"Now I walk among them/And I sing to them/And I open up my wrists/And nobody knows My name" —from "Nobody Knows My Name"

The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard, recently released by hipster folkie Rickie Lee Jones, is based on a book called The Words. That's just one letter off from The Word, and indeed, the faithful are sure to notice that Jones' eccentric, heartfelt brand of gutter poetry—half-moaned, half-wailed above a backdrop of junkyard percussion and rough, edgy folk-rock arrangements—bears more than a passing resemblance to the Word of Christ our Lord. Jones and author Lee Cantelon unite here to bring the Words of Life to those who need them, and at its best, their collaboration bears the hallmarks of the very best sermons—it speaks to the centrality of God's Word in our fallen world, and reminds us that only Christ offers hope and healing to the heartbroken.

It can't be emphasized enough, though, that these aren't the words of Christ—at least, not all of them, not completely. Jones isn't reciting Scripture here; these aren't the words of our Lord so much as his ideas, filtered through Cantelon and translated into modern language. It's not unlike those movies that re-imagine Shakespeare's plays in a twenty-first century high school, or on the streets of New York. The basic gist is here, but the particulars, the tropes and trappings, are a little different.

This being Jones, that means that these songs are frequently quirky, often quite moving, and, in some ways, spiritually obtuse. She's a woman whose music has contained its fair share of spiritual seeking over the years, and she and Cantelon both write with a desire to discuss matters of faith in a way that appeals to the non-religious. We're talking about Tom Waits' ex-girlfriend, after all, so it should come as no surprise that she generally populates her songs with junkies, alcoholics, and addicts. But here she sings from the perspective of Christ himself, revealing the pain and suffering of the Messiah with harrowing beauty and emotion.

Actually, one might liken it to The Last Temptation of the Christ. Not that there's anything quite so scandalous in these songs, but there is a similar emphasis on the humanity of Christ—a good and true biblical concept, even though he is also true God. "Nobody Knows My Name" (excerpted above) is an aching meditation on the humiliation of our Lord—how the creator of the heavens themselves descended to our level, taking on flesh and blood, anonymity, and the painful stuff of human existence. In the very next song, "Gethsemane," Jesus reflects on his loneliness while his disciples slumber. And when the Lord sings of painful separation in "It Hurts," it might well refer to his estrangement from the Father himself during his Passion.

Even when the words are given a new spin, there are still plenty of biblical details. Christ draws a "Circle in the Sand," visits "Gethsemane," and arrives in Jerusalem via "Donkey Ride." More creative liberty is taken on "Elvis Cadillac," however, in which Jones imagines her Jesus riding through heaven in Elvis' automobile. (One presumes it's Presley, not Costello.) The music is messy, raw, rough around the edges, framing all of these songs in a very specific emotional context.

Still other revisions might raise some eyebrows among Jones' more orthodox listeners, and for good reason. Paraphrasing is one thing, after all, but at times Jones doesn't just re-imagine the Gospels, but actually makes significant alterations to biblical doctrine. "Where I Like It Best" is a prime example, beginning with a lament over the "cold and meaningless" attention that prayer is often given in our world (a fair enough observation) before giving the Lord's Prayer a concise, one-line translation: "You are where I want to be." Changing the words of one of our Lord's own prayers seems a risky endeavor in the first place, and such a drastic alteration—devoid of confession, forgiveness, or supplication on our neighbor's behalf—is a gross disservice to the words found in the Gospels. And that's to say nothing of Jones' appeal to a "Heavenly Mother," words that will rightly strike many of the faithful as unbiblical to say the least.

In the closing song, "I Was There," Jones points to the Nazarene as our source of salvation, and affirms his continuing presence in each and every generation. And if that's indeed her goal for the project—to draw listeners to the Suffering Servant—then one can't help but applaud her intentions. At the same time, it's hard to shake the fact that her interpretation of the gospel really is an interpretation—not a translation or a paraphrase, strictly speaking—and that, in an effort to appeal to the non-religious, Jones has left out any significant mention of man's sinful estate, the mortification of sin, Christ's divinity, and the exaltation of our Savior's lordship.

Many, of course, will decry these complaints as narrow-minded, or overly dogmatic, but the truth is that Jones' vision of Jesus is, at best, an incomplete one, emphasizing his love and his humanity at the expense of his other attributes. And, with little attention given to the reality of sin, even her presentation of the gospel is fragmented.

This isn't to say that it isn't a worthwhile meditation, or even that it won't be an encouragement to many. One just hopes that, through their words, Cantelon and Jones might point readers and listeners toward the true Words of Life.

Unless specified clearly, we are not implying whether this artist is or is not a Christian. The views expressed are simply the author's. For a more complete description of our Glimpses of God articles, click here

Tags:
Posted: