Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Surfing With White Heart and Steve Taylor

Since Surfing in Babylon has allotted blog space to Satanists and metaphorical Satanists, it's time we offer the Christian rock community a forum for rebuttal. First up: White Heart, from their excellent excellent '89 album Freedom, this is "Bye Bye Babylon":

As you might expect from Christian rockers, White Heart give us a little sermon-in-song. In verse one they look back at historical Babylon; in verse two they apply the lessons of Babylon to today's world. (Steve Taylor will do something similar below, only more subtly and less well.) Interestingly enough, the 'Heart's take on Babylon isn't particularly Biblical, except for its Judeo-Christian bias. That is, they don't focus on the Exile or on any other specific Biblical texts; Babylon is just a big impressive civilization that didn't worship God, and today lies in ruins. If this song was your only frame of reference, you'd never know that Babylon enslaved the Israelites. White Heart's Babylon could just as well be Assyria or the Persian Empire, and it wouldn't make a bit of difference to the song.

Well.... maybe a BIT of difference, for two reasons:

1. White Heart's Babylon is a "monument to pride," which alludes to the Tower of Babel story and its most common interpretation.

2. Since Babylon is the Bible's second-most-mentioned ancient civilization--right behind Israel--White Heart's Christian fans can more immediately relate to the image. White Heart are sort of exploiting the free-lunch symbolic associations we already give Babylon, thanks to the fact that John the Revelator and his prophetic predecessors imbued the place with oppositional symbolic meaning centuries ago. They did the work so White Heart wouldn't have to.

What's White Heart's main takeaway message? "Don't be Babylon!" (Did I get that right, guys?) Though again, it's not QUITE what you'd expect. They're ambivalently didactic with their advice. Here's verse two:

"Rocket ride through time and space,
It's 2088--
They're diggin' around in the dust of what we've done.
Now people study me,
I'm a part of history;
Oh, did we leave them another Babylon?
Is there evidence of spiritual revival,
Or did we leave a land of broken idols?

They're not pulling a Pat Robertson, saying "If we worship idols, we'll be destroyed." In White Heart's theology, you get destroyed regardless of who you worship. (And apparently, America will be dust by 2088. Good times.) But wait: then they sing this in the chorus:

"If God is not our strength and song
It's good-bye Babylon!

Unless I'm misreading them, White Heart seem confused about providence, about causality and their own Deuteronomic convictions. (Whatever the case, "Bye Bye Babylon" is certainly more coherent than Cryoshell's song of the same name.) I could very well be misreading the White Hearts; doing so makes them sound SO much more reasonable. An alternate reading might say that if God IS our strength and song, the future people sifting through our dust will be fellow Americans; whereas if God is NOT our strength and song, America will lie in ruins and when the Chinese finally arrive to collect on their debt, they'll be in for a very big surprise.

This theme, of Babylon as Dead Civilization, is fairly common. It notably appears in Celtic Frost's "Babylon Fell" ('87), which we'll get to someday.

Next up is Steve Taylor's "Babylon," from his '87 album I Predict 1990. "Babylon"'s not very good; Steve's often sarcastic and funny, or at least catchy, and this song is none of the above. (Other songs on 1990 include "Since I Gave Up Hope I Feel a Lot Better" and the brilliantly titled, apparently controversial "I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good," about an ice cream man who's an anti-abortion zealot for financial reasons.)

Taylor's Babylon seems to depict a Hebrew child of the Exile, torn between the lure of Babylon's worldly expertise ("Come and learn," she beckons) and the promise of something better from "the heavens." Does this not parallel our contemporary life? Aren't we torn between vicissitudes of science and faith? Do we not dance around with light sources both spot and torch, if you believe the very dated video?

According to both Taylor and White Heart, Babylon has walls and idols, and they could very well be the same place. Both Babylons seem nice from a worldly point of view--White Heart's offers "strength and security, comfort and safety", while Taylor's has learning, or something. Taylor's seems more negative because his narrator is in the final throes of disillusionment, but the two are still compatible--you could imagine Steve Taylor showing up in White Heart's song to wave his light sources around. Most importantly to their meaning, both songs see Babylon in contemporary America, and both say God provides more than what Babylon's got to offer. If you confuse your country with God, you do so at your peril--which is a refreshing lesson to hear from Christians, especially if you've been watching too much Fox News.

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