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On 13 May 2004, I attended a concert at Madison Square Garden by the English progressive rock group Yes, who were celebrating their 35th anniversary. That show included the longest standing ovation I have ever witnessed, following their performance of the song “And You and I.” That ovation, tens of thousands strong, was at least five minutes, and by some accounts, seven or eight minutes. It was probably the most intense and unequivocal act of gratitude for rock (and, I would immediately add in the case of Yes, for rock’s spiritual power) that I have ever experienced. The lead singer, Jon Anderson, simply could not continue the show, he could not talk over the clapping, stomping, yelling, a sweetness all the more delicate because it was an exuberance that seemed to lack menacing or violent undertones, in contrast to a good portion of contemporary rock (even and also as spiritual art). The band simply stopped the whole show and conferred with each other before resuming several minutes later. I thought for a long time afterward about what it meant for so many thousands to say thank you, in that way, in that place, for 35 years of rock and roll.

The following afternoon, I was at Penn Station getting on the train back to Boston, where I was living while teaching at Boston College. To my great surprise, several members of Yes got into the same car of the train. As my friends from that time know, this trip became the occasion for several memorable stories. One of them is the following:

Halfway to Boston, I got the nerve to walk several rows back and try to talk to Jon Anderson. I asked for his autograph and spoke briefly of my appreciation of the previous night’s show. He invited me to sit down next to him, showed me some video clips for his forthcoming solo work, and asked what I did for a living, whereupon he proceeded to talk eagerly about his own theology. Anderson’s philosophical-theological musings in Yes lyrics are the stuff of legend — literally, for many — and polarizingly, for most. They have tended toward the ethereal and strike many as immersed in the “New Age.”

(A few years ago, Randall Holm wrote an article about Anderson’s theology that found Anderson’s lyrics bearing “undeniable spiritual import” from a theological point of view for their generous pan(en?)theism, but problematic for their lack of awareness of sin. (“Pulling Back the Darkness: Starbound with Jon Anderson,” in Call Me the Seeker: Listening to Religion in Popular Music, edited by Michael Gilmour (Continuum, 2005).) I thought that judgment about sin a little too quick on the theological draw, but was happy for the theological engagement with Anderson nonetheless.)

So I was sitting next to Anderson, and he was asking me if I knew about the Harmonic Convergence, and telling me that all major religious figures were “true” in a “mystical” way: as I recall, he told me — and may have framed it this way due to my being a Christian theologian — “It’s all true! Buddha is Christ, Krishna is Christ, Moses is Christ, Muhammad is Christ.” I sat there not sure what to say, but nodding, wondering what he knew that I didn’t. I’m not ashamed to say that there was a welling up in me that wanted to respond to him, was responding to him, with an “Of course!” There was also the self-aware theological me, especially what was probably something like the Catholic theologian in me, that was wanting to question and say, “Wait, how can you say such a thing?” In the end, I went with where my I thought “pastoral” instincts, and human gut, took me, which was to simply to say yes and thank you, and mean it, in the trust that I would have time later to process the interaction.

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Five years later, I’m still wondering and processing. It is true that I consider this man, and his bandmates, modern musical geniuses, with particular and rare gifts of awareness in the invention/conduction of beautiful sounds.

Did I want to accord him theological authority due to his musical authority? How do I find the right vantage to appreciate what was true about what he was saying to me? In these ponderings, I come back to one of the basic questions of my own theological research: Where do our theological claims really come from?

I do not think the answer will come from a theological project that sets out to adjudicate criteria by which Anderson can be proved right or wrong, but rather will be able to show what is of permanent spiritual significance in finding him, his music, and the history that led to that statement, compelling.

The next day, the band played the final show of the tour, later released as the Songs from Tsongas DVD. I later tried to get Anderson’s permission to do a formal theological interview, but was unable to do so. If his associates are reading this, I’m still curious, in fact more curious than ever, and wanting to find out how “it’s all true.”

I do know that probably for both of us, the answer comes in part through rock music. And through the unrelieved urgency of theological seeking.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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2 Comments »

  1. I once heard someone explain the incoherent ramblings of athletes in interviews by stating that their gift is not articulation of the voice, but articulation of the body. That is, athletes can express things with the movements of their bodies that no gifted rhetorician could mimic. Likewise, I wonder if this may not be applicable to the musician as well. Of course we immediately recognize the failings of so many pop stars who have been roped into an industry from childhood and never developed basic skills of critical thinking (I remember grimacing upon watching Britney Spears explain to Oprah that her use of a python during a performance of “I’m a Slave 4 U” was because they were going after “the cool African slave thing.”).

    But here, Tom, you’ve raised the question of what we are to do with legitimately talented musicians whose compositions and performances have gained our respect and admiration, but with whose opinions we disagree.

    I tend to think that a sort of postmodern, reader-response theory might help here: that the meaning of a “text” (music, art, etc.) is not simply the author’s intent, but rather something that emerges from an engagement with the reader/audience. Anderson may create his music with religious relativism in mind, but that doesn’t imply his music is relativist. Nor does it indicate that appreciation of Anderson’s music involves a consent to his religious or philosophical beliefs. Rather, his music occasions an opportunity to engage the “text” that he has offered, so that a dialogue between artist and audience may ensue. Of course, such opportunities are all too real when one has the opportunity to discuss such things on a train from New York to Boston. But this is same the opportunity that music critics have when they compose album or concert reviews. And, might I add, perhaps it is one that the blogger or commenter here at R&T can enjoy as well!

    Comment by Andy Edwards — June 4, 2009 @ 10:46 am

  2. I agree with your point, Andy. The music itself has its own voice, its own life, and moves in a dance of communication between artist and instrument, artist and listener, music and listener, etc., regardless of the philosophical beliefs of the artist with whom we may or may not agree.

    Picasso once wrote that “If you bring a mirror near to a real picture, it ought to become covered with steam, with living breath, because it is alive…” (A Palm Tree Can Become a Horse).

    The artist informs the work, creates the work, but the work has a life of its own. What takes place between the viewer/listener before the work of art and the art is endlessly interesting – and that space of communication is its own text.

    American philosopher John Dewey remarked (Art as Experience) that two stages are present for the viewer/listener in an encounter with art, in the “rhythm of surrender and reflection. We interrupt our yielding to the object to ask where it is leading and how it is leading there.” Dewey was vigorous in his rejection of religion, yet could write: “…the direct and unreasoned impression comes first. There is about such occasions something of the quality of the wind that bloweth where it listeth. Sometimes it comes and sometimes it does not, even in the presence of the same object. It cannot be forced, and, when it does not arrive, it is not wise to seek to recover by direct action the first fine rapture. The beginning of esthetic understanding is the retention of these personal experiences and their cultivation. For, in the end, nourishing of them will pass into discrimination.”

    The music, the spirit, blows where it will. Around the corners, through the doors, up the staircase. Music and art seem to fill the spaces of religion for many people.

    As I’ve shared with Tom, I know many, many gifted and wondrously spiritual, intelligent musicians who feel exactly like Anderson. This may be due in part to the reality and integrity of their artistic experience – of knowing that the music blows where it will as well as their participation in the freedom inherent to music’s power and animation – which has not found resonance in their previous exposures to religion and theology. Without that necessary resonance, there is no foothold for further theological engagement, reflection, or discrimination (Dewey’s second stage). Just holding on to the “ways of knowing” (Belenky) that are part and parcel of the experience of music – and making sense of the religious, spiritual and theological through that lens.

    Comment by Lisa — June 6, 2009 @ 11:31 pm

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