Arcade Fire’s Critique of “The Reflective Age” and their Call to a Counter-narrative

Since Arcade Fire has arrived I’ve been intrigued not only by their music but by the fact that they call their hearers to the task of being reflectors (critical thinkers) in relation to our modern culture. I tentatively believe that they present the concept of “reflektor” as the antithesis of being a reflector, wherein a reflektor does not reflect on the real world and reality, but rather only mistakenly finds in those realities reflections of the self. So how do we break free from the mirror/mold of the “reflective age” to the freedom of finding real reality? I believe that their method at least partly includes looking through the lens of biblical revelation.

Their song “Neon Bible” critiques a distortion of authentic biblical revelation as is unfortunately found promulgated by some brands of Christianity. Yet the word “Neon” signals that this is a distortion while also pointing to the fact that the true “Bible” nevertheless remains intact.

All these comments of mine are for the purpose of saying that I believe that Arcade Fire’s songs attempt to present a corpus of reflective narratives on our culture mediated to them (and us) partly through the Biblical revelatory texts. In other words, I think that Arcade Fire’s work at times amounts to a sort of “Bible Study” in which they seek to interpret our culture through the biblical lens and thereby offer counter-narratives to the dominant narratives of our culture.

So to return to where I started, I seriously think that Arcade Fire’s works present a call to us to join them in reflecting on the narratives of our culture in light of the counter-narrative of scripture. To “respond” to this “call” I started a facebook discussion group called “Arcade Fire Neon Bible Study” wherein listeners can compare thoughts and theories about that while also simply appreciating the broad scope of their literary/artistic/musical work.

I don’t view Arcade Fire as something like biblical prophets as though infallible in their cultural critiques, nor that they have fully or accurately presented the biblical counter-narratives. But I believe they are at least to some extent sincerely trying to do so, and if anything their observations, questions, critiques, and answers provide much “food for thought” for those seeking to truly “reflect” on things in “the reflective age.”

So here’s the address, check it out and I hope you’ll join the “Neon Bible Study.” https://www.facebook.com/groups/442967742576071/

BMC @ Manifest Propensity, 2015

Hey Ma, I’m Only Bleeding (for “Mother Kirk”)

pilgrim's regress

A song I wrote today partly inspired by Bob Dylan’s great song of similar title; dedicated to “Mother Kirk.”

Hey ma

ain’t good for man to be alone

it’s time to put down the phone

answer the door

Hey ma

three meals didn’t make me stay

but one will drive the devil away

supper’s ready

chorus

Don’t know who’ll be there

do know that I don’t care

the lesser and the least

the kingdom coming

Hey ma

I’m only bleeding ’cause now I’m home

a room off the streets of Rome

with flames of fire

Hey ma

darkness at the break of noon

the president hid in his room

his table’s broken

chorus 2x

Written by Bryan M. Christman, July 19th, 2015

Copyright 2015 by Bryan M. Christman @ Manifest Propensity

All rights reserved

“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

Joni Mitchell’s “River” and the “Christmas movement” of God

Joni Mitchell has long been my favorite female singer-songwriter. Her early song “River” from 1971 is undoubtedly one of her masterpieces. It is also a fitting song for a meditation on the meaning of Christmas.

The song begins and ends with Joni’s solo piano strains almost struggling in a minor rather than major key to play “Jingle Bells,” portending the dissonance between the season with songs of joy and the perennial sorrows of life. The sadness in her voice and the beautifully haunting music and lyrics immediately draw the listener into the melancholy that the advent of Christmas has created for her through its seeming inability to give her “joy and peace.”

It’s coming on Christmas

They’re cutting down trees

They’re putting up reindeer

And singing songs of joy and peace

Oh I wish I had a river

I could skate away on

Joni Mitchell has so beautifully juxtaposed joy and sorrow, peace and pain, that she simply melts the soul of the most hardened of us. The festive joys of the Christmas season have been annulled for her by the frozen winter that would provide hope, if only she could skate away on its cold hard ice. Christmas was lost for her as it was for all Narnia in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” by C. S. Lewis, where it was “always winter, but never Christmas.”

She does not provide any critique though, of the biblical meaning of Christmas, but rather describes the dissonance in her own soul that the “traditional” season of joy brings to her. But is the fact that Christmas is simply, perhaps in the main the uncritically accepted “season of joy” the real problem? In other words, is Christmas actually “meant” to provide an easy solution to the perplexities and problems of life?

So the question, simply put is, what does Christmas mean? Is Christmas meant to remove all our problems and replace them with unending “joy and peace?” I think that to suppose so, is to mistake what Christmas is, at least in its initial interaction with the world.

Christmas is called the advent, the beginning of God’s movement toward the world in a new and unprecedented way. But Christmas did not annul, but rather fully entered the perplexities and sufferings of life. A young couple, the wife very pregnant, having to undergo severe inconvenience to comply with a governmental census for taxes. Sages traveling from distant lands following “signs” in their insatiable search for a viable hope for humanity. A King that so feared the loss of his power that he sent soldiers to slaughter the innocents, the contemporaries of the child who would be king and threaten his reign. The couple also then driven to become refugees in another country to escape Herod’s plan.

