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.

Martin Luther’s “Theology of the Cross” and God’s “little, near face”

484px-Albrecht_Dürer_-_Christ_on_the_Cross_(NGA_1943.3.3681)

Albrecht Durer – Christ on the Cross

 

Heinrich Bornkamm was another theologian who has helped to explain Luther’s “theology of the cross.” The following rather lengthy excerpt provides a more thorough look at his theology in order to “flesh out” the message of the cross that was the subject of the previous two posts.

            The theology of the cross is not a theology which is contrived by the process of thinking. If we followed our ideas of the nature of the divine, we would probably imagine a quite different God: a great, mighty, victorious, indubitably loving, ingenious cosmic architect. . But certainly not a God who allows his messenger, whom he sends for the salvation of the world, to go down to ignominious defeat, to suffer and die innocently. It is a theology that one can derive only from an actual event, or better, that one can believe only on the basis of the passion and the cross of Christ. This was why Luther portrayed the suffering of Christ with such tremendous force. This suffering was not only a horrible physical suffering, as it was chiefly represented in medieval devotional literature in order to arouse our pity. Rather Luther took far more earnestly and consistently than did all previous theology the humanity of Jesus Christ, who suffered on the cross, not only physical pain, but also utter forsakenness and desolation. Augustine and medieval theology and mysticism fought shy of accepting the cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” as a real cry of the dying Christ; they construed it merely as the intercession of Christ for his suffering body, the church. For Luther, however, it was the simple bitter truth that Christ had to endure on the cross the consciousness of being forsaken by God. He was spared none of the trial and temptation, none of the remoteness and absence of God that may be imposed upon men. Indeed, for him who came from the heart of the Gather and brought nothing but love to men, it was a more dreadful thing to bear this abandonment than for any other man. For Luther this fact that Christ had to fall into the abyss of God forsakenness and loneliness, was expressed in the Creed: “He descended into hell.” He interpreted this to mean, not an event in space, but rather this experience of utter dereliction of the soul. Nor is this experience confined to the cross; the passion is rather only the awful aggravation and consistent conclusion of the loneliness and desolation that Jesus suffered in his whole life through the deafness and opposition of men and often the misunderstanding of his own disciples. Only occasionally do the gospels mention this, and Luther commented that “if everything about Christ had been written down, we would read of many a severe affliction. He was a man who from his youth was tormented by many afflictions.” Actually he had already died in the garden of Gethsemane before he was crucified, for there he had already suffered death and desolation to the depths. On the cross all of the cross of his life was summarized.

But therefore the meaning of his life for us is also summed up in the cross. Christ’s dereliction means something deeper than the desolation of any human being could ever mean. In that dereliction he became the brother of the loneliest and most derelict of men. This is the seal upon the love of God. No starry heaven, no marvel of creation, can make us so sure of it as the fact that Christ by the will of the Father took upon himself this uttermost affliction of soul. But while he was obliged to plunge into forsakenness, he was not forsaken, but rather led by God’s strong, irresistible hand to the only place where he could become the Savior of the world, right next to all who are desolate in the bottomless hell where man left alone inevitably falls into despair.

Christ’s cross and dereliction can help us to overcome our cross and dereliction. If God’s love is hidden in the cross, then it is also our cross. There is where God seeks us most intensely, there he desires to speak to us and assure us that his power is revealed at its mightiest in our weakness. The person who has found God’s love here, on the cross, will also find it elsewhere , in the cosmos, in human love. But he who looks first for it somewhere else and not in this hidden center of divine help for the world will founder and come to grief upon the suffering and meaninglessness of life. We cannot see the face of God, but in Christ, said Luther, God gave himself a “little, near face” which we can look upon. It is a human suffering face, the face of the Crucified. But in it dwells the majesty of the love of God. (The Heart of Reformation Faith, Henirich Bornkamm, 1963, pp. 49-51)

Heinrich Bornkamm

Heinrich Bornkamm

For further study on Luther’s “Theology of the Cross” here is a link to a good 2005 article by Carl R. Trueman.

As always comments and questions are welcomed! Thanks,

Bryan @ Manifest Propensity

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Poem “Christians and Heathens”

dbonhoeffer

 

 

People go to God when they’re in need,

plead for help, pray for blessings and bread,

for rescue from their sickness, guilt, and death.

So do they all. all of them, Christians and heathens.

 

People go to God when God’s in need,

find God poor, reviled, without shelter or bread,

see God devoured by sin, weakness, and death.

Christians stand by God in God’s own pain.

