Last week as we began this short sermon series entitled Vintage Jesus, we spent a bit of time describing this whole fascination with the sensibilities and aesthetics of past decades. There is fairly wide interest in the clothes and jewelry and furniture, and other things from the 1930’s and 40’s up through the 70’s. There are shops and websites dedicated to selling vintage things – blogs dedicated to the discussion of all things vintage.
This week we’re going a slightly different way to introduce the vintage theme – in a moment we’ll do so by listening to some Johnny Cash. Most of us know how much dramatically the music industry has changed over the past number of years. It used to be the case that you bought your music in a very concrete form – you bought a record or a cassette-tape or a compact disc – and you would play that very concrete thing in a stereo of some kind. But today music is purchased and listened to in such a different way. You never “see” the music. You download it to your computer or directly to your phone – often wirelessly. For the vast majority of people in North America today, to listen to music you simply pull out your phone or your Ipod, put in your earplugs, and listen. We could easily play some Johnny Cash this way.
Given these technological advances, it may be surprising to us that the interest in vintage things includes an interest in the vinyl records. Over the past 20 years most people threw out their old vinyl records, or tried to get rid of them at garage sales. But there is an increasing number of people who collect old vinyl records – people out there looking for records, and buying up old record players like this Eaton’s model – it actually belongs to Iain MacLeod. Actually, even today some record companies continue to produce brand new vinyl records for some albums. You can get the latest Lady Gaga album on vinyl. In other words, we are back to that same interest in vintage things – that same interest in the sensibilities and aesthetics of past decades. This morning I thought we could try and get a very concrete feel for those sensibilities, as we play that old Johnny Cash gospel song (It was Jesus) on vinyl.
There’s a blast from the past. As we think about this whole resurgence of interest in vinyl, it’s pretty clear that at least part of the reason for it is nostalgia. There’s just something about holding the record case in your hands and looking at the art gracing its cover. There’s just something about pulling that beautiful black disk out of the case. Seeing its grooves and placing that very concrete thing on the old record player.” There’s just something about it. It connects you to an earlier time. Nostalgia. Today music flies through the air and lands on your device sight unseen. You can’t get hold of it in a concrete sense – there’s nothing really beautiful about the mode in which recorded music comes into our lives
But there’s more to this interest in vintage records and players than simply nostalgia. In an important sense, this interest is also about authenticity. The longing for authenticity is a widespread phenomenon in our culture and in the case of vinyl records, what some people are looking for is an authentic experience of the music. There are a couple of ways to think about this. In the first sense, some people simply want to listen to music in the format in which it was originally produced and played. When Johnny Cash recorded his music in the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s, it wasn’t distributed on CD’s or cassette tapes or in digital form. It was distributed in the form of LPs, of records. To listen to his music now in that format is a sense the most authentic way to listen to it – it sets you in the time and culture of the music itself. When you pull out the record you see an image of Johnny Cash from his time period – and you pull out a record that was actually produced at the time he recorded it. Some would say that your experience of the music is more authentic because of this.
There’s another sense in which it may be a more authentic experience to listen to a record. Many will argue today that with a good clean record, and with a good record player, you can actually get much better quality sound. Obviously you can’t listen to a 1960’s Johnny Cash performance live today – but many will argue that the closest you can get to live music is through vinyl. The idea is that a record – as opposed to a digital version, or cd – gets you closer to the live music, and is therefore a more authentic experience of the music. Hence the interest in collecting records – and in fact the new productions of vinyl today. this interest in things vintage.
I’ve mentioned there is a search for authenticity in our culture today. And the interest in an authentic experience of music is a part of that wider phenomenon. But of course the question arises as to what exactly that concept of authenticity means. It’s a vague term, certainly. And it’s a vastly more complicated term than we might imagine in today’s culture. In fact, because of that it is in some ways probably an unhelpful term. But it is nonetheless a powerful term in our culture.
The root of the word authenticity is, of course, the word authentic – and the word authentic means something that conforms to the facts – or something that conforms to the original. In a way it’s actually easier to define the word authentic negatively. Something is authentic if it isn’t false or an imitation. To us a simple example, an meal is an authentic Italian meal only if it’s made by an Italian person and using ingredients and methods that would have been used in Italy. Of course there are lots of imitation Italian restaurants out there. The pasta and sauce some of us make in our own homes from time to time is probably a prime example of imitation, or inauthentic Italian food. It certainly isn’t authentic Italian food.
In our culture there is a drive toward authenticity. People want the real thing. They want to live authentic lives – they want to live in ways that are true to themselves, true to their values, true to the world, true to their feelings, true to their heritage perhaps. We want the real thing. And perhaps the greatest challenge of our day is that for most of us that authenticity is almost perpetually out of grasp.
