Annie Dillard once wrote: “Nothing could more surely convince me of God’s unending mercy than the continued existence on earth of the church.”1 True enough, but I would also add a corollary: nothing could more surely convince me of God’s hiddenness than the continued existence of theology. The history of theological reflection might plausibly be viewed as an attempt to grapple with existence before a God who Scripture reveals as hidden. The God of the Bible is problematic in so many ways: God creates an imperfect world; God kills and predestines and punishes; God causes suffering and redeems through a crucifixion; God dwells in blinding light and manifests as a cloud or a whirlwind.2
To what extent is it appropriate for parents to teach their children about this reality of God’s hiddenness? And what kind of theology should accompany such teaching? Parents will begin to find answers to these questions by listening to some recent gospel music created by alumni of the University of Chicago Divinity School: Why Not Sea Monsters and Butterflyfish. Both bands exegete Scripture while grappling with the meaning of human existence in a broken world before a hidden God. But they do so with distinctively different perspectives.
Justin Roberts, while earning his M.A. from the Divinity School in the late 90s, brought in extra income by performing with his friend Liam Davis at local churches. Now the Evanston-based musician is a Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter for children. He tours across the country with his secular child-rock band, the Not Ready for Naptime Players. The average age of Justin Roberts’ concertgoers is about 3½. Parents sit in the chairs bobbing their heads while crowds of energetic children stand at the foot of the stage singing and dancing in what can only be described as a mild version of toddler mosh-pit madness. Justin Roberts’ songs are good (albeit with the annoying edge that most children’s music manifests after repeated listening): catchy, participatory, relatable to small children, funny, and even poignant. But his best songs by far — which you won’t hear these days at his sold-out public concerts — are the two eponymous albums of biblical songs performed by Justin and Liam’s lesser-known band Why Not Sea Monsters.
It’s hard to avoid the hidden God when telling the stories of the Bible honestly.
“Why Not Sea Monsters? Songs from the Hebrew Scriptures” and “Why Not Sea Monsters? Songs from the New Testament” tell the stories of the Bible — from creation to the prophets to the resurrection of Jesus to the early church — in creative narrative form and with lyrical creativity. Several of the songs were commissioned by Augsburg Fortress to function as Sunday school songs with their clever lyrics and bouncy tunes. But the songs are also true to Scripture in their deep honesty about the reality of human brokenness and divine mystery. A sampling of vocabulary from these albums includes: lonely, old rusty cars, afraid of dying, sad and blue, robbed and beaten, hurting, snake, enraged, poor and sick, crumbled road, smarmy, thunderstorm, mistake, fret, and failure. God refers to himself in the plural and gets sad and changes his mind. Perhaps the most telling phrase is the band’s title phrase, why not sea monsters?, which a seemingly arbitrary God asks himself rhetorically in the midst of creating everything from the sky and stars to broccoli and airplanes. We can probably think of several good reasons why God should choose not to create sea monsters — but because Genesis 1:21 tells us that God did indeed create sea monsters they appear prominently in Justin Roberts’ account of creation. In general, Why Not Sea Monsters sticks to the biblical narrative very closely, even while taking some creative license with the details. It’s hard to avoid the hidden God when telling the stories of the Bible honestly.
But Justin Roberts’ biblical songs are not without hope. Hope is located in God’s promises and presence even in the worst circumstances: the stars burst and bloom with love; the storms will soon be through; the crumbled road is paved and bathed in light; everyone is invited to the divine party; troubles pop like bubbles in the rain. And hope is located in music: the rainbow after the flood is a song that God sings as promise for every living creature; the birds at creation all sang together in the brilliant dawn; Gideon is told to clap his hands, raise his voice, and rejoice; Daniel allays his fears in the lion’s den by singing “Here kitty, kitty, kitty, I am not afraid!” And paradoxically, hope is located in the mystery of God’s grandeur, in the hiddenness itself.
