Shake Your Fists and Pick a Fight
The Fruit of the Spirit - Growing up Spiritually

Alarms and Surprises - Please!

 

In July 2002 I was with my students on the Guguletu township in Cape Town, South Africa and I was asked to say a little bit about what my group was doing there. We were building houses on townships with Habitat For Humanity but when I started to explain why we had chosen Cape Town I was left untangling an interesting spiritual conundrum. In explaining my rage at apartheid and my following of the story of those I was now worshipping with I suddenly came to realise that it had not been from Church pulpits, Conference lecterns or Christian books that had had raised my righteous anger against the institutional racism that treated these people as something less than made in the image of God. Those who had spoken into my world were for the most part not even of a Christian profession; rock musicians like Little Steven, Peter Gabriel, Tracey Chapman, Jackson Browne and even Simple Minds. Why was the two edged scalpel of Biblical prophecy that operated on my comfortable soul in the hands of rock stars and not Church leaders?

On my return home I landed into the middle of the Steve Earle controversy on news pages across the world. Earle, for those who are unaware is a critically acclaimed singer songwriter who bridges the gap between country and rock. Known as quite a hell raiser he had never quite raised hell like this. His six marriages, his cocaine habit, his jail sentence all suddenly seemed like bland mundane small town consequences compared to being accused of being a traitor of America. That is how a section of the American media responded to his album Jerusalem calling for a boycott of any radio station that played it or any record store that stocked it. Earle has been quick to defend himself as being “urgently American” in what he sees as crisis days for his country. In foreword on the CD booklet he calls himself “the loneliest man in America”, and hauntingly predicts his vilification as he points out that during the Vietnam War “it was suggested by some that second guessing our leaders in a time of crisis was unpatriotic.”

My conundrum raised its head again. It is another rock star raising the issues of the day, speaking into the very heart of our exigent. Was this not what the prophets were all about? Would Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos and the other Old Testament Prophets have been accused of betraying their people at a time when sympathy was needed? Would they have ever felt like the loneliest men in the land? Would they have been accused of being unpatriotic for second guessing the King or Queen? Would they have held to the belief that rather than being traitors they were “urgently Jewish?”

FW De Klerk the former President of South Africa came and spoke to our students just days after that Church service in Guguletu. History will show De Klerk to have been one of the most courageous leaders of the twentieth century, the man who freed Nelson Mandela and put him on the path from Robben Island jail to becoming his successor as President. Yet he was despised by many of his own people as a traitor, sacrificing his place in power to bring justice, by unravelling the oppressive regime that members of his own family had been involved in laying down. He spoke to our students about reconciliation and the things he had learned about peace making. The first rule in engaging with your enemy, he said, was to take a good hard look at yourself. To look down to the very bone and search out your own prejudices and put those right. The second lesson was to not delude yourself into thinking that you had done the first! These seem universal truths to any society that is seeking to live right. Indeed the prophets were men and women seeking to examine their people to the very marrow of the soul in order to put right the obvious and oftentimes oblivious wrongs at the heart of their nation.

Steve Earle might just be a prophet. For sure he cuts to the marrow. Jerusalem is the other side of the coin from, The Rising, Bruce Springsteen’s response to September 11th and a different currency entirely from Toby Keith’s “my country right or wrong” war mongering on his frighteningly successful Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American). Where Springsteen pastors his nation through the mourning and loss of the outrageous attack against them to bring some healing, hope and a way forward, Earle has taken to prophesying at the things below the surface of his country that caused the world’s suspicion, derision and hatred.

The fuss is over what many are calling the centre piece of the album, John Walker’s Blues, though it might be more the centre of the controversy than the musical pivot or political spine of the treatise. Those who have been provoked to almost wish Earle on to the Death Row that he has been vocally campaigned against in recent years, believe this to be a vindication of the American John Walker Lindh who turned his back on the American Dream he was born into in order to join the Taliban. It is nothing of the kind but more simply an attempt to provoke some insight into the sins of America that could have caused him to seek salvation in such a violent anti American train of Islam. Of course there is nothing simple about that but questions that need to be asked of a nation that seems to see herself as some righteous, infallible paragon of virtue that is judge and jury of all that is right and civilised in the world today. Delusions of spiritual grandeur in the midst of such a division between rich and poor and lack of care for the marginalized and desire for all things hedonistic and materialist was exactly the kind of thing that the prophets were raised up to rage against.

