“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.

 

 

 

 

 

Ezekiel’s vision of the ultimate iconoclast

In my last post I introduced Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s “Tarkus” as a point of contact to the biblical truth that God is the ultimate iconoclast. I didn’t specifically detail the strange part-animal part-mobile machine which was Tarkus. Here we will briefly consider whether this strange being called Tarkus is in its essence conceived as being equipped for iconoclastic battle.

But before that, some backstory that should help explain why I’m even thinking this about “Tarkus.” I have recently been reading the book Ezekiel and decided to search to find whether anyone had created any visual depictions of the vision of God’s cloud chariot/throne, because I have always had trouble putting all the elements together into a cohesive whole. I discovered what seems to be a well done depiction which is the video posted above.

After watching it, and returning to thoughts about the “Tarkus” post, I realized that there were some common elements between the being called Tarkus and Ezekiel’s vision of God. These common elements include the presence of a mix of natural and mechanical qualities, and the overall abilities of mobility plus destructive power. Certainly there are also many differences, and I only point out the more basic elementary correspondences to further speculate concerning the intentions of Emerson, Lake, & Palmer. In summary, given the iconoclastic theme I mentioned in the first post, and the visual nature of Tarkus, it seems we have either an absurdly strange coincidence or an intentional thematic borrowing. Probably only ELP know the answer to this question.

Moving on to their possible source, in this post want to further explore Ezekiel’s vision of God as “the ultimate iconoclast.” In the previous post was a quote where Douglas Wilson, with the prophet Ezekiel in mind,  described God in this way. To illustrate Wilson’s title, I would like to present a few brief excerpts from an insightful commentaty on Ezekiel by Iain M. Duguid.

Duguid

 

The youtube video at the head of this post helps us “picture” Ezekiel’s ultimate iconoclast.

The book excerpts help show that Ezekiel’s vision differs from other earlier biblical visions of God and thus provide the biblical context revealing how in Ezekiel God was readying to undertake his iconoclastic work against (and for) Israel. Iain M. Duguid writes,

In the context of this popular Zion theology, it is easy to see the difficulty that Ezekiel’s earlier contemporary Jeremiah faced. He was called to oppose the complacency of those who kept repeating, “The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD” (Jer. 7:4). His prophecies of judgment against Jerusalem were interpreted as high treason because they struck at the heart of this belief (Jer. 26:11) The tempe itself had become viewed as an amulet, a lucky charm to ward off evil. In response, Jeremiah simply pointed to the lessons of history. In the past, in the days of Samuel’s youth, Israel had placed the same kind of faith in the ark of the covenant, the symbol of God’s presence, instead of in the reality of God’s presence. The result had been the destruction of Shiloh and the “exile” of the ark..”Glory has gone into exile from israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”

It was this same false perception of safety that Ezekiel’s vision challenged. Two kinds of imagery dominate the opening vision of Ezekiel: images of motion and judgment. In contrast to Isaiah’s static temple imagery, Ezekiel’s vision is filled with movement. Whereas Isaiah saw the Lord seated in the temple, Ezekiel’s vision opens with the Lord in the midst of a motion-filled “windstorm” in the land of the exiles. God is not dead or sleeping, nor is he restricted to the temple, he is living and active and on the move. The Lion of Judah is restless. In general, such a depiction of the Lord’s coming to intervene in the lives of his people would be a positive development. However, in this case God’s activity does not bode well for the temple or for Jerusalem. It is only a short step from Ezekiel 1, where the glory of God is in motion, to Ezekiel 10, where the glory of God abandons the temple, leaving it defenseless against the Babylonian invaders.

The true and living God is not a tame God. He cannot be comfortably manipulated into a box and made to do our bidding. If he were, he would hardly be worthy of following. God’s radical freedom, bound only by his own self-revelation, means that his ways can never be reduced to a pat formula or a trite slogan. If his people abandon him, he may abandon them and fight against them. A lady reportedly asked Abraham Lincoln during the dark days of the civil war if he was confident that God was on their side. “Madam,” he is said to have replied, “I am less concerned whether God is on our side than whether we are on his side.”

Hopefully these excerpts have conveyed to the reader what and why the iconoclastic work of God is. That God assumes the role of iconoclast is a recurrent biblical event, because God’s chosen people Israel were prone, as were and are all human beings, to making idols.

Thus moving into what is now called the common era, Jesus of Nazareth essentially engaged in the same iconoclastic work, even specifically regarding the rebuilt temple, and was a major reason for the conspiracy that led to his crucifixion under Rome. The opposing religious leaders could not see that Herod’s “second temple” in Jerusalem was meant to be replaced by a temple not made with hands, namely a “temple” of people of all races and ethnicities in which the Spirit of God would then indwell. That Jesus did not merely point toward God the iconoclast, but actually embodied him as the ultimate iconoclast reveals many things. Probably the most important thing it reveals is that his death instigated at the hands of the anti-iconoclasts became by God’s power the ultimate iconoclastic victory for the freedom of humanity.