The mother herself was caught in difficulties and perplexities she could not begin to understand. For the child conceived in her womb was the beginning of a mysterious movement of God not only toward, but into the deepest parts of the world by “becoming flesh and dwelling among us,” and eventually to be “betrayed (to death) by the kiss” of a dear friend; to be abandoned in the end by all his disciples except the women; to “surrender” to the murderous political machinations of the “religious” authorities; to suffer the pains of torture and horrible execution at the hands of the Romans; and to seemingly have been abandoned and cursed by God himself.

So God become flesh in the infant Jesus was God’s movement toward and into the crucible of all human experience. Certainly there were simple pleasures, and the children came to Jesus because he was joyful, not austere! But there was also much suffering common to humanity just as “the sparks fly upward.”

But this is not to say that it is not perfectly natural for us to want to “skate away” from all the suffering. In Gethsemane with the prospect of the cross before him, Jesus agonized and sweat “great drops of blood,” desiring to escape the cup of suffering placed before him. For in this first Christmas movement of God into the world, the cup of suffering was to be fully drank to the bottom.

The proximate cause of Joni Mitchell’s sorrow in “River” is given in the narration, and can be summarized in a few lines:

I made my baby cry…

I made my baby say goodbye

Much of the sorrow we experience in life is due to our own failures, often inexplicable even to ourselves as we seem to be quite adept as saboteurs of even our own joy and peace. Joni Mitchell laments that

I’m so hard to handle

I’m selfish and I’m sad

Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby

That I ever had

Oh I wish I had a river…

These sorrows too, are part of the suffering that the Christmas movement has taken to the cross of Christ, bearing the guilt and shame of the manifold sins of humankind. There is no “river so long” that we could “skate away on,” that would enable us to escape not only from what we have done but who we are. For wherever we go, there we are. But part of the mystery of the suffering of Christ on the cross is that for those that believe it is the power of God that brings to us the very “righteousness, holiness and redemption” of God.

So Christmas is not annulled because it has not removed our sufferings or because we don’t have a river long or frozen enough to skate away on. Christmas is fulfilled because it is the river of God that flows to us and even within us if we believe. That river is what enables the people of the community it has created to “count it all joy” in trials,  and to have a “peace that passes understanding” because it is a community born into “fellowship with his sufferings.” Yet it is also the Christmas river whose lively water flows with songs of “joy and peace.”

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
6 The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. (from Psalm 46, ESV)

Christmas joy and peace to all!

Bryan @ Manifest Propensity

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.

U2’s “California (There is no End to Love)” and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on loss

loss480-blogSpan

“California (There is no End to Love)” contains the following lyric:

There’s no end to grief
That’s how I know

That’s how I know
And why I need to know that there is no end to love
All I know and all I need to know is there is no end to love

U2

On Christmas Eve, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter from Tegel prison to Renate and Eberhard Bethge. In the letter he wrote some things that seem to provide a good “theological” basis for what U2 sang in “California (There is no End to Love).” Bonhoeffer wrote:

“…there is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so; one must simply persevere and endure it. At first this sounds very hard, but at the same time it is a great comfort, for one remains connected to the other person through the emptiness to the extent that it remains unfilled. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness; God in no way fills it but rather keeps it empty and thus helps us persevere – even in pain – our authentic communion. Further, the more beautiful and full the memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into peaceful joy. One bears what was beautiful in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within. One must guard against wallowing in these memories, giving oneself entirely over to them, just as one does not gaze endlessly at a precious gift but only at particular times, and otherwise possesses it only as a hidden treasure of which one is certain.” (Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 238)

1 Corinthians 13:7 English Standard Version of the Bible (ESV)

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

BMC @ Manifest Propensity, 2014

Comments or questions are always welcomed!

“No Cars Go” by Arcade Fire and the human desire for some other “place”

In “No Cars Go” Win Butler & Arcade Fire express a desire for a place where “no cars go.” The song doesn’t say why such a place is desired. Maybe it is a self-evident truth for our time. What does seem evident is that the desire touches upon “spiritual” or “summum bonum” issues. In a few previous posts I have presented other thoughts related to the automobile and such issues based on some things the fiction writer Flannery O’Connor has written. Ralph Wood relates how O’Connor explored the issue through her character Hazel Motes:

(Hazel Motes’s) 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. (Comment on the novel “Wise Blood” by Flannery O’Connor in Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South by Ralph C. Wood, p. 169 )

essex

Hazel Motes preaching from his pulpit

Flannery O’Connor wrote of the car as the vehicle that seemingly enables self-justification for nihilistic consumerist escape from our modern materialistic world, but which falls short of the desired escape.

Fittingly, Arcade Fire sing of the car, along with other vehicles of transportation, as only capable of movement within this world of seeming nihilism. The world does not seem to contain any place beyond our limited modes of transportation and their nihilistic presence. Their reference to “spaceships” seems to expand the realm of possible nihilism, just as the Soviet cosmonauts in the sixties reported that they did not “find God” in outer space.

