14 August 2011 Hull Unitarian Church
Rock 'n' Roll Religion

Reverend Bill Darlison: Preacher


The Wolf and the Dog [Sufi derived]

One day a dog met a wolf in the forest. The dog said to the wolf, 'Mr. Wolf, why are you so thin? Haven't you eaten recently? You really must learn to look after yourself better!'

'I eat when I can,' said the wolf, 'but it's not always easy to get food. I'm getting older and I'm not as quick as I used to be. The animals I eat seem to be able to get away from me these days.'

'You should come and live with me,' said the dog. 'I live in a big house; it's warm and cosy; my master feeds me three times every day and I can sit and doze in front of the fire any time I like. Sometimes he lets me out for a few minutes so I can run around the forest. There he is, over there, waiting for me to go back to him. Come with me. He'll look after you.'

'I think I will,' replied the wolf. 'Why should I be out here in the cold, grabbing what food I can when I can be fed for free? Lead the way.'

As the dog went on ahead, the wolf noticed that the dog had a little circle round his neck where the fur had worn away. 'What's wrong with your neck?' he asked.

'Oh, it's nothing. It's just where my master fastens a chain around me each night to keep me in my place while he is asleep,' said the dog, a little ashamed.

'Sorry,' said the wolf. 'I won't be coming with you. I'd rather be half-starved and free than well-fed and a slave. Goodbye!'

And the wolf vanished into the forest.


'Did he who made the Lamb make thee?'

(From The Tyger, by William Blake)

