Few things make me more nervous, defensive, and anxious than when a non-Christian friend visits my church. It’s like inviting someone to meet your family for the first time, but more like your extended family, and the event opens with your cousins leading the family in an emotional sing-a-long of some old family tune that your edgier cousins have adapted to more modern music, followed by your grandfather giving a lengthy exposition of a book that everyone except for your friend has read. And you’re worried you might actually have to introduce your family to your friend. Will they be nice? Will they ask him good questions? Will they care about him at all? You’re tempted to quickly escort your friend to the exit to avoid any awkward conversations.
The truth is, our family is kinda weird (mostly in a good way). And they can sometimes have a hard time relating to other people, especially when they think those people are the weird ones. Nothing brings this point home more than watching a non-Christian friend talk about his or her experience with your church. It can be painful, and we may become defensive when a friend shares his or her perspective about our family. But it can also be revealing and edifying. That was my experience when I heard Win Butler, the lead singer of Arcade Fire, singing about missionaries to Haiti and their troubling theology of culture on the band’s latest album, Reflektor.
Arcade Fire is no stranger to religious themes. Their sophomore release was titled Neon Bible and features a track criticizing televangelists. After their next album, The Suburbs, won album of the year at the 2011 Grammys, the band put out a “deluxe” version with two bonus tracks, one titled “Culture Wars,” which directly criticizes the evangelical culture wars, and the other titled “Speaking in Tongues.” Win Butler sings with the voice of an insider, someone who has witnessed church culture personally. In fact, he was raised Mormon and got his BA degree in religious studies.
The story Butler tells in the song “Here Comes the Night Time” is a common one in church history, a story of cultural conflict between missionaries and foreign people groups. The conflict centers around the music played by the Haitians at night. A lack of working electricity—perhaps a result of the 2010 Haiti earthquake—drives the people outside to play music and dance each night. Over the course of the song, the titular refrain, “Here comes the night time,” builds and builds, creating anticipation for the revelry, which finally breaks out into an uptempo and impassioned bridge. The song is hard not to dance to; just ask my daughter.
Lyrics Aimed at Missionaries
There is a deep appreciation for the Haitians and their culture in Butler’s lyrics, a sense of respect and love. Win’s in-laws are both from Haiti, and the band has done a lot to help the country rebuild after the 2010 earthquake, so this love of the Haitian people and their culture is experiential and personal for Arcade Fire. Butler values their ability to delight in goodness through music and dance. And in this song he contrasts their embodied delight in music with the antagonistic distance from the music displayed by the missionaries.
While the Haitians go out onto the streets to dance, the missionaries condemn them:
And the missionaries
They tell us we will be left behind
Been left behind
A thousand times, a thousand times.
If you want to be righteous,
If you want to be righteous, get in line
‘Cause here comes the night time.
The Haitians are warned that if they do not want to get “left behind”—in the rapture or in hell?—then they need to seek after righteousness by following the missionaries’ lead and going inside. Butler replies that they already have been “left behind, a thousand times.” From the context of the song, Butler seems to be implying that Christians have often abandoned Haiti, keeping them at arm’s length (later he describes preachers talking “up on the satellite”), ignoring their economic and political struggles. But more than that, the missionaries abandon them physically, withdrawing from the Haitians and their culture so they can stay “righteous.”
In the next verse, Butler continues his criticism of the missionaries:
They say, heaven’s a place
Yeah, heaven’s a place and they know where it is
But you know where it is?
It’s behind the gate, they won’t let you in
And when they hear the beat, coming from the street, they lock the door
But if there’s no music up in heaven, then what’s it for?
These lyrics play off of the image of the pearly gates of heaven, with one important difference: it is not God but the missionaries who control the gate. If you want heaven, the missionaries tell the Haitians, you must come through us. Leave everything you know and follow us.
Just as they lock out the Haitians from heaven, they lock their doors when they hear their music, afraid of it and its influence upon them. And here Butler asks what I think is the basic question of the song and the heart of his critique: ”If there’s no music up in heaven, then what’s it for?” The pronoun “it” is ambiguous. Is Butler questioning why we have music if it doesn’t exist in heaven, or why we have heaven if music doesn’t exist there?
I think the best interpretation, the one most consistent with the rest of the song, is that he is asking both questions. It’s hard to know how much of the Reformed tradition Butler learned in his religious studies program—probably very little, if I had to guess—but knowingly or not, he lays out a compelling case for common grace in our theology of missions. Music is beautiful and good. In fact, it is so beautiful and good that its existence only makes sense if there is a heaven. And similarly, what is the purpose of heaven if not to delight in what is beautiful, good, and true—a delight that is necessarily an act of worship to the Creator of what is good?
Butler recognizes that there is something undeniably good about this music and dancing. Maybe not everything about the revelry is good, but there is some bit of common grace. It expresses something about life and the world that is more truthful than the satellite sermons from disembodied and distant voices of supposed religious preachers.
More than Righteous or Self-Righteous
As a Christian my inclination is to be defensive, to justify the actions of the missionaries in some way. But I think that response would be missing the point. Even worse, it would be futile. The song simply doesn’t give us the details necessary to decide whether or not the missionaries were being righteous or self-righteous. And it wasn’t meant to, because Butler’s point is about something much larger than the specifics of some mission trip.
What Butler criticizes is a basic challenge for the church everywhere, not just missionaries in Haiti. Culture scares us. It always has. When we hear the beat, coming from the street, we do lock our doors. If we can get away with it, we’d prefer occasional excursions into cultures, keeping them at arm’s length, dropping tracts, and then retreating back to our sanctuaries. We put up fences to keep out the culture we live in and to keep ourselves pure. But in the process we remove ourselves from our neighbors, and we fail to value what is worthy of praise. As a result, sometimes our own Christian culture becomes a major stumbling block for non-Christians as they consider the gospel of Jesus Christ.
On the whole, I think the evangelical church in the United States has matured in its understanding of culture and our presence in it over the last decade. The movement toward being “missional” and “intentional” has emphasized being embodied Christians—the exact opposite of the missionaries Butler criticizes. The church has largely moved away from viewing culture as the enemy. But I hope to see us continue to mature in this area. I fear that in our missionary work, foreign or domestic, we still often shudder at the thought of being in the world.
Whether or not Butler’s criticism of these missionaries is fair, it is an edifying exhortation, if we will have ears to hear. It reminds us of two fundamental truths about creation: that we were created to be embodied with one another, and that what God made good was not completely undone by the fall, by the grace of God. There are pieces of common grace goodness in every culture, despite all human efforts to the contrary.
When we forget these truths, we not only fail to honor God with our praise, we fail to bear witness for Christ to our neighbors. And then when it comes time to invite them to meet our church family, we might find ourselves afraid to introduce a non-Christian to relatives who have forsaken becoming all things to all people, for becoming one thing for our people.