Genesis, genre and Paul Simon

A recent documentary on the making of Bridge Over Troubled Water. Paul Simon talks about writing Cecelia. I’ve always thought this was a great song with a fantastic groove, but with uncharacteristically tawdry lyrics which I found vaguely embarrassing. Why would far-from-simple Simon write a typical “adolescent sex” song? And then Simon has a throwaway line: “St Cecelia is, of course, the patron saint of musicians.”

And suddenly it falls into place, after 40 years – it’s not a song about the traumas of adolescent lust at all, but about the fickleness of the creative muse. It’s part of a small but distinct genre: “Laments of Songwriters Seeking Inspiration”. This genre also includes another of my more esoteric favorites, (Further Reflections) in the Room of Percussion  by the quintessentially English psychelic cult band, Kaleidoscope. Amusingly, a comment on the YouTube clip says this is probably about a bad LSD trip. But Peter Daltry, the writer, was never fuelled by anything stronger than Bulmer’s cider and said in an interview that it was about fruitless songwriting sessions at his friend’s house.

But why then make it, like Cecelia, so obscure? Daltry on the sleeve notes wrote that his song was “too personal to explain”. Maybe it’s because it’s deeply humiliating for a songwriter to own up to artistic impotence. Be that as it may, the lesson is that even in the narrow field of pop music, you can miss the artist’s intentions by making hasty assumptions about genre.

Another example. Imagine a copy of H G Wells’ War of the Worlds is sent back through time to 1690. The reader is told it’s from the future, but what kind of book is it? Is it a factual account that, worryingly, suggests that Mars is inhabited by hostile beings? Or maybe a historical novel set amid the real events of such an invasion? Or is it, like Pilgrim’s Progress, a spiritual allegory? You can bet your life the reader would be unlikely to twig that it is a metaphor, conscious or unconscious, but of the industrialisation of Victorian warfare or the germ theory of disease.

Suppose that our time-capsule also contained one other example of the science fiction genre: Out of the Silent Planet, by C S Lewis. It will be published later than Wells’ book, so the benevolent nature of the Martian people reassuringly gives the lie to the “historical” interpretation of War of the Worlds. What’s more, it’s clearly a Christian spiritual allegory, which confirms the previous suspicion and sets your Jacobean reader searching for the obscure spiritual meaning to be found in Wells. The one firm conclusion he can draw is that there is a genre of writing in 20th century England that sets spiritual allegory in interplanetary settings. Oh dear. What will he now make of “Apollo 13”?

It seems to me that the genre of Genesis is a similar problem for us. Its world is as alien to us as 1898 or 1938 would be to a man of 1690. ANE studies certainly help cast light on its genre, and especially texts like the Eridu Genesis to which it is related. But we shouldn’t forget that what has survived from that time is just the flotsam and jetsam of a rich literature (from the wrong country, at that). Is what comparative literature we have typical or unusual? Is Genesis derived from it, reactive to it, or simply culturally parallel in some way (as War of the Worlds is to the Georgian War Poets)? If there’s one thing that modern literary criticism has taught us, it’s that scholars love drawing solid conclusions from inadequate evidence.

One answer to the problem of what Genesis means is to overplay the inspiration card, in the sense of saying that God would not allow his inspired Scripture to be misunderstood by the children of Christ. The lie is given to that by the diversity of interpretations not only down the ages, but in our own time. One could counter that criticism by saying that the true meaning is only understood by genuine children of God, but only at the cost of restricting the true Church to me and you (with some doubt about you).

Even so, when dealing with an inspired text that argument is not completely empty. The rather naturalistic tendency of some theologians to suggest that the real meaning of Genesis is lost to us (even if there is a real meaning) is, in effect, a denial of the Holy Spirit’s teaching role. I’ve long considered that a strong doctrine of inspiration follows inevitably from the doctrine of creation. A moral and rational God outside the natural realm, who creates moral and rational souls, must intend to communicate with them, for nothing in the material world could enable them to find him. If Genesis is a part of that communication, however far removed from us its origins, then God will use it even though none of us has full understanding of its purpose.

Space forbids a detailed unpacking of this, but I’d suggest that tracing the interpretations of Genesis down the history of the Church, from the allegorical understandings of the Fathers down to the literal historical interpretations of modern Fundamentalists, would show that very much the same lessons have been drawn about the nature of God, man and their relationship to the created order. I’d propose that is true not only in general, but also to a great extent in the exposition of details. We can and do err at many points, but whilst we take the sacred text as being the word of God (rather than sitting in judgement on its supposed errors, which is another matter entirely), I hold that we’ll end up with the same God, the same Lord and the same Gospel.

To quote Augustine’s celebrated words:

Let each one, then take it as he pleases; for it is so profound a passage, that it may well suggest, for the exercise of the reader’s tact, many opinions, and none of them widely departing from the rule of faith. (City of God, XI.32)

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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