I watched a documentary on the making of Led Zeppelin’s album, Physical Graffiti last night and it got me thinking about Scripture. I know, right? But here’s how I got there.
I was fascinated by the backstory to the Zeppelin classic, In My Time of Dying. It’s a cover. I learned on the documentary that it was on Bob Dylan’s first album as a cover of a traditional blues song. So, I went searching on Spotify to see who all had covered it. There are over 50 covers of the song on Spotify, most paying homage to Zeppelin’s version. But let’s back up.
We don’t know who wrote or first performed the song, but it shows up on albums by Charlie Patton, J.C. Burnett, and Blind Willie Johnson. Here’s the thing though, it’s got a different title, Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed. Over time, it becomes a folk/blues/gospel staple (though this happens largely in the “oral tradition,” performed in traditional audiences without access to recording), eventually appearing on Dylan’s 1961 debut album under the now accepted title, In My Time of Dying.
While Dylan raised the profile of the song, it didn’t become a part of a broader musical consciousness until Zeppelin’s eleven minute version (which is a great way to spend eleven minutes). After their version, the covers proliferated, some staying close to the original, and some interpreting it more loosely or expansively given their own musical genre/abilities and the interests of the audience. For instance, John Mellencamp stays close to the original, albeit without the long instrumental sections of the Zeppelin version. The Succulents take a more folky approach with acoustic guitars and lush harmonies, but still sound more like Zeppelin than Dylan or Blind Willie Johnson. The band, Last Supper gives it a kind of Depeche Mode spin, while Umillo gives it an abbreviated electronic version. Again, it’s clear that dthe primary influence in all these cases is Zeppelin and not someone like Charlie Patton.
Ok, this is mildly interesting, but what does this have to do with Scripture or the gospel? Scripture, in some ways, is like a series of covers, traditional materials being reused in different contexts. Sometimes, the original has the most authority in how the tradition gets used and reused, but sometimes not.
Let me make a really rough analogy here. The original version of the song might be the Genesis version. It has resonance, but when people connect to the song, it’s not typically through the Genesis version. The wording’s a bit different than the the way we’ve come to know things, the musical setting a bit different.
Dylan, in this analogy, might be an exilic prophet, recovering the original and bringing to expression the development of the “oral tradition” worked out in communities over time, but now with a different title and a different musical setting. In ways, Dylan’s version paves the way for Zeppelin’s version, but no one is rushing to cover this “Dylan song.”
The version of the song that lifts it to the status of revelation is Zeppelin’s. This is the “gospel” (remember, this is an analogy) version of the song, everything coming after finding its reference point here, not with the original, and not with Dylan (though we should point out that Zeppelin owes more musically to the older blues tradition, than to Dylan). Every subsequent performance is an effort to embody the gospel given the place and time in which we find ourselves.
Again, this is not unlike Scripture, though sometimes the original is the most authoritative, the version from which other biblical authors riff. But whatever the case, the fact remains, Scripture is always being used and reused (the best parts, anyway) in relation to the new contexts in which it is being performed. Sometimes these performances attempt to be note-for-note, word-for-word, but sometimes the performance is surprising, the same song, but altogether something new and different. Some of these new performances are both faithful and original. Some are heretical.
I learned about this way of thinking about Scripture from the writing of Richard Hays, who has made a stellar academic career out of noticing how the NT uses the Hebrew Scriptures. His book, Echoes of Scripture in Paul, profoundly changed the way I conceived preaching. His student, Ross Wagner, has admirably taken up the same project and applied it directly to a “missional” way of reading Scripture. I want to write a few more posts around this theme anticipating what we will do at our Fall ministry conference, Streaming, for which Ross Wagner will be one of our featured presenters.