Pinned by Parables: Rock Star Jesus Sings Stairway to Heaven
This article straddles the hazy border between fiction and non-fiction, and that’s a fact.
Don’t believe every word I say. I’ve been known to lie many times. I’ve conned people, gone to strip joints, and drunk way too much alcohol.
That could be anybody talking, right? But this is me, and I’m saying: I found something lodged between the warring hemispheres of my brain. A lost whisper haunting the silent grooves of my heart. I’m not sure just which organ — the heart or the brain — hosts the human soul but something sure-as-hell found something.
So let me tell you how I found Jesus and how that astonishing feat affected everything — my anarchist worldview, the world’s sizzling road to climate change, my joy ride with rock-and-roll, and NASA’s search for life elsewhere in the universe.
When Bob Dylan went through what could be a similar experience in the late 1970s, nothing in the world could stop him from singing about Jesus. Not his reputation among the leading thinkers of his generation, nor his critically acclaimed lyrics that often hit the sweet spot between poetic brilliance and mass appeal, especially in songs like Blowin’ In the Wind and Mr. Tambourine Man. From 1979 to 1981, the Nobel laureate released three albums — Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love — that unabashedly declared his conversion, won him a Grammy, and confounded just about everyone in his circle. This irreverent urban prophet who loves and sells whiskey has embraced Jesus.
The revolutionary anthem, Like a Rolling Stone — which Dylan wrote in 1965 — describes the experience of being lost but never found, and ranks among the most influential songs ever written. Incidentally, the song title gives a clue to why “Born Again Bob” didn’t have even the slightest chance to elude the grace of Jesus when he met the messiah the way he did.
A rock can’t help but roll
Around 33 C.E., a Jewish man named Yeshua entered the city of Jerusalem riding a donkey. Nope, it wasn’t a heroic equestrian scene at all like Napoleon Bonaparte mounted on a rampant white stallion nor Alexander the Great leading a cavalry charge astride his famous warhorse Bucephalus.
Yeshua — or Jesus — gently rode a young, unnamed beast of burden that was commandeered by his disciples from somewhere in the outskirts of the city.
It was springtime. Wild poppy anemones blazed in sharp hues of red, blue and purple. Sturdy date palms extended their arching fronds to shade patches of the road leading to the city. Just a few weeks before, cold winter winds from the Mediterranean gave way to milder gusts as the breathtaking terrain of the Holy Land prepared for an explosion of life and color. The air still carried a crisp chill but the breeze that stirred the Roman-controlled province of Judea that spring held the cyclical promise of freshness and imminent transformation.
It was the week leading to Passover, the holiest day among Jews and possibly the most enduring festival in the world which celebrates freedom. And, if the gospel writers really did their homework, that particular spring was also the exact moment in history when God chose to show humans what it truly means to love.
Moved by stories that hover around the famous Galilean in their midst, the Jews on their way to Jerusalem and those who lived in the city laid down their garments to form a carpet of multi-hued fabric upon which the promised messiah — mounted on a donkey as foretold by prophets hundreds of years before — would gently ride into Jerusalem. Some people, who felt the trail was not regal enough, cut branches of date palms and scattered the fronds along the path.
Nope, it wasn’t heroic but it was beautiful. The kind of beauty that you simply can’t keep locked up inside you: like willing yourself to remain still while the whole stadium roars as a decisive last-minute goal in the World Cup unfolds.
After all, wasn’t this the man who fed thousands of people on the mountainside with just a handful of fish and bread? Wasn’t he the miracle worker who turned water to wine, who healed lepers and raised the dead?
And wasn’t this the seer who gave you exactly what you needed — a vision if you were blind, or a voice if you couldn’t speak?
More importantly, wasn’t he the one who partied with sinners and outcasts, and saved a whore from getting stoned?
Surely, a man like that might just be able to topple an empire, maybe even change the world.
And so, caught by the sensory pull of spring, rekindled by shared memories of freedom, and compelled by stories they heard about Jesus, the great multitude who saw the long-awaited messiah right there with them in the flesh could not keep from bursting into a song:
Hosannah in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
The excitement — stoked by a sudden jolt of hope amid centuries of doubt and repressed aspirations — teetered close to igniting a riot, something neither the Roman colonists nor the Jewish establishment wanted to occur, especially during a soul-stirring festival like Passover.
