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THE BOOK THAT MADE YOUR WORLDHOW THE BIBLE CREATED THE SOUL OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION
By VISHAL MANGALWADI
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Vishal Mangalwadi
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE WEST WITHOUT ITS SOUL
From Bach to Cobain
For two hundred years we had sawed and sawed and sawed at the branch we were sitting on. And in the end, much more suddenly than anyone had foreseen, our efforts were rewarded, and down we came. But unfortunately there had been a little mistake: The thing at the bottom was not a bed of roses after all; it was a cesspool full of barbed wire ... It appears that amputation of the soul isn't just a simple surgical job, like having your appendix out. The wound has a tendency to go septic. —George Orwell Notes on the Way, 1940
On April 8, 1994, an electrician accidentally discovered a dead body in Seattle, Washington. A shotgun had blown the victim's head into unrecognizable bits. The police investigation concluded that the victim of this ghastly tragedy was the rock legend Kurt Cobain (b. 1967) and that he had committed suicide a few days earlier. Cobain's previous attempts at suicide by drug overdose had been unsuccessful. His beautiful wife, singer Courtney Love, is said to have called the police multiple times to have them confiscate his guns before he killed himself or harmed others.
Cobain, the lead singer and gifted guitarist for the rock band Nirvana, captured his generation's loss of anchor, center, or soul so effectively that their album Nevermind sold ten million copies, displacing Michael Jackson at the top of the charts.
The phrase "never mind" means "don't bother," "don't concern yourself." Why should you mind, if nothing is true, good, or beautiful in any absolute sense? Should a man be bothered about his adorable daughter's ongoing need for a father? "Never mind" is a logical virtue for a nihilist who thinks that there is nothing out there to give meaning and significance to anything here—be it your daughter, wife, or life. In contrast, the modern West was built by people who dedicated their lives to what they believed was divine, true, and noble.
Nirvana is the Buddhist term for salvation. It means permanent extinction of one's individual existence, the dissolution of our illusory individuality into Shoonyta (void, nothingness, or emptiness). It is freedom from our misery-causing illusion that we have a permanent core to our being: a self, soul, spirit, or Atman.
Here is a sample lyric expressing Cobain's view of salvation as silence, death, and extinction:
Silence, Here I am, Here I am, Silent. Death Is what I am, Go to hell, Go to jail ... Die
As the news of Cobain's suicide spread, a number of his fans emulated his example. Rolling Stone magazine reported that his tragic death was followed by at least sixty-eight copycat suicides.
"Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!" The Stanford students of the 1960s who chanted for the demise of the Western civilization were disgusted with hypocrisy and injustices in the West. Yet, their rejection of the soul of their civilization yielded something very different from the utopia they sought. Diana Grains, in Rolling Stone, noted that prior to the 1960s, teenage suicide was virtually nonexistent among American youth. By 1980 almost four hundred thousand adolescents were attempting suicide every year. By 1987 suicide had become the second largest killer of teens, after automotive accidents. By the 1990s, suicide had slipped down to number three because young people were killing each other as often as they killed themselves. Grains explained these rising figures among the offspring of the '60s generation:
The 1980s offered young people an experience of unsurpassed social violence and humiliation. Traumatized by absent or abusive parents, educators, police and shrinks, stuck in meaningless jobs without a livable wage, disoriented by disintegrating institutions, many kids felt trapped in a cycle of futility and despair. Adults ... [messed]up across the board, abandoning an entire generation by failing to provide for or protect them or prepare them for independent living. Yet when young people began to exhibit symptoms of neglect, reflected in their rates of suicide, homicide, substance abuse, school failure, recklessness and general misery, adults condemned them as apathetic, illiterate, amoral losers.
According to his biographers, Cobain's early years had been happy, full of affection and hope. But by the time he was nine years old Cobain was caught in the crossfire between his divorcing parents. Like far too many marriages in America, his parents' marriage had devolved into an emotional and verbal battlefield. One of Cobain's biographers, commenting on a family portrait when Kurt was six, said, "It's a picture of a family, but not a picture of a marriage." After the divorce, Kurt's mother started dating younger men. His father became overbearing, more afraid of losing his new wife than of losing Kurt. That parental rejection left him displaced, unable to find a stable social center, incapable of maintaining constructive emotional ties either with his peers or with his parents' generation. That instability inflicted a deep wound in Cobain's soul that could not be healed by music, fame, money, sex, drugs, alcohol, therapy, rehabilitation or detox programs. His inner anguish made it easy for him to accept the Buddha's first noble truth that life is suffering.
