One of the songs that rocked my world, changed my thinking and opened my heart is Jackson Browne’s “The Rebel Jesus.”
But the first thing it did was upset me.
Decades ago, driving in the dark with the radio on, I was drawn in by the tune’s driving rhythm and lilting violin. I delighted in the holiday images Browne allowed my imagination to paint.
Then…I realized he was talking about me. And my people. Christians caught up in private celebrations and gift giving to honor the birth of Christ, yet tone deaf to so much of His message.
And even though I was tempted to quibble with Browne’s theological imprecision and oversimplification, the essence of the song resonated so deeply that it made me long to be a more consistent Christian, to love others as Christ did and to never again reduce the faith to comforting platitudes while turning my face from those in need.
I learned I was not alone when, in 2007, I bought Bebo Norman’s Christmas from the Realms of Glory. To my delight and amazement, Norman, a mainstream contemporary Christian singer, had covered “The Rebel Jesus.”
I went straight to the liner notes (oh how I miss them in this age of digital music!) where I learned that Bebo Norman considered “The Rebel Jesus” his album’s foundational song. I also discovered that his original reaction to the song was much like my own. Here’s what he had written:
I first heard this song years ago as I drove through a cold December landscape and was instantly moved to tears by the honesty and poignancy of words that somehow seemed to cut through the clutter of the Christmas season directly to the heart of Christ himself.…From the moment I heard Jackson Browne sing those words, I promised myself I wouldn’t make a Christmas record until I felt that the songs could fill the void that is left behind each year after the commercial Christmas season has passed. My hope is that Christmas from the Realms of Glory is a collection of songs that lives up to the legacy of an old song called “The Rebel Jesus” but even more so it lives up to the legacy of the rebel Jesus Himself.
“The Rebel Jesus” was the first song to challenge my thinking about the way Christmas is celebrated in our culture, but it wasn’t the last. I don’t mind cheery tunes and festivity in the least, and as Browne acknowledges in “The Rebel Jesus,” “I’ve no wish to come between this day and your enjoyment.”
But if you feel that your own Christmas playlist could use a healthy splash of sobriety to remind you of Christ’s humility, mercy and love for “the least of these,” here are six songs worthy of contemplation.
1. Jackson Browne: “The Rebel Jesus”
2. Randy Stonehill: “Christmas at Denny’s”
I’ve long admired Randy Stonehill’s ability to create songs that cut straight to the heart. “Christmas at Denny’s” takes us to where “They got Christmas muzak piped in through the ceiling, and the refills of coffee are always for free/And the waitress on graveyard and the surly night manager, they’re wishing that all of us losers would leave.” Unflinchingly heartbreaking, Stonehill is most definitely speaking from the heart of the rebel Jesus.
3. Gordon Lightfoot: “Circle of Steel”
Gordon Lightfoot has an uncanny ability to create irony by setting cheerful tunes to words of painful truth. “The Patriot’s Dream,” for instance. “Circle of Steel” is another. Lightfoot contrasts the “sights and sounds of the people going round/everybody’s in step with the season” with a child “born to a welfare case where the rats run around like they own the place.” He leaves you to ponder the rest.
4. The Brilliance: “Run”
“Run, Mary, run. Run, Mary, run. That king wants to kill your baby son.” The Brilliance consistently offers music of beauty and and penetrating spirituality. During the divisive campaign of 2016 I couldn’t stop listening to “Brother” with its challenge to Christians to love our enemies: “When I look into the face of my enemy I see my brother.” In “Run,” we’re asked consider the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt and apply it to the plight of today’s refugees. “Run” is a hard-hitter that also asks us to listen to the voices of black Americans victimized by police violence. Can we do this while acknowledging how many good and courageous police officers we have as well? Can we live in the tension of the both/and, championing the dignity of all human persons? Can we take the time to listen to each other?
5. U2: “Peace on Earth”
“Jesus can you take the time to throw a drowning man a line? Peace on earth.” We can’t escape the hard truth that Christ allows us the dignity of choice and we so often use that freedom to kill those He created. “Hear it every Christmas time but hope and history won’t rhyme. Peace on earth.” It doesn’t come by force or magic. It’s an offer to people of good will. There’s only one place Christ’s peace can come: hearts open to receiving Him. Listening. Forgiving. “My peace,” Jesus said, “is not as the world gives.” Indeed it is not. This song allows us to mourn our inhumanity in the presence of Christ who suffered humanity’s worst in His own person.
6. Andrew Peterson: “Come, Lord Jesus”
Advent reminds us that there will be another coming. Our longing for peace on earth, for hearts clean enough to truly follow Christ and be one with His purposes will be realized when He returns.
Andrew Peterson’s “Come, Lord Jesus” may not have been written for Advent, but it makes my list of Advent favorites along with “The Reckoning (How Long).” Peterson makes us long for Christ’s return but he won’t let us off the hook for the ways we’re living in the here and now.
Tonight in the line of the merchandise store
While they were packing up my bags
I saw the pictures of the prophets of the picket signs
Screaming, ‘God hates fags’
And it feels like the church isn’t anything more
Than the second coming of the Pharisees
Scrubbing each other ’til their tombs are white
They chisel epitaphs of piety.
I am so thankful for this song that calls out hate-filled, so-called Christians for what they are. We need more Christians with this kind of courage.
But I’m also thankful for Peterson’s self-reflection which calls me to acknowledge that when I call out someone else’s sin, I’d better examine my own failures in humility.
It’s taken me years in the race just to get this far
Still there is no end in sight
There’s no end in sight
‘Cause I’ve carried my cross into dens of the wicked
And you know I blended in just fine.
We have all have sinned. We all fall short. “So amen, come Lord Jesus.”
Come into this smelly stable of a heart. And let me come to You right there. Let me come to Your manger, to Your Sermon on the Mount, let me come to Your Cross and to Your empty tomb.
Amen. Come Lord Jesus.
Let earth receive her King.
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You might not guess it from the post above, but I have plenty of joyful tunes on my ever-growing Christmas playlist. My favorite new release this Christmas is The Brilliance’s rendition of “I Heard the Bells.”
And have you heard Audrey Assad’s EP Winter? Three beautiful songs, each a treasure: a sweet cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song for a Winter’s Night,” a truly astounding version of “Midwinter” and “Winter Snow,” an original contemplative gem on the hidden ways of Christ. Take it deep into your heart.
Fountains of Carrots episode 101, Pieper for the People; Real Festivity in a Hallmark World with Bo Bonner is worth a listen for anyone longing to make Christmas a more meaningful celebration.