Friday, December 28, 2012

The Coventry Carol and the Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2)

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Today is Holy Innocents' Day, commemorating the boys of Bethlehem who, according to the Gospel of Matthew, were massacred by Herod the Great in his vain, paranoid attempt to eradicate the "threat" to his throne posed by the birth of Jesus, the one "born King of the Jews" (Matt 2:1-8, 16-18). This is one event narrated in the Gospels whose historicity has been regularly challenged (for example, see the back-and-forth this Christmas season between James McGrath and Tony Jones hereherehere, and here). Without delving too far into the discussion, the historian in me acknowledges that there is no external attestation of the event. Nevertheless, anyone who has ever read the Jewish historian Josephus (cf. Antiquities of the Jews 15.5-7, 50-87, 173-78, 232-36, 247-52, 260-66, 289-90; 16.361-94; 17.42-44, 167, 182-87) is aware of the scores of massacres perpetrated by Herod. And any ruler who had no compunction murdering his favorite wife (Mariamne I) and his three sons by Mariamne (for high treason) would have had no ethical qualms about killing a dozen or so baby boys in a small, insignificant Judean town of no more than 1000 people.

Be that as it may, the story is one with powerful theological significance. Oftentimes in the West, we Christians have sentimentalized Christmas with saccharine pictures of quaint manger scenes with shepherds and Magi accompanying Mary and Joseph. But the early spring of 4 BCE was, like today, a troubled time, racked by violence, pain, and unsavory political machinations. Indeed, as Tom Wright has written, "Before the Prince of Peace had learned to walk and talk, he was a homeless refugee with a price on his head" (Matthew for Everyone, Part One [London: SPCK, 2002] 14). But it was precisely that situation he came to reverse.

Scholars have often noticed that Matthew narrates the story of Herod and the Magi in a way that accentuates the tyrant's parallels with the prototypical enemy of God's people, Pharaoh, and highlights Jesus' own parallels with Israel's first deliverer, Moses. His implicit point is hard to miss: Jesus would "save his people from their sins" (Matt 1:21) by enacting the long-awaited Isaianic "New Exodus" that would, once and for all, bring and end to the protracted exile in which the Jewish people still languished. The Evangelist makes this point explicit in his oft-misunderstood quotation of Jeremiah 31:15 in Matthew 2:18. The massacre of the innocents is the "eschatological" "fulfillment" of Rachel's (the mother of the Jews) weeping in Ramah over the deportation of the tribes to Assyria (and, later, Babylon). But, like in Jeremiah 31:16, Rachel need weep no longer because the exile was soon to be over as God establishes his new covenant with the people (cf. Matt 26:28).

But the genius of the Christian faith is that it has no illusions that the world in which we now live is a perfectible one, let alone a perfect one. Yes, God has in Christ brought the "age to come" to bear on the world we live in. But this always exists in tension with the "present evil age" which will not meet its ultimate demise until the baby of Bethlehem, the crucified and risen Lord, returns to consummate the promised kingdom, where God's will shall be done "on earth as it is in heaven." This means, of course, that indescribably awful events such as this month's massacre at Newtown, Connecticut, will continue. But praise be to God that he has spoken truth to worldly power, that he has met the world's evil head-on in the person of his only Son, who bore the weight and consequences of that sin on the cross, and gives his followers the sure hope that one day in the not too distant future, we will experience the renewal for which we all hope, fully and forever. Soli Deo Gloria!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Boxing Day and the Martyrdom of Stephen

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Stoning of St. Stephen,  1625
(Musée des beaux-arts de Lyon)

In America December 26 is simply the day after Christmas, the day when most of us must go back to work after a day or two—if our employers see fit to make Christmas Eve a holiday—off from the daily grind of business. Those who don't have to return to work can at least take advantage of the "after Christmas" sales merchants dangle like carrots in front of consumers to help their bottom lines. For people in the UK and the British Commonwealth, December 26 is Boxing Day, a national holiday in Britain since Queen Victoria declared it so in the mid-19th century.

Today, Boxing Day has deteriorated to the point where it is simply a day to eat, drink copious amounts of alcohol, watch sporting events, and shop (in this last capacity it has become the English equivalent of America's execrable Black Friday). Though its origins are obscure, Boxing Day was originally designed to show gratitude to people of the lower classes who provided service throughout the year, and who may indeed have had to work while their "superiors" enjoyed the giving and receiving of gifts on Christmas day. These gifts of money and/or leftover food were presented in boxes; hence the name "Boxing Day," which thus, much to my chagrin years ago when I found out as a youngster, had nothing to do with pugilistics.

This suggests a religious origin of the holiday, one which may be gathered from John Mason Neale's 1853 carol, "Good King Wenceslas" (i.e., St. Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia [died 935 CE]), who braves the snow and cold to give alms to the poor on the second day of Christmas, also known as "The Feast of Stephen." Indeed, December 26 is St. Stephen's Day in the Western Church (it is celebrated on the 27th by the Eastern Church), celebrating the life of Stephen, who, according to Acts 7, was stoned by the Jewish authorities, thus becoming the first Christian martyr.

Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, was under no illusion that following Jesus would be a bed of roses. Indeed, Jesus himself came to "serve" and "suffer" (Luke 22:15, 27). And so the principle, "like master, like follower," follows suit inexorably. Only a few years after Stephen's demise, James the son of Zebedee fell to the sword of Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:2). And Luke's hero, Paul, would have to learn "how much he must suffer" for the sake of Jesus' name (Acts 9:16).

But suffering for Jesus' name, horrific as it may be, will be met with ultimate vindication, just like the Lord himself (Luke 9:22). One of the most striking elements of the Stephen narrative in Acts 7 is the penultimate saying ascribed to the martyr in the story: "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 7:56). Elsewhere the risen Jesus is always portrayed as sitting at God's right hand, sharing in his eschatological rule in fulfillment of the Davidic role found in Psalm 110:1 (cf. Acts 2:34!). The anomaly of Acts 7:55-56 has proved as mystifying as it is striking (C. K. Barrett, in his massive ICC commentary on Acts, lists eleven [!] different interpretations). Certainty is by no means appropriate, but two factors may be at play here. First, the standing of the Son of Man might indeed indicate that God's right hand man, the Lord himself in whose steps the martyr was following, is welcoming Stephen personally into God's presence. Second, as Barrett himself suggests, the Son of Man perhaps is standing in ready anticipation of coming back to earth to vindicate his people and consummate the promised kingdom.

