The Songs of Jessie Adams: Jesus Comes to Sunbury

19 Jan

Peter McKinnon’s novel The Songs of Jesse Adams is a good read. It’s his first novel and is a vibrant story of a rock star, set in the late 60s, culminating in 1970, and has all the passion, vision and energy of that era. So many things in this novel will appeal, perhaps especially to baby-boomers, as it invokes memories of Sunbury, the Vietnam protests and the Moratorium, the battles with politicians of an old school now seeming as naive as the young people who took to the streets.
The story is actually an allegorical telling of the life of Jesus. Jesse Adams comes from a fairly poor sheep farm in western Victoria, and from the beginning stands out amongst his peers as insightful, a bit ahead of himself, and a bit weird. But his musical talent, as a singer and song writer, carry him ‘all the way’. He forms a band, travels the country, and eventually goes all the way to the top. Except that he will never sign a record contract, and keeps making political statements on stage—and eventually falls foul of all the ‘empires’ of his day: the media, politics and the church.

More than a hundred years ago, there were dozens of books written to depict the life of Jesus, in what is now called the first ‘Quest of the Historical Jesus’. What do we really know about his life? What was he like?
After this great spurt of scholarly and popular writing had more or less spent itself, Albert Schweitzer wrote a survey of the findings of all this research, and observed that there is nothing that reveals the character of a person so much as their depiction of Jesus. He noted that many of the portraits of Jesus bore a remarkable resemblance to their authors.
I’m not sure just how much this can be said of Peter McKinnon, but it’s no accident that his Jesus is a rock singer and song writer. Peter himself wrote a musical about Jesus back in the day, We’re with you, T.C and has continued to pursue those ideals since, in his career in business and with World Vision.

This ‘Jesus’, Jesse Adams, confronts the same powers that frustrate us today: media manipulation, political deceptions and a church that is covering up abuse and more concerned for how things appear than the compassion of its founder for the little people, the broken and those hopelessly stuck in addictions and violent relationships. Jesse Adams loves these people, and indeed prefers their company, their streets and hangouts. You can smell the places McKinnon describes. They are very familiar, right down to the streets, the trams, the pubs and dives.

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Several things occur to me as I reflect on this book.

The first is that here, too, ‘Jesus’ meets with incredulity. Is it really possible that life could be different?
But then, too, comes the question of my belief, my willingness to consider that these sorts of things could really happen.
When you place Jesus in our time, our streets, our culture, the question of what we really believe about Jesus and what he did, and his destiny and significance, becomes a more immediate and more challenging question.
From the outset, this has been a challenge. Theologians have debated whether he really was human, as we are human. Was he, is he, ‘one of us’? Or is he one of a kind? Is he like us, in everything but sin, as the creeds say, or do we prefer to say that because he was ‘without sin’ he must be some other kind of creature, a super-human perhaps?
It comes down to this question: Is the difference between Jesus and you or me a difference of degree or a difference of kind?
If it is a difference of kind, then (as many theologians argued) he could not be our saviour: since it was not our humanity that he took on and redeemed, but some other nature.
On the other hand, if it is a difference of degree, then in principle any one of us, you, or your mate, or me, we might have been the person through whom God acted, to bring light and hope and salvation to the world. What would that mean, ‘in principle’? How does it affect our sense of what it is to be human? Doe it now challenge our vision of ourselves, our worth, and what we just might be capable of being, if we were open to the way God sees us?
Now there are many aspects to this question and discussion, which we can’t go into here, including of course the significance of Jesus’s personal identity as a member of the Jewish people. To separate his being from that long history of God’s mission and purpose is unhelpful in many ways.
But leaving that aside, for the purposes of this discussion, the idea that any one of us might have been ‘the Christ’ suggests that our humanity, our very ordinary kind of human-ness, is capable of divine life, capable of God’s presence lifting it to an extraordinary level of love, passion, caring and wisdom. That takes some thinking about. It means that you and I have possibilities we might never have imagined. Indeed we cannot imagine. That’s exactly what the Apostle Paul wrote: that there is so much more ‘in store’ for us than we can imagine.
So Jesse Adams is a challenge to how we think of ourselves as much as how we think of Jesus. And his parting message to his band is relevant for us too: ‘This is not the end, you know. We go on …’
What if we held this ‘naive’ vision still: that there is hope for all the little people, and that love is truly the one power on earth that can make things whole? Love: divine love and human love, together.

And now, just a few quotes from the book, to give a bit of a sense of it:

At pages 251-252, there’s a description of the mob that followed Jesse or in some way were attached to his movement—at least, for a while. The passage is full of the racy style and passion of its song-writing author as well as its subject.

A party takes place at a pub delightfully called ‘The Doubtful’, which ‘now rumbled with all kinds of lunatics and reprobates from the jungle streets of Jesse’s world and the pages of his life: gangland figures, politicians, conmen, businessmen, bikies and union organisers; homeless drifters and big noters; pros, cons, the titled, the entitled; weed-dealers, wheeler-dealers, artists and musos of every breed; cowboy lawyers, rebel clerics, land-rights activists, gay activists; women, lots of women—abused, ambitious, armed for life; go-getters, scumbags, ratbags; clerks, garbos, ticket collector, and parking inspectors and proprietors and punters from all around the surrounding shops and terraces. All touched and changed in some way by the hand of the man with the band.

Jesse Adams had the healing gift and a way of inviting people to live again, after they had given up hope. He knew what people hoped for, and invited them to believe that God also wanted that for them. His basic vision was that God wanted people to be free and he resisted all the rules and impositions of self-righteous religion that prevented people from being free or even imagining that they, people like them, could ever be free. And that applied to the rich and powerful as well. But for them to be free, a lot of things had to be given up or given away …

Later, when Jesse is talking one on one with ‘Dinger’, a bikie who was his drummer, Jesse sums up what he has learned and what he knows:

When everything else falls away in this life, when you’re dumped on your backside and your friends desert you … love is all that’s left… it’s all we’ve got.
‘And when you’re flat on your face in the dirt and beaten down by hate or a broken heart or the sheer, cursed randomness of life—I’ll know. I’ll feel it too. I’ll be there, with you, because I’ll have been through it as well.
‘That’s it. That’s all there is, all I know. Love. I am that love …’ (page 270)

The enigmatic sayings of Jesse Adams, and the sometimes strange events his followers experience, when they see him in a different way or he disappears, in order to spend time alone or when he goes into his ‘God’ talk (mostly telling stories), are just occasionally a bit contrived, as the story follows the direction of the New Testament accounts of Jesus.

Finally, though, I want to quote Jesse Adams’ proposal to his followers, when some of them ask him to help them with the prayer thing: they are not sure how or where to start, so he suggests they try something like this. It’s a summary of this portrait of Jesus and his vision and mission, really, as well as an indication of what it might mean to live his way:

Father above,
Bring your peace, bring your love;
Your freedom we shout—
Straighten us out.
Meet our needs every day,
Pick us up when we stray,
Like we will for each other
Enemy, brother.
Let the stars be ablaze
With your heavenly gaze,
And hold us together,
Forever,
And ever.

This is a very good read and a great contribution to the challenge of making Christian faith relevant to our current time. It’s not in any sense a historical portrait of Jesus. Rather, it’s a story which invites us into a bigger story, in which we each have a place, an active part, and a song to sing along with Jesse, and Peter McKinnon and Jesus of Nazareth: the story of life with God, our creator and redeemer, who loves us unconditionally and wills our freedom and life ‘forever and ever’.

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