Billy Bragg and Jesus

imagesBilly Bragg is in the midst of an album launch – the tunes of the new album Tooth and Nail were available for free, up until yesterday, on the CBC website, through live streaming. Alas, the free ride is over.

One of the songs on the new album is entitled “Do unto others”, and is in continuity with Bragg’s interest in themes of justice through his life and musical career. The lyrics are in many ways compelling (here are the first two verses):

In the Bible, we are told
God gave Moses the…
Ten great commandments whisper true truths!
But the greatest commandment of all
Is in the book of Luke as I recall
Do unto others as you would them do unto you!
Do unto others as you would them do unto you!

Now it may be you don’t believe
In the story of Adam and Eve
Who called up on science to prove it’s all untrue!
But in the cold light of the day
Peaceful words still point the way
Do unto others as you would them do unto you!
Do unto others as you would them do unto you!

At some level it’s hard to argue with Bragg’s lyrics. In a culture that seems lost for an ethical or moral framework, Bragg points to Jesus words in a pragmatic kind of way. To paraphrase: “If you don’t believe in anything else, well at least Jesus’ words seem to give us something.” When it comes down to it, he says, we need something to root our moral life, and Jesus words seem as good a place as any to start. His words resonate at some level.

Again, it’s hard not to appreciate Bragg’s appeal to Jesus – especially as someone who belongs to Him. Yet Bragg’s seeming dismissal of the big questions (science’s apparent refutation of Christian claims about human life and origins), is a greater challenge than he perhaps realizes. If the universe ends in a big crunch (collapses in on itself) or the big freeze (it dissipates to a standstill) that has a profound impact on our ethical vision and pursuit of justice. Of if Dawkins is right that we are nothing more than sophisticated perpetuators of genetic material, then our very selves are evacuated of significance and the moral and ethical life is equally evacuated of meaning.

Bragg wants to have Jesus’ message, but also seems to give up on the big questions. It seems to me you can’t have it both ways.


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