This hidden hope is most poignantly manifest in Roberts’ cover of Craig Wright’s stunning ballad on Job 38:4 entitled “Where Were You?” Here theodicy is demolished by the wonder of creation and God’s broken but beautiful creatures respond to suffering by singing in unison “Allelu, allelu, alleluia.” This alleluia is both praise and lament, deeply in awe of God’s hiddenness. Like the book of Job in which it is based, “Where Were You?” refuses to rest in any easy answers to suffering. It relies instead on song. God proclaims to a complaining Job: “You’re perfect through and through. The words you say are true. But where were you . . . when I filled your mind with words so you could cry, so you could sing, and sprinkle names on everything, . . . so you could live and die with dignity, and shake your fist with poetry, imagining creation from the first?” And the listener is left with only one option: to sing alongside Job and the oceans and the ancient atoms and the running leopard: Allelu, allelu, alleluia.
Why Not Sea Monsters is not for the faint of heart. It’s brutally honest about the difficulties of life before a God who is not always easy to face. But it also generously rewards its listeners with the mysterious gift of praise. Allelu, allelu, alleluia, indeed.
Justin Roberts is not the only children’s gospel musician to come out of the University of Chicago Divinity School in recent years. Two other alumni, Matthew Myer Boulton, Ph.D., and Liz Myer Boulton, M.Div., have formed a Christian bluegrass gospel band called Butterflyfish. In their professional lives they are a professor and a pastor: Matthew taught at Harvard Divinity School and is now the president of Lexington Theological Seminary; Liz is a well-loved pastor whose former parishioners will tell you stories about how her sermons have changed their lives. Matthew and Liz, along with their friend Zoë Krohne, created Butterflyfish out of a desire to teach the simplicity and beauty of the Christian tradition through music. But their songs (which you can sample here) are anything but simple.
There is honesty about the brokenness of the world, but always for the sake of expressing God’s expansive grace.
Butterflyfish’s two albums, “Ladybug” and “Great and Small,” tell the story of salvation history alongside Scripture, Augustine, John of the Cross, Wesley and Luther, Barth, the Niebuhrs, and Moltmann. These albums contain Bible songs but they also contain love songs from a parent to a child, songs that celebrate music’s sublime beauty, and theological songs that proclaim the expansiveness of God’s grace. One song, “Great and Small,” playfully exegetes the Hasidic version of simul iustus et peccator. In the lyrical “All Sad Songs,” Christ’s death and resurrection are poignantly symbolized in a song about songs. The God of Butterflyfish creates everything, loves everything, and exists in, with, and under everything. But Butterflyfish doesn’t focus on the difficulties of life: the worst thing that God creates in these songs is apple cores and banana peels, a far cry from Justin Roberts’ sea monsters. There is honesty about the brokenness of the world, but always for the sake of expressing God’s expansive grace: the contagion of a stranger’s smile that reflects the twinkle in God’s ever-lovin’ eyes, the Spirit who sings in us to cast out all our fears, a happy kiss that comes from God, the salvation that is already present in the here and now like a harmony intertwined with melody. In the world projected by Butterflyfish people do bad things but God always forgives. It’s a world aimed at social justice and inclusivity. An eschatology that will be realized on earth among the community of God’s people (“The Gospel Story”) doesn’t exclude the promise of a God who will hold the individual hand of every child on earth (“All in All.”).
Butterflyfish’s exegesis of Scripture through theology is perhaps best exemplified by the song “Let it Go Down,” a tender retelling of the story of the woman caught in adultery. Here Jesus stops the would-be stoners by reminding them that they could just as easily be in her shoes. Judgment is like a stone: it’s heavy and demands wisdom. Jesus saves the woman from the crowds and sends her on her way, but then he calls her back to assure her once more of God’s grace: Stand tall, he tells her with a smile. “Sin is like a stone, you hold it in your hand, feel the weight and wisdom it demands. But then you’ve got to let love show; then you’ve got to let it flow. Then you’ve got to take that stone and let it go, let it go down!” The universality of sin is clear but grace has the final word.
