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.


Anonymous said...

Great post Ben.

...paul said...

Thanks for this great, and very helpful, post Ben.

Troy Polidori said...

Great post, Ben. I've often thought along these same lines as regards the Scandinavian Death/Black Metal that dominated my teenage years. They're love for Norse mythology and Viking lore was a direct challenge to the State-dominated Lutheran churches. Much underground music tends to feature itself as the re-emergence of the exact structural opposite of the dominate ideology, thereby creating by fiat a structural antagonism that may or may not have been there originally (e.g. the Satanism of early Florida Death Metal). It's really fascinating to see this mythic resurrection, and to follow its trajectory into commodification (LedZep)or horrible violence (the church burnings in Norway).

kystorms said...

It is just really nice to read someone who is a lover of Christ and yet can see and handle Zeppelin :-) I am glad to know that not everyone feels that rock can take you from God, when He Himself proclaims once we are His, nothing can change that.

God Bless and great article

saint egregious said...

Curious, Ben, that you did not mention at all the much more important influence for Zeppelin, African American blues, itself a music of intense, earthly spirituality that straddles the line between the pagan and the Christian (so many blues musicians were children of pastors and knew deeply Christianity's dark underbelly). If not an easy synthesis, in blues there is an undeniable relationship between the wild sensuality of Holy Saturday night fish fries, and the mournful strains of the Sunday -go-to-meeting muse.
Do you know John Lee Hooker's song "Burning Hell"? You might like...

the don said...

wow! nicely done!

When is Continuum going to let you do "The Gospel According to Iron & Wine" ???

roger flyer said...

You are my favorite rock critic, but as one who grew up with Zep, though now they serve as fodder for historical study) in their day they served as the soundtrack to male exploration with adolesecent chaos, avoidance of calamitous times and serious use of mind altering drugs. Your youth pastor was right.

Sam Charles Norton said...

Are you familiar with Mystic Bourgeoisie? You're echoing some of his concerns. I'd recommend exploring the site for a while - the most recent ones may not seem the most relevant.

Smajda said...

Interestingly,Down by the Seaside which appears on Physical Graffiti was recorded durring the IV session but didnt make the album.

Brad East said...

Wow, what a wonderful post. Thanks for your always-appreciated theological insight into music.

How about requests? I'm first in line.

Evan said...

Am I correct in reading a bit of a critique of natural and/or creation theology into this meditation? I think that's fair enough, but it's also worth saying that celebrating/mourning the loss of creation's original goodness isn't necessarily a pagan import. We "remember that we are dust" during Lent, but this connection to the earth has a history in the Psalms. And certainly some connections of Christ with Sophia are guided by misleading mythologies, but we could say the same for no less than the concept of the Word of God itself, couldn't we? We could also say the same for much eschatologically oriented thought. Here the influences may be gnostic or millenarianist, but it's all the same as far as the basic structure of syncretism is concerned.

I don't disagree with anything you're saying here, I suppose, but I don't think that such a critique of pagan theology necessarily leads us to the theological perspective that I'm guessing you're coming from. A Christian steeped in creational and plenty-earthy devotional orientations could make the same critique as you do here in good conscience. At least, if she couldn't, I don't know how else one could continue to read God's proclamation that His creation is good, that we return to the earth from whence we came, the commentaries in Genesis concerning some of the great early cities, etc. I don't think a serious reading of these things needs to be guilty of pagan mysticism simply because some of the same conclusions are reached.

Spencer said...

Interesting post. I think of my own experiences that include a freshly bought cd as well as freshly bought weed and then a drive into the back-roads that seemed to open the world up to what was being played. I appreciate your endorsement of a relevant re-imagining of our spiritual communications without a mandatory acquiesce of what we find. Deep within the currents of experience do we find God the Spirit engaging culture. Blessings.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post, Ben. You maybe allude to the modern church being almost intentionally boring, as if to make sure we’re doing penance at least while in the pew, to the background music of the worst hymns in history. (Eddie Izzard does a great skit about questioning some of the hymns he sung as a child). When I was a teenager we went to a newly-built protestant church (in California ); no stained glass, no statues, no Gregorian Chant, and architecture that was rivaled only by private bomb shelters.

