Paul Simon’s ‘Surprising’ Reflections

30 11 2006

My first ‘grown up’ album was Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ which I bought on vinyl when I was ten years old. I loved the sound, the lyrics (with words like ‘constellation’ and ‘cinematographer’ baffling my infant mind!) and the crystal clarity of his voice.

Its a sign of how things in life change that I got a copy of his new album on CD (not vinyl) and that I was able to borrow it from the local library (50p for a month!). Its entitled Surprise and represents a welcome return to form for an artist who is either spot on, or way off in his concepts and musical execution. What ‘surprised’ me the most about the whole recording are the deep questions Simon raises about God, belief, and eternity.

A sample of the issues he deals with will demonstrate how the mature Paul Simon is thinking about life. In the opening track ‘How can you live in the northeast’ the lyrics force us to analyse the factors which combine to make us who we are as people. As chief interrogator Simon poses the barrage of questions ‘how can you be a Christian, how can you be a Jew, how can you be a Muslim, a Bhuddist, a Hindu?’ and later muses on the fact that ‘weak as the winter sun we enter life on earth, name and religion come straight after date of birth’. Its a powerful point, assessing how much of our identity is wrapped up in nurture and cultural conditioning. Other points of concern about faith are much weaker – ‘if the answer is infinite light, why do we sleep in the dark?’.

In ‘Wartime’ prayers Simon meditates on the post 9-11 world we now inhabit. Prayers offered in peace time have been forgotten ‘gone like a memory from the day before the fires’, and now we are forced to seek God in a way we would not otherwise have done. He reflects on the spiritual thirst which the terrorist outrages inspired in America, lamenting that ‘people hungry for the voice of God, hear lunatics and liars’. Simon humbly states ‘you cannot walk with the holy when you’re just a halfway decent man’, characterising himself as someone who is trying to ‘tap into some wisdom, even a little drop would do’.

All of this positive quest for God is deflated by his defiant manifesto set out in ‘I Don’t Believe’. Here he reflects on what we evangelicals would call ‘common grace’, and whether it should point us to God. The song is infused with deft one liners ‘I got a call from my broker – my broker informed me I’m broke’ as well as evolutionary assertions such as ‘the world was formed in a storm, the waters receded, the mountains were formed, the universe loves a drama you know’. In looking at the evidences of God’s grace Simon concludes that he doesn’t believe in these ‘acts of kindness’ as any pointer to Jehovah’s existence. Nor does he express any love for formal religion caricaturing it as ‘pantomime prayers to the hands of a clock’. His atheism wavers a little in the bridge of the song when he sings ‘maybe, and maybe and maybe some more; maybe’s the exit I’m looking for’.

Ultimately ‘Surprise’ leaves us with fewer surprises than we may at first imagine. Like so many in our culture, religion represents an interesting conundrum to Simon, but little else. He toys with the evidences for God, but finally capitulates to the Romans 1 model of ‘supressing the truth in unrighteousness’. The album is melodically fascinating and lyrically beautiful. In many ways its nice to listen to something which deals with bigger issues than soap opera sentiments, which so often clog our ears and numb our minds in modern music. Its just a shame that Paul Simon didn’t find himself ‘surprised by joy’.



30 11 2006
One servant of God who has really blessed me through his ministry is Geoff Thomas. His preaching and writing are warm, intelligent, and deeply devotional. One of the most helpful insights Geoff has shared in writing is the principle of ‘double usefulness’. This is the principle which will undergird this blog. You can read his own definition of what that means here.

To me it basically means maximising your activities so that the greatest number of people can benefit from what you are doing. Thus if I read a book which really blesses me, then I can review it online for the encouragement of others; if I go to a good conference I can share some insights that have encouraged or challenged me etc.

The great thing about this is that it saves me having to do any original thinking, but still makes it look like I have something to say!!

Thus on this blog I’ll be sharing my thoughts on reading, writing, conferences, and culture at differing intervals. I trust that it won’t be as boring as it sounds!!

Keep reading.