The Symbolism of “Colors”

Posted in: Popular Culture by bill-o on October 09, 2010

As I’ve mentioned before, the “true meaning” of popular songs can be elusive. In fact, sometimes the “hidden meaning” of songs is not even the point: Sometimes the music is good, and the lyrics don’t really matter. All right, … that’s true enough, at least some of the time. However, I think that sometimes it’s worth taking a second look at the songs we listen to to see “if there is something more going on here”.

The song “Colors” by Grace Potter & the Nocturnals on their recent self-titled album is one of those songs that I think it’s worth taking a closer look at. I had listened to this song a few times and loved the music, but I didn’t really pay attention to the lyrics. Then suddenly, it dawned on me: This is a pro-immigration song. Why do I say that? Take a look at parts of the lyrics …

“I don’t want to build a wall …” – This is a nod to the wall, which is at times a “virtual fence”, on the U.S.-Mexico border. This is designed to prevent illegal immigration into the U.S. from Mexico.

“… Draw a line across the sand” – The U.S.-Mexico border is mostly an arbitrary line across the desert.

“‘Cause there’s room for one and all” – Pro-immigration supporters argue that there is plenty of room in the U.S. for more people to come.

“And this land is our land” – Probably a play on the title of Woody Guthrie’s famous 1944 song “This Land Is Your Land”. “Our” land would suggest something even more inclusive than “your” land and “my” land.

“And all the black and white turns into colors” – Black and white were the dominant ethnic groups by population in the U.S. for several centuries. Now, with immigration, the U.S. is more diverse than ever before, with people from all over the world living in America.

“When there’s no you and there’s no others” – Again, a nod to inclusion and diversity.

“And all the rules grow wings and fly away” – Strict immigration law separates people. This is a poetic way of saying that it would be better if those rules would just go away.

As always, Shadows and Symbols does not normally take political positions. I’m just putting this out there for you to consider the lyrics of this song, and perhaps other songs, to see if there are deeper meanings there.

Faded Glory

Posted in: Current Events,history,Popular Culture by bill-o on September 26, 2010

The musician and entertainer Liberace (1919-1987), a.k.a “Mr. Showmanship”, was the highest paid entertainer in the United States from 1950 to 1980. Known for his lavish, over-the-top costumes, candelabras on his piano, and bubbly personality, the Milwaukee-native, Polish-American rose to stardom both through musical talent and by personality.

Known in his later years primarily for his Las Vegas acts, Liberace opened the museum that bears his name in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1979, as the place where his costumes, pianos, candelabras, jewelry, and even his cars could be displayed for the public to see. The museum was one of Las Vegas’s most popular tourist attraction through the 1990s, as it served as the place where Liberace’s fans could come to celebrate his memory after his death in 1987.

After the year 2000, the Liberace Museum began to decrease in popularity as his older fans began to die and younger adults did not know about him any longer. (Even the young children who might have remembered seeing Liberace on the “Muppet Show” television program are now in their 40s, by the way.) Finally, a few days ago, the museum announced that it was being forced to close its doors to the public on October 17, 2010, because of bad investments by its underlying foundation and because of poor attendance. The man who was once a superstar in the United States is now largely forgotten.

Faded glory.

You can read more about the closing of the Liberace Museum at:

Crop Mobs

Posted in: Popular Culture by bill-o on May 23, 2010

The newspaper USA Today had a good article recently about the new phenomena called “crop mobs”: “Crop Mobs Sprout up on Farms”. Wikipedia also has a short article about crop mobs.

Evidently, crop mobs are a rural version of flash mobs. With crop mobs, people from suburban or urban regions network together, usually via social networking via the Internet, to congregate at a rural farm. They then spend the day working together as a team to help the farmer do things that he would not be able to do by himself. The farms are often organic; therefore, they are more labor intensive since they can’t use pesticides. The farmer therefore gets labor that he couldn’t otherwise afford, and the crop mob gets the chance to experience rural farm work and community.

Perhaps this renewal of love for the agrarian life is a symbol of the times in the Western world. Shadows and Symbols recently made an attempt to see one of the most famous agrarian authors, Wendell Berry, speak in person, but the venue was packed full so was unable to attend. Perhaps this too is is a harbinger of a return to an appreciation for farms and the rural lifestyle.

Thoughts about “The Young Victoria”

Posted in: history,Popular Culture by bill-o on January 23, 2010

In the recent film The Young Victoria, HM Queen Victoria, presented in the movie at the beginning of her reign, and her husband, HRH Prince Albert, are surprised to discover that the royal household that the queen has just inherited is well-, let’s just say, not functioning in a way that would be fit for a monarch.

