“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.

 

 

 

 

 

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“People… are the main spring” by King Crimson: Peer Pressure and the “Inner Ring” of C. S. Lewis

innerring

♠♣♥♦

In this song by one of the oldest, longest lived prog-rock groups, King Crimson, sings

people are the main spring
turning the world around
people, they’re the main spring
spinning this world upside down

I have used this song as a theme for this post, not only because I wanted to put a great song by them on my blog (check it out! – I wish the video quality was better but the sound is good) but because they point to the simple fact that in an important sense people are the “main spring.” I like the fact that they do not see this as a good thing, since “people” turn the world “around,” meaning, “upside down.” This post will therefore explore two aspects of this proposal, first, how people through a type of desire are the mainspring, and second, that this desire is not a good thing.

C. S. Lewis had a similar proposal, which very specifically states why this proposal is so. In his oration called “The Inner Ring” he sets forth examples of with one drawn from Victorian “society.”

Victorian fiction is full of characters who are hag-ridden by the desire to get inside that particular Ring which is, or was, called Society. But it must be clearly understood that “Society,” in that sense of the word, is merely one of a hundred Rings, and snobbery therefore only one form of the longing to be inside.

As you see, Lewis thought that there were many “inner rings.” For the purpose of this post, I will focus upon what I feel is the largest “inner ring” of humankind, and will apply some of his words to the idea of such a ring. For Lewis, the dynamic of human desire to belong to “inner rings” “may be dangerous,” although the phenomena of “inner rings” was “unavoidable” and “morally neutral.” “King Crimson” is itself an example of an “inner ring” as was “The Inklings” of which C. S. Lewis was himself a member.

So in this post I will concentrate on the “dangerous” desire to “belong” to an inner ring that therefore becomes an evil. But I also note that (I think) Lewis believed the degree of self-consciousness regarding this inordinate desire may vary greatly, from a nearly unconsciousness longing to that of acutely conscious obsession.

The largest ring that I propose to be that of humankind is the inner ring of “worldly acceptance.” In the old terms of Christendom, which Lewis mentions at the beginning of his oration. this was the first of the dangerous trinity called “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” In modern jargon “the world” is probably best known as “peer pressure.”

At this point I would like to raise an observation that we stubbornly individualistic humans are ironically, under peer pressure, nearly perfect conformists. I think this is illustrated by a statement of Lewis on the failure of our “skepticism.”

We are always prevented from accepting total skepticism because it can be formulated only by making a tacit exception in favour of the thought we are thinking at the moment-just as the man who warns the newcomer “Don’t trust anyone in this office” always expects you to trust him at that moment.” (Christian Reflections, “DeFutilitate”, 1967, para. 10)

It seems that the well-nigh universal “skepticism” that we wear to prevent us “being taken in” by other people, such as smooth talking politicians, salesmen, or religious fanatics, is gladly hung outside the door for the sake of our admittance to “the inner ring” of worldly acceptance. This transaction is effected by the unspoken but understood rules for “membership.” Lewis said,

When it is very secure and comparatively stable in membership it calls itself “we.” When it has to be expanded to meet a particular emergency it calls itself “all the sensible people at this place.”

So this largest “inner ring” of humanity, is merely membership with the “sensible” folk that think they have not been “taken in” by those defined by its peer group as “insensible.” But the newly admitted, have actually been “taken in” by the “inner ring.” Lewis shows how this deep desire for membership works, in a strong illustration demonstrating the trumping power of the “inner ring” over other normally powerful human desires.

I wonder whether, in ages of promiscuity, many a virginity has not been lost less in obedience to Venus than in obedience to the lure of the caucus. For of course, when promiscuity is the fashion, the chaste are outsiders. They are ignorant of something that other people know. They are uninitiated. And as for lighter matters, the number of people who first smoked or first got drunk for a similar reason is probably very large.

