Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Huey Lewis and the Nones

"Jacob's Ladder," from the album Fore! (1896)

I met a fan dancer down in southside Birmingham
She was running from a fat man selling salvation in his hand
Now he's trying to save me when I'm doing all right
The best that I can

Just another fallen angel trying to get through the night

Step by step, rung by rung (higher and higher)
Step by step, rung by rung
Climbing Jacob's ladder

Coming over the airwaves the man says I'm overdue
Sing along, send some money, join the chosen few, hey
Mister, I'm not in a hurry, and I don't want to be like you

All I want from tomorrow is to get it better than today

Step by step, rung by rung (higher and higher)
Step by step, rung by rung
Climbing Jacob's ladder

All I want from tomorrow is to get it better than today

Step by step, rung by rung (higher and higher)
Step by step, rung by rung (climbing and climbing)
Step by step, one by one
Step by step, rung by rung
Step by step and step by step
Step by step

OK, so I'm out of seminary, searching for a call, aging (I'm less than half a hear from the next round number birthday) and perhaps getting a bit angsty about it.  One of the things I have been doing, when the mood strikes me to do so, is using iTunes to collect some of the albums or individual songs that were popular or significant for me at some point in my younger days (mid-twenties or younger, we'll say).  Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Billy Joel's The Stranger (which got a little action on this blog at the time),  and Don Henley's The End of the Innocence would be among the albums so gathered.

The most recent such acquisition was the album Fore! released by Huey Lewis and the News in 1986.  Their previous album Sports had been one of my earlier pickups, and Fore! had the added benefit of having the single "Hip To Be Square," which played a major role in my college experience (you'll just have to wonder).  But when I started up the set I was reminded of the first track, a minor radio release called "Jacob's Ladder" (you can see the lyrics above, and see a video here.)

Not quite on the level of Sports, but a good album nonetheless.

Let us not ascribe undue profundity to Huey Lewis (as Bret Easton Ellis apparently did).  For one thing, I'm pretty sure Lewis himself would reject it.  While there is the occasional song with some lyrical heft to it in the catalog ("Walking On a Thin Line," from Sports, comes to mind with its PTSD-suffering persona), most of the band's songs are designed simply for having a good time playing/listening to vaguely old-fashioned rock and roll.  This, despite the stupidity of some critics, is a good thing.

"Jacob's Ladder" didn't make a whole lot of impression on me back then, when my highest ambition was to be a minister of music in some Baptist church somewhere.  Hearing it again for the first time in ages, now seeking a call as a Presbyterian pastor in an age where the church is in a panic over its advancing numerical decline, the song found a nerve that it never did before.

Despite my clickbait title, this is not the Anthem of the Nones or any kind of spiritual-but-not-religious motto.  The characters are thoroughly cliche (a fan dancer? really?), the type easily skewered by anyone with half a brain (the female counterpart to the TV preacher in the second stanza was the type that the late Jan Hooks recreated so wonderfully, no doubt with the benefit of experience growing up in Georgia and Florida), the reaction sentiment so easy as to be cheap.

And yet...and yet and yet and yet.

If Mr. Lewis and his cohort has reminded us of anything, it is that the condition in which we find ourselves is not a new thing.

No, Huey Lewis is not champion of the Nones, and I have no idea if he is spiritual or not or religious or not.  What he does do, though, is remind us of (1) the way the church got to be so easily dismissed by the nones or SBNRs, and (2) that this process has been underway for quite a while.  Remember that Fore! came out in 1986; that's twenty-eight years ago.  And before that you could see things like the Carlisle Floyd opera Susannah, or the movie Elmer Gantry, or any number of reminders of the corruption that too easily and too often is foisted upon the world by the church in the name of Jeeeeezus.

The miracle is that there aren't more nones or SBNRs.  The church has been doing its damnedest to run them off for decades if not centuries.

At the same type it is a cheap stereotype as well.  Even as the fat men sold salvation in their hands and the TV hucksters huckstered (if that's a word), as the church sold indulgences and ran inquisitions and defended slavery and did all manner of evil, the church was also doing good.  That doesn't get attention, of course.  But the church, even as it has never been as good as it claimed to be, has also never been as bad as others portray it to be.

But I digress.  The indifference to the church that fosters none-ness and SBNR proliferation well predates "Jacob's Ladder," and it isn't going to be solved in twenty-eight years either.  For the church to undo the damage it has done to its own reputation is going to be a long haul, longer even than my own ministerial career (if that ever happens).  And we can't have screwups like the Mark Driscoll fiasco or the Hillsong abuse case continuing to spring up in the church's more fame-oriented precincts either.  I'm not advocating that we go all willy-nilly on throwing doctrine and instruction to the wind, but we are not going to fix our reputation with orthodoxy.

We have to do right, and get it right.  

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