Music For Holy Week, Good Friday

Jesus, again crying out loudly, breathed his last. Matthew 27:50 (The Message)

Crucifixion day. Rejection, framed, spit, nails, whips, anger, buck-passing, violence, fear, denial. All this and more are where we are today. A murderer freed, Jesus killed.  It should be a hard day. It is.

It’s hard to pick music. Most of it seems too obvious, too trivial, too offensive. But here’s a few that speak to me of this day. I’ve put all today’s choices on one post, rather than do a separate post for each one.

There’s a rich Biblical and theological tradition of saying that we are crucified with Christ. That is to say, that if we are to enter into all that Easter can mean for us, we have to allow ourselves to die a death before we move to new life. This is different to physical death; it’s a dying to a sense of our own sufficiency and ‘good-enough-ness’, letting go of the capacity to prove ourselves, accepting that Jesus somehow does for us what we do for ourselves. Every yes requires a no, every life a death.

Tori Amos would be horrified to know her work was being used in this context. Her music shows her to be someone deeply hurt by religion in general and Christians in particular. Her anger towards a God she doesn’t accept is palpable. Her first album, Little Earthquakes, from which this track is taken details much of her personal pain. It’s one of my all-time favourite albums. It articulates pain and suffering, and somehow turns it into beauty. At times it’s almost impossibly painful to listen to; at others it’s breathtakingly beautiful. This song takes the language of crucifixion and applies it to her own suffering and her own search for healing. Which makes it, in my view, dangerously appropriate for this day.

Lyrics

Most of us have no real answer to the question of what it means to have someone die for you or to die with someone. It’s a strange concept, really. Florence + The Machine are a band it’s taken me several goes at to ‘get’; but now I find their music deep, rich and true. If the spirituality of their music is anything then it’s some vaguely flavoured soup … but it’s beautiful and intoxicating and occasionally (like this song), disturbing. In a way I can’t explain, it speaks to me of something I experience on Good Friday.

Lyrics

Today should end with a sense of finality. It should feel like a defeat. I love the simple, mournful beauty of this song; a tinge of hope, but achingly sad.

Lyrics

Also in this series: 

Introduction

Palm Sunday

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Music For Holy Week, Thursday

Taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he plunged into an agonizing sorrow. Then he said, “This sorrow is crushing my life out. Stay here and keep vigil with me.” Matthew 26:38

Thursday is the day of the Last Supper; of betrayal; of arrest; of blood; sweat and tears in a garden at night. The night before everything changes is a night of gradual abandonment, of looming mortality, of sleeplessness, of fear. It’s not a time for the faint-hearted. It’s tempting to skip over the next few days to Sunday’s trumpet blast of hope. But to do so is to fail to do justice the reality of the cost, the presence of death in life; to do so robs Sunday of true joy because you won’t really have gone to the depths.

Johnny Cash was the Man In Black; mourning colours whenever he performed singing country songs telling stories of murder and love, life and hope, death and loss. A Christian who wore his sin on his sleeve, his career underwent a strange kind of renaissance in his last years. This song is not his own, as was the case of much of his recorded work. He made it his own, however; written by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, an altogether different (if very gifted) musician, in Cash’s hands this becomes an epitaph, a confession and acceptance of mortality. One of the very last works he recorded, it stands as one of those rare pieces of music which demands silence in its wake, the better to echo and reverberate. It’s the song of a man who’s lived, who knows he’s to die. The video only develops and enhances this, to startling effect.

Lyrics

Also in this series

Introduction

Palm Sunday

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Music For Holy Week, Wednesday

That is when one of the Twelve, the one named Judas Iscariot, went to the cabal of high priests and said, “What will you give me if I hand him over to you?” They settled on thirty silver pieces. He began looking for just the right moment to hand him over. (Matthew 26:14-16, The Message)

Wednesday is when the plots start to gather momentum. Moving from theory to practice, Judas chooses his side. Jesus is starting to annoy powerful people, and they want rid of him. It feels as if there really is no way back from here. It’s easy to paint Judas as the embodiment of evil, but that would be to miss the point. What his story tells us is that it’s possible to live well and still end up going badly wrong. We all mask dark secrets; if we don’t bring them into the light at some point, they’ll come back to bite us somehow, somewhere, sometime. Judas’ betrayal is, in reality all too believable. Better to make him a cartoon villain than the normal person he actually is.

