“God Put a Smile Upon Your Face” – Coldplay’s Critique of Our Society’s Utilitarian God

This has always been a personal favorite Coldplay song. Past familiarity, and recently discovering the video have served to catalyze my thoughts about what they might be getting at in the song. So I have tentatively come up with the following “interpretation”:

I think there are three main factors of consideration in the song:

1) “God.”

2) What this “God” does for us.

3) Whether this “God” is the real God.

So the main “concern” of the song is whether the “God” of the song is the real God, and inasmuch as this “God” is the God of our real lives, whether or not our “God” is the real God. Furthermore, the main point is more explicitly an expose on what might be called “the utilitarian God,” or the God our society has created to serve the “needs” we deem as valuable and necessary. The utilitarian God is therefore the God we grant existence to, who is justified thereto by our knowledge of what we need for our “society.”

So again, let’s consider the three factors while looking at some of the lyrics:

The “God” in the song, the “God” our society posits, is under scrutiny as to “God’s” reality.

What this “God” does for us is three fold: putting “a smile on our face”; giving us “style”; and giving us “grace”. I think the song, especially as portrayed in the video, strongly implies that this “God” has actually failed in doing these three things. More significant is the fact that the two first things “God” does are quite frivolous and typically American, while the giving of “grace” only gains significance in connection with the how it is qualified by the more specific values of both “a smile” and “style.” The opening lines show what appears to be simple reality to the narrator.

Where do we go nobody knows?

I’ve gotta say I’m on my way down

They show that the “God” who is in question has not provided even these frivolous “needs” that have been deemed essential by his evangelists. So the first verses open by contrasting simple reality with the “religion of society” (of the masses).

The repeated lines about “drawing the line” and “falling from grace” seem to be expressions of doubt from the narrator concerning the problem of the alignment of this “societal God” with actual reality. The repeated lines about “working it out” show a “religious system” exists and thereby show that the narrator is thought to have “fallen from grace” by society and in particular by a certain person (“honey, honey”) so that the narrator has “wasted all their time.” In light of “the system” the doubting narrator is “worse than you” because they “wanted to” (fall short of “society”). So the song sets up a scenario in which the narrator is being judged by someone who has bought into this false socio/religious system, but the narrator has rejected the system due to it’s failure to align with reality.

The video seems to support this interpretation of the song, so that the narrator is the character in the video that has no smile, no societal “success” or even fellowship, and ultimately loses his societal existence within this “religious system” that was interposed upon them by society.

What is interesting is that the narrator basically is presenting a theological view of God that is known as “apophatic theology,” which is a theology based on what God is not, rather than on what God is (cataphatic theology). I say this because the narrator cannot positively say more about God than that “your guess is as good as mine.” But it seems to me that because the narrator has used apophatic theology they believe they are at least correct to reject this societal, utilitarian “God,” while at the same time their accuser judges him by this “God” to be wrong. So there is an odd sort of logic at play in the song, in which an apophatic “drawing of the line” is correct but the cataphatic line is not which makes “your guess is as good as mine” to mean that “he” is right concerning “God,” while “honey” is wrong, even though he is still agnostic regarding any true God that actually aligns with reality.

So if this interpretation is on target, what is the point of the song? I would say it probably at least might include these ideas:

  • The “God” of our society is utilitarian, meaning that we have created “God” based on what is expedient for our perceived societal needs. God “puts a smile on our face” and gives us “style” and “grace” to succeed in our religious system.
  • Our society, both the segment that might claim to believe in and follow God, and the segment that does not, is idolatrous inasmuch as our “God” is created by us and “utilitarian” for our success. Some have called humans “religious animals” because we are inherently religious whether we actually are religious, or irreligious.
  • Human society is inherently judgmental, and the more we have a “social” unification of the masses the more we may also have a totalitarian style religion that sees non-practicioners as “wasted” from the point of view of the dominant society.
  • So the very disconcerting lesson is to beware, when our society tells us how it’s “God” will “put a smile on our face.”

All in all, I think it is an amazing song/critique of our “liberated” society by Coldplay.

