Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sunday: Music & Theology

It's back to school time. The Law School begins classes on Wednesday. This semester I am offering my seminar on Law & Theology, so let's use a theological concept to select our Sunday music. I choose "theodicy" - the attempt to justify God or, to put it in another way, consider why a good God allows evil.

Theodicy is not a big part of the seminar. In fact, it tends not to come up much at all. But it is a great theme for something like this.

One reaction to the problem of evil in a world we believe to have been created by a good God, seen as early as Job, is anger. God is wrathful. God is capricious. God is a bullet. Or so said Johnette Napolitano and Concrete Blonde. I get the political subtext about guns and the po-lice, but talk about singing the hell out of something. The squeak around 1:42 is brilliant. ("I'm a high school grad/I'm over five foot three"). Napolitano's rendering of the sign of the cross (the penultimate but not - perhaps significantly - the final time) as a slash across the throat suggests our dilemna. Moving, as she does, from left to right, or as Pope Innocent III described it, from misery to grace suggests an answer, echoed by the way in which she crosses herself at the end. All of that was probably unintentional, but my late Mother the artist taught me that a work of art is limited by neither the artist's intent nor interpretation.

Yesterday evening, the Reddess and I stopped by Veteran's Park in Port Washington where Shark, Jr.'s band SuperOpus was playing at the Paul Watry 20th Birthday Party and Memorial Scholarship Fund. (Paul was killed in a hit and run three years.) SuperOpus plays music from the 90s including this song from Radiohead. The awful truth? You bring it on yourself. Or, as the video for the song suggests, the truth is too awful to know. (Incidentally, Chris nails the guitar solo and vocals.)

Some people see evil as an active force and a rather powerful one. I have always thought this song mocked its power and pretension, while acknowldging its seduction. Some people have claimed that it is influenced by Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov's allegorical novel of good and evil "The Master and Margarita" but I never knew that and haven't read the book. We have, on the one hand, the devil seeking to trick you into saying his name (because you don't know that he is behind whatever compels you) and, at the same time, just about begging you to do so. He needs you more than you need him. I pick the live version at Altamont because I prefer the way the band played the song during it's '69 tour to the recorded version and because I like the dog visiting at 5:42. Of course a guy got killed at Altamont (but - later - during "Under My Thunb") and the '60s CTB'd right then and there. It was, like, 1976 the next day.

Some emphasize the fallen nature of man. Something that has gotten us into a bind, often expressed as the idea that we have made ourselves into Gods. The spirit of this is evoked in Bob Dylan's "License to Kill." Best line: "Man worships/at the altar/ of a stagnant pool/and when he sees his/reflection/he's fufilled."

Then there is the view that complete understandig will elude us but that we can know enough to want to persevere; to say, using Christian imagery from the Annunciation, to say yes to the unfathomable. We are, in the end, born to it.


3rd Way said...

The lyrics of Thom Yorke's "Just" are aligned with Humanist notions of humanity being fully responsible for it's own condition, without any supernatural intervention.

You do it to yourself, you do
and that's what really hurts
You do it to yourself, just you
you and no-one else

Steinbeck gave the same perspective of the human condition to his preacher character in the "Grapes of Wrath":

The hell with it! There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing. And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain’t nice

There are few contemporary works of art that interpret notions of good and evil as anything other than Human concepts. Buy hey, take what you want from the art around us. As your good mother taught you "a work of art is limited by neither the artist's intent nor interpretation".

Rick Esenberg said...


A worthy and substantive response.

I'm not disposing, I'm proposing. And what you take from the song (which was prompted by not a little paternal pride; my kid has always nailed Radiohead) is within what I was attempting to illustrate. (But, sophmoric as it may be, what was the guy so afraid to say? "You are all there is" certainly is one possibility. But there are others.) (Ed. You have to know the copyright protected video to follow. You can see it here.)

