The Theology of Ben Folds – part 1

This post is part of a series

I don’t think you could start considering the theology of Folds’ music without beginning with Jesusland, originally on the Songs for Silverman album and covered on the Ben Folds Presents: University a Cappella! album.

The song takes the listener on a journey through the streets of the American South imagining that Jesus came and visited the Bible belt.

Folds’ spends the bulk of the song critiquing the southern-US culture. Folds takes the opportunity to take pot shots at the middle-class, American lifestyle, illustrating that, for many people Christianity is more of wardrobe addition rather than a heart transplant.

But it’s Folds’ Jesus that captures my attention the most. 1. Jesus is presented as a wandering loner, someone dismayed by the culture around him – a culture that claims to give him honour. 2. Folds’ Jesus is something akin to a “gentle Jesus – meek and mild”. He’s a loner who doesn’t understand how things work (trying to sleep on someone’s front lawn, but the security light comes on).

Most Bible believing Christians would immediately spot the problems with this second point, but leaving this to one side I think the first point holds water. In fact the amazing thing about Folds’ insight here is that this is what it was like when Jesus actually came into the world. Jesus was born into a society of religious people. People who honoured God with their lips. Who diligently studied the scriptures. Who travelled around looking for converts.

In fact if you read the Gospels (and if you haven’t, you should) one of the overwhelming themes is that all the signs pointed to Jesus being the One God’s people should have expected, but they refused to see it. It was only the uninitiated, the outsiders, invalids, the half-casts and the ill-reputed who knew there was something more to Jesus when he walked with us.

Folds’ also seems to be concerned that we live in a society that twists Jesus’ words. Once again, this was also a first century problem. God had given the nation of Israel the law, which was to help God’s people stand out as belonging to him. The religious leaders then took this law and tweeked it, so that rather than building a society that was set apart for God, it lined their wallets.

So I guess with this whole discussion here I’m trying to show that Folds’ is on the money. If Jesus were to come back today (that is in the way the song describes, not in the way he actually will) he would seem alien – even in Christianised societies. Moreover, His message of sins forgiven and reconciled relationship with God without us having to work for it would enrage us and we’d kill him all over.

What Jesusland helpfully reminds us is that the trappings of religion and the fakeness of consumer-Christianity are a perennial problem that we’ve got to constantly be weeding out of Christianity.

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2 Comments

Filed under Theology of Ben Folds

2 responses to “The Theology of Ben Folds – part 1

  1. Have you listened to his comments on the song on the iTunes Originals album? Something like: “The crux of it is, if Jesus were around now, he wouldn’t have much stuff, and that’s a problem — in today’s amusement park version of Jesusland, you can’t walk around with no stuff or you’re homeless…He’d be walking around homeless and on the street with long hair, and I don’t think the people who make lots of money off his name would do much to help him.”

    (I transcribed it a while ago for a course I was writing on gospel and culture.)

    I’m looking forward to the third — ‘Not the Same’? ‘Alice Childress’?

    • steveboxwell

      yeah interesting. And of course this was weird in Jesus day too. The fact that he ‘didn’t have anywhere to lay his head’ was enough for people to decide not to follow him.

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