Compelling, Beautiful…Deeply Flawed
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jackson Browne’s song “The Rebel Jesus” is not famous, as Christmas tunes go. The song was originally included on the 1991 Christmas album The Bells of Dublin by Irish music sensation The Chieftains. The first time I heard “The Rebel Jesus" was on Bebo Norman's 2007 album Christmas from the Realms of Glory, which remains one of my favorite Christmas albums of all time. (Listen to it…listen to it now!)
That said, I’ve come to realize that "The Rebel Jesus" is quite possibly the worst Christmas song ever.
I know that’s saying a lot, considering the existence of songs like "Last Christmas” by Wham! So maybe I should say it a different way. “The Rebel Jesus” might not be the worst Christmas song ever, but it is certainly one of the most theologically-inaccurate Christmas songs (at least among the songs that claim theology...I'm not including Jingle Bells here), and its bad theology reflects ideas that have become far too pervasive in our world. As such it warrants attention.
All the streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants' windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
As the sky darkens and freezes
Will be gathering around their hearths and tables
Giving thanks for all God's graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus
The song “The Rebel Jesus” is musically and lyrically powerful, as one would expect from one of the greatest songwriters of our time (Jackson Browne). Bebo Norman’s rendition is compelling in its beauty and simplicity.
At first glance, the song is an important reminder not to get too caught up in the commercial trappings that have invaded the Christmas holiday (holy day). But at a deeper level, the song completely misses the point of who Jesus is, and His purpose for being born on that first Christmas night.
Jesus: The Ultimate Conformist
It has become hip to portray Jesus as a rebel. Hence the title “The Rebel Jesus." Unbelieving moralists portray Jesus as a social justice warrior, preaching against the systemic injustices of the Roman Empire. An anti-imperialist. A poor, marginalized, oppressed minority who has come to level the playing field. A rebel.
Well they call him by the prince of peace
And they call him by the savior
And they pray to him upon the seas
And in every bold endeavor
As they fill his churches with their pride and gold
And their faith in him increases
But they've turned the nature that I worship in
From a temple to a robber's den
In the words of the rebel Jesus
Scripture paints a far different picture. Not only is Jesus not a rebel, He is the ultimate conformist.
“For I have come down from heaven not to do My will but to do the will of Him who sent Me,” says Jesus in John 6:38. Scripture repeats the same message over and over…John 4:34, 1 Corinthians 15:28, John 5:19, Philippians 2:6-8, John 8:28. The most powerful example of Jesus' conformity is His prayer in the Garden: Not My will but Yours be done. (Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22).
Jesus did not come to rebel against the unfair institutions of men. He came to conform to the perfect plan of the Eternal God. His divine purpose was to bring His creation back into conformity with its original design.
And here’s the kicker. Not only is Jesus most definitely not the rebel. The real rebels are you and I! We have rebelled against God’s righteousness. We have abandoned the truth of Scripture, which says that none of us is good enough, and embraced lies like the one found in “The Rebel Jesus” that say we can be good enough…we simply need to stop hoarding wealth. And we need to stop hurting “nature." The irony is that Jackson Browne is the true rebel, to the extent that he has denied the truth of Scripture. And not just him...all of humanity has rebelled. In reality, Jesus was the only conformist, surrounded by a mob of rebels.
Jesus, the Socialist
We guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why they are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus
People who tend to favor government-run and government-funded charity programs (even people who otherwise reject Christianity) like to promote the idea that one of Jesus’ main goals during his time on earth was to bring about an end to poverty. In fact, many well-meaning Christians subscribe to this idea also. The song “The Rebel Jesus" goes so far as to say that the reason Jesus was killed was because He interfered with the systems that keep some people poor and other people rich. And, says the song, you and I will get the same treatment if we try to fix poverty.
Matthew 26 tells us about a woman who, according to worldly standards, wasted a ton of money by pouring expensive perfume on Jesus. His disciples were outraged and pointed out that the perfume could have been sold to help the poor. Jesus rebuffs his disciples by saying, "Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” Talk about being insensitive to the plight of the poor!
Scripture makes it very clear that Jesus is exclusively interested in ending spiritual poverty. Sin has bankrupted humanity, and Jesus’ entire purpose is to cancel the debt of our sinfulness, and make all who believe in Him spiritually wealthy beyond our wildest dreams, as heirs of the promises of God. This IS the message of the Gospel. To the extent that our focus on material well-being distracts us from the truth of the Gospel, it is damaging and destructive. To the extent that Christians ally ourselves with those who focus on material well-being, while ignoring spiritual poverty (whether they preach a false gospel of prosperity or a false gospel of economic equality), we cheapen and corrupt the true Gospel.
The Hopelessness of Rejecting Jesus
But please forgive me if I seem
To take the tone of judgement
For I've no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In this life of hardship and of earthly toil
We have need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure
And I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus.
After all of this, the song “The Rebel Jesus” closes rather dismissively, basically saying that life is tough, so go ahead and enjoy little things like Christmas. This is the worldview of many secularists and atheists…that religion in general and Christianity in particular is false, but as long as you don't force it on other people, and you try to live a moral life, then I suppose it’s OK to have your silly little religion. The glaring fault in this thinking is that without the objective, universal truth of Christianity, there is no such thing as morality. Without Christmas, there is no freedom or cheer to bid. Christmas is not a little bit of fun in an otherwise dreary existence. Christmas is the intersection of the Infinite God and our temporal humanity. It is the Incarnate Word become flesh. It is something that cannot be understood unless a human being submits his own will to that of the Spirit of God.
The writer of “The Rebel Jesus" describes himself as a heathen and a pagan. He references worshipping in nature, but if he is not worshiping the One True God, then by default he is worshipping nature itself (Romans 1:25). Nature worship is also an idea that has gained much ground in our world today, even among Christians. We see it in the embrace of ideas about global warming that borrow religious verbiage and rise to the level of religious zeal. We see it in the fondness for indigenous religious practices like smudging and sacred water ceremonies that attempt to imbue natural objects with spiritual significance. The truth of Scripture teaches us that God created the natural world to be a blessing to human beings. Elevating nature or ideas about nature to a position where they become part of the Gospel message is a double-insult to the Creator.
Jesus Welcomes You to His Side
The song ends with the writer proclaiming himself to be “on the side of the rebel Jesus.” It is not possible to be on the side of someone you do not know.
The good news for Jackson Browne, and for the rest of us too, is that it IS possible to know Jesus and to be on His side. To do so we must reject false notions of who Jesus is. He is not a moralistic example of good living. He is not a Jewish type of Mahatma Gandhi or Karl Marx. He is God Almighty, the Eternal One. He was not killed because he challenged the system. He willingly offered Himself as the all-sufficient sacrifice for our sins, in order to fulfill the divine system.
Not only must we accept what Scripture says about Jesus, we must accept what Scripture says about us. We are not moral people capable of following the advice of song lyrics, on a path toward further enlightenment and universal justice. We are hopelessly lost in our sin. We don’t chose Christianity (as one path among many) because it makes us better people. We are called to be Christians because we are horrible people. The truth of Scripture cannot be incorporated into the false ideas invented by human beings. On the contrary, the ideas of all of us human beings must bow in humble submission to the Baby in the manger -- the Incarnate Word of God.
Jesus, the ultimate conformist, commands us to stop being the rebels.