Cold. The scheduling and maintenance of fires in the palace fireplaces was completely out-of-order, leaving the queen, prince, and their servants sitting in the cold. This cold palace is a symbol of the coldness in our own hearts. The palace looked great on the outside and thus seemed to be a place where everyone would have preferred to live. Yet even the royal family struggled to stay warm through the winter. Will the love of our hearts grow cold, so that we look good on the outside but are frozen on the inside?

Windows. Window cleaning is sporadic in the palace. The outside and inside of the windows are never cleaned at the same time. The dirty windows make it hard for the royal couple to see outside their own house. This is a picture of a lack of clarity in the way that we see things looking out from ourselves to the world around us. These dirty windows represent “faulty filters” in our approach to how we view the other people in our lives. We have to adjust or clean these filters, the way that we see things, before we can truly relate to others in love.

Lunch. Prince Albert is shocked to find a servant preparing for a formal lunch for HM King George III and his officers, even though King George, Victoria’s grandfather, had died over twenty years before. There comes a point for each of us where old things must be “pruned” and pass away. They are no longer useful and need to be trimmed from our lives.

The Symbolism of Avatar

Posted in: Popular Culture,Reviews by bill-o on December 24, 2009

The 2009 motion picture Avatar is the clear box office winner in the United States and elsewhere this past week. Set on the mysterious moon Pandora in the year 2154, the film chronicles the story of marine Jake Sully and his interactions with the native inhabitants of Pandora, the Na’vi, through his avatar body.

The film is getting the most attention for its fantastic special effects. Yet the symbolism behind the story is also worth paying some attention to.

Avatar borrows from the symbols and ideas of many spiritual traditions. The name Pandora, for example, comes right from an ancient Greek goddess. I’ll focus here on a few of the symbols that I found notable.

Harsh Disorientation. When Jake arrives on Pandora in his wheelchair, he is told more than once, and somewhat harshly, to watch where he is going. Colonial Pandora is place where the weak and broken must make way for the large and robotic. Other marines unkindly refer to him as “meals on wheels”, insulting him for his disability. (This is also an insult to the elderly: Many poor, elderly people in the United States depend upon the meals on wheels program to provide them with food.) They see Jake only as a liability and not as a asset.

Home Tree. The Home Tree is the home for an entire clan of the Na’vi. Symbolic of the Tree of Life from, the Garden of Eden which in turn may have represented the unity of all humankind in connection to God. This tree represents Edenic humankind: The way that the world should have been before things went terribly wrong. Yet the knowledge of good and evil lies beneath the Home Tree, the valuable ore Unobtanium. The symbolism of Unobtainium is obvious (“unobtainable”). Yet the promise of the serpent of the garden, that Adam and Eve would become fully like God was also ultimately unobtainable. The Home Tree represents earth and the temporal, whereas …

Tree of Souls. … the Tree of Souls represents the eternal. Once their earthly home was destroyed, the Na’vi can only retreat to the only place that they know where to go: to the Tree of Souls. This sacred place, where outsiders are prohibited, allows the Na’vi to reach out and touch their mother goddess and their ancestors souls via iridescent strands, which may symbolically be prayers (the natural touching the divine). The Tree of Souls is the place of finality.

Diplomatic Solution? The corporate leadership on Pandora has charged Dr. Grace Augustine with finding a “diplomatic solution” re: the conflict between the colonists and the Na’vi. Grace is a spiritual word and that spiritual emphasis is given more weight with the name Augustine, the great Christian theologian of grace. The word grace means a gift and, even more specifically, a gift that enables someone to do something. At first, it seems as though that gift is Dr. Augustine’s avatars, which might enable a peaceful, diplomatic solution to be found. But a diplomatic solution is not seen in the film as something good or as something that is merely better than war. Rather, it is viewed as an evil in itself: An unwanted displacement of a native people from their home. It is, to put it somewhat theologically, a cheap form of grace. It is not the real thing (the real enabling gift, “grace,” of the colonists to the Na’vi), but it only poses as the real thing. And notice how Grace cannot make the transition into her avatar body: She symbolizes a grace that is not able to bring about salvation. Victory and salvation are the ultimate grace, enabling gift, for the Na’vi.

Humankind Expelled from the Garden … Again. Like the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden (the eviction of humanity from the Garden of Eden), most of the humans are expelled from Pandora (a new Eden) at the end of the movie. The immediate cause of this expulsion was the loss of the battle to the Na’vi. Yet the deeper cause was the people’s failure to learn the ways of Na’vi on Pandora. This was because the colonists were more concerned with their provision and protection than with having genuine openness to others. This ending scene in Avatar symbolically confirms why Adam and Eve had to be expelled from the garden: They were spiritually out-of-touch with their Eden.

