have we failed this generation? Have we not been flexible enough to respond to changing times? Duke’s first line suggests another victim of a generation unable to reconcile faith in Jesus with the post or even the post post modern world of the third millennium?
Yet, wait… my soul lifts again as Duke speaks to my fears, “Don’t get me wrong/It isn’t that I don’t believe.” OK, so all is not lost. What then is going on in the faith life of Duke Special and what might it say to me as a pastor and even more to a Church in need of critique? As I listened to In A Dive a few times I couldn’t help hearing it as I heard Hozier’s Take Me To Church (for my blog on that song click here.)
Duke Special brings something to his spiritual critique that, I dare to suggest, Hozier lacked. Duke grew up through, and set off his early career, in the inner courts of evangelical Christianity. As a result he has insights theologically and sociologically that Hozier’s County Wicklow Quaker experience might lack. Duke’s critique is more specific and maybe a little more sympathetic as a result.
Speaking about In A Dive Duke has said, “The song is about Belfast, really. It’s about what people recognise as spiritual and what it means to me to be spiritual. My point is that, whatever people mean by God or grace or spirituality, it’s often not in the obvious places.” Now there are two things going on here. One is Duke’s thoughts on Belfast’s view of spirituality. The other is where you might find God.
Take the first and Duke says of another song Son Of The Left Hand on the record, “I don’t have some sort of hidden agenda or message, but these are words and images and ideas that I’m wrapped up in, that I’ve grown up with and that seem to come out. I find music – because there’s no wrong answer, there’re no taboos – is a great place to explore things I’ve grown up with and things that are important to me or frustrate me.”
As a description of Duke Special’s work “things that are important to me or frustrate me” is a perfect description. Both are at work in In A Dive. Belfast and its religious fundamentalism is frustrating him, “Maybe its this place that I grew that burns in my throat/Fundamental shoes that carry souls to the boat…” That God and grace are found where he was taught they shouldn’t be is what interests him and this four minute sermon’s conclusion, “I have seen God in all these kinds of dives/But love still is exploding in my mind.”
This is another important comment that the Church needs to hear. The Gospels show Jesus in some of the dives of his day. God is not confined to certain environments but perhaps indeed it is where sin abounds that grace abounds more. Duke's upbringing has caused him to perhaps be surprised as to where he is finding the thing of grace abounding.
The theo-musicologist in me is drawn to his theological musings that suggest that the Belfast he grew up in has shrunk God down. This is something that the Church in 2015 needs to listen to. Our theology forged at a particular place in history is never infallible and our understanding is always looking through glass darkly as the apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13. Like his generation, perhaps struggling in the shadowlands between the precise theology of modernity and the more subjective feel of post modernity, Duke is suspicious of any arrogance that has all the answers. He sings, “Certainty’s a city I decided I should leave/To live in the waters of doubt and fallen trees.” We might want to argue that or the dangers of that decision but it is a real feeling for many and we need to recognise the fact.
The repeated chorus warns of confining God to even the cleverest intellectual definitions, “Don’t shrink it down to the size of your head/You know that some things are more than can ever be said.” It reminded me of David Gray’s line “I’m trying to spell what only the wind can explain.” Those of us formed in a clarity of systematic theology might well struggle with the openness to mystery in the new generation but the Bible has a good helping of mystery which never leaves it as vacuous ambiguity.
As a pastor I am finding it helpful to use the theo-musicological engagement with this Duke Special song to understand how to do mission, discipleship and pastoral care right here and now. That it is one of his best ever songs helps. Mind you, Look Out Machines is full of them!