Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Arcade Fire's Parodic Bible

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Arcade Fire's Parodic Bible

Article excerpt

[1] According to Kelton Cobb, the jeremiad is widely used as a narrative framework in popular culture. (1) It offers a variation on the lost paradise script that calls for a return to Edenic innocence. The jeremiad has a biblical origin, of course. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets like Jeremiah warn the people of covenant violations and call them to repentance. (2) Cobb observes writers and artists in popular culture constantly returning to the flexible form of the jeremiad to express their conviction "that we have corrupted our obligations toward a providential order that surrounds us." There are numerous variations of this theme because artists differ in their views regarding "what it is that constitutes corruption, and what it is within us that persists in causing it." What these writers share in common is the use of paradise myths to explore "the shortcomings of human life" as they address the question "What went wrong?" (3)

[2] In their 2006 album Neon Bible, Arcade Fire presents two kinds of religiosity in dialogue, one we might call a genuine, biblically informed spirituality, and the other an expression of religion tainted by commercialism and self-interest. The band assumes the role of prophet in the jeremiad tradition, calling the audience to be wary of the latter. Why do they do this? Because "a golden calf" still gives its light ("Neon Bible") and the "lions and the lambs ain't sleeping yet" ("The Well And The Lighthouse"). Cobb continues:

   The covenant/jeremiad script is a good one for juxtaposing an ideal
   order to our boundless imaginations for deviancy. Through it, a
   stubborn moral faith that persists in the culture continues to have
   a voice, promoting repentance and invoking a more exalted and
   inclusive idea of justice than the one that prevails. It offers a
   proven device for inventorying both a society's sins and the
   contents of its conscience. (4)

Indeed, Arcade Fire's Neon Bible juxtaposes an ideal order with forms of deviancy and occasionally, we hear hints of a stubborn moral faith. Some characters cannot escape a persistent, nagging conscience. Value systems clash in the Neon Bible world as greed meets scruple.

[3] In addition to being a jeremiad, Neon Bible is also a parody. As such, it has some qualities of the carnivalesque, Mikhail M. Bakhtin's term for the transgressive energies of medieval carnivals during which unofficial culture would mock official culture, temporarily (5) resisting political oppression and totalitarian order--political, ecclesial, (6) or social--through laughter, parody, and grotesque realism. Bakhtin's image highlights liberation from fixed values and imposed modes of behaviour. Those normally subjected and silenced have occasion to speak, and freedom to treat the sacred as profane, to mock and ridicule authority figures, and cast off social expectations.

[4] The term carnivalesque is interesting in connection to this album though it does not suit this particular text in every respect; there is no attention to bodily functions and grotesque imagery in Arcade Fire's lyrics, for instance. For this reason, I also have in mind Linda Hutcheon's definition of parody as I approach this album. For Hutcheon, parody in literary history is neither "that ridiculing imitation mentioned in the standard dictionaries" nor "a mode of discontinuity which rejects earlier kinds of textual reference to other works." Rather, she sees parody as "operating as a method of inscribing continuity while permitting critical distance. It can, indeed, function as a conservative force in both retaining and mocking other aesthetic forms; but it is also capable of transformative power in creating new syntheses." (7) The "collective weight of parodic practice," she argues elsewhere, "suggests a redefinition of parody as repetition with critical distance that allows ironic signalling of difference at the very heart of similarity. …

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