Session 2. The Bridge of Popular Culture
(Continued)

 

Bruce Springsteen’s approach to religion is subtle.  Explicit Christian imagery seldom makes an appearance in his songs, though they regularly display a concern with the consequence of sin.  Few have captured its essence more succinctly than these lines from “The Big Muddy”:  “Well I had a friend said ‘You watch what you do / Poison snake bites you and you’re poison too.’”  However, a few of his songs—particularly in his later work—are redolent with God’s mercy, none more so than the quiet odyssey of Bill Horton in “Cautious Man.”

 

Bruce Springsteen, “Cautious Man”

Bill Horton was a cautious man of the road
He walked lookin’ over his shoulder and remained faithful to its code
When something caught his eye he’d measure his need
And then very carefully he’d proceed

Billy met a young girl in the early days of May
It was there in her arms he let his cautiousness slip away
In their lovers twilight as the evening sky grew dim
He’d lay back in her arms and laugh at what had happened to him

On his right hand Billy tattooed the word love and on his left hand was the word fear
And in which hand he held his fate was never clear
Come Indian summer he took his young lover for his bride
And with his own hands built a great house down by the riverside 

Now Billy was an honest man he wanted to do what was right
He worked hard to fill their lives with happy days and loving nights
Alone on his knees in the darkness for steadiness he’d pray
For he knew in a restless heart the seed of betrayal lay

One night Billy awoke from a terrible dream callin’ his wife’s name
She lay breathing beside him in a peaceful sleep, a thousand miles away
He got dressed in the moonlight and down to the highway he strode
When he got there he didn’t find nothing but road

Billy felt a coldness rise up inside him that he couldn’t name
Just as the words tattooed ‘cross his knuckles he knew would always remain
At their bedside he brushed the hair from his wife’s face as the moon shone on her skin so white
Filling their room with the beauty of God’s fallen light

 

 

“Invisible Sun” was the first song that alerted me to what might be called the “pre-Christian” stirrings of much popular music.  There’s nothing explicitly Christian in it, just a deep dissatisfaction with the existing world and a sense that there must be something beyond--as the song puts it, “an invisible sun that gives its heat to everyone.”  An Armalite, by the way, is a semi-automatic rifle used by the British army.  The group’s lead singer, Sting, wrote the song while living in Northern Ireland during “The Troubles.”

 

 The Police, “Invisible Sun”

I don’t want to spend the rest of my life
Looking at the barrel of an Armalite
I don’t want to spend the rest of my days
Keeping out of trouble like the soldiers say
I don’t want to spend my time in hell
Looking at the walls of a prison cell
I don’t ever want to play the part
Of a statistic on a government chart

There has to be an invisible sun
It gives its heat to everyone
There has to be an invisible sun
That gives us hope when the whole day’s done

It’s dark all day, and it glows all night
Factory smoke and acetylene light
I face the day with me head caved in
Looking like something that the cat brought in

There has to be an invisible sun
It gives its heat to everyone
There has to be an invisible sun
That gives us hope when the whole day’s done

And they’re only going to change this place by
Killing everybody in the human race
And they would kill me for a cigarette
But I don’t even wanna die just yet

There has to be an invisible sun
It gives its heat to everyone
There has to be an invisible sun
It gives us hope when the whole day’s done

 

Another song by the Police, also written by Sting, “O My God” appeared on the group’s final and best-selling album, Synchronicity.  The lyrics speak for themselves. 

 

 

The Police, “O My God”

Everyone I know is lonely
And God’s so far away
And my heart belongs to no one,
So now sometimes I pray
Please take the space between us
And fill it up some way
Take the space between us
And fill it up some way

O my God you take the biscuit
Treating me this way
Expecting me to treat you well
No matter what you say
How can I turn the other cheek
It’s black and bruised and torn
I’ve been waiting
Since the day that I was born

Take the space between us
And fill it up some way
Take the space between us
And fill it up some way

The fat man in his garden
The thin man at his gate
My God you must be sleeping
Wake up it’s much too late

Take the space between us
And fill it up some way
Take the space between us
And fill it up some way

Do I have to tell the story
Of a thousand rainy days
Since we first met?
It’s a big enough umbrella
But it’s always me that ends up getting wet

 