At times Butterflyfish feels didactic, but it presents a solid biblical theology with which most mainline liberal Protestants will agree. The music is eminently listenable: the unique mix of bluegrass/folk/gospel engages adult listeners in a way that children’s rock typically doesn’t. With banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and bass, the band sneaks in creative riffs on old favorites. A few of the traditional songs covered by the band, “Jesus Loves Me” and “Amazing Grace,” contain additional stanzas that convey the expansiveness of divine love and the hope of resurrection.
Their songs hint at the paradoxical Lutheran presupposition that God is both hidden and revealed: revealed through Christ in Scripture, and hidden through the cross and in the deep mysteries of human suffering.
Neither Justin Roberts nor the members of Butterflyfish are Lutheran. But their songs hint at the paradoxical Lutheran presupposition that God is both hidden and revealed: revealed through Christ in Scripture, and hidden through the cross and in the deep mysteries of human suffering. And if it is true that faith both constitutes and is constituted by one’s perceptual stance in relation to this hidden and revealed God, these children’s songs provide useful perspective.
Justin Roberts aims at telling the story of faith in the style of biblical narrative, and so he engages the hidden God deeply. Why Not Sea Monsters doesn’t neatly clean up the messes it makes. And yet, it manages to convey profound hope through images and glimpses of God. On the other hand, Butterflyfish uses theology to lead its listeners toward the comfort of a revealed God even while hinting at the hiddenness. Sin quickly moves to forgiveness and love. The listener is taught about the content of Christian faith and is directly assured of God’s expansive grace.
Although the telling may be different, for both bands the end of the story is always grace. Butterflyfish’s Jonah learns interesting facts about the whale’s anatomy while Why Not Sea Monsters’ Jonah suffers in the dark cold. But in both cases Jonah learns that God’s love is present with him everywhere. Butterflyfish’s Noah imagines the rain as a big waterbed lulling the animals to sleep while Why Not Sea Monsters’ Noah hears God threaten to “lay everything to waste.” But in both cases Noah is given the promise of the storm’s end. Butterflyfish’s journeying wise men ponder philosophical questions about cosmology while Why Not Sea Monsters’ wise men grumble about the distance and fret about their arrival. But in both cases the wise men find the Christ child and discover that the world is transformed in the stable’s light. At the end of the story is always redemption.
Both bands provide well needed perspectives, and I wish both of them for my daughter. I want Anna to grow up knowing that God is her friend, that she is always loved and forgiven, that God’s love transcends human distinctions, that the gospel is core and all else is adiaphora, that when bad things happen God will be there to pick her up. So I play Butterflyfish. But I also want her to know that the world is broken and God is incomprehensible, that to be human is to cry and sing and shake one’s fist in poetry and laugh and scream one’s frustrations for all the universe to hear — and then to sing an Alleluia that is at once resignation and wonder, equally defeat and triumph. So I play Why Not Sea Monsters. I want Anna to know that in an Alleluia can reside the fullness of human experience, the good and the bad, and to place her trust in a God who is both utterly transcendent and closer to us than we can imagine, to have a realistically low theological anthropology and a correspondingly high view of God’s grace, to know that the answer to suffering just might be in a song. Both Butterflyfish and Why Not Sea Monsters will help her in this task.
Join the Conversation:
Where have you found honest theology in children’s music?
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 59.
See, for example, Gen 22:2, Exod 9:12, Exod 4:24, Exod 40:34ff, Num 15:32ff, Lev 10:1-2, Josh 10:11, Job, Isa 40:18, Isa 45, Ezek 4-39, Mal 3:2, Mark 13, Acts 5:1-11, Col 3:1-4, 1 Tim 6:16, Heb 5:11-14, and most of Revelation.