The Gospel and the Limits of Secular Belief: Reflections on Linkin Park

By Andrew D. Thrasher

When I heard the news late evening of July 20th of the death of lead singer Charles Bennington of Linkin Park, it wasn’t the first death I had heard of that day. A family that loved me into the kingdom had lost someone the night before, and as I sat with them reeling from the his death, mourning the loss of a friend, the one affected most by our friend’s death tells me of the death of Charles Bennington, and through texts with several close long term friends who leaned heavily on the music by Linkin Park since middle school, I felt a heavy weight of sorrow cross my heart. As I sit processing these tragedies I cannot but rethink what this post was originally to be.

For the last few months I have been listening deeply to Linkin Park with the intention of writing a blog articulating through their music some ordinary everyday dimensions of secular belief: I had hoped to articulate what the state of ordinary secular belief looked like through the lens of Linkin Park. Now, my heart cries out for those who are reeling at Bennington’s death, especially my close friends who I know feel it keenly. And yet I know that Linkin Park offers an empty hope, and feel the danger of speaking of secular belief through the music of Linkin Park while so many are mourning. So a question that I keep coming back to as I struggle to write this with tears and anguish: if we hope for hope, what salvation can we hope in if we ultimately cannot reach it?

Linkin Park is renowned for music expressing the anguish and paradox of a society hoping for hope, trying to make a better world, giving comfort to those who keenly feel how messed up this world is. Some of my friends receive great comfort from Linkin Park because they express something we all feel: lost and searching for a way out, a better life; the weight of marginalization and abuse at the hands of a society so terribly messed up and yet hoping for a hope for a better world so paradoxically bound to these conditions. In what follows I would like to state a few initial thoughts on diagnosing this paradoxical malaise that Linkin Park so eloquently expresses. But I will also push the boundaries of the emptiness so apparent in their music and try to offer constructive pathways and understandings of what may be an answer: the gospel.

Linkin Park, Secular Belief, and the Paradox of Hope

From the lyrics of ‘Numb’, ‘In the End’, and ‘What I’ve Done’ a message may be found in the first few albums of Linkin Park that encompasses what may be called the search for authenticity and the paradox of hope. The chorus of ‘In the End’ speaks to an emptiness, one I think that strikingly points to what comes after the disbelief in the belief in God. We are in an era where many in America, especially millennials, do not see anything appealing in Christianity.

I tried so hard
And got so far
But in the end
It doesn’t even matter
I had to fall
To lose it all
But in the end
It doesn’t even matter

I’ve put my trust in you
Pushed as far as I can go
For all this
There’s only one thing you should know
I’ve put my trust in you
Pushed as far as I can go
For all this
There’s only one thing you should know

In the late twentieth century philosophy saw deconstructionism and the collapse of onto-theology, both resulting in a nihilism of belief. This nihilism of belief doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist but rather speaks to a postmodern condition in which we may still believe in God but it is an empty hope, a hope for hope that cannot redeem. James K. A. Smith in his Speech and Theology sought to articulate how we can talk about God in the aftermath of twentieth century continental philosophy, where we suffer from the disbelief in belief of God. Moreover I would contend that the question is not merely the disbelief in the belief in God, but rather our distrust in God’s power in a world so clearly without him (especially felt in the aftermath of the holocaust and the millions of deaths throughout the wars of the twentieth century). We are truly lost.

I do not think that Linkin Park leaves us merely with the emptiness of belief but in the song ‘Numb’ we clearly see our disbelief in the relevancy of God to our everyday concerns. I am always moved by the lyrics in the first and second verses. Linkin Park articulates the anguish of our everyday life. How could God relate to our lives in such a way that these verses reflect?! But Linkin Park does not just point out the postmodern condition and the emptiness of belief, but tries to express an answer beyond it.

