Fathom Mag

Published on:
September 19, 2019
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3 min.
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God's Infinite Setlist

Sometimes I picture God like a DJ.

Not some shirtless, sweat-soaked manchild whipping up a frenzy among kids willing to pay festival prices. Someone from an older school. A true soul man in a thrift-store suit, sitting cool and silent in the corner of the party. With an effortless touch, he elides one song into another, playing enough hits to keep bodies in motion, yet digging deep for the B-sides and obscure gems that stop revelers in their tracks.

He comes off like a kinder, wiser Rob Gordon, John Cusack’s character in the big-screen adaptation of the novel High Fidelity, making mixtapes with an internal sense of logic and emotional integrity.

Zephaniah’s tone poem sparks images of God as the world’s greatest singer—with a setlist as infinite as his kindness, as deep as his love, as diverse as his church.

In other moments, I sense him like a painter splashing color and chaos across a clean slate, waking us up to strangeness and beauty, to the brushstrokes animating reality. Sometimes he’s a poet, forming words into little worlds within the one he breathed into existence. Often he takes the form of a photographer, snapping a Polaroid and shaking it into clarity, then holding it up to the light, showing us a picture of what we’re really like.

A creator God not only embodies the art forms he invented, but redeems them. In sunsets and the vibrations of storms, he makes the better painting, the better poem, the better song. And yet he never gives up on what we create, coaxing out the truest, fullest meaning to produce echoes and sketches of himself. 

Because I tend to think in pop music, I return most often to God as a sound being. Especially when Zephaniah 3 is invoked, that staggering gospel passage which paints him as ecstatic and in love, singing songs about us and over us.  

Zephaniah’s tone poem sparks images of God as the world’s greatest singer—with a setlist as infinite as his kindness, as deep as his love, as diverse as his church. Using the language of pop music which, in his wisdom and ways, never sits beneath him, I hear him delighting in us even as he tries to get through to us. 

Sometimes he steps to the mic and sings the words of Dawes:

And like the last few boys at the Alamo

Like Cusack holding that stereo

Or what Juliet hears from Romeo

I’m never gonna say goodbye 

Believing God addresses us in boyish, lovestruck rhymes does his holy love no violence. He perpetually remains great and glorious, and yet I read the biblical description of his affection as undignified and smitten. 

When, punch-drunk from the blows of the world or besotted with our sin, we try to escape his love, he coos a few bars of The Reverend Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” As we imitate Peter’s pendulum mood swings, traveling between denial and zeal, perhaps he adopts Bono’s romantic agony and sings “I can’t live with or without you.” 

When he delivers a word of tough love, does he adopt Tom Waits’ craggy baritone? In a moment of pure playfulness, does he slip into something more comfortable—like Prince’s fluttering falsetto on “Kiss”? Does he sing “Amazing Grace” the way Aretha did? “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in the way of Johnny Cash? When he bends to lift the head of a beloved child, discouraged and believing the lies told by racism, does he offer up a reading of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” ala Nina Simone? 

I know, I know. This all sounds too familiar, too small. As if God is one of the low-culture deities worshipped by Israel’s enemies in the Old Testament. Certainly, his greatness cannot be confined to three chords and a word or two of truth. 

The God who made the world, then called it all good, possesses great taste.

And yet I take two matters as gospel truth. The God who made the world, then called it all good, possesses great taste. If he wants to mine the Great American Songbook—or any other songbook, for that matter—he will do whatever brings him pleasure. Larry Norman famously worried the devil would hoard all the good music, but God proves that fear unfounded.

He also displays a tender willingness to reach us where we are, to call out in our mother tongue. Upholding what is lovely about all cultural expressions, and casting aside the rest, he sounds out his love over hip-hop and gospel grooves, in the claptrap rhythms of punk. Unlike Bob Dylan’s early following, he finds no inherent ill in the choice of an electric or acoustic guitar. And to those who cannot hear the tones, he signs his love over them, spelling out the lyrics to John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me” and The Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize?”  

To those his love rests upon, God keeps on singing. From the top to the bottom of his infinite setlist, hitting all the notes between. The songs we want to hear, and the songs we need. Tuning to his frequency, we find ourselves mouthing along with the one who created music, who uses the art we make to woo us into eternity. 

Aarik Danielsen
Aarik Danielsen is the arts and music editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri. He is a writer, editor, and curator concerned with the intersection of faith, culture, and human dignity. Follow him on Twitter or read more from Aarik on Facebook.

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