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Life in Greencastle - Prophets and Poets

This week in the Word Before Worship our conversation will turn towards an aspect of the prophets that is often ignored:  their role as artists.  Most of the Old Testament books of prophecy are full of vivid imagery, haunting poetry and songs that were meant to fill hearts and minds of the people of Israel.

Throughout history, it has often been the artists (song-writers and poets, novelists and playwrights) who have served the role of prophet.  This should not surprise us, for the prophets of the Old Testament used almost every type of dramatic performance to get God's message across.  The prophet Nathan told King David an elaborate, chilling story of betrayal and cruelty that got past David's own arrogance and caused him to see the error of his ways (1 Kings 12).  Jeremiah and Isaiah both employed a type of staged-performance.  Isaiah stripped himself of robe and sandals, walking naked around Jerusalem in order to portray the shame and humiliation Yahweh was going to visit upon Egypt and Ethiopa (Is. 20).  Jeremiah used everything from broken earthenware jugs to his dirty laundry to express Israel's coming troubles (Jer. 13 & 19).  And the revelation God gave the other prophets like Ezekiel and Daniel led to visions that artists have sought to re-imagine in their own way for centuries now.

This week we will consider the "prophet" as artist by discussing one of my favorite artists and a project he began over 25 years ago that led to one of the all-time great albums:  Paul Simon's Graceland.  

Most of us are familiar with this album because of songs like "Graceland," "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes," and - most of all - by Chevy Chase lip-syncing the song "You Can Call Me Al" back in the mid-80's.  It became a world-wide success and garnered multiple Emmy awards.  But, what was sometimes missed was just how controversial Paul Simon's project was.

It all began because someone gave Paul a tape of African jive music, a tape he found himself listening to over and over again.  By the early 80's he knew artistically what he wanted to do.  He wanted to travel to South Africa and both locate and work with local musicians to produce an entirely different sound.  There was only one problem.  Paul's desire to go to South Africa coincided with some of the worst days of South African Apartheid.  The nation was literally divided between white, European Afrikaners and the various tribes and indigenous people of the South African plains, hills and coastlands with the minority white Afrikaners enforcing harsher and harsher laws of segregation that held black South Africans in perpetual poverty.  If he went, he would be stepping into a hornet's nest.

Two other key developments should have deterred Paul Simon from actually going to South Africa.  The other African countries had banded together and called for a complete cultural boycott of South Africa, asking the rest of the world to "tune-out" South African sports, music, and theatre as a form of protest.  And, within the country, the Artist's Against Apartheid made it clear they did not want Paul Simon coming to stir up more trouble for them.  Paul Simon is a stubborn man, apparently, because boycotts be damned, in 1985 he got on a plane and flew to South Africa.

In an article from this past spring, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman describes what it was like for black South Africans to be invited by Paul Simon to collaborate with him and to later perform with Paul Simon in places throughout Europe and America.  Guitarists John Selolwane words are very moving:

“I remember when we were on tour and especially in Europe during the winter times. Every time Black Mambazo went on that stage and started singing, I would feel tears coming. I’m like, ‘Here I am. I’m an African boy. I’m in the middle of the snow and ... there are 50,000 people filled up in the stadium,’ and I would be crying. I’m like, ‘Damn, we are really seeing the world.’ ” (

For the artists, the Graceland album became a seminal moment in their lives, introducing them to places not only outside of South Africa but even places in their own country from which they had been banned their whole lives.  And, for the rest of the world, Graceland did something that the two-minute videos on the evening news could never capture.  It humanized black South Africans and allowed people all over the world to realize the great beauty in the songs and music of the African people.   

A recent documentary titled "Under African Skies" was recently released, rehashing the story of Paul Simon's original trip as well as capturing a reunion concert that occurred in South Africa a few years ago.  It's been over twenty-five years now since Paul Simon went to South African to first meet the musicians.  And like any true prophet, he still has his critics.  On top of that, South Africa itself has been through a lot in those twenty-five years.  It's seen the abolishment of the crushing apartheid laws, the liberation of Nelson Mandela and groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo become national heroes.  But, it has also experienced another sobering truth.  Change can come, but it often entails one step forward and a step back followed by another half-step forward. 

Check out the trailer to the documentary below, and on Sunday we will consider some of the following questions:

1.  What musicians and songs have played the biggest role in shaping you?  Have you ever experienced music opening up your mind to new issues?

2.  Woody Guthrie's name has been coming up a lot lately as a type of American artist whose music was both entertaining but also socially relevant.  Can you think of any other musicians today whose music addresses the socially important issues of our day?   

3.  What about other artists?  Can you think of any other form of art that helps you make sense of this world that we live in?  Or any artists who have pointed out injustices and inequalities in our own nation?

We may even listen to a few songs from Graceland.

Also this Sunday, we will celebrate World Communion Sunday.  Our denomination established this day back in 1935, which is pretty astounding when you consider the deep divisions of the world at that time and the rampant waves of anxiety overwhelming Europe in particular.  Standing against such waves of fear and scarcity, the Presbyterian Church USA called for a day when all Christians would gather around the Lord's Table and proclaim our common faith and belief in God's ability to overcome all differences by radical acts of grace and sovereignty.  It will be beautiful to once again come forward to the Lord's Table on Sunday, invited as we are as sinners saved by God's grace in Jesus Christ that can transcends differences political, social, and religious.  And, following our common time of worship, I hope you'll stay around for our luncheon where I will share more about my upcoming trip to South Africa.

Until then, may Jesus Christ grant you the peace he has won for us through the cross that abolishes all hostility and difference (Eph. 2:15-18).


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