He should’ve been a cowboy. He should’ve learned to rope and ride. But he didn’t. Toby Keith learned instead how to sing and to write and to perform.
He was so good at it that when he sang “How Do You Like Me Now?!” (about how an old girlfriend who never thought he would make it gets to hear him every morning on the radio), one couldn’t help but feel there might be a real story behind it. After decades of playing on country stations around the nation, Keith died this week of cancer. Lots could be said about his life and craft, but what strikes me is that he just might remind us of why we need the Psalms.
When people think of Toby Keith—especially those who don’t actually listen to his kind of music—they typically think of one song: “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” which went to the top of the charts after the jihadist terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2001. Keith sang:
Now this nation that I love has fallen under attack
A mighty sucker punch came flyin’ in from somewhere in the back
Soon as we could see clearly through our big black eye
Man, we lit up your world like the Fourth of July.
The song builds in defiance:
Hey, Uncle Sam, put your name at the top of his list
And the Statue of Liberty started shakin’ her fist
And the eagle will fly, man, it’s gonna be hell
When you hear Mother Freedom start ringin’ her bell
And it feels like the whole wide world is raining down on you
Oh, brought to you courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.
I was embarrassed by how much I loved that song. After all, though I was as hawkish as one could get on an American response to al-Qaeda (and I haven’t changed my mind on that at all), the song does not fit easily—if at all—with a Christian vision of reality.
Even those of us who believe in the just-war circumstances under which war is permissible recognize that war is always awful. Even in circumstances in which one believes that a state is justified to take a human life, no one can or should rejoice in that.
But I’ll bet I played the song a thousand times, and I couldn’t help but sing it out loud, at least when I was in the car by myself.
I realized this when that song found itself once again on my personal playlist. I never stopped listening to Toby Keith, and his songs filled my playlist in the years following 9/11: “Old School,” “New Orleans,” “My List.” Even though I was the chief policy lobbyist for the Southern Baptist Convention, I couldn’t help but sing along with “I Love This Bar” (also alone in my car). When I left the SBC, I told friends, quoting Toby, “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.”
But “The Angry American” didn’t make my list. Even so, I heard myself humming it—almost reflexively, and to the surprise of my conscious mind—on January 6, 2021, watching the US Capitol being attacked by a lawless mob. I realized then that the song wasn’t really about foreign policy or counterterrorism. It was about anger.
By anger, I mean a specific kind—the kind that is mixed with a sense of powerlessness but also with a confidence that this is still the country that gave us Washington and Lincoln and Eisenhower, the country that could give the world words from We hold these truths to be self-evident to We have nothing to fear but fear itself to Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. Uncle Sam—black eye or not—always gets up.
One of the things a new Christian encounters in reading through the Bible for the first time is how comforting and reassuring the Psalms can be. There’s a reason, the new Christian might think, that people want Psalm 23 recited to them on their deathbeds. There’s a reason, she might realize, that so many of these words are sung in celebrative praise and worship songs. But then that new Christian might come upon other Psalms that never show up in the songs, songs that seem disturbingly angry.
C. S. Lewis, I feel quite confident in saying, would have hated Toby Keith songs had he ever heard one. But he did know the Psalms, and in the middle of the last century he tried to explain those angry psalms of cursing enemies and calling down the judgment of God.
I don’t agree with all of Lewis’s thoughts on the Psalms, but there’s one thought in particular we need to consider right now.
Lewis gave the example of some British soldiers he knew in World War II, all of whom had fallen for conspiracy theories that the government was making up the atrocities reported from Nazi Germany to “pep up” the troops. The conspiracy theories were bunk, of course, and the soldiers Lewis knew were dutifully serving their country—fighting on the right side of morality or justice. But they thought they were being lied to, and they felt not the slightest bit of anger.
“If they had perceived, and felt as a man should feel, the diabolical wickedness which they believed our rulers to be committing, and then forgiven them, they would have been saints,” Lewis wrote. “But not to perceive it at all—not even to be tempted to resentment—to accept it as the most ordinary thing in the world—argues a terrifying insensibility.”
Sometimes, Lewis wrote, we think we are not tempted by something because we are above the temptation when we are, in fact, below it. We do not have to wrestle with our passions—to channel them in the direction God intends—because we have no passions at all. We don’t feel the pull to wrath or lust or greed not for the reasons a wise old desert monk might no longer feel them, but for the reasons a refrigerated corpse in a hospital morgue would not feel them.
The Psalms are not merely reassurance or celebration (though many Psalms are that). They also include the full range of human emotions—not just displaying them and putting them in the context of redemptive history but also calling the expression of a right form of them from us. “Deep calls to deep,” the Psalms say (42:7), and the depths of the Word of God do just that to us.
Jesus commands us to love our enemies, to bless those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44). He does not do this the way a Zen Buddhist might—with a word that our “enemies” are just an illusion or that our anger should be replaced with passionless tranquility. Instead, the Bible calls out the sense of injustice and wrongness that we perceive and feel, and directs us instead to the judgment of God as expressed at the Cross. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all,” the apostle Paul wrote. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom. 12:18–19).
The way of Jesus does not dismiss anger but transfigures it by the way of the Cross. In conforming us to Christ, God is not making us less human but more. We are hidden in a Lord who is not un-angry or un-sad or un-happy but who is angry in the right way, sad in the right way, happy in the right way.
Could reading only the line My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Ps. 22:1) without the rest of the psalm it starts, much less the rest of the canon, lead to an ungodly despair? Of course (the devil quotes Psalms, remember). But these are holy words, words of life, not just because the Spirit sang them through David but because Jesus repeated them as he went—physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally—through the valley of the shadow of death, for us.
Songs like “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” or Merle Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me” can evoke some of the worst impulses. They can be jingoistic, vindictive, prideful—all that’s true. But the fact that we seem to need, from time to time, songs like that might remind us of something.
We have better songs—psalms of anger and of awe, of lament and of elation, of disappointment and of gratitude. We shouldn’t be embarrassed of them. We need them.
Most of the rage we see all around us isn’t really anger. It’s not alive enough to be anger. The adrenaline jolt of hating somebody can give a little jolt to the limbic system, but it’s as distant from genuine anger as pornography addiction is from intimacy. When you step into a different world—the one you enter through the Psalms, all of them—you might be surprised by anger. But it’s real, and it’s not the last word. That other kind of rage? That ain’t worth missing.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.