A Little Bit

I don’t know about you, but I have a complicated relationship with genres.  As a fiction writer I have great difficulty classifying what I write, and that shows in the reluctance of publishers to embrace it.  We tend to suppose that some kinds of Platonic types exist out there by which we can map what we find here in the physical world.  These genres, however, are far more permeable than they seem.  My wife and I just finished watching the eight-part Ken Burns documentary Country Music.  Neither one of us is what you might call a fan of the genre but I can say that I learned an awful lot.  My stepfather was a country music fan, so many of the names and songs, particularly of the early years, were familiar.  What became clear throughout the century or so covered by the films was that the dividing line was always a blurry one.

While today we tend to think of country music as a southern phenomenon, the documentary made clear that its beginnings were folk music.  And folk lived most places.  While certain styles predominated in certain ages, across the years it was hard to tell some country music from pop music and rock (especially in the early days of the latter).  Even rock is difficult to classify.  What it often comes down to is self-identification.  An artist or band that identifies as country is country.  It is a distinctly American art form and it quite often identifies with religion.  Like rock, it also has some roots in gospel music.  When it becomes secular, gospel can go into many unexpected places.

Another association—again, a generalization—is country music and conservatism.  Partly it’s the promoting of Americanism, but partly it’s based on a false perception.  Performers are actors, after all.  Many of the “clean cut” examples of country singers struggled constantly with drug abuse (often considered the demon of rock-n-roll) and alcoholism.  It’s often right there in the lyrics.  The listeners, however, tend to think of them as stories.  That was the other great takeaway from the series—people are drawn to the stories.  I think that’s something we all know, but country music often excels at the hard-luck story that resonates with people down on their circumstances.  I’m not about to become a country music fan, but watching this series, like any educational venture, has opened me to a new tolerance for what I previously classified as a genre that didn’t have any appeal.

Bible Search

The Bible is, in many ways, not suited to internet study.  Let me explain: this artificial world of the internet is based on searchability.  To search for something, you need to have a distinctive word, a keyword, or catchphrase.  As perhaps the most successful book of all time, the Bible has undermined its own uniqueness.  How many books are titled The Gun Bible or the Dog Bible or substitute your favorite noun Bible?  Web searches for “the Bible” bring up a large number of relevant hits, but then quickly devolve into other Bibles.  Too many Bibles. Not only has the noun “Bible” been appropriated, so have many aspects of its story.  Particularly the Good Book’s penchant for using short, common words for titles of individual books.

Search for Mark, or John, for example.  Don’t bother adding the word “Gospel” since it too has become widely utilized to give any popular subject an air of authenticity.  Not only did the four evangelists write such books—the Gospel according to Biff, Trump, the Simpsons, or Bruce Springsteen will likely pop up ahead of the original fab four.  Or consider the books whose names became common nouns: genesis, exodus, numbers, judges, kings.  Then there are the ambiguous titles: Job, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Acts.  Sure, you can lengthen them out a bit: Acts of the Apostles, Song of Solomon, the Proverbs of Solomon, but the results you get tend to skew evangelical that way.  Job is just a non-starter. Do you mean employment or enlightenment? Do I need to get a job or to get Job? At least it’s not a popular name for kids.

The other area where the Bible’s success works against it in the computer age is its success at giving names to people.  In a culture so biblically based, the Bible has been treated as a name-list for newborns for centuries.  Even though the Anabaptist penchant for using prophetic names has faded from popular culture, there are plenty of Isaiahs, Jeremiahs, and  Ezekiels out there.  Even some minor prophets, too.  Amos, Micah, Zechariah.  (Habakkuk, Zephaniah, and Haggai haven’t particularly caught on.)  Daniel, David, Joseph, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob.  We live in a world of biblical nomenclature.  There’s even more than one Jesus running around.  (Jesus, is, of course, Greek for Joshua, so there may be even more than one might suspect.)  I spend a good bit of the day searching various biblical material online.  I wonder if anyone ever imagined, over two millennia ago, that a three-letter name was bound to cause problems in a world of billions? Were it submitted for publication today, the editor would’ve sent the Bible back to the author for a rewrite, along with a list of suitable keywords.

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God and the Boss

I seldom gush, nor am I given to great displays of emotion. Although I appreciate great accomplishments in others, I have never considered a living person a hero. Only Bruce Springsteen. An article in the newspaper yesterday described the first academic conference on the Boss’s music, held right where it all began — New Jersey. Unfortunately unable to attend, I relish the fact that others see in Springsteen what must be something like I see.

Last year at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in Boston, I picked up a copy of a new book, The Gospel according to Bruce Springsteen, by Jeffrey Symynkywicz (Westminster John Knox, 2008). I am not a fan of “Gospel according to —” books, but there is a trenchant depth of struggle with religion embedded in Bruce’s songs that transfixes me almost as much as Melville’s Moby Dick. Now, this is deeply personal with me. I don’t discuss my amazement that borders on worship of Springsteen with anyone. Coming from a decidedly blue-collar background, and having wrestled against circumstance for everything I’ve earned, including my degrees, I hear resonances of empathy throbbing through what Bruce sings. He is not an icon; he is an authentic human being. And his music is a gospel.

Boss

I haven’t read Symynkywicz’s book yet. Whenever I’ve tried to read the popular bios of the Boss I soon become frustrated at how trite they all make it sound. Having survived (barely) the Reagan-Bush era with its utter lack of sympathy for the condition of most Americans, sometimes I just need to crawl into the corner alone, slip on the headphones, and listen to Nebraska over and over again.