TIL #3: The Orphans of God

This installment of “Theologically Interesting Lyrics” features a song by the late Mark Heard, master lyricist, connoisseur of several stringed instruments, and pariah to the CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) industry of his time. Although widely acclaimed for his songwriting acumen, he was always an industry outsider: not only did he stand out as a “profane saint” who smoked, drank, and cussed, but because of his acute empathy for the outcasts of society and resulting social concerns, he even identified with the political left (whom he perceived to be more committed to those causes), setting him firmly at odds with mainstream evangelical culture. His lyrics are often melancholy, ironic, sarcastic, and rarely offer solutions.

Heard accused the Christian music industry of stifling the artists who strayed from the CCM norm of plastered smiles and facades of ethereal hope and who instead frequently deemed it necessary to use their lyrics to grapple with the problems of life and mourn the unfulfilled hopes that rightly plague us all, believers and unbelievers alike. On the last of over two dozen albums he released before his untimely death, he penned this song describing the plight of those artists like himself who felt exploited and whose not-always-pretty messages were essentially censored by what he considered to be a profit-seeking industry that held a seeming monopoly over Christian music.

(I’ve half a mind to leave the lyrics out so that you’ll just play the video and allow his expressive voice and the fitting music to carry you along. But nah, I’ll just post the lyrics below the video.)

(URL: http://www.youtube.com/v/N58edukzT8c)

The Orphans of God
written and recorded by Mark Heard on Satellite Sky

I will rise from my bed with a question again
As I work to inherit the restless wind
The view from my window is cold and obscene
I want to touch what my eyes have not seen

But they have packaged our virtue in cellulose dreams
And sold us the remnants ’til our pockets are clean
‘Til our hopes fall ’round our feet
Like the dust of dead leaves
And we end up looking like what we believe

We are soot-covered urchins running wild and unshod
We will always be remembered as the orphans of God
They will dig up these ruins and make flutes of our bones
And blow a hymn to the memory of the orphans of God

Like bees in a bottle we are flying at fate
Beating our wings against the walls of this place
Unaware that the struggle is the blood of the proof
In choosing to believe the unbelievable truth

But they have captured our siblings, they have rendered them mute
Disputed our lineage and poisoned our roots
We have bought from the brokers who have broken their oaths
And we’re out on the streets with a lump in our throats

We are soot-covered urchins running wild and unshod
We will always be remembered as the orphans of God
They will dig up these ruins
And make flutes of our bones
And blow a hymn to the memory of the orphans of God

To date there have been two tribute albums making flutes of Mark Heard’s bones. There’s a marked contrast between his essentially incarnational approach to life’s difficulties in which he stands among the sufferers to give them a voice and the tendency of the CCM industry to offer advice from an enlightened position outside. The greater CCM lyrical tradition rejections the lyrical tradition of the orphans of God for bitterly complaining and offering no answers, while the orphans of God criticize the CCM model for merely offering platitudes and purely emotional pick-me-ups as solutions that too often prove hollow and illusory in the harsh realities of life. Those who prefer Heard’s approach will likely feel that his remains have been somewhat desecrated by a recent song from the CCM camp using his title that somewhat illustrates this tension. In this “Orphans of God”, the Christian pop vocal group Avalon offers this answer to the hopeless:

There are no orphans of God
So many fallen, but hallelujah
There are no orphans of God

Oh, you just feel like an orphan. God has made everything wonderful, if only you have the eyes of faith to see it.

CCM has changed; it is no longer such a monolith of pop/inspiration, and the degree to which CCM was actually stifling his music rather than, say, reflecting a low demand among the buying public that didn’t want to hear his moody, Appalachian-twanged music is certainly debatable. Either way, there are many more artists within and a robust movement outside of the mainstream industry labels who speak from the rubble, in the voices of the “fallen”, than there were in Heard’s day. But the tendency Heard identified remains in American suburban Christianity to eschew negative observations unless prepackaged with the dressed up “church talk” answers that most who go through a real dark patch find essentially dismissive. Most who have lost a loved one to a tragic circumstance tell us later that the least helpful and often most offensive thing they heard was, “It’s God’s will, and He loves you.” Yet that cold comfort is still routinely offered by Christians in “the bubble”.