Whatever the intended implications, we as Christians must always count the cost of following Jesus, the Son of Man whose vindication and enthronement as Lord only came after he had suffered and died as the representative of the "saints of the Most High" (Dan 7:25, 27). As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." This is always true of the necessity of dying to self, but—as much as privileged Western Christians might like to avoid it—also may indeed be the literal lot of Christ's people. May we who follow the Son of Man have the courage to respond, if need be, in the manner of Stephen. I leave you with the Collect for Saint Stephen's Day found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:
Grant, O Lord, that, in all our sufferings here upon earth for the testimony of thy truth, we may steadfastly look up to heaven, and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed; and, being filled with the holy Ghost, may learn to love and bless our persecutors by the example of thy first Martyr Saint Stephen, who prayed for his murderers to thee, O blessed Jesus, who standest at the right hand of God to succour all those that suffer for thee, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christ the Lord

Govert Flinck, Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ to the Shepherds, 1639
Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Now there were shepherds nearby living out in the field, keeping guard over their flock at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were absolutely terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! Listen carefully, for I proclaim to you good news that brings great joy to all the people: Today your Savior is born in the city of David. He is Christ the Lord  (Luke 2:8-11, NET Bible) 

These are familiar words indeed to all raised in Christian households where the narratives of Jesus' birth play a prominent role in family and corporate worship each December. But it is their very familiarity that often renders us immune to the radical nature and theological importance of this angelic announcement. This is the only text in the New Testament in which Jesus is called Savior, Messiah (“Christ”), and Lord in conjunction with one another.

Of particular importance is the identification of Jesus as “Christ the Lord.” Jews of most stripes in the first century were eagerly anticipating—and in some cases vigorously trying to hasten—the coming of their promised Messiah, who by definition would be the “Christ of the Lord” (Greek christos kyriou) (cf. Luke 2:26!). But here Luke designates Jesus as christos kyrios, a difference of only one letter from the standard Jewish expectation (he uses the nominative rather than genitive case). This may appear at first glance to be only a minute, insignificant difference, but one would be mistaken to view it as such. Indeed, this grammatical difference demonstrates how the New Testament's portrait of Jesus breaks the bounds of Jewish messianic expectation.

Four times in Luke 1 the title “Lord” is used of God with reference to his sovereign deity (Luke 1:16, 46, 68, 76) in the context of his faithful sending of Jesus to fulfill the Davidic/Messianic promises found in Israel's Scriptures. Here in chapter 2 the angelic announcement hints at a deeper, indeed shocking, understanding of Jesus' identity. Luke later includes the bedrock Markan tradition of Jesus' own quotation of Psalm 110:1 (“The LORD said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand ...”) in which he interprets the text as a reference to the Messiah's enthronement alongside Yahweh himself, thereby demonstrating that the title “David's son” (i.e., “Messiah”) is ultimately inadequate in and of itself to describe who Jesus was (Luke 20:42-43).

The full theological import of this move only becomes transparent in Luke's sequel to his Gospel, the Book of Acts. There Jesus, the risen Messiah, is proclaimed to be worthy of the title “Lord” by virtue of his exercise of exclusively divine prerogatives. Forgiveness is received through repentance and baptism in his name (Acts 2:28). Healing and the power of salvation reside in his name (3:6, 16; 4:12; 10:43). The risen Jesus indeed is “Lord of all” and “judge of the living and the dead” (10:36, 42).

The significance of the angel's message that long ago night ca. 5 BCE is captured by the great Charles Wesley in his immortal Christmas hymn, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”:

Christ by highest heav'n adored 
Christ the everlasting Lord! 
Late in time behold Him come 
Offspring of the Virgin's womb 
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see 
Hail the incarnate Deity 
Pleased as man with man to dwell 
Jesus, our Emmanuel 
Hark! The herald angels sing 
"Glory to the newborn King!" 

Messiah Jesus—the Lord!—was willing to condescend to become a human being, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “for us and for our salvation.” The baby Jesus we celebrate each December was the baby who, according to the divine plan, would ultimately, about 37 years later, die an ignominious death on a Roman cross to save his people from their sins—born, as Wesley said, that “man no more may die.”

One of the glories of the Christian message is that God himself has done for us what we could not and cannot do for ourselves, namely, offer God the obedience that is his due and die, in our stead, the death we earned by virtue of our sin. Let those of us who bear the name of Christ reflect gratefully on this as we celebrate his birth tomorrow. If any who read this have not done so, please consider the claims made by and about the baby of Bethlehem and, like the shepherds and Magi of old, bow down before him in faith as the crucified and resurrected Lord.

I leave you with a video of "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" from St. Paul's Cathedral, London. The majesty of the setting and spine-tingling performance of David Willcock's famous treble descant by the Cathedral choir perfectly complement the incomparably profound words the choir and congregation sing. Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Darlene Love with Paul Shaffer: "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)"

Darlene Love is a national treasure. Born in 1941 in Hawthorne, California, Love began singing in church before joining a girl group called the Blossoms, who had the good fortune to team up with producer Phil Spector in 1962. In August of that year, Love and the Blossoms recorded the #1 classic, "He's a Rebel," under the name of the Crystals. Later, when the real Crystals returned, she sang back-up on the even bigger hit, "Da Doo Ron Ron," one of the defining moments of the "girl group" craze of the early 60s. Today, however, she is best known for another song she wasn't even intended to sing.

When, in 1963, Spector decided to produce a Christmas album, he enlisted Veronica Bennett of the Ronettes (later to become Ronnie Spector), to sing its centerpiece, a new Christmas song written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Bennett had just scored big with the greatest record of the girl group era, "Be My Baby," in August of that year. But when she couldn't summon the requisite emotions needed for the song (as hard as that is to believe), Love was summoned to replace her, and the rest is history.

Ever since 1986, David Letterman has had Love sing her immortal "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" at the close of his final Late Night show before Christmas, and as the years have gone on, the performances have gotten ever more elaborate. Just an hour ago I sat and watched this year's performance, with background singers and strings accompanying Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra (with a nice baritone sax solo by Bones Malone). Shaffer marvelously recreated Spector's famous "Wall of Sound," but the unquestioned highlight was Love herself, who sings with the same power and authority today as she did 50 years ago. This is without question my favorite "secular" Christmas song, and listening to Ms. Love sing it never fails to bring tears of aesthetic pleasure to my eyes. It is nothing short of amazing that a woman of her age can sing the way she does. May God give her many more.

I leave you with a clip of last night's performance. If this doesn't put you in a good mood, I don't know what can.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Thirty Greatest Led Zeppelin Songs, Part 3: Numbers 1-10

Finally, here is my annotated countdown of numbers 1-10 of what I consider to be the greatest songs in the Led Zeppelin ouevre (for my lists of numbers 11-30, see here and here).

10. "The Rain Song" (Houses of the Holy, 1973)

"The Rain Song" is unique in the Led Zeppelin canon, a ballad that defies ultimate genre classification. The slow, melancholy melody is perhaps the most beautiful thing Page ever wrote, and the lyrics, arranged around the four seasons, are among Plant's best. Plant's vocals and Page's electric and acoustic guitars are gorgeous, accompanied nicely by Jones's orchestral mellotron. For a listen, see here.

