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June 2009


It was not very long after my short initial response to Michael Jackson’s passing that one of my students, Ross Cooper, spoke of the importance of Jackson to his musical and spiritual maturing and mentioned specifically Man In The Mirror. For me, I had immediately considered Beat It, Billie Jean and Thriller though the latter always seemed a better video than it was a song. My immediate acquirement of The Essential Michael Jackson allowed me to take a closer listen to this Man In The Mirror. And indeed it is a song worth consideration. The objective critique of poverty and injustice turned back on the subjective self in his complicity and need to change the world himself;

“If you want to make the world a better place

Then look at yourself and make a change.”

Challenging, inspirational, brilliant! Even the profits from the single’s sales went to charity.

In the reams written over the days following Jackson’s death I found the most profound and startling the reprint of Sylvie Simmons 1983 article for Creem magazine in The Observer’s Review Special Issue. In this interview Jackson is the wise God believing Jehovah Witness, keeping perspective and aware of the pitfalls. “I believe in God. We all do. We like to be straight, don’t go crazy or anything. Not to the point of losing our perspective on life, of what you are and who you are. A lot of entertainers, they make money and they spend the rest of their life celebrating that one goal they reached, and with that celebration comes the drugs and the liquor and the alcohol. And then they try to straighten up and they say, ‘Who am I? Where am I? What happened?’ And they lost themselves, and they’re broken. You have to be careful and have some kind of discipline.”

Though the one song on Bad not written by Jackson, this interview and many others reveals a man with the ambition of the song, Man In The Mirror. The Man in the Mirror was ironically Jackson’s greatest battle and the childhood he had, or didn’t have, and the madness of mega stardom brought all kinds of psychological challenges that prevented him winning the battle to be the man he wanted to be. In end he was unable to do what he wanted to do and ended up doing what he didn’t want to, as St. Paul suggested about himself and indeed all of us in his letter to the Romans.

But let us take our eyes off the sad demise of Michael Jackson and start with our own man or woman in the mirror. Jackson is pointing out the importance of the individual to make the change. He is eye balling our selfishness and seeing the need for a new perspective of the love in our souls. Andre Crouch and The Winans bring the Gospel effect which adds a black Gospel hopefulness to the entire thing and you realise that this is one of those altar call rock songs like Seeger’s We Shall Overcome, Curtis Mayfield’s People Get Ready, Springsteen’s Land Of Hope and Dreams, U2’s Yahweh or Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down. You can hear the black preacher hit his crescendo, “Play the King of Pop one more time now... come on one more hand now... commit yourself to change now... One more time... ‘Oh to make a change for once in my life... I’m starting with the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to change his ways’... do I see one more hand there!” I’ll feebly raise mine and pray for fewer of the ghosts and demons that Jackson had to fight to be the change!


Michael Jackson

When the news broke, on Facebook last night, that Michael Jackson had passed away I was unable to put my hand on any of his work, not because of the emotional impact of his death but because I do not own one Michael Jackson song. A student last year loaned me his Number Ones album and I thought it would be great to have some of his songs but in the end he recorded nothing that resonated with me at all. June 25th also saw the death of actress Farrah Fawcett, who was one of the original Charlie’s Angels, and she had more impact upon my life in those mid seventies days of adolescence than Jackson ever had.

This is not to say that Jackson is not a major pop icon. The 60 million plus sales of Thriller gives him his place in the upper echelons of music history. And if he had something to contribute in an artistic way then the cross over nature of that album and the follow up Bad to put white electric guitar over a black dance beat is significant. He is the Motown artist who became the universal star. Then there were the dance routines, the moonwalk and the videos. Objectively speaking Michael Jackson was a great entertainer and genius is not used carelessly in describing him but did he have the same cultural transforming power of Elvis Presley, John Lennon or Kurt Cobain? I don’t think so.