Any questions, or comments are most welcome! Thanks for reading…

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2015. Excerpts, links, and reblogging may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

 

 

“Tiny Vessels” – adrift in the nihilism of the sexual revolution (Death Cab for Cutie)

This is the only album by Death Cab for Cutie that I have, but it is a great one. This is also not one of the saddest, but one of the most depressing songs I’ve ever heard. The mass of meaninglessness depicted: in the song; in the breakdown; in the “revolution.” I can’t believe intelligent people choose to live like this. Then again I can – knowing my own solidarity with the human species. But it’s time for the counter-revolution of the new man.

Lyrics:
This is the moment that you know
That you told her that you loved her but you don’t.
You touch her skin and then you think
That she is beautiful but she don’t mean a thing to me.
Yeah, she is beautiful but she don’t mean a thing to me.

I spent two weeks in Silver lake
The California sun cascading down my face
There was a girl with light brown streaks,
And she was beautiful but she didn’t mean a thing to me.
Yeah, she was beautiful but she didn’t mean a thing to me.

I wanted to believe in all the words that I was speaking,
As we moved together in the dark
And all the friends that I was telling
All the playful misspellings
and every bite I gave you left a mark

Tiny vessels oozed into your neck
And formed the bruises
That you said you didn’t want to fade
But they did, and so did I that day

All I see are dark Grey clouds
In the distance moving closer with every hour
So when you ask “Is something wrong?”
I think “You’re damn right there is but we can’t talk about it now.
No, we can’t talk about it now.”

So one last touch and then you’ll go
And we’ll pretend that it meant something so much more
But it was vile, and it was cheap
and you are beautiful but you don’t mean a thing to me
yeah you are beautiful but you don’t mean a thing to me (x2)
Music
“Tiny Vessels” by Death Cab for Cutie (Google Play • iTunes • AmazonMP3 • eMusic)
Artist
Death Cab for Cutie
Category
Music
License
Standard YouTube License

“Miles Away” by Fleetwood Mac – Some Thoughts On The Flight From Disillusionment While “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar”

 

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Part 1: A brief autobiography: 1975-1978

In 1975 I graduated college with my AAS degree. Like many in my generation, and like many young of all generations, I was seeking for a life-meaning and a life-direction. I was disillusioned with the society I lived in and the “Christianity” I thought I had grown up with (I hadn’t actually “gotten it” and for the most part it was a “watered down” Christianity).

So, driven partly by “spiritual” experiences I thought I had, I would go to the mall bookstores and peruse their sacred shelves hoping to find the key to become attuned to whatever the ultimate truth of the universe was. One exception to my method was when a book came to me through encountering a representative of the “Hare Krishna” movement in front of the record store in the mall. The airwaves had been flooded for some time with “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison, and this gentle soul was sure to let me know that the album he offered me (for a great price) was endorsed by George himself, and also by John Fahey. He also offered a very nice hardcover edition of “The Bhagavad Gita” so I walked away with some very ancient writings, “spiritual” music, and only $5 less cash in my pocket. In my search that often felt rather desperate, I counted the cost as insubstantial.

This began my encounter with hinduism which proved short lived, although pantheism itself became my basic worldview for a number of years. I simply made no progress in meditation, and didn’t really want to adopt vegetarianism or any other drastic lifestyle change that the Hare Krishna’s recommended.

So back to the bookstore narrative. I found and read many interesting books, but some less so for various reasons. One book though, spurred a several year quest. It was “The Teachings of Don Juan –  A Yaqui Way of Knowledge.” I was immediately fascinated and hooked, eventually reading the first five books that narrated the apprenticeship in Mexico of Carlos Castaneda under “Don Juan Matus,” a Yaqui Indian Sorcerer and “man of knowledge.” This series had begun under the auspices of Castaneda’s dissertation for anthropology at the University of California. My quest thus became to become a “man of knowledge.”

don juan

Little did I know at the time (due to the fact that Al Gore had not yet invented the internet and therefore finding news of things such as this required more attention than I exercised) the historicity of the books had been officially debunked in 1976 and had been under much scrutiny from as early as 1969. The five books I read came out from 1968 through 1977, and I read them mostly from 1976 through 1978. Some today still find value in them even as fiction, and think that perhaps Castaneda had valid reasons for his “cover up” as a sort of critique of typical anthropology studies. But for me their factuality was important and I think I believed they were historical probably until at least 1979. On the other hand it was not actually their non-historical basis that led me to abandon my quest to become a “man of knowledge” style sorcerer. The truth is that while I was in the midst of my quest, I found a different way, or perhaps more accurately it found me.

