Among the many interesting experiences of parenting teenagers is to listen to the same arguments one once used against one’s own parents turned back against oneself. When I was a kid, I remember trying to justify my music choices to my parents (or myself) with the argument, “Well, I don’t listen to the lyrics, I just like the music.” This was sorta true in that I wasn’t drawn to bands like Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, and Motley Crüe for their, ahem, lyrical profundity. It was the crunching guitars, wailing vocals, and pounding rhythms that attracted my teenage heart. But of course, I knew full well that the lyrics were profane and raunchy, at best, offensive at worst. I doubt my parents found the “I just listen for the music” argument convincing then. I certainly don’t have much use for it when struggling through some of what passes for music in my kids’ minds these days. So it goes. Nothing new under the sun and all that.
Speaking of Guns N’ Roses, The Globe and Mail ran an article this week called “Hearts can change: The fragile redemption of Axl Rose.” It seems Mr. Rose is turning himself into a bit of a puzzle to the intelligentsia. On the one hand, he has a decidedly unsavoury past. Aside from the usual sordid tales of drugs, sex, and violence that fuelled the prime decades of Guns N’ Roses’ career, there are lyrics in their catalogue that spew hatred toward immigrants and homosexuals and celebrate violence against women. There’s also a history of actual violence against actual women (his ex-wife, for example). The man would seem a walking advertisement for the necessity of the #metoo movement, a “deplorable” of the very worst kind.
Ah, but on the other hand, Axl has been busy rehabilitating his image. Chief among his virtues, it seems, is his growing antipathy toward Donald Trump, specifically Trump’s denial of climate change in the wake of the California forest fires. Deciding to speak the president’s native tongue, Axl took to Twitter to scold Trump for his ignorance and cynical manipulation of tragedy for political gain. Axl also flew a Latin American waitress who received a note saying “we only tip citizens” instead of a tip to one of his recent concerts. And he’s in therapy. An impressive combination, no doubt, but one might be forgiven for wondering if it’s enough to counteract all the awfulness the man has produced over the years. Is this what penance looks like these days? A few socially approved tweets and a handful of good intentions? Perhaps Jian Ghomeshi’s quickest path to public absolution would be to limber up his tweeting fingers and start bashing Trump.
This is among the dilemmas of the digital age, with all of the moral policing, shaming, and self-righteous preening that saturate our public discourse. How many skeletons is it permissible to have in one’s closet? What kind? What displays of remorse are up to the task of transferring someone from the category of “pariah” to “hero?” How does one rid oneself of labels like “racist,” “misogynist,” or “abuser.” How does a leper become clean? Is it as simple as lining up behind the right causes or demonstrating that one has the right enemies? How does a heart change? How would we ever know that it had?
Speaking of slimy dudes, King David could also have been a walking advertisement for the necessity of the #metoo movement. Casual with women and violence, manipulative, deceitful, hungry for power. He had his redeeming qualities, too, of course. And, yes, he was certainly a product of his social location. But still. There’s some pretty appalling stuff in his story. But whatever else might be said about David, the man understood where a heart that wanted to change had to start:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge
David may have regretted how his behaviour affected his social standing, but he knew that, first and foremost, his transgressions were against God, that his deeds had torn at the very moral fabric of creation. He knew that blotting out transgressions was a task that only God could responsibly be trusted with. Only God can love and forgive in such a way as to do justly by victims and at the same time to respond to the deeply human desire for redemption, to not be defined by our worst moments, our stupidest words, our most violence and selfish acts. Only God can truly wash away an iniquity. Only God can step into the thickets of pain that we cause for ourselves and others and speak the healing word. Only God is truly justified in judgment over whether or not a heart has changed.
I went to a concert earlier this week. We were given the tickets and we had no other plans, so off we went to rock and roll on a Tuesday night. I had never heard of The Glorious Sons before, but a quick search on iTunes gave me a reasonable idea of what to expect, which is to say not much. The long-haired lead singer manically swayed and pranced and screamed around the stage for a few hours. He reminded me of Axl Rose back in the day. He looked the part and seemed to want to. There were crunching guitars and pounding rhythms. It was loud and proud and not half-bad. I tapped my feet and hummed along, thankful that I couldn’t understand the words.