My jury is still out on Pop as a transformational art form. I will not deny that Elvis and The Beatles were pop when they started out; merely entertainers. The Beatles became artists when pop and art merged, when they and Dylan caused the merger in the mid sixties. But Presley, who really was never an artist in the true sense of the word, and The Beatles caused cultural change by the nature of their pop. Elvis’s hip swivel changed the world as did the Beatles hair styles and attitudes that somehow found a sound in their “yeah, yeah, yeahs.” Jackson on the other hand might have changed pop but long after pop had changed the world.

No doubt we will, in these next few days and weeks, assess Jackson’s contribution. Mangled up in it will be his bizarre behaviour that seems weird even in the eccentric world of pop music; the accusations by little boys, the baby dangled over hotel balconies, the monkey mate, the facial disintegration, the debts and the marriages. Many will celebrate the life of Michael Jackson and there are things to commend but what about Michael? When he looks back and casts his eye over his life what will he make of it? Or is it yet another of those too familiar stories – he had it all but what he most wanted; peace of mind.



As someone who loved the spoken word out takes of the Joshua Tree and was delighted when they got a more dignified place in the 20th Anniversary Deluxe version of that album I love the mood of Cedars Of Lebanon. Another of Bono’s third person lyrics it finds a journalist in war zone thinking of home and life and death; and eventually God and enemies. Some have pointed out that the underpinning track might be a straight lift from Eno's ambient album The Pearl, a collaboration with Harold Budd back in 1984. Whatever, the history of the music, the lyric leaves us with a few questions.

The last song on a U2 album is always carefully chosen. Track listings are never carelessly thrown together. So, what was the reason for this track closing out NLOTH? Cedars Of Lebanon takes us into the Bible. There is no way that Bono’s use of the phrase is coincidental. Their time at Fez during the Sacred Musical Festival might not have seen them use sufi prayers or chants but it certainly gave them the inspiration and courage to make a seriously spiritual record. Cedars of Lebanon are used in various ways in the Scriptures. However, what does Bono mean by its use here. A quick glance across Wikipedia and you find a plethora of Biblical uses for the Cedars Of Lebanon;

Jewish priests were ordered by Moses to use the bark of the Lebanon Cedar in circumcision and treatment of leprosy. Isaiah used the Lebanon Cedar as a metaphor for the pride of the world. According to the Talmud, Jews once burned Lebanese cedar wood on the Mount of Olives to announce the new year. Kings far and near requested the wood for religious and civil constructs, the most famous of which are King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem and David's and Solomon's Palaces.”

Bono might be simply talking about the size of the Cedars and how God is bigger but where can he be found? The journalist might be journaling his objective feelings of the war zone and asking where God is or he might be seeking a more subjective interaction with God in his own life’s fraying threads. Or Bono might be asking if God can be found in his Church, that the Old Testament tells us Cedars were used to build? Or is it Isaiah’s use as a symbol of pride that he is highlighting? Where is God in the deluded egos that go to war or in the self indulgent personal ego of a man wrestling with home and all that that means?

NLOTH ends with another cryptic clue of spiritual wisdom. Bono goes off philosophising about the importance of who you choose as your enemies. What is he trying to say? In subsequent interviews Bono has talked about the enemies that U2 have chosen, “we chose interesting enemies. We didn't choose the obvious enemies - The Man, the establishment. We didn't buy into that. Our credo was: no them, there's only us.” In a song about war Bono then turns inside for the enemy, “"What that means is that we picked enemies that were more internal - our own hypocrisy...They are nearly always of a psychological, if not a spiritual, nature. The spectres that hold you back, they were our enemies.”

Back in the context of the third person war journalist song had the journalist mistakenly and fatally made home and God his enemies? Or is Bono remembering his old mate George W? He chose his enemies post 9/11 and his entire legacy will be based around that choice. Even now, when his friends are all gone to other arts and parts and he is on his ranch in Texas, all alone, that relationship which Bush had with his enemies defines him in the recent annals of history. If we glance back at the video For The Saints Are Coming we see the alternative enemy that Bush’s administration could have fought, the natural disaster effecting their very own people on the Gulf Coast. How different would the definition of Bush have been had he chosen the right enemy?

