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‘Give Heaven Some Hell’? An Ode to Better Country Music

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This article is part of a series called Art Month. We'll highlight more on the intersection of faith and art during December.

I love country music. The stories, the rural, the trucks, football, honky-tonk, all of it. The soundtrack of my childhood was a steady diet of “Dixieland Delight” and “Song of the South” on the way to elementary school with George Strait, Travis Tritt, Brooks & Dunn, Reba McEntire, and —of course—a little Garth Brooks on the return home.

And now, as a matter of discipleship, these artists form the soundtrack for my four kids’ lives on the way to and from school. It’s just hard to beat the country music of the 80s and 90s.

Sadly, however, I struggle to share the same love for many of the songs topping today’s country charts. “Surely,” you might say, “this is classic nostalgic snobbery by one who loves the old stuff and despises the new.” I won’t deny some of this. But, like Flannery O’Connor about the south, I critique it because I love it.

Take Michael Hardy’s 2021 award-winning hit, “Give Heaven Some Hell.”  The chorus goes like this…

I hope you hit those gold streets on two wheels
I hope your mansion in the sky’s got a ten-acre field
With some mud and some hubs you can lock in
Make some thunder, make ‘em wonder how you got in
Hide your beer, hide your clear from the man upstairs
Crank it loud, hold it down ‘til I get there
And when I do, I hope you got some new stories to tell
‘Til then, give Heaven some hell.

Admittedly, it’s a catchy tune with a gripping story about the difficult experience of attending a friend’s funeral.  It is easy to sing, creative in lyric, and sticks with you all day. All good things. But it also illustrates much of what is most dangerous about country music. In the spirit of southernism, I’ll boil it down to three aint’s:

Heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie.

First, heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie.

With apologies to the die-hard Hank Williams, Jr. fans, Christians must be aware of the fact that heaven and “dixie” (a shorthand for southern, Texan, and general rural cowboy culture) have very little in common. In fact, heaven ain’t a lot like anything that we can imagine—its way better! Does this mean there is nothing about southern culture that we might expect to experience in heaven? That’s not what I’m saying. I do think we can expect some continuity between the life we know now and the life to come — deep friendship, the tastiness and satisfaction of good food, the beauty of spring, and the magic of fall, the wonder we experience when gazing at the mountains or the sunset over the ocean, and so much more that we can’t even fathom. And all of this without the stain of sin! To reduce heaven to “dixie”—however much one loves it—is to diminish the magnificence of the new heavens and earth and limit God’s creativity to our cultural preferences.

Second, the new heavens and earth ain’t a “good-ole-boys” playground.

Country music is fond of reminiscing about the past. Friday night football games, fishing with papaw, a first kiss, teenage mischief—all the stuffing of a popular country song. The problem is projecting this fondness for the past into the hope of the good life to come in eternity. To begin, the mud-riding, beer-drinking, loud music, trouble-making memories of one’s past are shallow hopes for the future. Not because of any inherent evil in mud, beer, or loud music, but because the new heavens and earth are far greater than a southern boy’s favorite mudhole hangout. It’s the very Kingdom of Christ Jesus. The time and place where our greatest joy will be found not in shallow mischief, but in life fully directed toward the glory of the King, enjoying Him forever. Even as one who appreciates a good mud-hole and loud music now and then, they hold not a candle to the light and joy and fun of the eternal life to come with King Jesus.

Third, amazing grace ain’t cheap.

This is what most needs addressing about Hardy’s song and those like it. The notion that we might “hide” our foolishness from the “man upstairs” such that when we arrive in heaven folks will wonder how we got there makes a mockery of the gospel. First, no one arrives in heaven on their own merit, and they certainly didn’t fool God by sneaking in. Such notions sound more like folk religion than the story of the Bible. Second, reducing the glorious gospel of Jesus down to a God who can be fooled is blasphemy. It teaches a cheap grace that leads people away from the true God of the bible, discipling them instead in a story with a weak, oblivious god who is easily fooled and childishly entertained.

Brothers and sisters in Christ—this is not our God. Our God knows all, sees all, hears all. He is everywhere at all times, the greatest of all conceivable beings, and the ground of all that is good, just, true, beautiful, and wise. Make no mistake, He is no one’s fool. And even while knowing all things—even all of our sin and foolishness—He died for us. This should humble us to our core and instill a depth in us that motivates us to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God forever (Mic. 6:8).

What then of country music? Should we scrub our Spotify lists and reprogram our radio stations? Nah. But, I do at least the following:

  1. Listen carefully, not passively. 
    Because a song is sung by one of your favorite’s doesn’t mean it is right, good, and true. Consider the message of each song—country or not—against the truth of Scripture. Where it’s false, don’t allow yourself or your family to be formed into believing falsehood. Acknowledge it, talk about it, and discuss how Scripture corrects it.
  2. Celebrate what’s good, true, and beautiful. 
    I think often about George Strait’s “Love Without End, Amen.” While talk of “standing outside the pearly gates” makes me a little nervous, the message of the song is good, true, and beautiful. From fathers to sons and from our heavenly Father to us, His is a love without end, amen. Or, I think of Alabama’s “40 Hour Week,” a thank you to blue-collar workers all over the country for their labors that play such a vital part in our country’s economic machine. This is a great example of leveraging the low country style to encourage common folk across a nation.
  3. Call for better country music. 
    So much of modern country music is formulaic: insert girls, whisky, trucks, football, and dirt-roads, increase the tempo, change the key, and out pops another country hit. And, if you really want it to top the charts, include something about the troops and the American flag. Folks, this formula is as worn out as papaw’s flannels. Let’s dispense with the commodification. Where has all the good country gone, you may ask? It’s still there, both in the past and in the future. There are still good, true, and beautiful stories to be told, accompanied by an acoustic guitar and a fiddle, with the occasional blend of blue-grass or even southern rock. Let us call for better country music, songs with substance, inspiration, a little mud on the tires, and truth. Rather than “give heaven some hell” with our music, let’s take Jesus’ prayer to heart and invite a bit of the Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.

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Benjamin Quinn

Associate Professor of Theology and History of Ideas

Dr. Quinn is an Assistant Professor of Theology and History of Ideas. He also serves as the Associate Dean of Institutional Effectiveness for the College at Southeastern. He is the co-author of Every Waking Hour.

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