Asked to rein in the feverish crowd who have just then presumably discovered soul music, Jesus simply said, “if they keep quiet, the very stones will cry out.”
A contemporary translation might be: If people who finally caught the Ultimate Tune just kept it to themselves, then the rhythm will rub on the rocks who’ll be more than happy to roll.
So much for the spurious theory that Rock and Roll started in the 20th century. Incidentally, quite a number of verses in the Scriptures refer to Jesus as the chief cornerstone and describe him as The Rock. In the New Testament, Jesus revealed this truth to one of his apostles, making the point stick by changing the apostle’s name from Simon to Peter (from the Greek root petros, a stone).
Bakunin, Barricades and Barabbas
A few days after that first Palm Sunday, people from the same crowd who belted out a chorus of earth-shattering royal welcome, just as resoundingly condemned Jesus to die on the cross.
Crowds scare me. They possess such a potent force that tries desperately to be dormant but remains always at risk of exploding at the merest touch, capable of ruining breakfasts, toppling mad dictators, and even altering the nature of reality itself. In my college days, I have been part of a belligerent crowd. Inspired by romanticized readings of Leo Tolstoy, the hippie culture, and the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, I joined left-leaning organizations that staged regular protests against just about anything the government did or didn’t do. The experience taught me at least two things: I learned how to outrun cops and realized later on that I might have been barking up the wrong tree. The president then was Corazon Aquino, arguably the closest thing to Mother Teresa that ever came out of the mind-boggling islands that make up the Philippine archipelago.
There’s a field in Mathematics called Chaos Theory that says the flapping of a butterfly’s wings on one side of the world can significantly affect the formation and path of a hurricane on the other. Placed into that scale of things, how much stupidity or nobility can a crowd of humans unleash?
In the spring of 33 C.E., Pontius Pilate — the Roman governor of Judea — tried to free Jesus by invoking the custom of releasing a prisoner during Passover. So he presented two presumably charismatic inmates before the crowd: Jesus, the preacher with a messianic complex; and Barabbas, the revolutionary who led deadly insurrections against the Roman colonists. Both undeniably were excellent rabble-rousers and strong proponents of change. But where one fought to bring about regime change, the other merely showed how people can have a true change of heart.
Faced with such a choice, the crowd opted to free Barabbas then demanded an excruciating death for Jesus.
The day God died
People disagree a lot, none better at it than priests and theologians. That, of course, eventually led to the rise of more than 4,000 active religions around the world, according to one estimate that may or may not include niche borderline movements such as The Church of Euthanasia (an organization that wants you to save the planet by killing yourself) and the Temple of the True Light (a church that deifies drug-induced psychedelic experiences).
In Christianity alone, there are hundreds of denominations emanating from six mainline streams: Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Independent, Marginals, Protestant, and Roman Catholic. You can see it as a rich soup or a recipe for disaster. You might even see it as utter madness, or just a living narrative that undergoes relentless iterations as people from all sorts of backgrounds contextualize their response to Jesus.
It’s likely all of the above and more. While differences along doctrinal, political and cultural lines have already caused war and needless misery in the Christian church, the story of Jesus and its intriguingly unique concept of grace remains a unifying narrative that cradles the divine spark for love.
Nearly all Christian denominations acknowledge Jesus’ death on the cross as the defining moment in history when God’s cosmic love melted as an inclusive, unconditional, and all-pervading grace that washes over all human imperfections, giving anyone who accepts it a ticket to a blissful place called Heaven.
This pivotal event punctuated Jesus’ earthly life but it also lent momentum to an obscure backwater movement, empowering Jesus’ early followers to share their messianic narrative and establish Christianity over much of the known world. Such has been their influence that even the way we chronicle the milestones of human achievement and the flow of natural history bears an imprint of the Jesus meme: Christ’s birth serves as the reference point for charting linear time backward (BC, Before Christ; or BCE, Before the Common Era ) and forward (AD, Latin for in the year of our Lord; or CE, the Common Era).
Ironically, even Christian scholars disagree on exactly which years Christ was born and was crucified. The majority seem to prefer 4 B.C.E. to 6 B.C.E. as probable dates for his birth (called incarnation in theological parlance), while two camps — those in favor of 30 C.E. and those espousing 33 C.E. — vie for accurately pinning the actual year Jesus died on the cross. Dating methods include extrapolating chronological clues from the Gospels (such as the Roman census occurring at the time of Jesus’ birth) as well as probing third-party sources such as the works of Josephus, Tacitus, and other non-Christian writers.
