A Behemoth from Winnipeg

How the band The Guess Who inadvertently sounded a gospel note. /

Saint Paul said, "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8, ESV). This is the main thing to know, and the main thing everyone needs to hear, at least before she dies. But we also read that the Lord put forth Behemoth who is "the chief of the ways of God" (Job 40:19, KJV). Behemoth was created to stun an answerer-back with the sheer shattering force of what God can do. Only God's imagination could make Behemoth. You could say that Behemoth was created to give massive corroboration to the Everyman of life that he or she is not God.

I've spent a lot of time over the years in the company of Behemoths, which is to say, in the company of visions and dreams that corroborate God. It's not that you set out to find things that corroborate God. But things come to you. Data find you. Phenomena leap right into your lap.

You see a movie or hear a song, and it's the power of God. You're overcome by God's grace through a symbol. Or you're dazzled by God's control, and not yours, through a parable of grace.

Here is a recent example, or at least, recent for me. It's a Behemoth that is able to bring the message of God into the here and now. Let's talk about The Guess Who.

The Guess Who was a rock band from Canada that had a string of top ten records in the late 1960s and early 1970s: "These Eyes," "Laughing," "American Woman," "No Time," "Hand Me Down World," "No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature," "Clap for the Wolfman"—and there were several others. They were the soundtrack of our lives back then, and they live on through their use in television and movies.

But The Guess Who was not just a successful rock band; The Guess Who was a Behemoth. Their work revealed something. It put its finger on something. It pointed to something beyond itself.

There is no better example of what they saw and heard than their song "Pain Train," the opening track of their celebrated performance album, Live at the Paramount (1972). "Pain Train" is for me their signature song. It's about irreparable loss and the oncoming pain of life. It's a scorcher and a rock anthem.

Train comin' too fast
Pain, is it really gonna last?

And you still refuse to see
You still refuse to see
And you still refuse to see

Can you hear it like a
Train, comin' too fast
Pain, is it really gonna last?

There are dozens of such songs in the track list of The Guess Who that are x-rays of suffering and urgent pleas for aid—even, for God's aid.

Did rock fans of those long-gone days see a Behemoth in their music? I, for one, didn't, though I did pick up the plaintive note in the vocals of the lead singer. Somehow I connected with the pain in his voice. So I bought the records.

The band members were all in their early 20s. They were led by a singer/songwriter Burton Cummings, guitarist/songwriter Randy Bachman, and later guitarist/songwriter Kurt Winter. They spent their whole lives—prior to becoming famous—in Winnipeg, Manitoba (O Canada, I salute thee!). And they rolled out these completely realistic descriptions of life: an oncoming and fast-moving train of pain. Where, at the age of 25, did they get such wisdom? They were a Behemoth.

And there's more. Listen to their biggest hits: "These Eyes," "Laughing," "Broken," "Hang on to Your Life," and "Sour Suite." These songs exist within the country of loss. They were written in suits of mourning and became anguished cries for deliverance. Some of them were addressed directly to God. Here are some Bible-sounding lines from "Three More Days:"

… Looking out the window down the road
And I see the same damn thing.

Three days to get it on
Three days to get it off
And three more days to die.

And I'm six feet down
And I'm asking the good Lord up in heaven


I compare the urgency of these songs to William Cowper's poem The Castaway (1799), wherein the Evangelical poet lays out the desperate case of a drowning man, which concludes:

No voice divine the storm allay'd,
No light propitious shone;
When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
We perish'd, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm'd in deeper gulfs than he.

A friend recently told me about an illness that took a heavy toll on him. In response to a sermon I preached, he said, "I am well aware that Christ came for me, died for my sin, left this world asking us to love and forgive one another, and promised eternal life. Without any disrespect to the former, which is the message of Christianity, I want to be forced to think about all of these things in a deeper context. I want to hear a sermon that makes me think about Christianity in today's world, and how it affects my everyday life."

I thought, Well, a Behemoth is what's called for—a way to get in, and also a way to salve that "affects my everyday life."

That is what I think The Guess Who were on to. It fascinates me that their great lead singer, Burton Cummings, hits a pure gospel note in his striking recent number, "Invisible." It comes from the 2008 album Above the Ground:

You read it in the Bible
You saw it in a storybook
Remember from the kindergarten
You had it in your first crush
You had it with your lost love

You had it when your heart broke
You saw it in a baby's smile
You saw it in your mother cryin' silver teardrops.
Hey, I thought that stuff was invisible
And I said hey, I thought that stuff was invisible

You felt it in a heartbeat
You heard it in a sermon
You felt it at the race track
Saw it in the church goin' people.
You heard it on the radio.

You got it from behind the iron curtain
You felt it in a royal flush
Even had the damnedest dreams about it.
Hey, I thought that stuff was invisible
And I said hey, I thought that stuff was invisible

And I don't know if it's really true
How I know, how I know what I'm feeling
I've got nothing to compare it to
But this I know, this I know, I need healing
Yes, I need healing.

This is a word, maybe even the Word. This is me they're talking about. It's what I mean by a Behemoth. God didn't have to make him, but he did. To give a little corroboration.

Paul F. M. Zahl is a retired Episcopal minister. He is dean-emeritus of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry (Ambridge PA), and the author of Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life (Eerdmans).

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Also in this Issue

Issue 2 / August 7, 2014
  1. Editors’ Note
  2. When the Eyes of the Blind Are Opened

    New science shows us what exactly Jesus healed in the man born blind. /

  3. Revival of the Frozen ‘Dead’

    The common wood frog is anything but common /

  4. God, LSD, and the Summer of Love

    The unusual (to say the least) conversions of four San Francisco hippies: an excerpt. /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Links to amazing stuff

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