David Lose: Secular Parables: Solsbury Hill


Karl Barth on occasion referred to "secular parables," cultural artifacts produced by non-Christians (or Christians not attempting to point directly to their faith) that nevertheless bore witness to the truth of the God we know best through Jesus.

I love that phrase. Which is a little odd, as I'm not normally a huge fan of the sacred-secular distinction. Often that distinction is used in a way that feels to me very limiting and, moreover, I've often wondered just what is not sacred to the God who comes in Jesus to redeem in love.

Be that as it may, I still love that phrase. Perhaps it's because Barth, one of the most influential theologians of the last century, was wise to pair "parable" with "secular." Parables by nature are difficult to pin down. They defy easy interpretation or application. And so parable reflects back on secular, as I read his term, and undermines that distinction even as he borrows it.

In this sense, we might call a secular parable an unlooked for, or even surprising, truth. Or maybe it's truth from an unexpected source. Readers of the Bible should be ready for this. If God can speak through a donkey (Numbers 22), after all, why not through an artist or poet or musician or comedian or...?

So from time to time I'm going to share here some of my favorite "secular parables," songs or poems or pieces of art or bits of comedy that have revealed something of the truth of our life together and of the God we confess created and loves us. I've done a bit of that already, usingLouis C. K.'s comedy routine about the law against murder, for instance, as helpfully illustrative of the conviction that God gives the law first and foremost as a gift.

Today, I want to lift up a song that's been meaningful to me for years. It's Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill." The song, released in 1977 as Gabriel's first effort as a solo performer, describes a spiritual experience he had on a hill in Somerset, England. Gabriel first came to fame as the lead singer of the progressive band Genesis. Over time, however, he increasingly felt uncomfortable with the role into which he'd been thrust. Though Genesis was a five-player band, he was regularly put before the public as the front man and given, he thought, a disproportionate among of credit for the band's music and success. Moreover, he began to worry that the band was leaving its progressive roots in order to gain popularity. And so Gabriel quit the band, a decision that many couldn't quite fathom, as he had not proven himself as an independent performer and this was a huge career risk.

And that's where Solsbury Hill comes in. It chronicles his disillusionment, decision to leave, and the eventual artistic freedom that decision led to. What I like about it is that it tracks a three-part movement that I've felt at times in my own spiritual journey. The first is invitation. Amid struggle or discouragement, there comes a word, a possibility, an unlooked for opportunity to do something different. The second is trepidation. Venturing forth into the unknown, while it may seem like the right thing to do, is also fairly scary because it's, well, unknown. Although you may not be satisfied with your present reality, at least you know it. The third move is freedom. (I suppose if I wanted to be consistent I'd call it emancipation.) Once you make the break, however, once you are true to yourself and your calling, everything changes.

You can see this journey at several places throughout the stanzas, but where I feel it most powerfully is in the invitation from the eagle to Gabriel. In the first stanza, the invitation comes through clearly, "Son," he said "Grab your things, I've come to take you home." In the second stanza, as Gabriel begins to realize the cost this decision will incur, the invitation is repeated and intensified in order that he may hear and appropriate it even amid his fear: "Hey" he said "Grab your things I've come to take you home." Then in the third stanza something rather amazing happens, as Gabriel, having surrendered to his call, takes a different view of not just his decision but his whole life. And so now he is the one speaking, singing, "Hey" I said "You can keep my things, they've come to take me home."

I love that. Which probably explains why I've listened to it quite a bit over the last year and, especially, the last couple of months.

I'll put below the video produced by Gabriel the lyrics so you can read along if you want to.



Solsbury Hill

Climbing up on Solsbury Hill

I could see the city light

Wind was blowing, time stood still

Eagle flew out of the night

He was something to observe

Came in close, I heard a voice

Standing stretching every nerve

Had to listen had no choice

I did not believe the information

(I) just had to trust imagination

My heart going boom boom boom

"Son," he said "Grab your things,

I've come to take you home."

To keep in silence I resigned

My friends would think I was a nut

Turning water into wine

Open doors would soon be shut

So I went from day to day

Tho' my life was in a rut

"Till I thought of what I'd say

Which connection I should cut

I was feeling part of the scenery

I walked right out of the machinery

My heart going boom boom boom

"Hey" he said "Grab your things

I've come to take you home."

(Back home.)

When illusion spin her net

I'm never where I want to be

And liberty she pirouette

When I think that I am free

Watched by empty silhouettes

Who close their eyes but still can see

No one taught them etiquette

I will show another me

Today I don't need a replacement

I'll tell them what the smile on my face meant

My heart going boom boom boom

"Hey" I said "You can keep my things,

they've come to take me home."

From David's blog, "...In the Meantime"