Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Mark of Paul

[A version of this article under the title "Sinners and Saints" first appeared in the September/October 2012 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

The centerpiece of the Christian narrative is the concept of human nature.  Are we inherently flawed and in need of outside assistance or imminently sacred and inherently unified with the divine?  How the apostle Paul’s interpretation of Jesus’ teachings shaped the Christian view of sin.

The Early Years
Although they were contemporaries, Jesus and the apostle Paul never met.  They never walked together down a dusty road, sharing figs and dried fish as they talked.  Paul, the Pharisaic Jew, never had the privilege of sitting in the shade of an olive tree and listening to the teacher share his fresh take on the Kingdom of God, a vision unmoored from the teachings of the Temple and rooted deep within his own experience.  Paul never felt the loving gaze of his teacher’s eyes, or the touch of his hand, or the way his wordless presence awakened others to their own divinity. 
If Jesus and Paul had met, things might have turned out differently.
Instead, in the heady years that followed the state execution of Jesus, long before the first word of the New Testament was written, Paul did his best to cobble together a set of doctrines and practices from the scattered recollections of Jesus’ students and his own insights. 
Paul became a follower of the nascent Jesus movement, known simply in those early years as “the way.”  It is Paul’s understanding, some say misunderstanding, of Jesus and his teachings that shaped Christianity more than any other source.  Paul pulled the movement together by writing letters to fledgling groups scattered around the Mediterranean in places like Corinth, Thessalonica, Ephesus and Rome – letters that set the tone for everything that was to follow.  Four hundred years later those letters were canonized by the bishops of the Church and became the inerrant word of God.  It is impossible to overestimate Paul’s importance in the formation of Christianity.  Almost half of the New Testament was written by Paul.

The Nature of Sin
Jesus spoke a regional dialect of Aramaic.  For him, the word sin would have been hob or hobha, a term borrowed from a commercial context meaning “debt.”  In Greek, the language of the New Testament, hob or hobha became hamaratia, meaning “internal flaw.”  For centuries, ancient Greek tragedians had employed hamaratia as the driving force of their plays, the plot element that brought down the protagonist in a paroxysm of pride and obstinacy.  For the Greeks, the most common internal flaw was hubris, a destructive, self-obsessed arrogance. 
As soon as they were written down, the teachings of Jesus were altered by the unavoidable distortions of translation.
            When the Bible was rendered into English, hamaratia became sin, derived from the old English word synn, an archery term meaning “to miss the mark” – yet another layer of meaning.
            So what is sin?  Is it a temporary debt we can repay?  Is it a permanent stain no self-effort can alleviate?  It is a deeply rooted psychological flaw that will inevitably spell our doom?  Is it a simple mistake, quickly corrected when we release another arrow from our bow?
            And how do we repair the damage?
            How do we climb out of the hole and get back on level ground where we are no worse than anyone else, and no better than anyone else?  How do we restore our original status as beings of infinite value?  How do we lay bare the lie of our unworthiness and in the light of forgiveness walk across the bridge that spans the chasm of our alienation?