You could either sin and consult the stars (astrology is sacrilege in the Old Testament); or stay grounded and listen to what the earth has to say. Better yet, you can do both and be amazed.
Like Fibonacci, Albert Einstein, Matsuo Basho and other mad men who have the nasty habit of encapsulating nature inside an elegant equation or verse, I’m a sucker for beauty as much as I am a Jesus freak. After all, a story is worth retelling only if it is truly beautiful.
And that means coincidences should be a lot more than what they seem. That secret wishes so subtly concealed as fairy tales must become true somehow in the real world. And that human ideals so clearly defined but always broken in classical epics must still be worth clinging to.
Indeed, when both astronomical data (Heaven) and seismic patterns (Earth) coincide with a centuries-old prophecy and suggest that Jesus redeemed the world on Friday, April 3, 33 C.E., who am I to argue?
As published in Nature, this exact date figured prominently in the research of Oxford University scientists Colin J. Humphreys and W. G. Waddington who reached their conclusion after extrapolating Jewish Passover dates, astronomical charts, and a few curious details surrounding Jesus’ death:
- The Hebrew seer Joel — who lived several hundred years before Christ — prophesied that “the sun will turn to darkness and the moon to blood at the time of the Lord’s day.”
- Jesus’ incarceration, torture and death occurred when Pontius Pilate served as prefect of Judea (26 C.E. — 36 C.E.).
- The Gospels reported a lingering darkness as well as an earthquake at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.
- In the Book of Acts, the apostle Peter quoted the prophet Joel to prove to his audience that Jesus was the long-awaited messiah, presumably drawing on their shared experiences of a recent earthquake, daytime darkness and unusual lunar activity.
As it turned out, there indeed was a lunar eclipse on April 3, 33 C.E. which could have darkened and given the full moon a reddish hue around the time of Jesus’ harrowing ordeal; and which you can also confirm on NASA’s website. Furthermore, a separate research published in the International Geology Review found that a local earthquake might have coincided (~ 26 C.E. to 36 C.E.) with the crucifixion, based on seismic imprints on 19 feet of laminated sediment at the Dead Sea, which is just around 20 kilometers from Jerusalem.
This earthquake, as recorded in the Gospels, completely tore the curtain that veiled the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple. The temple curtain represented the chasm between people and God, a portal so sacred that no one except the Jewish High Priest can pass through only once a year: during the Day of Atonement when Judaism’s highest-ranking cleric sprinkled sacrificial blood to atone for the sins of the people.
By dying on the cross, however, Jesus became the ultimate sacrificial lamb that — once and for all — atoned for human sin and allowed people to connect with God anytime and anywhere they like, obliterating the immeasurable chasm that previously made God so unreachable.
Why love needs to be told in the language of moons, rocks and rituals is beyond me.
The search for beauty
Yet, when things come together like pieces of a puzzle, you find harmony. The ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras had a glimpse of this state when he discovered that the foundational laws that bind the universe are musical in nature, logging his observations and mathematical computations in a remarkable work entitled Harmony of the Spheres.
You can still blame Pythagoras for making your high school life miserable with those crazy formulas that somehow let you measure the angles and sides of a triangle, but you can’t deny that the universe wants to sing.
In his book, A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design, physicist and Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek explores nature’s hidden blueprint, eventually coming up with a startling conclusion: the universe is a work of art, with beauty serving as the core binding principle of everything from subatomic particles to the ocean’s incessant waves. In an interview with Der Spiegel, Wilczek said “ … the equations that have been developed to describe musical instruments are very nearly the same as the equations that govern how atoms work … ”
An agnostic like Frank Wilczek can stop right there and revel at the innate elegance of the cosmos. But not this gullible scoundrel. Like other hopeless romantics who persist on seeing something that isn’t plainly there, I have this feverish need to find reason behind the rhyme. Only then, can I sway to the rhythm.