This brings us into the provocative question at the end of the cryptic clues. Who have we made our enemies? What are the internal battles that we need to fight in order to fulfil our human vocations to the pinnacle of their potential? And as local communities, society and for the nation what are the right wars to fight. I guess if we stop to become aware of the battles that we fight without even thinking we could then spend some spiritual wisdom prioritising what needs fought and what doesn’t. The personal or national pride that Isaiah named as humanity’s Cedars of Lebanon might be a good place to start.


U2 - THE SAINTS ARE COMING - song for a healthy soul


U2 choose their cover versions carefully and it would seem that Edge was the instigator of this old Skids single when he looked around for a song to use for his campaign to help those made homeless, city-less, stateless after Hurricane Katrina. Hardly even a hit when released in the late seventies U2 with help from Green Day made it a number 1 across the world.



The Edge’s choosing of the song may have had a few threads. The New Orleans Saints is a Football team and the two collaborating bands would re-open their stadium with a live version of the song. At the time of it being recorded in Abbey Road studios there was already heavy publicity for the 200th Anniversary of the Abolition of Slavery. The grouping of clergy and lay people who sparked the social reform of the eighteenth century were known as the Saints. They were the kind of political, religious and spiritual leaders that New Orleans needed after Hurricane Katrina decimated the city.


The Saints Are Coming was written by Richard Jobson and Stuart Adamson about a friend of Jobson’s who went off to with the British Army to N. Ireland. While there his father died and the song in its original intention was a son trying to reach his father without any hope of succeeding. There was a cathartic message at the heart of the song.


It takes on another hue with the U2/Green Day version. U2 have used the phone illustration before as a metaphor for prayer. They have also made a lot of music in the tension of prayer prayed and being frustrated with the seeming silence coming back. The Psalmist knew this frustration as of course did Job.


With the video another theme kicks in. Between live shots of the band both in Abbey Road and in the New Orleans Dome there are news clips of the US army coming as saints to rescue the people of the flooded city. It is a heroic image, powerfully missional of mercy. The troops in Iraq are re-employed to save their own people rather than being distracted overseas. It reminds the discerning listener of an old Larry Norman song American Novel, from as far back as 1973 but sadly still relevant:


“You’re far across the ocean in a war that’s not your own

And while you’re winning there you’re going to lose the one at home”



The video demands a re-imagining. This is how the world could be like if people make different choices of re-imagining. As the video ends with the sign NOT AS SEEN ON TV. It is the dream of imaginative alternative. Powerful in the force of music and image, there is an adrenaline rush of inspiration to get out there and change the world.



Pierce Pettis has kept himself alive through his songwriting and live performing for over a quarter of a century, perhaps funded more by those who have covered his songs such as Garth Brooks, Joan Baez and Jill Phillips than his personal fame or commercial success. A songwriter in the traditional sense you could see him as folk version of the more jazz infused Bruce Cockburn; a combination of literary poet and finger dancing guitar virtuoso, all with a huge dollop of the spiritual. In his song for fellow songwriter Don Dunaway, whose song Sparrow Pierce covered on his hard to get debut album twenty five years ago, he quotes Dunaway’s belief that:  

“I am nothing
But the angels sometimes whisper in my ears
Yeah, they tell me things
And then they disappear
Though I am nothing
Sometimes I like to make believe.”

It is a great song about the songwriter’s vocational task particularly if there is a spiritual dimension to that vocation. Pettis would seem to have a good ear, not only for the melody or the poetic couplet but also for the angel’s whisper. His spirituality runs through his veins making Hallelujah Song almost a companion piece for Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah in weaving the romantic and Divine loves. Lion’s Eyes is a three and half minute précis of CS Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and the closing Something For The Pain is one of those Pettis songs that should be ministered as a soothing balm to the spiritual scars of any life.

