The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers (Psalm 24:1-2).
Sometimes it can be hard to truly enter into the world of the Ancient Near East and really understand the meaning of various biblical texts. This hymn of praise in Psalm 24 is deep and rich with meaning that often falls somewhat flat on modern (or postmodern) ears. The ancient world had a far different cosmology than anything we really know today. I am not talking about present debates about a “literal” 6 day creation only a few thousand ago. Neither am I talking about our current scientific understanding of the Big Bang, evolutionary biology or protons, neutrons and electrons.
Before a theology of Adam developed and long before any scientific understanding of the atom, there were sea monsters. You see the cosmology or worldview of the Ancient Near East was far different than our own. And it was full of stories of origin about a time before time, when the earth was in chaos, covered in water and inhabited by great sea beasts who reigned supreme until the chaos was conquered and order was established by the gods. In the Babylon creation myth “Enuma Elish” we read, “When the sky above was not named, and the earth beneath did not yet bear a name, and the primeval Apsû [the deep waters from below] who begat them, and chaos, Tiamat [a great chaos monster of the sea] the mother of them both, their waters were mingled together, and no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen; When of the gods none had been called into being.” The similarities when we open our Bibles and read the first chapter of Genesis are striking. We read, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” In both stories there was a time when “sky above was not named.” In Genesis, the sky gets its name when God says, “let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters” and “God called the dome Sky.” In fact Genesis shares a number of similarities with several other creation narratives from the Ancient Near East. In the Sumerian creation story and in the Gilgamesh Epic of Mesopotamia for instance a paradise like garden is established in the East and humans are made out of clay.
But this understanding of the chaos, the world that was formlessness and void before God (or in most of the other ancient stories the gods) made order out of it all is massively important! It is an underlying framework for understanding the ancient worldview. And we can see traces of this framework throughout the Hebrew scriptures and even in the New Testament. While the sea monster may not be mentioned in Genesis, it sure is in Job. When God finally shows up to answer Job’s lament, God asks Job, “‘Can you draw out Leviathan with a fish-hook, or press down its tongue with a cord? Can you put a rope in its nose, or pierce its jaw with a hook? Will it make many supplications to you? Will it speak soft words to you? Will it make a covenant with you to be taken as your servant for ever? Will you play with it as with a bird, or will you put it on a leash for your girls?” Modern readers tend to pass through these words quickly, perhaps thinking “Okay, God is powerful, What else could this mean?” And we miss so much of the point here. God in the ancient world view is all powerful but is also able to make order out of the chaos, like the mess that has become Job’s life. In Jonah there reason a reason that the sailors are so panicked when the storm and waters begin to rage. And there is a reason they throw Jonah into the sea. And there is a reason this pre-scientific story worked so well for ancient readers. This was the God who conquered sea monsters and made them his playmate. And when Jesus walks on water thus exhibiting his God like ability over the elements, much like the Spirit of God hovered over the waters in Genesis, is it any wonder that 12 Jewish men, monotheistic to the core then bow down and worship this man? (Matthew 14).
So I return to Psalm 24. Indeed, The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas! This Psalm is accredited (as many of them are) to David. And I imagine it was a great comfort to him indeed. Whether he was on the run from Saul, hiding out in a cave, mourning the death of his best friend Jonathan, trying to cover up his sin with (and against) Bathsheba or the murder of Uriah, mourning the death of his son or being rebuked by the prophet Nathan, David’s life often seemed to be in Chaos. But in the chaos he also found peace. He found peace in knowing that there was nowhere he could go to escape God’s presence. “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol [the resting place of the dead], you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me.” In the midst of the turmoil and chaos that was his life, David placed his faith in the one who is able to conquer chaos and make order of the messes he had made or the dramas he found himself caught up in.
This is a great comfort to me as my life currently seems to be in chaos. I have been candidating in the Reformed Church in America for what will be two years this spring. A bit like Abram called out of his father’s house and the land of Ur, I was called out of the revivalists traditions of my youth, I truly believe to serve the Reformed Church. I have spent 8 years preparing for ministry in the Reformed tradition. I feel I have found my home. This is the spiritual home, the mother church I feel the Spirit compelling me towards and I have chosen. But I often feel she has no place for me, and doesn’t even know my name.
But this is God’s world. There are far, far worse things going on in the world that cry our for God to make order amongst the raging chaos. And so I wait. I am waiting patiently for the Lord. I am waiting for God to set my feet upon a rock as I feel I am drowning in the waters of chaos. And until then, I will sing: How long?!?!
They are old enough to serve in the military. But they are not quite old enough to drink (not legally anyway). Of course that probably wouldn’t stop a lot of them. Get ready to celebrate with some post-teen spirit. That’s right, I’m talking about albums that turn 20 this year.