Adam and Adam. Jake Sully is only able to access an avatar because his identical twin brother had died a violent death. The first man (“Adam” in Hebrew) was shot just a few days before embarking on his mission to Pandora, his brother Jake, another man (in this case, the last Adam), who is of the same image and likeness of his deceased brother, inherited the job. (Notice how another character in the beginning of the movie says that the avatar body looks like Jake, yet Jake says that it looks like his brother. Also, remember how someone points out to Jake that he and his brother have the same genome, the same biological likeness.) The second man becomes the replacement savior and lord for Pandora after the first cannot complete that mission.

Fully Incarnated. The story of Avatar is, in reality, the story of a man, Jake Sully in this case, becoming fully mature. Jake (“Jacob”) Sully’s name may mean sullied trickster. Unlike the corporation’s leader, Parker Selfridge (“the selfish”), who is greedy and never matures, Jake changes from an immature young man (someone with a pure heart but acts like a small child; someone who is just a “poser” for his dead brother) into a mature man and then into a leader. He goes through ritual stages of rites of passage. Jake gets to the point in the middle of the movie where he cannot tell what’s the dream and what’s reality (his human life or his Na’vi avatar life). This is a hint to the movie goers that Jake is undergoing a fundamental change. The story ends with Jake becoming “fully incarnated” into his avatar body, leaving his human body behind forever at the Tree of Souls. He is then no longer an avatar but completely “one of the people”. Notice that this incarnational transformation occurs on Jake’s birthday, thus symbolizing a new birth.

Neil Howe, co-author of the books The Fourth Turning and Generations, recently sat down for an interview to talk about the fourth turning. You can hear this interview here:

District 9

Posted in: Popular Culture by bill-o on September 04, 2009

Since I was just writing about the movie “The Time Traveler’s Wife”, … here is an interesting take on the movie “District 9”:

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Time flows in one direction from past to present to future. Is eternity, on the other hand, essentially non-linear? Or is eternity simply time itself as we know it: linear, but with an infinite past and an infinite future?

Growing up in a Protestant, evangelical tradition, it was implied to me (though,  to be fair, never stated) that eternity is linear. With this view, eternity is simply the straight-line projection of time from infinity past to infinity future.

Yet, does not the Bible say that God created all things? Would this not include time? And if time is present from infinity to infinity, could it not be said that time contains God rather than God contains time? And if time contains God, can God really be said to be God?

As time has progressed, I’ve been introduced to other views about eternity. Views that are implied by biblical books such as Ecclesiastes. With non-linear views of “eternal time”, normal rules about cause and effect don’t necessarily apply. Time can ebb and flow and even loop back on itself again. With this, God could simultaneously touch two different circumstances on earth 1,000 years apart at the same time for him. Such a non-linear view of eternity might radically reshape views of predestination and prophecy. For example, the biblical picture of the Lamb of God being slain before the foundation of the world yet also being crucified on the cross at Calvary here on the earth about 2,000 years ago would only make sense with a non-linear view of eternal time, if that event was one and the same.

A recent movie that explores the possibilities of non-linear time is “The Time Traveler’s Wife”. In this film, a man is born with a genetic defect that makes him involuntarily travel through time. (Viewers of the film will have some issues with determining how old the time-traveler is at any given point in the film, by the way.) When he time-travels, usually to the past though sometimes to the future, he arrives naked without clothing (as per the Terminator movies and television series). So when he arrives, he has to resort to stealing clothes and then waiting for the next moment when he will travel through time again.

I see this as symbolizing the fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. This time-traveler, like all of humanity, is forced again and again back to this terrible point in time: To the point where our progenitors recognized their own nakedness. Adam and Eve then felt compelled to make clothes for themselves (fig leaves). At that point, we feel compelled to resort to stealing and hurting others to provide for ourselves, rather than simply trusting in our heavenly Father for his constant provision, which was his original plan for all of us.

It is the daughter of Henry the time-traveler, Alba (which is a very rare name in the English-speaking world that means “sunrise” or “white”), who learns to control her time-traveling abilities by singing. After trying to sing, too, Henry gives up by saying tersely, “I can’t sing”. Yet, we know from the very beginning of the movie that he can sing, as he had sung with his mother, an excellent singer, when he was a young boy right before she died. Yet, like many of us, Henry (a common name that means “home ruler”) had lost the simplicity and innocence of childhood when he became an adult. After all, everything that can be spoken can also be sung. Yet to sing something requires reaching deeper into ourselves to something more emotional and primal. Singing speaks of love, joy, faith, and hope. And Henry’s and his mother’s deaths both come on Christmas Days, the day of the choir of angels in Bethlehem. So, the coming of Alba, who seems to be the only completely content character in the film, represents a new beginning for humanity (a new sunrise) where people can control their own destinies rather than be controlled by them.