Hip-hop, like much contemporary music, has an easy reputation as about sex, money and other worldly pleasures. Some of it is, of course; much of it, though, deals with the big stuff of life with wit, intelligence and perception. Scroobius Pip is one half of one Britain’s best hip-hop acts, and this song is taken from his solo album. It’s a dark song about the dark struggles behind the balanced facades of celebrity; released around Halloween, the disturbing lyrics and video capture darkness, gathering gloom and fear well. It’s an uncomfortable song of uncomfortable truths, to which I feel Judas would ask me to pay close attention.

Lyrics (explicit)

Also In This Series

Introduction

Palm Sunday

Monday

Tuesday

 

Music For Holy Week, Tuesday

God’s kingdom is like ten young virgins who took oil lamps and went out to greet the bridegroom. Five were silly and five were smart. The silly virgins took lamps, but no extra oil. The smart virgins took jars of oil to feed their lamps. The bridegroom didn’t show up when they expected him, and they all fell asleep. (Matthew 25:1-5, The Message)

Part of Jesus’ seemingly wilful obscuring of his message and identity is expressed in the stories he tells. The parables are deceptively simple stories of contemporary everyday occurrences, the meanings of which are designed to be available only to those willing to hear them in the first place. We can become over-familiar with them now, but really they’re strange and divisive. The Tuesday of Holy Week is, for many parts of the Christian tradition, about readiness for what’s coming: death, judgement, the revelation of God’s kingdom. Jesus deals with this in two parables – the 10 virgins and the talents. The former deals with the idea of being ready for a bridegroom who could come to meet the bridal party at any time (as happened with weddings then); throughout the Bible the image of marriage is used to understand the relationship of God to his people. Coming as it does this week in the run-up to the bridegroom’s death, this makes for a strange kind of wedding, where you have to die in order to live, say no in order to say yes. You need to be ready.

French-Canadian group Arcade Fire are a strange bunch. They throw all sorts of invention and ideas at their music, evolving each time into something slightly different. This song – one of their best known – is taken from their first album (for our purposes, aptly titled Funeral) and finds their sound at its most accessible. As it should be as we anticipate a wedding, it’s a euphoric, almost ecstatic number; but involving a kind of death it’s also laced with an unnerving dis-ease and awareness that there’s a price to be paid.

Lyrics

Also In This Series

Introduction

Palm Sunday

Monday

Music For Holy Week, Monday

 One day he was teaching the people in the Temple, proclaiming the Message. The high priests, religion scholars, and leaders confronted him and demanded, “Show us your credentials. Who authorized you to speak and act like this?” (Luke 20:1-2, The Message)

It doesn’t take long for the tide to turn. Already the questions and plots are biting at his heels. Jesus’ responses are typically enigmatic and confusing, seemingly designed to alienate and confuse anyone not in the inner circle. It’s a clash of cultures, people conversing in two different languages. Authority is challenged, credentials presented in the most obtuse of ways. Jesus would be terrible at public relations, always confusing the powerful with soundbites that don’t seem to follow, always at pains to point out how he doesn’t fit.

I love R.E.M.’s music; Michael Stipe (their singer and main songwriter) is an intelligent, articulate man who has written some of the greatest songs of recent times; he’s also an intense and passionate live performer. I’ve seen the band once in person, countless times on-screen, and weekly in my own ears. I once spoke to someone who worked for the BBC whilst R.E.M. were preparing for a broadcast. They were rehearsing in the empty studio; it was a sound check, with no reason for special performance. The person I spoke to said most bands dealt with these requirements by conserving energy, doing the bare minimum. Stipe, he said, performed to the audience of none as deeply as he would at the moment of recording. He always lost himself in his own music, never bored, never going through the motions; even if there were only a handful of technicians to hear it.

Today’s song isn’t one of his best known, taken from the band’s less-loved later period. Like Jesus in Holy Week, the band always seem at pains to obscure what they’re really trying to say; certainly they’re not religious in any way. This song is one of the few this week to mention Jesus by name, though. It’s by no means a song of devotion to him; admiration maybe. One of the many things I adore about this song is how well it presents the clash between world-views that Jesus presents. He remains present but also just out of reach throughout this song. Purveying wisdom, but no-one’s quite sure from whence it or he comes. Let those who have ears …

The melody moves me deeply, too. It’s simple, beautiful, but also seems somehow discordant. I’ve been listening to this song since its release in 1996, and I’m still seeing new things in it. Much like I am with Jesus.

