Thursday, October 9, 2014

Psalm 58 - King David's First Mashup - Brad Jersak


Definition: MASHUP (n.) -- a musical track comprising the vocals of one recording placed over the instrumental backing of another.

I love mashups. The definition above tells you what they are, but doesn't tell you what they do, which is to say, how they function. And how they function is often the funnest and most clever part. When a melody is very familiar, we will come to associate a message with the melody itself. If, then, someone does a mashup with lyrics from a song that carries a very different message, the incongruity can be very striking. The combination then acts ironically or satirically to provoke thought, to drive home an inspiring message or even provide prophetic-social commentary. When you add video to the mix, the effect is amplified even further. 

Allow me to give you two examples that are not only ingenious but also quite moving. After these examples, I want to introduce you to the oldest known mashup in history (thanks to Dr. Matt Lynch for directing me to it). But please walk with me through the two modern samples first, because each carries its own forceful point. 

Part 1 - 'Amazing Grace' to the tune of 'House of the Rising Sun'

'House of the Rising Sun' by the Animals was written in 1964, the year I was born. The lyrics are a bit mysterious, and theories about their meaning vary, but apart from the authors' possible intent, for the majority of listeners, this haunting song came to be associated with a brothel. The singer pleads in remorse,
Oh mother tell your children 
Not to do what I have done 
Spend your lives in sin and misery 
In the House of the Rising Sun
You can hear the regrets of how sin has brought misery, climaxing in the final lines:
Well, there is a house in New Orleans 
They call the Rising Sun 
And it's been the ruin of many a poor boy 
And God I know I'm one.
The lesson, in the end, is ruin. "And God" attaches connotations of a final confession ... before God, he stands -- or rather 'falls' in the Adamic sense -- condemned before his maker. Yes, I'm reading between the lines and inferring meaning, but this is the point. The melody becomes a forlorn confession of suffering the initial fate of the prodigal son, who had 'devoured his father's wealth with prostitutes' (Luke 15:30) and wound up in utter ruin. 

I shall never forget the morning in church (Bethel Mennonite, Aldergrove) when the young worship band -- hairy hippies from the Jesus People days (like Len Wiebe) and the next generation (the Ron and Steve Hoock) began playing that melody on during Sunday morning worship. My eyes widened and I'm sure many a squirming buttock shifted uncomfortably on the hardwood pews. But as they began to sing, out of their mouths came the first mashup I had ever heard: 
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound 
That saved a wretch like me, 
I once was lost but now I'm found 
Was blind but now I see.
Tears came as I saw that prodigal, stooped in shame, returning home to a father -- God -- to receive grace rather than condemnation, hospitality rather than punishment. Where there was ruin, there was restoration. I knew the song and thought I knew about grace, but amplified by the original melody, the gospel truly felt ... AMAZING! This is the power of great mashup. And that particular arrangement has been a powerful combination in venues that increase the effect even more. For example, I read about the tragic death of a disreputable biker whose friends played this version at his funeral. Imagine a congregation of gnarly hog-riders in leather blubbering along without shame? Actually, I've seen it ... and it was a rare beauty!

If you'd like to pause here and listen to that arrangement, let me introduce you to 'The Blind Boys of Alabama,' who really nail it.

Part 2 - 'Chop Suey' to the tune of  'Crocodile Rock'

More briefly, our next sample is a mashup that blends the lyrics and some of the music from the song 'Chop Suey' (by the American rock group 'System of a Down') into Elton John's melody, 'Crocodile Rock.' This composition took some serious work because it included slowing down the original song and matching both vocals and music from each into a sort of power ballad coupled to Elton's happy falsetto chorus.

Now aside from simply appreciating this kind of creativity, I also found the strangeness of it all very compelling. Again, the lyrics are difficult and open to interpretation, but what we know for sure is that the band invoked two of Christ's final statements from the Cross:
Father, father, father, father
Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,
Father into your hands
Why have you forsaken me?
In your eyes forsaken me
In your thoughts forsaken me,
In your heart, oh ...
... And they've paired these with the controversial lines,
I don't think you trust in my self-righteous suicide!
I cry when angels deserve to die!
The basic question is whether we are to understand both sets of lines as coming from Christ (and thus blaspheming Christ's sacrifice as a 'self-righteous suicide') or whether they reflect someone who is contemplating taking their life and perhaps appropriating the words of Christ to express an alienation from their own human father. In either case, it is a very heavy song ... both in its original metal genre and even more so in its content. Some serious thought went into the writing and so my default mode is to try to really listen and grasp their message or cry or complaint as I think Jesus would.

