Common Ground

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“Hi, I’m 11 and I want a record deal. Call me.”

You have to say this about Taylor Swift: She has never lacked confidence.

As a preteen hoping to break into the country music scene, she darted in and out of Nashville record companies while her mother and brother waited in the car. She would drop off her demo tape – with its handmade cover and the handwritten message above – hoping that a music executive would jump at the chance to offer her a contract.

No one called.

These days, it’s fairly certain that every one of those record companies wished they had locked up Taylor Swift while they had the chance.

It’s almost impossible to overstate her status as one of the world’s most prominent pop artists. It’s not inaccurate to say that the 34-year-old singer-songwriter, who was Time magazine’s 2023 Person of the Year, can also be regarded as one of the world’s most prominent figures – period – in the overlapping realms of culture, entertainment, and public opinion.

The numbers associated with her artistic achievements are hard to comprehend.

Swift is currently wrapping up the Eras Tour, 151 concerts that span five continents. Each performance is a three-hour exploration of her 17-year career, featuring more than 40 songs. It’s expected that the Tour, including an accompanying film, will pull in $4.1 billion, which is more than the yearly economic output of 42 countries.

Suffice it to say that Eras is the highest-grossing concert tour for any artist in history.

Her second album, Fearless (which arrived in 2008), reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200. All 12 of her next albums have done the same. She’s the only female artist to have three No. 1 albums during the same calendar year. And she’s done it twice.

Following the release of her 2022 album Midnights, her songs occupied the first 10 spots in the Hot 100 – that is, every one of the top 10 – during a single amazing week.

Prior to Taylor Swift, no one had ever done that. No one had even imagined that.

So, what’s the attraction?

In the midst of all her success, Swift seems impossibly down-to-earth. She grew up on a Christmas tree farm in Pennsylvania, raised by two parents who are still married to each other. She is tenaciously loyal to those who love her music, and has managed to avoid the disastrous trajectory of other young stars who have crashed back to earth under the pressure of global fame. 

Her legions of fans, known as Swifties, adore the fact that she writes and performs her own songs. She somehow “gets” her audience, openly sharing her personal struggles with bad breakups and the complications of falling in and out of love.

Actually, you might say she does that to a fault.

Swift’s panoply of boyfriends – some of whom have broken her heart, others whom she has left behind – have become a rich source of her artistic creativity. The unrequited love of her first crush at age 15 inspired Tears on My Guitar, which became her first big hit. 

Numerous young men have been musically skewered along the way. She dissed her three-month romance with Joe Jonas, who apparently broke up with her by means of a 25-second phone call. Dear John almost certainly concerns her brief fling with John Mayer. All Too Well is a musical slam-dunk on actor Jake Gyllenhaal. Each song has become a personal confession heard by millions.

So beware, Taylor boyfriends (we’re talking about you, Travis Kelce, tight end of the Kansas City Chiefs). You just might become the centerpiece of a future bestselling he-done-me-wrong song.

Swift’s music, however, isn’t just about relational ups and downs. That’s one reason her fans have remained so loyal.

In 2019 she wrote Soon You’ll Get Better, a cry of the heart concerning her mother Andrea’s recurrence of cancer. The song is sufficiently personal that she vowed never to perform it live, for the simple reason she thought she could never get through it.

She sings, “And I hate to make this all about me, but who am I supposed to talk to? What am I supposed to do if there’s no you?… Soon, you’ll get better, ‘cause you have to.”

“If anyone is wondering why I’m crying this weekend,” wrote one fan, “it’s because I’ve been listening to Soon You’ll Get Better.” Another tweeted, “If anyone drove past a man crying on the side of the road in a black Kia Soul this morning, that would be me. PSA [public service announcement]: Don’t listen to Soon You’ll Get Better while operating large machinery.” Here’s a link to the video if you’d like to check it out.

The song, like many of Swift’s creations, touches something in the souls of her listeners. And yes, she has now performed it before a live audience, acknowledging that to be a cathartic experience.

Which brings us to that all-important question: Can followers of Jesus be Swifties?

Taylor’s songs occasionally touch on spiritual themes, and Jesus does find his way into the lyrics of Soon You’ll Get Better. But no one (including the artist herself) would say she is writing what might be called Christian music.

Historically, different segments of the Church have had a love/hate relationship with the arts. Fundamentalists in particular have urged Christians to avoid cinema, secular literature, and popular music – all on the grounds that since sinners and saints have little in common, it’s a waste of time (if not outright dangerous) to surrender our attention to those who fail to exalt Christ.

The late apologist and theologian Francis Schaeffer begged to differ.

In his book Art and the Bible, Schaeffer argued that those both inside and outside the Christian faith share a vast realm of common ground. Every human being is an image-bearer of God. Even God-defying painters like Francis Bacon, theater of the absurd dramatists like Samuel Beckett, and bohemian rock stars like AC/DC and Black Sabbath – none of whose work will ever be confused with Sunday School curricula – display their particular creativity because they were crafted by a creative God.

Schaeffer therefore urged Christ-followers to walk a middle path. We shouldn’t swallow secular entertainment hook, line, and sinker. But we also shouldn’t cover our eyes and ears and pretend it doesn’t exist.

Instead, we exercise discernment.

We appreciate beauty wherever we find it, since the God whose image we bear is the inventor of beauty. Claude Debussy’s symphonies are astonishingly beautiful, even though the composer was no fan of the Gospel.

And we listen with compassion to those artists who poignantly express the pain of their spiritual lostness, in the hope they might one day find the hope that is found in Christ.

Going into an art gallery, we take in the rage of the contemporary painter who is angry with God for not existing. We weep with the poet who has knocked on every door advertising happiness, only to find them all disappointing. We listen to the songwriter who is terrified that she might lose her mother, and recognize that such fears are part of the common ground of all humanity – and provide an opportunity for any of us to speak a word concerning why we have entrusted ourselves to God (see I Peter 3:15). 

In other words, art can be a bridge between the world of faith and the realm of despair.

Schaeffer’s criterion for “great art” was truth. Does this movie or play or opera or novel shine a light on something that is true – whether the beauty of creation, the brokenness of human beings (including every saint), or the inherent dignity of all persons (including every sinner)?

Can we listen, in other words, with compassionate hearts and open minds to the soundtrack of our times?

Of course we can.

That is, as long as we don’t turn the next American Idol into a real idol.