The inimitable John Kelly played “An Ode to Billie Joe” on his afternoon programme on Lyric FM, not the song itself but an instrumental version. Shorn of its words, the music had about it a doleful quality, capturing even more strongly the atmosphere at the table where a family discusses the suicide of Billie Joe McAllister, while continuing to make small talk about the meal and about the day’s work.
Searching Google for references to “The Ode to Billie Joe”, or YouTube for videos of Bobbie Gentry singing the song, brings countless comments on the meaning of the song and the state of mind of Billie Joe when he threw himself to his death. One line of thought suggests that Billie Joe’s death arose from being unable to come to terms with his sexuality. Frantic debate can be found about what Billie Joe was seen throwing from the bridge, and what passed between he and a girl seen with him prior to his death.
But hold on, Billie Joe never existed. It’s a song; even its writer didn’t say what it was about. How can meaning and interpretation be attributed to events and conversations that never took place, that would not exist unless they had been part of lyrics written in 1967?
Doing William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” for A level thirty odd years ago, similar sort of speculation would surround the text, though we were at least free of the Internet to further confuse things. We were given critical writing to consider that dealt with the psychoanalysis of Hamlet. The tutor became enraged at the arrival of Fortinbras, the Norwegian strongman; he saw the death of Hamlet and triumph of Fortinbras as the overcoming of the values of the renaissance by the aggression of feudalism. (This of course meant a great deal to a rustic teenager who was more concerned with seeing his girlfriend than with the deeply felt feelings of the prince of Denmark).
But is discussing the emotions felt by the characters in “The Ode to Billie Joe”, or the psychological state of Hamlet, any more a speculative exercise than much, if not most, theology? When almost the entire enterprise is not verifiable, when there is not historic or scientific evidence, what is it that makes speculation on the nature of God an endeavour of greater importance than wondering what it really was that happened up at Choctaw Ridge?
People of faith will of course consider theological reflection to be of infinitely greater importance than online chat about pop songs, but the argument is circular. What authority is there that says these things are important? The authority that we have created says they are important. Dismiss the basis of the authority, say that one does not recognize the authority of the church, and the edifice can tumble in one’s estimation like a house of cards.
In a post-modern age, when scepticism comes naturally and where people no longer believe in absolutes, it is not enough to say that something is so because we say it is so; that, the English tutor would have said, smacks of feudalism. If the Christian story is going to have more meaning than “The Ode to Billie Joe”, we must find a way of telling it that does not rest on the rejected assumptions of the past.