As part of my research into the role of the imagination for transformative Bible engagement among teenagers I’m joining with some others in trying out innovative approaches to reading and engaging with the Bible. Check it out at http://www.thealchemyproject.net/ The first experiment was to come up with an 8-track playlist as a soundtrack for a particular Bible passage (http://www.thealchemyproject.net/experiment/8-track-bible/).
Here’s my playlist for Joshua 7. I should probably point out that this is not one of my ‘favourite passages’—it’s about the failed attempt to conquer Ai and the execution of Achan and his family for keeping back some of the plunder. It’s a passage I remember reading as a teenager, and is one that I am increasingly troubled by as I get older. As I think about Bible Engagement this is one of the ‘problem passages’ that I use as a sort of test-case. My assumption is that engaging with Psalm 23 and the parable of the sower are relatively straightforward, but an approach that is effective ought to be able to help us with those passages that are still part of Scripture but much harder to deal with.
Those who can count will realise that my 8-track playlist only has 6 tracks. The simple reason is I haven’t been able to finish my homework in time. A more profound answer is, I’m still thinking about it; thinking about the passage, about different parts of the story that are intriguing, and how they might be connected with the music I hear each day.
7:3-4, the Israelites’ confident triumphalism as they approach the conquest of Ai: We are the Champions, Queen – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=04854XqcfCY
This reflects the brash hubris that the Israelites seem to bring to the conquest of Ai. Flush from the successful destruction of Jericho, they don’t bother to send the whole army for this next task (v3-4). Queen’s classic song seems to capture the triumphalism that boasts in our own successes.
7:6-9, Joshua’s plea before God: Hawkmoon 269, U2 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNcIuks5HjI
More than just a chance to include one of my favourite U2 songs in this list. Despite the repeated line ‘I need your love’ Hawkmoon 269 is not your usual love song. There’s a driving intensity to this track that makes ‘I need your love’ sound to me like a self-obsessed demand rather than a grand romantic gesture! I NEED YOU TO LOVE ME, with no particular concern for how I might be able to serve you by loving you. This connects with what I hear in Joshua’s response to the defeat at Ai: God, WE NEED YOU TO GO WITH US! But I think this reveals a self-focus that stops Joshua (and Israel) from asking the self-reflective question, what might we have done to bring this outcome on ourselves (which God himself will point out to Joshua in v10-11). I wonder how often my prayers for God’s presence sound like a self-focussed demand?
7:10-15, God’s anger at Israel for Israel’s sin: Dies Irae, Mozart’s Requiem – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARO7ZjsXSkE
Mozart matches words about God’s wrath and the coming day of judgement with music that is full of wrathful intensity. The music is almost as terrifying as the idea of God’s judgement. This track doesn’t help me process existentially the horror of divine judgement. It doesn’t help me process theologically the tension between God’s gracious mercy and his judgement. But it does help me to hear what is plainly there in the passage. We’ll have no hope of being able to respond appropriately to the full vision of God offered us in Scripture if we don’t at least give ourselves to sit with the picture, however disturbing it may be.
7:19, Joshua calls Achan to speak honestly about what he has done: Brave, Sara Bareilles – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8DHs28nGN-g
So, this song isn’t from my own collection but came while driving my teenage daughter somewhere and we were listening to her music (honest truth). The chorus connects with Joshua’s instruction to Achan in v19 to speak truthfully about what he had done. This would be ‘giving glory to God.’ Even though Achan had not glorified God in his actions, he had the opportunity to glorify God by his honest confession. There’s a kind of ‘bravery’ that will come clean before God and other people and make that honest confession of our failures and brokenness. I chose the song because of its chorus, and listening to the rest of the lyrics its obvious that Sara Bareilles isn’t thinking about Joshua 7:19! For her the honesty of speaking your mind is about showing the world the wonderful person that you are. So the song points out the contrast between the biblical world and our own: who should be glorified? Us or God?
