Brokenheartedness in a Major Key

by Matt Carter

These stories in Genesis about Ishmael have historically been used to justify awful treatment of infidels and slaves. Of course, as Genesis shows us, people don't really need any justification for cruelty, violence, and enslavement. These already exist as part of our broken world. Justifications for these sinful things function as a way for people to pretend like these sins are not really sinful. They are a human-designed way of hiding sin behind a veneer that tells us it's alright. They cover sin to enable further sinning, and this is one of the reasons we know why moralistic readings of these historical narratives are wrong. Abraham is not a morally superior example we should blindly follow.

We also put a veneer over sin as a way of pretending like real evil is not an active force in our lives and our world. This is one of the reasons why we tend to avoid reading these historical narratives. They break our hearts. We don't want to dwell there in this space in which we grieve the evil in this world. We don't want to imagine what it must have been like for Hagar to walk away from her son Ishmael as he was dying of thirst. Sometimes we might look for some veneer of justification for this scene that blankets and shields us from this effect it has on us, but probably we would just rather ignore it. Like our household plumbing, we'll just trust that it all works somehow and just avoid it as much as possible.

I want to suggest that this reaction of ours is not innate or natural but taught and conditioned within us by our culture. We strategically put a veneer over evil to enable us to pretend that we can manage life on our own. When we sit there with Hagar waiting for our child to slowly die, knowing that there is nothing we can do to prevent it, we can no longer pretend that we can manage life on our own. Our own contingency and dependency are painfully and immediately present in a way that none of us wants to experience.

In Galatians 4:21-31, Paul connects Hagar, Ishmael, slavery, Jerusalem and Mount Sinai together allegorically. How? Abraham and Sarah sin by trying to get God's blessing on their own without supernatural enablement and cause this suffering to spew out from that sin. They tried to fake it 'til they make it. All that their pretending accomplished was a son who was not an heir. They did not trust God and pretended like life was under their control. Similarly, the Israelites responded to the law from Mount Sinai by saying "All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do" (Ex 24:3; Deut 5:27) even though they did not have a heart that trusted God (Heb 4:2). All that their pretending accomplished was a legalism that likewise will not inherit. 

Take five minutes and listen to the song "True Sadness" by the Avett Brothers. 


Lyrically, this is a song that, like the title says, is truly sad. Sadness, sin, and evil are all caught up in all of our lives. You just have to peel a few layers to find it. And it's everywhere, and it's in everyone. Sonically, however, this song has an upbeat melody. It's in a major key. Yet, the happy sonic part of this song does not blanket the sadness of the lyrics. 

This dissonance creates a space like both joy and sadness are sitting together in the same room. This is like the joy of Isaac's birth and the sorrow of Hagar and Ishmael's abandonment being part of the same narrative. This is also similar to what happens lyrically in another Avett Brothers song "The Ballad of Love and Hate," in which love and hate are personified. Both Love and Hate have room within this song in that both are given space as real and consequential characters.


Now listen to Taylor Swift's hit song "Shake It Off."


Swift's lyrics in this and most of the other songs on this album are truly sad, speaking about heartbreak, pain, and isolation. You can really hear their sadness, and the genius of Swift's writing, in Ryan Adams' cover.

In Swift's song, the lyrics resolve into a determination to shake off the sadness while dancing alone. Its sonic grammar blankets the sadness revealed in the lyrics in a fun and eminently danceable melodic tenor. By the song's end you might even forget that there was an underlying sadness to begin with, at least for a while. In other words, this song is a happy, fun, and at times necessary diversion from the evils of life. It pretends that we can shake our troubles away like so many mosquitos on a muggy summer evening. It works for a while, but in the end it will only inherit the wind. 

The biblical metanarrative tells us that sin and evil are real. It also tells us that God's redemption is our only hope for restoration, freedom, and fulness. Far from having the wherewithal to manage life's evil and sadness with our own resources, it is actually we who sin and spread this evil. As we all know, real life has both joy and sadness, just like the Bible. As divinely inspired Scripture, the Bible continually and uniquely reminds us that both are real, consequential, and important. 

In other words, life is sung in both major and minor keys. Given this, why do we contemporary American Christians tend to resist in both our public and private worship singing the true sadnesses of life? Taylor Swift is a great musician, and we want, expect, and maybe even need her to cheer us up sometimes. At the same time, we also know that a musical diet consisting exclusively of TSwift and only TSwift will leave us malnourished whether we feel hungry for something else or not. Biblical stories like Hagar and Ishmael are stories of sadness just like our own stories of regret and hardship. It is good for us to pause and sojourn in Beersheba with Hagar and Ishmael during our own private and public worship.

Related to Brokenheartedness in a Major Key