Country Song Packs A Hell Of A Punch

Hell is losing your job six months short of 30 years, with no parachute, no shiny new gold watch and not so much as a “thank you” as you walk out the door. It’s payments you can’t make on a house you can’t sell, as your kids watch their parents split apart.


You don’t have to die to go to hell.

That’s one tale Brad Paisley tells in his newest album, “This is Country Music.” It’s his best work yet. When I first heard the song “A Man Don’t Have to Die,” it felt like a punch in the gut. Sometimes the best country music lyrics can do that.

It reminds me that my silence about the economic realities confronting working people is cowardly and my perspective on faith needs serious readjustment.

The song is written in reaction to the arrival of a new preacher who is warning people about hell. But Paisley counters, “We already know that hell exists.”

It reminds me of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, who preached in the streets as England industrialized in the 1700s. He went to working people – miners in the coalfields of Newcastle and the desperately poor who were left out of the Industrial Revolution. They all lived below government-defined poverty levels.

He spoke to them of personal and social holiness. He told them personal faith and social responsibility cannot be separated. And he asked them to care for each other.

He did not point them to a better life afterward, but he pointed them toward making life better now. To Wesley, the gospel was not palliative; it was prophetic and down-to-earth practical.

As a result, the people called Methodist responded, perhaps because few others cared about them. Though they were cash poor, Wesley admonished every one of them to contribute at least a penny for the aid of others. And they did!

Over time, however, the hard edge of social responsibility got rounded off and smoothed down with preaching about individual piety and comfort. Methodists grew in wealth and status. Today, few – including me — in this faith community speak the language of working people and the poor or stand with them. We speak about the poor, but we are not of the poor as the early Methodists.

As for speaking the language of working people, seminary education took it away from me, and organizational minutiae turned my focus inward toward institutional concerns.

What is needed …

Working people and the poor are among the hidden casualties of the global economic crisis. In the U.S., 28 million people are unemployed or forced into part-time jobs that don’t pay enough to sustain them.

Paisley speaks to them, but not as Wesley did. This powerful song goes where country music has always gone when it comes to religion—angels and the hereafter. And that’s not what is needed.

What’s needed is concern for the here and now. Wesley said everyone in every society is a child of God and deserves to be treated as such, according to United Methodist scholar Richard P. Heitzenrater.

Faith isn’t about reaping rewards in the hereafter; it’s about entering into the reign of God now.

God’s love is for all

We are loved of God, and called by God to love and care for each other. This connects faith to justice and places on us responsibility to ensure that everyone is treated with the dignity Gods intends for us all.

Paisley drove me to Wesley. And Wesley helped me see the need to step out of my parochial, institutional concerns and broaden the definition of community to include everyone from the top to the bottom of the economic scale.

No one – not the immigrant, chronically ill, unemployed, divorced, gay, straight, man, woman or child – stands outside this all-encompassing love and claim of dignity.

If a man doesn’t need to die to go to hell, it’s also true that no one is left out of God’s kingdom. It’s already established. We simply must live so that our lives reveal it.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be offering examples of how people are living it today. In the meantime, if you have an example – or if you have experienced hell in some way – please share your story with me.


14 Responses to “Country Song Packs A Hell Of A Punch”

  1. bthomas June 27, 2011 at 5:45 pm #

    Appreciate the post. This song is a good example of how country music connects.

    Wesley preached both personal and social holiness. Neither stands alone. Either without the other is a incomplete statement of the gospel. Faith is not only about the hereafter, but faith is not simply about the present. The New Testament affirms that faith speaks to the need for salvation from sin as well as the social relationships of men and women. It is not ancillary to the gospel. It is the gospel.

    People throughout the world are having to come to grips with economic reality. Not just working people are facing the sharp end of the stick. . Much of what has happened is the unsustainable result of politically driven socially predicated economic manipulation. Meaningful sustainable economic recovery will not result from the further tinkering of political laymen who are devoid of any experience in actually running a successful business.

