Jesus, don’t want me for a sunbeam
Sunbeams are never made like me
– The Vaselines
I’ve always wondered why the Jesus narrative is so compelling. Why is Jesus the focus of so much cultural reference. Why, for instance, is the name Jesus Christ considered an expletive whereas Buddha is not? I guess in Christianised societies it may have to do with a rejection of the past. People consciously going against the “not allowed”. But is there more to it than that?
The song by The Vaselines, covered by Nirvana, Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam always hits me when I hear it. It is somehow a tragic song. The simple lyrics seem to hang heavy with pain. And perhaps that’s the reason why so many people relate to the song. Because they feel the pain of not being perfect. Or not being perfect enough, after having been told their whole lives that they needed to be a “sunbeam for Jesus”.
Tragic figures seem to be drawn to the suffering of Jesus. Jesus is a tragic figure himself and I think subconsciously, a lot of people see themselves in Jesus as he hangs alone on the cross. But there is also something repulsive about the murder of an innocent, the injustice of Christ’s death, which I think affects people deeply.
Why did Kurt Cobain cover this song? Obviously I can only speculate but to me this song is a prayer. A truly honest prayer. It’s something like the tax collector at the back of the temple.
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
There is an element of fatalism in both this song and the tax collector’s prayer. The tax collector’s job was considered “sinful” by many Jews at that time as he would have collected tax for the Roman oppressor. There is no indication he plans on changing his job and it would probably have been quite difficult to do so, but he acknowledges honestly, in front of God, that he is imperfect, and lives in an imperfect world, in an imperfect situation.
The song does something similar. “Jesus, don’t want me for a sunbeam, sunbeams are never made like me”. Playing off the children’s hymn, I’ll Be Your Sunbeam, it seems to be saying, “I’m not perfect, and I can’t be”. However, the song’s most tragic element is its ultimate rejection of Jesus – “don’t ever ask your love of me”. Despite the catchy tune and tempo, that is an emphatically angry line! And I suspect that, although the addressee of the song is Jesus, it is actually addressed to the Church.
This anger at the idea that we are born sinful, that we enter the world already damned and need to be fixed is an understandable anger. And to question that idea is a sound theological question which brings you to the table with the likes of St. Paul, Augustine, Origen, and Justin Martyr, just for starters! It can be a damaging idea – which I am not putting forward my own views on here (maybe in a future post) – but it is an idea which seeks to explain suffering in the world. An attempt to answer the question: Why is there evil?
The reason I call it a tragic song is because although this sort of rejection of Christianity is usually equated with liberation from the “shackles of religion”, this song doesn’t hold that feeling – It feels like a goodbye song; a break up song. There is a real sense of loss and disappointment. Or maybe I’m just projecting.
If I could take away a message from this song, and from the prevalence of Jesus in modern culture despite its seeming rejection of religion, it would be that people know they are broken, hurt and wounded. People see the pain and suffering in the world and they direct their anger at the one institution which was supposed to take it all away but, ultimately, ended up adding to it. It is anger against hypocrisy.
I feel that this anger, while justified, is short sighted because the Church did not create Jesus, Jesus created the Church… and we are the Church – and so we need to ask what does Jesus really want me for? Jesus doesn’t want me for a sunbeam, that is completely right – He wants me to, first of all, love and forgive myself, and second, to do the same for others. Forgiveness implies a conscious decision to love a person who you know is imperfect and you know will possibly hurt you again – and this applies to yourself too.
“Don’t ever ask your love of me”. Is the singer telling Jesus he won’t ever love him, or that he can’t accept Jesus’ love for himself? It is difficult to love ourselves and we often forget that the golden rule, “Love your neighbour” also includes “as you love yourself”. A rewording of this rule for our time might hold more weight: Accept your neighbour as you accept yourself.
Do I accept myself?
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments…”
“Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”
And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him,
“You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.