9. "Heartbreaker" (Led Zeppelin II, 1969)

Built around one of Page's most memorable riffs, "Heartbreaker" is Zeppelin playing blues-based rock at its loudest and most ferocious. As great as the riff and song are, the song's glory is found in its epic, unaccompanied guitar solo in the middle, which still must be heard to be believed, despite its influence on scores of inferior imitators. The studio version is wonderful (here), but as usual is one-upped by their live performances (for example, see here), in which Page often included Bach's "Bourrée in E minor" and other elements.

8. "How Many More Times" (Led Zeppelin I, 1969)

The closing number on the band's triumphant debut, "How Many More Times" is built around a hypnotic bolero rhythm (reminiscent of, but different from, anything written by Howlin' Wolf, whose influence is also evident from his early classic entitled "How Many More Years"). The song is also notable because of Page's powerful guitar work (not only his familiar pyrotechnics, but also his use of the bow), the call and response between Page's guitar and Plant's wailing vocals, and one of the singer's greatest performances. For the studio version, see here. For an outstanding live version from the BBC archives, see here.

7. "Since I've Been Loving You" (Led Zeppelin III, 1970)

"Since I've Been Loving You" is the greatest pure blues in Zeppelin's catalog. The slow blues in C minor was written to supplant their original use of covers such as "You Shook Me" and "I Can't Quit You Baby," found on their first album. Robert Plant delivers one of his best vocal performances, and Page's solo is a wonder to which to listen. For the studio version, see here. For a terrific live performance from Madison Square Garden in 1973, see here).

6. "What Is and What Should Never Be" (Led Zeppelin II, 1969)

Another of Page's triumphant "light and shade" songs, "What Is and What and What Should Never Be" veers between the delicate, almost dreamy verses and the insistent, hard rock chorus (with its rap-like rhythmic vocal performance). Page, using his Gibson Les Paul for the first time in the studio, provides a wonderfully delicate slide solo in the middle, and the outro provides a platform for Plant's peerless singing and a chunky guitar rhythm that is unmistakably Jimmy Page.

5. "Stairway to Heaven" (Untitled, 1971)

Led Zeppelin's most famous song, and the most played song in the history of rock music radio, "Stairway" was never released as a single, both as a matter of principle and the song's 8 minute-plus running time. At the time, it was also considered something of a departure for the band. Beginning as a slice of English folk, complete with wooden recorders courtesy of John Paul Jones, the music speeds up as the song progresses, culminating in a classic Zeppelin hard rock climax, highlighted by a famous, complex-yet-lyrical guitar solo by Page. For the studio version, see here. If anything, the live versions from 1973 at Madison Square Garden and 1975 at Earl's Court are more exciting because of the extended length of Page's solo.

4. "Black Dog" (Untitled, 1971)

To me, this song was the soundtrack of my sophomore year in high school. This is Zeppelin at its most inimitable. Based on an impressive blues-based riff composed by Jones and featuring a basic call-and-response structure between Plant and Page, with a title derived from a Labrador Retriever that was hanging around the Rolling Stones' Headley Grange recording studio, "Black Dog" was the kind of tune no other "hard rock" outfit could duplicate by design, if Jones is to be believed, who utilized the song's complex rhythms and time signatures for that very reason. The song is notable as well, not only because of Page's typical lead playing, but because in the outro of the song, Plant — who, in the band's early days, had a vocal range of more than three octaves — hits an A-flat without falsetto, the highest recorded note in the group's recorded body of work. For a listen, see here.

3. "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" (Led Zeppelin I, 1969)

No song better captures Page's desired "light and shade" aesthetic better than "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You." Written by Anne Bredon in the late 1950s, Page learned of the song via a 1960 live performance by Joan Baez (here). As was his wont, he took the original and entirely reworked it. The main body of the song is acoustic and is dominated by a beautiful minor key melody far more haunting than the Baez original. But what sets the song apart is the way Page adds a sledgehammer, descending guitar pattern (ripped off a year later by Chicago to form the basis of their "25 or 6 to 4") to complement the delicacy of the main verses perfectly. The star of the show here, though, is Plant, the stunning maturity of whose vocals here bely the fact that he had just turned 20 when the recording was made in late 1968. For the studio version, see here. For an early live version, see here).

2. "Kashmir" (Physical Graffiti, 1975)

The expression "world music" hadn't been coined when Zeppelin recorded this, the song Plant considers the "definitive Led Zeppelin song." With lyrics written by Plant after a drive deep into the Sahara Desert in southern Morocco and music written by Page with a distinctly Middle Eastern feel, "Kashmir" (despite the somewhat anomalous title) signaled a new direction for the band, reaching heights they would never again scale. What holds the song together is the unmatched drumming of Bonham, who executes the song's polyrhythms with aplomb. For the studio version, see here. For a live version, see here.

1. "Whole Lotta Love" (Led Zeppelin II, 1969)

Only Keith Richards of the Stones could construct blues riffs like Jimmy Page. And here is Page's unquestioned best riff: an insistent, pounding, and brutal one executed with a metal slide on his trusty Les Paul. The lyrics were, for all practical purposes, a rip-off of Willie Dixon's song, "You Need Love," performed by Muddy Waters in 1962 (here). But the music is something else: more brutal and primal, with another remarkable vocal performance by Plant. If I were to ever own a cell phone, I would want this song's riff to be my ring tone. For the studio version, see here. For an early live performance recorded for the BBC, see here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"I'm as Mad as Hell and I'm Not Going to Take This Anymore"

Something different happened to me Friday as I followed the breaking news about the mass murder of 26 people, 20 of them young children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a shining example of small town America if ever there was one. Surely, as St. Paul exhorted the church at Rome, I mourned with those who were mourning (Rom 12:15) at such an unspeakable evil that had befallen them. Even more, I grieved for my nation, as once again we had to face the truth that we are not the virtuous nation we so like to pretend we are.

But what struck me most forcefully is that I was not surprised, as I had been about Columbine in 1999, Virginia Tech in 2007, Tucson in 2011, or even Aurora in July of this year (for my response to the Aurora massacre, see here) by what had happened. Indeed, had such mass shootings as these, not to mention those in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh in March, Binghamton, New York in April, and at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin in August — remember them? — inured me to such atrocities, inoculating me, as it were, against the soul sorrow that surely ought to affect me, as a human being, in the wake of such acts of inhumanity? And that, upon reflection, made me angry, very angry indeed. Immediately I recalled the classic scene in the 1976 movie, "Network," where Peter Finch, in his last performance, delivered his famous, epic rant in which he exhorted his listeners to repeat with him, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore." You see, I too am a parent of three adult children, and the grandfather of four wonderful youngsters, one of whom is likewise a first grader at an elementary school in a similar, relatively affluent suburb of Philadelphia. All I kept thinking is that this could have been she.

