October 27, 2008
Brian McLaren's Gonna DJ at the End of the World
I heard Brian McLaren present at the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) annual conference last week, where he led a roomful of people in a chanted prayer for justice after sharing the lyrics to Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" as a pattern for Christian justice work. Or something like that; I was a bit sleep-deprived. The lyrics to that song, however, are pretty great: as Steve Turner indicates in his book Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, the biblical image of weapons of war being refashioned into "plowshares and pruning hooks" is given a contemporary translation of bombers becoming butterflies. Sure, the hippies had a thing for butterflies, but it's an image worth praying for regardless.
Today Brian listed some other songs for a redemptive playlist on his blog, among them a video from his newly released worship album, two songs by Ben Harper ("With My Own Two Hands" and "Picture of Jesus"), and John Mayer's "Waiting on the World to Change." A few more songs and Brian will replace Michael Stipe as my choice for "DJ at the End of the World."
Brian's song choices have particular meaning to me; "With My Own Two Hands" was regularly on repeat as I wrote my first book, Comic Book Character, as it sets the tone for a gutsy, shalom-directed activism that resonates with my own desire to be some kind of hero. Harper re-recorded this reggae anthem as a lullaby for the Curious George soundtrack, which would inspire wonderful childhood dreams, I'd imagine. At his workshop at CCDA, Brian employed similar language: our aim is not to be villains or victims but to align ourselves with our Hero--sidekicks of the Savior, as I like to think of it.
"Picture of Jesus" was the song I listened to at the 2003 Urbana Student Missions Conference as the clock passed from 11:59 p.m., December 31, to 12:00 a.m., 2004. Harper has recorded that song twice: once with Ladysmith Black Mambazo (my Urbana version) and once with the Blind Boys of Alabama, the CD for which I have since lost. In any event, the lyric "I long to be a picture of Jesus" was a good, peaceful way to ring in the new year in solitude, and not a bad New Year's resolution either.
"Waiting on the World to Change" was a good organizing idea for me as I wrote Deliver Us from Me-Ville, as it represents an anthem of sorts for Generation Me. I blogged about it here at the time of its release; and Brian's post made me nostalgic for the post. I reprint it here for your amusement.
Everybody Needs a Theme Song
I'm not ashamed to admit it: I'm a fan of John Mayer. Sure he's a pretty-boy, sure he dated Jessica Simpson, sure he's on shuffle on my thirteen-year-old cousin's iPod and on the wall in her room, sure he's a little smug and self-important. But I'm a fan, for a number of reasons.
For one thing, when he was a kid he liked to dress up as a superhero, and you have to respect that. For another thing, he plays guitar like he invented it. But more than those reasons is the fact that he dares to speak for an entire generation of people. That takes moxie, and I respect moxie.
He's written about the bitter nostalgia of life after high school, the social awkwardness of relationships, the wonders of sexual intimacy, the perils of vocational uncertainty and the quarter-life crisis. He's a living, breathing discography of early-adult ennui. And now he's written what I hereby nominate as the theme song of Generation Me: "Waiting on the World to Change."
Generation Me, characterized by author and psychologist Jean Twenge as adult survivors of the self-esteem movement, is known for confidence that borders on arrogance and self-importance that borders on narcissism, but also for a profoundly fragile self-image and a low threshold for depression. Twenge argues that where twenty-somethings in the late 1960s were characterized by statements such as "I can change the world!" Generation Me is characterized by statements such as "You can't beat the system."
You could spend forever exploring the origins of this pandemic of fatalism among people born after 1970, but thanks to John Mayer, you don't have to look far to see its impact. In "Waiting on the World to Change" he asserts that "me and all my friends, we're all misunderstood." He doesn't try to overcome the misunderstanding, he just embraces the reality. You can't beat the system. You have to play the hand you're dealt. Fill in your own cliche here.
The self-esteem movement shows its influence as Mayer claims a critical omniscience--"We see everything that's going wrong"--but he then confesses an inability to address the problems: "We just feel like we don't have the means to rise above and beat it." You could understand why a person who sees all the bad in the world and yet feels powerless in the face of it would struggle with depression. And why does Generation Me feel powerless to change their world? Because someone else pulls all the strings: "When they own the information, they can bend it all they want." You can't trust what you know because you can't trust the people who put it in your head.
Mayer and his fellow twenty-somethings are often derided as hopelessly apathetic, which is a pretty hopeless and apathetic thing to say about a group of people, if you think about it. In reality, apathy is an understandable response to hopelessness; a defense mechanism, so to speak. Here's the lyric that jumped out at me more than anything in the song, maybe because it's such a clever rhyme, maybe because it betrays just a hint of attitude by using the word ain't: "It's not that we don't care, we just know that the fight ain't fair."
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the world we inhabit: a chronic sense of helplessness in the face of an unrelenting onslaught of big problems, combined with an ingrained suspicion of authority born out of scandal after scandal across the spectrum of life experience. Our government and industry leaders, our local and international authorities, our priests and pastors, our parents and teachers, our friends and neighbors, have all fallen short of the glory of God--and we see the impact on ourselves and everything around us. It's all too much.
Nevertheless, Mayer is able to muster up some meager hope, and that hope may just be enough to tide him and his friends over: "One day our generation is gonna rule the population, so we keep on waiting on the world to change." There's plenty of circumspection that needs to take place between now and then--particularly that what we are thinking about everybody else, they are thinking about us--but in the meantime let me share words of encouragement from another cynical yet insightful songwriter, Tom Petty: "You're all right for now."