Sunday, 14 November 2010

Ben Folds Five - Smoke

In our student gathering after church on Sunday we did some engaging with popular culture (by popular, I really mean culture that I like!), looking at the song 'Smoke' by Ben Folds. This is the first time we've done this so I thought we'd look at something that we can really get our teeth into to get us in the mood for doing this more often! Here are some of the reflections that I've had in preparation for the discussion. Let me know yours!

Listen to the song by watching this video below:

And click here to read the lyrics.

It's a fascinating song isn't it!

The story is something like this. The man is looking back through the book that documents his life so far. As he looks at the different experiences that he's faced - times of sadness and anger, all of the people he's encountered, evenings of shame, grief, times where he took blame for something and so on. He looks through and one by one rips out each page then throws it in the fire, where it is turned to nothing but smoke which vanishes.

I think this is his point: however real the experiences you've had felt, however beautiful or hard they were, they're now in the past, forgotten. In essence they were pointless - you can't get them back, they'll just be forgotten. The past is dead - stop and smell the smoke of it as it burns on the fire.

Here's an evening dark with shame
Throw it on the fire
Here's the time I took the blame
Throw it on the fire
Here's the time we didn't speak
It seemed for years and years
Here's a secret
No one will ever know the reasons for the tears
They are smoke

Here's the worldview: life feels real and significant, but that's all just an experience - in the end it's forgotten and essentially pointless, the memory and significance of it will flit away like smoke.

For any of you who know anything of Ben Folds, you'll know that he isn't a Christian. In one sense then, he is very consistent with his worldview. This life is all there is, he says, then when you die... your dead. The end. The experiences you have simply won't matter - people probably won't remember them, good or bad. The reason for your tears will be forgotten... the tears themselves will probably even be forgotten.

He speaks a lot of truth and recognises what the Bible recognises would be true in a world without God:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises...
All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
more than one can say...
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun...
No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.

The writer of Ecclesiastes is saying the same as Ben Folds - everything is meaningless under the Sun.

The problem is, Ben Folds hasn't seen the whole picture. He accurately diagnoses a problem, but doesn't come to the solution. He only has half the truth.

In a world without God then I agree: what is the point? But we don't live in a world without God. We live in a world where God is sovereign, where things have meaning because this life isn't all there is, and our audience is more than just other human beings. There is more than simply what's 'under the Sun'. That's why the apostle Paul can say 'for to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain'.

The relationships that we have, the way we react to situations, the tears of loneliness and regret that we weep, the shared moments of great joy: all of these are just smoke... unless God exists.

But God does exist, so they have meaning, they can have eternal consequences, and we can enjoy people and creation for eternity - our life isn't just a pointless waste of time. We can have a character shaped through even the most tedious, apparently unnoticed and frustrating experience - death doesn't mean it was all wasted, because there is life beyond death! The gospel offers hope in a hopeless world, meaning in a meaningless world, future in a now-centred world.

As Christians, life can sometimes feel just as Ben Folds described. We need to look up and see the bigger picture - God is at work, he does know what he's doing and can work all things for the good of those who love him. And even when we're doing something that no one will see or remember, we can know that it's not pointless, because we work for the pleasure of someone who does see, and will remember - for eternity!

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