Had I known sooner, perhaps I would have given up that specific quest earlier. Alas, as early 1973 Fleetwood Mac had said that Don Juan went up “in a cloud of smoke,” but even though I was an avid early listener to the Mac, I didn’t hear “Mystery to Me” until probably 1978.

This brief autobiography is merely to provide a picture of what life was like for one, indeed for many in that era and to also provide some context for the song “Miles Away.” That song is an apt summation of how “man’s search for meaning” led many to eventually seek “flight” from the disillusionment a generation encountered in failed movements and false messiahs. The flowery optimism of the 1960’s had led to the hedonistic disillusionment of the 1970’s.

Miles Away 
by Fleetwood Mac
Written by Bob Welch

The swamp is getting deeper all the time
And the faces that I see don’t seem to shine
Now there’s too much warhol hanging off the wall
And the mystery that there used to be is gone

Let me go
Miles away
Let me ride
Just miles away
Don’t wanna know
I’m not gonna miss it much
Gonna be drivin’ once again

Don juan goes up in a cloud of smoke
And all those hare krishnas turned out to be a joke
And it’s restless, restless, restless all the time
Slidin’ up and down the surface of this life
Now I know that I can’t say what’s black and white
But if I could fly I think I’d try tonight

(From MetroLyrics.com)

Part 2: What follows disillusionment, endless flight?

Fleetwood Mac had proposed “flight” as an answer back in 1973. By 1977 Steve Miller’s enormous FM hit “Fly Like an Eagle” arguably confirmed “flight” as the answer for the generation. Alvin Lee’s ‘Ten Years After” had pointed the way back in 1971 saying “I’d  love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do…, so I’ll leave it up to you.” By 1977 the 60’s revolution had become flight with Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle.”

Feed the babies
Who don’t have enough to eat
Shoe the children
With no shoes on their feet
House the people
Livin’ in the street
Oh, oh, there’s a solution

I want to fly like an eagle
To the sea
Fly like an eagle
Let my spirit carry me
I want to fly like an eagle
Till I’m free
Fly through the revolution

(From MetroLyrics.com)

The question to ask today is whether our life is now become one of endless flight. Have we become a generation that unknowingly are ironically and perversely living the ancient biblical mandate of being “strangers and pilgrims” in the earth? For the point of that biblical “lifestyle” was not that it is good to be homeless and on endless “flight”, but to be on “pilgrimage” to an “alternative city” from the city of the kingdom’s of the world. In other words, there is a reality greater than the kingdom of humanity that has invaded, and the only “escape” from the old reality is to be found in this new “invading” reality.

This is the controversial truth of Christianity, so controversial that many Christians aren’t even familiar with it, namely that rightly understood Christianity is not about escape at all! It is about people becoming part of God’s new reality here and now. In more scriptural language in about becoming part of the inaugurated “kingdom of God.” In theological language it is about people becoming part of “the presence of the future,” meaning that God’s other-dimensional “future” for the world has invaded the present.

Now admittedly this may all sound strange and perhaps even stranger than Castaneda’s second book “A Separate Reality” did to those that read it. But this is scriptural Christian doctrine, which should be evident in this simple parable told by Jesus, the person in whom God’s invasion of the world was inaugurated in potency.

Matthew 13:33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”

N. T. Wright, on of today’s foremost scholars of the New Testament wrote this:

We who live after Calvary and Easter know that God did indeed act suddenly and dramatically at that moment. When today we long for God to act, to put the world to rights, we must remind ourselves that he has already done so, and that what we are now awaiting is the full outworking of those events. We wait with patience, not like people in a dark room wondering if anyone will ever come with a lighted candle, but like people in early morning who know that the sun has arisen and are now waiting for the full brightness of midday. (Matthew for Everyone, Part 1, p. 170)

In short, through Christ, God’s “kingdom of heaven” has been hidden in the world to “leaven” the whole world. How this works is admittedly somewhat controversial, and not merely because at times various bodies of “the Church” have sought to facilitate this providentially “secret” process of God through questionable “public” means. This historical scenario has left fear in the minds of many that an unbridled  future movement could make the communistic attempted  “leavenings” of the world pale by comparison. But the only scripturally legitimate power of God’s kingdom must be centered in the dynamic exhibited by Jesus in his ministry. And that dynamic was diametrically opposed to the power that is operative in the kingdoms of mankind. The dynamic of Jesus was the exercise of a different sort of power, that has been notably absent in human governments and organized religions of all stripes.

