It's easier without complexity—the problem of Jesse Hughes

A lily in the Memorial (Unitarian) Church 
Readings: Matthew 7:16-20

Jesus said: “You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.”

From the song “Complexity” by Jesse Hughes and Josh Homme from The Eagles of Death Metal’s 2015 CD, “Zipper Down”

You want the good stuff
You want the big hit
Found out it’s simple come on and take it
But if you close your eyes then you won’t see
That it’s easier without complexity

From the preface of Raymond Geuss’ “A World Without Why” (Princeton University Press, 2014) 

It is natural for thinking people in the West to start by assuming that the world is (finally) “in order” and trying to formulate explicitly and then “reconcile” the various claims made by the different authorities: The Gospel accounts of Mark and John can be made to tally. The emperor, the pope, and the local lord “really” are demanding us to lead the same kind of life. St. Paul can be rendered consistent with Aristotle. in a world with relatively intact and generally recognised authorities, the question of discipline, both of how and to what extent one should or may coerce others, and of self-discipline seems in principle answerable: one disciplines people by training them, as much as possible, to want to do what they in any case “must” (of natural necessity) do and also what they should do. To what extent it will be possible to make people want to do what they must and should do will depend on a number of unpredictable factors, among them the nature of the demands society makes and the kind of forces of coercion, manipulation, and educations it has available to it.
          What happens, however, if the questions go beyond queries about reconciling occasional discrepancies between individual authoritative statements? What if the emperor is a sinner and schismatic? What if the pope is a heretic? What if the very idea of “being a heretic” comes to look archaic and irrelevant? What could proper discipline (including self-discipline) look like in a world like that?

—o0o—

If you ever want to write in what is called “the classic style” it is vital that your remember one of its important rules: “clarity everywhere is not accuracy everywhere.” As Thomas and Turner put it in their excellent manual on writing classic prose:

“When accuracy in the sense of being exhaustively correct involves complicated qualifications of no consequence to the main issue, classic writers do not hesitate to simplify” (Clear and Simple as the Truth, Princeton University Press, 2011, p. 36).

Indeed, as Jesse Hughes from the EoDM sang, “it’s easier without complexity” and, although I make no claims to be a writer of classic prose, I wholly agree with this point and I most recently avoided complicated qualifications in my address that followed the dreadful series of shootings in Paris during the might of Friday 13th November, 2015.

There I examined what I thought was the powerful, humane and brave response of the rock band Eagles of Death Metal (EoDM) who were playing at the Bataclan theatre that evening. You may recall that I played you an emotional and life-affirming interview by Hughes, the band’s main frontman, singer and guitarist who concluded by saying:  

“I cannot wait to get back to Paris to play. I wanna come back, I wanna be the first band to play in the Bataclan when it opens back up . . . because I was there when it went silent. Our friends went there to see rock and roll and died. I’m gonna go back there and live.”

Well, last week, the band finally played in Paris once again, not at the Bataclan, that is still closed, but at “The Olympia.”

Now, when I wrote my first piece I wanted firmly and uncomplicatedly  to focus upon Hughes’ (and his band mate Josh Homme’s) immediate, basically optimistic, hopeful, human-scale response to the extremely violent events which included the thought that events proved “once again that love overshadows evil.”

This seemed to me to be a response markedly different in tone and immediate intent from that from those expressed by, for example, President Hollande, who said:

“My dear compatriots. What happened last night in Paris, and in Saint Denis by the Stade de France, is an act of war” and that “because it was attacked cowardly, shamelessly, violently, France will be merciless against the barbarians of Daesh.”

Now I’m not so naive that I can’t see that being a president of a nation state is not the same as being a singer and guitarist in a rock and roll band but, on balance, it still seems to me, if we are going to have even half a chance of solving the complex raft of overlapping and interweaving nightmares that lie behind the events in Paris, we are not going to achieve this merely by “mercilessly” carrying out retaliatory bombing missions but, full of mercy, by encouraging more and more weapon-free cultural interchanges and conversations that include concerts by bands like the EoDM.

I want to continue to stand by the praise I accorded, in that immediate moment (this caveat is important), to the EoDM and, in particular, to Hughes’ immediate behaviour and testimony but, today, in order to raise a question that is stubbornly difficult for a liberal, Enlightenment (and Platonic) derived religion such as our own to address and answer, I want to add in some of the complexity I deliberately excluded at the time.

In doing my research for my November address I discovered, not only their music, which is not death-metal at all but fairly straightforward, good time, modern rock and roll but also, of course, the moving interview for Vice Magazine you heard in church last November. However, in addition to these positive things I stumbled across reams of other, darker, stuff that would have added unnecessary complexity to the relatively simple, hopeful picture I was trying to draw at the time.

To remind you — by adopting a powerful image offered us by Henry David Thoreau I simply wanted to show you that a fragrant, white lily could emerge from the dark, muck and the slime of a fetid swamp that was, in this case, the horrific massacre of 89 people at the hands of violent, religiously and politically inspired terrorists.

The immediate response of the fans, the band and Hughes seemed to me to be just such a lily.

However, now’s the time to reveal to you Hughes’ back-story which is utterly chaotic and, to me anyway, deeply disturbing. The snippets of this story which follow are drawn from the interview with Hughes I read before I gave my address last year.  (However, as a perspicacious friend of my said, we need to remember that some of what he says may be straightforward image-making and that he's really sitting at home most of the time drinking cocoa. I think that's unlikely to be the case but the reminder is well-worth making. It's also worth noting that, although he describes himself as a "government conservative guy" he does describe himself as "socially liberal.")

