Casting Down Casting Crowns

It seems to be a perfect combination: a band whose sound, for lack of a better term, sounds like traveling. That is, it has a rootsy and organic feel like the Allman Brothers Band or the Black Crowes. On top of that, the band is made up of committed Christians who seek to build up people’s faith through their music. They are a remarkably popular group, with their most recent album debuting at #2 on the Billboard charts (and that’s #2 overall, not #2 in Christian or religious music) with sales of 99,000 units.

In reality, however, Casting Crowns simply misses the mark. And nowhere do they miss the mark more obviously than in their song “While You Were Sleeping.” It’s a tune from their Christmas album Peace on Earth, so that explains why it’s in my consciousness currently.

It seems to begin innocently enough…

Oh little town of Bethlehem
Looks like another silent night
Above your deep and dreamless sleep
A giant star lights up the sky
And while you’re lying in the dark
There shines an everlasting light
For the King has left His throne
And is sleeping in a manger tonight

So far, so good. They begin with a nod to two different familiar Christmas carols and set the scene for the song. Worth noting is that the song is theologically in line with the biblical witness at this point. Then things start heading off the tracks…

Oh Bethlehem, what you have missed while you were sleeping
For God became a man
And stepped into your world today
Oh Bethlehem, you will go down in history
As a city with no room for its King
While you were sleeping
While you were sleeping

On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be anything necessarily wrong with this verse. They’ve taken the Christmas story as traditionally told in pageant-form and written it into their song. Sure, there’s a whiff of judgment (foreshadowing alert!), but that’s no big deal, right?

The problem arises when a person actually, you know, reads the Bible. Luke’s familiar Christmas story (2:1-20) is so familiar that it can barely draw anyone’s attention. We’ve cemented the images so firmly in our minds that they can’t be supplanted even by the biblical text itself. For example, most Christmas pageants tell the story of lonely Joseph and an 8-1/2 months pregnant Mary making a 65-mile donkey ride from Nazareth to Bethlehem and arriving in town to be rebuffed by three innkeepers (think Motel 6) with that third innkeeper being willing to let them stay out back in the stable. Moments after being whisked into that lonely stable, Mary gives birth to baby Jesus. And cue “Away in a Manger.”

Now, I’ve never been pregnant, but in talking with women who have, it’s highly unlikely that Mary would be able to make that trek during her late-term pregnancy. More likely, Joseph and Mary made the trip to Bethlehem weeks or even months ahead of Jesus’ birth.

Also, the gospel does not indicate anything about a donkey nor does it say that Joseph and Mary made the trip alone. Culturally, people were much more social than we are today and it’s quite likely that they were a part of a traveling caravan.

Even more blatant, though, is the fabrication of the innkeepers. No innkeepers are mentioned in Luke’s gospel because there weren’t any motels or hotels in Bethlehem! The word that gets translated as “inn” is the word kataluma in Greek. Interestingly, a kataluma is the place where Jesus and his disciples share the Last Supper in Luke 22. Most accurately kataluma does not mean “inn,” but instead means “guest room.”

Rules of hospitality in the Middle East in Jesus’ day (and today, for that matter) stated that there was always room for visitors, particularly family, in one’s home. With all the people returning to Bethlehem for the census, it’s most likely that other family members had arrived in advance and were staying in the guest room. Mary and Joseph, then, were welcomed into the main living space which was on a raised platform a couple feet above the enclosed stable where the animals would stay during the evening to protect them from theft and to provide heat for the home.

All this Bible nerd stuff just goes to show that the creeping judgmentalism of the song misses the mark: “Oh Bethlehem you will go down in history as a city with no room for its King.” Even the errant Christmas pageant telling of the story says that Bethlehem did have room for Jesus. But when you need a refrain, the story can be changed, I guess.

The next verses go on about Jerusalem not having room for Jesus either. This content is a bit more palatable theologically, even if it paints with too broad of strokes. That theme of being “a city with no room for its King” rises up again to lead to the climax of the song…

United States of America
Looks like another silent night
As we’re sung to sleep by philosophies
That save the trees and kill the children
And while we’re lying in the dark
There’s a shout heard ‘cross the eastern sky
For the Bridegroom has returned
And has carried His bride away in the night

And this is the verse that really makes my brain hurt. There’s nothing like creating a false dichotomy for the sake of an argument. Now, Casting Crowns comes from a more conservative Christian tradition than my own and I can respect differing points of view. That being said, however, this is simply nonsense.

“And we’re sung to sleep by philosophies that save the trees and kill the children”? Really? We are? When was this happening? I understand that sometimes a point needs to be overstated in order to be made, but this is too much. My guess is that this is an anti-abortion lyric, but to have it crossed with an anti-creation lyric is plain strange.

I guess I just don’t hear people with the rallying cries of “Kill the Children!” or “Abortions for all!” Regardless of one’s personal views on abortion, to me the bigger picture is how we take care of the children in our midst. Are they provided with the essentials for life? Are children loved, nurtured, and supported? Or are they just a concept used in political machinations?

Then to put the abortion debate up against care for creation is just dumb. God created the world and said it was good. So let’s not conflate these two important issues.

Urgh. The song concludes…

America, what will we miss while we are sleeping
Will Jesus come again
And leave us slumbering where we lay
America, will we go down in history
As a nation with no room for its King
Will we be sleeping
Will we be sleeping
United States of America
Looks like another silent night

I want to like Casting Crowns. I really do. They do some interesting things musically, but their lyrical tone lands somewhere between guilt-inducing and condescending. (It doesn’t help that many lead vocals are grunted out like a Nickelback cover band.) Even though the music hits my sweet spot, the message of “we’ve got it figured out and you the listener are stupider than us” just doesn’t wash.

Yet they still land at #2 on the Billboard charts. I hope there are some more thoughtful Christian voices that write and perform interesting music and poignant lyrics about faith, life, and God. Until then, it seems likes we’re left with the humorless cranks of Casting Crowns.

One thought on “Casting Down Casting Crowns

  1. Excellent way of explaining, and good article to take information about
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