Was all this bad church music and absent or bad art the result of only the Reformation?
How do we get back to building places with art like Sainte Chapelle or the Chora Monastery? I once heard that the way great altarpieces were paid for is that the priest would assign as a penance to wealthy merchants the donation of a great work of art to some church under construction. I say let’s bring that practice back, and include works of music. Now we just have to figure out how to get the wealthy merchants back into the confessional.


j. k. said...

"the Hollywood spiritual therapist ... with her wealthy and rapaciously unhappy clientele" - what a great line! I can't wait to use that one myself.

Anonymous said...

All art, including religious and Sacred Art is always an expression and extension of the consciousness of the person who produces it--no exceptions.

If the person producing the art is not grounded in a true heart-inspired Spiritual practice then his/her art can NOT in any sense be a Spiritual communication, regardless of the symbols that they use.

What is more Sacred Art can really only arise within the context of a lived Spiritual (Sacred) Culture. A
Sacred Culture that necessarily covers every aspect of ones life and how it is lived moment to moment.

Plus Sacred Art can really only be performed or displayed, and appreciated, within the crucible of a Sacred Space. Otherwise it inevitably gets degraded, bastardized or emptied of any Spiritual power. And thus turned into another consumer product.

Kip said...

Fascinating post, Ben. It raises for me the whole issue of what to do with "telluric" or chthonic kinds of experiences in relation to Christian faith. I thought of Bonhoeffer's experience: "the sun is a special favorite of mine and has reminded me often of the fact that we are created from earth and do not consist of air and thoughts. This went so far that once, when I was asked to preach in Cuba at Christmas time, coming from the ice of North America into the blooming vegetation, I almost succumbed to the sun cult and hardly knew what I should have preached. It was a real crisis, and something of this comes over me every summer when I feel the sun. To me the sun is not an astronomical entity, but something like a living power which I love and fear. I find it cowardly to look past these realities rationally . . . . It says in the psalm 'God is sun and shield.' To recognize and experience and believe this is a moment of great grace and by no means an everyday wisdom."

Fat said...

I was teaching a class of young retail skills students Calligraphy at Tech and they wanted music while they worked - great, me too and I duly brought tapes (am I showing my age here) and a player along.

With the proviso that they listened to one of mine for each one of theirs - Strangely they accepted this as an even deal and so I was able to introduce them to Chopin, Bach, Mozart, Gershwin, Glen Miller, Deep Purple, simon and Garfunkel and Led Zep.

Part way through 'Whole Lotta Love' I was reminscing about my first encounter with Led Zeplin when I was asked how I as a Christian could play that music, have you listened to the words?

I had not questioned this concept before - Could *this music be intrinsically evil? (*this - in contrast to music I didn't like, which of course was evil by definition)

I had managed to avoid the question in the years since then but here it is resurrected once again.

I hope to be able again to be blown away by the sheer power of the music washing over me but for a while I guess I'll have to listen to the words. {sigh}

Thanks Ben

Anonymous said...

I would be very interested in a follow up "theology of marajuana" post. (no joke)

Unknown said...

Wonderful post. But I wonder if the critique is, at end, fair. "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." It's a lovely line but a cheap shot, rather like a fan of Hitchens and Harris claiming that the mysteries of eucharist, of sacrament, of redemption, and the crucified Christ all find their historical realization either in the adolescent patriarchal fantasies of the New Calvinists or in the painful repression of Ted Haggard's Cheshire smile stlll lingering long after everything substantial has vanished.

America has a penchant for banalizing whatever it can sell, so I'd be hesitant to draw conclusions between Hollywood superficiality and the spiritual, intellectual, and artistic sources they (try to) employ. My point is that a critique of the late-western longing for the mysteries of nature, the gods and goddesses, and so on, takes a bit more substantial effort. Even Milbank thinks we need to find fairies again.

Adam Kotsko said...

What's so sad is that the biblical authors themselves fell into the pagan trap of using feminine imagery for God.

d barber said...

If paganism is to be dismissed because of "California," then can Christianity be dismissed because of Jerry Falwell?

Fat said...

Adam - when God reads that She is going to be so nmad at you.

Kullervo said...

