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Common People

There's few songs quite like Pulp's Common People to jeopardise one's vocal cords. It came on in the car on the way to church the other day, and away we went, belting it out full volume leaving little in reserve for the song-sermon-sandwich that awaited. And oh! did we sing it with feeling. I can hardly begin to tell you how much I really meant it, y'know? She would never understand -- how could she? How could she have any idea how it feels? y'know? to live one's life with no meaning ... no control. Sure, she could go through the motions -- rent a run-down little flat above a chemist, spend her days behind the counter in MacDonalds, acquire a taste for Benson and Hedge's finest, make a name for herself at the local pool hall, shrug her high-brow education off like a sharp suit jacket in a sports bar ... But at the end of the day, lying there weary in bed, still smelling of chip fat, and $%*!-it there's another cockroach --maybe she'd stick it out another night or two or ten or a year's worth, but each and every one she'd know that all she really had to do was ring her dad. He'd bail her out and set her back up in a life of comfortable privilege in no time. Oh, you should've heard how animated I got trying to impress on her that she was just a tourist, with barely a clue what life was like for all the rest of us. Ironic really, given that, in the context of the song, I hardly qualify as 'common people' any more than she does.

So, what is it, I wondered (as we snuck an habitual eleven minutes late into the service), that so resonates with me about this song? Is it pure nostalgia? 'Different Class' featured routinely on the soundtrack to my turbulent teenage years; it was also on my MP3 player when I first took up running in my early twenties, when MP3 players only held a handful of albums and content refreshment was off-puttingly arduous. That's certainly a lot of airtime, and a lot of memorable accompanying experiences (I'd be hard-pressed to forget the first time I wheezed my way up Constitution Hill).

But I was in church -- where's your piety, woman? you can't just sit there thinking about 90s britpop and school days and jogging. So, during the "giving of notices" I delved a little deeper into the lyrical content and quickly found it to be a mine of 'compare and contrast' allusions to Jesus (what isn't?); by the time the sermon began [1] I had half-constructed a three-parter of my own ...

'Common People' and the Incarnation a flat above a shop, cut your hair and get a job...
Here is a wealthy young woman intent on slumming it with ordinary people. There's lots of things she can do to live like they live, look like they look; it is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition to becoming 'one of them'. The Bible makes the astonishing and oft-bewildering claim that, in Jesus, we see God made one of us:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. [...] He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. [...] And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-4,11,14)
But true empathy is difficult, perhaps impossible, if you haven't really lived it for yourself. What can the daughter of a prosperous Grecian know about struggling to make ends meet in Britain? The security of knowing she has riches in reserve is bound to undermine her superficial brush with poverty. Does Jesus' divine nature obscure his experience of earthly human life? Is it somehow 'easier' for him? The writer of Hebrews is keen to stress otherwise:
Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:17-18) 
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
'Common People' and the Garden of Gethsemene
...if you called your dad he could stop this, oh yeah...
The main point of complaint for her love interest rests on how easy it would be for her to just duck out when she'd had enough. For him, that undermines the whole exercise as, well, just that. Couldn't Jesus also simply 'call his dad', if he was really the Son of God? The answer is ... well, yes! He says as much in his own words:
"Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matthew 26:53-54)
Except -- and the hint's there, already -- he doesn't. He partners with his Father in a powerful redeeming plan for humankind and, having lived a perfect self-denying human life he undergoes a degrading and spiritually and physically agonising human death...
And he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. (Luke 22:41-44)
And he does this willingly, for us -- we, whom he became one of...
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)
'Common People' and the Beatitudes are amazed that they exist, and they burn so bright whilst you can only wonder why...
Pure Beat. Love it. Mid-20th century writer Kerouac coined the term to describe the dropouts, the marginalised, the non-conformists, the struggling-to-get-by. Beat. Deadbeat, beat down, down-trodden. Or...?
It is because I am Beat, that is, I believe in beatitude and that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son to it... Who knows, but that the universe is not one vast sea of compassion actually, the veritable holy honey, beneath all this show of personality and cruelty? (Jack Kerouac, 1958, Brandeis Forum: "Is There A Beat Generation?")
My eyelids leapt the first time I read 'beat' as a contraction of 'beatitude'. A strange word, resonant for those familiar with traditional gospel translations but hardly conversationally prevalent. Y'know -- I think this calls for an official, dictionary definition: "Beatitude: Supreme blessedness or happiness" (OED definition 1a).

Really? Those most inconsequential in the world, most disregarded ... supremely blessed? Happy?! At any rate, Jack Kerouac was by no means the first to count them so ...
And he [Jesus] lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets." (Luke 6:20-23) 
Jesus, in the years of his earthly ministry, sought out and encouraged and befriended and healed and taught 'common people' -- and he held up the most impoverished, the most disenfranchised, as those most truly blessed in the power-dynamic-overturning reality of his Kingdom. (Though that's not to say, at all, that he considered the existence of worldly need as something to be celebrated in itself, nor perpetuated by those in a position to effect a change -- see, e.g., Matthew 25:35-46). And still today, those who respond to his invite to follow "burn so bright" -- or, well, we should, though I confess with sadness that it doesn't always look that way ...
Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life... (Philippians 2:14-16a)
In Conclusion

So, there you have it. Turns out that Common People is mostly a song about Jesus. At least, it is when I listen to it. Which means, erm, no-one can tell me off for thinking about it in church? right?

[1] It being a really rather good sermon, I found myself suitably undistracted [MP3 link, though it was a bit interactive so I don't know how that'll play in audio].

[Thumbnail cc from lydia_shiningbrightly on Flickr.]


Mark said…
Funny you should say. I thought I'd google 'Pulp "Common people" Jesus' because I'd had the same thoughts and wondered if it was A THING. Seems it's not quite A THING but at least someone else has noticed it. I see you've made cryptography your business - I've had an on and off thing (I'm like that around binary) with hacking/cracking so perhaps it's a particular mindset of trying to see pictures in what appears to be a fire. I understand you're a Christian. I'm an atheist myself but hopefully we can both agree that whatever our differences, Jarvis Cocker makes a smashing Mary Magdalene in this context.
I'm aware that I've now possibly caused you to subconsciously make that substitution whenever Mary Magdalene is mentioned in the future. Sorry about that.
Hi there! Always nice/reassuring to find out that someone else has noticed the same not-quite-a-thing as me :-)

Hehe, I hadn't made the Cocker/Magdalene connection before now. I can see how that comparison might hold if one goes in for the gnostic 'wife of Jesus'-type theories...which honestly are kinda hard to derive from the most widely-accepted early sources (i.e. the New Testament). Personally, I'd want to suggest that the historical preoccupation with debates around Mary Magdalene's sexual or romantic significance to the story rather (not accidentally?) obscures the gender hierarchy-disrupting implications of the apparent status of herself and other women as disciples...

Re. crypto: as it happens, my sub-field (side-channel analysis) is all about tracking inadvertent information leaks...which may well predispose me to keep an eye out for unintended messages elsewhere! Not that they're hard to find when it comes to Jesus in popular culture. Christianity has so widely pervaded human thought and experience in recent centuries (sadly, sometimes through coercive means) that sceptics and believers alike have much to say on the subject -- consciously, subconsciously, or entirely accidentally such that other people read it so. Feels important to me to try to engage with these varied perspectives. On which note, thank you for sharing a bit of yours!