But when it was mashed into 'Crocodile Rock' -- a song about breaking free, having fun and dancing it up -- well, it's all very disorienting. Granted, in Sir Elton's lyrics there's a bit of a sad ending, where the years go buy, the music dies, Suzie leaves with a foreigner and the subject spends nights crying by the record player. Still, he clings to the memories -- 'they'll never kill the thrills we've got, burning up to the Crocodile Rock' (probably a dance, rather than drugs as some suppose). In the end, the melody is associated with happy memories of golden era sock-hops and youthful playfulness.

When you put Chop Suey's desperate suicide theme alongside the happy-clappy melody, it's all very disorienting. The mashup is asking us something or pointing out something that is hard to get one's finger on ... but it arrests you. Not dissimilar to the closing scene of Stan Kubrick's movie, Full Metal Jacket, in which young American soldiers are striding through the burning rubble of a Vietnamese city to the tune of the 'Mickey Mouse Song.'

What's going on? And maybe that's the question. In both cases, the clash of life and death, joy and despair, childlike innocence and dark thoughts ... yes, we're to stop and ask: 'What's going on?'

In any case, here's the 'Crocodile Chop' mashup. If you don't like heavy metal moshing and the demonized look (real or feigned), it won't hurt to skip this part. No need for nightmares. The point is made. But if you watch, you'll see that the visuals go with the lyrics but become more bizarre embedded in Elton John's melody. ... Then on to King David, for the first known actual mashup in history!

Part 3 - 'Shatter their teeth' to the tune of  'Do not destroy'

I mentioned my friend, Dr. Matt Lynch, earlier in the article. He pointed to this mashup, as noted in St Gregory of Nyssa's Treatise on the Inscriptions of the Psalms (Oxford Early Christian Studies; Oxford, 1995). I wouldn't have seen this without my esteemed colleague, but whatever errors I make in what follows are my own. I'm also making use of a helpful chapter by Patrick Miller, "Gregory of Nyssa: Superscriptions of the Psalms," Dell-Davies-von Koh (eds.) Genesis, Isaiah, and Psalms: a Festschrift to Honour Professor John Emerton for His Eightieth Birthday (Boston: Brill, 2010).

Let's take this in clear stages.

a.  The 'liner notes' - Inscriptions in the Psalms

Liner notes are those little notations written on the album sleeves inside record albums or in the booklets you get with a CD. They include the lyrics, but also, introductory material like the song writer, studio and artists involved. They may also include explanations and dedications.

At the beginning of many of our Psalms in the Bible, you'll see liner notes just prior to the lyrics (we call them inscriptions or superscriptions). St Gregory of Nyssa, the fourth century church father, never wrote a commentary on the Psalms, but he did a full-blown study on the Psalms' liner notes. These include obscure little expressions like 'unto the end' (LXX; I think 'for the choir director' is mistaken); 'a song of ascent,' 'to the tune of the Lilies,' 'concerning the eighth [octave? ... or 'day' perhaps?],' and so on.

Gregory didn't see these superscriptions as superfluous. He thought they were (or became) more than just musical markers for the temple choir. They were preserved in the final form of our Holy Scriptures for a reason, possibly to give us hints about the meaning of the Psalms. Perhaps, he thought, you could see an inscription like 'unto the end' as a call to victory (i.e., crossing the finish line) or the 'songs of ascent' as invitations to grow in Christlikeness as we journey into the kingdom of heaven. And then you would use the inscription as an interpretive key with which to read the Psalms.

At a historical level, the inscriptions sometimes remind us of the backstory in which the Psalm was written, such as after David sinned with Bathsheba (Ps 51) or when he was hiding in a cave from King Saul (Ps 57). But Gregory goes further to see how these superscriptions might also point forward to our own spiritual ascent (growth by God's grace) in the godly virtues (the fruit of the Spirit). He thinks that an inscription "in and of itself points to something which is achieved in relation to virtue in the meaning of its own words" (Gregory, Treatise, 2.11, cited in Parker, 219). Combining the historical and the spiritual elements, you could say that the liner notes sometimes remind us of how David himself models the spiritual growth that God's Spirit brings about as we ascend by grace into the heart of God.

b. The tune: 'Do not destroy'

One of the tunes that the Psalmist mentions in his liner notes is entitled 'Al-tashheth' -- literally, 'Do not destroy.' This was apparently a common enough tune to warrant reusing four times in the Psalms. The tune itself was inspired by and recalls a specific backstory from the life of David. 