7:21, Achan’s motivation for keeping the treasure: Home Improvements, My Friend the Chocolate Cake – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c3odrxVLN-Q
I was thinking about what would have been motivating Achan to keep some of the plunder from Jericho for himself. Verse 21 says that he ‘coveted’ these treasures, emphasising how beautiful the cloak from Shinar was and the abundance of silver and gold. His motivations seem so similar to our own. I remember the first time I heard this track from Melbourne band My Friend the Chocolate Cake: the verse paints such an attractive picture of freedom from the rat-race only to be kicked away by the chorus, ‘we can’t stop working; we’ve gone out and we’ve bought stuff, and now we’ve got to pay it back!’ I wonder whether Achan felt stuck in a financial trap and saw this treasure as an easy way out.
7:25-26, Sadness at the death of Achan and his family: Adagio in G Minor, Giazotto – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zuh3WyfVL2M
This is the classic ‘feeling sad’ music. I remember it from the ending of Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli (incidentally, I had always thought this was composed by Albinoni but in finding a clip for the music I discover it’s actually composed by 20th century composer Giazotto based on a fragment of a base-line from Albinoni). I imagine that there would have been a deep sadness in Israel over the death of Achan and his family. I hope there would have been. I guess there were some who would have celebrated their execution with the same sort of inhuman glee we see in the news over various military victories today; but I reckon there must have been people who knew Achan. There must have been families whose children had played with Achan’s children. Children who couldn’t understand why their playmates weren’t around anymore and parents who had to try to explain death and grief to their young hearts for the first time. I realised though that this was just speculation. The text doesn’t tell us anything about the emotional response of Israel; that’s not its focus. Perhaps there was no sadness at all and everyone was quite glad that the person responsible for the defeat at Ai had been discovered and dealt with. Then I realised that there was one person I could be sure was sad that day, and that was God himself. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek 33:11) and Jesus weeps over the sin and coming judgement of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44). This was a revelation by way of reminder for me: I realised there’s no suggestion that we ought to read passages of God’s judgement in the Bible assuming that God goes about the task with a sparkle in his eye and spring in his step; on the contrary there’s every indication that God executes judgement with deep sadness.
My reflections on the process:
- This is a challenging exercise for people who don’t have a big music library. I realise that most teenagers will be far more connected with music as their ‘heart language’ than a 46-year-old-who-listens-to-talk-back-radio. But given that music is such an identity marker I wonder whether the requirement to put your music collection on show will tap into the anxieties around identity construction that so often plague young people. Perhaps not for all, but at least for some. It was certainly a factor in my initial reluctance to engage in the exercise… not to mention the lingering feeling that this selection is the online alternative to wearing an ‘I AM A BIG DAG’ badge.
- This isn’t an exercise I was able to complete at one sitting (I wonder how long it took others?). There was a real advantage to this because it meant I have been ruminating on Joshua 7 for a few weeks now, while I’m listening to other music as well as when I have quiet moments to think. It has made me go back to the text a number of times, looking for the other aspects of the story I haven’t put to music yet, and checking out whether the song choices I’ve made actually reflect what the passage is saying.
- An unexpected gift of the process was how the choice of a song led me back to reconsider the passage in a new light. Using the language of aesthetic educator Maxine Greene, engaging with music was able to ‘release my imagination’ that I was then able to profitably apply in a new way to the original text. There were a number of imaginative connections going on:
- from the text to a song-choice;
- from a song to a re-reading of the text;
- from a reflection on a text in relation to a song to another text in Scripture that sheds new light on the original text
- from a reflection on a song in relation to a text to the contrasting approaches to human life in the Bible and contemporary culture
The use of music helps prompt an imaginative engagement with the text, though the direction and extent of that engagement remains up for grabs. Whether the reflections are profound or superficial, and whether the engagement is fitting to the whole biblical revelation will depend on other scaffolding of the process than just selecting a playlist. My research is exploring if such a framework for guiding transformative engagement can be articulated, and if so, what it would look like. Very keen to keep trying out new approaches to Bible engagement and hearing from others on the same journey.