“Remember, mystery isn’t something that you cannot understand—it is something that you can endlessly understand! There is no point at which you can say, ‘I’ve got it.’ Always and forever, mystery gets you!” –Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance
I was at the Paul Simon farewell tour concert at the Hollywood Bowl a couple weeks ago, along with my family. Go ahead, take a moment to envy us. I’ll wait. I’ve been to some truly amazing concerts by some truly inspiring performers in my life, but this one topped them all. Really. That’s not just hyperbole. It’s true that his voice is not quite what it once was, though not at all bad for a 76 year old guy singing in such a wide variety of styles. But you don’t really think much about his vocal quality because he still has that astonishing and unique combination of intimacy and energy, humility and confidence that just draw you in to him and the music. Well, I could go on. And on and on. Because Paul Simon is in my not-at-all-humble opinion the very best songwriter and lyricist of my lifetime and I’ll be more than happy to defend that assertion if you’d like to quibble. But I digress.
Part of what made this concert so powerful was the amazing musicians who were performing with him on stage: Vincent Nguini, the impressive Nigerian guitarist; Mark Stewart, the astonishing multi-instrumentalist from New York; yMusic, the avant-garde string ensemble… the horns, the percussionists…I’m telling you, that was a killer band up there on the stage with him. And as they played together all the music of the decades of his life as a songwriter—his songs with South American roots, his songs with African roots, his songs that floated up out of the Louisiana bayou and cemeteries of New Orleans, and even a few of his old original 60s folkish songs, I couldn’t help but reflect on the decades of his musical journey, the path of his creativity, and how he had taken so many of us along for the ride with him.
I found myself remembering back to the first time I saw him in concert. It was November 15, 1969 at the Long Beach Arena. I confess, I had to look up the date, but I can close my eyes and still see and hear moments of that concert. It was Simon and Garfunkel, then and they were near the apex of their popularity as a duo. For the first two thirds of the evening they sang all the popular songs we all knew and loved from the albums we all already owned. Paul played guitar. I think a pianist and a couple of string players accompanied them on a few songs. Then Paul said they would like to introduce some new songs from their new album that was about to be released. With that a drum kit, a bass amp and a couple of electric guitar amps were rolled onto the stage along with some other percussion instruments, and an assortment of new musicians stepped up and plugged in to this new group of instruments. This did not look like Simon and Garfunkel folkish music. This looked like Rock. And some people started to boo.
Hard to believe, but more than a few people started to boo. I thought of that as I watched Paul Simon perform all these decades later accompanied by two electric guitars, a bass, a full horn section, an accordion, a zydeco organ, a very full percussion section including two large drum kits—I thought of those people who booed all those years ago and wondered if any of them were with us on this night to celebrate where the journey of music had taken him. I wondered if they regretted booing him in 1969. I wondered if they even remembered.
On that night in 1969, when the people booed, he simply smiled and said, “Now, now, give it a chance. I think you’ll like it.” And then they played Cecilia. And then El Condor Pasa. Then Keep the Customer Satisfied, and Baby Driver… and when they played Bridge Over Troubled Water there wasn’t a dry eye in the arena. And from then on they could do no wrong. And I think we began to get an inkling that their music, his music, was going to take us in a new direction. And behold, it was good.
When we love the old familiar songs so dearly it is sometimes hard to allow room in our hearts and minds for the new songs. Mary Chapin Carpenter once quipped at a concert that she wanted to break some songs out of “new song jail.” I think this same dynamic can apply to our theological thinking. Sometimes we’re reluctant to hear the melodies of our beliefs rearranged and played by different instrumentation, to different rhythms. We’ve lived so long with words like “grace,” and “atonement,” and “Trinity,” and “Incarnation,” and even “Creation” that they can sometimes trigger within us a neuro-theological version of Name That Tune. Just hearing the word activates a mental shortcut to an old recording of a belief structure and it’s enough to know it’s there even if we haven’t actually payed any attention to it in ages. And yet, if we dare to listen what some unexpected voices are singing on these themes, we might hear the ancient songs come alive and dance in a whole new way that reinvigorates our faith and our lives. And if you don’t like the new arrangements…well the old cantatas will still always be there.
“Music is forever; music should grow and mature with you, following you right on up until you die.” –Paul Simon
The same can be said for theology.