country music

Honky-Tonk Baptism: Carrie Underwood’s “Something in the Water”

Listening to country music these days can feel an awful lot like you’re sitting on a tailgate, drinking a longneck, talking with rednecks about guns and girls and baptism. Yes, you read that right; I said baptism.

Carrie Underwood’s newest hit single, “Something in the Water,” is a splash of musical liquid on the sawdust floor of Nashville.

There Must Be Something, or Nothing, in the Water?

The lyrics lead us into the life of one who, late one night, is “all out of hope and all out of fight.” At the end of her rope, she recalls what someone had recently told her. He said that earlier in his life, he'd been where she’s at now, where “down every hallway’s a slamming door,” where there’s “no way out, no one to come and save me.” Then a friend told him what he’s telling her, “Just a little faith, it’ll all get better, so I followed that preacher man down to the river.” There, on her knees, in tears, she prays the only prayer she knows, “God, if you’re there, come and rescue me.” And He does. She’s “washed in the water, washed in the blood.” And now she’s changed, she’s stronger, because “there must be something in the water.”

Underwood is not trying to transform the jukebox into a pulpit; she's not a theologian. She's merely singing about a spiritual journey, as country music often does. But what I find refreshing and ironic about the song is that she ends up saying more about baptism than some preachers do.

One of the reasons this song resonates so strongly with me is because, like many Protestant churchgoers, I grew up hearing from the pulpit, and believing wholeheartedly, that there must be nothing in the water. Nothing but me and the preacher. The preacher did the dunking and I submitted to the act of watery obedience required by Jesus to show Him that I’m really serious about being His follower. In fact, because my baptism was a pledge of allegiance to Christ as Lord, when I failed miserably to keep that allegiance, I hit the repeat button and walked into the fountain a second time (read about that here). Still, even then, I believed there was really nothing in the water but a teenage boy recommitting his life to Christ. And had God not eventually revealed the truth to me—the sweetest, most beautiful truth imaginable—then I fear I’d have been baptized a million more times as I tried, and failed, to be the person God would be proud to call His disciple.

Mishearing the Bible’s Lyrics of Baptism

Have you ever thought you knew the lyrics to a well-known song, only to discover that you were mishearing them all along? Like hearing “‘scuse me while I kiss this guy” instead of “‘scuse me while I kiss the sky,” in Jimi Hendrix’ “Purple Haze.” Or, “reverend blue jeans” instead of “forever in blue jeans” in Neil Diamond’s song by the same title (for a laugh, watch this scene from King of Queens). Once you learn the right lyrics, you go back and listen to the song again, with a fresh set of ears, and you wonder how you ever misunderstood them!

That was basically me when I first listened to the biblical lyrics about baptism. The Scriptures say, “Baptism now saves you,” (1 Peter 3:21) but I misheard those words as, “Baptism now represents that you’re an obedient child of God.” Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…and teaching them,” (Matthew 28:18) but I heard “after you’ve made them disciples, then you baptize them to show their commitment to the faith.” Peter preaches, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children…,” (Acts 2:38-39), but all I heard were the first four words, "repent and be baptized." I didn’t hear that we’re baptized for forgiveness, that baptism gives the Holy Spirit, that all—including children—are welcomed to the font. Paul writes, “Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,” (Ephesians 5:25-26), but I heard “washing of water to symbolize me giving myself up for Christ.” When God was singing about baptism, He didn’t slur His words. He didn’t mumble. Each syllable was clear and crisp. The problem was not in His mouth but in my ears.

When the Holy Spirit finally gave me a fresh set of ears, I heard—really heard—what He’d been saying all along. Baptism really does save. It really gives the forgiveness of sins, life, the Holy Spirit, the whole salvation-shebang. Why? The last phrase from the Ephesians verse says it all: because it’s the “washing of water with the word.” Baptism is God’s word-washing. As Carrie sings, “there must be something in the water.” And she’s right. There indeed is: the word is in the water.

Do you mean the word by which God made the heavens and the earth? Yes, the same word.