Well-said, Jason. It's not really fair to pit Christianity's best against Paganism's worst and thus easily dismiss the latter. Is the piper's invitation really so easily tossed aside, or are you dodging the deeper issues and more serious concepts that deserve to be grappled with?

Rachel said...

Well said, Adam. What the truly faithful biblical scholar must endeavor to do is to eliminate all "non-scriptural" scripture references from the canon. ;D

Thomas (Murphy) Bridges said...

This is ridiculously hilarious.

Now I am going to go get with the grain of the universe.

kim fabricius said...

Take no notice of Adam (if it is Adam - perhaps Mark Driscoll has stolen his identity) - his beloved Slavoj (the philosopher with balls) likes to needle feminsts too.

d barber said...

Kim, if I get you right, Adam cannot make his comment because he has written about another figure who "needles" feminists? Do you realize that this makes absolutely no sense? Adam, after all, is critiquing what Ben has actually said, whereas you are critiquing what Zizek (not Adam) has said. For what it's worth, Adam's dissertation is heavily informed by self-consciously feminist theology.

(And I might add: whereas Adam is actually making a point about the implicitly anti-feminist position of Ben, you are simply trying to make Adam guilty by associations. Wouldn't it be better to actually explain why Ben is not anti-feminist, rather than falsely claim things about Adam, to the effect that he is just as anti-feminist, so "no big deal"?)

So, my question: will you then admit that your comment has no legitimacy?

saint egregious said...

The problem with Led Zeppelin is the same problem with this thread--as John Lennon once put it referring to Zeppelin's guitar god: "Look at Jimmy...he's so serious"

Real blues jumps a lot more lightly than you clowns.

Adam Kotsko said...

Wow, Kim. Classy.

kim fabricius said...

Oops, sorry about the irony bypass, guys!

d barber said...

So you were "just kidding"?!? "Didn't really mean it"?

Because irony is paradoxical rather than fallacious...

saint egregious said...

Kim, don't ya make fun of The Kotsko, Inc. They will go all Jamie Smith on your ass. American X-Evangelicals don't play nice like you wannabe catholic Brits.

kim fabricius said...

Geez, what next, d, "Wanna fight?" The "irony bypass" refers to my having taken Adam's comment to be serious. And the comment surprised me, because I know from Adam's book that he is critical of Zizek's disdainful remarks about feminism. I should have remembered how big he is on jokes.

I hope (as my mom would say) that removes the bug from your butt.

d barber said...

And my last comment stems from understanding "irony bypass" as referring to myself rather than to your own misunderstanding...

Clearly there's a little defensiveness on my part! (Largely owing to a sense that my essentially pagan orientation was subjected to a pretty shitty/annoying post -- not clear about the supposed relation to some kind of ex-evangelicalism)

But yes, consider my ass debugged.

Adam Kotsko said...

Kim, We have all had those moments -- and my writing style is especially vulnerable to the failure of the internet to transmit tone along with content. (I promise I was never going to go remotely Jamie Smith on your ass.)

Unknown said...

I thought there was some rule where the conciliatory posting couldn't begin until the comment count was greater than 50?

saint egregious said...

Yeah, all this kissy huggy's going to make me boot. Somebody worried about a book deal?

Adam Kotsko said...

By a strange coincidence, it turns out that your mom is worried about a book deal.

roger flyer said...

hey hey boys!
What's the fuss really about?

saint egregious said...

Sorry, Adam. That was an unfair jab. Please accept my apology.

FYI, my mother died recently. But being an Augustinian of sorts, I suspect you are right--she is still worrying and crying her ass off about my ever getting a book deal and is up in heaven driving bonkers whoever the matron saint of book writing is.

Ben Myers said...

I'm glad the post was able to prompt such an edifying conversation — "Led Zeppelin: bringing Christians together!"

Jacob and Kellervo, thanks for raising this point about whether it's fair to compare Christianity with paganism-at-its-worst. This is a very good point. Although in this post I was just playfully riffing (rather than offering a proper thoughtful critique), I'd still be willing to defend the argument that the main problem with quasi-pagan spirituality is its tendency (in spite of all the nice "holistic" things it says about the earth, etc) to collapse back into discourse about the inner life of the individual. Needless to say, I'm equally sceptical (for the same reason) about the value of various Christian spiritualities.