I hesitated a bit—but only a bit—before using this song.  Aside from the ironic reference to a Christmas card Bethlehem, it contains little overt religious imagery.  But as a window into the raw agonies of teen-age life, “Bethlehem” is superb.  Much of the song is autobiographical.  Cole was president of her high school class three years running, her gold fish did in fact freeze one winter, and so on.  The kicker is that on-lookers considered hers a charmed life.  After high school she went on to a prestigious music school in Boston, trained as a jazz singer, performed as a back-up singer for Peter Gabriel, and released her first album--Harbinger-- to critical acclaim at the age of twenty-six.  When they first listened to Harbinger, her friends were astonished at the obvious pain expressed on most of its tracks.  We tend to assume that "successful" people don't experience self-doubt, loneliness, and fear.  And unlike Cole, few successful people have the courage to disabuse us of that assumption.  For that matter, few Christians have the courage to be as open with their friends as Cole is with the entire world.

 

Paula Cole, “Bethlehem”

Pulling on the apron strings looking up
Standing on the chair to be grown up
I feel so little, I need my pillow
I hate the time, I hate the clock
I want to be a dog or I want to be a rock

Sunday’s pancakes Miss Mary Mack
Color Polaroids show my heart attack
In my second-hand pants and dusty shoes
The day that the playground laughed at my shoes
It’s my birthday next week and what I want please
Is to turn on the heat so the fish won’t freeze
The fish in the tank froze and died last week
Oh I want to be a dog or I want to be a leaf

Chorus:
Quarry miners, fishermen
In my town of Bethlehem
Picket fences, church at ten
No star above my Bethlehem

Now I’m only 16 and I think I have an ulcer
I’m hiding my sex behind a dirty sweatshirt
I’ve lost five pounds these past few days
Trying to be class president and get straight A’s, well,
Who gives a shit about that anyway?
I want to be a dog or a lump of clay

Chorus

Still I’m tired of standing still
Tired of living - still
Everyday I dream of leaving

Everybody’s talking about Becky’s bust
The boys on the basketball team just fuck
The same ten girls, who don’t know who they are
They’re looking for some comfort in the back of a car
The six-packs of beer, the locker room jeers
I don’t want to be me, I don’t want to be here

Chorus

Red brick schoolhouse, dead end dirt roads, daffodils
No star above my Bethlehem
I want to be a dog or I want to be a rock
I don’t want to be me, I don’t want to be here
In Bethlehem

 

 

From the liner notes of Sting’s 1987 album, Nothing Like the Sun:  “In the current climate it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish ‘Democratic Freedom Fighters’ from drug dealing apolitical gangsters or Peace Corps workers from Marxist revolutionaries.  Ben Linder, an American [Peace Corps] engineer, was killed in 1987 by the ‘Contras’ as a result of this confusion.”

It's hard to get around the fact that we live in a violent world, and as Christians it may at times be necessary to take up arms.  But we don't have to like it.  And the older I get, the more I believe that violence--however justifiable in the short run--in the long term simply begets more violence.  It's worth noting that the Jews of first century Palestine expected a Messiah who would act as a kind of super-Joshua, ridding them of foreign oppression.  They rejected Jesus, in part, because he steadfastly refused to have any truck with violence.  And his counsel to turn the other cheek, to love those who persecute you, profoundly influenced the methods of nonviolent resistance pioneered by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

More than any other song, "Fragile" brings to mind not only Christ's rejection of violence, but also the profound tenderness with which he treated those around him.           

 

 

Sting, “Fragile”

If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one
Drying in the colour of the evening sun
Tomorrow’s rain will wash the stains away
But something in our minds will always stay

Perhaps this final act was meant
To clinch a lifetime’s argument
That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could
For all those born beneath an angry star
Lest we forget how fragile we are

On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star, like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are, how fragile we are

On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star, like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are, how fragile we are
How fragile we are, how fragile we are 

 

A few years ago sociologists Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith published Divided by Faith:  Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2000).  Although applauding groups like  Promise Keepers, who have made "racial reconciliation" one of their seven objectives, Emerson and Smith discovered that white and African American evangelicals may actually be preserving America's racial chasm.