Mark 10:42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The dynamic of Jesus was even a different sort of love, one that is conspicuously absent in the intolerance in the name of “tolerance” in America today.

Matthew 5:43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

But in the end am I not espousing some measure of Christianity as “organized religion”? I would have to answer yes, but it would have to be a “matured” Christianity such as we have not yet seen broadly in the world. I readily admit that “organized religion” is scary, especially to “conspiracy theory” prone Americans. The reality is that some human “organization” is inevitable. The question then is what will it’s ethic be? Does even the American tradition of liberal democracy foster the ethical dynamic of Jesus? Do the disillusioned Americans that are permanently “in flight” have a dynamic that fosters the shalom of God for humanity? In the end, Bob Welch’s “Miles Away” is the only solution for postmodernism’s  no “black or white” epistemological dogma.

And it’s restless, restless, restless all the time
Slidin’ up and down the surface of this life
Now I know that I can’t say what’s black and white
But if I could fly I think I’d try tonight

The true alternative is that God has already inaugurated the solution in which the reality of God’s alternate city can “leaven” the world. Postmoderns can only confess with Alvin Lee “I don’t know what to do”?

Revelation 21:2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

The responsibility of all people then, is not to seek endless flight from the world, but to be part of the city that is to come. God has already prepared everything, but as Bob Dylan (who else) has pointed out, “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar.”

West of the Jordan, east of the Rock of Gibraltar,
I see the burning of the stage,
Curtain risin’ on a new age,
See the groom still waitin’ at the altar.

Note that throughout the chorus Dylan has several second lines:

  • I see the burning of the page (1 x)
  • I see the burning of the stage (3x)
  • I see the burning of the cage (1x)

He also has an alternate to the third line one time where he sings:

  • Curtain rising on a new stage…

I would love to hear any thoughts you may have about my thoughts.

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2015. Excerpts, links, and reblogging may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Oscars and “Celluloid Heroes” – “God Save the Kinks!”

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I heard this old classic by the Kinks the other day, so when I saw the special segment on the Oscar’s last night that honored all the famous persons affiliated with Hollywood this song naturally popped into my mind. It is undoubtedly one of the greatest rock songs ever.

celluloid heroes

I believe that the song beautifully deconstructs the romanticist hopes our culture places in what Robert Bellah called “expressive individualism,” by revealing the avoided but painfully obvious reality that the “Celluloid Heroes” that “never really die” are not real persons. But our cultural narrative of expressive individualism is strong, making our nihilistic faith almost necessary. Thus we buy into the hope that we can transcend death through such achievements. Our cultural narrative is quite persuasive, supported by a propagandizing consumerism wherein “Image is everything” and  “Nike”  rule. This ensures that our religious allegiance is almost a foregone conclusion. Continue reading

Flannery O’Connor’s “Onnie Jay Holy” and her critique of “Hucksterism” (American “Consumer-Christianity”)

Onnie Jay Holy

In Flannery O’Connor’s novel “Wise Blood,” Preacher Onnie Jay Holy sees Hazel Motes engaged in his atheistic “preaching” and seeking to squeeze some financial gain from what could be a ripe situation starts preaching that Hazel is the prophet of the new “Holy Church of Christ without Christ.” Of course Hazel is quite disturbed at this seemingly friendly “hostile takeover.”

The cultural criticism of O’Connor exhibits her genius here, as the Rev. Holy without reservation greedily uses the atheistic “preaching” of Hazel Motes by only slightly modifying the name of the “church” by adding a few words that are ironically self-defeating: Hazel Motes “Church Without Christ” becomes Rev. Holy’s “Holy Church of Christ Without Christ.” It is also genius that the first name is also Onnie Jay’s name, “Holy” and that this “church of Christ” is “without Christ” but that contradiction doesn’t matter. Also, it is ironic that the atheist Hazel motes is the only one with enough sense to detect the logical fallacies of Onnie Jay Holy’s revisionist “Christianity.” All of these points reveal that the “huckster” Onnie Jay Holy cares nothing for truth, preaches sheer nonsense, and is only in it for the almighty dollar.

