Thursday, 23 December 2010

Recovering Realism and Optimism – inspired by Coldplay’s “Christmas Lights”

If the music industry is anything to go by, it seems that Christmas is the time of year for optimism, a kind of hope against the odds. We hear songs of peace and joy for those in need, songs proclaiming an end to war, songs about all our dreams coming true.

Which, in the UK, is quite an odd thing for us. We are used to brushing off any news of new education or health schemes with a good dose of cynicism; we are used to being sceptics that the wars we fight do any good or that they will end; we are used to accepting the prevailing attitude that “Life is a bitch and then you meet one”.

So how far do we accept all these songs of hope and joy and fulfilment? Do we let them wash over us and never get our hopes up too much? Or are we required to take some action to work at loving others and bringing peace?

And here’s the “heart issue”: For Christians, who have hope, how should my attitude be different to my cynical work colleagues?

Let me be clear – I’m not saying would should hold back when critically assessing politics or our leaders in war, or the messages of the media or entertainment industry. Far from it! I’m just saying: Shouldn’t the Christian’s attitude to life be distinctive? Shouldn’t our hope be evident, so people ask us for the reason for the hope that I have? And not just at Christmas!

What got me thinking about this again was Coldplay’s excellent new song “Christmas Lights”. The band can be incredibly soulful, but also very uplifting, and in the new song it’s the mix of realism and optimism that struck me.

Chris Martin paints the picture of a man alone, walking the streets at Christmas, with a longing for something better – his feelings don’t match up with his expectations: “You’re still waiting for the snow to fall/ it doesn’t really feel like Christmas at all”. The reason is a very down-to-earth one: Despite it being “Christmas night” he and his partner have had “another fight”.

The lyrics encompass the loneliness and the ache of fresh pain, and a sense of disorientation: What will Christmas mean for him now? He needs fresh markers, he needs new meaning and he seeks it in the streets of London (“I took my feet/ to Oxford Street”).

But the song turns to optimism as well, as the man sings to the Christmas lights “Keep shining on” and hopes that they will “bring her back to me”. There’s a sense of anticipation as if his longing and his singing will bring her back. They hold on to festive "chandeliers of hope".

A brief look elsewhere...

Other Coldplay tracks similarly show a strong hope amid the uncertainty of the ‘now’. In “X&Y” we hear that something’s broken and they are trying to repair it “any way they can”. Even though they are both floating “on a tidal wave”, they are there “together”, which seems to be the point of the song.

In “White Shadows” although even sound “is breaking up” – the song suggests “Maybe you’ll get what you wanted/ Maybe you’ll stumble upon it/ Everything you ever wanted/ In a permanent space” but it seems to depend on something: “Maybe if you say it you’ll mean it/ Maybe if you find it you’ll keep it”. A message about pursuing a dream and finding it can become a reality, if we really want it?

And one of the most positive songs they’ve written “Strawberry Swing” talks of not being able to wait for “tomorrow”, to be with someone, and that day being “a perfect day”. In the heady way of love, he proclaims “The sky could be blue/ I don’t mind/ Without you it’s a waste of time”. The joy he holds is completed and validated by his being able to share it. And in “Life in Technicolor II” the idea of being released from gravity is an expression, I think, of freedom. What a great track record of celebrating positive things in song!

What it all boils down to

This year I’ve read lots of articles and books (and heard plenty of opinions elsewhere) which are cynical about truth claims or religion, cynical about people or society changing, cynical about there being a purpose of life, or even fairly despairing about achieving a goal they have in mind. Some people look at the world and have a pretty gloomy view of where things are going.

But as Christians, there’s much more going on for us. There’s not just human things to be concerned about. There are the things of God, growing, often unseen, in this world. There is a realm of perfect peace which is coming which we get a taste of now. So let’s act like hope and joy are real things, that we can have in Christ and his Kingdom. It’s not something idyllic that will never happen. It’s not just a fairy tale – it’s real and so is our real Christmas Light – the light of the world.

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