Mountain of God – Third Day

Formerly, we focused on the theological implications of Made to Worship by Chris Tomlin. In this installment, we will look at what theological tendencies we can observe from Third Day’s song, Mountain of God. Read the lyrics before reading the post.

Mac Powell first meditates on the idea that he thought he was “alone…broken and afraid.” I would like to stop here to comment on the first three words used to describe humans in the song. First, Powell thought he was alone. In his illusion, he thought that he was all by himself. The past tense of thought foreshadows a later realization that he is not alone. Second, he thought of himself as broken which suggests there must be some theological “fix” that must take place in a future part of the song. Finally, he was afraid and, thus, somewhere in the song we must find a cure for that fear. Because Powell starts with these three attributes as postulates of human reality, we will find that his view of God as an answer to the problems of humanity.

Just as we expected, the next line says “but you were there.” Although there is an illusion of loneliness, God is there in the midst of it. This is more than just the idea that “God is with us,” but an answer to a deep theological question. There are times when we feel alone and feel no presence of the almighty surrounding us. We feel like failures and perhaps feel like giving up. But, says Powell, there is hope because he is actually there when he feels like he is not. When God feels most far away, he is actually closer than ever before.

The second stanza is a kind of parallelism to the first. In the first stanza he was alone, in the second he does even “even know” that he had “lost his way.” But again, in spite of our feelings of false security that we are on the right path, he is there. In the midst of pride, he is still there. There is a certain sense of Americanness to the song as Powell sings “til you opened up eyes, I never knew that I couldn’t make it without you.” Again, before he met Jesus, he thought he was living life just fine. He had no need for God. He thought he could “make it” without any help. This is a peculiarly American way to approach the gospel in a secular world. Theologically, Powell is juxtaposing the American individualist tendency against a gospel that requires we look beyond ourselves to help ourselves. We cannot, in other words, do it on our own.

The song then changes perspectives from Powell’s reminiscing on his past, to the present were he is struggling on a long journey “where the road is hard.” In this shift from past to present, the dichotomy is on how he once lived in American individualism, to one that follows the hard way of God. In his new mindset, he realizes that “he [God] will help” him “carry on” because “he’s the one who’s gone on before me.” In the same way that Christ has to go to the cross before he could be resurrected, Powell must go through the valley-an allusion to the famous Psalm 23 passage-before he can get to what he calls “the mountain of God.” This is definitely something that the apostle Paul wrestles with as he talks about suffering with Christ throughout his life. He almost does directly quote Paul when he thinks back “all I’ve had” and thinks “nothing can quite compare…to what’s in front of me.” Although Powell sometimes loses his way God is “always there” to “bring me back again.”

What do we learn about Powell’s theology? We learn that he believes God is here. He is not in some far off “other” place, but here in the midst of our trials and tribulations. The story really is a “modern day” Paul story where, but rather than Judaism being his former life, his former life is his Americanism. It is only when God “opened up my eyes” that he is able to truly see the beauty of God’s way over the American way. But just like Tomlin in our last post, Powell has stripped the song of all Christian imagery. The song looks more like a love song than a worship song.

Notice especially how he borrows slightly from Paul in Philippians who says, “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things” (Philippians 3:8). But for some strange reason Powell does not mention Christ, nor does he mentioning having lost all the things. Rather Powell uses the language of choice saying that he “left behind” certain things. In this sense, the song also relies heavily upon a conversion experience. As we noted in the first part of the song, Powell lists a series of deficiencies he has and how Christ has “opened his eyes” in a very Pauline way. Powell seems to have translated the idea of losing all things into the idea of leaving behind certain deficiencies. Paul, in the context of Philippians, was not the “sinful pagan” that is sometimes talked about in the American conversion experience. Paul considers himself morally “blameless” before ever meeting Christ (Philippians 3:6). Paul would have not thought himself deficient as far in the moral way that Powell seems to be speaking of here. It is an interesting theological shift, but more importantly shows how a small change in the trajectory of a song can change the trajectory of theological tradition.

