Sunday, 5 April 2009

Led Zeppelin IV: a theological meditation

A recent comment raised the question of the best albums of all time – which got me thinking about Led Zeppelin IV, certainly one of the greatest and most enduring albums ever recorded. It is still one of my own favourite albums – but I came to it by a rather unusual route.

In the church circles where I grew up, rock and roll was regarded with considerable suspicion. Some time in the early 90s (I was a teenager at the time), I remember a youth pastor preaching against the evils of rock music: he informed us that Led Zeppelin’s song “Stairway to Heaven” contained hidden subliminal messages (about drugs, Satan, sex, etc.), which can be discerned not only when the song is played backwards, but also when a person hears the song under the influence of marijuana.

Intrigued and hopeful, me and my Christian friends hurried off to put this theory to the test: and so we sat down together, with the album in one hand and a bag of weed in the other, eager to experience those alluring occult messages.

It was in this way that the strange world of Led Zeppelin IV began to open itself to me. The album conjured up a world of forests and magic and spirits, of gods and fertility rites and the dark secret powers of the earth. There was, as Erik Davis puts it in his recent book on Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin IV (Continuum 2005), a kind of “wayward tantric magic” in their music (p. 53). We were invited to enter into the mysteries of primitive ritual, to “dance in the dark of night, sing to the morning light.” The songs invited us to re-imagine a long forgotten world, to turn away from the dominance of Christian-Western rationality towards the sensual pagan magic of another time and place: “Tired eyes in the sunrise, waiting for the eastern glow.”

The songs promised a deep synthesis of the erotic and the religious, a convergence of drugs and mysticism, the awakening of a strange but authentic “reason” which transcends the stifling limits of modernity, so dominated by technology and utility. As the magnificent song “Stairway to Heaven” puts it:

        And it’s whispered that soon
        If we all call the tune
        Then the piper will lead us to reason
        And a new day will dawn
        For those who stand long
        And the forests will echo with laughter.

Here, it is the pagan god Pan (that horned and horny deity who was one of the main classical sources behind Christian representations of the devil) who leads us out from the darkness of modernity into the soft eerie light of a new age. This return of pagan magic and sensuality promises to restore a primal balance to our disturbed and fragmented world: “the magic runes are writ in gold, to bring the balance back.”

Throughout the album, this recovery of primal balance focuses especially on the theme of the rediscovery of Goddess-devotion. “There walks a Lady we all know, who shines a light and wants to show.” Or in the words of the later song “Down by the Seaside”: “show your love for Lady Nature, and she will come back again.” Erik Davis observes that Led Zeppelin IV wrestles with the desire to both serve and master the sacred feminine; the album’s answer to this dilemma “is clear and pagan: one honors the Goddess by bringing the balance back, the lost harmony of human labor and the great good earth” (Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin IV, pp. 103-4).

For those of us reared on the Bible and the imaginative resources of Christian tradition, the album’s pagan-sexual-telluric world seemed exciting and alluringly exotic. Our youth pastor was surely right to feel uneasy about a song like “Stairway to Heaven” – after all, this song was nothing less than a breathtakingly beautiful challenge to the entire imaginative world of Christian faith. (I take it that this is the case in spite of the fact that Led Zeppelin’s lyrics were deeply influenced by the Christian writer J. R. R. Tolkien: where Tolkien used mythology to re-imagine the world Christianly, Led Zeppelin used Tolkien to re-imagine the world paganly.)

If Led Zeppelin IV posed a challenge to Christian imagination, then it might seem that the album won the contest. The kind of mythology represented in the album has penetrated deeply into our popular culture. Walk into any bookstore and you’ll find entire shelves devoted to these themes: nostalgia for a state of primal innocence; the recovery of a deep primordial harmony between humans and the earth; reverence for the sacred feminine; romantic idealisation of the country over the city; the quest to awaken a dormant inner self; and suspicion of those institutions in which “Western rationality” is embodied and transmitted.

Significantly, you’ll find all these themes not only in The Da Vinci Code or New Age self-help manuals. Efforts in contemporary theology and liturgical renewal are often guided by precisely the same values and commitments. Just think of those well-meaning liturgical experiments in which God is invoked as the Great Mother; in which Christ is identified as the enlightening influence of Sophia; in which the prayers and hymns celebrate (even while mourning the loss of) our primordial rootedness in the earth; in which practices of eastern meditation are uncritically synthesised with traditional liturgical practices. Or just think of those contemporary theologies in which Christian teaching is calmly absorbed under the larger rubric of “spirituality” – as though doctrines of grace and Christ and salvation can be translated without remainder into discourse about individual fulfilment or the inner life of the soul.

In short, the vision of Led Zeppelin IV has been realised not only in contemporary pop culture, but in a good deal of contemporary church culture too. But where Led Zeppelin promised a renewed world and a deeper, richer human experience in the world, the most striking thing about contemporary popular spirituality (and likewise much contemporary Christian spirituality) is its extraordinary superficiality, its willingness to settle for banalities and trite pre-packaged experiences in lieu of any deep reflection on the world or on the place of humans within it. Spirituality is a commodity: something to be purchased, consumed and subsequently discarded by the privileged classes (whose social position gives them the leisure to cultivate the requisite spiritual anxiety).

From today’s vantage point, then, we might say that the most (unintendedly) prescient lines in Led Zeppelin IV were not from “The Battle of Evermore” or “Stairway to Heaven,” but from the autobiographical song “Going to California”:

        Made up my mind to make a new start
        Going to California with an aching in my heart.

For all its sweeping grandeur and “forceful telluric energies” (Erik Davis, p. 54), the spiritual vision of Led Zeppelin leads ultimately here: not back to the forests, but to – California! The mysteries of earth, of magic, of sensual Lady Nature, of gods who play their music in the woods – all this finds its historical realisation in the Hollywood spiritual therapist, with her easy slogans, her bright smiling face on glitzy book covers, her wealthy and rapaciously unhappy clientele.

Led Zeppelin IV is still one of my favourite albums, and I listen to it very often. I enjoy as much as anyone the album’s profoundly imagined world, its absorbing nostalgia, its alluring occult invitation: “the piper’s calling you to join him.” I understand this to be a serious invitation – and thus as an invitation to be rejected.

Those churches who hope today to find sources of renewal and enrichment in a quasi-pagan earth mysticism would do well to ponder the question whether there can be any easy synthesis between these two imagined worlds; whether there is not a more radical gulf between Christianity and the culture of therapeutic spirituality; whether the “stairway to heaven” is not ultimately a descent into the banality and claustrophobic boredom of the inner self.

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