And Earle rages! The first words are spoken with an ominous apocalyptic growl of a whisper – “ashes to ashes” – before Earle warns that “nobody lives forever” and rips open the sensitive wounds of America with “every tower ever built tumbles” in a song that reminds us of the temporary nature of our place in the grand scheme of history. But it is bloody and gory and raging against man’s inhumanity to man and exposes how even more horrific it is when it is fired by “God on our side” arrogance.

From a rebuke of foreign policy we move to Amerika v.6.0 (The Best That We Can Do), an attack on home policies that leaves the rich more equal than others and democracy being about keeping the poor outside the gates of the country club, “I realise that ain’t exactly democracy/But it’s either them or us/and it’s the best that we can do.” It was written for the movie John Q where a man takes an Emergency Ward hostage to try and get his son the medical care that in a democracy can only be given to those who have the right insurance package. It was removed from the film because in the light of September 11th it was seen to be too insensitive in its criticism of George W. Maybe that in itself tripped a switch in Earle to be even less compromising than ever before.

This seems to be the actual centre piece of the record. It was the first song written and it is the song that mentions the Constitution that Earle surmises to be the only hope left in an America and in that foreword he demands “Fierce vigilance against the erosion of its proven principles.” The lyrics of Amerika v 6.0 could be straight from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Amos or Isaiah. It rants against a nation where there has come too big a chasm between the rich and the poor and the sarcasm of the shrug of “the best that we can do” needs a response and quickly if the whole thing is not going to fall apart.

What Earle did on Jerusalem is what De Klerk demands and what we often pray from Psalm 139 verses 23 and 24, “Search me, Oh God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me, in the way everlasting.” He and other musicians have been making incisions through the pain to get to the diseased heart itself. Where most of today’s pop music is a palliate, dulling the pain or giving some hedonistic running on the spot relief, the need is to reach into the wounds that a healing might begin.

Don Henley of The Eagles, whose Greatest Hits 1971-75 is America’s biggest selling rock album of all time has moved away from the fist fighting drug fuelled haze that The Eagles were famous for become a prophetic voice against many things maybe most particular commerce and industry. On his most recent album Inside Job he rages against the “captains of industry/and their tools on the hill/They’re killing everything divine/What will I tell this child of mine.” Not only is he anxious to reveal the sins of the production line but the market place is also leading us into temptations that we could find it hard top be delivered from. Working It is specifically about the commercial lies and deception of the music industry but has more universal application. He introduced it on VH1 Storytellers by saying, “This is a song about corporate America…It’s about the marketplace, salesmanship, the lengths we will go…” The song tells us that “packaging is all that heaven is” before throwing over the tables in the temple of business, “We’ve got a whole new class of opiates/To blunt the stench of discontent/In these corporate nation-states/Where the loudest live to trample on the least/they say it is just the predatory nature of the beast.” It is strong stuff and filled with the passionate spirit and very same themes of the prophets and echoes the obsession of Jesus about how we treat the least.

Henley’s west coast neighbour and erstwhile songwriting partner, Jackson Browne is probably the archetypal rock prophet. Indeed when like Earle, Browne raged against America’s involvement in central America during the eighties he fell down quite a few rungs of the rock ladder, having perched himself almost at the top of it at the end of the seventies. On his 1996 album Looking East he too looked across the American horizon. The album title and lead off track were about him standing on the beaches of California with his back to the Pacific and asking the big questions about what was going on across the continent “Where the search for the truth is conducted by a wink and a nod/And where power and position are equated with the grace of God/These times are famine for the soul while for the senses it’s a feast/From the edge of my country, as far as you can see, looking east.” One of his conclusions “in the deepening night” is that there is “a God sized hunger underneath the laughing and the rage.”

These rock prophets are ploughing up the dirt across the nation and what they are turning up is spiritual bankruptcy. There is a great spiritual challenge in the work of such artists and lest we are stupid enough to think they are singing about American issues we need to realise that their baseball cap not only fits, it is very snug.