    Personally the recession and inflation cycle of the 70’s especially as experienced in late Carter and early Reagan administration left vivid memories of hard times. Lack of real world work experience and having not yet completed college combined to limit my opportunities. It took time and effort to make positive progress. About 1995 a family member had to accept that her degree in music was personally satisfying but offered little to her advantage in the employment market. She returned to college and earned her BSN. From that point on she has never again had difficulty with employment regardless of market conditions. Recently immediate and extended family members have had to deal with the realities of the current recession. They have found a quality education relevant to market realities permits career choices that offer real opportunity for advancement. Not all educational choices are equally relevant or in demand. The consequences can be difficult. One family member followed her own interest in languages. She graduated expecting to teach French, etc. Reality was that she met with little demand for her academic preparation. She has now returned to school with a more practical bent of mind. She is well motivated. There is every reason to expect that she will earn her degree in medicine.

  2. Julie June 27, 2011 at 6:05 pm #

    Rev. Hollon: Can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this column. In hot water with some in my congregation because I don’t preach hellfire and damnation but do preach that God’s love is all encompassing for all of God’s children.

  3. Kenneth Bradley Martin June 28, 2011 at 6:52 am #

    Someone should tell Mr. Paisley that eternal torment is a far cry from loosing your job in a country where due to Church backed socialism, the government ensures that no one actually goes without enough to eat. Anyone who purports otherwise is a liar. Jesus commanded through the Apostle Paul, that if a man doesn’t work he shouldn’t eat, and again if a “widow” had grown children, then the Church should not be responsible for her. Our denomination feels that it is inappropriate to “force” our “opinions” on people about abortion, and yet has no problem with forcing their unbiblical opinion about “social justice” on everyone, Christian and nonChristian alike. The greater damnation, (yes Mr. Willomon there is a Damntion) belongs to the preachers who are not preaching the truth! We have refused Christ’s teaching preferring a watered down gospel of “social justice” God have mercy on us.

    -Brad Martin
    Oak Grove U.M.C.
    Blountsville, AL

  4. Joe Moran June 28, 2011 at 1:59 pm #

    This year North Carolina tied with Louisiana for first place in having the highest percentage of children under five who are hungry: 1 in 4.

    And while food prices here have sky-rocketed, prices in developing countries are out of reach for the world’s most vulnerable. It is estimated that in the last 2-3 months alone 64 million people have slid into poverty.

    It hurts to see politicians treat “taxes” as a wrongful burden on the better to-do folks, and to refer to taxes as robbery, or theft. Taxes are what civilized people pay to help the vulnerable in society. To pledge “no taxes,” in this time of such hardship is wrong.

  5. Pam June 30, 2011 at 9:20 am #

    I worked for 10 years for a company, that decided to do away with my position — outsource it. I then went to work for another company that promised 60 days temp to permanent. That did not happen. I was there 6 months, and because I posted a ‘helpful’ solution on FaceBook that was misinterpreted, I was told my temporary assignment was completed. Now — I seek my next direction. I volunteer at my local Methodist Church in various capacities. I am concerned about the poor, the undocumented labor workers, the fact that we say ‘open doors, open minds, open hearts – but do not really follow that. I am striving to get back to Wesley basics: Do no harm, Do good, stay in love with God.

    I am seeking perhaps Grant money to start an organization to help Seniors especially with computer needs.

    Thank you for your article. I found it by doing a ‘Bing’ search about Religious views!

    Blessings to you —


  6. Doug July 3, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    YES! The Methodist Church needs to return to its Wesleyan roots where Social Justice was a primary concern. Thank you for your column.


  7. Paul Morehead July 3, 2011 at 6:05 pm #

    Have you ever noticed those with the least are the first to share what little they have?
    While some of those with plenty are very concerned about losing anything?
    The bible says God desires mercy more than sacrifice. (Hos 6:6, Mic 6:7-8, Mat 12:5-8)
    We not only need to know what the bible and Jesus say in a specific situation but to study the example Jesus left for us.
    Mercy is the heart of God. Sacrifice is the letter of the law.
    Which one were the Pharisee’s more concerned with and what did Jesus say to them?
    Jesus reached out to the poor, the early church grew rapidly partly because of its active role with social justice.
    Don’t let your riches and secure lifestyle be a stumbling block.
    May God bless your prayer time.

