The divine omniscience in the best of international music.
On the night of January 26, 2020, the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards, presented by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (generally known as The Recording Academy), were held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Among the many categories, five are specifically dedicated to music of explicit religious inspiration: Best Gospel Album (winner: “Long Live Love” by Kirk Franklin), Best Gospel Performance/Song (Franklin again, with “Love Theory”), Best Roots Gospel Album (“Testimony” by the great Gloria Gaynor), Best Contemporary Christian Music Album (“Burn the Ships”, by for KING & COUNTRY) and Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song (once again, by for KING & COUNTRY with Dolly Parton for the song “God Only Knows”).
For KING & COUNTRY
For KING & COUNTRY is a Christian alternative rock duo formed by Australian brothers Joel and Luke Smallbone. Although they were born in Sydney, they later moved to Nashville, Tennessee, due to the work of their father, a music promoter. They started their career with the simple name “Joel & Luke”; later they changed to “Austoville” and finally ended up with their current band name. “For King and Country” was the battle cry of English soldiers willing to sacrifice themselves for the king and their country. “And now it has become our mission, to sacrifice ourselves for our King and our country,” Luke explained, quoted in an article on the Cross Rhythms website.
The duo had already won Grammys in 2015 in the same categories they were awarded this year.
Their thinking about music and their mission is clear in the following statement, quoted in the same Cross Rhythms article: “The power of music can impact our mood, emotions, our day. But when you merge the strength of music with the heart, hope and passion of the Gospel. . . it has the ultimate power not only to change someone’s day, but to impact them for eternity. This is why we write music and sing songs =- we hope that people will be moved, encouraged and stirred to live a life for Someone greater than themselves.”
God only knows …
Their award-winning song “God Only Knows” (not to be confused with the famous Beach Boys’ piece of the same name) seems, from the very title, to refer to divine knowledge—that is, to its omniscience. In fact, there are things that only God knows, and there is nothing that God does not know. However, this divine attribute has been the object not only of numerous philosophical and theological questions and objections, but also of profound rejection at an existential level.
To mention one example, the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre mentions an episode from his childhood when, playing with matches, he had burned a carpet. “I was trying to clean up the mess when, suddenly, God saw me. I felt His glance inside my head and on my hands; I was walking around the bathroom, horribly visible, like a living target.” That experience of the divine gaze seems to have been decisive: “I was saved by indignation; I became furious against such rude indiscretion. I blasphemed.”
Experiences like Sartre’s are not uncommon. To think of someone (or Someone) who knows everything, from whom we cannot hide anything, whose gaze penetrates all our internal and external actions, can be intimidating.
Some people see God’s omniscience as if He were a “Big Brother” (or “Father”) who never leaves us in peace, before whom it’s impossible to flee. However, this says more about how we conceive of others (or the Other) and their gaze, than it does about God. Sartre is very clear; according to his analysis, to be looked at by another is to become defenseless before a will that is not one’s own, which implies a disturbing disintegration of “my” universe and my own being. For this reason, the presence of another is infernal (“hell is other people”) and the all-encompassing gaze of a transcendent Other is, of course, intolerable.
If we were to take this assumption for granted, then we should come to the conclusion that the most liberating thing would be for others not to be there. Freedom would be identified with loneliness. However, there is something in this idea that clashes with everyday experience, since solitude is usually experienced as something imprisoning and not as the culmination of freedom.
The merit of the song “God Only Knows” lies precisely in the fact that this very common experience of loneliness and unrest is the starting point. We face our fears alone, our defects, our shadows and insecurities, which we prefer to hide from others. “Nobody sees you, nobody would believe you … You keep a cover over every single secret, so afraid if someone saw them they would leave …”
And yet there is Someone who sees you … Sartre sensed it as a child, for he had felt God’s gaze. But it seems that he didn’t discover what that gaze is like. It’s not a harassing gaze, which persecutes us and subjects us to judgment and condemnation, but rather a loving and understanding gaze. He looks at us with love. This is the core of the question. “God only knows what you’ve been through, God only knows what they say about you. God only knows how it’s killing you,” “God only knows the real you,” “God only knows where to find you.” Just as there are things that only God knows about us, so “there’s a kind of love that God only knows,” and it’s with that Love that He looks at us.
His all-embracing knowledge is at the same time His all-embracing love for us. From this perspective, which the men of for KING & COUNTRY propose, divine omniscience is no longer harassing and imprisoning, but profoundly liberating and renewing: “Oh for the lonely, for the ashamed, the misunderstood, and the ones to blame, what if we could start over?” the authors ask. “We could start over,” they answer, “’cause there’s a kind of love that God only knows.”
Here is the version with “the Queen of Country,” Dolly Parton (which won the Grammy Award):
Turn up your speakers and enjoy!