Among Protestants in America, there seems to be two dominant trends regarding the way we think about the season of Lent. One tendency is to see it as a great opportunity for spiritual gymnastics, a time to one up each other in virtuosic displays of staggering self-denial (no chocolate! no booze!) that end up being simultaneously self-flagellating and self-celebratory. At the other end of the spectrum, there is a tendency to just ignore Lent completely (not in the Bible! way too Catholic!) and simply carry on with business as usual.
At its best, Lent looks like neither of these extremes. Instead, it serves as a time to reflect on our utter neediness as human beings; it is an opportunity for believers to recognize the dark corners of our hearts and to further recognize that it is precisely these dark corners that are subsumed by the horror of Calvary and flooded with a gracious light by Easter morning. Both Lent avoiders and Lent super-athletes are in danger of striving to have the experience of cross and resurrection but nonetheless missing the meaning; a healthy observance of Lent is one where Lent itself becomes secondary, providing a dark backdrop against which the gospel’s burning brilliance can flash out all the more vividly.
So, in an attempt to avoid tumbling into either of the aforementioned pitfalls, I give you the first installment of our very own Lenten Soundtrack! My hope is to share a pop song and a corresponding reflection on a weekly(ish) basis that will help to bring the lessons and hope of Lent, Good Friday, and Easter into the realm of every day life in a thoughtful yet humorous fashion.
To start things off, we have a song for you that is without question a paradigmatically Lenten track. Lyrics that affirm human ephemerality and the fleetingness of worldly pleasures? Check. Somber guitar picking with a baleful violin accompaniment? Check? Far out hairdos? Check. Men wearing frilly blouses and formal wear? Check times four. Ladies and gentlemen, I present you with Kansas’ 1977 classic, “Dust in the Wind”:
What is wonderful about this music video is how the song’s lyrical pathos and wistful tune are in stark incongruity with the melodramatic and overwrought visuals. Forty years after the fact, it is nearly impossible to do anything but laugh at the outlandish hair, the way each shot dissolves into the next, and the round matte that frames it all. I’m sure it all seemed quite serious at the time, but hindsight is 20/20. Clearly, however, the song’s central affirmation – “All we are is dust in the wind” – is spot on in the biblical anthropology department (cue Genesis 3:19: “For you are dust and to dust you shall return” — or, for an even more striking diagnosis of the human condition, Ecclesiastes 3:19: “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.”). In this life there is no end to our labor, no enoughness to which we can lay claim – at least no enoughness capable of forestalling the approaching reality of our inevitable demise. Lent, like Kansas, brings us back to the unsettling place where we are forced to cry “Our works – Alas! – are all in vain; in much the best life faileth.”
And yet – there is something more going on here, for the incongruity between Steve Walsh’s dour expression and those uncontainable pink ruffles beneath his collar is the same incongruity that resides at the heart of Lent and, indeed, the gospel itself. Although Christians recognize that our moral failure and mortality are weighty matters, requiring earnest repentance and solemn reflection, we also know that because we are not the final authors of our own stories they are not the final words that will be written about us. Moreover, we know how the story of Lent – which is to say, our own story – ends, because instead of crafting it for ourselves we have received it from Another. And so, we return once again to the places of our despair but only in order to find our true hope – a hope that resides not in our own inner capacity but in the bountiful and incongruous grace of Jesus Christ, through whom we meet the God who breathes life into dust and makes dry bones live.