Fortunately, people like Pythagoras gave this “reason thing” a name: Logos, which in Greek means “word,” but of a far grander kind than what it usually means in English. And thanks to the apostle John, we can pin this name tag to a specific person:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us …”
Reasons to be merry
Which of course leads us to Christmas. Unlike the crucifixion, dating the birth of Jesus is a lot more challenging and nearly impossible to do based on available evidence. You won’t find me placing my neck on the line trying to prove it happened on December 25.
Yet any child will find it quite easy to love Christmas, regardless of the date. As an adult who’s more concerned about how hungrily the season seems to drain a bank account, I might have missed quite a lot of that festive holiday spirit.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. One boring day, as I was thinking about the countless Christmas parties I have attended over the years, a curious thing about Jesus’ life struck me. The very first (recorded) miracle he did was to change water to wine at a wedding party. Sounds like such a trifle thing, doesn’t it? Jesus appeared to have done it just to save the couple’s families from utter embarrassment — and maybe a bit of local ridicule — at running out of beverage for their guests.
But could it be that Jesus also wanted everyone to have fun? The exquisite wine Jesus made likely bested the finest vintage ever pressed in Bordeaux or Tuscany, compelling the wedding host to exclaim how awesome it tasted.
On the other hand, one of the last things Jesus did before ascending to Heaven was to prepare breakfast-on-the-beach for his friends, grilling fish over charcoal fire beside some bread. Nobody recorded how this meal tasted, but it must have been an endearing part of the shared memory that propelled Christianity to become a powerful force that continues to drive many of the world’s finest examples of art, music, architecture, and modes of thought.
Still, most of these trappings only lie at the surface of this thing Jesus started. At its heart burns the merry bunch of love, grace and change. Throughout history, Christians have been stirring things up, shifting paradigms and transforming how the rest of the world think and live. In 1849, an African-American slave named Harriet Tubman escaped to freedom and launched a dangerous career as an abolitionist, spy, army scout, and a pioneering advocate for women’s suffrage. Like Baptist Minister Martin Luther King Jr. (who helped lead the the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (who fought apartheid in South Africa), Tubman — who was a devout Christian — is considered an icon of courage and freedom.
This is hardly surprising. Early in his ministry, Jesus clearly defined the nature of his earthly mission:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”
Is it any wonder that decades before Tubman, the Quakers — a group of Christian religious movements — have been fighting slavery while establishing many of the well-known brands in business such as Barclays and Cadbury? That some of world’s oldest, largest and most recognizable charities and humanitarian movements such as the Red Cross, World Vision and Habitat for Humanity have Christian roots? That the term Good Samaritan — an ancient meme we still use today as an idiom that encapsulates tolerance, questions prejudice, and encourages compassion — was first used by Jesus in a parable?
I choose to celebrate Christmas because had God been only a delusion, the historical Jesus still struck a latent chord in the human psyche that continues to make beautiful music after more than 2000 years. And when Pope Francis recently joined evangelicals like Rick Warren in making an urgent call-to-action on climate change, who can blame me for wearing my dancing shoes?
In 1984, Band Aid — a super group composed mostly of Irish and British musicians — tried and succeeded in bringing the spirit of Christmas to drought-stricken and critically famished parts of Africa.
Physical hunger is one thing. Hunger for meaning is another. That deep s#&! drove me to Jesus.
And it’s been moving Hollywood celebrities, Internet icons, gays, porn stars, devilish-looking rock legends, Grammy award-winning rappers, and a lot of other (new) normal folks closer to the Uber Person who most embodies the idea of love. Don’t blame me. Even hardened thieves and terrorists have been known to hum that catchy Jesus tune.
Have an Amazing Easter! Or an Awesome Christmas! Whichever moment cosmic grace has led you to read this. :-)
- The Good Shepherd as depicted in stained glass art at St. John the Baptist Anglican Church in New South Wales (Wikimedia Commons).
- Entry of Christ to Jerusalem (ca. 1435–1440) by Pietro Di Giovanni D’Ambrogio.
- The Woman Taken in Adultery (ca. 1805) by William Blake.
- Ecce Homo! (Behold the Man!, 1871) by Antonio Ciseri.
- A photograph of a lunar eclipse (Wikimedia Commons).
- The Ancient of Days (1794) by William Blake.
- A photograph of the Nativity scene by Jeff Weese.
- Proof of Your Love (2012) music video by For King & Country (Warner Music Group).