The “dangerous desire” for the “inner ring” is perhaps the threshold at which the fall of Adam is re-enacted as we mature into the caucus of sensible society. Annie Dillard, in her first book, narrates how this desire is also driven by an inner insecurity of unknowing (bewilderment) that is evaded by adopting through “untaught pride” the stance of the human collective “squatter” status, and thus also “al the sensible people in this place.” For Dillard joining this “inner ring” occurs at a very early age.

I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood. An infant who has just learned to hold his head up has a frank and forthright way of gazing about him in bewilderment. He hasn’t the faintest clue where he is, and he aims to learn. In a couple of years, what he will have learned instead is how to fake it: he’ll have the cocksure air of a squatter who has come to feel he owns the place. Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly been set down, if we can’t learn why. (Annie Dillard, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” Bantam Books Inc: 1974, p. 12)

In this regard Lewis narrates our longing at adolescence that is another such fall by saying,

To a young person, just entering on adult life, the world seems full of “insides,” full of delightful intimacies and confidentialities, and he desires to enter them.

But to enter thus, is a tragedy, as Dillard notes, and as Lewis concludes, saying

But if he follows that desire he will reach no “inside” that is worth reaching. The true road lies in quite another direction.

If the reader is familiar with C. S. Lewis, she will know that “quite another direction” is the way of following Christ. In the Gospel of John we read of a narration of the conflagration that occurred when Jesus confronted the keepers of an “inner ring” called “the synagogue.”

42 Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.

The synagogue, with its gates kept by the Pharisees, had become “the inner ring” to which membership to, through the peer pressure of worldly acceptance of “glory that comes from man” was more loved by many than the “glory that comes from God.” It is uber-ironic that God’s Israel, as a nation, ultimately subverted Jerusalem itself into an “inner ring” by (they thought) permanently excommunicating Jesus “outside” their inner ring. The book of Hebrews shows how God made the shameful public execution of Jesus the means by which he made those excommunicated from the world’s inner ring holy, while also setting forth the example they follow “outside the camp” (or “city” or “inner ring”).

12 So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. 13 Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. (Hebrews 13:12-14; ESV)

In “The Last Battle,” the last volume of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” Lewis has a scene in which the dwarves have become self imprisoned in their own delusional “inner ring” because they were “so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out” by Aslan himself. Their fearful skepticism fear at “being taken in” resulted in their conformity to a collective “inner ring” of blindness to the only one that could give them true freedom from being taken in by the peer pressure of worldly acceptance. The ancient wisdom in the book of Proverbs summed it up as the perennial way of  Adam the individual and Adam the collective:

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. (14:12)

The King Crimson song proposed that with “People” as the “mainspring” of life the world is turned upside down. C. S. Lewis proposed that this is because the “mainspring” is the “dangerous desire” for membership in “the inner ring.” Can we believe that Jesus of Nazareth showed another way “in” to an inner ring that is not based in the worldly acceptance of peer pressure? An inner ring that at the gate accepts all and excludes none but those that exclude themselves through their trust in the glory of man’s “inner ring?”

Perhaps we can believe if we consider the nature of “the glory” of man’s lesser “inner rings” that Lewis mentioned such as those at which smoking, drinking and promiscuous sex were the initiatory rites, we may see in every case some monotonous conformity as the entrance fee and permanent boundary marker of man’s “inner rings.” Lewis said

That is why the worldlings are so monotonously alike compared with the almost fantastic variety of the saints. Obedience is the road to freedom, humility the road to pleasure, unity the road to personality.

Now I admit that if we look in many places at the church today in America, we may unfortunately find monotonous alikeness rather than fantastical variety. The church is also always in danger of falling, as did Israel of old, into its own “inner ring” rather than Christ’s inner ring in which he alone is the head. This has become a slight digression, but for clarification I’ll mention that Paul told the Church in Rome to be careful in attitude toward “national” Israel that had fallen, lest she fall to the same temptation that as we saw was a type of “unbelief” that was formed by pride in “inner ring” status.