The “something” of that particular song gets its glorious expounding on the two central songs of the record. You Did That For Me is everything that modern worship music lacks; artistic skill and deep theology. It is worship all the same, in a thanksgiving song where liberation is not left all ethereal but has a historical source:

“Man of sorrow
Well-acquainted with grief
Dragged to the city dump
Spread-eagle on a cross beam
Propped up like a scarecrow,
Nailed like a thief
There for all the world to see”

The title track is then like an immediate follow on. The love earned by the “man of sorrow” radiating out into the cosmos to turn everything around and making right everything that this world has seen go horribly wrong, from the personal to the global:

“Pride and hatred cannot stand
That kind of love
Greater love hath no man
Than that kind of love
Won’t be kept unto itself
Spreads it’s charm, casts it’s spell
No one’s safe this side of hell
From that kind of love.”

Pettis’s songs carry both story and theology. He brings the detailed eye of the novelist with a rare gift for the theological depth in economic verse. When he does both, as this album has him do so well, he is a gift from above, a real listener to those angels. He is dangerously helpful and no one should be safe; this side of hell!


It has sat uneasily with me for years but as I had this conversation I started to think about something Jesus said and wondered... In the midst of some discussion, debate emails one of the sides of the conversation threw in the old, “Having prayed about it a lot we think...” You can see why it has sat uneasily for so long. There is something about this way of putting an argument that leaves it rather difficult to stay in the conversation. It is a little decisive. It is also very common among the student age that I work in but far from unique to them. “I prayed about it and so I am not... or I am...” As I unpacked it in my own particular context I called my fellow converser, thankfully away from email, and over a cup of coffee. “I’m not sure it is very good in such a discussion to throw in the “Having prayed a lot about it we think...” signature. “Sounds as if you are asking God to be the cavalry in your argument because you are not actually too sure of yourself,” I suggested. “Fair point,” he graciously replied smiling, “That is exactly what we were doing.” Utter respect was my only response to such an honest admission.

I do believe that there are a few reasons why young Christians particularly feel they have to add the “I prayed a lot and...” signature. Their utter fear about not being right throws them down that route. However, that is not where I want to take this blog posting. My concern is more the self righteous nature of it. It is almost a “well I’ve prayed more than you so therefore I am telling you that I must be right...” And I suddenly began to think that this something of what Jesus was saying when he told us to go into a secret room away from everyone when we were praying. This was of course in the middle of the Sermon On The Mount where he was asking his disciples to not be like the Pharisees who are all about show and would pray on street corners to earn their pious points. Isn’t this the same thing? We are flying the flag or our prayerfulness, shouting out our sense of pietistic superiority in order to become better than those around us.

When I am in conversation with a friend or even a brother or sister in some level of conflict, and sought after resolution, I will assume that they have prayed about it and hope that they assume that I have prayed about it and from a place of equal dependence on God’s grace and our looking through the same glass darkly I will discuss from the same flat playing field not lording it over them from a higher plain with my sense of greater piety.


There are moments when you make good choices over the song to play. Way back in August 1990 I pressed the play button on the old walkman (remember them) and Bruce Cockburn’s Waiting For A Miracle started throwing images around my head that mingled perfectly and disturbingly with the bombardment of images around me.

Like the ones who've cried
Like the ones who've died
Trying to set the angel in us free
While they're waiting for a miracle.

With my ears and my eyes in harmony to the disharmony, my soul attempted to make sense of my context. I was on Tiananmen Square. It was 16 months since June 4 1989 and the place was haunted by what happened there on that day. I wrote in my journal: -

“Tiananmen Square? All my thoughts on China, before and after I came here, ricocheted around the vast emptiness of this square. I will never forget this hour of my life and I’ll never be able to write down all that I thought in that too short a time.

