Can Billie Eilish help us better understand God and the Church?
By Ashlyn Heise
Most likely you have heard of Billie Eilish, if not listened to her music. She has been hailed as the best artist of the year by Rolling Stones, and the most talked about teen on the planet according to NME (New Musical Express.) And here I am, adding to that. On her recently released album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, twelve of the thirteen songs were on Billboard’s Hot 100, in addition to the other two of her songs that were already hovering in those 100 songs, making her a record breaker: 14 songs at once in the Top 200 (even more specific the Hot 100) for a woman. Did I mention that she is only 17? And all of this happened within the past year. If you look up her YouTube, her videos consistently have millions of views and if you Google her name, a plethora of interviews are available ranging from NPR to Elle. Despite this recent rise to fame, she has been making and releasing music since 2015 with the help of her brother who is also musically inclined. She has collaborated with Khalid and recently featured Justin Bieber in a music video. All of this say, she’s more than just a rising star and a lot of people are paying attention to her. However, as a Christian, we are not called to passively be a part of this world, and rather, in fact, do quite the opposite. I want to consider how God can use popular music that does not hail Him as king to redirect us back to Him, despite blatant use of fear and darkness in an attempt to draw our eyes away.
Eilish’s most recent album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, is also the name of the national tour she embarked on in early 2019 and has extended dates to include international locations. I did not go to her show in Minneapolis when she came in June 2019, and at first was repulsed by seeing my Christian friends RSVPing on Facebook to the event. The cover for this album features Eilish grinning slyly with completely white eyes, which of course was the appropriate cover photo for the event on Facebook. My feed was flooded with these dead eyes and smile for weeks until the concert actually happened. I had just returned from a journal conference in New Hampshire when the concert was announced, and Facebook curating my feed to include concerts in the Minneapolis area, would show which of my friends were marking that they were “interested” or “going.” Most of these posts were appearing near the top of my feed, or Facebook went as far as putting it in my notification center: “New events happening near you…” “X and Y are going to events near you…” “Z is interested in a future event…” etc. I had heard a song of hers on The Current years before, and liked it, not knowing who she was or that she had other music. When I looked her up, I was surprised to see that I already knew one of her songs, “You Should See Me in a Crown”. If I liked that older song, perhaps I would like her newer ones too? So, I opened the music video for “Bury a Friend,” seeing as it was trending at the time, and a seed of fear grew the longer I watched and listened. Her music is constructed with synthesizers, oddly timed beats, disjointed chords, and minor keys. This music was not the bright pop heard on the radio nor the acoustic calming tones of which Christian music is often comprised. It was impossible to passively listen to this new music as it strayed away from the older more pop-like music of hers that I had listened to and enjoyed. Other interviews with Eilish reveal that she wants her music be in tandem with her music videos. If the music wasn’t jolting enough, the music videos amplified this feeling even more. Featuring spiders and needles, crying black liquid and floating lifeless bodies, I could not shake these images and melodies from my head.
How could my friends, who claim to be Christian, be RSVPing to a concert where she sings explicitly about darkness, suicide, and fear? The lyrics to “Bury a Friend” haunted my mind, especially as more and more of my friends RSVPd and her eyes and smile appeared in my feed. The line “I wanna end me” would not leave my head for weeks. I had so many questions amidst my fear: how could someone so blatantly sing about suicide and ending life, and have it hit the number one spot in the Billboard Hot 100? Have these lyrics sung by millions, and not questioned? Have it not considered a cry for help? I remember distinctly thinking that if anyone told me that they want to end themselves in any kind of way, whether it was sung or not, I would ask if they are okay and if I can help them find help. However, the longer her lyrics lingered in my mind, although they scared me at first, the more analytic I became. Even God can use those opposed to Him for His glory. So my questions changed: how could God use Billie Eilish’s music for His glory? Is it an impossible feat? Surely not.
In 2010, James Davidson Hunter, a Christian sociologist, released a book called “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.” Most notably, in one of his three essays, he makes the argument for Christians to practice faithful presence. Faithful presence is supposed to counteract other ways in which Christians have “engaged” with culture previously: defensive against— “if only God could be re-enshrined in the social order…the culture would be restored”; relevance to— “the point of entry has moved from identifying with people’s felt-needs to be the need for the church to resonate better with the world around it”; and purity from—“the central task of the true church, then, is to extricate itself from the contaminating forces of the world.” Faithful presence is none of these approaches but Hunter’s proposal to live out being in the world but not of it – “the very character of God and the heart of his Word is that God is fully and faithfully present to us… it is an expression of commitment marked by at least four attributes [pursuit of us, identification with us, life offered to us, and sacrificial love for us].” What does this look like for us as Christians and people who aren’t God? Hunter says that having a theology of faithful presence is a theology of engagement in and with the world around us, it is a theology of commitment and promise. We are called to be faithful and present with God, with each other, and with our tasks that we each have been given. Hunter also recognizes that in our limited abilities, we cannot reach all people or have the omnipresence that God can have with all of us all the time, so we are called to be exercise faithful presence within our spheres of influence.
Importantly, how does this connect with Billie Eilish, especially when her music oozes darkness? For those of us who have been called to engage in that sphere of influence, we should be present. A main component of being present requires active commitment and promise. When listening to music, this means being an active listener to lyrics and music. It has been proven through a variety of studies that sounds alone can influence us physiologically, psychologically, cognitively, and behaviorally. From inducing our fight-or-flight-or-freeze instinct to influencing our shopping habits, sound plays an important role in our lives. And, for a time where most people have headphones on or earbuds in their ears, we are bombarded by more sound and music than ever before. If sound can affect us in so many ways, we must actively listen regardless if we are the ones choosing the next song on Spotify or if a restaurant is choosing the music for us. As Christians, we must be committed to this mission. We must ask questions of what we listen to and discern, with the help of the Spirit, if it is good or poisonous for our souls. The question “when we all fall asleep, where do we go?” that Eilish has posed so many times (and will continually pose forever thanks to the invention of YouTube), is fundamentally a Christian question. When we die, what happens? In fact, this is a question many of us engage with on a normal basis most Sundays. I would argue that this lyric points us to a lack which Christ can and has filled. This lyric can remind us that many people are asking this question and many people are fearing what comes after death and perhaps fear that this lifetime is for naught. Billie Eilish’s music brings people to ask questions where Christ is the only answer. We are reminded that the blood of Christ has redeemed us, and He has done the work for us. We read in the Scripture that He has not left us alone but a helper, the Spirit to remain with us while Christ is not with us. One day, He will bring us home, and that is not something that we need to fear. In fact, knowing this should liberate us in this lifetime to do the work that He has called us to do, and to do so fearlessly! Whether that is writing an essay, treating a patient, walking to work, leading a small group, or even making music, we are called to be present and faithful to those tasks, knowing that they can help build a culture that God has called us to construct.
I do want to be clear, I am not saying that Billie Eilish is making Christian music, and that we should use her music as a means to worship. What I want to do is challenge Christians to consider how if we remove ourselves too far from the “secular world” (which is also the exact same world that we live in), we will miss out on songs and lyrics that actually have Christian roots and may be things that we already talk about. Perhaps we find music that we can discuss outside of a Sunday service context, and be faithfully present to those around us who do engage consistently with music different from ours. Who knows, maybe a Billboard Hot 100 song by Billie Eilish will be the easiest bridge you can find if you want to talk about faith with colleagues, friends, and/or family about the redemptive work of Christ.