Hidden Treasure

Posted in: Popular Culture by bill-o on April 18, 2009

By now, many of you have already heard of Susan Boyle. She’s the amateur singer whose appearance on the third season of the television show Britain’s Got Talent has received critical acclaim throughout, not just Britain, but the whole world.

Boyle, 47 years old and unemployed at the time of her television tryout, lives in a village in Scotland. She had put her own singing aspirations on hold to take care of her ailing mother, who died in 2007.

When Boyle first stepped onto the stage of Britain’s Got Talent, both the audience appeared to be skeptical, because of her seemingly unattractive appearance and her age. Yet once she began to sing, many in the audience sensed that they had just heard the voice of an angel.

We can be reminded of many things from Ms. Boyle’s experience and the worldwide reaction to her.

1.  Appearances Are Deceiving.  Ms. Boyle’s simple and plain appearance hid the tremendous and beautiful talent that she has inside of her. Ms. Boyle, who also has learning disabilities, even refuses to consent to a makeover. The Western world has just spent a generation focusing on looking at appearances instead of paying attention to the importance of the substance that lies beneath the surface. That now needs to change and is beginning to do so.

2.  Age.  Typically, if someone doesn’t “make it” in the music industry by about age 30, then they usually won’t ever be very popular nor succeed in the music business. Ms. Boyle is 17 years beyond age 30, yet she was catapulted to worldwide success in one audition. Perhaps this is an indication of a growing respect for and appreciation of middle-aged and senior people and their talents, let alone the wisdom and experiences that they have to share.

3.  “I Dreamed A Dream”.  Ms. Boyle’s audition song was “I Dreamed A Dream” from the musical Les Miserables. As Wikipedia says, “[t]he lyrics [of the song] are about lost innocence and broken dreams”. In the musical, it is sung by Fantine, who was forced into a life of prostitution in the midst of the harsh social conditions of early 19th-century France. The song is Fantine’s lament over the unfair treatment that she has received in her life. How many of us have passed by those in the world around us who are poor or disadvataged? How many times did we easily dismiss the fact that they too, just like us, have dreams and hopes for themselves and for their families? That they too have hidden treasures and talents inside of them?

4.  Silencing Skepticism.  Let’s face it: we in the Western world live in a skeptical age. Yes, skepticism may have come first to Britain, but Americans, for example, aren’t exempt from a growing climate of suspicion and doubt about other people. Ms. Boyle’s first steps onto the stage drew clear laughs of skepticism. Yet once her “hidden treasure” was revealed, all doubts were overcome. Likewise, discovering true spiritual treasures silences the skepticism in our own hearts and replaces it with faith and joy.

Please also read James Martin’s article about Susan Boyle:

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A few days ago, Michael Spencer, a.k.a. “The Internet Monk“, wrote a thought-provoking opinion article about Evangelicalism for the Christian Science Monitor newspaper entitled “The Coming Evangelical Collapse”:

Mr. Spencer, a long-time blogger and commentator about issues related to the Evangelical Church, is also the blogger behind the Jesus Shaped Spirituality site.

The article is divided into four parts: an introduction, an explanation about why, in the author’s view, Evangelicalism is going to collapse, a summary of what will be left in the wake of the Evangelical Church, and, finally, a discussion of whether this upcoming collapse will be good or bad.

The introduction explains the thesis of this commentary article. Evangelicalism will not die but will shrink to half of its current size in two generations. More aggressively secular societies will lead to more hostile public policies towards Evangelical Christianity. In the face of public pressure, many evangelical churches and para-church ministries will either fade away or grow increasingly secular themselves.

The collapse of Evangelicalism will occur because of financial difficulties, too close of an alignment with conservative politics, ignorance about history and theology, and consumerism, among other things. In Mr. Spencer’s view, megachurches will never completely vanish, but they will become increasingly weakened as they emphasize “relevance” over doctrine.

Many evangelicals will go to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Others will go into the growing house church movement. Mr. Spencer also predicts that “emerging” churches will fade away by blending back into Mainline Protestantism. He also sees the rise of Pentacostal/Charismatic churches becoming the dominant part of what remains of the Evangelical Church.

Perhaps in a tip of the hat to Shane Claiborne and other new monastics, Mr. Spencer observes that the church will need to return to being countercultural and “empire subvers[ive]” instead of relying on a sense of entitlement and privilege.

I found Mr. Spencer’s critiques of the “pragmatism and shallowness” of evangelicalism to be his strongest. The failure of Evangelicalism to build across the generations through personal discipleship is perhaps its greatest weakness.

Mr. Spencer provides more detailed information about the coming Evangelical collapse at:

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