It seemed so calm, so still, so peaceful and yet I am asking what happened here and what are the few people scattered around me thinking. I can see all these signs of history, the Monument to the People’s Heroes and Mao Mausoleum among them. But what about signs for the future? I watched people sitting, almost reverentially where the students sat the previous year and wondered what they were thinking. Did a loved one come here with a vision of a future and die for that future? The Chinese can so easily in their friendly and gentle disposition hide from us the truth of their hopes and fears.”


I have said it before and will say it again that Cockburn’s travelogue songs are so full of his lyrical genius that you just wish he was with you everywhere you go. Add places of political injustice and even more so. Waiting For A Miracle was written about Nicaragua but it fitted here. Never have I had such a detailed soundtrack to what I was seeing around me. Cockburn’s words could have been written as I attempted to write down my own thoughts: -

“Somewhere out there is a place that's cool
Where peace and balance are the rule
Working toward a future like some kind of mystic jewel
And waiting for a miracle.”

“Peace and balance” is a very Chinese concept. Working for a future and as the next verse suggests, “How come history takes such a long, long time/When you're waiting for a miracle.” A miracle? As I sat on my own, wondering and pondering and writing, Cockburn’s song was as Tolstoy suggested art should be, “Intercourse between human and human.” Cockburn and I were in conversation but more it became a resource for me to be in spiritual intercourse with God also. And my prayer was that these people, particularly the children who all smiled for a photograph and then moved their heads right on my click, that an interruption of God’s grace would bring a peaceful and balanced future and see the speed of history quicken. Twenty years on... and I remember that hour as vividly as when I was there and Cockburn still converses with me. Still I pray!




When Human, the lead single to The Killers third album was released, it caused, more discussion about a pop song lyric than for many a long year. “Are we human or are we dancer” was so grammatically askew that it drew some to conclude that for “dancer” it actually should read “denser.” That most believed it to be “dancer” led to discussion list damnation. It seems ironic that perhaps the most provocative and deep lyric to have stuttered from a rock singer in years should be so maligned. In the debate about the grammar, it could be argued that poetic licence is all about such convenient shifts from plural to singular. Anyone who knew anything about this thoughtful Las Vegas band from their previous albums, that have catapulted them onto the coat-tails of U2 and into the stratosphere of stadium-rock-with-meaning, should have known that if there was something out of kilter in singer and songwriter Brandon Flowers chorus it should be pondered a little longer; this serious young man with a Mormon world view must have had some reasoning going on.

"It's taken from a quote by [author Hunter S.] Thompson. ... 'We're raising a generation of dancers,' and I took it and ran,” Flowers would explain, “I guess it bothers people that it's not grammatically correct, but I think I'm allowed to do whatever I want. 'Denser'? I hadn't heard that one. I don't like 'denser.' " The obvious follow up question was whether Flowers agreed with Thompson’s assessment? "I think that I do, and I don't want to be too much of a preacher," he said. "I say that it's a mild social statement, and that's all I'm gonna say. We're still trying to write the best pop songs we can write." It seems to be a similar strategy to the one Jesus took when he dropped spiritual explosives into the hearts as well as ears of his hearers. The explosive does not need spelling out; that might diminish its potency. “Those with ears to hear...”

No doubt Thompson meant a lot of things when he described a generation of dancers. What Flowers does is bring it back to one overriding need; to restore our humanity. The world has a long history of de-humanising. One of the most powerful means of healing is to re-humanise. To give people back their dignity; whether nations or individuals. That Flowers declares that he is on his knees looking for an answer is sure to indicate that for him the answer to his question is in the human soul and its connection with the Divine. Racism, war, materialism, image and sadly many times religion has de-humanising effects. The Killers Human is a song of prophetic stimulus because it is attempting to re-humanise, those whose humanity has been stolen by a culture that de-humanizes.