War and Peace
Paul and Jesus characterized our relationship with sin quite differently.  In Paul’s dualism, the material world and the spiritual world are locked in an eternal battle.  In The Gospel According to Jesus, Stephen Mitchell writes, “For Paul, the moral life is difficult, muscular and perilous.”  In Paul’s often violent portrait of the human predicament, we must cultivate the vigilance of warriors and gird our loins against the weakness of the flesh.  Declaring that “nothing good lives in me,” Paul seems to loath his own humanness and pines for the triumph of his spiritual nature, a transcendent force that comes from above.  The cancer within is “our sinful nature,” a power so great that we cannot overcome it with our will, yet struggle against it we must.
            In his letter to the Romans (7:21), Paul writes, “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work in my own members.  What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  Two thousand years of traditional Christian dogma take birth in this single passage – the claim that this world, including our own bodies, is hopelessly mired in sin, that sin is a condition, not an event, and that we’ll really only be free when we’re dead.
            Jesus paints a startlingly different portrait of sin and the means of our release from its grasp.  Instead of battling against an adversary we can never conquer, Jesus asks us to abandon the entire paradigm of life as a struggle and move instead into a condition of consciousness characterized by surrender and ease.  “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” he says in Matthew 11:28.  “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden light.”
            The Sanskrit word yoga is etymologically linked to the English word “yoke”, and it is no accident that Jesus employs this potent agricultural metaphor to describe a deep psychological state.  In the same way a yoke channels the vast and undirected energy of oxen toward a specific aim, the disciplines of yoga seek to channel the vast and undirected energy of consciousness toward a specific aim, a fruitful harvest of awakening.  We’re always yoked to something, whether we’re aware of it or not, because our thoughts bind us to words and actions.  When we are bound, or yoked, to selfish, destructive thoughts, we are led down a path of suffering.  When we choose instead to follow our higher nature, our Christ-consciousness, we feel the struggle slipping away, replaced with serenity and divine alignment.  Conflict is replaced with cooperation, agitation with contentment. 
Mitchell puts it this way: “For Jesus, there is no drama.  The more we surrender, the more we are carried along in the current of God’s love.  Not that good and evil don’t exist, but when you see into the realm beyond good and evil, where everything is pure grace, we are much less likely to be caught up in our own judgments and moral categories, and much more ready to experience every action as easy and natural.”
Know Peace, No War
By emphasizing the dualism of good and evil and our own inherently sinful nature, traditional Christianity bears the mark of Paul.  But what if Paul got it wrong?  What if the early church’s reliance on Paul set Christianity off on the wrong foot? 
What if Jesus and Paul had met and become friends?  Perhaps Paul’s strident self-loathing would have softened in the loving gaze and unconditional acceptance of the master teacher.  Maybe he would have seen himself differently and written some very different letters.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Guitar Solos That Made Me Cry

