This post is a little different from some of our normal posts, but it does fit with the vision and purpose of Baptist21. The church needs to be able to interact with the culture in which it lives and ministers. We need to have winsome answers for the questions they are asking. This will help us engage culture with the Gospel, because we will be able to move from something they know (i.e. lyrics from a song) to something they do not know (the Gospel).

“Viva La Vida” is Coldplay’s most successful song ever. It was their first chart topping song in both the US and Great Britain. The song is of great interest to many, not least because of the quality of the artistry, but also because of the lyrics themselves. Here are the lyrics to the song who‘s title literally means “long live life”:

I used to rule the world Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone Sweep the streets I used to own

I used to roll the dice Feel the fear in my enemy’s eyes
Listen as the crowd would sing “Now the old king is dead, long live the king”

One minute I held the key Next the walls were closed on me
And I discovered that my castles stand Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand

I hear Jerusalem bells a-ringing Roman cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror, my sword and shield My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can’t explain Once you’d gone there was never
Never an honest word That was when I ruled the world

It was a wicked and wild wind Blew down the doors to let me in
Shattered windows and the sound of drums People couldn’t believe what I’d become

Revolutionaries wait For my head on a silver plate
Just a puppet on a lonely string Oh, who would ever want to be king?

I hear Jerusalem bells a-ringing Roman cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror, my sword and shield My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can’t explain I know St. Peter won’t call my name
Never an honest word But that was when I ruled the world
Hear Jerusalem bells a-ringing Roman cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror, my sword and shield My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can’t explain I know St. Peter WILL call my name
Never an honest word But that was when I ruled the world

A variety of interpretations have been proposed for this song, and here are a few of them (this list is of the most quoted, not exhaustive): 1) The Catholic Church: some say that this song is about the decline of the Roman Catholic Church. At one point the church was the major world power, but it has now fallen from grace and is seen by many as an “unholy“ institution. Keys to this view are the references to: the keys (Matt. 16), St. Peter, Roman Calvary Choirs, and Missionaries (perhaps the Crusaders). Apparently, the band developed the album while touring Latin American and Spain, some of the most densely Catholic places on Earth. 2) Napoleon / King Louis XVI / French Revolution: because of the artwork on the album and some of the references to beheading, many believe it refers to events from the time of the French Revolution. Some think it refers to the death of Napoleon. One person asked, “Who else had the potential to ‘rule the world’?” He ruled and held power over his enemies, but then he fell. He is going to lose his head to the guillotine. Others think it can refer to the beheading of Louis XVI and the “sound of drums” alludes to his approach to the guillotine, while revolutionaries wait for his head. 3) Chris Martin or anyone’s fall from grace: some think it is simply about how he [others] once had power or dreams when he [they] was [were] younger, but they’ve all escaped him [them] now that he’s [they’ve] gotten older.

So, what does it mean?

Let me state upfront that I do not believe there can be certainty on this question. The band has not told us, though they have given some clues. Given the themes of the song and the album, I would like to offer an explanation that sees this song as fitting in the biblical storyline of dominion, life and death in the Cosmos itself. That does not mean that I believe the writer consciously wrote the song to fit in the biblical storyline, though certainly he does intentionally include much biblical imagery. Rather, I think he is discussing things that are in every human heart: fear of death and love of life.

The song is about a man with power who loses everything, even his own life. It fits well in the biblical story of the fall of humanity (Adam in particular) from its (his) status as king over the cosmos into the curse of death. Also, I think the Bible bears out the fact that this storyline is played out in the lives of all of Adam’s children, so even though the writer may have been describing himself or someone else, all of humanities’ stories fit in this larger story.

