Your holy hearsay is not evidence.
Give me the good news in the present tense.
What happened nineteen hundred years ago
May not have happened.
How am I to know?
So shut your Bibles up and show me how
The Christ you talk about
Is living now.
The reason the text is all funny is I can’t edit out the way wikiquote has edited it. Even as it is however, both Christian believers and non-believers will recognise that it is challenging to any orthodoxy, and perhaps offensive to all kinds of fundamentalism. Its author is Sydney Carter, who also wrote “Lord of the Dance” and “One More Step” which generations of children learned in primary school. Carter wrote magnificently for them, but was not mainly a writer of songs for children. He was a typically English Christian socialist radical, in the tradition of George Ball, George Fox and William Blake with skills learned in the folk music revolution of the 60’ and 70’ from Seeger, Carthy and others.
Here is his tribute to the Quaker founder, George Fox:
- There’s a light that is shining in the heart of a man,
it’s the light that was shining when the world began.
There’s a light that is shining in the Turk and the Jew
and a light that is shining, friend, in me and in you.
- “With a book and a steeple, with a bell and a key
they would bind it forever, but they can’t,” said he.
“Oh, the book it will perish and the steeple will fall,
but the light will be shining at the end of it all.”
- “If we give you a pistol, will you fight for the Lord?”
“But you can’t kill the Devil with a gun or a sword!”
“Will you swear on the Bible?” “I will not!” said he,
“For the truth is more holy than the book, to me.”
- There’s an ocean of darkness and I drown in the night
till I come through the darkness to the ocean of light,
for the light is forever and the light it is free,
“And I walk in the glory of the light,” said he.
Like Fox, Carter refused to be bound by Scripture and Creed although declaring himself an unorthodox Christian who found that Jesus was the one who matched the light in his soul and in his experience of the world. Light for him was light for life, truth was truth for living, anything unrelated to the human struggle to live was mere holy hearsay to him. This recognition that faith begins with the human beings who invent the Gods and that its usefulness needs to be tested in ordinary living, seems to me fundamental to any honest theology, requiring both modesty and humour in its expression.
His commitment to social justice was equally practical. He imagined the snug believers hearing the holy family tapping on the window on Christmas day looking for shelter:
“No we haven’t got a manger/ no we haven’t got a stable
We are Christian men and women/ always willing, never able”
He was especially convinced of the presence of Christ is the needy neighbour, the starving, the homeless, the sick:
“when I needed a neighbour, were you there, were you there
And the creed and the colour and the name won’t matter, were you there?”
Above all, perhaps, he believed in what he called the “the dance”, the creative pattern at the heart of reality. At a time when physicists have reached for musical metaphors to express their view of the quantum universe, Carter’s “dance” is close to science as well as theology. Of course, as he admitted, although his famous song is about Jesus, he had a statue of Shiva, Lord of he Dance, in his house.
“I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance. But Jesus is the one I know of first and best. I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus.”
As a lover of Scripture, I ought to be opposed to Carter’s carelessness about the Bible, and as a minister of an orthodox church, opposed to his dismissal of creeds. In fact, over many years, his songs have helped me understand both. I intend to write more specifically about his work in subsequent blogs.