Onnie Jay Holy preached a classic three-point sermon for his “church.” In each point Flannery O’Connor’s critiques a different aspect of degenerated American “Christianity.” Onnie Jay Holy’s first point is that his religion is fully American, “nothing foreign.”  :

“Now I just want to give you folks a few reasons why you can trust this church,” he said. “In the first place, friends, you can rely on it that it’s nothing foreign connected with it. You don’t have to believe nothing you don’t understand and approve of. If you don’t understand it, it ain’t true, and that’s all there is to it. No jokers in the deck, friends.”

In degenerated American Christianity, everything is “domesticated,” made easy for consumption.  Nothing is “foreign” that would be offensive to our human sensibility, and there are no surprises from hidden “jokers in the deck” that could disturb our “understanding” of God and his ways.

The second  point of Rev. Holy is that it is based in our own “personal interpitation.” Everything in his religion is based on, congenial to, and able to be conformed to each individual’s desires.

“Now, friends,” Onnie Jay said, “I want to tell you a second reason why you can absolutely trust this church – it’s based on the Bible. Yes sir! It’s based on your own personal interpitation of the Bible friends. You can sit at home and interpit your own Bible however you feel in your heart it ought to be interpited. That’s right,” he said, “just the way Jesus would have done it. Gee, I wisht I had my gittarr here,” he complained.

Another stroke of genius is O’Connor’s inclusion of Rev. Holy’s statement concerning his “gittarr,” showing the use of marketing and packaging for the success of his new “church.” Flannery O’Connor certainly understood how a consumeristic model provided a success formula for the creation of the “mega-church” in America, and she perceived this in the 1950’s!

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The third point of the sermon is that the “Church” was contemporary.

“That ought to be enough reasons, friends,” Onnie Jay Holy said, “but I’m going to tell you one more just to show you I can. This church is up-to-date! When your in this church you can know that there’s nothing or nobody ahead of you, nobody knows nothing you don’t know, all the cards are on the table, friends, and that’s a fack!”

C.S. Lewis though that most modern people suffer from what he called “chronological snobbery,” which is mainly based on the modern myth of inevitable progress. Anything thought to contain “tradition” is automatically suspect, to such intelligent and “progressive” moderns. Again O’Connor’s genius uses an irony in this belief, namely that “there’s nothing or nobody ahead of you.”  She reveals another self-defeater since if there is “nothing or nobody ahead” there can be no real progress. A “contemporary” church designed on the precept of “chronological snobbery” is always destined to ultimate irrelevance and practical nihilism.

Flannery O’Connor was certainly critiquing what in her day was called religious “hucksterism.” But she was also critiquing the modernism in liberal Christianity and the degenerated cultural Christianity that was developing. She saw liberal Christianity as mainly compromised by modern myths and therefore without defense against the individualistic consumer Christianity that was developing within America’s secularistic liberal capitalistic democracy.

Following is an excerpt from the 1979 movie version of Wise Blood by John Huston.

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2014. Excerpts, links, and reblogging may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Bob Dylan’s “deconstruction” of the “American Dream Machine”

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It seems appropriate to close out the “old” year with some deconstruction! After all, out with the old and in with the new, right? So what kind of “deconstruction” do I have in mind? Continue reading

Flannery O’Connor’s “Hazel Motes” and nihilistic materialistic “justification” through the “American Dream Machine”

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“Nobody with a good car needs to be justified!” (Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes)

Hazel Motes is the main character of Flannery O’Connor’s first novel, “Wise Blood,” from 1952.  Leon C. Wood, in his book on Flannery O’Connor says the following about the significance of Hazel’s car in his “religion”:

This broken-down car serves as the single sacrament of his nihilistic religion, the true viaticum for escaping everything that would lay claim on him. O’Connor was an early discerner, together with Walker Percy, that the automobile, even more than the movies and television, is the great American Dream Machine. It fulfills our fantasies of individualist autonomy, enabling us to strike out for the proverbial territories whenever the limits of social existence press in upon us. As Motes’s only sacred space, the car serves as both pulpit and residence, enabling him to incarnate his message in a life of perpetual isolation and vagabondage. (Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, p. 169)

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Flannery O’Connor

BMC @ Manifest Propensity, 2013