Listening to and reading many of the national responses to this tragedy, not to mention those on my Facebook feed, has cemented that anger. At first many piously intoned that we should not "politicize" the tragedy by speaking too quickly about gun control. Let the families and the community grieve, I heard and read ad nauseum. It didn't take too much reflection to realize that most of those repeating this line believe that any discussion about gun control would be precipitant, and that a certain amount of gun deaths are — sigh — just the price you pay for "freedom." Yet, as the Washington Post's E. J. Dionne rightly argued, now is the time to do so. Otherwise, as the event slips into the closet of our collective memory, the "right time" will, miraculously, never come.

As was to be expected, historically- and theologically-challenged right-wing "Christian" opinionators like Mike Huckabee and James Dobson have gone on record blaming the tragedy on the de-Christianizing of America ("taking God out of schools," abortion, gay marriage, etc.). Frankly, I wouldn't give a toss about anything such self-righteous men, the educated counterpart to the Pat Robertsons of the world, say if it weren't for the incalculable damage they do to the cause of the Christ I love and attempt to serve. From a more secular perspective, many (like this one I read this morning) have proposed that the best prophylactic against such tragedies is to train and arm teachers, administrators, etc. Such a proposition, to be blunt, is self-refuting lunacy. But it at least exposes the presuppositions of those who make the argument. Such presuppositions find their way, without argument, into premises of other arguments I have seen.

The classic argument always dragged out against people who desire stricter gun controls — and please note that the rhetoric of gun advocates is meant to produce paranoia by almost always equating gun control with gun banishment — is that "guns don't kill people; people kill people." Such a grammatical argument is as silly as the argument used by non-academic "educators" to the effect that "teachers teach people, not content" (do they really believe the presence of an indirect object vitiates the significance of the direct object?). Certainly guns, as an inanimate object, cannot willingly perform the action of a transitive verb like "kill." But they most certainly are the tool of choice used by actors to bring about the action denoted by the verb "kill" (in ancient Greek, "guns" would be a dative of means). And what is most relevant to the discussion is the fact that guns are a very efficient, "clean" way to enact the desired effect of bringing about death, and are the easiest way to kill multiple people. Many people brought up the mass stabbing at a school in China (here) the very same day as that of the Newtown massacre in an effort to deflect attention away from guns. "Should we, then, ban knives and baseball bats because they are used to kill as well?" is a rhetorical question I read from more than one snarky "author." Aside from the matter of the expressly designed purposes of these implements (more on this later), one should note the respective casualty lists: Newtown, 26 dead; China: 23 injured. Who is willing to bet that Adam Lanza would have produced the carnage he did had he been armed with only a switchblade or bat? I have yet to find any who would make such a foolish wager.

Two other arguments I read on multiple occasions are these: (1) guns aren't the problem, sin and evil are; government-enacted gun control won't accomplish anything because it doesn't get to the root of the problem; and (2) we should focus less on gun control and more on the "mental illness" that ostensibly caused Lanza to commit his crimes. Both of these arguments involve the classic logical fallacy of the false dilemma. I will deal with them in reverse order. First, one can assume that Adam Lanza was mentally disturbed. All of us are sinners, after all, but the urge to commit mass murder against innocent people comes to very few of us, no matter the legitimacy or otherwise of the grievances we may have against our parents or society as a whole. Furthermore, only an insensitive boor would claim that enough is being done in our society to aid people with mental and emotional problems (as an aside, one wonders how we as a nation could do so with our individualistic and capitalistic proclivities; someone would have to pay for such treatments). Some indeed have pointed to Lanza's diagnosed case of Asberger's Syndrome. But to attribute his murderous rage to such a form of Autism would be precarious indeed. More to the point, however, is the fact that such a mentally unstable person had such easy access to firearms, courtesy of his now late gun-loving mother, who kept the fully loaded Bushmaster assault rifle at home where Lanza lived. At the very least something must be done to limit access of such people to these guns.  As it is, Lanza's mother obtained her weapons legally. Well, such laws as we have them are not enough, and we must do whatever is in our power to make them harder to come by.

With regard to the first argument, we must affirm that of course sin is the most basic issue, and that as long as sin reigns in the world murders will take place. But how does this negate the potential beneficial effects of gun control? It is especially ironic that this is an argument used by many of my conservative Christian acquaintances who, if they are theologically informed, subscribe to the notion of common grace (i.e., favor shown by God to the world as a whole in contradistinction to the saving favor he bestows on the elect/believers). One such manifestation of common grace is the establishment of human government (Rom 13 is a classic text here). Laws enacted by government certainly won't, and can't, change the sinful human heart, but — and this is the important bit — human-enacted legislation can serve to mitigate the harmful effects of human sinfulness. Indeed, the assertion that gun control wouldn't have any effect on the incidence of such atrocities is contradicted by the evidence of such other countries as Australia and the UK (see here). It never ceases to amaze me how gun advocates get away with the argument that gun control must stop all gun crime or else it isn't effective. That is an unmitigated example of what Vice-President Joe Biden would have referred to as "malarkey."  As long as gun control saves even one life, it is worth it. And the experience of other Western nations suggests that the savings in terms of human lives are well worth the "cost" of limiting our country's greatest idol, "freedom."

What is needed, more than anything else, is same discussion about guns and their role in American society. Indeed, as a result of relentless lobbying and propaganda from the National Rifle Association (and their enablers among both Republicans and Democrats in Congress), this is almost impossible today. As columnist Garry Wills, in the most penetrating analysis of the Newtown massacre I have read, has argued, the gun is a sort of "secular god" to which reverence is accorded, and which therefore has become somewhat immune to rational analysis (brilliantly, he compares the gun to the ancient Canaanite god Moloch to whom, according to Leviticus 20:1-5, children were sacrificed).

Why should guns be accorded such respect and (in reality) reverence? Gun advocates usually use two arguments for guns. The first is the myth that guns are useful for protection. Indeed, this is the usual argument used by people in my acquaintance who want to buy a gun to keep in their homes. But the facts belie such naive optimism. As the New England Journal of Medicine has demonstrated, gun ownership in the home increases one's odds of violent death, and increases in gun ownership within a population increases crime rates. Of course, common sense would also tell us such things, but prejudices are strangely immune to facts.

The second argument, built on the Second Amendment to the Constitution, is one based on "rights." In one of the delicious ironies of modern times — or, in this case, an irony that tastes like rutabagas and two-day old steak and kidney pie — it is a Supreme Court that ostensibly believes in "strict constructionism" that has ignored the contextual limitation of the "right to bear arms" to that of a "well-regulated (state) militia" and made that right, for all practical purposes, universal and decontextualized.