To most African American evangelicals, the existence of a deeply embedded, systemic racism in American society is almost too obvious to require argument.  But most white evangelicals see no systematic discrimination against blacks.  Indeed, they deny the existence of any ongoing racial problem in the United States.  Despite blatant disparities in wealth, education, and economic opportunity, they blame continuing talk of racial conflict on the media, unscrupulous black leaders, and the inability of African Americans to forget the past.  It's not that they're actively racist.  Rather, the evangelical emphasis on individualism, free will, and personal relationships makes it difficult for white evangelicals even to grasp the concept of structural racism.  Most racial problems, they told the authors, can be solved by the repentance and conversion of the sinful individuals at fault.

Being on the receiving end of structural racism, black evangelicals are infinitely more aware of it.  (Interestingly, so are the relatively few evangelical whites who live in racially mixed neighborhoods.)  But for most white evangelicals, racial tolerance is limited to the avoidance of cross-burnings and racial slurs.  It doesn't extend to living alongside blacks--"white flight" tends to kick in the moment African Americans comprise 8 percent of a neighborhood.  It doesn't extend to investing in black communities.  It doesn't extend to supporting government programs aimed at reversing literally centuries of naked exploitation.  It assuredly doesn't extend to the idea of becoming romantically involved with an African American or (sometimes) even accepting interracial relationships.  In short, it doesn't extend to laying on the altar the accidental, undeserved privilege of being born with a white skin.

With these thoughts in mind, read the lyrics to the next song.

 

 

Paula Cole, “God Is Watching”

Whether it be across the sea,
Kosovo, Baghdad, Korea
Or here at home, right under our fingertips
In new slavery prison systems

Holding one in four black American brothers
The one percent wealthy profiteering
From the business that is war
Yeah, go to war

God is watching us play our ghetto wars
God is watching us play our games
God is waiting for us to overcome
God is waiting for us to just love one another

Whether we be cracker or black or
Brown, red, yellow
From the land or sky or sea
We are family
Wake up and see

Our planet is a tiny atom in God’s kingdom
It’s our only home
A new millennium
Can we all just get along?

God is watching us play our ghetto wars
God is watching us play our games
God is waiting for us to overcome
God is waiting for us to just love one another

 

In my introduction to Bruce Springsteen's "Cautious Man," I mentioned Springsteen's frequent concern with the consequences of sin.  The next song speaks to the same issue.  In quick, deft strokes, it depicts both sexual temptation and the consequences of falling prey to lust.  Think of the many songs that romanticize casual sex.  Then compare them with this one.

 

 

Pink Floyd, “One Slip”

A restless eye across a weary room
A glazed look and I was on the road to ruin
The music played and played as we whirled without end
No hint, no word her honour to defend

I will, I will she sighed to my request
And then she tossed her mane while my resolve was put to the test
Then drowned in desire, our souls on fire
I led the way to the funeral pyre
And without a thought of the consequence
I gave in to my decadence

One slip, and down the hole we fall
It seems to take no time at all
A momentary lapse of reason
That binds a life for life
A small regret, you won’t forget,
There’ll be no sleep in here tonight

Was it love, or was it the idea of being in love?
Or was it the hand of fate, that seemed to fit just like a glove?
The moment slipped by and soon the seeds were sown
The year grew late and neither one wanted to remain alone

One slip, and down the hole we fall
It seems to take no time at all
A momentary lapse of reason
That binds a life for life
The one regret you will never forget,
 There’ll be no sleep in here tonight

 

If this final song doesn't make you take more seriously Christ's injunction to "Love your neighbor as yourself," I don't know what will.

 

Pink Floyd, “On The Turning Away”

On the turning away
From the pale and downtrodden
And the words they say
Which we won’t understand
“Don’t accept that what’s happening
Is just a case of others’ suffering
Or you’ll find that you’re joining in
The turning away”

It’s a sin that somehow
Light is changing to shadow
And casting its shroud
Over all we have known
Unaware how the ranks have grown
Driven on by a heart of stone
We could find that we’re all alone
In the dream of the proud

On the wings of the night
As the daytime is stirring
Where the speechless unite
In a silent accord
Using words you will find are strange
And mesmerised as they light the flame
Feel the new wind of change
On the wings of the night

No more turning away
From the weak and the weary
No more turning away
From the coldness inside
Just a world that we all must share
It’s not enough just to stand and stare
Is it only a dream that there’ll be
No more turning away?


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