I love guitars.  And I really love a good guitar solo.  In the history of recorded music there are so many good ones.  We could argue all night about which are the best or the most important.  But I want to take a more personal angle.  You would no doubt write a very different list, but for me, these are the guitar solos that break me down and start the water works.
            A guitar solo is a funny thing.  Commonly sandwiched between verses and choruses of sung lyrics, it’s time for the singer to step back and let the music shine.  A good guitar solo comes in many forms.  Sometimes it’s a primal, pre-cognitive scream.  Other times it’s a homey, back porch hug from grandpa, all pipe tobacco, flannel and Old Spice.  But no matter what shape it takes, its wordless language speaks to the deepest part of us, that part so few things ever reach.  In “Yellow Ledbetter”, an outtake from the first Pearl Jam album Ten, singer Eddie Vetter invokes Mike McCready’s guitar solo with the words “Make me cry.”  Indeed.  Here are the guitar solos that make me cry, even now, after all these years.
            I have to start with David Gilmour’s iconic, whammy bar infused Stratocaster manifesto at the end of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.”  This is as good as it gets.  A rich, gorgeous tone, long fluid lines, ice hard flurries, and long shafts of tonal light reaching deep into the chasms of the unconscious – this is what all electric guitar solos aspire to be.  Gilmour doesn’t play over the song – he inhabits it.  This is the mistake so many lesser guitarists make.  They see a guitar solo as an opportunity to stand out and shine.  But Gilmour knows better.  He knows that a guitar solo is a chance for one pair of hands to lift the whole song into transcendence.         
            There are many outstanding Neil Young guitar solos, but the one that really gets me the most is the one from “Words”, the last track on his essential album Harvest.  Like so many other Neil Young songs, this song is a meditation on the cost of fame and the strange isolation that world adulation creates.  With its loping time changes and syncopation, “Words” is one of Young’s most sophisticated arrangements, yet it still retains its rustic recorded-in-a-barn charm.  In the middle he builds up a slow solo on electric guitar over a bed of bass, drums, piano and pedal steel.  Some critics have compared Young’s guitar work to Coltrane, and no other song makes the point better.  The halting, stuttering stops and starts of his lines perfectly embody the uncertainties of any life, let alone the life of a young man on the cusp of wealth and fame in the patently insane world of pop music, a life Young has never comfortably embraced.  His confidence in the midst of awkwardness becomes our own.
            For sheer minimalist brilliance, let’s turn to guitarist Keith Scott’s work on Bryan Adams’s power ballad “Everything I Do (I Do It For You)” from the 1991 Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves soundtrack.  Scott and fellow Canadian Adams met in 1976 and began recording together.  They’ve been together ever since.  In this solo, you can almost feel the trust they have for each other, the way Scott lets each note hang, waiting patiently for the song to shift beneath him.  This solo is a perfect example of one of the most difficult things for any guitar player to do – nothing.  Wielding silence and emptiness as masterfully as sound and fullness make’s Scott’s solo one for the ages.
              At the age of fifteen Neal Schon landed a job as a sideman in an early formation of Santana.  It was either that or accept Eric Clapton’s invitation to join Derek and the Dominos.  Not bad for a kid.  But Schon really made his mark a few years later as a founding member of Journey.  Schon’s solo at the end of “Faithfully” is a masterpiece forever schooling guitarists on how to support and stay within the bounds of a pop song while simultaneously elevating its themes to celestial heights.  Following a fluid jazz idiom, Schon first anchors the melody, then varies it, then goes completely nuts taking us all with him.
            David Lindley is a multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire with countless album credits to his name.  But his work with Jackson Browne remains his most powerful.  In “These Days,” Lindley finds the beating heart of Browne’s paean to lovelorn sadness and lays it bare for all to see.  Every time I listen to this solo it seems brand new again.  Lindley makes it clear: a solo, like a work of literature, should have a beginning, a middle and an end.  A solo is not just noodling around or stringing a bunch of notes, lines and figures together.  And a solo should never be about the guitar player and his or her prowess and technique.  A great guitar solo burrows so deeply into the soul of the listener that the guitarist and the band disappear leaving only a wide open expanse of beauty, space, light and redemption.  That Lindley accomplishes this so effortlessly ranks him as one of the finest instrumentalists of our era.  And don’t get me started about his violin solo on “For a Dancer.”  Different column.
            “Gypsy”, a Stevie Nicks composition that didn’t fit on her solo album, found its way onto Fleetwood Mac’s thirteenth studio album Mirage.  Lindsay Buckingham’s guitar solo, echoing the format of their earlier masterpiece “Go Your Own Way”, doesn’t appear until the end.  Employing his trademark finger style approach Buckingham creates a cascade of shimmering notes that pour down like stardust and build upon the magic spell that Nicks created with one her most personal and powerful vocal performances.  When you hear a song like this you kind of feel sorry for all the other bands that will never in their wildest dreams reach these heights.  Buckingham’s solo plays the song out in a long, slow fade.  Woe unto the DJ who talks over this solo.  I will find you.
            The history of pop music is filled with great partnerships and the sub-genre of Americana is no exception, from Buddy and Julie Miller to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.  On “Barroom Girls” from Welch’s 1996 debut album Revival Rawlings plays a plaintive and heartbreaking solo that deftly encapsulates the world-weary pathos of this lament – so simple, yet so rich.  Who knew two unadorned acoustic guitars could create such a flood of emotion.
            Over on the mainstream Nashville side of country music, Paul Franklin’s pedal steel guitar solo on Vince Gill’s “When I Call Your Name” perfectly exploits the inherent ability of a pedal steel to create a shifting, sliding, fading, falling, slippery slope where you can’t find your feet and you fall powerless into the dark heart of the song.  I’ve listened to this a thousand times, and never in a million years will I understand just exactly what Franklin is up to.  But it breaks my heart every time.
            There are others.  I could go on.  And I know you have yours too.  Some other time we’ll argue about “best” guitar solos, or “most important” guitarists.  So many of my favorite players aren’t even on this list, like Angus Young of AC/DC, or unquestionable greats like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page.  But in the end, the solos that grab me the most are the ones that keep me in the car in the driveway, unable to turn off the radio and go inside.  And besides, you don’t want your wife to see you crying.