 

God goes to all people in their need,

fills body and soul with God’s own bread,

goes for Christians and heathens to Calvary’s death

and forgives them both.

 

From Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 8, Letters and Papers From Prison, pp. 460-61.

This poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer is perhaps one of the most accurate statements in Christian theology regarding the  question of where God is, in relation to human need and suffering. I may try to elaborate more on its meaning in future posts.

BMC @ Manifest Propensity, 2014.

Wovenhand’s “Kingdom of Ice” and the Book of Job

When I heard this song I knew that the opening song lyric sounded familiar, and that it sounded very Job-like. Not too many years ago I would have found a Bible concordance and started looking for “horse” in the listings under “Job.” Nowadays google is much faster and the print much more favorable to read. The results are posted below, interspersed with the lyrics. Continue reading

Neil Young’s apocalyptic songs of change: “For the Turnstiles” and “Don’t Let it Bring You Down”

7

I happened to be listening to the collection of songs called “Decade” by Neil Young the other day, and was struck by the song “For the Turnstiles” when he sang

You can really learn a lot that way
It will change you in the middle of the day.
Though your confidence may be shattered,
It doesn’t matter.

I thought that he seemed to be singing about reaction to “apocalyptic” events that can be the catalyst for a change, or turning in life, essentially a sort of “conversion.” This post will explore the question of apocalyptic and change in “For the Turnstiles” and in another thematically similar song, “Don’t Let it Bring You Down.” These songs are both from the early 1970’s and I would also like to say that they are both excellent songs.

All the sailors
with their seasick mamas
Hear the sirens on the shore,
Singin’ songs
for pimps with tailors
Who charge ten dollars
at the door.

You can really
learn a lot that way
It will change you
in the middle of the day.
Though your confidence
may be shattered,
It doesn’t matter.

All the great explorers
Are now in granite laid,
Under white sheets
for the great unveiling
At the big parade.

You can really
learn a lot that way
It will change you
in the middle of the day.
Though your confidence
may be shattered,
It doesn’t matter.

All the bushleague batters
Are left to die
on the diamond.
In the stands
the home crowd scatters
For the turnstiles,
For the turnstiles,
For the turnstiles.

“For the Turnstiles” is from Neil Young’s 1974 album “On the Beach.” Many believe that “On the Beach” is one of his best works. I would probably agree, but I have not heard many of his albums, so I am in not qualified to say. But I definitely think it ranks with some of the best of what I have heard.

I believe the song “For the Turnstiles”is about the nature of life and about change. The verses portray several episodes of various lives that perhaps characterize the bizarre nature of life as both mundane and cataclysmic, with the implication being that in either case it can turn out “bad.” If we know this we should see it as a life lesson and “learn a lot that way” and change. Thus the nature of life should drive us “for the turnstiles” where we can escape the consequence that will otherwise follow as the inevitable result if we simply remain where we are. The events of life should “change us in the middle of the day” which seems to signify an abrupt and decisive change. I think of  some fishermen sitting on the shore of the Sea of  Galilee while mending their nets in the middle of the day, with no apparent thought of change for their life’s work,  but then being “called” by Jesus and abruptly leaving their present lives and their nets to follow him. (see Matthew 4:18-22)

What I especially like about the chorus is the observation that if we are open to learning and changing, that the shattering of our confidence will become our experience, but “It doesn’t matter” in light of the alternative. What is the alternative? It is to not change, but rather to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” and continue our facade of “confidence” that everything is fine as it is. This alternative seems to me akin to taking a nap in a burning building.

I once read somewhere that Jackson Browne’s songs could be generally categorized as some sort of “romantic/apocalyptic” genre because of their life settings. In similar fashion, Neil Young’s “For the Turnstiles” is manifestly “apocalyptic” with images like “the great unveiling at the big parade” and “the home crowd” scattering “for the turnstiles.” But by mixing the apocalyptic with the mundane Neil Young seemed to be saying that all of life is in some sense apocalyptic in nature.

Perhaps some definition of “apocalyptic” may be helpful.

Preliminary Description of “Apocalypse”:

  • In popular terminology today, an “apocalypse” is a catastrophic event (e.g., nuclear holocaust).
  • In biblical terminology, an “apocalypse” is not an event, but a “revelation” that is recorded in written form:
    • it is a piece of crisis literature that “reveals” truths about the past, present, and/or future in highly symbolic terms;
    • the revelation often comes in dreams or visions, and usually needs to be interpreted with the help of an angel;
    • it is usually intended to provide hope and encouragement for people in the midst of severe trials and tribulations.