When you live in a culture in which almost nothing is settled – in which almost everything is up for grabs
in which almost every truth is contested,
in which our own tastes are continually shifting from this to that,
in which fashion trends come and go in a matter of months,
in which our own feelings are subject to multiple interpretations,
in which marketers and politicians spin absolutely everything,
– in such a culture authenticity will feel perpetually out of grasp. We want to live lives that are authentic – true to the human – true to ourselves. But the challenge is to know what is authentic. What is authentic to the human? What is true to me? In a culture where everything is up for grabs – where there are almost no certainties to hang onto, is it even possible to find or live an authentic life? What should our life be true to?
In his book The Authenticity Hoax, Andrew Potter argues that the search for authenticity in modern western culture has in fact taken a rather superficial turn. He writes:
We are all trying to find one sliver of the world whether authenticity – something that is real – can be found.
The earliest Christian communities were small, and relatively diverse communities – small faith communities in a wide sea of Roman culture and religion. Within those early, small Christian communities there were slaves, former slaves, merchants and artisans, a few wealthy individuals or familyes, a few Jews and a lot of non-Jews. And what bound this cross-section of people together was a conviction that they had discovered the real thing – the conviction that they had discovered an authentic encounter with God and an authentic understanding of themselves. In the words of that Johnny Cash, with the Carter family singing backup It was Jesus. They believed they had found this authentic encounter with God and this authentic understanding of themselves through Jesus.
The four gospel narratives we have in our New Testament were written within these earliest Christian communities – and of course those gospel narratives tell the story of Jesus. But those four gospels don’t tell the story of Jesus simply as historical biography – the earliest Christians weren’t interested in sharing a merely factual account of his life and words. Rather, the gospels are the story of Jesus’ life on earth told from the perspective of encounter with risen Jesus. Through the writing of the gospel narratives the early Christians were sharing their convictions about the risen Jesus with one another and with others who would read their texts. The message they wanted to share can be boiled down to this, perhaps: If you want an authentic life, a truly human life, then look no further than this first century Jew – crucified and risen. Thus Jesus offers these words in John’s gospel, chapter 10: “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.” Or, paraphrased for today: “I have come that you might live authentically – that you might live a truly human life.”
In our passage for today from Luke’s gospel, we read of a healing that takes place early in Jesus public ministry. Jesus has just been in the synagogue where he has proclaimed the presence of God’s kingdom – the presence of God’s kingdom in Jesus himself. While he is there, Jesus also releases a man from bondage to an unclean spirit. And from there Jesus proceeds to the house of Simon – where he and the disciples find Simon’s mother-in-law suffering from a high fever. We read in the narrative: “Then he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. Immediately she got up and began to serve them.”
This is vintage Jesus – this is typical Jesus – this is what we find Jesus doing time and again within the gospel narratives. Women and men are dehumanized through disease. Women and men are dehumanized through possession by spirits. Women and men and children are dehumanized through rejection and marginalization. And in every case Jesus brings restoration – in every case sets people back on their feet,
he sets them back in their families,
he sets them back with society,
he sets them back within the worshipping community of his people.
In the process of doing so Jesus also sets himself firmly against – he rebukes – the powers that dehumanize, whatever form they take. He rebukes every inauthentic form of human life.
The earliest Christians who tell these stories, they share these stories with whoever will listen because they believe they have encountered the risen Jesus – and they believe that through him there is an authentic encounter with God, and an authentic understanding of who they are. For these women and men Jesus is not a now-dead man who simply inspires noble feelings in them – he is not a now-dead teacher whose wisdom they find unparalleled. For these early Christians Jesus is a living one whose resurrection life comes as a gift to them – for them he is a living one to whom we are drawn into the life and kingdom of God.
In every age, humans have reached out, in their own particular way, toward authentic existence. It seems to be built into the fabric of who we are – built into the fabric of our cultures – this reaching out. It has come to expression in so many ways, but humans across time and space have invariably wanted lives that are meaningful and real.
And our particular culture, given the immense freedom we enjoy – given the immense privileges we enjoy – has more time than ever to dwell on and seek answers to this longing for authenticity – we have more resources than ever to seek answers to this longing for a truly human life. And yet the evidence seems to be that the more we reach, the more we realize it’s beyond reach. It’s always just beyond our grasp.
The gospel narratives tell what is in many ways a simple story – the story of a first century Jewish man, crucified and risen. It tells the story of someone who in all times and places brings the new and authentic life of the human to expression. He comes to set us on our feet; to bring healing to our lives; to draw us into living encounter with God; to lead us in the way of service to others; to lead us into lives of love and compassion with our neighbours. This is the life the earliest Christians found in Jesus – an authentic life into which we also are invited.