"Who is the gaucho, amigo? Why is he standing In your spangled leather poncho and your elevator shoes?" - What Steely Dan tells us about reading St Paul

Gaucho by Steely Dan (1980)
Readings: from Paul's Letter to the Galatians 6:11-18

The lyrics to Gaucho by Steely Dan

For the technically minded there is an important note on materialism and naturalism at the end of this post that you might want to read first.


To jazz and rock musicians of my generation, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, collectively known as "Steely Dan", represent a very distinctive pinnacle of popular music; as my friend and colleague Chris Ingham, who interviewed them in 1980, put it, "Only two people in the world understand how jazz licks, R&B rhythms, pulp novels, and Napoleonic history combine to make great pop music."

Grandma's Christmas card to me in 1980
In 1980 I was fifteen and had just began my life as a musician and the fact that I had been given on my birthday that year both a double bass and an electric bass meant that I was seriously on the lookout for music that combined jazz and rock and that year Steely Dan brought out a classic example of this mix on their LP, Gaucho. I bought it with some money I got from my grandma for Christmas that year (see picture on right!) and was completely blown away by it. The music they produced quite simply went on to define for me the basic musical language and style that I eventually made my own, at least when it came to playing the electric bass.

However, although I found myself able instantly able to connect with the music, when it came to the lyrics the matter was very different and I often had very little idea what the songs were about. Even when I did feel I had some kind of handle on the basic story Becker and Fagan were telling me, I was always aware that I was puzzled by certain details that seemed important. But, at the time, I simply had to learn to be content with making up my own interpretations of them even though, at that time, I assumed that lying being them there was a simple kind of true story to be discovered. However, whenever I did let go of seeking the truth of the lyric I found myself drawn ever more deeply into their very peculiar, surreal, funny, bright but also very dark world.

Now, let's press the pause button on Steely Dan for a moment and turn to the other character in today's address, Paul of Tarsus. Paul's letters constitute the earliest part of the New Testament which laid so much of the theological groundwork for what eventually became Church Christianity. For those of us who particularly value the teaching and example of the *human* Jesus, St Paul is very much one of the bad guys in the story of the transmission of Jesus teaching and example. As Thomas Jefferson said in 1820 "Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and a firm corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus" (Letter to William Short, April 13, 1820). A Coryphaeus was the head of a Greek chorus, the one who led the song and, although it can sometimes be overstated, we can certainly say that St Paul led a song whose melody and lyric was, and is, very different from that sung by Jesus of Nazareth.

East window in St Michael's, Kirby-le-Soken
Aged 15 I had already begun dimly to recognise this. Not least of all because from my choir stall in the chancel of my local parish church in Kirby-le-Soken I had clear sight of an unusual east window. It did not show the crucifixion (as might be expected) but, instead, three touching scenes from the life of Jesus as he engaged compassionately with three women: the Mary who chose the “good part” (Luke 10:42), the woman with a haemorrhage (Matthew 9:20) and Martha (John 11:21). The window told a human, this-worldly story, that often contrasted strikingly with the complex, other-worldly metaphysical claims concerning original sin, crucifixion, resurrection, redemption and salvation that I heard preached from the pulpit - all copiously illustrated, of course, by extracts from Paul's letters. (If you are so minded you can read some some of the personal consequences of this if you click on this link).

But, whereas the human example of Jesus seemed to me to be relatively accessible, Paul's letters were not; in their own, very different way, they were at least as incomprehensible and dark as anything Steely Dan could serve up. As a teenager I took my Bible studies seriously and I spent a great deal of time trying to seek out the true story that I was told lay within, or behind, Paul's writings. Of course, in those days I didn't have to hand the kind of secular, historical, academic resources I eventually had access to, but one thing I realised very early on, and which clearly stood in the way of any easy, simple comprehension of Paul, was that these were *letters*; that is to say I could see that I had before me only had one side of, and one brief moment of, a complex, two-thousand year-old dialogue.

Now, as a way of bring us back to Steely Dan, imagine the following scene. You're a musician in first-century Rome and it's been a hard days night at the theatre. On the way home the need for refreshment overcomes you and so you swing into a busy downtown bar. You pull a stool up to the bar and order a beer and, while you wait, you notice that some guy next to you is excitedly going on to his neighbour about his bad handwriting, circumcision, the law and some bodacious guy called Jesus Christ. Weird eh? What the hell other guy is saying in response you have no idea for the bar is very noisy tonight. It takes you perhaps five minutes to finish your drink and then you head out into the city night. As you walk home you begin to compose in your head a crazy little ditty involving oblique references to bad handwriting, circumcision, law and a character called Jesus Christ, all the while imagining all kinds of possible back-stories and endings. If you had sung your crazy ditty to anyone at that point very few people would have been able to make neither head nor tail of it. You get home, lie down and immediately fall asleep and that's that.

Well, Becker and Fagan are the kind of crazy guys who, when they get home from the bar - in downtown New York or LA rather than Rome - they don't forget such conversations but, instead, sometimes sit down and consciously write a song using that material. This is, by the way, not me making things up for in his interview with them my friend discovered that this is, in fact, one of the ways they compose lyrics. (For another indication of this click here to go to a 1980 interview with Becker and Fagan). They admit to enjoying bringing a listener into the middle of a conversation whose beginnings, overall context and ending remain, definitively, out of reach - even for them. The method they employ here intrigues us, makes us wonder and invite us, quite deliberately, to weave out of what we hear our own stories. In so doing Becker and Fagan enable the imaginative listener to make the song more their own than they could otherwise. It is important to see that this can happen because even Becker and Fagan don't know - and are not interested in - the "truth" of the whole story that may, or may not, lie behind the overheard conversation. They are not worried about truth but are, instead, encouraging collaborative good story-telling through the medium of great songs.

