The Songs of Simon: Evangelism in the Home of Rock 'n' Roll

There is a new exhibit in Cleveland’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, featuring the words and music of Paul Simon. The collection includes rarely seen recordings and never-before-shared early lyric sheets of some of his greatest hits. I love Paul Simon, and it’s no surprise that he is one of the most beloved musicians in American music history. I suppose my interest not only stems from well-crafted music, but from a lyrical investigation of what is true. So often good songs (especially in rock) dance with truth, spinning around it like a whizzing carnival ride, taking us in and out and dizzying us, while we remain thankful that it’s based in something, that the ride in fact is attached to the steady ground. These investigations frequently center around God and man, to question, to lament, to wring hands. The same is true for Simon.  "For somebody who's not a religious person, God comes up a lot in my songs," Paul Simon said in 2012. We all do rotate (and pretty quickly too) around the sun.  It’s good that in school they not only teach math and science, but humanities as well. The world changes sometimes by dollars and cents, but also by rhythms, sounds, and stories.

I’m particularly interested in Paul Simon because though he was raised Jewish, and confesses to be a “non-spiritual” person, he also went to visit John Stott in 2004, to sincerely discuss with a great theologian what this Christian claim was all about.  "I was interested in speaking to the John Stotts of the world and other evangelicals because my instinct was that the animosity is not as deep as being depicted in the media, and anecdotally speaking, I have found that that's the truth," he said. People, no matter their worldview, have an astounding amount of things in common; we can have dialogue with people from all walks of life and we will find that the Christian view rings true on many scales. We need not be afraid – our worldview makes sense, and everyone else is wondering about these things too.

You can read more about this visit with John Stott here:

One of my favorite Paul Simon songs is a little known one called “Rewrite,” from the album So Beautiful and So What:

I'm working on my rewrite, that's right
I'm gonna change the ending
Gonna throw away my title
And toss it in the trash
Every minute after midnight
All the time I'm spending
Is just for working on my rewrite, that's right
I'm gonna turn it into cash

I'll eliminate the pages
Where the father has a breakdown
And he has to leave the family
But he really meant no harm
Gonna substitute a car chase
And a race across the rooftops
When the father saves the children
And he holds them in his arms

Who doesn’t understand this concept of wanting to write your story again? Perhaps you want to eliminate the pages of your own construction or the pages on which you are a victim. Paul Simon wrote an entire musical around this concept in “The Capeman,” which flopped, but told the story of Salvador Agron, a teenage Peurto Rican gang member who was convicted of killing two men, who became a Christian while in prison. Agron wrote about the dangers of gang violence and set up a fund so that proceeds would be given to his victims’ families.  The musical was controversial from the beginning, because it told the murderer’s story as one of redemption. This whole album, So Beautiful or So What, wrestles with spiritual themes, and as the title indicates, either this planet is beautifully constructed or it’s the so-what of happy accidents.

We should seek to evangelize like Romantics write literature – not to just offer clever responses to the queries of the day, but to offer timeless, lasting answers that have given life for centuries, and will do so for centuries more.  The wounded heart is not a phenomenon that crept up in the nineties, and family discord wasn’t something new sixties. It’s exciting to think of a prisoner hearing the gospel in this decade and a peasant in France hearing the same words 400 years ago, both of them coming to Christ and going to sleep at night with that same kind of lasting peace. The line “bridge over troubled water” came from a song Paul Simon heard that was released in 1958 (and he gives credit to this song), but that song was based on an old spiritual that slaves sang even before the Civil War called “Mary Don’t You Weep,” which has now been recorded by numerous artists. The discord sown in songs like these have been around forever, and as genius artists like Simon heal hurt with melody, these eternal chords shake around in the Christian mind as well, as we know the pain well, but we know also of a time when there will be pain, or hurt, or death (Rev. 21:4). 

I used to sit around my pallid Brooklyn apartment and let music like this bind up my broken heart in the form of Elliott Smith, Joseph Arthur (who’s from NE Ohio!), and Radiohead. The sound of silence was my friend and the city was full of neon gods we’d made. When I became a Christian it didn’t distance me from these artists but helped me appreciate the music even more. I looked through a different kaleidoscope, one with darks and lights, but one that ultimately pointed to a cross.  It was right that after 9/11 in New York, the city’s most influential outlet, Saturday Night Live, turned to Paul Simon to sing and bring comfort to a hurting city and nation. He’s a voice that is trustworthy, because he’s honest and approaches these hardships with kindness and humility. I do pray that he finds the answer, and for we evangelists, let us always sing, “Jesus loves you more than you will know, wo wo wo.” Let’s love the city. Cleveland still rocks.  

Mark RobertsonComment