Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Book of Job Set to Popular Music

The problem of evil can be stated in this way: if God is all powerful and all good, then how can evil exist? This must mean that either God is not all-powerful, not all-good, or some combination of both. I would not dare presume that I could answer something so profound and ineffable as the mystery of why "bad things happen to go people" (only the cross can begin to do that), but what I do offer here is a list of songs which, in different ways, address the problem in the only way that it can be done without it coming off as trite or simplistic; with stories and images that embody the strange manner in which we encounter God in our suffering and doubt. The fact is the cross did not take away death and suffering, what it did was change the significance of death and suffering. And so the songs below explore the paradox of why God chooses what is most inglorious to reveal his glory, and why our greatest source of doubt often becomes an invitation to the beatific vision.            

5. Show Me How To Live - Audioslave

What makes this song so interesting is the fact that it combines a heavy sound with lyrics that possess a Job-like desperation. The lyrics fit the style of music. In this piece, Chris Cornell has found God, but he doesn't sound all that pleased with what he has found. However, the gist of the song is not one of complaint so much as a demand for action from his Creator; "Nail in my hand from my Creator, you gave me a life, now show me how to live!" He is obviously not agnostic in his sentiments, and is in fact imploring God to show him what his vocation is, though he probably wouldn't use that kind of language to describe it. "And in the early dawn moving right along couldn't buy an eyeful of sleep. Built with stolen parts, a telephone in my heart, someone get me a priest. To put my mind to bed, this ringing in my head, is this the cure or is this the disease." This isn't the poem the "Hound of heaven", but it certainly has a similar theme. God is like that hound, that telephone, spurring us on, and sometimes it is really annoying, and sometimes we are not necessarily keen on what He seems to be saying to us. In point of fact, the anxiety comes precisely from the idea of being called and not knowing what we're being called to. In the case of Chris Cornell, he finds himself considering that a priest might be able to help him with this, though in classic rock n' roll style is somewhat skeptical about this kind of solution.

4. Solsbury Hill - Peter Gabriel

Occasionally Peter Gabriel will write a song that is at its heart religious- if not explicitly so. Two other examples of this include Mercy Street and Here Comes the Flood. He did record the soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ, but I am speaking here about his main body of work. According to Gabriel, the lyrics of the song describe some sort of mystical experience he had on "Solsbury Hill." But because musicians tend to be quite shy when it comes to revealing the the specific meaning of their songs, Gabriel has said precious little about what he means by what he means. In fact, God is never actually mentioned in the song. However, in the first verse he does allude to this mystical experience on "Solsbury Hill", whereon he hears "a voice" that he cannot ignore, one that has apparently "come to take him home". The closest thing to an obvious religious reference in the song occurs in the second verse; "To keeping silence I resigned, my friends would think I was a nut. Changing water into wine, open doors would soon be shut." As in the previous song, there appears to be some ambivalence on the part of the songwriter about this mysterious pounding in his chest; "My heart going boom boom boom!" Not to mention a kind of reticence when it comes to revealing this message to others. I wouldn't say that he is a prophet, but I will suggest that the sentiments he describes are frequently echoed by those who encounter God in the Bible. Should he say something? Should he not? What seems to be relatively clear is that as a result of keeping this message inside, he feels that his life is "in a rut". The song is also about him leaving his former band Genesis  (an ironic name for the subject matter), though this fact in no way militates against the former theme. To the contrary, it actually gives it context. In the end the song suggests that once Gabriel reveals all that is weighing on him, he ultimately feels a sense of liberty; "Today I don't need a replacement. I'll tell them what the smile on my face meant... you can keep my things they've come to take me home".

 3. Laughing With - Regina Spektor

This ambitious song written by the Russian born pianist Regina Spektor, is quite unique in its attempt to  discuss humor in a divine context. "No one's laughin' at God in a hospital, no one's laughin' at God in a war. No one's laughin' at God when their starving or freezing or poor." Right away in the song she strikes at the heart of an important truth. Indeed, she is not the first to say, in essence; "there are no atheists in a fox hole",  but what makes this sentiment so original is that she brings the question into larger focus. In other words, in the face of suffering not only is man not laughing at God, but he is in fact in desperate aching need of his consolation. The only one who can really laugh at God is the one who has the luxury of leisure, not to mention a healthy dose of cynicism; "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick" (Luke 5:31). As the song goes forward, she continues to describe numerous unpleasant scenarios in which man does not have the luxury nor the desire to laugh at God. To the contrary, they would in these situations most certainly want to call out to Him for help; "No one's laughin' at God when it's late and your kids not back from that party yet. No one's laughin' at God when their airplane starts to uncontrollably shake." Even more fascinating is the route she takes in the chorus; "But God could be funny, at a cocktail party when listening to a good God-themed joke. Or when the crazies say he hates us and they get so red in the head you think they're 'bout to choke. God could be funny, when told he'll give you money if you pray the right way. And when presented like a genie who does magic like Houdini, or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket and Santa Claus. God can be so hilarious". It might have been predictable if Ms. Spektor had just started talking about God's sense of humor in the chorus, but what she does instead is something a little more subtle than that. Whereas in the verse she makes it clear who isn't laughing at God, in the chorus she seems to be mocking those who, for various reasons, are making a mockery of God. According to Ms. Spektor, the reason people don't take God as seriously as they should, is because oftentimes they only see a caricature of Him. It is their faith, or the frivolity thereof, that makes a mockery of God, not the very idea of God. To conclude the song, Ms. Spektor once again turns the tables; "No one's laughing at God... we're all laughing with God" as if to make one final distinction between the mockery of "laughing at", and the more divine orientation of "laughing with".