I’m tired of being what you want me to be
Feeling so faithless, lost under the surface
I don’t know what you’re expecting of me
Put under the pressure of walking in your shoes
Caught in the undertow, just caught in the undertow
Every step that I take is another mistake to you

(…)

Can’t you see that you’re smothering me?
Holding too tightly, afraid to lose control
‘Cause everything that you thought I would be
Has fallen apart right in front of you
Caught in the undertow, just caught in the undertow
Every step that I take is another mistake to you
Caught in the undertow, just caught in the undertow
And every second I waste is more than I can take!

In ‘What I’ve Done’ we see clearly a hope in hope beyond the aftermath of the drudges of everyday life without God. Between the first verse and the last we see a hope for redemption out of the emptiness apparent in the loss of God in secular belief. We see a hope for redemption where we can forgive ourselves of everything we have done. Like Shai Linne’s ‘Were you there’ on his first album The Atonement, we cannot truly resonate with Linkin Park’s ‘What I’ve Done’ unless we see ourselves as the transgressors in a world so messed up. We not only must admit that we contribute to the horrors of this world, but must struggle to forgive ourselves of what we have done in this world, whether on a scale ranging from globalization and ecology to our everyday personal relationships.

But this self-consciousness of the need for forgiveness and redemption adds a weight to our lives that I do not think can be lifted by us. We are bound to immanence: God supposedly has nothing to do with us. We live in a world defined by the absence of God and Linkin Park articulates what may be called secular a-theology (absence theology). The results of the absence of God in our daily live results in an emptiness that we seek to fill with everything we can grasp. But yet nothing in our everyday lives can truly fulfill and redeem us. We even think that God cannot redeem us because of what we have done. If we could redeem ourselves and the world, why would we commit ourselves to Kierkegaard’s eternal despair?

Secular A-theology: Immanence and the Absence of God

In a few essays I have written I have sought to answer questions as to what may be deemed a renewal of the Secular by articulating the contours of a postmodern ontology and the nihilism of secular belief through the lens of Charles Taylor. I sought to diagnose the implications of secular belief found in Taylor’s disembedding of belief and the immanent frame while also seeking to construct pathways of re-introducing the possibility of God for a postmodern audience. Tied to this is not merely what I think lies behind the music of Linkin Park, but also pathways of answering the question posed above: If secular hope does not save, and we cannot but disbelieve in God, how can we hope in redemption? In short I think this can be explicated by both Charles Taylor’s Immanent Frame and James K. A. Smith’s incarnational logic.

Tied to the immanent frame are three inter-related factors: the implications of the loss of transcendence, the nova effect of meaning-making, and the search for authenticity. The following is an excerpt from my essay: “The search for authenticity is first one in which what one seeks is elusive to ultimate meaning because that the paths that take us through life towards completion are always lacking, calling out for something more, some deeper meaning to our existence, a purpose to life characterized by an authentic expression of fulfillment.” This is what immanence looks like: something in-complete, searching for fulfillment, and yet something ultimately unfulfilling. We cry out for something more than we are and this world. We cry out to be whole persons, complete and fulfilled. But can music give us this? Yes Linkin Park reflects our condition, our anguish, and crying out for what happens in the absence of God. It reflects what we hope for: Redemption and authenticity.

Taylor articulates that we search for authenticity where we “are seeking a kind of unity and wholeness of the self, a reclaiming of the place of feeling, against the one-sided pre-eminence of reason, and a reclaiming of the body and its pleasures from the inferior and often guilt-ridden place it has been allowed in the disciplined, instrumental identity. The stress is on unity integrity, holism, individuality; their language often invokes harmony, balance, flow, integrations, being at one, centered” (Taylor, A Secular Age, 507). James K. A. Smith reflecting on Taylor articulates that not only must we create meaning in the absence of God, but this begins to be characterized by the search to be authentically human without reference to God. Smith states: “the emergence of the secular is also bound up with the production of a new option… a way of constructing meaning and significance without any reference to the divine or transcendence. So it wasn’t enough for us to stop believing in the gods; we also had to be able to imagine significance within the immanent frame, to imagine modes of meaning that did not depend on transcendence” (Smith, How (Not) to be Secular, 26). Linkin Park points to an answer, but that answer is still bound to immanence, still bound to the absence of God. But what we need is something that not only completes us, but fulfills us wholly. But tied to this is proposing something some have rejected and others forgotten. I would propose that what is absent to our everyday lives is precisely the answer to our condition: God and his redeeming grace.