Do you mean the word by which He still upholds all things? Yes, that very word.

Do you mean the word by which Jesus spoke healing to the lame, sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and life to the Lazaruses of this world? Yes, that healing, vivifying word is in the water.

And do you also mean the word which was in the beginning, the word that was with God, the word that was God, the word which became flesh and dwelt among us? Yes, the incarnate word, Jesus Christ, is in the water, too.

Jesus Puts Himself into the Water

There must be something in the water of baptism—and someone. And both are truly the same. At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus was baptized to put Himself into the water, in order that when you're baptized He might put you into Himself. He Himself was baptized in that river, but you might also say that He christened the water, too. All rivers and streams and oceans and little pools of font water everywhere became fit meeting places between Him and you. At every baptism, the Lord of all is in the water to give all of Himself to you. He who made the heavens and the earth remakes you into a new creature. He who uphold all things holds you up like a newborn naked baby to the excited chatter of angels. He who spoke healing to the lame, blind, deaf, and dead, heals and enlivens you in this holy word-washing. And He who is the word made flesh, makes your flesh part of His through His word. You become of Him, as He became of you.

There must be something in the water that does such great things. And there is. You’re there, the Father’s there, the Son’s there, the Spirit’s there. You’re washed in the water, washed in the blood, the water and blood that streamed from Jesus’ side on the day He died for you.

And there’s no better place to be.

P.S. I borrowed the idea for the title of this post from the book, Honky-Tonk Gospel: The Story of Sin and Salvation in Country Music, by Gene Veith and Thomas Wilmeth.

It Ain't the Whiskey That's Killing Me

I could sing darn near every word of every Hank Williams’ song years before I ever heard of a certain foreigner named Bach.  Like it was yesterday, I can still see my mom walking through our front door with my first, very own 45 in her hand:  “The Coward of the County” by Kenny Rogers.  Yes, my mom’s love of Elvis Presley, and our Sunday morning Baptist hymn-singing added a splash of diversity to my musical diet, but the staples remained Hank, Johnny, Patsy, and George.  To borrow a line from Barbara Mandrell, “I was country, when country wasn’t cool.” Over the years, I’ve sampled just about every musical genre.  When I was a prof in Fort Wayne, I sat straight-backed through Bach Cantatas at the seminary chapel and slouched in a smoky, hole-in-the-wall bar soaking in the Blues.  In college I had a brief love-affair with CCM, rocked through a Petra concert, and piously shunned all that “pagan, secular stuff.”  These days, push any of my radio preset buttons and you might hear Beethoven, Brad Paisley, or Pitbull.  But my first love is, and will no doubt remain, those earthy songs about mommas and trains, cheatin’ hearts and neon lights.

It may be too lowbred or crude for some people’s tastes, but that in-your-face honesty of country music is irresistible to me.  Especially in songs about shattered lives and broken promises, you’ll find no sugar-coating of suffering, but stark lyrics oozing with pain and regret.  The young man who, to relive memories of better times, drives the truck of his brother who never returned from the war ("I Drive Your Truck").  The dad who parks a few houses down from the house, the wife, the kids, and the dog that used to be his, before another man came along and stole them all away ("Who's that Man").  And more recently, a song by Gary Allan that tells of a man in the middle of a church, where the “walking wounded tell their stories.” As he began to tell his own, “a man started talking how the devil and the bottle was ruining [his] life.”  But he stands up and cuts that man off with this litany of denial:

It ain't the whiskey. It ain't the cigarettes. It ain't the stuff I smoke. It's all these things I can't forget. It ain't the hard times. It ain't the all nights. It ain't that easy. It ain't the whiskey that's killin' me.

This chorus digs below the surface to reveal that beneath our chosen self-medications, be they alcohol or drugs or overeating or smoking or bed-hopping, you’ll unearth the real killer.  And “it ain’t the whiskey.”