Lyrics

Also In This Series

Introduction

Palm Sunday

Music For Holy Week, Palm Sunday

The disciples went and did exactly what Jesus told them to do. They led the donkey and colt out, laid some of their clothes on them, and Jesus mounted. Nearly all the people in the crowd threw their garments down on the road, giving him a royal welcome. Others cut branches from the trees and threw them down as a welcome mat. Crowds went ahead and crowds followed, all of them calling out, “Hosanna to David’s son!” “Blessed is he who comes in God’s name!” “Hosanna in highest heaven!”  (Matthew 21:6-9, The Message)

Like much of this week, I don’t know what to do with Palm Sunday. It’s Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, fulfilling prophetic promise by riding on a donkey. There’s a rush of praise and acclamation. Deservedly so. It must ring hollow in Jesus’ ears, though; he knows that by Friday these shouts of welcome will have turned to a clamour for his death. So how did he receive that welcome? As its meant on the day in question, sincerely? With reservations? With bitterness? With anger? Luke’s account suggests he received it  at face value, brushing aside the religious authorities asking him to quiet the crowds by telling them its inevitable.

Jesus has a strange relationship with the city. He prophesies dark days for Jerusalem, overtones of judgement and apocalypse, but also weeping over it with maternal affection. I love cities – as I’ve recorded elsewhere on this blog, it’s cities I want to live in and where I feel most alive and aware of God. I’m also aware, though, that it’s in cities that humanity’s worst is multiplied; crime, the mob mentality, disease, social disorder. All those and more are multiplied in urban environments. That mixture of emotions about the city seems to me refracted and intensified in Jesus, especially as he knows what is to come later in the week.

Today’s song speaks of that sort of love for the city which you take your life-blood from, but at the same time knowing that it is dangerously toxic … as it proved to be for Jesus. It captures the love laced with undertones of danger. It’s a hymn to another city (Los Angeles), but could really apply to anywhere. It comes from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, one of their earliest songs, and one of their most loved. Of all the bands I’ve seen live, they remain among the most musically proficient.

Lyrics

Also In This Series: 

Introduction

Elysium (2013)

A peril of blogging about film is that it can give the inadvertent impression that my opinion of a given film is fixed. My blog about District 9 (click on the last two words) is a case in point. I enjoyed much about that film the first time around, but I concluded that it didn’t have the depth it liked to think it did. I’ve re-watched it multiple times since (largely because it’s a film people like to watch when they visit us in South Africa), and my admiration has grown and deepened. I still find it exciting and fun, but I keep seeing new depth in it too. It turns out that it was I who wasn’t thinking deeply enough.

So it’s with a little apprehension that I finally settled down to watch the director (Neill Blomkamp) follow-up to that film, Elysium. Worryingly, my conclusions are similar if less positive overall; there’s much that’s good about it, but it’s ultimately disappointing. Like the former, this is a science-fiction earthed in the director’s South African reality. This time the context is the division between rich and poor; Earth has been left behind by the elite for an idyllic space-station called Elysium, always in view and out of sight by the teeming masses of poor left behind, grinding out lives of subsistence, dead-end jobs and subservience to a system loaded against them. Matt Damon gets caught up in an industrial accident on Earth; seeking healing he’s embarked on a dangerous course of action to earn illegal passage to the man-made paradise and certain healing.

There’s so much about Neill Blomkamp’s emerging style. He knows the grammar of science-fiction films well, but his is an authentically original voice and style. He directs actions scenes brilliantly in a post-Bourne world, using hand-held shaking cameras well but in a subtly different way. Every action scene is gripping and involving. As someone who lives in South Africa I like that he uses South African talent and patois alongside better known talent and language. Throwaway South African slang is brilliantly used to draw into the film’s world, not alienate. District 9‘s star is back again, similarly intense but in a key supporting role and a world away from that film’s fear-struck vulnerability.

Overall, though, it just doesn’t work. Key supporting roles (Jodie Foster’s being a case in point) are under-written to the point that we’re never quite sure what they’re for even at key plot moments; the coldness of the privileged elite seems less like the gap between rich and poor and more like lazy writing. Other than good medical care and nice gardens, Elysium itself doesn’t seem to have any actual content – which means the gap between rich and poor is never quite established beyond a need for good health care. Which might make sense (and it does) in South Africa, but just doesn’t work for the film’s central theme. By the time the climactic scenes roll around, you’re impressed and entertained, but confused as to quite what’s happening and why it all matters so much to so may people.

It’s a shame, but not a crying one. It’s still a decent film, but I’d be really surprised if I grew to feel about this film the way I do about District 9. What we do know for certain, though, is that Neill Blomkamp is a director to watch with excitement.

I rated this film 6/10 on imdb.com and 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

I watched this film at home on tv.