John 5: One hit wonder

As I understand it, 80s music is back in fashion, which is great, because that’s what I grew up with. Modern English, a-ha, Tears for Fears, Yaz – I promise that these are all actual band names of groups that had hits in the 80s that I LOVED. And, listening to them again, I realize I love them all over again.

This is how I take in music. I find a song, I play it to death, learn all the words, and then I move on. In the 80s, I would get the cassette tapes of the albums (“Siri, what’s a cassette?”) and if I didn’t wear them out, they would end up moving to the back of the shelf when I moved on. (Now they are just buried in my Apple Music account.) 

Sometimes, I move on because I’ve gotten sick of the song from over-playing, because it seems like no song is good enough to withstand being beaten into the ground. But other times, I don’t so much get sick of one song as just move on to another, newer one. Either way, songs I obsessed over recede into anonymity, sometimes for decades, without really (apparently) being forgotten. Because when these 80s songs came back, almost four decades later, it turns out I still knew the words!

The back half of John 5 is one of those Johannine monologues that just seems to use the same seven words over and over and over again. I’m sure smart people of the time really dug this stuff, but all the various combinations of Father, Son, truth, life, death, witness, and testify just kind of blend together into a droning of theological big thoughts. I wish I were a deeper person; it turns out I am not. It’s all just noise to me.

But buried smack in the midst of this droning is maybe my favorite turn of phrase in this whole book. John’s Jesus is talking about John the Baptist, and he says

“He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.” (John 5:35)

That is such a wistful, subtly damning sentence. “For a while.”

I read that last week and thought, wow, that’s something. I hope I get some sort of insight out of it, because it’s too good not to share. And I really haven’t, obviously.

But maybe we are just wired to react the way I do to music. Maybe the best a burning and shining lamp can aspire to is that we are willing to rejoice in its light for a while.

If you read any of the four gospels, you can’t help but take away the idea that there must have been a strong 1st century cult of John the Baptist that claimed that he was the Messiah, because they all go WAY out of their way to make the point that John the Baptist was NOT the Messiah. I don’t know of any outside corroboration of that cult, though; contemporary Jewish and Roman historians write about Christianity, but I don’t think any of them acknowledge John the Baptist at all. If he was messianic enough for the gospel writers to have considered him a competitor, he wasn’t popular long enough to leave a paper trail. The gospel writers remember him, but nobody else seems to. He is a one-hit wonder in that regard.

I have a couple of songs that have never yet gotten old. “Brown-Eyed Girl”. “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The latter was our wedding song; the former is even more our song. Maybe there’s a magic that transcends the notes and words and rhythms and harmonies for music that’s tied to your heart. Maybe to the extent that songs are soundtracks for love, they can endure. I may not listen to them daily, but they never get old.

One of the most improbable parts of Christianity is that it is still around. Hatched in the middle of nowhere and driven underground by persecution and martyrdom for centuries, it should have died out long before it caught on. Like a burning and shining lamp. That it didn’t? That it never got tossed onto the back shelf? It’s hard to explain that. Maybe it has a magic that transcends the notes and words and rhythms and, for some of us, gets tied to our heart. Maybe, even if elements of faith change and evolve and traditions ebb and flow it’s those heart-ties, the love beneath the tune, that keeps it in the playlist.

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