It’s all these things I can’t forget.  What’s that thing you can’t forget?  For me, especially this time of year, it’s a Thanksgiving a few years back.  The beautiful autumn colors of Cincinnati had already been defaced by winter’s browning paintbrush.  The handful of folks who knew me in that city were busy with their own lives and families, watching fumbles and touchdowns with bellies stuffed with turkey.  My young son and daughter were a thousand miles away, living with my soon-to-be-ex wife.  The demons were having a heyday, turning the inside of my head into a kitchen where they cooked up a stew choked full of regret and shame and lust and vengeance and hatred—a dish of despair served on my one-plate Thanksgiving table.  And let me tell you, I ate it.  In fact, I shoveled it in.  Then I washed it down with a glass of whiskey, then another, then plenty more, till the bottle was as empty as the tragic farce my life had become.  But it ain’t the whiskey that was killing me.  It was all those things I couldn’t forget.

What do you turn to, when your sole mission is to dull the pain and silence the screams within?  Yes, there’s the beer or the whiskey or the vodka or whatever poison your palate prefers.  There’s the marijuana or the meth or the cocaine that can temporarily transform your pain-racked life into something bearable or temporarily ecstatic.  Or, you can skulk around the meat markets to find willing partner after willing partner to get naked with and pound away at each other’s bodies, until the passing, orgasmic pleasure gives way to lasting, depressing pain.  There’s a list a mile long of these pseudo-sacraments for the sinner, but they all offer the same thing:  a god without divinity, giving medicine without healing, to sufferers without hope.  It ain’t the whiskey that’s the problem.  Nor is it the whiskey that’s the solution.

The down-and-out, heartbroken man in that Gary Allan song, goes on to sing:

So what do you got for this empty spot inside of me? The deep dark hole where love used to be. Before she ripped it out and ran into the arms of someone else. Y'all sit in this room and you talk like you got some kind of remedy. Well I hear what you're telling me, But I've got all the proof I need.

What have you got for this empty spot inside of me?  I’ve got lots of fine-sounding words that I could pour inside that deep, dark hole where love used to be.  I’ve got all those pseudo-sacraments whereby you can attempt to swallow or smoke or snort or screw your way out of that pit.  But words and self-medications ain’t gonna cut it.  If there’s an emptiness within you, left there by a love-gone-wrong, a life-gone-dead, a career-gone-south, there’s only one thing that can fill it, fill it to the max, and fill it with peace.  And that thing is not a thing.  Nor it is a belief or philosophy or religion or meditation technique.  It is a person.

What have you got for this empty spot inside of me?  I got nothing, but let me tell you who does.  God does.  And not some divinity who’ll cheerlead you from the sidelines as you get your life back on the straight and narrow.  This God is a man, a healer, who makes house calls, or bar calls, or whorehouse calls, or wherever you might be.  He comes to you, as you are, wherever you are.  The highest honor ever bestowed upon him was when his fiercest enemies branded him a “friend of sinners.”  That he is, for nobody’s so lost that he can’t find them.  Nobody’s so vile or perverted or hateful that he won't wrap his arms around them.  Nobody’s so depressed or lonely or heartbroken that he can’t love them back to life.  You got a deep, dark hole in your life?  He’s vast enough to fill life’s biggest chasm, radiant enough to enlighten the darkest pit, patient enough to smother the hottest fires of anger.  Jesus is the only true sacrament, the wine of whose love produces a sober intoxication of lasting peace no bottle under heaven can give.

I Will Not Meet God Halfway

Sometime it’s helpful to point out the obvious. You see, sometimes the obvious is so obvious, sometimes it stares us smack in the face for so long, that we forget it’s even there. It’s like that coffee table we’ve bruised our shins against a thousand times. It’s right in the middle of the family room, but we obviously don’t pay enough attention to it. So let me remind you of an obvious fact: most people who believe something about God don’t get their beliefs—certainly not all their beliefs—from the Bible. They operate with what we might call a comparative theology. Who God is, what God is like, and how God interacts with us humans is based upon a comparison with who we are, what we are like, and how we interact with one another. The Bible people read is the chronicle of human experience, the Gospel according to Me. And by virtue of comparison, folks come up with their ideas about divinity. On the one hand, this kind of comparative theology makes perfect sense. And, on the other hand, this kind of theology makes for a perfectly disastrous way of thinking.