Psychotherapy failed Cobain. Having questioned the very existence of the psyche (roughly, the self or soul), secular psychology is now a discipline in decline. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung believed in the existence of self, but their followers now recognize that their faith in "self" was a residual effect of the West's Christian past—Jung's father, for example, was a clergyman.
Jung's truly secular followers, such as James Hillman, are recasting the essence of his theory. An increasing number of thinking people are recognizing that theoretically it is impossible to practice psychology without theology. Six centuries before Christ, the Buddha already knew that if God does not exist, then the human self cannot exist either. Therefore, he deconstructed the Hindu idea of the soul. When one starts peeling the onion skin of one's psyche, he discovers that there is no solid core at the center of one's being. Your sense of self is an illusion. Reality is nonself (anatman). You don't exist. Liberation, the Buddha taught, is realizing the unreality of your existence.
This nihilism is logical if you begin with the assumption that God does not exist. However, it is not easy to live with the consequences of this belief, or rather, this nonbelief in one's own self. To say "I believe that 'I' don't exist" can be devastating for sensitive souls like Cobain. His music—alternately sensitive and brash, exhilarating and depressed, loud and haunted, anarchic and vengeful—reflected the confusion he saw in the postmodern world around him and in his own being. While he was committed to a small set of moral principles (such as environmentalism and fatherhood), he was unable to find a stable worldview in which to center those principles.
He was naturally drawn to the Buddha's doctrine of impermanence: there is nothing stable and permanent in the universe. You can't swim in the same river twice because the river changes every moment, as does a human being. You are not the same "thing" that you were a moment ago. Cobain's experience of the impermanence of an emotional, social, spiritual center to his life had tragic consequences. He adopted the philosophical and moral emptiness that other bands lauded as the "Highway to Hell."
Music After God's Death
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (AD 1844–1900) realized that having killed God, Europe could not possibly save the civilizational fruits of its faith in God. But not even Nietzsche realized that one philosophical implication of God's demise would be the death of his own self. For fifteen hundred years prior to Nietzsche, the West had followed St. Augustine (AD 354–430) in affirming every human being as a trinity of existence (being), intellect, and will. After denying the existence of the Divine Self, it became impossible to affirm the existence of the human self. Therefore, many intellectuals are reverting to the Buddhist idea that the self is an illusion. As contemporary Jungian psychologist Paul Kuglar explained, in the postmodern philosophy, Nietzsche (the speaking subject) is dead—he never existed, for individuality is only an illusion created by language.
Deconstructionists blame language for creating the illusion of the self, but the Buddha blamed the mind. It cannot be God's image. Therefore, the mind had to be a product of primeval cosmic ignorance, Avidya. The Buddha's rejection of the self made sense to the classical skeptics such as Pyrrho of Elea (360–270 BC), who traveled to India with Alexander the Great and interacted with Buddhist philosophers. After returning to Greece, he established a new school of skeptical philosophy to teach that nothing is truly knowable. If so, why should anyone pay philosophers to teach anything? No wonder education, philosophy, and science declined in Greece.
Denying the reality of a spiritual core as the essence of every human being makes it hard to make sense of music, because music, like morality, is a matter of the soul. Those who think that the universe is only material substance and the soul is an illusion find it hard to explain music. They have to assume that music evolved from animals, but none of our alleged evolutionary cousins make music. (Some birds do "sing," but no one has proposed that we, or our music, evolved from them.) Charles Darwin thought that music evolved as an aid to mating. That might be believed if rapists took bands to lure their victims. By evolutionary psychology, rape could be seen as a natural form of mating and morality an arbitrary social control.
Music serves no biological purpose. As Bono, the lead singer for U2 put it, "music is a matter of the spirit." Some contemporary music moves toward God—for example, Gospel Music. Other genres—for example, the Blues—may be running away from God and seeking redemption elsewhere. Nevertheless "both recognize the pivot that God is at the center of the jaunt." Even in the Bible, all prophetic poetry is not singing praises to God. Beginning with Job, biblical poetry includes penetrating questioning of God in the face of suffering and injustice. Music that blames God for evil, affirms God as the only available source of meaning and our right to pass moral judgment.
The Buddhist skepticism that Pyrrho brought to Europe is logical and powerful. The West escaped its paralyzing influence only because thinkers such as St. Augustine succeeded in refuting it. Augustine affirmed the certainty of the human self because the Bible taught that God existed and had created man in his own image. Augustine also affirmed the validity of words. He believed language can communicate truth because communication is intrinsic to the triune God and man is made in the image of a God who communicates. Now, having rejected those biblical foundations, the West has no basis for escaping the Buddha's radical pessimism.