So this is why I suggest that the basic problem with these spiritualities is that they are fundamentally boring (I assume that nothing could be more boring than my own interior life). And it's why I think Christians are misguided when they try to cure their own spiritual boredom simply by adopting someone else's boring spirituality.

Adam Kotsko said...

Saint egregious, I was worried that when I tried the "your mom" joke your actual mom would turn out to have diead, but I went for it anyway, because it seemed like the only realistic way to respond to your comments. I hope you'll understand that I meant no ill will.

Fat said...

With apologies to the original:

Theres a lady who's sure
All that's written is gold
And she's building a stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows
If their minds are all closed
from the word she can get what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, and she's building a stairway to heaven.

There are signs in the Greek
That she wants you to seek
'cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.
In the Hebrew you've heard
Judgement wrought from the word,
Sometimes all of our thoughts are forgiven.
Ooh, it makes me wonder,
Ooh, it makes me wonder.

There's a feeling I get
When I look to the best,
And my spirit is crying for learning.
In my thoughts I have seen
The'logians on their knees,
And the voices of those who stand looking.
Ooh, it makes me wonder,
Ooh, it really makes me wonder.

And it's whispered that soon
If we all call the tune
Then a preacher will lead us from reason.
And a new day will dawn
For the itching ears long
for the churches to echo with laughter.

If theres a bustle in your bible
You won't be liable,
Its just a spring clean for the obscene.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run
Theres still time to change the road you're on.
And it makes me wonder.

Your head is humming and it won't go
In case you don't know,
That preacher's calling you to join him,
Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow,
And did you know
Your stairway's lies on the whisper'n wind.

And as we wind on down the road
Our knowledge taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How ev'ry word is bricks of gold.
And if you ponder very hard
The truth will dawn on you at last.
When all are one and He is all
He is the rock and will not fall.

But she's building a stairway to heaven.

saint egregious said...

It's okay, Adam. My mother had a wonderful sense of humor, taught me all my favorite jokes, even.
She would have delighted to know that she was being 'dissed' on one of the most well-trafficked theology forum out there. We'd have had a real howl over the whole thing.

Christopher W. Chase said...

Interesting ideas. I would challenge the notion that "California" is equivalent to superficial spirituality or "Hollywood," in the same way that you challenged superficial spiritual readings of LZ-IV. Religious pluralism and eclecticism isn't necessarily superficial--it if was, India would be the most superficial religious landscape on the planet. Historically, California has been a gateway for radical religious pluralism in the U.S. Amerindian religions and Spanish Catholicism founded the landscape that exists there today Buddhists, Confucians, and Sikhs made their way to construct railroads and natural resource infrastructure in the mid to late 1800's. Utopian and Christian theosophical movements have been quite common there as well.

Moreover, other lyrics in the song you referenced state that the singer is "trying to find a woman who has never ever ever been born," so I sense the utopian optimism you see in the song is tempered with a tragicness-- in the same way that Augustine argued for a sharp distinction between the "City of God" and fallible human communities on earth.

Vishnookie-Das said...

What rich descriptions of psycho-spiritual musical inspiration. It is too bad the author realized that his examination of these adolescent experiences and the album which gave rise to them would require much more poetic investigation and personal development than he was willing to commit to these tasks.

Rather than focusing on the album, this article seems to be deeply reflective and autobiographical, chronicling the author's fascination with others' inner worlds and the subsequent disenchantment with the results of his own pot-fuled introspection to ultimately find a "banality and claustrophobic boredom of the inner self". Like many pious Christians, he *defensively projects* these failures onto the New-Age Movement's easiest targets, as if they bear any resemblance to the album upon which he claims to be reflecting or the untold numbers of more successful seekers and artists that have effectively utilized the methods and symbols of post-Christian spirituality.

I also find Jacob's comment (Monday, April 06, 2009 6:54:00 PM) to be a concise and important response.

roger flyer said...

Hey Fat-
I'm down with this! You know how Martin Luther wrote hymns to German beer drinking songs?

Yeah, we could redeem the whole Zep catalogue with new lyrics that bring people to the Rock.

...and I'm only half kidding.

and Ben-
bet you didn't know you would get so much mileage out of this post...
Just goes to show you all adolescent boys listened to them and look where it's got us!

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