2. God Shuffled His Feet - Crash Test Dummies

Known mostly for their "Mmm Mmm Mmm" song, this little gem off the same album also explores, albeit less directly, the humor of God. In a kind of ironically epic fashion, this piece begins with the sound of a skipping record player- as if to suggest that the song and the subject matter are of an "ancient" nature. As the vocals break in, the listener knows right away that this song is meant to take on a kind of Biblical tone; "After seven days, he was quite tired, so God said; 'Let there be a day just for picnics with wine and bread.' Gathered up some people he had made, created blankets and laid back in the shade." As the verse moves forward, a dramatic tension develops when the people start asking God questions; "The people sipped their wine, and what with God there they asked him questions like; 'do you have to eat or get your hair cut in heaven. And if your eye got poked out in this life, would it be waiting up in heaven with your wife.'" The question is how do you explain matters of the spirit to the children of flesh? According to the lead singer, therein lies the crux of the problem; "God shuffled his feet and glanced around at them. The people cleared their throats and stared right back at him". As revealed by the chorus, God is unable to answer their question in a way that the people understand. This is not a blasphemous idea. To the contrary, it is quite Biblical. From the Israelites in the desert, to Jeremiah, to the apostles; needless to say man doesn't always get God, and frankly, God doesn't always get man. In the second verse, God attempts to tell the people a parable as a means to facilitate the conversation. However, as is often the case in the Gospels, the parable seems to be on a different wave length than the people who ask the question. The final verse concludes with a particular sentiment that epitomizes this troubling chasm between God's revelation and man's subsequent misunderstanding of it; "The people sat waiting out on their blankets in the garden, but God said nothing- so someone asked him 'beg your pardon. Not quite clear about what you just spoke was that parable or a very subtle joke". Ultimately the song ends on a comical note, with God pacing around, man clearing his throat, and neither one achieving the desired results.

1. Hallelujah - Leonard Cohen

Originally released in 1984, this Cohen classic has been covered on numerous occasions, and undoubtedly is the most recognizable on this list. Nevertheless, I have not selected it because it is recognizable, I have selected it because it captures something about the divine that few can express, much less understand. Not unlike the popular Advent song O' Come O' Come Emmanuel, it combines two sentiments that are not ordinarily associated with one another: sorrow and joy. "Well your faith was strong but you needed proof. You saw her bathing on the roof. Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya. She tied you to a kitchen, she broke your thrown and she cut your hair. And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah." Combining the story of David and Samson, this verse not only reveals the tragic tale of some great figure who has fallen from grace, but oddly enough it reveals that this "fall" has led to something that implies rejoicing. Before these events he was simply the golden boy who could do no wrong (particularly in the case of David), now as consequence of his fall and subsequent repentence he recognizes God as his Rock and his merciful Savior. Yet there is another significance as well, for the Hallelujah chorus is not sung with a tremendous amount of exuberance, rather it is sung in a very melancholy way. What this suggests is that this knowledge, this Hallelujah, has come at an incredibly great price. But more than that it suggests that perhaps not every Hallelujah- not every epiphany- is one that is necessarily the immediate cause for rejoicing. In O' Come O' Come Emmanuel, the words "rejoice" offer a brief, if muted, enthusiasm about the coming freedom; a freedom that is not yet realized. In the verses that follow he declares; that "love is not a victory march, but it's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah" and "it's not a cry that you hear at night, it's not somebody who's seen the light, it's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah". What this song brilliantly recognizes, is that Hallelujah (that untranslatable Hebrew word), has many different shades to it. Therefore, we should never fail to realize that our Hosannas come, not from a manufactured gaping grim, but as a result of a crucible wherein our sins are transformed in the purifying fire of redemptive suffering.      

1 comment:

  1. Regina Spektor is a great artist for this type of religious-but-not-in-name music!