Incarnation, Redemption, and the Gospel

The immanent frame thus speaks to a condition of secular belief: one bound to immanence. We cannot talk about the credibility of God because we have lost transcendence. But how do you introduce transcendence to a world of immanence? The other questions are can we even do so, and is it actually needed? Linkin Park answers the third question I think in the affirmative. The first question I have sought to answer by basically reformulating the question in terms of Smith’s incarnational logic. The general tendency since the middle ages, according to the Radical Orthodoxy movement, is that God has become so infinite that he cannot relate to our finite lives: thus transcendence has come to be understood as no longer related to immanence and our everyday lives. While this took centuries to actually come into play I think this is where we are today.

So the new question is: how can an infinite God relate, be mediated to, a finite world, our everyday existence? The only way God may relate to us is if he was one of us. Christians hold to the notion of the hypostatic union: that Jesus was both fully God and fully Man. This means Jesus not only suffered for us, shared in our afflictions as a human being, but that he did this to redeem us. The incarnation of the Son of God mediates to us not only God, but a God who lived in our world like us, facing rejection from his own family, building relationships, and calling people to turn to God in hopes of redemption, reconciliation, and renewal.

The Cross of Jesus Christ does not only reconcile us to God and establish a relationship between us, but he redeems even our deepest hurts and sufferings, giving us as C. S. Lewis calls it, a ‘weight of glory’, wherein all of our sufferings are redeemed when we see God face to face, redeeming even the most terrible things about ourselves, the seeming meaninglessness of our suffering, that we regret and hope for forgiveness. The crux of the Cross gives meaning even to the most meaningless emptiness of our lives. It gives forgiveness and redemption to the most unforgiving things we have ever done, renewing and making us whole because God had died for us to redeem the worst about us. “Before we can see what the Cross does for us, we have to see that it was something done by us.” Linkin Park opens us to this but its limit is that we cannot save ourselves. Only God can do this.

Why should we hope in the redemption of the Cross? Clearly we hope for redemption as Linkin Park portrays. But its redemption is empty, though it comforts us. Linkin park expresses our anguish and what it means to hope for hope and redemption in a lost world. They even offer positive hope for our redemption, but it still doesn’t save us. The early church placed its hope in Christ’s atoning death and resurrection as the objective truth and confirmation of their salvation because they trusted that he was raised from the dead reconciling a lost humanity to God by means of the Cross. John 15:13: Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. Jesus called us friends, served the poorest of the poor, the outcasts, the rejected, and died for a people that rejected him. Why would God do this? Love.

 References

Smith, James K. A. How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014.

Smith, James K. A. Speech and Theology. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Thrasher, Andrew. “Making Sense of Secular Nihilism: Secular Ontology and Secular Renewal.”

Thrasher, Andrew. “Postmodern Ontology and Trinitarian Renewal: Towards the Renewal of the Postmodern Self.”

Andrew D. Thrasher is currently finishing a ThM in Christian Theology from Regent University (2017) and holds an MA in Interdisciplinary studies from George Mason University (2014) where he studied religious studies, history, and philosophy. He has received the J. Rodman Williams Award for the study of Theology among the graduating class of the School of Divinity in May 2017 and teaches religion at Tidewater Community College in Southeastern VA. He served as the inaugural president of Ratio-Christi at Regent University in 2016-2017 and has completed the C. S. Lewis Institute’s Fellows program, Virginia Beach chapter (2015-2016). He has written on various topics on theology, postmodernity, and inter-religious dialogue and has a passion for serving the lost. For his numerous working papers see his academic website: https://gmu.academia.edu/AndyThrasher

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s