A little-known fact is that Patti Smith was raised in a serious Jehovah’s Witness family. This is reflected consistently in her music as she continually challenges God, addressing Him as if He exists. One cannot help but identify with and admire her public conflicted-ness and questioning. In a very famous incident, she began twirling around frenetically during a show and challenged God to stop her. She immediately fell off the stage and broke a bone. Coincidence, legend or superstition? Could be. I’ll let the historians take that one.
We do have her lyrics, for sure. The most famous of her God-challenging comes at the beginning of her re-make of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” where she sings: "Jesus died for somebody's sins / But not mine." Now, this is fascinating to me. I believe a couple of things are at work here (and please pardon me while I presume to psychologize… I am fully aware that I am speaking of a living, breathing person whose complexities I could not possibly know… the following is just my take for what it’s worth).
Smith colluded often with Richard Hell, mostly with respect to poetry. As you may (or probably don’t) remember, I wrote a little piece about Hell’s song “Blank Generation”. In the song, he posits that we are all free agents and totally capable of creating our own identities. My suspicion is that Patti Smith is assenting to this by saying, "Jesus died for somebody's sins / But not mine."
Somewhere, though, in her Christ-haunted primal recesses, there is a great conflict. Another voice is telling her she is not free. In fact, she is quite bound and needs help. A substitute and a great well of never-ending grace and mercy. And she’s not quite sure it is there for her.
This leads me to an interesting (only if you are totally weird) discussion I had with a ministry friend a few years ago. We were discussing the (Episcopal/Anglican) Rite I Liturgy of the Table, i.e. the more traditional service of Holy Communion. After the Preface, it is said:
“All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world…”My friend said the portion in the bolded type is didactic and repetitive. I disagree with him. I believe is it poignantly pastoral. No one believes grace, mercy, and love are for us. Especially in the times we assault our consciences with all kinds of terrors. We are so deeply suspicious of an unconditional word of promise from outside that we will take any route possible leading to self-expiation. Far from didactic or repetitive, the words of promise described above insistently and lovingly assault our own assault on our consciences.
So the next time you are in a Rite I service and hear these words, connect with the Patti Smith that lives inside of you (and everyone) and be comforted.