by Justin Dillehay
It all started when my wife laughed at one of my favorite songs.
A couple of a years ago, my wife Tilly and I were driving down the road, and I decided to introduce her to “Chicken Fried,” the debut single from the Zac Brown Band. If you’ve never heard it, click on the link to read the lyrics here.
Now country music definitely has its flaws (witness the recent travesty of so called “bro-country“), but it also retains certain virtues that other genres have long since lost (if indeed they ever had them). Amid all its lyin’ cheatin’ songs, you can also still find country songs touting sane views of manhood and womanhood, the natural family, and love for one’s country, much of which you would never hear on pop radio.
“Chicken Fried” is a case in point. That’s why I like it–and why I wanted Tilly to hear it. It’s an ode to the good things in life: fried chicken, cold beer, blue jeans, sunrises, sweet tea, pecan pie, loving wives, little children, and mama’s love.
All good things, right? Tilly may have thought the song a little cheesy, but she agreed that all of these things were among life’s little blessings. But it wasn’t those things that made her laugh–it was what came after all that. After a nifty instrumental bridge, “Chicken Fried” reaches its lyrical climax with this stanza:
I thank God for my life
For the stars and stripes
May freedom forever fly
Let it ring
Salute the ones who died [cue military drums here]
The ones who give their lives
So we don’t have to sacrifice
All the things we love…like our chicken fried…
She laughed because this patriotic fervor seemed totally out of left field. I mean, really!? Fried chicken, cute babies, sweet tea, and dead soldiers??? Is Zac Brown simply trying to cram every country music stereotype into one song? Do the stars and stripes really belong with fried chicken in a list of life’s blessings?
Of Flags and Fried Chicken
Whether you think Brown’s lyrics particularly poetic or not, his basic point is simply this:
Freedom to enjoy life’s little blessings doesn’t just happen. It doesn’t emerge naturally like the air that we breathe. It has to be paid for in blood and sacrifice.
And poetic or not, that just happens to be good theology. Because here’s the point: in a fallen world filled with sinful people, we needn’t ask why there is war and famine and oppression and injustice. Such things come with the territory. We should instead ask why peace and justice can be found at all. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see why people would want to spend quiet evenings eating a good meal with their families: because these are good things. But just because people want such things doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be able to enjoy them. Just ask the millions of people who lived in Mao’s China and Stalin’s Russia.
What the Apostle Paul calls “a peaceful and quiet life” doesn’t just happen. It’s the fruit of a civil government restraining evil and pursuing the common good, and of soldiers willing to give their lives to maintain a just peace. Which is why we should offer up prayers of thanks and intercession for such people:
I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (1 Timothy 2:1-2 ESV)
I checked the original Greek here, and sure enough, the literal meaning of “a peaceful and quiet life” is “eating fried chicken and drinking cold beer on a Friday night.” OK, just kidding. But you get the point.
Joining Zac Brown and the Apostle Paul in these sentiments is C.S. Lewis, who wrote:
The secular community, since it exists for our natural good, has no higher end than to facilitate and to safeguard the family, and friendship, and solitude…As long as we are thinking only of natural values, we must say that the sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him…All economies, politics, laws, armies, and institutions are a mere plowing the sand and sowing the ocean…[except] insofar as they prolong and multiply such scenes.
According to Lewis, that’s why governments and armies exist: so that a family can laugh together over a meal (“a little bit of chicken fried”); so that two friends can talk peacefully over a pint of beer (“a cold beer on a Friday night”); and so that a man can sit alone and enjoy a book (“and the radio up”–OK, this parallel is a bit of a stretch, but you get the point).
And according to Zac Brown, good governments and armies are the reason we can enjoy all those things. (While bad governments and armies are often what keep whole societies from enjoying those things.)
Chicken Fried Common Grace
This is all part of what theologians call God’s ‘common grace.’ As Louis Berkhof explained, “[Common grace] curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible.” And God showers this grace on Christian and pagan alike. That’s what makes it ‘common’ to all.
God loves it when his creation is lawfully enjoyed (Deut. 14:23-26), but there are a million wicked things (including ourselves) that will keep us from such enjoyment. This is why God ordained governments and their armies: to praise good, punish evil, and promote human flourishing. You may not like the government or the military, but you’d be a bigger fan of both if you had to live without them for a few years. Because however hard you may have worked to put food on your table and clothing on your children’s backs, safety and prosperity are not something you could have achieved on your own. “You didn’t build that” all by yourself.
There’s a connection between Arlington Cemetery and your dinner table. Refusing to see this connection will only make us spoiled and ungrateful. And at the end of the day that’s really all that patriotism means: being grateful. Recognizing that multitudes of others both dead and living have made it possible for you to eat your ‘chicken fried’ in peace.
So as you gather with your families and eat your pecan pie and drink your beer this Memorial Day, eat and drink with grateful hearts. Give honor to whom honor is due. And praise God for his chicken fried common grace.