One of the perks of my job is that I get to meet some pretty famous people; not only those who worship in the Dublin church on Sundays, but those I meet at state functions, and those who happen to be guests at weddings. It was at a wedding blessing in Kenmare that I met two members of the legendary rock group Led Zeppelin, who were attending the wedding of Tom Kenny, the man who does the lighting for their concerts. On the night before the wedding, after the rehearsal, there was a barbecue in the grounds of the hotel, and Morag and I were sitting at a table next to Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin's lead guitarist, who was with his wife and two young children. I'd never been a Led Zeppelin fan, but I knew about Jimmy Page. In the sixties and seventies he had been one of the enfants terribles of rock - an anarchist, a wrecker of hotel rooms, a user of hard drugs, a man who was reputed to be a participant in occult and even satanic ceremonies.
But there he was, in his fifties now, eating burgers and sausages in the twilight of a late August evening. His children - both under ten - wanted to play on some nearby swings, but Jimmy said they couldn't go until they had eaten their vegetables! There was an amusing irony to the moment: the archetypal rebel turned protective parent; the drug-abuser turned nutritionist! I almost expected him to tell us that he had found Jesus but, mercifully, we were spared such a confession.
But the irony was tinged with sadness. Jimmy may have been quite commendably exercising his duties towards his children, but I couldn't help feeling that the incident was symbolic of that gradual drift into the arms of convention that we have witnessed in so many of the iconic troublemakers of the past. We can expect it of Sir Cliff Richard, but to see the likes of Mick Jagger accepting a knighthood from the queen of England seems almost to be witness to a betrayal. They've grown up at last, we're inclined to think, and we congratulate them on their belated entry into the ranks of the establishment; but, in reality, the fire has gone out of them, and they've settled for a respectability which almost makes nonsense of their former rebelliousness. Now we learn that Glen Matlock, former member of the punk group the Sex Pistols, is complaining about bad language on television! Members of the generation which sang 'I hope I die before I get old' have got old, and they've been well and truly tamed in the process.
In many ways rock 'n' roll itself is in process of being tamed. There's a growing movement of what is called 'Christian rock', with singers like Natasha Bedingfield and her brother Daniel unashamedly declaring their Christian faith in their bland songs, and a little known group called Athlete sing a song with the edifying lyrics: 'House on a rock. Surely it will last forever. House on a rock. Don't you know it's now or never?' This, apparently, is a reference to the House on the Rock International Church in Bermondsey, South London, whose name is inspired by Jesus' words at the end of the Sermon on the Mounti where he tells us to build our houses on rock not on sand. I always thought that the 'rock' in rock 'n' roll was not the kind of rock which provides a firm foundation, but the kind of rock you throw through a window, but the distinction has been lost on those people who think it's possible to preach the word of God using what's been called the music of the devil. Loud it may be. Annoying it certainly is. But rock 'n' roll it ain't! To sing the words 'Build your house on a rock' to music which suggests that you should raze everything to the ground implies a hopeless confusion of genres.
'The problem,' says Conor McNicholas, the editor of the New Musical Express, 'is that religion is never cool. At the heart of all religion there's the notion of control, and that's the opposite of rock 'n' roll. It ends up being the least rock 'n' roll thing you can think of.'ii McNicholas is right. Religion as we understand it, has allied itself with the forces of control with virtues like security, vigilance, prudence, prosperity, calmness, and carefulness high on its list of priorities. We expect to see religious leaders of all persuasions wagging their fingers at all manifestations of disorder, and supporting all efforts to take the risk and adventure out of life. And people expect me, as a professional representative of religion, to be an embodiment of such clean-living virtues, and one who deplores coarseness and lack of self-control. That's why some people will moderate their language in my presence, or apologise before they tell a risqué joke. It's symptomatic of the compartment called 'delicate' to which we automatically assign religious things and religious people. Religion is almost a synonym for safety.
Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan wrote recently about the dreadful - and expensive - move to make children's playgrounds 100% safe. Once, slides and swings were set in concrete; then the concrete was replaced by asphalt, which was itself replaced by damp bark chips. 'I haven't been back to the park for years now,' writes Lucy, 'but I suspect that by now the chips have been replaced by pastel-coloured velvet pillows stuffed with marshmallows, and that a team of trained counsellors are on 24-hour standby to restore the unagile child's sense of self-esteem.'iii No one would be surprised if the local religious groups had been vociferously campaigning to make those cushions a reality!
The winner of this year's Stella award - named after Stella Lieveck, who spilled hot coffee on herself and successfully sued McDonald's - was Merv Grazinski of Oklahoma City, who purchased a brand new Winnebago motor home. 'On a trip home from a football game, having driven on to the freeway, he set the cruise control to 70 mph and calmly left the driver's seat to go to the back to make himself a cup of coffee. Not surprisingly the motor home left the freeway, crashed and overturned. Mr. Grazinski sued Winnebago for not advising him in the owner's manual that he could not actually do this. The jury awarded him $1,750,000 plus a new Winnebago. The company actually changed their manuals on the basis of this suit, just in case there were other complete morons buying their recreational vehicles.'
This information came to me via the internet, so I'm not vouching for its accuracy. But, accurate or not, it is typical of the sort of thing that seems to be happening: there is a society-wide movement to eliminate risk. Charles Landry, an expert on the future of cities, notes that in 1994 the phrase 'at risk' appeared in the British press 2,037 times; in 2003 it appeared 25,000 times. 'Risk,' he says, 'has its experts, consultants, interest groups, specialist literature, an associational structure, and lobbying bodies. A risk industry has formalised itself. The notion of "an accident" seems to have gone from our understanding.'iv
I am obviously not saying that religion is actually part of this drive to cushion us against life's vicissitudes - although it would not surprise me to read the headline 'Archbishop advises us to sprinkle less salt on our dinner' - just that it is perceived by many, and especially by young people, to be opposed to everything that is dangerous and exciting.
However, there has been a very interesting reversal in recent years. I was amazed to discover that one of the fastest growing subject options at Advanced Level in Britain is Religious Studies. When I taught religion - not that long ago - it was resented by the adolescents and avoided by those post-16 students who had a choice. I taught Advanced Level Religious Studies to rather pious girls and not-too-bright boys (there were exceptions!). But things have changed in the last few years, principally it seems, because of the rise of militant Islam. As our young people read about suicide bombers clutching copies of the Koran, or see world famous athletes acknowledging their dependence on Allah, they seem more inclined than ever before to want to discover what this religion business is all about.
While not for one moment endorsing the rise of politically motivated religious pressure groups, I am nevertheless pleased that religion is losing some of its association with passivity, and recovering something of the dynamic character which is at the heart of the primary religious impulse. We have made God into a constantly disappointed disapprover, whose overriding purpose is to subdue our passions, forgetting that, as the scriptures tell us, our God is a consuming fire.v Forgetting, too, that life itself is a disturbance, the mysterious, explosive, ecstatic disturbance which transformed inorganic matter into vibrant, glorious, vulnerable vitality. Within Christianity we stress the 'gentle Jesus, meek and mild', the 'family values' Jesus of popular imagination, but we forget another, more troublesome aspect of the character who is presented to us in the pages of the Christian scriptures, a character who had nowhere to lay his head, who told us that he had not come to bring peace but a sword, who spurned his mother and his brothers, and who declared that his mission was to set the members of a household one against another. Like Elijah before him, Jesus was a 'disturber of Israel' rather than a pacifier, a man who realised that there was more to life than having nice clothes, a full stomach, and a variety of entertainment options.
And while I would not want to make the fatuous claim that Jesus was a rocker, I do acknowledge that the man who took a whip to the money-changers in the Temple was no stranger to the passionate dimension of life. The poet William Blake was aware that those turbulent and untameable energies symbolised by the tiger are just as much a part of life as the gentleness of the lamb: 'Did he who made the Lamb make thee?' he asks the tiger, and his perplexity highlights the undeniable fact that we live our lives amid the tensions created by apparently irreconcilable polarities, and it is folly for us to extol the one and denigrate the other, or to express the one and suppress the other. A religion that claims to guide us through life must teach us to incorporate these two complementary strands: repose and energy; order and confusion; Bach and rock 'n' roll. The great myths which underpin all the world's religious systems tell us that life is an adventure, not a picnic; a perilous journey to an unknown shore, not an oasis of pleasure-seeking. Montaigne says that a Mexican father would whisper into the ear of a new born child, 'Child, you were born to suffer; suffer, endure, and shut up!' Today we rob our children of the chance even to skin their knees, thinking that the good life is the pain-free life, and we encourage them to whimper about the unfairness of it all when times are tough. But the pain-free life is an illusion, a nightmare even, devoid of the agonies and the ecstasies which alone render life worth living. I despair when I hear people say of their emotional life - either in drama or in reality - 'I have been hurt too badly. I never want to expose myself to pain again.' What! All life, when it is real life, is vulnerable. In so far as we protect ourselves from potential pain we inure ourselves from all possibility of delight, and our humanity is reduced in consequence. The spiritually mature person is one who is never tempted to utter the simpering cry 'Why me?' when faced with one of life's inevitable reversals, but who is brave enough to say 'Why not me?' and carry on anyway; he or she is one who, like the wolf in the story, prefers an insecure freedom to a pampered slavery.
Bob Dylan, in one of his greatest songs, sings 'May you stay forever young,' by which he means, 'May you take some risks, have some adventures, make some mistakes, feel some pain, and feel some compensating exquisite joys.' And if you can do this and still eat your recommended five portions of vegetables per day, then good for you. But, whatever you do, keep on rocking. Because when you stop you're dead.


Bill Darlison

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful