What the church can learn from Kurt Cobain (Psalm 38)

Bono—the lead singer for the rock band U2—colorfully called David “the first blues musician.”  Music—or, more specifically, the lyrics it contains—reveals the depths and contours of the human soul like no other.  A famous philosopher once wrote that while “music is the furthest distance between two points, it is the closest distance to infinity.”

Kurt CobainI grew up in the era of grunge rock, of torn jeans, flannel shirts, and music that didn’t challenge convention as much as run it over with a truck.  In 1991, the rock band Nirvana stunned the music world with their sophomore album Nevermind.  The music was harsh, the production raw—but Kurt Cobain’s voice would shape my generation like few others would.  In many ways, Cobain’s lyrical legacy was unmatched.  While rock music of the 60s and 70s encapsulated a spirit of rebellion, rock music of the 90s turned its focus on personal feelings—both good and bad.  One analyst observed that hard rock was traditionally thought to be

“a very sort of macho genre. … But after Nevermind hit, suddenly it was cool to be in a hard rock band and to sing about your feelings—and to sing about your feelings in a complex way. Hard rock became inward-looking. You can see that influence in the nu metal bands like Korn or Slipknot. All of a sudden it was acceptable to be in a metal band and to sing about your neighbor molesting you or something. Hard rock really became cathartic as opposed to escapist.”(quoted by Tony Sclafani, “Why Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ Spoke to a Generation,” Today.com, September 22, 2011)

As you well know, Cobain’s inner demons were all too real.  A few years after Nevermind’s breakthrough success, he took his own life.  But his legacy would carry on into the present day.

What does this have to do with Christian worship?  Simply this: we live in a world whose inner demons have come unmasked.  You want to understand sin?  Understand inner anguish?  You have only to look as far as the radio dial, or the top 40 playlist.

So when we read the book of psalms we see something similar at work.  David is lamenting his sin, using the colorful language of poetry and song.  Watch what happens when we take one of his songs and place it side-by-side with a song by the band “Pop Evil:”

David: Psalm 38 Pop Evil: “Monster You Made”
1  O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath! 2  For your narrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me. 3  There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. 4  For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.5  My wounds stink and fester because of my foolishness, 6  I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning. 7  For my sides are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. 8  I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart.


9  O Lord, all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you. 10  My heart throbs; my strength fails me, and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me. 11  My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my nearest kin stand far off.


12  Those who seek my life lay their snares; those who seek my hurt speak of ruin and meditate treachery all day long. 13  But I am like a deaf man; I do not hear, like a mute man who does not open his mouth. 14  I have become like a man who does not hear, and in whose mouth are no rebukes.


15  But for you, O Lord, do I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer. 16  For I said, “Only let them not rejoice over me, who boast against me when my foot slips!”


17  For I am ready to fall, and my pain is ever before me. 18  I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin. 19  But my foes are vigorous, they are mighty, and many are those who hate me wrongfully. 20  Those who render me evil for good accuse me because I follow after good. 21  Do not forsake me, O Lord! O my God, be not far from me! 22  Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation!


Take a good look at me now
Do you still recognize me
Am I so different inside
This world is trying to change me
And I admit I don’t want to change with it
And I admit I can’t go on like this anymoreErase this monster I’ve become
Forgive me for all the damage done
It’s not over
Say it’s not over
I’m begging for mercy
I’m only the monster you made meI’m better alone now
See I’m torn from my mistakes
And I stop believing that I could ever make things change
How much can I take
When I know that it hurts you
How long can I wait
When I can’t go on like this anymore

Erase this monster I’ve become
Forgive me for all the damage done
It’s not over
Say it’s not over
I’m begging for mercy
I’m only the monster you made me

Because who I am
Isn’t who I used to be
And I’m not invincible
I’m not indestructible
I’m only human
Can’t you see
The beauty in me

Far away through the pain
I hear the angels calling
Far away through the pain
I see my demons falling


Far away through the pain
I hear the angels calling
Far away through the pain
I see my demons falling

Erase this
Erase this
Erase this monster you made me

True, the rock song lacks any specific object of hope—only a pleading for someone to “erase this monster.”  Yet ironically, in a world devoid of moral absolutes, the rock stars cry out against their own sinful consciences.

Yet sadly, as worship leader Michael Gungor observes, even though nearly 70% of the psalms are laments, less than 1% of the songs on the popular Christian worship database fit this pattern.  In other words, if you want to hear a song like David’s, you’re more likely to do so on the hard rock station than the worship station.  Worship leader Mike Cosper observes this discrepancy in his recent book, Rhythms of Grace:

“We are children of a much more sanitized era, you and I.  …The sentiment of most contemporary Christian worship is high on emotional language, heavy on the Spirit (and its accompanying imagery of flames, wind, and doves), but usually thin on (if not bereft of) the topic of bleeding birds and beasts.  We talk about the cross as a shorthand for the bloody sacrifice of Jesus, but even that is removed from the hands-on messiness of Israel’s worship.”  (Mike Cosper, Rhythms of Grace, p. 49)

I once knew of a worship leader who was fired from his job because he didn’t smile enough.  In today’s “sanitized era,” we’ve come to exchange sackcloth and ash for Colgate and hair gel.

But why would we find value in singing songs like David’s?  Who wants to come to church to sing about feeling “feeble and crushed?”  Well, more than you might think—at least if Kurt Cobain’s legacy is any indication.  We live in a hurting world.  I’m not trying to ennoble these rock stars, let alone affirm their hopelessness.  I’m suggesting that they express a sense of loneliness and hurt that can only be met through Jesus.  So I ask again, what value is there in the language of lament?  Because in the honesty of confession we find the certainty of consolation.  Musicians like Cobain did not find this consolation—but the psalms point us toward a God whose desire is to draw us nearer to Himself.  The church can—and I would suggest should—learn from this.  If we do not teach one another how to mourn—and mourn well—then who will?  The gospel promises hope to the fallen, grace to the barren, life to the lifeless.  But all of these demand an honest, unvarnished look at ourselves—for only then can we fully appreciate the contrasting beauty of the Savior.