Can dionysus be tamed with compassion...?

Here is an fascinating question that I am going to explore at length over the next few weeks: why is it that some rock and jazz musicians are able to step back from the abyss that often consumes the rock and roll/jazz experience while others seem to leap into their own destruction? This came about during a recent conversation concerning ways to get my doctoral writing into an accessible written form.

As we talked, two questions emerged about the connection between rock musicians and Dionysus - the Greek god of wine, music, dance and madness - and its implication:

+ Why should people of faith give any positive attention to the Dionysian impulse in rock/jazz that by definition leads to the loss of self and destruction?

+ What literally saves/rescues some in this genre from the inherent madness and death of the Dionysian energies?



A recap of the story of Dionysus - the god of ecstasy who is also known as Bacchus -tells us:

... that he was the son of Zeus and of Semele, daughter of the founder of Thebes. Zeus's jealous wife, Hera, wanted to know the identity of the child's father. She disguised herself as Semele's old nurse and went to see Semele. When Semele told her that Zeus was the father, Hera challenged her to prove her claim by having Zeus appear in all his glory. Semele did so. However, because Zeus was the god of lightning, his power was too much for a human to bear. Semele was turned into ashes.

Before Semele died, Zeus pulled Dionysus out of her womb. Then cutting open his thigh, Zeus placed the unborn child inside. A few months later he opened up his thigh, and Dionysus was born. The infant was left with Semele's sister Ino, who disguised him as a girl to protect him from Hera. As punishment for helping Dionysus, Hera drove Ino and her husband insane.

Some legends say that Hera also drove Dionysus insane. Thereafter, Dionysus wandered the world accompanied by his teacher, Silenus, bands of satyrs, and his women followers, who were known as maenads. When Dionysus traveled to Egypt, he introduced the cultivation of grapes and the art of winemaking. When he went to Libya, he established an oracle in the desert. He also journeyed to India, conquering all who opposed him and bringing laws, cities, and wine to the country On his way back to Greece, he met his grandmother, the earth goddess Cybele. She cured him of his madness and taught him the mysteries of life and resurrection.

(Dionysus -Encyclopedia of Myths: http://www.mythencyclopedia.com/Cr-Dr/Dionysus.html)

The stories also speak of how after participating in the revelries of wine, music and ecstasy the women followers of Dionysus regularly devoured animals - and sometimes the king himself - in a fit of abandon. Now, it doesn't take a genius to note that there are clear parallels here with the life and death of "the king of rock and roll" Elvis Presley - to say nothing of other rock and jazz luminaries from Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson and Kurt Cobian to Marvin Gaye and John Coltrane.

+ One hunch that I have about the first question - why people of faith should pay attention to rock music - is that the Dionysian impulse resurfaced in Western popular culture through artists like Elvis and Chuck Berry to bring balance to a sexually repressed culture. The gift rock and roll first shared was an embodied and joyful sexuality. (For more on this see James Nelson, Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology, 1978)

+ Another idea about why this Dionysian impulse was necessary has something to do with the way it "incarnated" the social justice ideals of the civil rights movement a generation before their political manifestations. In a conversation that Bono had with Coretta Scott King, she spoke of the way Elvis brought together black and white, male and female, country and gospel and the blues long before the first demonstration. In a Rolling Stone tribute to Elvis, Bono wrote:

Out of Tupelo, Mississippi - out of Memphis, Tennessee, came this green, sharkskin-suited girl chaser, wearing eye shadow - a trucker-dandy white boy who must have risked his hide to act so black and dress so gay... this was punk rock... this was revolt. He was a Fifties-style icon who was what the Sixties were capable of and then suddenly were not.

When I was talking with Coretta Scott King and John Lewis and some of the other leaders of the American civil-rights movement, they reminded me of the cultural apartheid that rock and roll was up against. I think the hill they climbed would have been much steeper were it not for the racial inroads black music was making on white pop culture. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival all were introduced to the blues through Elvis. He was already doing what the civil-rights movement was demanding: breaking down barriers. You don't think of Elvis as political, but that is politics: changing the way people see the world. (Bono on Elvis, Rolling Stone, March 26, 2004)

+ The second question - why some are devoured while others are not - has something to do with the presence of God's grace. Like those in AA will testify, there is a love at work in the world that literally and figuratively "rescues" some of us with ears to hear from the abyss but not everyone. To be sure, the invitation and possibility is open to all, but not everyone can or will respond. Springsteen did - Bono, Nick Cave and Joni Mitchell, too - but not Coltrane or Charlie Parker.

This song - Love Rescue Me - was written by Bono and Dylan after Bono kept playing it and thinking it was a Dylan song he had heard someplace. The older bard assured him he had never written it so... they finished it together. Ten years later, the children of Omagh, recorded it like... a hymn.


These are the same folk whose families were murdered and blown apart by IRA holdouts on August 15, 1998. These beautiful young people have discovered the healing balance between the wild excess of rock and roll and its deep appeal to God's presence within and among us all. Can I say they are awakened from the numbness by the energy of the music and disciplined to focus it by the spirit of compassion? Is this a healthy unity of body, mind and spirit? Interestingly, it was the Omaugh massacre that rattled the faith of U2 the most - and inspired them to write their most cynical and jarring spirit/justice laments: "Peace on Earth."

Clearly, the young people in the Omaugh chorus feel the potential that the music evokes - a longing for community and trust - and use the music to build bridges on both an ethical and aesthetic level. Clearly U2 believes that music can bring people together in unique ways. I think that there is a playful creativity here that is trying to find a way to embrace a wounded social reality - a tension or paradox that is life giving but complicated - the artistic expression of Psalm 85:

Love and Truth meet in the street,
Right Living and Whole Living embrace and kiss!
Truth sprouts green from the ground,
Right Living pours down from the skies!
Oh yes! God gives Goodness and Beauty;
our land responds with Bounty and Blessing.
Right Living strides out before him,
and clears a path for his passage.


I have more to say about all of this - looking at the Apollonian/Dionysian dialectic as well as the gentle warrior ideas from the men's movement - but that is enough for today. I would love to know what you are thinking and some of the insights that go through your heart and mind, ok? Please be in touch...

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