Letters from Pop Culture

Here is an interesting experiment anyone can make: go through your collection of popular music favorites, listening for significant lyrics, allusions to scripture, and other oblique expressions of authentic faith. By now the Owl’s readers know some key words. They have to do with freedom, longing for righteousness, perseverance in work or love, courage in the face of death, and more.

We have written before about people whose faith is known to God alone. An example might be a self-proclaimed non-believer, a person who denies God, yet has strong opinions about what a true God would look like if there were such a thing: powerful enough to prevent absurd suffering, or to punish people who bring trouble on others; wise enough to construct a cosmos where nature need not be a chaos of predators and victims.

My father was one of those people. He proved to me that there is no God. He became furiously angry when I failed to define God convincingly to him. Yet in the same conversation he gave a poignant description of his frustration, lying abed at night watching those tiny lights that dance in front of the eyes, trying to make them cohere into an image to which he could pray. He longed for a confrontation like Moses’ burning bush, or like the extraordinary event on Sinai:

“ . . . man shall not see me and live.”  And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by;then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33:20–23)

Janis Joplin

Listen to the ferocity of longing in Janis Joplin’s “I Need A Man To Love”

I need a man to love me.
 . . .
. . . I gotta have him like the air I breathe.
 . . .
You know it
Can’t be now
Oh no
 . . .
Can’t be this LONELINESS,
Baby, surrounding me.

Then again, it is not hard to see a connection between the lines, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin left to lose,” and “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).[1] Is it too hard to see, or too obvious that some similarity exists between devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Janis’s “Take a Piece of My Heart.”[2]

If good art is in some sense divinely inspired, how can an apparently irreligious person such as Janis produce such music? Where is the faith in her work? The answer in respect of Joplin herself lies right there on the surface, and yet cannot be known, and one may doubt whether art is divinely inspired.

Maybe Janis’s suicide was her response to the pain of cognitive dissonance. A person who knows love’s power—God’s power—even inchoately, lives today in a culture with no serviceable vocabulary for it nor any encouragement to find one. What is she to do? Great artist as she was, she could not singlehandedly invent a language of faith, and teach it to others. That is a task for the church, but it has appallingly little to say to such a heroically needy person like Janis, who is both fatally bewildered and capable of conveying important truth about love.


[1]        Kris Kristopherson, “Me & Bobby McGee”, recorded by Janis Joplin and Full Tilt Boogie, Pearl (Columbia Records, KC 30322,1970); cf. Matthew 10.39.

[2]        “Piece of my Heart”, and “I Need A Man To Love”; Big Brother and the Holding Company, Cheap Thrills (Columbia Records, KCS 9700, 1967).

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