Let’s focus in on just one very common belief that, in human-to-human relations, is well and good, but in God-to-human relations, leads to all sorts of problems. Anyone who’s ever been in any kind of relationship, especially marriage, knows that it can’t be one-sided. Like an old country song puts it,

I’d start walking your way, you’d start walking mine. We’d meet in the middle ‘neath that old Georgia pine. We gained a lot of ground cause we both give a little. Ain’t no road too long when we meet in the middle.

In marriage, as in any human relationship, both parties have to be willing to “meet in the middle.” Not just when it comes to compromise, but also to sharing duties, loving, caring for one another, doing those things that get the relationship going and keep it going. If only one person does all the giving, and the other person does all the receiving, the relationship is doomed.

A comparative theology would say that since that’s how human-to-human relationships work, then that's probably how God-to-human relationships work, too. God starts walking our way, and we start walking His. God gives his 50% and we give our 50%; or even God gives his 95% and we give our 5%. Whatever numbers you want to plug in, ours must be greater than zero. We’re in a partnership with God, after all. We both do our part. We’ve got to meet the Lord halfway. If only he does all the giving, and we do all the receiving, the relationship is doomed to fail.

Not only does this make perfect sense; it is also perfectly wrong. And, I hasten to add, the opposite is not only true, but one of the most beautiful, comforting, soul-refreshing truths you will ever hear.

God started walking our way, not when we were walking toward him, but when we, like lost sheep, had gone astray (Isaiah 53:6). God started to make us his friends, not when we were warming up to him, but when we were by nature children of wrath, enemies of heaven (Ephesians 2:3). God made us alive, not when we were barely breathing or sick or weak, but when we were stone, cold dead (Colossians 2:13; Ephesians 2:1, 5). To blend together all these Scriptural images, we were dead, wandering, foes of God when He pursued us, called us, wooed us, and made us his beloved children. I am a Christian today, and everyone else who is a Christian, is so not because we were born in the right family, or acted the right way, or made the correct decisions, but because God the Father made us Christians in his Son, Jesus Christ. He did all the doing, and we did all the receiving. He gave 100% and we received 100% of him.

But there’s more; it doesn’t stop there. It gets even more beautiful. Not only did God alone initiate our relationship with him; he alone keeps us in that relationship with him. I know, this is not how human relationships work. But God does things his own way, and his way is the way of grace. He doesn’t say, “Okay, I’ve made you my child. Now, you need to work for me, doing this or that task, for by so doing you will remain my child.” He doesn’t say, “I’ll do my part from now on, but you need to do yours as well.” What he does say is this: “You are completely mine. I have made you my child in Jesus Christ. I have washed away all your sins in Baptism. I will feed you the body and blood of Jesus. I will be with you every day, every hour, upholding you with my own strength and grace and love. You will never be alone. I will live my life through you. I will be a father in and through you to your children. I will be a husband in and through you for your wife. I will be a plumber, firefighter, pastor, doctor, truck driver, in and through you for those whom you serve in your vocation. You will be giving, to be sure, but what you give is nothing more than what you receive from me. I don’t need you; your wife does, your children do, your coworkers do, your enemies do. I will give my love to them through you. I will give my obedience to them through you. You have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer you who live, but my Son who lives in you.”

This is one of the most beautiful, comforting, soul-refreshing truths you will ever believe, that God does it all for you, from beginning to end. He gives, you receive. And whatever you give, is actually him giving through you, working in you, for others. All he asks from you to make this relationship work, all he demands from you to keep this relationship going, is nothing. Not 50%, not 5%, not .000000005%. As the title of one of Tullian Tchividjian’s books puts it, Jesus + Nothing = Everything.

This is why the Bible calls this message the Good News. And it’s the best news anyone has ever heard, for it declares that God in Christ has done it all, continues to do it all, and will forever do it all for you.