Because popular culture provides so much of the palette for making sense of life today -- including making faith-sense -- especially for recent generations, I like to learn about what aspects of pop culture connect with people at influential points in their lives.
Over the last six months, I have become acquainted with "This Pretty Planet," a folk song for children co-written by Tom Chapin and Tom Forster.
I got to know it through my grade-school aged daughter and her friends singing it in different contexts (school, clubs, spontaneously), and have come to realize that it is one of those minor children's classics that may never leave conscious (and unconscious) life even when childhood is just a memory.
For some children a few decades ago, such spiritually influential songs might have been drawn from "Free To Be You and Me," or for others of more recent vintage, it might have been Sesame Street or Electric Company tunes, or even "School House Rock." I wonder if "This Pretty Planet" will be part of the fundamental wheel of sound and image for a good number of today's children.
I really like this song, and the first several months I heard it sung, I was struck by its religiosity.
"This pretty planet, spinning through space / Your garden, your harbor, your holy place"
Wow, I thought, kids are being asked to sing something at school that refers to "your holy place." I instinctively took the "your" to mean "God" or some divine referent, so that a song about God's sacred provision over Earth was what was "really" being sung. I even hypothesized various backgrounds for such a development: maybe this song was a way that evangelicals (or maybe it was progressives?) got God into public schools, by way of a charming melody, oblique theology, and gentle environmentalism.
Then I realized that I had the words slightly wrong. By going to YouTube, I could hear Chapin and others singing it, and I learned that the lyrics are:
"This pretty planet, spinning through space / you're a garden, you're a harbor, you're a holy place"
(The rest of the lyrics are: "Golden sun going down, gentle blue giant spin us around / all through the night, safe 'till the morning light")
Just as misheard scriptures can become canonical for people's lives, misheard lyrics can, too (there is a fun website dedicated to misheard lyrics). But while I liked my misheard version, I was also interested in the original lyrics. What I had originally thought was "Your garden, your harbor, your holy place," is really "You're a garden, you're a harbor, you're a holy place." In other words, "you're" is the "pretty planet," not God.
This realization did not diminish the song for me, but made me wonder at my need to have the earlier version be more clearly theological. It also does not mean that the "real" lyrics are not, after all, theologically significant. They certainly are friendly to a nature mysticism-style interpretation, wherein delight in nature makes an explicit or implicit gesture toward nature's "other," nature's "within," or nature's "beyond." (These are all ways of talking about "God.")
I also heard in this song a kind of cosmic ecstasis that is at the root of so much hope for an intercultural, interreligious, intersecular spirituality for the present and future. The wonder of "spinning through space" on a "holy place" is as good a common ground as any for people of different beliefs and commitments to appreciate their differences while at the same time referring them to the mystery of our cosmically-placed existence. Is that another reason that this song is becoming more popular?
At the least, this is an occasion to revisit the pop songs that spiritually inform childhood -- our own childhood and the childhoods of our children, and of all people in our care.