Anyone who tunes into country-western music will get an earful of the transgressions human beings perpetrate against one another. We lie, cheat, steal, commit adultery, defy our elders, gamble, drink too much, beat up our mates, two-time our lovers, struggle against our siblings, act out of greed and insincerity, corrupt the innocent, betray our country, and renege on our promises. We are also the victims of evils perpetrated against us by untrustworthy lovers, greedy landlords, factory closings, agribusiness, intrusive government, condescending intellectuals, and decadent city folk. We are a fallen people, and while it does not offer a full inventory, country-western music does instruct us in a multitude of ways that our fallenness manifests itself in both personal and social sin.
Rock and roll, before it splintered into a multitude of niches in the 1980s, was heavy with the theme of lost paradise - Joni Mitchell called a generation back to the garden: "We are stardust/Billion year old carbon/We are golden/Caught in the devil's bargain/And we've got to get ourselves/Back to the garden."1 The theme of an endless search to recover lost dreams is a similar one. In Neil Young's 1979 song, "Thrasher," the singer has a vision of hay thrashers rolling down the highway, looking for mortals ripe for harvesting. Realizing that he is not ready, he rouses himself, looks around for his companions who are nowhere to be found, then sets fire to his credit cards and heads out to where the pavement ends. Determined not to look back he plunges forward into "the land of truth," and laments the absence of his friends. They have scattered, it turns out, lost to the streets or suburban comforts. Having lived pampered lives, they found themselves in need of nothing, and with "nothing left to find."2 The reflective singer-songwriters of this era sang of a restlessness immediately inspired by Kerouac's On the Road. But they struck upon a very Augustinian formula of confessing the many temptations and earthly pleasures that detour one who is yearning for something that is ultimately more satisfying.
Sting, in a 1993 release, "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You,"3 inventories the cultural institutions that have lost his trust: science and progress, the church, TV commentators, politicians, and military solutions. In his accounting, these things have moved from the column of miracles to the column of curses. They have served as unfit recipients of human faith, and misused the authority granted them in their aggressive eagerness to wreak havoc on the world.
Another barometer of what has gone wrong can be found through examining the crimes of the archrivals of comic book superheroes. The Joker in Batman is a twisted soul who relishes chaos and poisons Gotham's water reservoir for no other motive than to assert the arbitrariness of justice. Spider-Man's nemesis is the Green Goblin, a mutant scientist whose greed drove him to pursue "human performance enhancement" research for a military contractor, which he has administered to himself and consequently acquired superpowers that he uses for diabolical ends. The Hulk's villain is his own repressed rage. One need not scratch very deeply beneath the surface to find in these comic book villains some of popular culture's current contenders for sin: there is a Kantian understanding of "wickedness" represented in the Joker, who actually wills that evil be the principle of his actions; an illicit Promethean reach into the sacred precincts of nature, as found in the Green Goblin; and an unregulated liberation of the Freudian id which emerges in the incredible Hulk. These are all dusted off lessons in the roots of human evil.
Reading these signs of our time divulges that we are thinking about our own waywardness in terms of infidelity, personal sinfulness, corporate sin, lost paradise, corrupt institutions and authorities, pure wickedness, Promethean hubris, and unregulated libidos. There is, it seems, meaningful reflection going on in our music, comic books and other creative output with respect to the human condition.
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