The Theology of Ben Folds – part 3

This post is part of a series

I knew I was in danger when I started this series of posts because writing about lyrics is like trying to collect a jar of smoke – You can look really stupid and invariably when you get your jar home it isn’t that impressive anyway.

And so I’ve been mulling on this one for a while. Because the obvious place to conclude is with Ben Folds’ Rocking the Suburbs album with the song Not the Same. The difficulty is that this song has caused people who have tried to analyse his work some of the most confusion. What’s actually happening through the ballad? Did he become a pastor? What’s the deal with the waterslide?

I know it’s highly likely that I’ll end up looking like an idiot talking through these questions but here we go.

In the couple of times that I’ve seen Folds play live he’s told us that this is actually based on a real guy he knew. He went to a party that Folds did and got high on acid, climbed into a tree-house and didn’t come down until the next day. But when he did come down he had become a ‘born again’ Christian.

In fact this guy became a pastor. A pentecostal pastor. His church got huge, but it wasn’t big just beause he was an amazing preacher. He set up a quasi-amusement park at his Church (he said at one of his shows it was something like this).

The ‘someone died – on the water-slide’ line was a reference to… someone actually dying at this guys church and it really signaling the end of this guys ministry. Folds commented “I figure if he had just been preaching instead of installing water-slides perhaps he wouldn’t have been in that mess.”

I think there are some real treasures here in this song.

From the outside Folds can see where this guy goes wrong. The pressing refrain of the song is “and you were not the same after that”. This isn’t just a line, Folds is signaling transitions in this guys life.

  1. He climbs a tree and after that he isn’t the same.
  2. He becomes a Christian and after that he isn’t the same.
  3. He becomes a pastor who is eventually too well respected (idolised!) by his people and he isn’t the same after that.
  4. He thinks too highly of himself and buys lots of stuff and he isn’t the same after that.
  5. A tragedy happens at his Church which signals his downfall and he isn’t the same after that.

As someone who is studying at the moment so I can work in ministry there’s a massive lesson here for me. When did this guy’s problems start? Folds’ might answer “when he became a Christian”. But the real worry for me is at point 3, where after ‘taking the word and makin’ it heard’ he allowed himself to be immortalised in the eyes of his people. Paul, one of the main writers of the New Testament was pretty quick to quash this kind of pride. In the church in Corinth liked to do this with their leaders. Paul wont have a bar of it insisting that it isn’t with eloquence that he came but humility and anyway – God gives the growth.

Moreover – I am terrified by the line “you bought it all”. This may be a reference to the prosperity theology that grips so much of the church, but it might also just be a reference to this man defaulting back to materialism. I don’t think I’m at risk of preaching the prosperity gospel, but I am at risk of forgetting the gospel because I want a new toy more than I want relationship with Jesus.

Once again Folds taps into something in this song. He can see the failings of the church and we who are Christians need to know that our failings are visible and not just to our family or our church but to people who aren’t believers.

But there is something about that line. I know Folds meant it as an insult – But if there is one thing that I would like people to say about my life, is that after I met Jesus, I was not the same.



Filed under Theology of Ben Folds

6 responses to “The Theology of Ben Folds – part 3

  1. Eric

    Thanks for that. I hadn’t heard the story beyond the first verse.

    I like his music, I learnt to play a couple on the piano. His lyrics reflect a reality without the happy endings we want.

    • steveboxwell

      I couldn’t agree more. So often I find myself drawn to really sad songs with happy tunes. This seems to be Folds’ speciality

  2. Spare us, O Lord, from one good trick.

  3. Dan

    Yes, I think that song is probably an example of God working through even non-believers. The first time I heard him sing it, I was actually touched, and that single line was the only thing I remembered. Although Ben may have meant it as sarcasm, God can work it for His purpose. Pretty cool, huh?

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