Well this is strange. My daughter was playing a song called “Car Radio” off her phone while we were riding in the car and something about it made me think of cancer. Well, not just cancer in general, but cancer and faith as Todd Billings describes it in his outstanding book, Rejoicing in Lament.
This Twenty-One Pilots song certainly didn’t sound like the type of music I suspect Billings listens to. But there is a message in this song about a guy whose car radio had been stolen, thus his distraction from his fears and emotions has been stolen. And now he is thinking like crazy when he’s driving in his car. During all this deep thinking that he’s been subjected to, he realizes a terrifying thought that we are all battling fear. Thinking further, he decides that there are only two answers in this battle: faith or sleep. So he concludes:
Faith is to be awake
And to be awake is for us to think
And for us to think is to be alive
And I will try with every rhyme
To come across like I am dying
To let you know you need to try to think
Todd Billings suffers from a much more costly loss than a car radio. He has been diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of thirty-nine. Billings is a man of faith, a professor of theology in fact. And like this song, Billings also articulates a faith that needs fresh thinking. The distraction of regular life has been stolen from him, and he is forced to think more deeply about his own fears and his own faith. He asks, “How does this sudden loss, which sinks in gradually, relate to the abundant life that we enjoy in Christ?” (x).
While in his song Tyler Joseph doesn’t articulate the content of faith, Billings spent his career thinking and teaching what his faith consists of. And yet now facing suffering and death, he realizes that he is awake in a new way as well. Now his faith, which he knows to be true, is seeking understanding. He explains, “In my tears, there was not only grief but also joy that in the body of Christ theological truths are not a commodity trafficked and controlled by professional theologians” (2). His book wonderfully wakes us all up to an active faith, one that can openly lament to our God of hope, one that joins the resistance because we bear witness to another kingdom, one that fights to understand, and one that also accepts what our sovereign God has not answered for us yet.
We need to try to think.
Joseph’s song also has a sense of urgency to it, and even a sense that he is alone in recognizing the darkness because everyone else is content to be distracted by entertainment. He even laments repeatedly:
I have these thoughts, so often I ought
To replace that slot with what I once bought
‘Cause somebody stole my car radio
And now I just sit in silence
In a way, Joseph is leading a resistance in this song as he is challenging people to a faith that thinks. He seems to be alone as a thinker. Billings actually comforts the reader that “we are not pioneers in the darkness:”
Our own “loud cries and tears” are not those of ones blazing new trails into grief; they are a Spirit-enabled sharing in the suffering of the One who has plunged even deeper into the darkness than us—yet not without hope.
Thus, when on the cross Jesus cries with the psalmist, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?,” this is a cry of desolation that shows us that when we pray this ourselves, we are not pioneers; we are not in a free fall. It is a cry of unspeakable anguish and yet profound hope because in Christ the covenant God himself has taken on our human suffering, even our sufferings of alienation and dread. In this moment on the cross, Jesus Christ—as the embodiment of the true Israel and the new Adam—takes on the exile and forsakenness of humanity in order to exhaust it; desolation itself is emptied of its finality by the Son’s assumption of human misery in a faithful, covenantal lament. (156)
The content is important. But we don’t place our faith in mere theological statements. Our faith is in the person, Jesus Christ. Billings does come across like he’s dying—because he is. So are we. That’s why we should all read this book.
Faith is to be awake.
And I would add that while faith is a gift from God, it is a fighting faith. Billings reminds us, “As our lips say, ‘Thy kingdom come,’ we pray—and act—as revolutionaries who protest against the darkness in this ‘present evil age’” (78).
It is much more laborious for Billings to use his mind and articulate all the rich content in his book. The cancer and the aggressive treatments have wearied him. But we were privileged to be able to interview him for MoS. So maybe now you could turn off your car radio and listen to this conversation that counts. Join the resistance.
*Originally published on February 18, 2015.