Liturgy of the Rolling Stones

Shine a Light, a film about the Rolling Stones, opened last week. It’s a rollicking tribute, by Academy Award winning director Martin Scorcese, to one of the most legendary rock groups ever. For over two hours viewers are in the front row of a high-decibel Stones concert in New York City. I may not know a lot about rock and roll, but I know a liturgy when I see one. And this was a liturgical celebration of the raw vitality of life.

Over the past few months I’ve been involved in a seminar here at Bethel Seminary San Diego on the theology of worship. That’s undoubtedly what sensitized me to the liturgical nature of the Stones concert. It shouldn’t have come as a total surprise; after all, Scorcese once trained for the priesthood before giving that up for a career in Hollywood.

One function of a liturgy is to re-enact the truths that are central to a community’s worldview—truths which ground their lives in the world. (The liturgical code word for this is anamnesis). The Stones concert is just such an exercise in remembering—through music, and fixed text, and the energetic gestures and choreography of lead singer Mick Jagger. Liturgy always celebrates something, and the Stones liturgy is no exception. It celebrates the sheer energy of the id—pulsating life itself. By conventional calculations, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood and Jagger are too old now to be doing gigs like this. They are all in their sixties, with faces lined and disfigured by decades of reckless, dissolute living. But therein lays their defiant charm. They refuse to concede to physical decline. Mick still struts and thrusts about with astonishing energy, casting off layers of sweat-laden clothes as the concert proceeds.

The Stones credo is a celebration of raw vitality—an enthusiasm for life that is epitomized in sexual prowess. There is no place here for covenant relationships, or growing old with anyone in particular. With leering grins, Jagger and Keith Richards mock the Country and Western genre (and radio evangelists) in a song about taking advantage of a girl with “a faraway look in her eyes.” It is the same idea the late Warren Zevon had when he said he was on the prowl for a girl with low self-esteem. This is not a celebration of love but of lust. It is the reworked liturgy of the fertility cult.

Scorcese cuts to a 1960s interview with the Stones when they were becoming famous. They admit that they do not anticipate being able to keep this up for more than a year or so more. We are to understand the delicious irony is that they are still going. Later they note with disdain that the question reporters pose to them most frequently is: How much longer do you think this can last? That, of course, is the whole point.

The concert comes to its climax with the band’s signature song. As the familiar refrain “I can’t get no satisfaction” take over, the spotlight moves to Keith Richards—perhaps the most death-defying icon in the group—slowing bending down over his thrust-upright guitar until he is crumpled on the dark floor. It is a moving moment, evoking thoughts of a vanquished warrior or the mythic death of Laocoon. For in the end the worship of this human vitality comes up short. It not only fails to satisfy, but it cannot keep death permanently at bay. And in this acknowledgment of failure its chief musical advocate becomes a tragic figure. But like Sisyphus his glory is in his defiance. For the time being, his thin, needle-pocked arms notwithstanding, he is still going on.

The liturgy of the concert ends with benediction. “May the Lord shine a light on you,” we hear, echoing sacred words of the ancient Book of Numbers. Finally we understand the movie’s title. As it ends, we see an urgent Scorcese shouting for everyone to look up, way up. The camera sucks itself back upward into the darkened night far above Manhattan until the entire city is a sparkle of lights below and the moon looms inordinately large before us. And then this moon, which blankets the earth below in its glow, morphs before our eyes into the sensuous, lolling tongue of the Stones’ famous logo. It’s a calling forth of this same amoral, strangely compelling vitality to be upon everyone who longs for it. Before me in the darkened theater an older woman with a cane struggled to her feet and stood in respectful attention as the credits came up. And to think that some people still believe that our secular culture is not in its own way spiritual.

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