Like I found in the Cape Town pulpit last summer Earle, Browne and Henley and others like them have been those who have given my discipleship its vitality in recent years. They have inspired me to follow Jesus radical agenda about “thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done one earth as it is in heaven” more than sermons or most Christian books. The conundrum is then back in the forefront of the mind. Why is it that rock stars draw comparisons to the Old Testament prophets and not a modern Church that goes on and on about the prophetic? Maybe never before in the history of the Church has so much emphasis been put on prophetic words and visions. The faithful in the growing charismatic movement go forward in weekly ritual to have supposedly gifted men give the direct line from heaven and yet the music coming out of such places is usually little short of sentimental self indulgent clichés about how God blesses us rather than the strong words that prophets were really made of.

Of course the Psalms are as much a part of the Old Testament as the Prophetic books and of course there should be worship music coming out of the Church but the conundrum is querying the balance, especially in a Church so anxious to take the moniker “prophetic.” Could it be that we go to Church for the palliate of the gentle melodies of our new worship movement or the celebratory rocked up pioneering versions. Where are the Ezekiels, and Isaiahs who are searching us to the very bone? Of course there are Christians very much involved in environmental issues and Christian Aid and Tear Fund raise the issues and help us act against all kinds of injustices. Bono has been raging across the world and even there he is still treated with suspicion among believers. Can we really say though, and maybe we can, that our leaders, in general are speaking with the cutting thrust of these rock musicians who as far as I am aware have no profession of faith in Christ. Could it be that they are saying things that we need to engage with and more importantly are they saying things where we are sinfully silent?

Let us draw to conclusion by looking at two newer artists, both of whom happen to be British. As we think of the palliate dulling the pain and missing the actual illness, David Gray’s Let The Truth Sting from his criminally neglected debut album Centuries End leads us onward. Gray does to late twentieth century Britain what Earle, Henley and Browne do to America. He looks across what he calls the land and gives diagnosis. The conclusion of this most literate of songs is that “into lies, ruin, disease/Into wounds like these/ Let the Truth sting.” Is that not our calling? In the church we worship in should we not be those who are urgently Christian, shaking up the status quo no matter what the reaction so long as we search our institutions down to the bone.

Should we not be urgently British gazing from coast to coast asking questions about those in power whether in politics, business, media or indeed Church and asking if their actions are accountable, if the results are those that God demanded in Amos when he said “Hate evil and love good, work it out in the public square.” In Birds another song off Century’s end, Gray irritates the soul again “And these are just thoughts/For lack lustre times/I’ve no interest/ In the excuses you can find/ Like you’ve had a hard day/And you’re too tired to care.” He describes society but as a Church member I apply it even closer to home, “A hollow people bound by a lack/Of imagination and too much looking back/Without the courage to give a new thing a chance/Grounded by this ignorance…and the cat comes and we are birds without wings.” Oh my goodness, preach it David, preach it!

On their much acclaimed Ok Computer album Radiohead speak for the busy and comfortable third millennium human with “a heart that’s full like a landfill,” who is happy “to take the quite life, a handshake, some carbon monoxide and no alarms and no surprises.” In the end a pretty house and a pretty garden and no alarms or surprises is the desire of the day. Never the hypocrites the Oxford band followed the success of OK Computer, that put them close to the “best band on the planet” label by setting off the loudest alarms and turning surprise to shock as they released an album of musical disjointed impressionistic avant garde that would on its very existence ask questions of the pop world’s attitude to product and charts and fame and art.

It asks questions of the Church too. Is the Church, even the pseudo lively and passionate wing of it, creating a safe place, a comfortable hotel-like Church where you can go outside like a tourist with a camera and be fascinated by what you see but can ultimately return to your room where everything will be laid out for you and you can simply relax and be blessed by a prophetic word or nice new worship song. Lies Damned Lies sing about “having eyes to see and ears to hear/What do you hear?” And I guess where do we hear? Let us keep our ears open in the most unlikely of places. Let us listen for alarms and surprises. Please!

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