God created Adam to “rule the world,“ including the “seas,” but Adam fell from power when he (and Eve) obeyed the voice of the serpent (Satan, cf. Rev. 12). Now, he sweeps the streets he used to own. He is a slave not a king. He used to wield power over his enemies and had the responsibility to tend the garden and crush the serpent’s head, but he did not do it. Now, he is a dead king, and there is a new king, Satan, over the World (cf. Eph. 2). One minute he had the keys of the kingdom, then his kingdom collapsed because it was on shifting sand (cf. Matt. 7). In the first chorus, we see that when he ruled the world there were honest words, but since then there are not honest words anymore (reference to sin?). It is astonishing that he went from being God’s vice-regent over the world to what he is now. The revolutionaries of Satan, sin, death, the principalities and powers wait for his head/death. He is a sinner doomed to death who will not be granted access to God’s Kingdom. But, it appears that in the last chorus he says that Peter will call his name, and there is hope of a reversal of his fortunes. Humanity may not be doomed after all.

Given the depressing picture of the song, it is ironic that he titles it “Long Live Life.” Perhaps he believes Life will ultimately triumph over Death. Indeed, the entire album, which is called “Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends,” is dealing with the themes of life and death. Some of the titles to the tracks are: Life in Technicolor, Cemeteries of London, Lost!, and Death and All His Friends. Some of the lyrics include: “For the curses to be broken,” “I see God come in my Garden but I don’t know what he said for my heart wasn’t open (another reference to Eden?),” etc. The track entitled “42” includes lyrics about there being something more than death and a hope in life after death. He begins by stating that maybe the dead are not dead and they live on in our memories, but then it seems something more is going on when he says, “Time is so short, and I’m sure, there must be something more…You thought you might be a ghost. You didn’t get to heaven but you made it close…” In the final song the singer says, “I don’t want to follow death and all his friends.”

When interviewed in Q magazine about the line in Viva La Vida about knowing St. Peter won’t call his name, Chris Martin said this, “It’s about… You’re not on the list. I was a naughty boy. It’s always fascinated me that idea of finishing your life and then being analyzed on it. And this idea runs throughout most religions. That’s why people blow up buildings. Because they think they’re going to get lots of virgins…That is the most frightening thing you could possibly say to somebody. Eternal damnation. I know about this stuff because I studied it. I was into it all. I know it. It’s still mildly terrifying to me. And this is serious.” Regardless of how much meaning Chris Martin intended with all of the biblical imagery he placed in these songs, what is clear is that he is wrestling with the issues of life, death and judgment. Our consciences ultimately condemn us all (cf. Rom. 1-2). The fear of death and judgment is common to all (cf. Rom. 5; Heb. 2). Losing everything, including power and riches, before an ultimate death in which you can take nothing with you is the lot of every man. It is ironic that a singer who from all appearances has everything would recognize this fact better than some in our churches who’s love of money is choking them (cf. Mark 4). Indeed, we need to understand that it profits nothing to gain the whole world and lose your life! It should not surprise us that pop culture will write on these things in ways that intersect with the biblical storyline. There is a grand meta-narrative of which ALL humanity is a part and tries to find ways to make sense of it all.

The conclusion to that Grand Story that makes sense of reality is something that I hope Coldplay and others will find. There is a reversal to Satan’s dominion and the reign of death. His name is Jesus. Humanity failed to rule the world and put all its enemies under its feet (cf. Gen. 1-3; Psa. 8). But, Jesus has succeeded as King over the Cosmos and is having all his enemies put under his feet (Psa. 110; Heb. 2). Humanity brought death into the world. Jesus suffered death and then overcame it through resurrection from the dead (Heb. 2; 1 Cor. 15). Those who are found in Him will not follow Death and all his friends! They are freed from this fear of death that held them in bondage. They will be raised from the dead by their King to fulfill God’s intention for humanity in ruling the world! We live in a culture where the fear of death and the love of life fills our songs, our sitcoms, and our movies. We have an answer for those fears and we have hope for the longings. The answer is more than a message. The answer is a person who is the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:25). Viva La Vida! Long Live the King!


*Recommended Reading:

NT Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (it spends a lot of time dealing with these themes and is a very important book)