This week I got a link from Eric Clapton’s Facebook page to the video of his most recent rendition of Tears in Heaven. That sent me on a minor binge of listening to some of his classics on line and from my old CD collection.
It doesn’t take much actually –– just a reminder, some free time and a temporarily working web connection. I’ve been a Clapton fan for as long as I’ve been able to independently define for myself what sort of music I like. The back cover blurb for the philosophy textbook I wrote has a brief list of facts that, in my experience, pretty much all high school students I’ve ever taught would agree with me on:
– The world is round.
– This shirt is red.
– My mother loves me.
– Clapton rules!
– Mosquitoes suck!
But in posting the link to my own Facebook page I made what might strike some as a pretty radical and superficial comment: I find Tears in Heaven to be “probably the most beautiful and sincere original Gospel song of the past generation.”
What? An aging old rocker/bluesman who has done more to promote souls being sold to the devil than any other musician still recording today gets to have his music labeled as “Gospel” just because he uses a Christian afterlife motif in mourning the loss of his son?! Yes and no. Yes, he does get to be included among Gospel artists regardless of his history. No, it is not the passing references to heaven which make this a Gospel song. Time to unpack.
What makes Tears in Heaven Gospel for me is that it is a song about grief, searching for the essence of personal identity, discovering unworthiness, accepting redemption and choosing to move forward with a new openness to life on the basis of finding the grace of acceptance in spite of continuing grief and awareness of unworthiness. Those elements are what the Christian Gospel, in its most basic terms, is really all about. Let me unpack that a bit further still.
Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven? Would it be the same…
Beyond the incredible hurt of having lost someone who had given his life profound new meaning –– his first son, Conor –– Eric is asking if souls beyond bodies are capable of recognizing each other. That’s not an easy question to answer with certainty, no matter what sort of basis one is working from. The hope that those who have passed on are not relationally lost to us for ever is certainly one of the reasons people in every part of the world are so prone to be religious. But beyond that there is the question of, in the areas where it most matters, what is one’s fame and reputation really worth?
Or as Jesus put it, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matt. 16:26)
Building name recognition in terms of our personal “branding” processes is one of the most important aspects of human ambition, regardless of one’s area of specialty. Recognizing the importance of that, I find it deeply embarrassing when I am unable to remember former students’ names when I meet them in public, and I in an odd way I find it somehow comforting when other old acquaintances get my name mixed up as well. Shakespeare implied within his plays that this sort of reputation building is the closest thing to eternal life we as humans can really hope for. Among other places we see this in the words he put into the mouth of Henry V before the battle of Agincourt:
…Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
But more than whether or not his fame will last, what Eric really wants to know is if he would continue to be significant to the one he loves –– if love, parental love in this case, can survive the tragedy of death. Can love really be as strong as death, as the Bible says (S of S 8:6)? That, more than his professional reputation, could provide a means of not loosing his own soul as such. And with this realization comes the awareness that he cannot acquire this lasting connection of love on his own merits:
Would you hold my hand if I saw you in heaven? Would you help me stand…
Grace is all about coming together with those who don’t deserve acceptance, and being accepted even when we don’t deserve it. Eric was painfully aware of his slow learning curve in adjusting to being a father. He is asking not only for his son’s acceptance but his son’s help in being able to stand. For someone who had a history of substance abuse in various forms as a way of dealing with deep personal sadness, being able to stand after a tragedy like the death of a pre-school aged child is not a foregone conclusion. One cannot buy this sort of strength on the basis of one’s other merits. It can only be found through reaching out for acceptance from a point of vulnerability.
This acceptance of those in need, regardless of how powerful or powerless, how ceremonially clean or ceremonially unacceptable they happened to be, really is core to the message of Jesus. When those in need came to him, be it the powerful Roman centurion (Matt. 8:5-13) or the shy woman with bleeding problems (Luke 8:43-48), the synagogue supervisor (Mark 5:22-24) or the prostitute (Luke 7:36-39), for whatever reason, he took their hands and helped them to stand. Being able to make that sort of undeserved connection and being “made whole” by it is the gift Jesus came to give us.
I must be strong, and carry on, ‘cause I know I don’t belong here in heaven.
This lyric really sums up the whole experience of redemption then. A sense of connection has been found which provides a perspective of being “here in heaven”. Heaven, more than anything else, is the state of knowing that love has given us a secure identity and existential foundation for the rest of what we hope to do or become. This isn’t something we get on credit to pay back later, nor is it something that we can claim to have earned in advance. We are forgiven for our flaws and accepted for who we are, and in spite of our on-going weaknesses making us aware that we “don’t belong,” heaven begins to open up to us as an experience. This in turn invites the proper response of wanting to “be strong and carry on” through the on-going sadness that life involves. It makes us want to be better people and gives us the strength to become better people. This isn’t the full extent of our hope as Christians, but it is our fundamental starting point.
Beyond the door there’s peace I’m sure…
What lies beyond this life is something we cannot explore in any scientific way, other than to see how it relates to the forms of “heaven” we reach in this life. We hope to escape from the ways in which “time can break you down” without losing the peace of being connected through love with important powers beyond ourselves. There are good reasons to be humble about how certain our knowledge about such things is, but there’s really no good reason not to believe in and hope for a state of timeless connection with all our tears dried once we get “beyond the door”.
The one thing that Tears in Heaven does not do is to promote a particular brand of Christian or any other metaphysical belief as such. It doesn’t give any magic words or creedal formulas for reaching heaven. It doesn’t automatically lend itself to particular churches borrowing it as part of their organizational marketing campaigns the way most gospel music throughout history has. I find that to be an integral part of the song’s beauty actually. If the above message can be presented in a way that doesn’t depend on such formulas, so much the better. If this leaves some people feeling uneasy about the ambiguity of the message, I can only hope that the uneasiness causes them to dig deeper into their own understandings of love and redemption and heaven.
Since the death of his son Clapton has embraced sobriety and fatherhood as deeply meaningful elements of his life and lifestyle. I can respect that as much as I can the music itself. I’m still not going to pretend to have the right to claim him as a kindred soul or anything, but I can say that clearly the message of redemption in this way has been real for him. I add my voice to the millions who both sympathize with his loss and appreciate where the experience has brought him, both as an artist and as a person. So I repeat my starting assertion: I believe Tears in Heaven really is the most beautiful and sincere original Gospel song of the past generation. And as a father prone to grieve about the state of my own fatherhood at times, I fully join him in appreciating what forms of heaven I am able to find in these relationships in spite of myself. I hope others find the same in their own journeys.
Let us pray.