In spite of—or perhaps because of—his inner chaos, Cobain remained so popular that in 2008 the music industry ranked him as the number one "Dead Artist." His albums outsold Elvis Presley's. Years after his death, in 2002 his widow was able to sell the scraps and scribbles in his journals to Riverhead Books for (reportedly) four million dollars. Two decades ago, a publisher anywhere in the world would have rejected his notes as meaningless, misspelled graffiti. At the dawn of the twenty-first century in America, cultural gatekeepers rightly recognize that Cobain represents America's soullessness better than most celebrities. In a sample of relatively meaningful meaninglessness, he wrote:
I like punk rock. I like girls with weird eyes. I like drugs. (But my Body And mind won't allow me to take them.) I like passion. I like playing my cards wrong. I like vinyl. I like feeling guilty for being a white, American male. I love to sleep. I like to taunt small, barking dogs in parked cars. I like to make people feel happy and superior in their reaction towards my appearance. I like to have strong opinions with nothing to back them up with besides my primal sincerity. I like sincerity. I lack sincerity ... I like to complain and do nothing to make things better.
I have seen entries similar to Cobain's journals and lyrics in students' private diaries in art exhibitions in American colleges. Prior to Cobain, in the 1960s and '70s, countercultural students at these colleges believed they were on the cusp of inaugurating utopia. By Cobain's time they knew that nihilism leads only to escapism. Steven Blush studied the music of the early 1980s that directly preceded Cobain both chronologically and stylistically. Popularly it is called "hardcore," a genre marked by its brashness and intentional existence outside the mainstream. He concluded:
Hardcore was more than music—it became a political and social movement as well. The participants constituted a tribe unto themselves. Some of them were alienated or abused, and found escape in the hard-edged music. Some sought a better world or a tearing down of the status quo, and were angry. Most of them simply wanted to raise hell. Stark and uncompromising ... Lots of [messed]up kids "found themselves" through hardcore ... the aesthetic was intangible. Most bands couldn't really play that well, and their songs usually lacked craft. They expended little effort achieving prevailing production standards. However, they had IT—an infectious blend of ultra-fast music, thought provoking lyrics, and f[orget]-you attitude.
The postmodern "rebels without a cause" were
Living in a world of my own.
Cobain's music appealed to contemporary America because it was a full-throttled disharmony of rage, anguish, hatred, despair, meaninglessness, and obscenity. His song titles included "I Hate Myself, I Want to Die" and "Rape Me" (later changed to "Waife Me"). Most of what Cobain sang cannot be deciphered, and many of his lyrics that can be deciphered have no apparent meaning. Whether he knew it or not, his lyrics were Zen koans, counter-rational sayings such as "what is the sound of one hand clapping?" Such words do not make sense because (in the absence of revelation) reality itself makes no sense. Words are merely mantras—sounds without sense—to be chanted or shouted.
Cobain committed suicide because Nothingness as the ultimate reality does nothing positive. It cannot provide joy to the world, let alone meaning or hope for the mess in one's life. Its only consequence is to inspire people to seek an exit from the world—Nirvana. A culture of music does not flourish in the soil of nihilism. Cobain's gift as a musician blossomed because he had inherited a unique tradition of music.
Music seems a natural, perhaps even essential, part of life to the Western mind because it has been an integral part of traditional worship and education. For example, Oxford and Cambridge universities have played pivotal roles in shaping the second millennium. However, a person who has never visited these cities may not know that they are cities of churches and chapels. The chapel is the most important building in traditional colleges and a pipe organ is often the centerpiece of a chapel. That is not the case in every culture.
Turkmenistan is the latest country to put restrictions on music: on state holidays, in broadcasts by television channels, at cultural events organized by the state, in places of mass assembly, and at weddings and celebrations organized by the public. Nations such as Saudi Arabia have had restrictions on music for a long time. In Iran and Afghanistan, women cannot sing on the radio, let alone on television or in person before mixed audiences. In post-Saddam Iraq, radical Muslims have assassinated sellers of music CDs. Mosques do not have keyboards, organs, pianos, orchestras, or worship bands because according to traditional Islam, music is haraam or illegitimate.
These cultures see Western music as inextricably mixed with immoral debauchery. For them, musicians such as Kurt Cobain are undesirable role models. Indeed, on the cover of his album Nevermind, Cobain brazenly depicted the values he lived by: an infant with a long penis underwater reaching out to a dollar bill on a fishhook. On the back cover, Cobain's mascot, a chipmunk, sits on a vagina. Open debauchery was a part of "pagan" music until the Bible extricated music from it by recentering the locus of the music to God.
Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit ... Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Excerpted from THE BOOK THAT MADE YOUR WORLD by VISHAL MANGALWADI Copyright © 2011 by Vishal Mangalwadi. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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