Now, it is absolutely clear that mere words in songs, however poetic they might be, can never themselves resolve crises of distress, despair, hunger, sickness, fatigue, etc. in the same way that crying out accomplishes nothing but an appeal for an actual response. So in the end, the effectivity of Heard’s empathetic and others’ sympathetic approaches to lyrics will be judged by their comparative abilities to stir up the resolve to find real-world responses beyond pat answers within those who listen. From what I’ve seen, simplistically offering disembodied theological explanations that amount to gnostic escapism (particularly when those explanations seem to fly in the face of the facts) is perceived by those dealing with problems as taking those problems none too seriously. Those the most committed to not ignoring the emotional and physical hardships of life recognize that the suffering often sincerely need a shoulder to cry on and an empathetic acknowledgment of their pain rather than a tear and a lecture. In this, and in the potential to increase dissatisfaction with an intolerable state of affairs among the unaffected who might otherwise remain oblivious, I think Mark Heard’s approach triumphs.

So ends my hymn.

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  • Gusmcattison

    I’m sorry to see this didn’t get much discussion.

    I went nuts over Mark Heard in the 90’s, but really because he was pictured on that compilation album (High Noon) with Hank Williams on his t-shirt and an earthy hair cut and strung together evocative phrases of melancholic Christianity that belied the Christian pop I’d forced myself to adopt when I frantically burned all my rock and roll to keep my Baptist membership active (tongue in cheek… maybe.)

    In other words, I liked the vibes and didn’t look into his lyrics further than that.

    I’ll just say two quick things about this song:

    The second stanza is stunning and clear. It wasn’t until reading this line in this blog that I suddenly saw Mark as a cohrent songwriter.

    “In choosing to believe the unbelievable truth” sounds contrived. Unless someone can help me see differently, I have to assume that line was dragged in for the zippy wordplay. Otherwise are we to think Mark believed that the sufferers in this group are all of the type who equate Christian faith with blind faith?

    I happened onto some kind of CCM top albums list not long ago and was happily surprised to see Mark Heard, Rich Mullins, and Keith Green, who I consider some of the best of these kinds of songwriters – just speaking strictly of lyrical prowess – liberally represented. I’d thought it would be Steven Curtis Chapman or bust.

    • Gus,

      How interesting! In all honesty, it is only Heard’s lyrics that
      attracted me. I’m not naturally attracted to his style of music, although
      I’ve certainly warmed up to it since discovering Heard.

      Regarding “the unbelievable truth”: that line has puzzled me a bit as well,
      but I think I can safely say that he wasn’t talking about “blind faith”. I’m
      pretty sure he was referring to a particular belief that others
      found unbelievable, probably the belief that the Christian life should
      consist of grappling with rather than denying the painful aspects of our
      existence, one of the very beliefs that made Heard, Mullins, and Green
      (precisely my own triumvirate) anathema to predominant evangelical culture
      as typified by CCM. If he were a systematic theologian instead of a poet,
      he’d have probably made that more explicit. 🙂

  • Mary Powell

    So….I know this is old…and truly hope this blog is still going strong because….hello…killer idea. Anyway…this is one of my all time favorite songs. Ever. The lyrics are still stunning everytime I read them…and sing them. I lost my faith in 97′ and never recovered from the pain of that loss. I didn’t want to lose my faith…it simply didn’t withstand my own scrutiny of it. I found that there weren’t many people that could comprehend the profound loss that I suffered, rather, could only comprehend their own loss (my friends and family…in their grief at my new found atheism) This tune was a huge comfort to me in a weird way. I felt orphaned….I didn’t want to lose my belief but it just left. The end of the story is that I recently, after 17 years, have returned to my faith. it looks so different on this side. It’s lucid and reckless. I still struggle so much with doubt and unbelief…but something else is there and it’s amazing and unexpected. This tune. THIS TUNE!!