If one asks what is so precious about this "right," one usually brings up four matters: (1) protection (see above); (2) the ability of the citizenry to resist tyrannical government; (3) hunting; and (4) the love of target practice. Once again, I find it highly ironic that so many "Christians" cite the second argument in light of St. Paul's clear teaching about submission to government authorities (Rom 13; see my post here) and Jesus' rejection of the "zealotic" impulse in his day to resist Rome with the force of arms on the "patriotic" ground that they, as Jews, had no king but Yahweh. Simply put, the argument of the right to armed resistance is not an option for a Christian. On the other hand, hunting per se is not a problem, at least hunting for food (and no one, right wing fantasists' fears notwithstanding, is calling for a confiscation of hunting rifles), though I have severe moral qualms against the hunting of animals for sport.

But what gets closer to the heart of the issue is the matter of shooting pistols and even so-called "assault weapons" for target practice, especially as so many of the targets are shaped in the form of a human body. I often ask why, if target practice is one's pleasure and sport is one's intention, gun enthusiasts don't simply take up archery instead. The answer is obvious, is it not? Guns give the shooter the desired sense of power that a bow and arrow simply can't. And this intersects, quite obviously, with testosterone-fueled male aggression. If you think I am exaggerating, check out the following advertisement for the very gun used by Adam Lanza in Friday's attack, brought to my attention by the Philadelphia Daily News's Will Bunch:

Such pandering to the American male's macho insecurities is offensive. Even more offensive is the fact that American "masculinity" is defined by so many in these terms. Most offensive of all is that such macho perceptions undergird the worldview of so much teaching about "biblical manhood" that bears little resemblance to the sort of masculinity embodied by the Messiah who, having modeled the practice of nonresistance and been murdered on a Roman cross, was enthroned as Lord at his resurrection the third day. And it is to the crucified and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth that, as St. Paul says, every knee will one day bow (Phil 2:11).

Guns, in contrast to knives, baseball bats, and other potentially dangerous implements of human destruction, have but one purpose: to kill. That is the only thing they are good for. The ultimate issue thus boils down to this: Is the right to kill a sufficient reason to do nothing about the epidemic of gun-related deaths in America? For the life of me, I cannot understand why this "right" is considered so "precious" by so many in this country of ours. Every other so-called "civilized" country in the world, be it Britain, Canada, Germany, Japan, and countless others, does not have to live with the epidemic of gun violence that we have to in America. And the difference in rates of gun deaths is exponential. Yet so many in America continue to live in the delusion that we are "the greatest country in the history of the world." Well, if we would look at the evidence with clearer and less biased eyes, we would realize that such a claim is ridiculous, that we are "exceptional" only in our violence, and that we are not indeed a civilized nation by any reasonable standard by which "civilization" can be gauged.

Yes, I am mad, "as mad as hell," to quote Peter Finch's Howard Beale. I am sick and tired of guns, and I am sick and tired of specious arguments used to defend them and thwart meaningful regulation of them. I am angry that our political leaders do not have the cajones (pardon my Spanish) to ban the public from such weaponry as was used by Adam Lanza to end the lives of 26 precious human beings last Friday in Newtown. "Conservatives" love to scold criminals and societal deadbeats for their emphasis on "rights" to the exclusion of their "responsibilities" to others. Well, I have news for them. All of us, by our tacit approval of America's barbaric gun culture, have failed in our responsibilities to those children and heroic educators that lost their lives last week. And, make no mistake about it, we as a "civilization" will be held accountable for it.

Gun control must be on the table. It must be discussed relentlessly until the tide of murderous violence recedes, if only a little. Yes, it will be difficult. Yes, it will not succeed entirely. But it must be attempted. As it is, as Will Bunch has rightly said, unreasonable gun advocates like NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre (see here) have the blood of those 26 victims on their hands. I might add, if we as a society don't do anything about it, tacitly allowing bullies like LaPierre and his unthinking followers to have their way, we will have the blood of future massacre victims on our hands as well.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Thirty Greatest Led Zeppelin Songs, Part 2: Numbers 11-20

Here is my annotated list of numbers 11-20 of what I consider to be the greatest songs in the Led Zeppelin ouevre (for my post listing numbers 21-30, see here).

20. "Bring It On Home" (Led Zeppelin II, 1969)

Early Zeppelin's greatest indebtedness was to the blues, as this, the closing track to their second album, gives eloquent testimony. It also demonstrates the extent to which they, more than any other band, distilled the essence of the blues and transformed it into their own unique style of bludgeoning, hard blues-rock. The intro and outro of this song are a cover of the Willie Dixon song of the same name, recorded famously by Sonny Boy Williamson II (Aleck "Rice" Miller) in 1963 (for a listen, see here), though performed in a more ominous, haunting manner than the original. But the middle of the song, a Jimmy Page original, is based on a classic, devastating riff and showcases the early Plant's unmatched pipes. For a listen, see here.

19. "In My Time of Dying" (Physical Graffiti, 1975)

This, one of the oldest songs in the Zeppelin catalog, also has the distinction, at 11:05, of being the longest studio cut on any of their albums. Prominent early versions of the song include those Blind Willie Johnson ("Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed," 1927 [here]) and Charley Patton ("Jesus Is A-Dying Bed Maker," 1929 [here]). Subsequently the song was take up by Bob Dylan on his 1962 debut album ("In My Time of Dyin'" [here]). Once again, Zeppelin's version demonstrates their ability to take traditional material and transform it. In this instance, the excitement provided by Page's blistering slide guitar in conjunction with the rhythm section of Bonham and Jones is thrilling, to say the least. The studio version (here) is great, but it pales in comparison to their live version performed at Earl's Court in 1975 (here).

18. "Ramble On" (Led Zeppelin II, 1969)

One of the greatest examples of Page's interplay of "light and shade," "Ramble On" is also the first Zeppelin song that references Plant's fascination with J. R. R. Tolkien's The Ring ("In the darkest depths of Mordor ..."), cleverly wed to more traditional blues lyrical themes ("I've got to ramble"). For a listen, see here.

17. "Communication Breakdown" (Led Zeppelin I, 1969)

One of the staples of the band's early  performances (as evidenced by multiple performances found on their BBC Sessions), "Communication Breakdown" is Zeppelin both at its most primal and, somewhat ironically, forward-looking. The almost proto-punk attack of Jimmy Page's downstoke riff was enormously influential on Joey Ramone, among others, but the later punks never could duplicate (even had they wanted to) Page's rapid-fire runs on his Telecaster. The studio version (here) was a shock to the senses when released in 1969, but, if anything, their live performances were even more powerful, as may be seen here.

16. "Ten Years Gone" (Physical Graffiti, 1975)

Another of Page's greatest "light and shade" songs, this wistful, nostalgic reminiscence by Plant of a former girlfriend he left to join the band packs both a musical and emotional wallop. The depth of the studio sound (here) is due, in part, to the layering of 14 different guitar parts. But the song still packed quite a punch live, as may be seen on their final performance of the tune, at Knebworth on 4 August 1979 (my wedding day!) (here).

