Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Some notes toward an Explication: Jesus Shaves

Paranoid Larry has this beautiful song called "Jesus Shaves"  It has been recorded by the Roches. I have not heard that recording but Paranoid Larry's version certainly seems sufficient for the day.  Anyway go listen to it at the prior link or here and then report back.

Some notes:  This song which starts with a perhaps all too obvious play on "Jesus Saves" quickly becomes something special. Looking at Paranoid Larry one would not be surprised  that the old saw horse about about shaving, cutting one's hair and "selling out" would be the them of "Jesus Shaves" but PL gets that out of the way in the first verse, never to return to it:

Jesus shaves, joins corporate America
Gets laid off
Grows his beard back.

The rest of the song is just a story which could be anybody's story. It could be anybody shaving. Now we can over interpret this all we want and say that the portrayal of Jesus as just one of us is significant. But once you draw attention to that, Jesus is no longer one of us. He becomes someone else being like one of us. Any hint of divinity and it is all but impossible to imagine the humanity.  I am drawing attention to this, PL does not.  That is what I love about this song and it is perhaps a source of its potential offense. ( In fact it is the most unoffensive song imaginable. It is downright sweet.) There is absolutely nothing special about Jesus in this rendering other than that he is a human being. In fact this song would work and be just as sweet and moving, and a slice of human life, by substituting any male name for Jesus.  Try it. Isn't that a beautiful lyric.

[Your choice of name here] shaves
Goes on an interview
Does real well
He's got a way with people
two years on he’s still an apprentice,
but not for long, it’s graduation.  

___________ shaves,
put’s his best suit on, get’s a certificate,
makes it official, now he’s a welder,
wears a big helmet, and twice a week now,

Even the moving chorus would not be out of place in a song about anyone:

Blessed are the ones who make peace
Blessed are the ones who scrape by
Blessed are the ones living holy lives
And here's to the rest of us who try

In fact I wonder if the fact that this reference to The Beatitudes might not detract  slightly (but only slightly)  from the effect I have been describing, since in changing somewhat the words of the Beatitudes we cannot help but here it as a commentary on words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament, and thus he is taken out of the realm of everyman and we run the danger of thinking the whole song is only a rewriting of the Jesus story to fit the needs of the writer who wishes to at least claim blessing for those who scrape by, like the Jesus of the song. It may be significant and perhaps saves the song from falling into theological commentary that PL does not claim blessing for the rest of us, but only offers us a toast so to speak. More to my point however, is that if this chorus were in a song in which someone with a different name were shaving, it would be as or even more moving.

So let me propose a suggestion  inspired by this facet of "Jesus Shaves", whenever a writer, poet, theologian, songwriter, philosophy, decides to write or speak about the humanity of Jesus, before publishing same that person should substitute some other name and see if the statement works. If so let it stand as a proper statement of humanity. If not edit appropriately. As readers it may be an interesting exercise. Hey it might not even work. In that case discard this suggestion.

[Note for further thought Paranoid Larry's word plays-- not only does Jesus shave, he also shaves--the scales off the fishes after ice-fishing for perch. One of Paranoid Larry's newer songs-- Girl At the End of the Bar cannot resist the temptation to have "at the end of the bar" refer to a musical measure at least once. Of course John / Henry carries this to extremes--its to the tune of "John Henry" but talks about all these people named John (like John Ashcroft) or Henry (like Kissinger or Adams). Such plays are of course a long running staple of poetic inspiration, and for the character of Paranoid Larry they do bear a hint of madness for sure. In the songs I've heard so far PL gets really close to the edge of overdoing this on occasion but always seems to pull back at the right moment. On the other hand I haven't listened to his entire catalog yet.]

But here is something else which separates the humanity of the shaving Jesus in this song from the usual theological poetic rendition of that humanity-- this song has a happy, if unexceptionable arc, it's a life of some guy, who ends up marrying the girl in payroll. Most renditions of anything about Jesus concentrate on the suffering and the fear of death, and not the beauty of his daughter being late for the school bus because she "likes watching as Jesus shaves."

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