Specifically, the 'do not destroy' tune was written out of the story of David's opportunity to kill King Saul, found in 1 Sam. 26. It goes like this:
Then David said to Ahimelech the Hittite and to Abishai the son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, saying, “Who will go down with me to Saul in the camp?” And Abishai said, “I will go down with you.” So David and Abishai came to the people by night, and behold, Saul lay sleeping inside the circle of the camp with his spear stuck in the ground at his head; and Abner and the people were lying around him. Then Abishai said to David, “Today God has delivered your enemy into your hand; now therefore, please let me strike him with the spear to the ground with one stroke, and I will not strike him the second time.” But David said to Abishai, “Do not destroy him, for who can stretch out his hand against the Lord’s anointed and be without guilt?” 10 David also said, “As the Lord lives, surely the Lord will strike him, or his day will come that he dies, or he will go down into battle and perish. 11 The Lord forbid that I should stretch out my hand against the Lord’s anointed; but now please take the spear that is at his head and the jug of water, and let us go.” 12 So David took the spear and the jug of water from beside Saul’s head, and they went away, but no one saw or knew it, nor did any awake, for they were all asleep, because a sound sleep from the Lord had fallen on them.
What is the moral of this story? What is the tune it inspired? David has the opportunity to kill his enemy, to strike back in vengeance for what Saul had done. David had already been anointed king by Samuel, the throne was rightfully his according to God's own prophetic direction. Abishai becomes, for David, the voice of the tempter. 'Take what is yours! God has given you the kingdom as your inheritance -- just take it!' (reminding us of the tempter in Eden and during Christ's 40 day fast). 'All you have to do is destroy your enemy -- then all will be well! Or, if not you, let me do it for you!' 

David resists the temptation and declines the opportunity. 'No,' he says, 'do not destroy.' And thus is born the inspiration for that great tune, 'do not destroy.' The tune would signal David's mercy, his trust in God for protection rather than taking matters into his own hands. Perhaps adults would whistle it while they worked in the fields. Maybe children played it as the first riff on their learner's harps. In any case, the tune would generate images of David's wise restraint and noble act of clemency to the bitter old king.

As Gregory says, "But this is marvelous, not only for the fact that he grants life to the one who is doing everything against his life, although he had been appointed to the office of king and knew that he otherwise would not partake of that position unless Saul were out of the way, judged it better to suffer ill patiently in his private low estate than to enter upon the kingship by satisfying his anger against the one who caused him grief" (Gregory, Inscriptions, 2.16.266).

c.  The mashup: Psalm 58

The 'do not destroy' tune is taken up in Psalms 57, 58, 59 and 75. Not surprisingly, the lyrics of each include descriptions of the pursuit of the wicked (like Saul) and a cry for help or proclamation of trust in the Lord's protection. In that sense, all four Psalms match the historical backdrop of Saul's cruel pursuit of David and the former shepherd's dependence on God for help.

However, if we use Psalm 58 as an example, we'll see an odd juxtaposition between the lyrics and the melody (as in any great mashup). For while the tune is recognized as the merciful melody, 'do not destroy,' the new lyrics laid over top of the melody are raw, violent 'screamo' ... among the most disturbing in Scripture. Here's a sample of the heart of the song, which I would entitle, 'Shatter their teeth!"
O God, shatter their teeth in their mouth;
Break out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord! ...

Let them be as a snail which melts away as it goes along!
Like the miscarriages of a woman which never see the sun!

Before your pots can feel the fire of thorns
He will sweep them away with a whirlwind, the green and the burning alike.
The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance!
He will wash his feet in the blood of the wicked!!
Well, that's just gruesome. It's System of a Down mashed with Elton John all over again. R-rated, graphic hip-hop violence sung to John Lennon's 'Imagine'! Quite literally, it's 'Shatter their teeth' to the tune of 'Do not destroy'! And so like any great mashup, we're stopped cold and ask, 'What's going on?'

Gregory will, of course, come at it allegorically with an ultimate lesson in suffering ill-treatment patiently, because for him it's about ascent via the virtues. But what I found more interesting (and probably truer to the text) were some suggestions that our good Dr. Lynch batted at me. Consider that the tune and liner notes reflect David's mercy (and victory, since 'unto the end' is there too), while the lyrics (or most of them) belong to Abishai ... could we be hearing the voice of violence from David's tempter against the background of David's righteous wisdom.