(From Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D. at http://catholic-resources.org/Bible/Apoc_Def.htm)

It seems that Neil Young’s songs “For the Turnstiles” and “Don’t let it Bring You Down” are similar to points 1 and 3 under the second heading regarding the “biblical terminology” because of his focus on “crisis” (that includes the crisis of the mundane) and because of the “hope and encouragement” that is the purpose of the songs.

At first glance the songs seems to shatter our conception and confidence in life itself  but, “it doesn’t matter” since the shattering itself is part of the means of change and hope. Similarly, Adam and Eve’s world was shattered when they found they were prevented from re-entering what became their “old world” by a cherubim/guard with a flaming sword since their return would have actually sealed them in their separation from God and hope (see Genesis 3:22-24).

Here is “Don’t Let it Bring You Down,” from 1970’s “After the Gold Rush.” It seems to contain the same concept of the need of turning, for hope, in the face of the “apocalyptic” nature of life.

Old man lying
By the side of the road
With the lorries rolling by,
Blue moon sinking
From the weight of the load
And the building scrape the sky,
Cold wind ripping
Down the allay at dawn
And the morning paper flies,
Dead man lying
By the side of the road
With the daylight in his eyes.

Don’t let it bring you down
It’s only castles burning,
Find someone who’s turning
And you will come around.

Blind man running
Through the light
Of the night
With an answer in his hand,
Come on down
To the river of sight
And you can really understand,
Red lights flashing
Through the window
In the rain,
Can you hear the sirens moan?
White cane lying
In a gutter in the lane,
If you’re walking home alone.

Don’t let it bring you down
It’s only castles burning,
Just find someone who’s turning
And you will come around.

Don’t let it bring you down
It’s only castles burning,
Just find someone who’s turning
And you will come around.

So if Neil Young is showing the need to change in the light of the nature of life, for the sake of hope, then what is the specific hope he envisioned? First of all I would say that it is not primarily the hope of an external change in the person’s relation to the nature of life portrayed in the songs but in the person’s internal perspective regarding it. We usually think of apocalyptic crises as things that have the power to change us, without thinking of the fact that they are merely opportunities to change, opportunities that arise from our struggle with the powers beyond our control. But in a sense changing is in our power inasmuch as we face the choice of changing or resisting change.  Neil Young seems to be portraying in these songs the practical change that is the oft-missed purpose of all apocalyptic, whether futuristic or occupied with the present. (Actually, even exclusively futuristic apocalyptic is for the purpose of change in the present.) We need to again remember the following parts of the definition of apocalypse from Felix Just:

“it is a piece of crisis literature that “reveals” truths about the past, present, and/or future in highly symbolic terms…it is usually intended to provide hope and encouragement for people in the midst of severe trials and tribulations.”

Neil Young is focused on the “hope and encouragement” that can come if we allow our eyes to become open to the reality of the nature of life. That reality is portrayed in apocalyptic literature as futuristic and cataclysmic, but as I noted earlier, the songs show that the crisis of the mundane is also essentially apocalyptic because it demonstrates that many events of life are beyond our control and are therefore powers that we struggle against. This struggle is the older existential apocalyptic of Job, of the Psalmists, and of the writer of Ecclesiastes. This older apocalyptic purpose is not absent in the newer, although it is often missed by mistaking the purpose of all biblical apocalyptic. William Barrett, speaking of the older view, states the “change” or “turning” that is the purpose of all apocalyptic:

“The Hebrew, however, proceeds not by the way of reason but by the confrontation of the whole man, Job, in the fulness and violence of passion with the unknowable and overwhelming God. And the final solution for Job lies not in the rational resolution of the problem, any more than it ever does in life, but in a change and conversion of the whole man.” (Irrational Man, A Study in Existentialist Philosophy, William Barrett, 1958, p. 65.)

In conclusion, I find these songs of Neil Young to be in alignment with the essential nature of existence as understood by pre-Christian Judaism and Christianity. The nature of all human existence, not merely the “end of the world” cataclysm that many people throughout history have believed would come in their lifetimes, but even the present tense mundane existence, is essentially apocalyptic. It is for all people in some measure, a life of “castles burning”, of “flaming swords” that ban us from eternity here.  Hopefully we have seen that the futuristic and present tense apocalyptic views of life are not  mutually exclusive, for people will experience both eventually, as Neil Young’s “great explorers” will at “the great unveiling.” But in the meantime, because of the cherubim’s flaming sword we all live in the world of the “blue moon sinking” and “castles burning,” with our “confidence shattered.” But “it doesn’t matter” since “it will change us in the middle of the day”  if we “find someone who’s turning” so we “may come around.”

