Note: This post is an expanded version of a devotional I wrote for our twice-weekly First Moments series. If you’re not getting First Moments in your inbox, click here.
I love movies, but I’ve always said I don’t like musicals.
I’ve watched my share, including innumerable Disney cartoons with those wretched songs that emblazon themselves on my brain and haunt me when I’m trying to get to sleep. My standard line was, “I liked the movie, except for all the singing.” It’s not that I dislike music. Quite the contrary. And I certainly appreciate the immense talent it takes for people to write or perform in musicals. But it seems so artificial. People in the real world don’t burst into song at random moments (try it sometime, and see what happens to your social life). Whenever an actor started singing in a musical, I would find myself inwardly squirming, partially embarrassed for them at how ridiculous they looked, and partially impatient, wishing I could fast-forward and get back to the story.
I admit there were exceptions. I like Fiddler on the Roof, but it’s one of my Dad’s favorite movies. I love my Dad, and he taught me to love good movies, so it reminds me of him. And I really enjoyed Les Miserables a few years ago. I love the way grace transforms a bad man into an exceptionally good one, and how a “good” man who can’t accept grace becomes utterly ruined as a result. But I could tell myself that it was the beautiful theological truths of the movie that I loved. I could enjoy it and still proclaim myself a musical cynic.
But now, I am beginning to think I was wrong about musicals all along.
Recently, I took my wife and daughter to see La La Land, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s the story of a young jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) and a struggling actress (Emma Stone) who are both trying to find their dreams in modern-day Los Angeles. They meet, fall in love, experience pain and victory, sorrow and laughter. There’s nothing much unique about that plot. And Gosling and Stone aren’t exceptional singers. But the entire thing is done with such skill: The funny moments are truly hilarious, and the poignant moments truly heartbreaking. You truly want to see these two appealing people succeed. I enjoyed it so much, I found myself looking up the soundtrack online so I could hear the songs again. Later, I listened to an interview with the director, Damien Chazelle. He said he made this movie to appeal to people like me, the musical cynics. His mission was accomplished, in my case. I will no longer immediately write off an upcoming movie just because it’s a song-and-dance extravaganza. I might even revisit some of the musicals I once found so cheesy, to see if I can appreciate them more now that I have been “enlightened.” Maybe.
He also said something I found profound: “Songs are…an expression of inner feelings that you can’t articulate any other way…It’s a beautiful, powerful idea to me, that if you feel enough you break into song.” I think God must agree. After all, the book He inspired is quite musical. The largest book of the Bible is the Psalms, a collection of hymns. In Scripture, we are commanded over a hundred times to sing praise to the Lord. Here’s one, found in Psalm 5:11, Let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy. So, does that verse mean should we sing when we’re joyful, or does singing produce joy in us? I think both are true. This is why singing praise makes so much sense. If we love Him, music gives us the perfect way to articulate it. As CS Lewis said, it’s why a man in love says extravagant things to his wife about her beauty, wisdom, character; praising the person He finds wonderful completes his enjoyment of her. When we praise God, we love Him all the more…and we enjoy His greatness completely.
But just like I was a musical cynic, plenty of us are praise cynics. What about the person who can sit in a room full of people who are praising God with eyes closed, hands raised, tears running down their cheeks, and feel nothing? Perhaps you’re one of those people. Is there something wrong with you? No more than the rest of us. Eugene Peterson (the man who paraphrased the Bible into The Message) heard from his daughter years ago that she was expecting a baby. It would be his first grandchild. But curiously, he felt no real excitement about this, and that bothered him. He asked his wife, who was ecstatic about the baby, what was wrong with him. She said, “Well, you’ve never been pregnant. No wonder you’re not excited.” She encouraged him to build a cradle for the child. So he did. It took him weeks. He picked out a pattern, selected wood and supplies, crafted that cradle carefully, polished it to a fine sheen. Through the long process, he found himself getting excited about the baby that would lie in that cradle someday. He realized that most of us can’t really worship God because we haven’t built Him a cradle in our hearts yet. We haven’t done the long, careful work of preparing ourselves to get into His presence. Instead, we just show up at a worship service and say, “I’m here. Impress me.” But if we will take time in His Word daily, serve our neighbors, confess our sins, and most of all, pray for God to give us a hunger for His presence, we will clear away the space in our hearts that only He was meant to fill. And fill it He will.
Perhaps you’ve been wrong about worship all this time. Could that be? Prepare your heart, and see what happens.