15. "That's the Way" (Led Zeppelin III, 1970)

Led Zeppelin III has often been viewed as an atypical Zeppelin album, and as such is consistently underrated by fans. "That's the Way" is "exhibit A" for such atypicality. Written by Page and Plant while on retreat at Bron-Yr-Aur cottage in Wales after their whirlwind first year of touring, "That's the Way" is a gentle slice of acoustic folk, and one of the most beautiful songs the band ever recorded. Listened to in tandem with its immediate predecessor, "Tangerine," one would never have guessed the musicians were members of the hardest rocking band in the business. For a listen, see here.

14. "When the Levee Breaks" (Untitled, 1971)

"When the Levee Breaks," from Zeppelin's untitled 4th album, is a complete reworking of the 1929 Memphis Minnie/Kansas Joe McCoy blues song of the same name, which recounts the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 that killed 246 people and left the Mississippi River 60 miles wide south of Memphis. Few recordings convey to better effect the majesty of the mature Led Zeppelin sound than this showcase of the talents of Robert Plant, who in this song demonstrates, not only his legendary vocal prowess, but James Cotton-worthy chops on the harp as well. And few recordings convey the apocalyptic nature of such "natural" disasters to those unfortunate enough to live through them. For a listen, see here.

13. "Dazed and Confused" (Led Zeppelin I, 1969)

No song is associated with early Zeppelin more than this psychedelic slice of slow blues, with its descending bass pattern, bowed guitar solo, and furiously fast middle instrumental section. Long a centerpiece of the band's live shows, the quartet often would extend the length to 45 minutes in later years. For the original live version, see here. For a live performance from 1970, see here.

12. "Over the Hills and Far Away" (Houses of the Holy, 1973)

One of the most accessible of Zeppelin's masterpieces, "Over the Hills" begins as a winsome folk-rock tune with a Jimmy Page acoustic introduction and first verse sung by Plant over the acoustic strumming. But then Page's blistering electric guitar kicks in along with the tight rhythm section, and the rest of the song plays as a straight ahead rocker, though the acoustic foundation is evident throughout. For a listen, see here.

11. "Rock and Roll" (Untitled, 1971)

One of Zeppelin's most immediately recognizable classics, "Rock and Roll" began as an impromptu jam based on Little Richard's 1957 "Keep a Knockin." Though a thoroughly traditional rock 'n roll song based on a typical blues chordal progression, the sheer ferocity of Page's and Bonham's attack and Plant's still- remarkable vocals transform it into a tune worthy of the 1970s and, indeed, any time. Page provides yet another classic solo and the Stones' Ian Stewart graces the song with some classic boogie-woogie pounding on the keys. To listen to the studio version, see here.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Third Sunday of Advent: On Jordan's Bank the Baptist's Cry

On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry 
Announces that the Lord is nigh; 
Awake, and hearken, for he brings 
Glad tidings from the King of kings! 

Then cleansed be ev'ry breast from sin; 
Make straight the way for God within; 
Prepare we in our hearts a home, 
Where such a mighty Guest may come. 

For Thou art our Salvation, Lord, 
Our Refuge, and our great Reward. 
Without Thy grace we waste away 
And flow'rs that wither and decay. 

To heal the sick stretch out Thine hand, 
And bid the fallen sinner stand; 
Shine forth and let Thy light restore, 
Earth's own true loveliness once more. 

All praise, eternal Son, to thee
Whose advent doth thy people free,
Whom with the Father we adore
And Holy Ghost for evermore.

Today marks the third Sunday of Advent, traditionally referred to as "Gaudete Sunday," so named after the first word of the Introit to the Mass for the third Sunday of Advent, taken from Paul's letter to the Philippians:  "Gaudete in Domino semper; iterum dico, gaudete" ("Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice" [Phil 4:4]). Advent, as I have previously discussed (here and here), is the time of preparation for Christmas,  and hence has a somewhat somber, penitential tone as the worshipers places themselves in the shoes of those Jews in continuing exile who waited longingly for the advent of their hoped-for Davidic Messiah, and look forward themselves for the anticipated second advent of their Lord to consummate his kingdom.

Yet on this, the third Sunday of Advent, the tide begins to turn as the advent grows ever nearer and Messiah's forerunner is on the scene preparing his way and proclaiming the message of repentance in view of the kingdom's imminence (hence Charles Coffin's [d. 1749] hymn "On Jordan's Banks the Baptist's Cry," sung splendidly in the link above by the choir of Wells Cathedral). Indeed, in the Anglican liturgy the Gospel text for today is Matthew 11:2, which finds John imprisoned and questioning whether Jesus was, after all, who he had claimed him to be. Jesus' response, drawn from the language of Isaiah 61, provides the reason to rejoice: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the poor receive the message of good news. Such events could mean but one thing: the Messiah had indeed come, and that Messiah was Jesus.

I leave you with the Collect for the Third Sunday in Advent in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:
O Lord Jesus Christ, who at thy first coming didst send thy messenger to prepare thy way before thee; Grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Penal Substitution, Part 7: Substitutionary Atonement and Ethics

[Note: for previous posts in this series, see hereherehereherehere, and here.]

Back at the turn of the 21st century, Joel Green and Mark Baker leveled several criticisms  most of them, in my view, irrelevant and/or misleading  against The 19th century Princeton theologian Charles Hodge's model of penal substitutionary atonement. One argument, however, has a long history: the argument from ethics. Green and Baker conclude that "ethically this model has little to offer." Why is this? To quote them again: "According to the logic of the model, an individual could be saved through penal substitution without experiencing a fundamental reorientation of his or her life ... [I]t can do little more than serve as an example to point to when calling individuals to imitate Christ" (Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament & Contemporary Contexts [Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2000] 149).

Now I would be the first theologian to insist that ethical concerns are integral to any theology that warrants the label "biblical." Moreover, I happily acknowledge that many Christians operating under the banner of "substitutionary atonement" fail mightily in this regard, not least those who, for all practical purposes, so emphasize forensic "justification" that they ignore, or at least sever that doctrine's intrinsic ties to, "sanctification." Likewise, I am one of many today who lament the apparent collapse of ethics in many American Christian circles to an individualistic and pietistic concern for "purity", understood within the parameters of supposedly "conservative" cultural values. Thus Green and Baker's charge is a serious one. But, as Christians who take the Bible's authority for doctrine and practice seriously, we must first ask the question, Is this charge warranted, scripturally speaking? In this post I have chosen to look at 1 Peter 2:24, one of my favorite biblical texts, one of many texts which directly bear on the question at hand.

