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.
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