On Sunday I did the usual May 2-4 routine and rode out to Wilfrid and back, a 23 km round trip that took me just over an hour.
This was in the morning, shortly before church, and I was mulling over the nature of so-called worship music, and what it is meant to achieve. Ignoring, if I can, the blunt presumption of Divine Proscription (“We sing this stuff because God tells us to”) it seems to me that when worship music works it achieves a temporary recalibration of the interior monologue. Frequent strategies include cataloging differences (God is big; we are small, God is Holy; we are sinners, etc.) and manipulations of the language of adoration (“You are holy and I bow before you”) etc. Neither strategy has reached the point of absolute bankruptcy with me, but they’re both scraping the bottom of the account.
I wonder if this isn’t an unfortunate side-effect that comes with Protestantism? So much of the Protestant hymnal — from the trenchant works of Fanny Crosby to the sentimental schmutz of mega-church worship bands — hammers home again and again what precious little orthodoxy the Protestant movement has cobbled together. Sola Scriptura is a fine motivation, but the trouble is we’re all deeply divided about which Scriptura to get Sola over, except, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” To be sure, there is a great deal you can do with that. But I think it is also safe to say that, after 2000 years, there is only so much you can do with that.
Anyway, the most recent song to silence and recalibrate my interior monologue is Paul Simon’s “The Afterlife,” from the recent album So Beautiful or So What? Especially when heard in album sequence, it is a deeply moving work. After Simon expresses in “Getting Ready For Christmas Day” the common wistfulness that, following this life, somehow all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well (“I could tell my Mom and Dad that the things we never had/Never mattered we were always okay”) he goes on to paint a humorous picture of just what a banal sort of Purgatory awaits (“You’ve gotta fill out a form first; And then you wait in the line”).
The first two verses give us a dead narrator who's still an incorrigible smart-ass trying to figure out how to get ahead, but by the third verse Simon bluntly assesses the human situation:
Well it seems like our fate to suffer and wait for the knowledge we seek.
This is the crux of so much of my own religious frustration. I'm impatient with humanity, I'm impatient with myself, I'm impatient with God — and nobody in this configuration seems to be in any hurry to help us out of the mess we're in. Don't expect me to reach for my internal “reset” button if I can't just somehow out and say it.
By fourth verse Simon's narrator finally gets his way. As he slowly climbs the cosmic ladder to God, all the petty, stupid, banal words and strictures that brought frustration to his life are transformed into speaking-in-tongues nonsense that we recognize from the days of transistor radios.
Lord, is it Be-boppa-lula/Or, Oh Poppa-do?
So that was the in-shower chorus that followed my ride. And it might not be a hymn for the ages, but “The Afterlife” was enough to once again nudge me toward the shabby queue at the Communion Rail.
Lyrics for "The Afterlife."