Now I said, 'most of them,' because the opening of the Psalm could be either David or Abishai. Here's a 'what if' left for the verification or falsification of scholars, but look at those first two verses, imagining them as David's resistance to Abishai:
Do you indeed speak righteousness, O mighty ones?
Do you judge uprightly, O sons of men?
No! In heart you work unrighteousness;
On earth you weigh out the violence of your hands.
He's rejecting the very violence the Psalm is about to ask for, in the tune of mercy to which it's being sung. While that may or may not be, what is certain: that this blood-drenched imprecatory Psalm is a mashup of the 'Do not destroy' tune based in a story of nonviolent mercy. Brilliant!

Part 4: Appropriation 

This leads us finally to the question, 'So what?' One could appropriate this little discovery for any number of points. I'll share the one on my heart, as it relates to the themes of the Psalms and the current news. If we choose to think metaphorically of songs of mercy, then applying the Psalm today would mash violent lyrics over top of them. Let's go with that.

The gospel itself -- the story of Christ's gruesome death and awesome resurrection -- is 'sung' through the apostolic faith as a song of victory and ascent through the melody of God's mercy and forgiveness. That's the Christian hymn par excellence. 

I am tempted to say, let's do a mashup of the gospel melody with the violent threats of Islamist extremists threatening vengeance on the Christian infidels and their crusading armies. No. That's not it. That's not what David is doing. He's not putting Saul's threats over his tune in Psalm 58, is he?

Rather, in context, it would be more appropriate to overlay the gospel tune inspired by the Prince of Peace with the lyrics of the 'destroyer' who tempts us with vengeance and violence. 'They behead one of us? We'll show them!' In the words of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, 'I say we blow them all away in the name of the Lord!' Here's the tempter: 'Jesus says, "My peace I give unto you." Excellent! Take hold of it ... but do it my way. Destroy! Shatter their teeth! Melt them like snails! Sweep them away like a whirlwind! Wash your feet in their blood!' 

And what does David say? 'Do not destroy.'
More importantly, what does the Son of David say?
We know what he says. 
But from what I see from Christians in general, from social media to the halls of power, we don't only prefer the counsel of Abishai. We have chosen it.

Part 5: The dark facts and the bright truth

I can attempt these mashups, but I no longer delude myself into thinking it will effect change of minds, hearts or actions. As my friend, Michael Hardin says, there are possible outcomes that derive from a prophetic imagination ... but there is a probable outcome when we refuse to change course. At this point, it's obvious to me that we will not change. The governments of the world and the will of the people and worst of all, the prevailing voice of the church are in agreement. The way of just peacemaking -- the Jesus Way -- is naive, delusional and unrealistic (so I'm actually told by Christians, inspired more by Hitler's ghost than Christ's Spirit). It's okay. I get it now. The lyrics are drowning out the tune and I finally accept this as a dark and stubborn fact. I don't want to get all apocalyptic, but in the words of my youngest son, 'It's going to be a tough decade.' Indeed.

At this point, the congregation known as Fresh Wind should be shouting at me, 'What's the good news!?' There is nothing particularly prophetic about spouting fearful premonitions or publicly sharing one's nightmares as a 'word from the Lord.' Not at all. All you have to do is turn on the news and then ask, will we sow anything different than we did in the last decade? No. Then we won't reap anything different in the next decade -- except that when you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind. There's a fact on the ground! So we know what's coming or worse. Now, what's the good news? 

There is the bright truth that a great mission awaits the faithful. As the darkness builds, anyone who desires to take up the Cross and follow Jesus will become a very bright point of light. This isn't about a closed remnant of super-Christians (we've been down that road and it goes nowhere). Rather, it's an wide open invitation to simple believers in the Jesus Way to keep humming the gospel tune: do not destroy. The thief comes to steal, kill and destroy. But I have come that you might have life. And while the nations and even a great chorus of christendom sing and shout and scream the R-rated vengeance track, beneath it, we'll just keep whistling. When the darkness won't receive the light, we won't be afraid, because we hear that Light who shone in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it (John 1:5). And for now, it might just be in my deluded and naive prophetic imagination, but actually, the darkness is fading away and the true light is already shining (1 John 2:8). Whistling in the dark? Definitely.