So, he tells us he's willy-nilly slept around, claims that he gets assistants, whom he calls “sin-eaters”, to throw out fans from back-stage after they have, how shall we put it, serviced him, he’s been a full-time junkie, he's pro-gun ownership, he’s vain, he uses language that is constantly full of needless swearing and explicit sexual imagery — as are his many tattoos — and, despite claiming to have adopted a kind of Christianity and become a “Reverend” with the Universal Life Church, he happily says to us all:

“My way of thinking is that it’s gonna be harder in hell for me than y’all. I’m just not going to be the fool that doesn’t know why he’s there”. He also tells us that he’s “literally living the cliché rock and roll dream: My girl is a porn star who is also an angel.”

I could go on, but I won’t — if you want to you can click on the links above to read the story yourself — and lastly, in connection with his views on gun control and his return to Paris, in the past few days, some of you may have read his comment made in Rolling Stone magazine:

“Did your French gun control stop a single person from dying at the Bataclan? If anyone can answer yes, I’d like to hear it, because I don’t think so. I think the only thing that stopped it was some of the bravest men that I’ve ever seen in my life charging head-first into the face of death with their firearms. I know people will disagree with me, but it just seems like God made men and women and, that night, guns made them equal.”

I hope you can see why I chose to keep these things from you at the time — all this (and much more I still haven’t told you) added too many layers of complexity that obscured the basic point I wanted and needed to make in November, namely, that a fragrant, white lily did emerge that evening from the muck and the slime of the fetid swamp of the Bataclan in the form of both Hughes' own and the fans’ initial moving, human and peaceful responses to the massacre.

Regardless of the complexity added into the matter by looking at Hughes’ personal life I still want strongly to argue that the lily that flowered in November was real and we should remain deeply grateful for it’s fragrant blossom.

But this new, more complex picture of Hughes, raises the stubbornly difficult question I mentioned at the beginning and which I want to place before you today. It has been succinctly raised by the Cambridge-based philosopher, Raymond Geuss when he notes that:

“It is natural for thinking people in the West to start by assuming that the world is (finally) “in order” and trying to formulate explicitly and then “reconcile” the various claims made by the different authorities.”

As you heard in our readings he points out that in our culture we are deeply wedded to the idea that, for example, “the gospels of Mark and John can be made to tally. The emperor, the pope and the local lord “really” are demanding us to lead the same kind of life. St Paul can be rendered consistent with Aristotle.”

Well, it seems to me, that we are also tempted to think something similar about Hughes, namely, that his moving, humane immediate response to the massacre must somehow be able to be (easily) reconciled with all the horrible stuff we've just heard into some final coherent, ordered and good whole. But is that the case? We may desperately want it to be so but, as we look about our contemporary world with the knowledge we have today, can we really, in our heart of hearts, say that we believe this? After all we all know how deeply inconsistent we can, ourselves, be even if we think  (hope) our inconsistencies are not as great as those shown by Hughes.

A traditional Christian minister or philosopher will, of course, be at pains to assure you that the world is (finally) in order and that in the unity of God, or the Absolute, all these things can be reconciled in some ultimate good. But I am neither a traditional Christian minister nor philosopher and my job in this free-religious, free-thinking tradition isn’t to promulgate some pre-determined doctrinal truth but to help raise and talk about the stubborn human questions that again and again present themselves to us in our world — and the problem of Jesse Hughes is a stubborn and deeply challenging one.

Marina Hyde reveals this challenge when, in an op-ed piece for the Guardian last week, she began by saying that these were:

“Infuriating times for people of rectitude, who have discovered that Eagles of Death Metal frontman Jesse Hughes wasn’t the right sort of person at all to have been involved in a terrorist massacre.” 

What??!! — the "right" sort of person to have been involved in massacre??!! And who the hell would that be and who the hell should do the choosing??!! Good grief . . .

Hyde’s words only make any sense if you are minded to continue to insist that the world is (finally) in order. But come on, here at least most of us know that there is no ordering Devil, no God, nor any gods, who are “up” or “down” there making conscious decisions to place this or that right and/or wrong person in any massacre. It seems to me to be more honest and truthful simply to acknowledge that, again and again, we are going to come face to face with the dumb fact that some things do, and some things do not, make sense. It doesn't seem to make sense that a gun-toting, wild-living, out of control rock and roller was able, in the immediate moments and days following the massacre, to behave in a remarkable, loving and non-violent way. But Hughes did; please don’t ever forget this, he did. And, whilst in a general sense I think Jesus’ teaching we heard earlier contains some helpful truth, when it comes to human beings it is simply never true that what we call a "bad" tree cannot bear good fruit. We forget this truth at our peril.

This is why I so value Thoreau’s naturalistic image of the white, fragrant lily emerging from the swamp. It offers me the ever hopeful message that the way nature is structured ensures that the things we human beings consider to be morally and aesthetically good and beautiful can always emerge from our amoral universe, from the muck and slime of a swamp, a “bad” tree, a person like Jesse Holmes or a brutal massacre like that we saw at the Bataclan — lilies do bloom.

It seems to me that our role as human beings is simply to do our disciplined best to create and sustain the kind of environments — philosophical or religious gardens or ecologies if you like —  where, over the long-term we are able to encourage more lilies to appear and flourish than than fetid swamps.

Lastly I’d encourage in us a recognition that the moral and aesthetic order we create in our human gardens is never a final order (one which mirrors a more perfect other, supernatural world) but one we always have to be creating and nurturing ourselves. Hard and frustrating work at times, yes, but along the way, if we do our work well, there is good reason and evidence to believe that there will be more opportunities to enjoy the fragrance and beauty of the flowers than there will be opportunities to fall into fetid swamps.
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