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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Cover Versions

In 1983, I sat in a movie theater and wondered something. I looked at the space station on the screen and wondered why the Empire would think that their design was so great that, even though the Rebellion had destroyed the first version, they should try to build another one. Didn't they have any other ideas? Didn't the guy who wrote the story have any other ideas?

I wonder how many times "Big Yellow Taxi" has been recorded. Never mind, Google, don't tell me... I don't want to know. I'm afraid I can't count that high! I personally can think of at least three or four versions off the top of my head, and I know there have got to be dozens more. What about "Heard It Through The Grapevine"? Of course, everybody knows the old Gladys Knight version and the CCR version, but what about the California Raisins' version? What about that one, huh? Hey, what about "Knockin' On Heavens Door?" Bob Dylan, Guns 'N' Roses, and tons more. A few months ago I learned to my surprise that Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" was a rework of an older song by Big Mama Thornton. When someone else records an already-recorded song, the new recording is called a "cover" of the original. Often, these are not very different from the original versions. But sometimes they become more well-known than the originals (like "Hound Dog"), and sometimes both the original and the cover become ridiculously well-known (like "With A Little Help From My Friends", which was originally recorded by The Beatles and then covered with a completely different arrangement at Woodstock by Joe Cocker). Sometimes an artist even reworks his own song (Eric Clapton's two radically different takes on "Layla"). We just finished watching a movie whose soundtrack, for no apparent reason, consisted largely of cover versions of Beatles songs. Too strange.

I never realized how many cover songs there are in the Bible until I got into my "read the Bible in a year" project this year. Psalm 53, for example, is a revision of Psalm 14. The Psalm that David sang in 2 Samuel 22 is presented in a slightly modified form in Psalm 18. The song in 1 Chronicles 16:8–36 is reworked from pieces of Psalm 105, Psalm 96, and Psalm 106. And Psalm 136 has the earmarks of being a heavily reworked version of Psalm 135. There are many other examples of repetition of individual verses or verse clusters in the Psalms.

There are lots of Death Star-style examples of narrative being repeated, too. Take The Ten Commandments, for example: they appear in Exodus 20, and they appear again in Deuteronomy 5. Of course, a lot of the book of Deuteronomy is a repetition of material from Leviticus. Most of 1 and 2 Chronicles is derived from 1 and 2 Kings, and anyone who has spent any amount of time in the Gospels knows that some of the stories about Jesus appear as many as four times, once in each Gospel account. In a few spots in the Bible, whole passages are repeated: take, for example, 2 Kings 18-20 and Isaiah 36-38.

Why all the repetition? There's no one answer for all of the examples. I've been learning some of the reasons, though; Deuteronomy repeats Leviticus to teach a new generation of Israelites about God's law. The Chronicles are a retelling of the Kings for a different audience: the books of Kings were written before Israel had been taken into captivity in Babylon, and the Chronicles were written after they had returned. Some of the Psalms seem to have been repeated because different versions were intended for different uses. But it's fun to think that maybe years after Psalm 14 was written, some guy picked up his psaltery and recorded his cover version, which hit the charts as Psalm 53. Hey, why not? And if the writer of 1 Chronicles can piece together several existing Psalms to create a new one, then it's OK for me to use Bible language and thoughts in my own songs.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Restoring the Kingdom

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
(Acts 1:6-8 ESV)
It seems like every time Jesus turned around, His disciples were trying to get Him to lead some kind of revolt against the Romans. They even argued about which one of them was better than the others, and who would be Jesus' second in command when He was king. I imagine they kept thinking back to the glory days of the Kingdom of Israel, when David and then Solomon were king and Israel was a superpower in the ancient world. Jesus was the promised heir of David's throne, and they all believed it meant that He would overthrow the Roman empire and once again make Israel a political force to be reckoned with. Jesus kept shutting them down, telling them that His Kingdom was "not of this world" (meaning, maybe, that it wasn't the kind of kingdom this world produces?) but that it was a kingdom that is "of Heaven" and "among you." It wasn't the kind of political kingdom they were expecting, and it wasn't the kind of political kingdom that was in their nation's history. In fact, if they had thought about it, they would have realized that the kind of kingdom that was in Israel's past was the result of their own human desires, not what God desired (God himself said that they had "rejected [Him, God] as their king"). Eventually the disciples got it... but it took them a while!

I was thinking about all that this morning, and suddenly the present day came into sharp focus. The founding fathers of the United States of America were, history tells us fairly clearly, believers in God and in the Bible. They were highly moral people, and principles from the Word of God guided their work in founding this nation. In recent decades there has been a significant hybrid political/religious push to force certain issues into the forefront of politics; call it the "moral majority" or the "religious right" or the "evangelical movement" or whatever you like. Now please don't get me wrong; I believe morality should be at the forefront of every law we make, and the Bible is the place to find your moral compass. But Jesus clearly wasn't training His disciples to become political leaders in the world's system of "kingdoms." Jesus was teaching His disciples to bring people into the Kingdom of God, which exists right in the middle of all of the kingdoms of this World. When you change the hearts of the people, the kingdoms of this world automatically begin to become more like the Kingdom of God. Israel didn't need a new David or Solomon as king, and maybe we don't need a new George Washington. Maybe we need to transform the hearts of the people, and when that happens, Godliness will begin to show up in lots of unexpected places!

One day, “The kingdom of the world [will] become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” Until then, we have our rights as citizens of this nation to be active politically, and as Christians we will act according to what we believe the Bible teaches about fairness and morality, but when we are doing that, we are not necessarily doing the work of God's Kingdom. The Bible teaches us to pray for our leaders, and that authority is given to them by God. And if your God-appointed vocation is to be involved in politics, or if you enjoy it and want to be involved, that's wonderful and important. My vocation is programming computers. I do my job as unto the Lord, but at my job, I am not building the Kingdom of Heaven... I'm building computer programs. Political leaders should not see themselves as building kingdoms for God - Jesus could have obtained a chariot and horses and an army and approached His ministry using the political tools of the day. He didn't do that, because He wasn't building a kingdom of the kind the World builds. Jesus, our example, built His kingdom on foot, right in the middle of huge crowds of people, teaching them about God, laying hands on them and healing them. Maybe as Christians we should look on ourselves the same way - we live in two worlds, one of Earth and one of Heaven. Our vocation and our politics are of the kingdoms of Earth. Those kingdoms need building, and we should be interested and involved in that process. But our ministry to others is of the Kingdom of Heaven. We need to make sure we don't think we're building God's Kingdom when we are actually building a kingdom of this World, because when it all comes down to it, every kingdom of this World (including the United States of America) will one day dissolve and be no more, but God's Kingdom is forever.