Isaiah 2:17-19English Standard Version (ESV)

17 And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled,
and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low,
and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.
18 And the idols shall utterly pass away.
19 And people shall enter the caves of the rocks
and the holes of the ground,
from before the terror of the Lord,
and from the splendor of his majesty,
when he rises to terrify the earth.

Comments and questions, are always welcomed!

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.

 

“Iconoclast” – Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Tarkus”

Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s 20 minute long 1971 prog-rock work “Tarkus,” contains one instrumental part called “iconoclast,” which along with some of the words from the lyrical parts seems to hint at a theme of iconoclasm. One lyric says

“…are your ears full, you can’t hear anything at all”

This ending of this lyrical part seems to show that “idols” tend to render their “worshippers” deaf to learning truth apart from their idolatrous belief “system.” I have of late been reading a current book by a Christian theologian in which he assumes the role of an iconoclast of sorts against what he sees as misguided “self-assured ecclesiastical assumptions” that have become veritable idols. Several brief quotes from the book are are below, following a few definitions of “iconoclast.” The first one is from google:

i·con·o·clast/īˈkänəˌklast/
noun
a person who attacks cherished beliefs or institutions.
a destroyer of images used in religious worship, in particular.

The second one is from Ambrose Bierce, who along with Mark Twain was one of the main non-religious iconoclasts of that period.

Iconoclast, n. A breaker of idols, the worshipers whereof are imperfectly gratified by the performance, and most strenuously protest that he unbuildeth but doth not reëdify, that he pulleth down but pileth not up. For the poor things would have other idols in place of those he thwacketh upon the mazzard and dispelleth. But the iconoclast saith: “Ye shall have none at all, for ye need them not; and if the rebuilder fooleth round hereabout, behold I will depress the head of him and sit thereon till he squawk it.” (Ambrose Bierce, “The Devil’s Dictionary” 1906.)

Naturally and logically, an iconoclast would be “unemployed” if it were not for human idol factories. Here are several quotes about this:

From this we may gather that man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.

— John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion I:XI.8

In short, there is absolutely nothing that God can give us that we are incapable of turning into an idol… So it is no sacrilege to be “against the church.” God is the ultimate iconoclast, and God told His angels to begin at His sanctuary, and he told them to get in there and defile it. That he had a higher purpose in mind can be seen elsewhere in the book of the prophet (Ezekiel). (Douglas Wilson, “Against the Church” 2013.)

Jesus of Nazareth certainly took on the role of the ultimate iconoclast against the belief system of the religious establishment of his day. These religious leaders ironically epitomized the lyric in Tarkus with their ears so “full” of their religious system that they could not “hear anything at all” of the words of Jesus the “Word of God” (see John 1:1-14). Using a sight metaphor rather than a hearing metaphor, Jesus said this to them:

“For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains. (John 9:39-41; English Standard Version)

What the iconoclastic endeavors of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, have in common with Ambrose Bierce, Douglas Wilson, or Jesus of Nazareth is impossible to know, due to the obscurity of the lyrics. But it is interesting to wonder about their intentions as we listen to the song and hear the lyrics. It is also an interesting merely as a fairly epic early 70’s prog-rock song, complete with comic book style scenes of the adventures of “Tarkus.”

Tarkus2

I was reluctant to mix apocalyptic/comic book sci-fi fantasy/progessive-rock music, with such a serious subject as biblical/historical iconoclastic “battles.” But I couldn’t resist letting “Tarkus” be an interesting contact point between we “idol factory” humans and God who in love is our ultimate iconoclast.

I welcome any comments! Thanks…

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.

The Kink’s “Money and Corruption” and “I’m Your Man” – Mr. Flash as Political Huckster

The+Kinks+-+Preservation+Act+2+-+DOUBLE+LP-460031

“Oh God how I love this land” (Mr. Flash)

Why does that sentiment sound familiar?

“Money & Corruption” and “I’m Your Man” are another great highlight of the Kink’s rock opera “Preservation, Act 2” wherein we see that the people were swindled by the political savvy of the deceitful and greedy Mr. Flash. Continue reading

“Born in Captivity” by T Bone Burnett (with Victor Lebow and Abraham Heschel)


burnett

This post presents an old song by “The Alpha Band,” of which T Bone Burnett was a member. The song is basically about the fact that Americans, especially since the time of the baby-boomer generation which the Alpha band was part of, are born as captives. Continue reading

Mississippi/Babylon – Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi”

tell tale signs

The song “Mississippi” seems to me to be a Bob Dylan take on “Babylon” which seemed appropriate to follow my last post of an Emmylou Harris song. Unfortunately I could not post the music version I like the most which is on “Tell Tale Signs” (the Bootleg Series vol. 8, disc 1). But this is a decent live version anyway. I only included part of the lyrics that seem most straightforward concerning a “Babylonian captivity” type of existence (I don’t know if I should call it a “life“.)

I especially like Dylan’s “punch line” ‘…stayed in Mississippi a day too long‘ which seems to capture the captivating qualities of “Babylon” and our own susceptibility thereto. Continue reading