So it seems that Arcade Fire sings of a “place” beyond the normal realm. Are they speaking of “heaven?” They sing of knowing about this place.

“…where we know”.

Is this “spiritual” knowledge?

A place we know of in which no cars go! They seem to be bearers of good news! But, they don’t say how they know, or where exactly this place is?

“…don’t know where we’re going”

Interestingly, they don’t know where it is, but they seem to know when it is, or perhaps when it occurs. It occurs in the time

“….between the click of the light and the start of the dream”?

What does their “answer” mean? Is it merely the time of deep sleep, before dreaming, when there seems to be nothing? In the final analysis, are they still subject to nihilism?

Or is this space in time of waking, yet in the dark, when making love can seem to exclude all other reality? Bruce Cockburn sang of this space in time in his song “The Coldest Night of the Year.”

When two lovers really love there’s nothing there
But this suddenly compact universe
Skin and breath and hair

I don’t believe that “making love” or human relationships are a small thing, but are they the answer to nihilism? Many seem to live as such, as expressed in “A Farewell to Arms” by Hemingway:

You’re my religion. You’re all I’ve got.”

So does Arcade Fire believe there is a real place that “No Cars Go?” It is hard to say anything definitive, based on this song alone. But can their longing for such a place mean anything in itself? Theologians like C.S. Lewis thought so, and developed an apologetical “argument from desire” for theism as opposed to nihilism.

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity; book 3, chapter 10.)

Hemingway also wrote in “A Farewell to Arms” that “all thinking men are atheists.” But Pascal the religious thinker thought otherwise.

I conclude this song merely by noting that this early Arcade Fire song is a good one, and perhaps it is even somewhat Pascalian. Could the “click of the light” indicate the limitation of human reason, while the “start of the dream” indicates openness to the “reasons of the heart” that Pascal discovered? The more I think about the lyrics, with the call in the song to “little babies, women and children, old folks,” I am led to think that the interpretations explored above fall short of the sheer drive of the song toward an exodus type movement to another type of place. The use of “dream” may throw us off as indicating unreality, but even the Biblical prophets spoke of the coming of God’s new kingdom in relation to visions of young men and dreams of old men.

Joel 2:28-29
New International Version (NIV)
The Day of the Lord

28 “And afterward,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

(See Acts 2:16-18)

Perhaps “between the click of the light and the start of the dream” does not refer to the time in which this other place occurs, but to the revelational method by which one knows about the place, i.e. the Pascalian method of knowledge.

Below is a video someone put together for Bruce Cockburn’s song referenced above. By the way, Bruce Cockburn believes in the reasons of the heart and the movement of the Holy Spirit, and does not make relationships his religion.

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.

 

“Genesis” by Jorma Kaukonen – A song born from the cataclysmic

quah

The opening song on Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen’s first solo album from 1974, now 40 years old, has always been a favorite of mine. It details his plea toward a new beginning that was needed in his relationship with his wife, due to some typical thoughtless indulgence that frequents the lives of traveling musicians. In the liner notes of the re-release we read the following:

Although a wistful romantic ode on its surface. what many apparently don’t realize is that the song is a confessional. Says Jorma, “It’s about a guy who cheated on his wife and got caught. I was living the rock and roll life and one thing led to another and I was forced to fess up. The good news is I got a good news is I got a good song out of it. The bad news is I don’t even remember who it was that caused the song to be written.

“At the time,” he continues, “my wife Margareta and I realized we were really miserable and we were trying to be happier together. I was writing a lot of true love songs-true love almost always gone wrong but saved at the last moment. Some people have suggested that wouldn’t it be nice if you could write songs like ‘Genesis’ all the time, and I always say, “Yeah, it would be, but it would be great not to have to be in the place I was when I wrote it.’ Many of the best songs get written in a state of abject misery. I prefer to write fewer songs and have less cataclysmic events in my life.”

Thus, “Genesis” is one of those songs that is ultimately both sad and beautiful.

The “flying angel” cover art used for the album called “Quah” was created by his wife. Jorma dedicated the re-issue of the album to the memory of Margareta.

Time has come for us to pause
And think of living as it was
Into the future we must cross, must cross
I’d like to go with you
And I’d like to go with you
You say I’m harder than a wall
A marble shaft about to fall
I love you dearer than them all, them all
So let me stay with you
So let me stay with you

And as we walked into the day
Skies of blue had turned to grey
I might have not been clear to say, to say
I never looked away
I never looked away
And though I’m feeling you inside
My life is rolling with the tide
I’d like to see it be an open ride
Along with you
Going along with you

The time we borrowed from ourselves
Can’t stay within a vaulted well
And living turns into a lender’s will
So let me come with you
And let me come with you
And when we came out into view
And there I found myself with you
When breathing felt like something new, new
Along with you
Going along with you

jorma

jorma2

BMC @ Manifest Propensity, 2014