Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door

Mama, put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them anymore
That long black cloud is comin’ down
I feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door

It was November 7, 1991 when I figured it out. I was watching a very Hallmark-esque, episode of Beverly Hills 90210. The scene has actually aged fairly well. It may sound a bit trite coming from a young Brian Austin Green to a then 23 year old Jason Priestley, playing wealthy, high school sophomore, Brandon Walsh. “It doesn’t matter what you say about somebody once they’re gone; what matters is how you treat them while they’re still here.” But it’s true. And it taps into the meaning of the original song, much more than I understood at age 15.

That’s not Axl Rose singing! Who the fuck is Bootleg Rocks!? Apparently they’re still as obscure as ever. I cannot find out anything about them other than what is associated with this cover, of this song, for this episode. It was likely a band the Producers, or maybe Brian Austin Green (who fancied himself a musician) put together to ride a popular wave, pay royalties to Dylan and not have to reach out to The Most Dangerous band in the world.

Still to this day, when I hear Knockin’ on Heaven’s door by anyone, I still think of Guns ‘N’ Roses before Dylan. And there are plenty of renditions to hear, by a wide and diverse range of artists: Warren Zevon, Eric Clapton, Wyclef Jean, Avril Lavigne. Many of Dylan’s songs are like this. Turn, Turn, Turn will always be by The Byrds to me. Its Dylan. Once John and June Carter Cash recorded It Ain’t Me Babe, it became a whole new piece of art. It bears semblance and similar sentiment to the original, yet the high profile Nashville couple breathed new life and a relational dynamic to the song the lone voice of Dylan could never convey. Yet he has given words to so many.

At any rate, it was November evening in 1991, that I learned one of the first rules of media ecology: Every time we change the medium or the conveyer of a message, we alter the message, at least somewhat.

When you hear “Respect” – you know the one: R-E-S-P-E-C-T – do you instantly think of male soul artist, Otis Redding who originally penned and recoded the song!?!? For many people its become so associated with Aretha Franklin and the empowerment of women, its sometimes still shocking for people to find out it was written by a man. Sometimes meaning has to do with what we choose to throw away, or keep. When Marilyn Manson covered the Eurhythmics’ Sweet Dreams, they left out the only bit of hope that Lennox and Stewart injected into the original lyrics: “Hold your head up, Moving on.” When Disney’s Lion King is translated into Italian, “It’s the Circle of Life” is translated to “It’s a carousel that goes, this life”. Similar sentiment. But it loses some poetry and some of the impact in conveying the songs central, spiritual sentiment: that life is cyclical.

We encounter that same thing when we study the Bible or any text, ancient or contemporary, religious or not. One of my professors in seminary, offered a helpful analogy for the narrative of Jesus’ life that has been constructed from the varying stories in the 3 Synoptic Gospels and the very different Gospel of John. He said it was like a well made omelet, and reading each of the gospel accounts in isolation from the others, digging into their different theological emphases, the different ways they apply the Hebrew scriptures to Jesus. We’d all do well to remember that the New Testament was written between the 60’s and Mid to late 120’s CE. Each community had developed nuanced practices and ways of telling and living out the story. Different ways in which they saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s Hope. Sometimes it helps to take apart the omelet, in order to see who or what is contributing each flavor to the construction.

Sometimes it can really help to see the passages of all four gospels side by side in rough “chronological” order to better discern who said what, how they said it differently and why and what some communities and their gospel writers left out all together. In today’s lectionary passages for the Fourth week of Advent, Mathew has something he wants to say about the Jewishness of Jesus:

As you can see Matthew and Luke both have a lot more to say about the birth of Jesus than Mark or John. What Mathew does differently here, and throughout his gospel, is in many ways common only to Matthew. This can be summed up simply as Matthew’s emphases of the Jewishness of Jesus as well as Jesus as fulfillment of Israel’s history and messianic hopes. Luke grounds Jesus’ origins in the “Adam” story and the origins of humanity. Matthew only goes as far back as Israel’s “pre-history” and stories of Patriarchs, grounding Jesus in Royal Jewish bloodline. Only Matthew and Luke make mention of a “virgin birth.”

But they also present quite different images of Jesus. For Luke, the infant Jesus is born in the most humble of circumstance, in a barn. Luke does his best to ground Jesus in history: It was the year Caesar Augustus called for “all of the world” to enroll in the world’s first census program. For Mathew, Jesus had to flee from Herod into Egypt quite similarly to the way Moses had to floated up the river into Egypt to Pharaoh’s daughter to be protected from Pharaoh. Matthew takes some sayings of Jesus, that Luke has Jesus saying out on on a plain. Instead, Matthew has Jesus looking like a new Moses, summing up the law and all of the prophets and saying things like, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

I was so offended when Rob Bell first told me I needed a “trampoline” theology that I could stretch if something should ever challenge our notion of the virgin birth. Little did I know that had already long been done and Bell was just softly and gently suggesting to people what several hundred years of post enlightenment study and some critical scrutiny.

Is that where you’re at? does the whole thing fall apart for you if you learn each author had their own motives and moreover, a lot of these stories are simply not historically accurate. Matthew underlines the virginity of Mary by references to the Book of Isaiah, using the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint, rather than the mostly Hebrew Masoretic Text. Why? to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus and recast him as one whose teachings supersede that of Moses.

These claims can convey important theological meaning, even if the Hebrew text is better translated as young lady than virgin. These claims can convey important theological meaning, even if you doubt the historicity of Jesus as a historical figure completely.

When I was a kid, I thought for sure Axl Rose had penned Knockin’ on Heavens’ door for people like him and myself. Axl Rose – while repulsively misogynistic and slightly xenophobic at times – was still a childhood hero of sorts to me. He was plain white trash from Indiana. I was plain white trash from Middleville, MI. And he sang about that and wore it like a badge of honor almost as much as he tried to escape that image. It gave me hope and was my life anthem for like 30+ years.

While I sometimes still feel like I am at heaven’s gate pleading and begging for mercy like a recently departed soul, I need a song that conveys my confidence that whatever the fuck the kingdom of Heaven is, it is is more important than mine or Mathew’s word choice.

And whatever it is, it is surly already inside of me. Inside of us all. The more we lean into to dispensing love, grace and mercy ourselves, the more divine and simultaneously more human we become. When act inhumane, unloving, or unkind we diminish our own humanity and divinity.

I wish I could say so much more to you! Alas, I have probably already said too much for now. Until Next week, peace to you.

Christian Atheist