1991. I was a wee 14 years old (20 years ago today in fact). The Cold War ended. The reign of George Bush Sr. was half over. The Persian Gulf War had just begun. That spring the world watched with shock and horror as Rodney King took 56 baton blows and a few kicks. News outlets around the world played the video tape shot by a bystander of an LAPD drunk driving arrest.
MC Hammer and Vanilla ice still lingered on the album and singles charts with the pop-cross over material most of America celebrated the previous year and derided by the following year. Meanwhile Gangsta rap took over. Ice cube made his debut on the silver screen and continued to make violent and sexist yet intelligent, eye-opening and important music without NWA. Dr. Dre and the boys put together one of the most nihilistic, misogynistic and lyrically empty rap albums ever. But the lyrics were laid over a sonic tapestry of soul samples and production that made the album sound like it was from the past and the future all at once. Ice-T released his last great album before becoming a heavy-metal cop killer, succumbing to the Dre blueprint for all of his subsequent hip hop releases and eventually becoming a self parody. In a time when the West Coast was taking over, Naughty By Nature brought some rough and rugged East Coast heat. However, it was a newcomer raised on the east coast but representing Oakland that made the most important hip hop record that year.
Guns N’ Roses were the biggest rock band in the world; but not for too much longer. Along with bands like skid row, they offered albums that year that provided an updated, darker, harder sound than their glam-rock predecessors a few years earlier. But it was not updated enough. One week after G N’ R released Use Your Illusion I & II a little band from Seattle released an Album called Nevermind that changed everything in rock in many ways – some of them good and some of them bad – for years to come.
It was the year that R.E.M. and Red Hot Chili Peppers went mainstream. Smashing Pumpkins were still underground. U2 had their first (and perhaps best) of several major sound and image makeovers. And in addition to that breakthrough sophomore effort from Nirvana, Temple of the Dog, Pearl Jam and Sound Garden saw to it that every other headline in music publications included the words alternative, grunge or Seattle.
It was the year that brought us Lollapalooza. Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center were in full force and “Parental Advisory” stickers became formalized and were slapped on more albums than ever before thought imaginable.
It was the year that Tupac Shakur and Kurt Cobain were introduced to the world. Over the next few years they would each become household names while courting controversy and fame. Each artist provided a unique soundtrack for those who were fatherless, or at least felt they were. Before the decade was over, the world would lose both artists to violent deaths, each shrouded in conspiracy theories.
Do you remember in Back to the Future II when Marty tells Doc Brown that they need to go back to November 12, 1955? That was the last and most hectic day of Marty’s stay in 1955 in the first movie. The Doc responds to Marty saying, “It could mean that that point in time inherently contains some sort of cosmic significance. Almost as if it were the temporal junction point for the entire space-time continuum. On the other hand, it could just be an amazing coincidence.”
I truly believe that 1991 was one of the years in music. Like a few pivotal years in the 50′s and 60′s, it contains some sort of cosmic significance, at least for the world of music. Neither the pop charts nor “underground” music have been the same since.
Throughout 2011, I will be taking you back to 1991. I have about 25 albums and at least one movie on the list to blog about throughout the year. I will try my best to post on or near the anniversary of the original release date. Most of these albums were at least pretty good. Some of them were Masterpieces. And I would be less than honest if I didn’t include a couple that in retrospect are quite embarrassing. The majority are rock of one sub-genre or another, or hip hop. A couple are pop albums. There will be at least one R&B and one Country album. Most of them I discovered upon their release or shortly there after. A couple of them it took me a considerable amount of time to catch on to. I will note that as I go along. But all of them came from that important and game changing year. 1991 I solute you.
(That’s pretty close to how the show closed five months later when I saw U2 at the Palace of Auburn Hills with my wife, brother and sister in law).
Today is the first day of Advent 2010. It is the Christian New year. This was the old Testament lectionary text from the common lectionary for today:
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:1-5).
Advent is all about hope, anticipation and waiting. We wait for several weeks to celebrate once again on Christmas day the coming of the ancient messianic hope of a people, the fulfillment of the many things one mother named Mary treasured in her heart, in the unexpected form of a an infant from Nazareth, by way of Bethlehem, who would grow up be brutally killed and then be declared not only risen again but also God incarnate by his followers.
As we wait to celebrate once again the events of Christmas past on Christmas day, we also hope with eager expectation for a day of return, a day when disputes between individuals and nations are settled. We wait for a day when in a startling reversal of history the tools of war are beaten or melted down and once again turned into tools for cultivating life rather than death. A day when men and women “study war no more” as the Isaiah passage was appropriated in one African American spiritual called “Down by the Riverside.” A day when all of the cosmos sings a new song. A day that Isaiah, Amos, MLK and Bono all have told us in their own way is coming.
As we await this day, sometimes amidst the hymns of expectation and Christmas carols you can’t help but also sing How long, How long to sing this song? How long to sing the one we are singing and have been singing throughout history, the song of waiting, longing and expectation for peace to finally come? Will the new day, the new song ever come?