Listening to 80s Music with Karl Barth

By Jack Holloway

I make a lot of “best of” playlists. Recently, I made a playlist of what I think are the 150 greatest 80s songs (find it here). I listened to hours and hours and hours and hours of 80s music, soaking it all in, and, like the Apostle Paul, “examining everything carefully, holding fast to everything good.”

I primarily study the theology of Karl Barth, and so I thought a lot about Barth’s theology as I contemplated the music I was listening to. Barth talks about God’s No and Yes, God’s wrath and redemption, judgment and forgiveness, and on and on. He thinks Christians should move from one realization to the other, from understanding our sinfulness to God’s forgiveness, from seeing sin and death to believing in God’s redemption.

“Human experience and thought,” he says, “would proceed in a straight line from despair to even deeper despair, from solemnity to even greater solemnity …, or from triumph to even higher triumph, from joy to even greater joy.” The Word of God, on the other hand, “calls us from despair to triumph, from solemnity to joy, but also from triumph to despair and from joy to solemnity” (Barth 1975, 179).

I have found 80s music a great resource for moving from despair to triumph, solemnity to joy, and also from triumph to despair, and from joy to solemnity.

In 80s music, we find the world described as a wonderful place where everything is a miracle, where dancing is a necessity, and joy is self-evident. And yet, we also find very different pictures of the world, pictures of injustice, of a dystopia where everything is wrong and where evil flourishes.

“We’re gonna have a celebration / All across the world / In every nation / It’s time for the good times / Forget about the bad times.”

Madonna sings this in her song, “Holiday.” The song’s declaration seems a little naïve. If everyone all over the world takes a holiday and celebrates, “we will find a way to come together and make things better.” All we need is a holiday.

Really? That’s all we need? A holiday? How do you explain, then, the fact that we have 15 holidays in our calendar and things still suck? Check mate, Madonna!

And yet, I find myself a little inspired by this song.

The 80s was by no means an ideal decade. The Cold War, the AIDS crisis, Reaganomics, economic crisis, the war on drugs, police brutality—the list goes on and on. One did not have to look far at all to find evil and injustice.

How do we explain the song’s optimism? Where does it come from?

I think here we have a good parable for the joy of the Christian in face of the sufferings of the present time. From faith in God, and hope in coming justice and redemption, the Christian proclaims God’s victory and rejoices.

Barth devotes pages and pages to the theme, “Jesus is Victor” (Barth 1961, 165–274). For him, it is absolutely central to the Christian message. Jesus is the victor over sin and death. “The sufferings of the present time are not to be compared to the glory about to be revealed” (Rom. 8:18).

And so we can sing, and dance, and say stupid things like, “Forget about the bad times, let’s celebrate!”

Holiday! Celebrate!

But there is another side of the story.

The stupidity of this celebrating was not lost on many other 80s musicians. The 80s was not just the decade of Madonna and Wham!, but it was also the decade of Joy Division, Candlemass, Swans, and others.

These musicians weren’t going to let the “bad times” cruise by so easily. They took them seriously, and demanded that they be taken seriously.

In the song “Atrocity Exhibition,” Joy Division sings, “Asylums with doors open wide, where people had paid to see inside, for entertainment they watch his body twist, behind his eyes he says, ‘I still exist.’”

“I still exist,” say the bad times. You can’t just ignore them with endless singing and dancing.

“Darkness / Imprisoning me / All that I see / Absolute horror,” Metallica sings. Elsewhere they speak of hell as their “natural habitat.”

Hell on earth! That is what we are dealing with, and what these musicians will not let us forget. Ours is a world of evil and injustice, of sin and death.

Probably better than any other decade, the music of the 80s could get political without sacrificing artistry. “It’s a competitive world,” sings Depeche Mode in “Everything Counts.” Commenting on the harsh reality of capitalism, they sing, “The grabbing hands grab all they can, all for themselves after all.”

Similarly, The Clash consistently made injustice a concern of their music. “The Magnificent Seven,” to take one example, is a song about the universal rule of capitalism, under which everyone is made to comply.

And then we have the intense criticism of the justice system coming from hip-hop circles. “Don’t Believe the Hype” by Public Enemy attacks the ways blacks are depicted in mainstream culture, images that are used to justify black oppression. “F*** Tha Police” by N.W.A. very frankly and boldly goes after discrimination of blacks by the police.

The world is screwed up. “Bad times” are all the time. “It’s like that, and that’s the way it is,” as we hear from Run-DMC.

Karl Barth emphasizes this dark aspect of creation as well. He calls it “nothingness,” because it is that “sinister system of elements” which is meaningless, which “irrupts” into creation, quite uninvited, as that which is “absolutely negative, offering only menace, corruption and death” (Barth 1960, 289, 301, 302).

He calls evil and injustice “nothingness” because they cannot be incorporated into a neat understanding of the world, or synthesized into some “higher unity” (Barth 1960, 300). Nothingness cannot be explained, or inscribed with meaning, but only mourned and endured. We can only witness to it as that which is fundamentally anti-creation, meaningless godlessness.