The two main points are that even the “crisis of the mundane” is apocalyptic, and that all apocalyptic is for the purpose of “turning.”  As the late Mark Heard wrote in one of his best songs,

The headlines in the dailies
Are the horses in a race
They lead you to believe
That life and death are commonplace
Some believe it
And I’m crying again

Mark Heard, and Neil Young are simply saying that nothing in life and death are “commonplace” and that if we acknowledge rather than evade the nature of reality “it will change you in the middle of the day.”

Neil Young also alludes to what may be the most important aspect of this change, namely to “find someone who’s turning.” What, or probably more accurately, who, is he referring to? I cannot really say who he had in mind, but I personally believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the best candidate. According to the New Testament, he is the “New Adam,” meaning the first of what some have called a “new way to be human.” He therefore, actually is the “turning,” just as he is “the way.” It is a little known fact that the early Christians were not at first called Christians, but “followers of “the way” – the new way to be human.

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2013. 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.

Frederick Buechner and Bruce Cockburn: On measuring death against life

godric3

“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”

(Godric, Frederich Buechner, page 96)

joy1

“Everything that rises afterward falls… But all that dies has first to live.”

(Joy Will Find A Way Bruce Cockburn, 1974)

 

BMC @ Manifest Propensity, 2013

“Godric” by Frederick Buechner and “4 & 20” by Stephen Stills – Of father’s, sons, and poverties

godric3

A meditation on familial life with selections from “Godric” by Frederick Buechner, and “4 & 20” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young.

Godric had some interesting things to say about his father:

“Aedlward the freeman was my father, and Reginald has it that his name means Keeper of Blessedness. If so, he kept it mostly to himself, more’s the pity. I pity Aedlward. If he pitied me, he never said…

…It was fear kept Aedlward from us, and next to God what he feared of all things most was an empty belly. He had good cause. He had seen poor famished folk eat rat and cat and seen grown men suckle their wives for strength enough to ferret nuts to feed them. Bitterer fare than that a man will go to when his belly starts to gnaw itself. So it was his fear we’d starve that made him starve us for that one of all things that we hungered for the most, which was the man himself.” (“Godric,” pp. 9-10)

An interesting song with at least some similarity is the great song called “4 & 20” written by Stephen Stills.

Four and twenty years ago I come into this life
The son of a woman and a man who lived in strife
He was tired of bein’ poor and he wasn’t into sellin’ door to door
And he worked like the devil to be more

A different kind of poverty now upsets me so
Night after sleepless night I walk the floor and want to know
Why am I so alone? Where is my woman? Can I bring her home?
Have I driven her away? Is she gone?

Mornin’ comes the sunrise and I’m driven to my bed
I see that it is empty and there’s devils in my head
I embrace the many colored beast
I grow weary of the torment, can there be no peace?
And I find myself just wishin’ that my life would simply cease

It is extremely difficult to “work like the devil” and provide all that your children need, as Aedlward proved also. The fears of man toward evils such as poverty can bring poverty of soul that results from the starved relationships of father’s and sons (or daughters for that matter). One thing is sure, we all need to seek understanding and have forgiveness for our parents shortcomings that take root in the common struggles of life.

I could not but think of the fact that there was even a similarity in the experience of Jesus the “Son of God” that began in Gethsemane and ended with his crucifixion at Golgotha:

 “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. 46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:45-46)

Though the “rift” in their relationship was for different reasons, not being caused by the “sins of the father” but by the “cup of God’s wrath against the sins of the world” that Jesus willingly endured for our salvation, yet nonetheless there was an unfathomable poverty of soul for Jesus the Son caused by the separation of connection in his relationship to his father.

 “But in the garden of Gethsemane, he turns to the Father and all he can see before him is wrath, the abyss, the chasm, the nothingness of the cup. God is the source of all love, all life, all light, all coherence. Therefore exclusion from God is exclusion from the source of all light, all love, all coherence. Jesus began to experience the spiritual, cosmic, infinite disintegration that would happen when he became separated from his Father on the cross. Jesus began to experience merely a foretaste of that, and staggered.” (“King’s Cross” by Timothy Keller, p. 176)

The separation of Jesus from his own Father, was at least partly for the purpose of reconciliation within the familial relationships of the human families.

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2013. 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.