Last night, as continued my ongoing struggle to solve the mystery of the black screen after login on Windows Vista, I put on R30, the DVD of a concert the band Rush issued to celebrate their 30th birthday. I’ve liked Rush’s music since the first time I heard it, which was the album Grace Under Pressure, which relatives put on in the car when we visited them.
It was the combination of good music with lyrics that were worth listening to over and over again that made the impression. Particularly for a science fiction fan, many tracks on Grace Under Pressure are appealing. The lyrics of Rush songs are written mostly by the drummer, Neil Peart, and they regularly deserve to be classed as serious poetry. Striking inversions of common metaphors, such as the phrase “too many hands on my time”, are just one example.
When it comes to religion, there is much in their songs that is worth exploring and reflecting on. If I had to, I would guess that Peart had some encounter with Christianity when he was young that turned him off to it. In “The Weapon“, a track on the 1982 album Signals, we find hints of this:
He’s not afraid of your judgement
He knows of horrors worse than your Hell
He’s a little bit afraid of dying
But he’s a lot more afraid of your lying
I find particularly interesting the contrast between the lyrics of “Freewill”, which seem to rebel against the idea of determinism, and those of one of my all-time favorite Rush songs, “Roll the Bones” (from the album of the same name), which seem to have come to view randomness as something not entirely positive. The most powerful stanza is the second:
Why are we here?
Because we’re here
Roll the bones
Why does it happen?
Because it happens
Roll the bones
Faith is cold as ice —
Why are little ones born only to suffer
For the want of immunity
Or a bowl of rice?
Well, who would hold a price
On the heads of the innocent children
If there’s some immortal power
To control the dice?
We come into the world and take our chances
Fate is just the weight of circumstances
That’s the way that lady luck dances
Roll the bones
Although this could easily be dismissed by a religious believer as simply blasphemous rebellion against God, it is actually a profound line of thought that is deserving of serious theological consideration. Conservative religious believers claim the literal historical factuality of Biblical stories, in which God is constantly intervening to assist people – not merely parting seas and leading slaves to freedom, but making poisoned stew edible and sending a bear or a lion to kill someone that has offended or disobeyed him. Yet when we observe the world, we find, as Job did, that this simplistic way of viewing things does not fit our experience. Which, in the end is more blasphemous, to deny that there is a God of the sort that “holds the dice”, that determines what happens in human history, or to claim that there is such a God but that he does not do for people today the sorts of things they claim he once did?
Modern physics, and science in general, seem to be working towards striking a balance between randomness and determinism. It is at the interface between law and chance that freewill and free actions become possible.
Let me conclude with some of the most entertaining Rush lyrics, in my opinion. They are from the song “You Bet Your Life”:
THE ODDS GET EVEN — You name the game
THE ODDS GET EVEN — The stakes are the same
YOU BET YOUR LIFE
anarchist reactionary running-dog revisionist
hindu muslim catholic creation/evolutionist
rational romantic mystic cynical idealist
minimal expressionist post-modern neo-symbolist
armchair rocket scientist graffiti existentialist
deconstruction primitive performance photo-realist
be-bop or a one-drop or a hip-hop lite-pop-metallist
gold adult contemporary urban country capitalist
Even these have a point – no matter what your ideology, philosophy, religion, political allegiance, citizenship or creed, we all devote our lives to something. People stake their lives on there being a heaven, or there not being one. People stake their lives on the relative importance of combatting evolution versus feeding the poor and stake their lives and their money on it. All of our competing worldviews seek to provide a meaningful framework for our existence.
When we are all staking our lives on our ultimate convictions and values, is it any surprise that we find it so hard to evaluate them critically and discuss them dispassionately, never mind actually changing them?
Thanks, Rush, for the chance to think about serious subjects and have it accompanied by great music!