The Three Pauls

[World, April 17, 1993]

Thanks to the eclectic tastes of my thirteen-year-old son, whenever a tape player is on I’m apt to be serenaded by one of the Pauls—Simon or McCartney. Hours of exposure have reaquainted me with these luminaries of my adolesence, and have led, surprisingly, to new reflections on the mystery of election.

Simon and McCartney have much in common. Both are awesomely talented entertainers who have been at the crest of fame for decades, and both appear to draw their songs from an overflowing stream-of-consciousness. While many artists who use this “out of the treasure of the heart” technique wind up with perverse and dark products, McCartney’s work is full of bright charm, and although Simon mixes whimsy with poignancy his work never falls into despair.

After some listening, however, deeper differences begin to emerge. Perhaps the most noticeable difference—not to be unkind—is that Simon’s obviously got a few more sandwiches at the picnic, if you catch my drift. But the surprise is that Simon’s work is full of Christian references.

There are angels and archangels, crosses, churches, church bells, St. Cecelia, prayerbooks, prayers, Pilgrims, faith, blessing, heaven, holy water, mercy, God—and that’s just the two most recent albums. Yet Simon isn’t from a Christian background (in another song he describes himself and ex-wife Carrie Fisher as “one and one-half wandering Jews”). So where does the persistent shower of Christian imagery come from? These songs don’t demonstrate an orthodox Christian theology; they rather give us a glimpse of someone who seems to be haunted by God. Simon tells us that, as the hit “Graceland” was demanding to be written, he gradually realized that it is not about the Presley mansion but about the yearning for a land of grace where “we all will be received.” This longing runs through all his work.

But aren’t Christian references so imbued in our culture that any stream-of-consciousness writer is bound to surface them? In that case, why are they missing from McCartney’s songs? Tune after tune goes by, bright and chipper and two-dimensional, with scant reference to God. Yes, he does a good job on “family values,” both personally and professionally. He sings touchingly the rewards of home life—he has made it a priority to be with his wife every night of their long marriage—and recounts with sincere affection his father’s wise advice. But Christianity is not present here. The vacuum is especially curious because McCartney must have absorbed some Christian elements from his Catholic mother; her death in his early teens must have led to some deep wrestling with God. Yet no sign of spiritual awakening, or even curiousity, is evident here. Whatever it is that the Holy Spirit does when he stirs someone up, he seems to be doing in Simon’s life—while McCartney appears to be happily numb.

Another Paul, the one we honor as a Saint, wrote in I Corinthians that there are such things as spiritual and unspiritual people. The spiritual ones can comprehend the things of God, but to the unspiritual they are folly. They just don’t get it. The mystery is that it is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit to awaken spiritual hunger, to stir the soul to seek the hunter who is seeking him. Without this awakening, the path to salvation cannot be desired, much less begun.

This is not just a matter of comparative brainpower. I recall conversations with one of the most intelligent women I’ve ever known—a fascinating person whose memory was as limitless as her curiousity, able to glide with familiarity through many centuries of art, history, and science. Yet any attempt to steer the conversation toward the Lord was met with, not resistance, but this same certain numbness—as if her inner radio simply couldn’t be tuned to that frequency. On the other hand, early in my husband’s pastorate it was a black-jacketed motorcyclist, unlettered and with grimy fingernails, who urgently brought us ever-more challenging theological questions as the Holy Spirit hammered him home.

St. Paul, Paul Simon, and Paul McCartney remind us of people in our own lives who are wrestling furiously with God, or are more quietly, persistently troubled by him, or are happily oblivious without him. When God is obviously dealing with someone we move easily to fervent prayer for a good outcome. But when God seems to be allowing someone to lead an complacent life bereft of spiritual curiousity, we must be doubly prayerful that his loving justice will not forget anyone, not even contented, good-natured, family-centered millionaires.

On an early album, Paul Simon recorded a song based on E. A. Robinson’s poem “Richard Cory.” The song describes a town’s foremost citizen, a wealthy, handsome man—who one night “went home…and put a bullet through his head.” Cory had gained the whole world and yet, in some terrifyingly hidden way, day by day had lost his soul.

To my knowlege the only artist, other than Simon, ever to record this song is Paul McCartney; it is the only song the two of them have in common. Perhaps there are more reasons than we know to hope we’ll see all the Pauls in “Graceland.” But the Holy Spirit must call us first, and rock our complacency with his love.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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