Is God a DJ?

Posted on August 21, 2010

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(After a too-extended summer holiday, several posts will appear quickly – I’ve been writing them, just not posting them. Sorry)

Chatting to a journalist who was interviewing me a couple of weeks back, we got talking about Faithless’s set at T in the Park. (It’s a music festival. Like Glastonbury. Only better.) We agreed to disagree over rapper Maxi Jazz’s choice of clothes (kilt, sporran, T-shirt; she liked it; for me, kilts work fine with T-shirts, but a sporran is kind of like a bow tie – it can only be worn with full formal dress); I talked to her about their performance of ‘God is a DJ’. She wanted to interpret my words as critical or defensive. That wasn’t my intention at all.

It got me thinking – there is a normal and instinctive reaction of (British) Christians (is it true elsewhere?) to the invocation of generically religious or specifically Christian themes in popular culture: it is inevitably defensive, critical, policing carefully the use of language and image to ensure that Christian orthodoxy is presented pure and undefiled. The implicit assumption is that the faith, and the truth it teaches, is fragile, precious, and in need of protection. I don’t think that.

The Truth became incarnate, making a bed in an animal’s feeding trough. The Truth was a refugee, homeless, a convict. The Truth, the one time we saw Him face-to-face, did not seem especially fragile or in need of the protection of religious law or ritual. As Spurgeon once reportedly (I’ve heard the quotation many times, but never seen a reference) said, when asked to defend the Bible against higher criticism, ‘I would sooner try to defend an uncaged lion!’

So, let people reflect, recollect, and play with Christian words and symbols, in song and art and drama. Their intention may be to mock, but their intention is not the decisive factor here; God’s power can and does routinely subvert misplaced human intentions. If gospel language and symbols are out there, God will do good with them. We do not need to defend God – He is not that weak or powerless.

But what of the specific example? The Faithless song is worthy of some reflection. The lyrics run:

This is my church
This is where I heal my hurt
It’s a natural grace
Of watching young life shape
It’s in minor keys
Solutions and remedies
Enemies becoming friends
When bitterness ends
This is my church (3x)
This is my church
This is where I heal my hurt
It’s in the world I become
Content in the hum
Between voice and drum
It’s in change
The poetic justice of cause and effect
Respect, love, compassion
This is my church
This is where I heal my hurt
For tonight
God is a DJ

Performed live, it is regularly anthemic. This has to be one of the great live performances of the decade:

Before we get to the song, let me just note that there is a lot to like about Faithless. They are one of the best live bands on the scene today; Maxi Jazz writes raps that are powerfully delivered, and almost always worth thinking about; and Sister Bliss, even putting aside her talents as club DJ and remixer, remains welcome, and long overdue, proof that it is possible to write truly monumental keyboard riffs without being a geeky besuited German, or a chinless and pimply 80s teenager (just too many to choose from – but try: this, this, or even this).

The song – for a first pass, consider the implied ecclesiology. The song assumes a shared account of ‘church’ as a therapeutic and reconciling community, where hurts are healed, enemies are reconciled, and justice is established. If there is implied criticism that clubs perform this function better than traditional congregations (‘This is my church!’ sung at a festival or in a club – and watch Jazz’s gestures as he delivers the line in the video above), then at least there is a recognition, rare enough in modern culture, that ‘church’ is not, in its essence, something irrelevant, pointless, and outworn, but is something healing and dynamic, however much many contemporary examples fail to live up to what they should be. Of course, an adequately theological account would want to say more – about sacrament and discipline and the speaking forth of the gospel – but ‘out there’, in popular C21st British culture, this is a very positive take on the church, and it is to be welcomed before being criticised.

What of the theology? ‘God is a DJ’? It might appear simply blasphemous. Can we be more generous? For a first reflection, the predication is the right way around. It is not impossible that the God who has met us in Jesus Christ could spin and scratch disks; to claim ‘a DJ is God’ would, by contrast, necessarily be idolatry. But if ‘God is a DJ’ is a possible theological claim, it also seems a profoundly unlikely one. What argument for the claim is offered?

The song suggests an instance of ‘natural grace’: in (Dutch, neo-)Reformed theological language, let us translate ‘common grace’: God is present and active in the world, in gracious but non-salvific ways, which bring genuine truth, beauty, and goodness to human beings and to human cultures. Let us imagine – it is not too implausible – that the lyrics of the song describe at least one actual instance of experience in a club: somehow, amongst those present, hurts are healed, enemies are reconciled, bitterness is left behind, respect and love and compassion are engendered. Let us further assume that, under God, the cause of these gracious effects is the corporate experience of the music. It is commonly claimed that a shared musical experience can do each of these things; why not, on at least one actual occasion, trance music in a club?

If, at least once, this thing happened, then the song interprets it correctly: this is an experience of common grace; God is at work through created causes to bring about healing and reconciliation in His world. This is no more than a statement of a traditional doctrine of providence. But (and here I explicitly follow a Reformed, rather than Roman Catholic, account of the relation of primary and secondary causation) if the specific created cause that God uses to bring about these good and gracious effects is the shared experience of the music being played, then it is not improper to assert that God so ordained the particular music that was played in the club that night so as to cause healing and reconciliation in the lives of those present. A visible and at least potentially identifiable instance of divine supervenience established the precise playlist in order to achieve certain effects that, in sovereign mercy, God intended…

…or, to put it more colloquially, ‘Tonight, God is a DJ’.

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