This past weekend, I attended a meeting of The Philadelphia Society in Atlanta, Georgia. As a member of this organization founded in 1964 by exemplary statesmen William F. Buckley, Jr. and Russell Kirk, I was especially looking forward to the Society’s celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the publication of Kirk’s The Conservative Mind.
Due to this book’s timely anniversary, the weekend conference was themed around the central idea Kirk focused on for most of his intellectual work: A Defense of the Permanent Things. While there was some discussion about what exactly are “The Permanent Things,” Kirk’s work focuses on those venerated, time-tested ideas, traditions, and enduring moral standards that represent the human condition throughout all ages.
As Kirk once stated, “There are certain permanent things in society: the health of the family, inherited political institutions that insure a measure of order and justice and freedom, a life of diversity and independence, a life marked by widespread possession of private property.”
While nations rise and fall, some things fall in and out of favor, in and out of fashion. Yet, as Kirk stated, “We cling to the permanent things, the norms of our being, because all other grounds are quicksand.”
In an age of relativism, the truth we search for must be grounded in the Permanent Things: those things that have endured the test of time. All time. Kirk knew these things would not be found in politics. Rather all permanent things endure in the culture. In fact, Professor Bradley Birzer, who is in the process of writing a biography on Kirk said we should understand Kirk more as a poet than as a philosopher.
While much of my weekend was spent hearing from scholars discuss the Permanent Things, I was also taking in some aspects of the culture. “On my way” to Atlanta, I stopped in Auburn, Alabama to see some other modern day poets, one of my favorite bands, Green River Ordinance (GRO), play a show there. I was also lucky enough to see them play again the next night in Atlanta.
One of the things I’ve always loved about GRO is that their songs, their lyrics, and the very musicians that make up this band, are promoters of the Permanent Things (whether they know it or not). I first came across their music almost four years ago and was first privileged to see them perform live while I was on The Rock Boat (a floating music cruise) in January 2010.
GRO hails from Fort Worth, Texas – in the heart of America. While their music isn’t “Christian music,” per se, it is certainly influenced by the enduring truths found in Christianity, a faith the band shares – and one that is certainly present in their inviting personalities. They sing about the human condition: several of their songs sing of the fallen nature of each of us; and like most musicians, they also sing of that enduring human longing: love; they also sing about family, friends, children, and places.
One of their more recent songs “When My Days Are Done” even explores the eternal. “When my time comes / when all my days are done / Friend, don’t you cry for me / Oh my body might be broken in the ground / Oh my soul, it will be free / My soul, it will be free.”
While Russell Kirk may not have necessarily been a fan of rock music and perhaps would have never had the opportunity to attend a concert similar to a GRO show, I think he would be pleased about the positive elements GRO is adding to the culture – not from the mighty church pulpit or in the halls of academia – but rather in bars, clubs, and festivals (and even the occasional public park). After all, Kirk, like Edmund Burke before him, believed that we live in a human community that includes the dead, the living, and those yet to be born.
Kirk also believed that while we are here on earth, we do not live our lives as abstract individuals. We do not live like animals. Rather, we live in real communities – with family, friends, and neighbors, of all different backgrounds.
While Americans have always been people on the move, the best way we can have a sense of permanence in our lives, Kirk believed, is to have a sense of place, live in community with one another, and invest ourselves in one another. Kirk demonstrated this in his life and he and his wife Annette welcomed strangers, immigrants, and hobos into their humble home in the village of Mecosta, Michigan.
Musicians, including the band members of GRO, often find themselves on the road. While they are some of the friendliest musicians around and enjoy making new friends, like most people, they leave loved ones back at home. As lead singer Josh Jenkins said during his show at Club Vinyl in Atlanta on Friday night, “We are really full-time drivers who play music on the side.”
While that is a funny comment, it has some truth engrained in it. As a band still trying to make it “big” they do have to drive themselves from place to place. And I’m sure that all that time on the road probably helps their song writing, which can be revealed in a song like “Home.”
In that song, they sing: “Close my eyes and feel the way, the distance left these land so great, but I’m leaving here, gonna make it clear/these words be the bold I fear/to bridge your doubts and be your shiver the lonely hearts/get brand new star/I’m going home, I’m going home/I’m going home, and I’m not looking back, looking back.”
The band also said “Goodbye L.A.” (a song title) and remain settled in their home of Forth Worth, Texas — much like Kirk said goodbye to the elite circles of Washington and New York and remained settled in his small village of Mecosta,Michigan.
Longings of home also turn into longings of love, as is sang beautifully in the song “She is in the Air,” which begins: “She is in the air I breathe/Feel her in the songs I sing/Even when I’m out of reach/she always finds me.”
Song after song, GRO sings of the Permanent Things: the ups and downs of human nature, longings of home, lost loves, enduring loves, and even about eternity. All of these elements are surely built on the personal faith of the band members. I am not sure that they set out to write Christian music; I think they set out to write rock songs. But their Christian faith is surely inspiring the eternal truths found throughout their music.
In their song “Better Love” they sing about how “Faith is not an idle thing.” No it is not. True faith is lived – in the world. In the playing of their music, their faith finds itself in the bars and clubs they find themselves in on the road. It is lived at the charities they involve themselves in and in front of the troops they have played for in the Middle East. It is even lived in the dark moments and the challenging times in life. This song reaches out in gratitude for salvation as it proclaims that “The greatest gift to give a man is to give him grace to live again.”
As I watched GRO play two nights in a row in two different states this past week, I observed lead singer Josh Jenkins take a moment before the song “Better Love” to explain its meaning to the audience (in both places). He said that we all will (if we haven’t already) at one point in our lives find ourselves in a dark place. We all make mistakes. But he said that it is in those moments that we will also find grace. That is how he found it – through the dark moments it pulled him through. This is the grace he sings about.
While GRO is a traveling rock and roll band, they are an example of how the Permanent Things are being proclaimed; how the Permanent Things are enduring in the culture. Their music is upbeat and fun. At any given moment during a GRO show, you might see four guitars on stage, and perhaps even two drum sets going at the same time. You may see a banjo or a mandolin alongside an electric guitar and a bass. And while the crowd is entertained, the Permanent Things are being proclaimed.
Just as their lyrics cry out, “With love we fight injustice/ready or not here we come/we are hope, we are the heart of the young.”
Indeed. Despite the pessimism about our future, GRO and their music is an example that the heart of the young is alive and well. May the Permanent Things rock on.