Still, I'm sure that you acknowledge that the idea that "we do it to ourselves" is compatible with either a God filled or Godless universe. Indeed the notion that we make the evil in the world is one classic strain in theodicy. It lets God off the hook.(Or, as others may prefer, reads Her out of the movie.)

Steinbeck is, of course, more particular and raises a question that haunts Humanism (if that's what you want to call the view that God is not active in the world)and the idea that evil and good are manmade concepts. It haunts secularism just as the challenges of theodicy haunt believers. How do we know what's nice and what isn't?

Steinbeck thought it immoral that no one rescued the victims of the dust bowl or that someone ("society") acted in a way that made their victimization possible.

Why? What if they were just collateral damage of an industrialization that made the rest of us better off? Why do they have a claim on the rest of us? It's easy to see why Tom Joad was unhappy, but why should I care beyond whatever keeps Tom - when he is there "in the ways guys yell when they're mad" - from taking my stuff? We ought not let go of sin too easily. We may want it back.

The answer (what the character. im Casey, calls "the whole shebang") suggested by Steinbeck immediately after the passage that you quoted - "Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of" - is fairly supernatural.

I am not so sure that I agree - actually I am sure I do not - with your assessment of contemporary art. I pick ostensibly secular popular music here because I know it better, it speaks in a language that we are used to and it is far more likely that readers of this blog will be have heard it. (Over The Rhine is a bit of an exception: clearly not secular and not all that well known, all though it should be.)

But there are inescapable religious messages all around you if you have ears to hear. Who are among the biggest - and most interesting acts - of the past thirty years? U2? Springsteen? U2 is an inescapably Christian band, although not in a way that synches with our culture wars or that gives easy comfort to right or left. Springsteen - not so secular. (Take a run through "The Rising" if you don't agree.)

I could go on, but the fact is that, in an iTunes world, no one is going to be as popular as some once were. Popular music has become much flatter.

Religious themed literature and films - even those that come from a perpective of faith - are not limited to The Passion of the Christ and the "Left Behind" series. That stuff may fit some folks' views (and prejudices) about the interplay of Christianity and life but, to quote (and co-opt) Patti Smith, "not mine."

I think what you mean is that contemporary works of art tend not to be traditionally confessional or explicitly centered on what Christians call specific revelation That's how we are trained to see things today. And it's not always for the better.

Anonymous said...

Dear Rick,
Do you guys like ANY classical music as well? How about Handel's "Messiah?" Verdi's "Requiem?" Brahms' "Four Serious Songs?" ANY symphonies, operas or oratorios?

Don't mean to denigrate your favorites. I'm a huge fan of the Beatles, Stones, Cream/Clapton, Hendrix, much of Dylan's work, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan. (And I could go on for a couple more pages by listing my favorite JAZZ artists.)
But you are only cheating yourself if you DON'T listen to some fine classical music as well:) --

3rd Way said...

By mentioning Steinbeck’s and Yorke’s allusions towards an inactive divinity I was trying to make the point that the brand of spirituality they articulate is one of Humanism. Explorations of the forces of a higher power will always be articulated within art, but the vast majority of contemporary art addresses spirituality in terms of a Humanist context similar to Yorke, Springsteen and Steinbeck. My cultural lens leads me to that interpretation. Your lens may not, but I have a feeling most people of my generation share my same lens crafter. You may not think that is a good thing, but I do. The youth of the middle east are hopefully interpreting the same art that I am in the same way. If the world’s population can all agree that "the whole shebang" is defined by "all men having one big soul ever'body's a part of" and our differences aren’t defined by divine delineations of good and evil we will move slightly closer to a more prosperous peace.

Your questioning of the claims the victims of the dust bowl had on the wealthy landowners that leveraged a labor market in their favor to maximize profits at the expense of workers literally starving to death surprised me. I will leave your questioning of their simply being “collateral damage of an industrialization” to be something you can decide between you and your god. I have heard of this roughly 2009 year old philosophizing Jewish carpenter fellow that claimed god commanded that those with provided for those without (Deut. 15:7). A theocratic tradition such as that seems one worth continuing on.