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Hymns for the church of being alive

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A is for Asimov and his galaxy-spanning sci-fi novels. B is for the Beatles, and the magical mystery tour of their songs: from "Hello, Goodbye" or "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" to "Lady Madonna" or "Rocky Raccoon." C is for dark-visaged Captain Nemo, skipper of the Nautilus in Disney's thrilling adventure film, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. D is for Dracula, the dark side of life constellated in one creepy, sexy figure. E is for Elvis, who helped hitch black blues up with country music and build a new way of looking at and expressing life named rock 'n' roll. F is for Fay Wray, who played the young blonde King Kong fell for and kidnapped....

With this litany, I want to sing the praises of our popular culture, that unlikely yet habitual hangout for the spirit of the holy. Purposefully, I divide highbrow from low, in order to spend some time with that portion of our culture that is there primarily to entertain, or to tell sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat-and-bite-your-knuckles tales of suspense, adventure or intrigue, or to rhapsodize with melodies using popular speech, common sentiments and universal experiences for material.

The best of pop culture is both compost for our imagination and reference material for our inner lives. Without it, I believe, life would be much harder to both navigate and bear.

When I look back on my own biography, I can readily see how energetically and deeply films, songs and other expressions of pop culture have influenced and formed my growth as a person. They have surely helped me find my way through life. Because of films, stories and songs, I know myself better: my passions, my enthusiasms, my strengths and weaknesses. The best have been beacons that helped me navigate my way through often ambiguous and confusing situations: coming to terms with and exploring sexuality, clarifying politics and identifying my heroes and heroines.

A hundred years ago there were no films, no compact discs, no comic books. People oriented their lives by means of literature, through familiarity with Greek mythology, with the Bible. Read the journals of Henry David Thoreau, for example, written during the 1840s and 1850s. In the daily journey of this well-educated New Englander are abundant references to Greek myth and to the works of Shakespeare. Characters from the novels of James Fenimore Cooper were as familiar to Thoreau and his contemporaries as Forest Gump or Thelma and Louise are to us.

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What are your favorite pop songs? Pop music at its best clebrates and comments on life in creative ways that lift the soul and inform our awareness. Take, for example, songwriter Paul Simon's blending of South African rhythms and harmonies with sophisticated 1990s urban lyrics in Graceland. His particular brand of imaginative synthesis shows me the wonderful new life and creativity that emerges when we honor and recognize human diversity.

The late John Lennon helped us imagine a world without war. New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen has revisited some of the populist fervor of Steinbeck's great novel of the depression in his album "The Ghost of Tom Joad."

Listen to Eminem's "Stan" -- a stunning evocation of the dark side of pop music fandom that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand straight up. He duets with British pop diva Dido. It's true art from a hiphop master.

In recent years there has been an explosion of interest in the popular music of our diverse ethnic cultures. Music stores are filled with tejano, reggae, ska, kletzmer, rhythm and blues, zydeco, bluegrass, hiphop, soul, Celtic, gamelan, aboriginal drumming and on and on. To me, this wide interest seems like a huge step toward learning to live with one another and to appreciate, even enjoy, our differences.

Pop music among other things has a way of reflecting our experience back to us, validating or assaying it in ways nothing else can do. How we feel about our sexuality, for example, can be explored, and even laughed at, in pop music. Songwriters and lyricists comment upon aspects of our lives that are generally not much discussed or examined elsewhere.

Here's one of my favorites, a song called "To Live is To Fly" by the late Townes Van Zandt.

Days, up and down they come
like rain on a conga drum.
Forget most, remember some,
but don't turn none away.
Everything is not enough
and nothing is too much to bear.
Where you've been is good and gone,
All you keep is the getting there...

To live is to fly.
So shake the dust off of your wings
and the sleep out of your eyes.

We all got holes to fill.
Them holes are all that's real.
Some fall on you like a storm.
Sometimes you dig your own.
The choice is yours to make.
Time is yours to take..

To live is to fly.
So shake the dust off of your wings
and the sleep out of your eyes.

Van Zandt's meditative lyrics, sung in his simple way with just an acoustic guitar for backup, is simply a superb anthem to the heights and depths of daily existence, a hymn for the church of being alive, for participating in the web of life. And our pop culture is full of these treasures, nuggets of gold strewn everywhere you look.

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August 15-28, 2014

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