The text, in translation, reads as follows:

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you were healed.
This remarkable verse comes at the climax of a section in which Peter exhorts slaves patiently to endure unjust suffering at the hands of their masters (2:18-25). As counterintuitive (and offensive) as such advice might appear to those of us raised with modern western sensibilities, the apostle nevertheless considers such patient endurance to be "grace" (charis) before God (2:20), if indeed such perseverance is motivated by a sense of conscious commitment to God (ei dia syneidēsin theou) (2:19). In verse 21 he ups the ante, even claiming that it was to such patient endurance of unjust suffering (a backward-looking touto) that they were savingly "called" (eklēthēte; cf. 2:9). The reason Peter can say this (hoti) lies in the historical example of Christ, who left behind the model (hypogrammon) they should follow when he "suffered" (epathen) on their behalf (2:21).

At this point the apostle continues with a passage that bears unmistakable signs of being a preformed liturgical or creedal fragment based on a Christological reading of Isaiah 53 (cf. also Polycarp's Epistle to the Philippians 8.1-2, written as early as 110 CE, which recites the same passages in reverse order). This example provided by Christ not only extends the application of the text to all Christians, but also provides the theological foundation for the Christian ethical life as well. Verse 24a is, for all practical purposes, a quotation of Isaiah 53:12 (LXX), with slight modifications drawn from Isaiah 53:4 ("our sins" rather than "the sins of many"), and thus explicitly interprets the significance of Jesus' death in terms of the mission of the suffering and slain Servant of Isaiah 40-55.

The mission of Christ is defined in terms of "bearing" (anēnenken) our sins in his own body on the "tree" (xylon, lit. "wood"), a reference to the cross via the early Christian application of Deuteronomy 21:23 to our Lord's execution (e.g., Gal 3:13; Acts 5:30; 10:39). Because the verb anapherō is commonly used in the Old Testament (LXX) of the priest's task of bringing a sacrifice to the altar (Lev 14:20 et passim), C. A. Brigg suggested more than a century ago in his famous ICC commentary that Peter envisioned the cross as an altar to which Christ carried our sins to be slain there (cf. also the standard Greek lexicon, BDAG, which renders the verse "he himself brought our sins in his body to the cross"). Such a notion, however, is foreign to any reasonable understanding of the Levitical sacrifices. It is better to understand the verb in light of the Hebrew text underlying the LXX version quoted by Peter. There the verb used to describe the mission of the Servant is
נשא (nāśā'), which in that context carries the sense of bearing guilt or punishment for others (so BDB, 671). Edward Gordon Selwyn, in his classic commentary, wrote: 'In what sense, we may ask, did Christ "bear" our sins? In the sense that he took the blame for them; suffered the "curse" of them ... and endured their penal consequences' (The First Epistle of St. Peter [London: Macmillan, 1949] 180). Even if Frederick Danker is correct in his judgment that the verb anapherō never has this meaning (BDAG, 75), and we should rather translate the verse, "He himself carried our sins in his body to the tree," we still must interpret the text in conjunction with Peter's other clear statements about Christ's death. Elsewhere he interprets the cross as a  cultic sacrifice (1:2), as the ransoming antitype of the Passover lamb (1:18-19), and as a vicarious death effecting our reconciliation to God (3:18). At the very least, then, Peter presents Christ's death as the definitive means to accomplish expiation — the removal — of "our" sins. And manifestly he did this vicariously, bearing the punishment we deserved for the sins we committed.

What stands out here, however, is the purpose (hina) the confessional statement attributes to Jesus' vicarious death. Christ bore our sins, Peter writes, in order that, having died to those sins — for my readers who have studied Greek, note the anaphoric article (tais) indicating that the sins they had "departed" or "abandoned" (apogenomenoi) are the very ones borne by Christ — we might live to "righteousness." For Peter, in other words, Christ's expiatory, substitutionary death effects, not only the forgiveness of sins, but also a definitive existential break with those sins for the beneficiaries of that death. This definitive break with sins must then work itself out in moral renewal or, as the apostle says here, "living for righteousness." "Righteousness" (dikaiosynē) in this context does not refer to the forensic status of "being in the right," as in such Pauline passages as Philippians 3:9. Rather, it speaks of "righteous" or upright behavior, the doing of "what is right" (cf. 3:14; i.e., the type of behavior Peter describes as "doing what is good" [agathapoiountes] in verses 15, 20). 

Green and Baker, as we have seen, made two accusations against the theory of penal substitution. The first was that it results in people "saved" from sin's guilt without experiencing a fundamental reorientation of life. This, frankly, is an objection based on a "problem" Peter would not have recognized. Indeed, "living for righteousness" is dependent upon our sins having first been expiated by Christ's death on our behalf and in our stead. Their second objection, viz., that penal substitution at best can present Christ as an example to imitate, is likewise less than substantial. Indeed, Peter himself is guilty in this respect, and in pointing to Christ's example as motivation, the apostle simply reiterates a theme that permeates the New Testament.

In Green and Baker's defense, the connection between penal substitution and moral transformation is not notionally transparent. That, however, does not vitiate the connection that Peter, for one, clearly makes. At most it could be a pointer to the fact that penal substitution does not monopolize New Testament theologizing about the significance of Jesus' death. And acknowledging this does not thereby invalidate it as a necessary and significant aspect of what that death achieved. Peter himself provides a hint at the basis of moral transformation when he speaks of regeneration through the "word of God," the gospel message (1 Pet 1:23-25). In my next post, I plan to return to the Apostle Paul, who provides an even more profound interpretation of Jesus' death, entailing both substitution and moral renewal, in two of his primary epistles.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Thirty Greatest Led Zeppelin Songs, Part 1: Numbers 21-30

In my estimation Led Zeppelin is the most important band, musically speaking, in the history of rock music. Other bands may have boasted a greater facility at writing pop songs and thus had greater mass appeal (The Beatles). Others, driven by a purist love for classic blues and country music, produced a more traditionalist rock 'n roll body of work (The Rolling Stones). Zeppelin, however, possessed unsurpassed vocal and instrumental chops (only Cream and such art rock bands as Yes rivaled them). More than that, Jimmy Page and company almost always subsumed any artistic pretensions they may have had to the integrity of the songs they were playing, which were always more than merely skeletal frameworks for improvisational pyrotechnics. And, whereas their music was based in the blues, they incorporated a host of diverse elements far and wide, from trad rock 'n roll, country, and reggae to English and Celtic folk to Arabic and Indian music, all to create an inimitable musical stew. Over the years many have tried to imitate Zeppelin. The closest most came was to the sheer muscular velocity of their sound. Inevitably, however, what all missed was the nuance, the "light and shade," as Page once put it, that defined their sound.

In a series of three posts, I would like to list what I consider the 30 greatest Led Zeppelin songs. This is not an easy task, for their first six albums, from 1969's Led Zeppelin I to 1975's Physical Graffiti, are uniformly excellent, with nary a bad song in the bunch. But try I will, always recognizing that the list I might compile next week would differ in some respects.

