Theology in a New Key: “Promised Land”

I was born in 1976, but I was really a child of the “Reagan Revolution.”

It is easy for people to forget how dismal the 1960s and 1970s were. An unpopular war, economic worries, and titanic cultural shifts produced a social landscape which looked more like a moon crater than a verdant paradise.

Then along came an actor turned politician named Ronald Reagan, a man pilloried by his opponents in the mainstream media but with a talent for casting vision which dwarfs even the most eloquent politicians of our day. And I got swept up in the wave of optimism his brand of politics generated.

It didn’t help that I was the classic overachiever described by Arthur Brooks. From second grade on, I had teachers who believed in me, and my peers regularly voted me “Most Likely to Succeed” in our small town’s junior high school.

Don’t get me wrong. I needed the encouragement I got from peers and mentors alike, and I much prefer the positive, forward-looking politics of President Reagan to the toxic waste dump that is our current political discourse. But I have come to believe that the 1980s led a lot of us who want to follow Jesus astray.

The American Dream and the Kingdom of God

TobyMac’s song “Promised Land” makes a similar point. Whatever “success” is supposed to be, TobyMac has undoubtedly found it. He makes more money in a week than I and my wife will make this year, and he addresses more people in a single concert than I have in every sermon I have ever preached.

And yet, in “Promised Land,” he describes the same feelings of frustration, fatigue, and disappointment which afflict many in modern America. There is this almost palpable awareness that what we are striving for is just out of reach. There is this painful (if incomplete) recognition that each passing day brings us closer to the death of our dreams rather than to “the best life now” we have been promised.

Of course, if we had been listening to Jesus rather than the politicians of our day, we would have known the promises of a paradise on earth were nothing more than “grand illusions.” As TobyMac reminds us “there’s no place this side of heaven where the streets are made of gold.” No, our lot is to suffer, to walk with our Savior through the greatest heartbreaks in life and to share our brokenness with those who are also suffering. But that vision of reality doesn’t get votes, and it doesn’t fill churches, either.

It is why Dr. Elijah Brown’s question during Carroll’s commencement is so penetrating. “Is the Kingdom of God enough?”

Eschatology and Emotion

I have long argued that Americans, and American Christians, do not have a real eschatology. They may give lip service to ideas about the future, but their lives demonstrate they are focused on today. Little did I know I was the prime example of the point I was making. I wanted to have my cake and eat it, too. I wanted to have the blessed life described in the Old Testament and still get the eschatological blessings alluded to in the New Testament.

But, all too often, it doesn’t work that way. The “road that leads to heaven” (to quote a line from an old Steven Curtis Chapman song) leads inexorably through “the valley of the shadow of death.” And when we don’t realize that fact, it can be extremely disorienting—and extremely painful.

There is another aggravating factor in the malaise I have described in this essay, but it is also where our hope is to be found. To it, we must turn in our next time together. In the meantime, we can reflect upon the fact that TobyMac (like Steven Curtis Chapman a quarter-century before him) chooses to cling to faith even in the midst of his questions.

Published: Jul 9, 2022


Select Category