However, evil is called “nothingness” for another reason—because it “has no perpetuity” (Barth 1960, 360). That is to say, it will ultimately be overcome and overruled for good (293). That Jesus is the victor means evil is utterly impotent against God and creation (312).

For this reason, however seriously we take evil and injustice—and we should take them seriously!—and however much we mourn and protest their existence—and we should mourn and protest!—we must ultimately point to God’s victory over them, and the glorious hope we have in Christ. For this, we can certainly celebrate!

We can sing along with all those 80s songs about heaven and magic and miracles. (Look up how many 80s songs have the word “heaven” or “magic” in the title. There are a LOT.)

What these songs usually mean when they sing about “heaven” and “magic” is—love! Belinda Carlisle sings, “They say in heaven, love comes first / We’ll make heaven a place on earth.”

Starship sings, “Lookin’ in your eyes, I see a paradise / This world that I’ve found is too good to be true … / Let ‘em say we’re crazy, I don’t care about that … / We can build this dream together / Standing strong forever / Nothing’s gonna stop us now.”

In “The Power of Love,” Huey Lewis & the News portray love as a force to be reckoned with, a kind of mythical creature akin to Leviathan in the Book of Job. “It’s strong and it’s sudden and it’s cruel sometimes, but it might just save your life.” The song makes love out to be supreme. It comes “from above” and “makes the world go round.” We are helpless before its power. It ultimately comes out the victor. Heaven will be a place on earth. The miracle will happen. Magic is in the air.

Love is other-worldly. It creates a heaven on earth.

When the band Real Life asked, “Do you believe in heaven above? Do you believe in love?” they asked the most important question for the 80s. Despite everything, do you still believe in love? Do you walk by faith or by sight?

To live this life responsibly, we cannot simply move from joy to greater joy, or from sorrow to greater sorrow. We need Joy Division as much as we need Madonna. We need Prince as much as we need Candlemass. We need to take suffering and evil seriously, express our experience of them, and protest their reality, as much as we need to celebrate, and laugh, and dance, and sing.

Barth would have us always come back to faith, always proclaiming the victory of Jesus Christ, of love on the earth. There will come a day when no more songs will need to be written about evil or injustice, sin or death, but we can always dance, and sing, and party like it’s 1999, because of the heavenly victory of love on earth.

You just gotta have faith!

Jack Holloway is a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He is also a musician and producer for The Heavens. You can find his music at theheavensmusic.bandcamp.com, and his blog at jdhollowayiii.blogspot.com.

References:

 Barth, Karl. 1975. Church Dogmatics, Vol. I: The Doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1. 2nd ed. Edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Translated by G. W. Bromiley. New York: T&T Clark [repr. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010].

Barth, Karl. 1960. Church Dogmatics, Vol. III: The Doctrine of Creation, Part 3. Edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Translated by G. W. Bromiley and R. J. Ehrlich. New York: T&T Clark [repr. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010].

Barth, Karl. 1961. Church Dogmatics, Vol. IV: The Doctrine of Reconciliation, Part 3.1. Edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Translated by G. W. Bromiley. New York: T&T Clark [repr. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010].

 

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Very thoughtful survey. I’ve thought of Das Nichtige as “nothingness” because it consists of all that God opted not to create, and that because there “is” God and the things God opted to created, there must also be “not God” or “the nothingness.” Am I misreading Barth there?

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    1. This is one of the most complicated and discombobulating aspects of Barth’s theology–but, I also say, one of the most compelling.

      I think you’ve essentially got it, however, I would take out the word “must.” Barth resists the tendency to speak of nothingness as a necessary counterpart to God’s will. That God elects to be God’s self, and in this election rejects what is not God (i.e., nothingness), means that there is the not-God, which does not exist per se, but is a possibility. More correctly, it is an impossible possibility. That it becomes a reality is a result of human confusion and resistance to God. Rejecting obedience to God, and consequently being ruled by nothing, means we subject ourselves to the not-God, to nothingness.

      I know this doesn’t make total sense, but does it make enough sense? haha

      Barth doesn’t want to speak abstractly about evil, but he also doesn’t want to give it any decisiveness, and also does not want to incorporate it into some higher unity. Barth is the king of tall orders haha but he is also the king at finding his way around them.

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      1. Yes, this makes a lot of sense. I’d forgotten that evil is the arrogation in a sense of human persons “choosing” “not-God.” It’s not a perfect system of course. It brings us back, for example, to innocent children suffering because other people have chosen not-God, and basically back to original sin: once the first human to choose not-God did so, the repercussions of evil seem to negate the ability of all people to freely choose God or not-God; since evil is now introduces, we suffer from it, and that suffering creates pathologies that we ourselves haven’t chosen. (I’m being a little extreme here; obviously there is still much we *can* choose or reject). This strikes me as similar to Rahner’s conception of original sin as a I recall it, though his seems to deal more with the impossibility of resisting unjust systems.

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  2. Reblogged this on Food Truck Pastor and commented:
    Very thoughtful survey. I’ve thought of Das Nichtige as “nothingness” because it consists of all that God opted not to create, and that because there “is” God and the things God opted to created, there must also be “not God” or “the nothingness.” Am I misreading Barth there?

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