In the last section, we talked about the fact that God is no longer considered a tribal God. He is not just the “God of Israel.” He may still be called “the God of the Christian church,” but this church is raceless, classeless, and values no one person over another. With Jefferson’s advent, in the tradition of enlightenment philosophy, where “all men are created equal,” our American mindset cannot fathom the idea that God would love one nation over another. In a similar fashion, Powell has ditched Paul’s idea of “losing all things” for the sake of Christ, and replaced it with “leaving behind” certain tendencies. The song is vague and does not let us know exactly what it is he has left behind. This vagueness is something that Tomlin and Powell seem to share in their songwriting styles. We talked about the pros and cons of such writing style in the last post.

Powell’s song is vague, but also holds certain propositional truths in similar fashion to Tomlin who believes in the proposition that God is timeless. These truths are somewhat taken for granted, but they are only taken for granted because they have so long been drilled into our heads by music and by reinforcement of the music during the sermon. The main propositional truth is that man has deficiencies, Christ has no deficiencies, and we resultantly look to Christ for our example. This is the style of much of modern worship writing, and we must take a moment here to talk about the pros and cons of propositional truth.

To quote Craig Keen, “No doubt once an idea has been carved into the stone of an institution, it is easy to forget that at one time it was warm and supple and alive. Certainly, even the most morbidly rigid, institutionalized idea can stir to life again, but it is easier to deal with, if it does not…the doctrine of creation has often been reduced to a proposition to be made a component or cosmology in which the idea ‘world’ and the idea ‘God’ drift smoothly from one to the other without interruption…In so doing ‘the Father, the Almighty, Maker of Heaven and earth’ settles into a universal thought-world, a world in which the broad categories of power, meaning, property, race, class, and gender provide Him or Her or It with a home. And surely a creator without a home would be much too uncanny…indeed unthinkable.”

The problem with the propositional truth in Christian music is it borders on idolatry. When we speak of God, we have already blasphemed to a certain extent because we contained him by giving him a name. God, we often forget, subsumes all our names, defies all boundaries, and will not be labeled as this or that as if he were some social cause, some great sea monster, or a great idea. Powell is, to a large extent, repeating other Christian songwriters in a kind of dogmatic Christian songwriting formula:

  • We are deficient
  • Christ is not deficient
  • We have troubles
  • Christ finds us in the midst of those struggles

The song is cut and dry. It helps us to feel better when we are in trouble, but one only has to read articles by those like Ziya to realize that most of the church does not have these trite metaphors to bring them comfort. If we want to write music, we should be writing music that tells stories. We in the West seem to have a weird tendency to make the almighty “me” the center of the theological universe. There has been a good discussion about this going on Jesus Manifesto as well. I would like to quote Brian of Revolution 115 at length here for the some thoughts on Powell’s song:

“We Western-world type Christians tend to have a gigantic blind spot, I think. We tend to be selfish, focused on our own needs, and have developed great theologies for how God has promised (we hear “guaranteed”) to bless us. We equate spiritual “success” with bigger church buildings, more attenders, more money, and more church staff to do more stuff. We think persecution is having to say “Happy Holidays” at work instead of “Merry Christmas.” I have often thought that we just don’t have a clue in a lot of ways.

The historical, theological, and sociological reality is that the global church is not in the West, nor is it thoroughly Westernized (nor should it be). Most of the Church does not think like we think (though it has been well-documented that the ‘prosperity gospel’ has made several in-roads into Africa and other ‘third world’ areas. Not sure it’s working there either.) Large sections of the Church undergo regular persecution- real persecution.”

I really appreciate Brian’s words here, and I think that we would do all to take that in. This is not to say that we do not endure hard times here, but we must admit that we do have it quite easy compared to the rest of the global church. In this sense, we must be careful not to be sucked in by the deluge of empire. We must remember that our allegiance lies with Christ and not with country.

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4 Responses

  1. Thanks for the quote, Bro! You are engaging some good stuff here; I look forward to reading some more!

  2. Well Brian. Thanks for writing it! I’m glad you are enjoying the post.

  3. […] Praise you in the Storm by Casting Crowns is similar to other songs we have already analyzed like Mountain of God and Hold Fast in the sense that Praise You in the Storm is also about pain in the midst of trials, […]

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