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.

Arcade Fire’s “Month of May” and the Question of Posture

From the first time I heard this song I found the lyric regarding the posture of some young people to be very interesting. Here is the excerpt:

Now the kids are all standing with their arms folded tight
The kids are all standing with their arms folded tight
Now some things are pure and some things are right
But the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight
I said some things are pure and some things are right
But the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight
So young so young
So much pain for someone so young well
I know it’s heavy I know it ain’t light
But how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?

The song adds another verse that seems to provide a hope that this adopted posture will not become ultimate fate:

If I died in the month of May
Let the wind take my body away then
Wish I may I wish I might
Don’t leave me down there with my arms folded tight

The adopted posture here has perhaps become that of the corpse in the casket, and seemingly signifies a desire for being saved from such a permanent posture. But the honest irony in the lyric is that it is saying “the kids” adopting such a posture are already dead! They certainly cannot do something only live people do, which is to “lift” the pain that has perhaps provided the impetus (or excuse?) for their posture.

I find these lyrics to be quite interesting in relation to the cynicism and skepticism that seems to be part and parcel of the generation that has grown up in postmodern times. U2 sang of this generation in one of their earlier songs called “Like a Song” on the 1983 album “War.”

A generation without name, ripped and torn
Nothing to lose, nothing to gain
Nothing at all
And if you can’t help yourself
Well take a look around you
When others need your time
You say it’s time to go… it’s your time.
Angry words won’t stop the fight
Two wrongs won’t make it right.
A new heart is what I need.
Oh, God make it bleed.
Is there nothing left?

I included the exhortation of U2 to help others “if you can’t help yourself” to highlight Arcade Fire’s question to those that have adopted the “arms folded tight” posture that prevents helping oneself or others.

Of course postmodernism is not the actual cause of such postures, unless postmodernism has always existed! The truth seems to be that such postures are a common (albeit not necessarily uncomplicated nor a wholly conscious) choice of us human beings. C.S. Lewis provided an interesting story about some dwarves in the perilous times of “The Last Battle” in his Chronicles of Narnia. This brief summary from a commentator should be adequate to show that “the kids” with the “poor postures” in Arcade Fire’s “Month of May” are very much akin to Lewis’s dwarves, and that such postures can become permanent liabilities.

Among other things, I think the chronicles help children (and adults) understand the fundamental battle in life between good and evil. Good is represented by a great lion named Aslan, an archtype of the resurrected Christ. In the land of Narnia, evil shows up in many familiar guises of wicked witches, horrible beasts, and dark dwarfs.

The last of the seven books is appropriately entitled, The Last Battle (Revelation?). In this chronicle, the evil characters are Narnian dwarfs. They are dark and gloomy folk, with sneering grins, who distrust the whole world. The basic issue is that they have chosen to live in darkness, refusing to see the good around them, refusing to believe that Aslan can bring God’s light into their lives and world. So, they live in misery, squalor, and self-imposed darkness.

Near the end of the story, some of the children who follow Aslan go out into a field where the dwarfs live. They want to make friends; they want to help them see the light and the beauty of the world which surrounds them.

When they arrived, they noticed that the dwarfs have a very odd look and were huddled together in a circle facing inward, paying attention to nothing. As the children drew near, they were aware that the dwarfs couldn’t see them. “Where are you ?” asks one of the children. “We’re in here you bone-head,” said Diggle the dwarf, “in this pitch-black, poky, smelly little hole of a stable.”

“Are you blind?” asks another child. “No,” respond the dwarfs, “we’re here in the dark where no one can see.”

“But it isn’t dark, you poor dwarfs,” says Lucy, “look up, look round, can’t you see the sky and flowers – can’t you see me?” Then Lucy bends over, picks some wild violets, and says, “perhaps you can smell these.” But the dwarf jumps back into his darkness and yells, “How dare you shove that filthy stable litter in my face.” He cannot even smell the beauty which surrounds him.

Suddenly the earth trembles. The sweet air of the field grows sweeter and a brightness flashes behind them. The children turn and see that Aslan, the great lion himself, has appeared. They greet him warmly and then Lucy, through her tears, asks, “Aslan, can you do something for these poor dwarfs?”

Aslan approaches the dwarfs who are huddled in their darkness and he growls. They think it is someone in the stables trying to frighten them. Then Aslan shakes his mane and sets before the dwarfs a magnificent feast of food. The dwarfs grab the food in the darkness, greedily consuming it, but they cannot taste its goodness. One thinks he is eating hay, another an old rotten turnip. In a moment, they are fighting and quarreling among themselves as usual. Aslan turns and leaves them in their misery.

They children are dismayed. Even the great Aslan cannot bring them out of their self-imposed darkness. “They will not let us help them,” says Aslan. Their prison is only in their minds and they are so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out. “But come now children,” says Aslan, “we have other work to do,” and they leave the dwarfs alone in their miserable world.

These chronicles of Narnia reflect an ancient way of presenting truth through stories – using allegory. Allegorical stories help us see, through ordinary events, another higher level of truth. In this tale, the earthly lion, Aslan, represents the heavenly resurrected Christ who brings hope and life and light into the world.

What the children of Narnia discover, to their dismay, is that everyone has a choice… to see and respond to that light or to sit in self-imposed darkness unwilling to see the beauty which surrounds them, to smell the violets held under their nose or eat of delights of God’s table set before them.

We all know people like this who live in the dark. It is a lesson Lucy, Edmund, and the other children will carry with them as they return home through the magical door which separates the mystical kingdom of Narnia from their very ordinary earthly home. It’s a lesson we must all eventually learn as we walk through the shadowy valleys of life.

(The excerpt is from the Lewis website: Into the Wardrobe)

dwarves

In conclusion, Arcade Fire’s “Month of May” provides a very good commentary and warning concerning our reactions to the perilous winds that challenge our life, if we wish for our life to ultimately be more than premonitory postures for death.

Neither I, nor Arcade Fire, nor U2, nor C.S. Lewis make light of “the problem of pain” or violent winds in the month of May. But neither should we make light of our reaction and response that consists in a posture that is more dangerous in the long run because it has to do with what kind of person we are becoming.

So young so young
So much pain for someone so young well
I know it’s heavy I know it ain’t light
But how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?

Comments are always welcome. Someone must have some thoughts about something here.

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.