I’m not one of those people who, when a celebrity passes away, writes on Facebook something along these lines, “People die every day. Why does the world stop when these overdosing celebs die?” I try not to judge people who do, but it’s not something I’ve felt the need to say. And so, I write here not to disparage Whitney Houston’s name, simply to call attention to the shaping and forming of our culture through music (which, arguably, music does).
People look up to many celebrities. Singers look up to singers. Athletes look up to athletes. Comedians look up to comedians. Perhaps it’s because they’re simply good at their craft. Perhaps it’s because they see a little bit of themselves, and a lot of their potential inside of the talent of these celebrities. Perhaps it’s a way to live a life they’ll never have, vicariously.
I’ve refrained from commenting much on Whitney Houston’s death. I’m saddened by the reality of her life, her dependence on substances to counteract an abusive marriage, and a talented soul lost from this world. For many obvious reasons, her death reminds me a lot of Michael’s death and that only brings sad feelings to my heart. It’s such a shame.
However, I was watching YouTube this afternoon and came across this tribute by PS22 (who I have included man times here and on Facebook; I think they often do a stand up job at recreating pop tunes):
They do a phenomenal job here and are well led. The female soloist is something else, too.
Every pop artist has their ballad that stands out for them. It often separates them from the rest of the artists and solidifies their place in history as a phenomenal singer. Whitney, as I see it, had two: “I Will Always Love You” and the one above, “The Greatest Love of All.”
What’s most interesting to me is that Whitney set a place for black singers such as Jennifer Hudson and Beyonce to become as accepted and popular by mainstream media and popularity as they have been. Whitney came out of church, gospel-singing background and blew the world away with her incredible range, passion, and natural phrasing. She had a huge voice and knew how to use it. Her level of stardom, in many ways, is untouched.
But, if we are going to see this song, “The Greatest Love of All” as a song that was defining for her career and thereby defining for our culture, I think it’s important to examine the text for what it is, especially because of its placement of a bold statement within the title. The Greatest Love of All. If that statement doesn’t shock you into listening to it, you ought to wake up. The song title makes you want to listen to find out what it is she is going to define as the ‘greatest love.’
She starts by singing,
I believe that children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
I’m tracking. I agree. Show the children the beauty they possess inside? Yes, Whitney. (Whitney didn’t write the song, but she’s singing it so I’m going to speak as if she agrees with the text. Especially because the story is that she fought for the chance to record it against Clive Davis’s wishes.)
But then, we start to separate. She sings:
Give them a sense of pride to make it easier
Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be
Pride is a weird thing for me. Our Christian tradition teaches that pride is a bad thing. Our American tradition teaches that pride is how you get somewhere in life. Without confidence in what you do, in America, it is hard to succeed. The song assumes that pride makes things easier. If I’m confident and prideful in what I do, life becomes easier. This is a humanist message, not a Gospel message. This is reliance on the individual, rather than reliance on the grace of God.
Everybody’s searching for a hero
People need someone to look up to
I never found anyone who fulfilled my needs
A lonely place to be
So I learned to depend on me
I assume that because Whitney desired to sing this song that these lines, perhaps more than any other within this piece, resonated with her. It, to me, shows two things: a reliance on herself (obviously), and a direct rejection of any Christian role model (i.e. Jesus). I appreciate the honesty within the lyrics, but the lyrics suggest a solution that is not Christian (remember, the tradition that Whitney was raised in) in any realm. Reliance on self? Once again, this is a humanist argument. Our hope is that a born-again Christian would have someone who fulfilled their needs, Jesus. And, with that, the Church.
I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone’s shadows
If I fail, if I succeed
At least I’ll live as I believe
No matter what they take from me
They can’t take away my dignity
This is almost at the crux of the song. This continues to emphasize this complete and utter reliance on the self. More than that, though, the use of the term “believe” makes this a stronger position. It may not quite reach the lengths of spirituality, but it’s clear: the writer of the song thinks that if you believe in yourself and have dignity, you might not always succeed, but you will be…better. This is an American idea to be sure, but seems to stand in complete conflict with the Christian message. Indeed, Christians are to walk in Jesus’s shadows.
But there’s more to this line before we move on. I read these lines to be an “us against the world” type argument. This is intriguing to me because that has many parallels to the argument of Christianity. We have a better way of life, you do not. Come join us and put your faith, hope, and trust in the Savior of the world. This message: if I put my faith, trust, and hope in myself…and believe in myself…then I’ll have a better way of life than the world. The world may be out to get me, but that’s ok…I have myself. This, again, emphasizes where the trust is placed. Christianity claims Christ. This song claims the self.
Because the greatest love of all
Is happening to me
I found the greatest love of all
Inside of me
The greatest love of all
Is easy to achieve
Learning to love yourself
It is the greatest love of all
And here we are. The definition of the ‘greatest love of all.’
Friends, learning to love yourself is not, as I see it, the greatest love of all. The greatest love of all is the grace of God. The grace that is poured out on a broken humanity that confesses its sins and seeks to live in communion with Christ’s offering.
The song, for the listeners, is a lie. It spreads a reliance on humanity, on the self, and the good works of said people. It delivers a message of hope that resides completely within the self. It places trust on the individual. And because of that, it is in direct opposition to the heart of the Christian message: Jesus is Lord.
“But Bryant,” you say. “This song was written by someone struggling with cancer who may or may not have been a Christian. She was in the midst of a crisis and writing honestly about where to place her trust. In her against the world, she finds the strength within herself to survive. How beautiful of a message?!?!”
I respond: This is not a beautiful message. And it is in direct conflict with where we should be.
The movement towards a trust in the individual rather than a higher power is a move that the Enlightenment granted humanity and may never ever be able to be taken away. Songs like this destroy the Christian message and focus: Christ. They enable humans to understand that they’re able to battle whatever they’re fighting (whether it is cancer or something less tragic) simply by believing in themselves.
The Christian Scriptures teach us that when humanity ran from God and placed their hope and trust in other things it always went worse than if they had placed their trust in God in the first place. This is a message that obviously wasn’t written into Whitney’s narrative, because I imagine this song would have struck a different chord with her than it did. It’s sad. And, inevitably, the trust that Whitney placed on herself and the things of this world came to cause her death. It’s sad, very, very sad.
I do believe that children are our future. If we teach them well and let them lead the way, we are in for a wonderful ride. But, the beauty within them that this song talks about OUGHT to refer to the beauty that God placed in God’s children, not the beauty within their humanity. Humanity is fallen, God is holy. Only a trust and belief in God can give true hope and love. That is the greatest love of all.
Why does this matter? Because music shapes our culture. Therefore, music shapes us. I’d prefer that Christianity define “The Greatest Love of All,” not Whitney.
Lord, help our unbelief.