Stuck in the Wasteland, God’s Voice Breaks In

A couple Fridays ago, while the world stayed up all night awaiting Taylor Swift’s new album Midnight, I was captivated by a new album from another young singer-song-writer on the other side of the world. Her name is 邓紫棋 (Deng Ziqi), professionally known as GEM, and her newest album is Revelation. While we are accustomed to hearing about the Chinese house church sharing God’s love and grace from the margins of society, it is surprising to hear God’s love and grace being sung from the top of the pop-charts.

GEM was born in Shanghai, and was given the English name Gloria by her father – a name that holds an important place in her latest album. GEM grew up in a musical family which moved to Hong Kong when she was in preschool. She first achieved fame there at 17 in 2008, and her runner-up finish in China’s popular I Am A Singer contest in 2014 catapulted her to national popularity.  She is sometimes known as “the iron-lung” due to her powerful vocal abilities. In 2016, she was the only Asian artist featured in Forbes 30 Under 30. I remember watching GEM on the I Am A Singer competition, but unbeknownst to me until her newest album, GEM is a Christian. Even though she is not part of a Chinese house church – her home church is in Hong Kong – she is still taking on a certain level of risk by creating this album and sharing about her faith publicly on social media.

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“Mandopop music laments the despair and pain of a love lost, which is what makes it so appealing to young people seeking to make sense of heartbreak. What makes this album refreshing is GEM’s unabashed celebration of a love found, or more accurately, a love that finds us.

The first song of the album, named Gloria, was released back in August. The song immediately garnered nation-wide attention because it was her first album in three years. It also captured attention from publications like Christianity Today because of the overt Biblical references in the song and music video. Since Gloria came out in August, the rest of the 14-song album, and the accompanying 14-part music video, was slowly released.

GEM also wrote the script for the music video and acted in it herself as two different characters: the first as a handicapped lady named Qiu (秋, pronounced ch-ill), who shut herself off from the world because of her guilt and shame; the other as a healthy and happy virtual reality character named Gloria, through whom Qiu interacts with the outside. Both Qiu and Gloria eventually fall into an existential Wasteland in their own spheres. In both the real world and in the metaverse, both are saved by the power of love.

The Music

With this romantic story as a backdrop, the 14 songs in Revelation take us through GEM’s own spiritual journey. The first seven songs are Letters to Heaven. In them, GEM explores the emptiness of life, fame, jealousy, virtual reality, cyber bullying, and despair. The song Gloria is the eighth song in the album. With a switch to the major key, it opens up the second half of the album, Letters from Heaven. For the next six songs, GEM skillfully unpacks the message God has been speaking to her in her own struggle with darkness.


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From the song Gloria:

Gloria, don’t be afraid.
Gloria, there is no fear in love.
My love flows on and on like a river,
It will cleanse every wound.
There no need to be strong next to me,
Let me carry all your burden… 

Gloria, don’t be afraid.
Gloria, there is no fear in love.
I am love, I am patient and kind,
I am waiting for you to return.

From the song The End of Night:

I want to give you the whole universe,
Walk with you to the end of time,
Follow me, even if the world rages on like a flood,
I will find the ark with you, there is freedom at the end of night.
I am the one you have been looking for,
The Way, The Truth, The Life you have been looking for.

Deploying different musical styles, GEM weaves the story of God’s love through her songs and her beautifully crafted love-story. I am not familiar with the specifics of GEM’s church involvement. I have seen videos of her singing Hallelujah in her concerts and praying for her audience on her knees, and this album strikes me as a sincere expression of her faith. The most moving part of the album hits me in the last song, called The Sky, in which GEM bellows out her gratitude toward her Creator and Savior: 

When I look with longing at the distant spring that is yet to come,
When I silently shed tears in my heart,
When everything seems to go wrong, who doesn’t complain?
Everything hangs in the balance of a thought.
But you unconditionally carry it all,
You made me see there is no limit to the sky,

My future is boundless.
I will fly to a brighter tomorrow when I rise out of my cocoon.
If the road ahead seems far, look back into the past.
Look at You in the mirror leading me in the past,
how far we have come.

All Glory to God

As someone who grew up discipled by Mandopop’s gospel of romance, GEM’s album and love-story are consistent with Mandopop themes. Much of Mandopop’s music laments the despair and pain of a love lost, which is what makes it so appealing to young people seeking to make sense of heartbreak. What makes this album refreshing is GEM’s unabashed celebration of a love found, or more accurately, a love that finds us. 

The album ends with the caption, “All glory to God.” In today’s China, where Christians face rising hostility and persecution from the government, it is not without risk to openly declare her personal devotion to God. Chinese pop culture is filled with celebrities who are cancelled and even disappeared by the state for openly speaking against the government. But GEM also displays another type of courage in Revelation. She takes the darkness of the world seriously.

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“We are not alone, not only because love exists in the world, but because there is Someone who loves us and comes to find us.

The first seven Letters to Heaven are wrought with existential confusion, anxiety, and heartache in a broken world. Some of that no doubt reflect GEM’s personal struggles with insecurity and public criticisms, others reflect the pain of a society stuck in endless pandemic control and political uncertainty. Yet against the backdrop of this darkness, GEM openly and artistically declares that there is hope and light. At the end of night there is freedom, at the end of death there is life. This declaration of hope in darkness is no less courageous than her open profession of faith in a Communist society.

It is unclear how much people outside of Christianity will pick up on GEM’s biblical references. From online comments, audiences shared how much they were moved by the album’s positivity and messages of love. Some critics find her gospel message too subtle, but that may be the brilliance in her packaging. Her references are not heavy-handed – the album is never intended to be a gospel presentation – but they point beyond romance and love toward a deeper reality: while we are all stuck in the Wasteland of existence, God’s voice breaks in through the darkness and calls us home. 

Christians, however, can immediately pick up on the deeper meaning behind the songs. This gives believers a great opportunity to share the gospel with those who have been moved by GEM’s Revelation. We are not alone, not only because love exists in the world, but because there is Someone who loves us and comes to find us. The One who unconditionally carries our burdens did so by unconditionally carrying the cross, so that we can have true freedom at the end of night. He enters into our pain and says, “I am The Way, The Truth, and the Life.” The everlasting Love that casts out all fear is not just the romantic love of Mandopop, but the great I AM.


Ryan moved from Guangzhou, China, to Ohio at the age of 12. He is the pastor for neighborhood ministries at New City Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, and also serves as the translation manager for China Partnership.

 

FOR PRAYER AND REFLECTION

Pray that GEM’s album will help hearts to become more open to the gospel story of God’s love and rescue.

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Further Reading

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Nanjing: Bringing the Gospel Into Life
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Nanjing: A Welcoming City of Newcomers
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Nanjing: A Relational Gospel
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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

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Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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