Our 7-year-old twin boys love listening to Tom Petty.
Somehow his songs have resonated with them more than Daddy’s other tunes. “The waiting is the hardest part” struck a nerve early on, and they sang it as 3-year-olds to pacify themselves when life was moving slower than desired. Perhaps it was “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” such a good car song. But probably what made Petty a legend in our home was Dad’s love for “I Won’t Back Down.”
Once the boys were showing houseguests their new musical instruments. One of the guys raised his kid guitar to me and said, “Dad, could you tune this to Tom Petty?” He rose to an unusual status with our boys.
Last night at dinner I told them that Tom Petty had a heart attack and wasn’t doing well. The response came back from a serious 7-year-old face, “I hope he doesn’t die.” This morning in the car, I broke the news. Petty passed last night at age 66. After a reflective pause came a sober and earnest question, “Dad, can we still listen to his music?”
“Yes, buddy, that’s one of the great things about writing songs — they keep playing, even after you die.”
Spine Enough for Pastors
From all I know, Tom Petty was no Christian and had no religion but music itself. But I don’t know the condition of his soul and am not the one to issue that judgment. Love hopes all things (1 Corinthians 13:7) and trusts that the Judge of all the earth will do right (Genesis 18:25). I’m in no position to eulogize Tom Petty, the man, but I am eager to pay tribute to one of his defining songs.
Despite his known history of drug use (and recovery), Petty wrote with about as much virtue as anyone in the mainstream of the last generation — which doesn’t say much, but does leave us a kind of “common grace” to appreciate in Petty’s work. In June, I went with two fellow pastors to Petty’s fortieth-anniversary tour in St. Paul. As expected, it was Christ-less, but clean. He played nearly all his biggest hits from the 80s, when he was at his height, but the signature moment for us was “Won’t Back Down.”
Tribute to a Song
It was the first hit from Petty’s first solo album in 1989, and had so much spine that he initially feared it might not fare well, even a generation ago. “I kind of felt nervous about it,” he said, “like maybe I should take it back and disguise it a little bit, but I’m glad I didn’t.”
The song’s message is unprogressive. Petty doesn’t sound ready to try new things or compromise for the sake of everyone getting along. Rather, he comes off as one deeply principled, if not stubborn, full of conviction, resolved not to bend. He will stand alone, if he must, against the pressure to give in. He won’t back down — against what, he doesn’t specify. The song, according to one source, is “a message of defiance against unnamed forces of difficulty and possibly oppression.”
Mood of Christian Resolve
The risk of the song’s generic nature is that mindless conservatives and mere curmudgeons can draw strength from such lyrics. But the corresponding virtue is that the song is ready-made for application to truly worthy causes, where the pressure to back down on something important needs to be met precisely with a calm but resolute declaration, “I won’t back down.”
What makes the song so powerful is not only the lyrical backbone, but a mood that embodies an approach to not backing down — the very mood we need in the post-Christian moment which relentlessly pressures biblically faithful Christians to back down. Back down on your stance against abortion. Back down on your refusal to condone homosexual practice and so-called “gay marriage.” Back down on claiming your Bible is inerrant. Back down on male leadership in the church and the home. Back down on the exclusive sufficiency of Jesus’s person and work for salvation, and your claim that there is only one name given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).
Not only do Petty’s lyrics echo the words of Matthew 16:18 (“You could stand me up at the gates of hell”), but they challenge us to “know what’s right,” take care to steward the “just one life” we have, “keep this world from draggin’ me down,” and not back down against “a world that keeps on pushin’ me around.”
Call to Christian Resolve
Based on the nerve of the song’s message, you might expect something that sounds like a frenzy of zeal from Metallica. But Petty is not swollen with adrenaline. There’s no yelling, no rashness, no recklessness. The pace is smooth and melodic — composed and collected, but not sluggish. Deep inner strength meets with great self-control. It’s solid confidence on a mid-tempo beat. The song is both patiently reserved and full of resolve.
Of all people, biblically faithful Christians have something to stand for. We have a real reason to not back down. We have an indomitable, risen Jesus who promises to build his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18) — that’s why we can stand against those gates and not back down. This is no mere stubbornness or determination of will. We have what Petty didn’t — infinite power at work in us to will and to work for God’s good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).
Legacy of Christian Courage
It should be no surprise that Christ in us would lead us to take a stand and not back down. Jesus himself didn’t back down before Pharisees and Sadducees, before Zealots and Herodians, before scribes and priests. He made the good confession before Pilate (1 Timothy 6:12), and held his peace when he could have called twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:53).
The apostle didn’t back down before Judaizers and Helenizers, before Felix and Festus and Caesar himself. The early church didn’t back down against Greek intellectual assaults and Roman capital punishment. Athanasius stood against what seemed like the whole world and held his ground on the deity of Christ. Luther and Zwingli and Calvin didn’t back down to medieval nominalism and sacramentalism — as we celebrate this month 500 years of Reformation. Spurgeon and Machen and Henry and Graham didn’t back down to post-Enlightenment naturalism and ecclesiological liberalism, but paved the way for the day in which we carry the mantle and keep standing.
Here We Stand
When tempted to cave in to society’s pressure, we can be confident to stand calmly, collectedly, with a gentle, sure voice, and unshaken resolve in our hearts, to take whatever comes at us in stride, knowing that, God willing, our feet aren’t moving. Because the one with whom we stand, for whom we stand, simply cannot be defeated.
Perhaps God would be pleased to plunder the sentiment and spine of such a tune from the late Tom Petty, fill its generic form with biblical contours, and inspire my 7-year-old boys for the composed and God-confident calling of not backing down in the days ahead.