  8. Pastor Brian LeBaron July 6, 2011 at 9:32 am #

    Sounds like Brad Paisley has been to my community. This is where faith is intersecting life in Northwest Illinois. The curse of affluence is coming down on us and biting us in our butts. We are responding with more activity in our local food pantry. We are currently in a study for economic redevelopment with other churches in our county as well.

  9. jd walt July 6, 2011 at 2:37 pm #

    Dr. Hollon,

    Love your post and agree with your Paisley assessment and pretty much re: John Wesley.

    I wonder how you assess John Wesley’s seeming regular field preaching message of “Flee the wrath to come.”

    I like your characterization of the constancy of personal and social holiness– It’s not an either or, nor is it a balance. It is full-on full court press on both fronts all the time. I would say the same though about the nature of the Kingdom of God as already and not yet. Those are not in opposition nor are they to be balanced. It is full-on full court press on both fronts all the time. I think this is the genius of Wesley– not either or, not balance, but all-in on multiple fronts.

    keep up the great work on your blog.


    • LHollon July 18, 2011 at 10:00 am #

      Thank you for your comment. Your insight into a full-out effort at both social and personal holiness is helpful. We tend to think in terms of poles, and moving from one pole to another. Life isn’t like that. It’s far more entangled and complicated. You reminded me that we don’t live an either/or existence. Wesley’s view was inclusive, not exclusive. I believe that kind of inclusivity is much needed to day. Thanks again.

  10. L. Priest July 16, 2011 at 9:08 am #

    I graduated from a university over 9 years ago with a BS degree and an unreachable loan that I will never be able to pay back. I was only able to get a retail job as a part-time sales associate. Keeping in mind I do have job experience working for one company for over 14 years as a personal property tax accounts payable employee. I have other office experience as well. So, the retail job is less than a 10-hour work week and while they do offer the part-time employees a medical insurance plan, it simply does not meet the needs when medical care is needed or required. At the present time, my medical bills total into the thousands of dollars and I am about 9 months away from going on Medicaare.

    My husband is a retired school teacher but still needs to work in order to pay the utilities as his pension only meets the mortgage. And we have a daughter with a 4-year degree living with us who can’t seem to find work either. So, we are supporting her and her daughter as well. Also, we are church going folks and do tithe, and I am active in other groups within the Methodist Church.

    Living life seems most difficult these days for us.

    • LHollon July 18, 2011 at 9:55 am #

      Thank you for writing. In your struggle, I’m glad to know you’ve found a local church that is providing you with a community and a way to continue to be active. These are difficult times and no words can fully recognize the human struggle you describe. But together, we can work for those changes that offer us a glimpse of relief and we can hold each other in prayer as a way of demonstrating concern and support. Please know you and your family are in my prayers, and I pray that we will see change that eases the struggle.

  11. John Bickerstaff July 19, 2011 at 11:38 am #

    Jim Wallis advocated moving our money to banks that were not part of the housing/mortgage disaster in 2007-2008. Arianna Huffington supported that idea and posted the names of some banks that could be recipients of this capital transfer. We changed from
    Wachovia to First Citizens Bank and also placed capital in Jackson Savings Bank (listed by Huffington) But Sojourners did not follow up the sound bite with a concerted effort to weaken the banks that think they are “too big to fail” and strengthen those banks that engage in sound banking practices. Your article calls us to take practical, status quo-changing action. A movement is building across the country – Rebuild the Dream, Network of Spiritual Progressives, Covenant with Black America, Agenda for a New Economy to mention a few. Thank you for contributing to the dialogue.


  1. | Faith, Media & Culture - December 31, 2011

    […] 4.   Country Song Packs A Hell Of A Punch. Country music has always told a kind of raw truth about our country, and Brad Paisley’s song “A Man Don’t Have to Die” is no exception.  The song tells of the type of hell many are going through as the numbers of those living below the poverty line has reached all time highs. […]

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