Lyrically, this is my favorite album of all time…Christian or secular. The themes expressed, the doctrines explored and the settings in which this is accomplished is borderline staggering. Adding to that there is some finely crafted folk/rock melodies, exceptional musicianship and solid vocals. But here it is the lyrics that shine!
The band’s two primary songwriters, Derek Webb and Aaron Tate, were at their very best on 40 Acres as several deep themes like that of predestination, redemption, depravity and sovereignty are on display but are applied to daily life situations like dating, eating pancakes and trying to find a place to sit without the fear of intrusion by ants! But the theme that runs throughout the project is frailty of man in relation to the sovereign power of God.
The sovereignty theme is evident from the very first line of the very first song.
Is this the strange feeling
Of you working all to good
From there the concept of God working out for good all things is explored with gratitude and surprise…
When I asked for and deserved a stone
You broke and gave your body as bread
And even the stone that dropped down and rolled away
Spoke of the one who bled
There you go working good from my bad
There you go making robes from my rags
There you go melting crowns from my calves
There you go working good of all I have
Till all I have’s not that bad
Ultimately the “good” works of God toward His people is examined in the life and death of His own Son, Jesus Christ. In the final verse we hear of God’s unending love. And leave it to Caedmon’s Call to squeeze in the word “ineffable” into a pop song! In case you’re wondering something that is “ineffable” is considered so sacred as not to be understood, explained or expressed in words.
For you so loved the unlovable
That you gave the ineffable
That who so believes the unbelievable
Will gain the unattainable
The Derek Webb penned “Thankful” follows with a more Americana rock bent than previous Caedmon’s tunes and would fit well on a John Mellencamp project. In this song Webb expresses the Reformed understanding of the depravity of man and man’s inability to do anything good enough on his own to merit salvation.
I am thankful that I’m incapable
Of doing any good on my own
This, most obviously, is not a new theme. But it is in the way in which the process of contemplating this dilemma is introduced that sets it apart, rather than a treatise on Calvinism with proof text Webb makes the process personal. He opens with the story of looking through old letters and noting that the sins and struggles he faced years are earlier are still a struggle today.
I ran across an old box of letters
While I was bagging up some clothes for Goodwill
You know I had to laugh that the same old struggles
That plagued me then are plaguing me still
I know the road is long from the ground to glory
But a boy can hope he’s getting some place
But you see, I’m running from the very clothes I’m wearing
And dressed like this I’m fit for the chase
Webb then addresses the Biblical truth of the condition of man…
‘Cause we’re all stillborn and dead in our transgressions
We’re shackled up to the sin we hold so dear
So what part can I play in the work of redemption
I can’t refuse, I cannot add a thing
But it is through his realization of his own incapable nature that he discovers the truth as to who actually does the work in salvation..
‘Cause I am just like Lazarus and I can hear your voice
I stand and rub my eyes and walk to You
Because I have no choice
This theme of man’s corrupt nature and fleeting faith is examined in the Tate penned “Shifting Sand.” And here again we find the need for grace…
Waters rose as my doubts reigned
My sand-castle faith, it slipped away
Found myself standing on your grace
It’d been there all the time
My faith is like shifting sand
Changed by every wave
My faith is like shifting sand
So I stand on grace
“Where I Began” cloaks the concept of Irresistible Grace with the story of Jonah before personalizing the truth of the will of God set against man’s inability and failings. Man’s will is powerless against the hound of heaven.
So you have yourself your ninety nine (ninety nine),
Isn’t that enough for you?
Still you followed me to the shadowed valley
Carried me on your shoulders too.
I’ve done the work of Sisyphus
Thinking that I could get over this hill
But the one thing I can’t get over now…(is the)
Is the force of your will.
One special thing to note is Caedmon’s Call’s use of obscure historical, literary and Biblical figures and concepts like Sisyphus, Uri Geller and Gnosticism. Case in point in the lyric above there is a reference to Sisyphus. Sisyphus is a Greek legend who was forced to push a large boulder up the side of a hill only to have to roll back down for all eternity. These type of references, along with the deeper theological convictions, gave the band a reputation for being the “thinking man’s” band.
The above is true as over the years I have had quite a bit of contact with the band. The first was right after the release of 40 Acres at a Christian Booksellers Convention in Atlanta I believe. I was to interview them for the radio station I was working for and record some liners for the station. The minute I mentioned I was familiar with theologians Michael Horton, RC Sproul and Greg Bahnsen, the conversation never returned to music. I spent the rest of the convention talking theology over Newcastle Brown Ale and Spinach Artichoke dip.
The highlight of the record is Webb written “Table for Toe.” Here again we find the normal, mundane experiences of life used to present a deeper truth. the story of two guys getting together “talkin’ ’bout” soccer turns into a discussion of loneliness and God’s sovereignty. How does the Christian juxtapose the desire for intimacy and love from another while realizing God is sovereign.
And how we just hate being alone
Could I have missed my only chance
And now I’m just wasting my time
By looking around
But you know I know better
I’m not gonna worry ’bout nothing
Cause if the birds and the flowers survive
Then I’ll make it okay
I’m given a chance and a rock
see which one breaks a window
See which one keeps me up all night and into the day
Because I’m so scared of being alone
That I forget what house I live in
But it’s not my job to wait by the phone
For her to call
This internal struggle for finding “true love” set against the need to do what God has called us to do is a universal struggle. Finally Webb resigns himself to the fact that he is not the one controlling these things and even the most mundane things are in the mind of God.
Well this day’s been crazy
But everything’s happened on schedule
from the rain and the cold
To the drink that I spilled on my shirt
‘Cause You knew how You’d save me
before I fell dead in the garden
And You knew this day
long before You made me out of dirt
And You know the plans that You have for me
And You can’t plan the end and not plan the means
And so I suppose I just need some peace
Just to get me to sleep.
The album finishes with the title track and it is a perfect conclusion to this project. As the band imagines the unending space of the Texas plains it is in conjunction the realization that it all belongs to the Lord.
There’s 40 acres and redemption to be found
Just along down the way
There is a place where no plow blade has turned the ground
And you will turn it over, ’cause out here hope remains
‘Cause out here hope remains..
The final verse concludes the thought that in this wide expanse of the human condition that if man does not fulfill his obligation to respond to the call of the Gospel and proclaim the glory of the Lord the rocks themselves will stand up and do so. But this symbol is ultimately about the ultimate human condition of needing the Lord to do His work on our souls, heart and lives.
Out here the Texas rain is the hardest I’ve ever seen
It’ll wash your house away, but it’ll also make you clean
Now these rocks they are crying too
And this whole land is calling out for you
There is so much more to be said about this incredible project and the great band that created it but space is limited for our objectives here. Suffice it to say that if you do not own this album you need to do yourself a favor and get it! Then grab an encyclopedia, dictionary and your Bible and have at it!