So, to finish, let's now turn to two questions, the first posed by Steely Dan, "Who is the Gaucho?", and the second continuously posed in various ways by Paul, "Who is Christ?" When we've done this let's also ask about the import of any answers we may arrive at.

"Who is the gaucho?" A gaucho, as I'm sure you know, is a South-American cowboy. So who is this man, this bodacious cowboy, and why on earth is he standing in a spangled leather poncho and elevator shoes? In one sense, for all the reasons I've gestured towards, we can't know. The story we are told is knowingly incomplete, it's deliberately and obscurely half told. The "answer" to the question relies upon us imaginatively combining our experience of the world with the experience of Becker and Fagan against the evocative backdrop of the music so as to weave various new stories which will give us some new and often unexpected take on the richness and extraordinary diversity of human life. An encounter with another Steely Dan fan will gift another possible story which, in turn, perhaps changes your own, or at least shows you that all may not be so cut and dried as you once thought it was. So who is the gaucho? Well, who knows?But one thing I do know. It is that, together, we can have a great deal of fun and learn a great deal about each other and the world by working through the possibilities and allowing them all to remain in play.

Let's now ask St Paul's question, "Who is Christ?" The problem is that we know St Paul, unlike Becker and Fagan, is convinced he knows both the answer, the back-story and the end of this and he is in the business of persuading a reader of his epistles to see his answer. So who is Christ? The trouble, for Paul and for those who, today, still believe they see in the epistles the same eternal truth as St Paul believed he saw, is that when we read his epistles we always discover that we've stumbled into a loud bar room conversation and can only ever catch the briefest, half-heard, two-thousand year old fragment of what was going on. It may come as a shock to some to realise this but, looked at this way, St Paul's epistles must begin to show up more and more like a Becker and Fagan lyric than they do as definitive, holy writ - the final, finished word of God to humankind.

And the import of our answers? Well, a great deal I think. We have emerged from a culture that has thought answers to theological and philosophical questions like "who is Christ" or "what is the (capital T) truth" can, somehow and at some point, definitively be answered.

St Paul is a person, and classical Christianity which followed is an institution, that has always thought like this. History - and alas, in some places in the world, present day events - has taught us the painful truth that too many people are repressed and killed on the basis of final answers made up after hearing such half-heard theological and philosophical conversations.

Becker and Fagan, on the other hand, are people who recognise and celebrate the ambiguity and incompleteness of all individual human existence. They know an important truth, namely that humankind (as a theological and philosophical being) is always in the noisy downtown bar room of life picking up only half-heard snippets of conversation, both trivial and profound, light and dark. The only sure (enough) way to proceed in such a situation is by committing to an ongoing, constant process of critical conversation with those around you (making sure they include a good mix of scientists, poets, musicians, philosophers and theologians) so as to avoid becoming the bar-room bore or Coryphaeus who believes they have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

And so my basic message to you today is that, whenever any of us is tempted to think we have the answer to the question, "who is Christ?" - or to some similar question of supposed ultimate theological or philosophical import, we should instantly begin to sing a supplemental question, "Who is the gaucho, amigo? and why is he standing in your spangled leather poncho and your elevator shoes?" With any luck, the impossibility of definitively answering this should encourage us to buy another round of beers, to sit down and talk it through, one more time, with our trusted friends and colleagues. All around the world we'd all have a much better time if we did just this.



I want to be clear that the preceding address is designed to illustrate something I think is true (enough) about the human worlds of religion and/or traditional philosophy. I want to make it clear that I don't think what I say here can be used to speak of the scientific method which does, I think, show up certain very strong truths. In connection with this I feel the need to be clear that, personally, I've come to be very much a naturalist, i.e. I hold the view "that everything there is springs from the natural world and involves no supernatural intervention", and a materialist, i.e. I hold the view that "the whole of all there is can be accounted for in terms of matter and its interactions" (Peter Atkins: "On Being", OUP 2011, n. 1, p. xii). However, this need not be taken as necessarily implying a crude reductionism and I think that John F. Post is right in pointing out that "for to say that one thing [e.g.matter and it's interactions] determines another, in ordinary parlance, is to say the first delimits or fixes how the second can be; or that given the first, there is one and only one way the second can be" (John F. Post: The Faces of Existence - An Essay in Nonreductive Metaphysics, Cornell University Press, 1987, pp. 181-182). So, for example, the music of Steely Dan can, I think, be accounted for in terms of matter and its interactions but it cannot simply be reduced to that. But matter and its interactions really determines, in one and only one way, how this complex emergent "thing" is made, received and interpreted in the human world. It's all this latter stuff that occupies most of my time as a kind of theologian or philosopher but, but, but, I increasingly feel the need to be absolutely clear that I am doing this as a thoroughgoing naturalist and materialist.


Anonymous said…
I thought this would be a little impressive as a cross-section between an admired band and Scripture, but it felt almost consciously malignant at times. I have no disrespect for you, a man of learning, but I do think that unitarianism is a genuine kind of evil that intends to incomplete Christianity further and undermine the revelations of the Spirit. Obviously the whole of Pauline theology is not something to accept as identical to the teachings of Christ, but I think to dismiss it as strongly as you do seems to indicate a fetish for the early Church that has arisen, especially in recent times. St. Paul was a teacher comparative to St. Peter and truly an Apostle, and what he states is legitimate. Maranatha.