30. "Fool in the Rain" (In through the Out Door, 1979)

One of the least "Zeppelinesque" songs in the band's catalog, "Fool in the Rain" boasts a Latin flavor with its polyrhythmic, 12/8 meter in the verses and a samba beat in the interludes. The song is a showcase for the talents of rock's greatest drummer, John Bonham, and guitarist Page, who produces a fine solo enhanced by his use of an MXR Blue Box effect pedal. For a listen, check here.

29. "Dancing Days" (Houses of the Holy, 1973)

"Dancing Days" is a somewhat slight, light-hearted tune inspired by a trip Page took with Robert Plant to Bombay (Mumbai). The Indian influence is most evident in the stinging slide guitar figure around which the song is built and in the somewhat off-kilter main melody, which stand in some tension with the lyrics, which Rolling Stone calls "an almost Beach Boys-like vision of Edenic summer ease." For a listen, see here, though for my money, a better version may be found on the Live CD, How the West Was Won.

28. "Immigrant Song" (Led Zeppelin III, 1970)

This song was my introduction to Led Zeppelin back in Junior High: Jimmy Page's powerful, staccato riff (a variation of which would later dominate "The Wanton Song" from 1975's "Physical Graffiti"), Plant's unbelievable banshee wail, and lyrics derived from Norse mythology. The expression, "hammer of the gods," later to be used of Zeppelin itself, comes from this song. For a listen, see here.

27. "Thank You" (Led Zeppelin II, 1969)

One of the most beautiful songs in the band's catalog, "Thank You" is the 20-year old Plant's tribute to his wife, Maureen Wilson. The song boasts a nice organ accompaniment from John Paul Jones and acoustic solo from Page. For the original studio version, see here. For a video of a performance by Page and Plant in their 1994 Unledded tour, see here.

26. "Trampled Under Foot" (Physical Graffiti, 1975)

This is Zeppelin at its funkiest, with an updated sound (reminiscent of Stevie Wonder's clavinet-based "Superstition") to go along with lyrics derived from Robert Johnson's great "Terraplane Blues." The studio version (here) is excellent, but it pales in comparison to the remarkable live performance delivered at Earl's Court, London, in 1975 (here).

25. "Gallows Pole" (Led Zeppelin III, 1970)

This is Zeppelin's arrangement of the centuries-old traditional ballad, "The Maid Freed from the Gallows," with a twist at the end: rather than being freed, the maiden is still executed, the hangman ignoring the plea despite his cashing in on the bribe. Mostly acoustic (Page whips out his Les Paul at the close), the song is notable for its use of banjo and mandolin along with multiple guitars. Plant at this point was still at the peak of his vocal powers. For a listen, see here.

24. "Travelling Riverside Blues" (BBC Sessions, 1969)

This is ostensibly a cover of Robert Johnson's classic 1937 side of the same name (see here). As usual, Page totally reworks the music into a complex slide guitar workout that bears little resemblance to the original. The precision of the live recording, done for the BBC, is impressive. For a listen, see here.

23. "Good Times Bad Times" (Led Zeppelin I, 1969)

The opening song on Zeppelin's debut album, "Good Times Bad Times" packs a wallop in its 2 minutes and 45 seconds, containing everything the band would become famous for: a killer riff (courtesy of John Paul Jones), electrifying guitar from Jimmy Page, and superhuman drumming (one kick drum!) from Bonzo Bonham. Listen here.

22. "Going to California" (Untitled, 1971)

One of the gentlest and, dare I say, prettiest songs in the band's catalog, "Going to California"'s homage to Joni Mitchell (the "girl with love in her eyes and flowers in her hair") is an acoustic masterpiece, with Page's six string and Jonesy's mandolin providing exquisite accompaniment to one of Plant's greatest vocal performances (for the studio version, see here; for a performance from Earl's Court in 1975, see here).

21. "D'yer Mak'er" (Houses of the Holy, 1973)

Another sui generis Zeppelin tune, "D'yer Mak'r" is an amalgamation of '50s-style doo-wop and reggae (hence the pronunciation "Jamaica"), filtered through the standard grid of Bonzo's thunderous drumming and a quasi-heavy metal guitar sound. The song was meant as something of a joke, and Jones reportedly hated the song, but for once Jonesy was wrong. Despite its slightness, the song's a great listen (see here).

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

John Cawood's "Exegesis of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas'"

John Cawood (center), with Gordon Ceperley (left) and my dad (right)
 in Jerusalem, July 1976

Those of us who were fortunate enough to have studied at Philadelphia College of Bible (now Cairn University) in the 1960s and 1970s knew instinctively that we were mentored by giants. Those of us who continued our education in graduate school and/or seminary had our instincts confirmed the minute we commenced our further schooling. The three men pictured above, all now present with the Lord, comprised the core of PCB's Bible and Theology department during the years I studied there. And to this day I remain profoundly grateful for their influence both as teachers and as people (indeed, the picture wonderfully conveys what these men were really like). In a previous post I recalled my own father and his massive influence on my life, both at home and in the classroom. Today I would like to remember his friend and colleague, John Cawood.

Even though I was only a child, to this day I remember my dad's elation when PCB hired Dr. Cawood in 1963 away from a small Christian school in Florida. The two men had known each other from seminary days in Dallas, and Dr. Cawood would be only the second (after my dad) Bible professor at the school with an earned doctorate. Later, I became acquainted with him and his family when we both lived in the western Philly suburb of Havertown and attended Grace Chapel there. Like my dad, Dr. Cawood loved sports (indeed, their ping pong matches on the 8th floor of 1800 Arch were legendary, though neither of them could beat Sam Hsu with any regularity), and I always looked forward to the times he would preach from the pulpit at the Chapel. But one day stands out in my mind. In August of 1972 I was about to enter the 11th grade. Yet, for some reason, I decided to go with my dad to his faculty workshop at America's Keswick in Jersey. Dr. Cawood rode along with us, and I was spellbound by the conversation in the seats in front of me. The discussion was wide-ranging, but I was especially impressed by their mastery of the Bible and what were to me, at that time, arcane theological subjects. I instinctively wanted to be like these men. Indeed, all these forty (!) years later I can honestly say that, ever since that day, I have never wanted to do anything other than teach the Bible.

Dr. Cawood was a wonderful communicator who wed serious content to a winsome and, at times, humorous delivery. One classic of his was an "exegesis" (a fancy term meaning "interpretation" used by Bible scholars) of Clement Clarke Moore's 1823 poem "'Twas the Night before Christmas." I heard him do it for the first time back in 1974 while a freshman at PCB. I must say that I have never heard a more effective send-up of so much "serious" Bible teaching than in this mock "exposition," from its outline of the story into three parts to its ultimate description of St. Nick as a "senile, dirty, one legged man who is an alcoholic." Thankfully. I have just been made aware of a copy of one of his performances to be found at If you want a good laugh, check it out. You'll be glad you did.