19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. 23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. (Romans 11:19-23 ESV)

To return from  this digression, I would like to conclude with an excerpt from lewis that demonstrates that the Church, though always falling short of a pure participation in the inner ring of Christ, is meant nonetheless to be thus participating. Lewis says

It was not for societies or states that Christ died, but for men. In that sense Christianity must seem to secular collectivists to involve an almost frantic assertion of individuality. But then it is not the individual as such who will share Christ’s victory over death. We shall share the victory by being in the Victor. A rejection, or in Scripture’s strong language, a crucifixion of the natural self is the passport to everlasting life. Nothing that has not died will be resurrected. That is just how Christianity cuts across the antithesis between individualism and collectivism. There lies the maddening ambiguity of our faith as it must appear to outsiders. It sets our face relentlessly against our natural individualism; on the other hand, it gives back to those who abandon individualism an eternal possession of their own personal being, even of their bodies. As mere biological entities, each with its separate will to live and to expand, we are apparently of no account; we are cross-fodder. But as organs in the body of Christ, as stones and pillars in the temple we are assured of our eternal self-identity and shall live to remember the galaxies as an old tale.

Note once again the book of Hebrews’ exhortation to join Christ “outside” man’s “inner ring,” leaving the “camp” that is not “lasting,” and seeking the city “that is to come.”

12 So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. 13 Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.

It is a city inhabited by individuals, its gates are open to all to come as they are, being sanctified not by admission to the “peer group,” but by the blood of the one that gave his life to save them.

Thanks for reading, and as always I’d like to know what you think!

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.

 

“Straw Foot” by David Eugene Edwards – “It ain’t no sin boy, to be forgiven”

strawfoot
I like this song because it is in a musical style I really like, has interesting lyrics, and because it is about the forgiveness of sin. Many of us have heard or read the late Christopher Hitchens promote his view that substitutionary redemption, on which Christian salvation is based, is “morally repugnant.” I don’t wish to present a critique of Hitchens here, or a defense of substitutionary redemption, although I have found a very excellent blog post that presents a fairly comprehensive response to Hitchens. My own purpose here is simply to share this great song by David Eugene Edwards, which includes the verse,
Tell me how it is that
You don't want what he's given
It ain't no sin boy
To be forgiven

Continue reading

“20th Century Man” by The Kinks – On the loss of individual freedom

One of the greatest rock songs of all time, and as relevant as ever for the “21st Century Man.” I think the photos in the youtube video were very well done and assist in demonstrating the enduring political and societal relevance of the song for the “Western” world. The acoustic blues/rock music with the melancholic interlude in the middle have served the song well to prevent it sounding stereotypically time-bound.

BMC @ Manifest Propensity, 2013.

Tried and Tested by Bruce Cockburn – The cost of open eyes

You've never seen

(+Notice that there are more than two hands in this picture+)

“Opening” our eyes is not something we do on our own.

Tried and Tested is the “opening” (and an excellent) song from Bruce Cockburn’s 2003 album “You’ve Never Seen Everything.”

Lyrics: 

Tried and tested
Tried and tested

By the cries of birds
By the lies I’ve heard
By my own loose talk
By the way I walk Continue reading

“Roll Away Your Stone” by Mumford & Sons – An Interpretation: Narrative of a conversion

Knowing the potential perils of song interpretation, I nevertheless could not resist this song by Mumford & Sons that seems to be quite unique in popular culture in regard to its subject. I may be taking the song too literally, but I find this song to be a narrative of a spiritual conversion. Continue reading

Soren Kierkegaard’s “Works of Love” 5 (Self-love: part 2, improper self-love)

works of love

In this post I present an excerpt from Soren Kierkegaard in which he presents some examples of persons that fail to love themselves with proper self-love. This is perhaps one of the best ways to demonstrate how “natural” self-love is inadequate as a basis for neighbor-love, while also falling short of proper self-love. Continue reading