By Tom Palanza, Jr.
I never listen to the radio and when I do I listen to Classical 99.5 WCRB. I’ve got about six CDs in my car (Phantom of the Opera, Vaughn Williams, Jacqueline du Pré, Wagner, Opera Classics, etc.) that I rotate listening to on my 45 minute commute to and from work each day. So, unless I’ve spent time around other people who are playing their music, then I really don’t hear any new pop songs. But “Fancy,” by Iggy Azalea and Charli XCX, was one of those rare songs that I did happen to hear and now can’t get out of my head. In the battle for supremacy between words and music I usually side with music. This is how I defend my infatuation with “Fancy.” Sometimes a beat just sinks in and won’t let go of my subconscious; “Fancy” in one of them. But I use my love of music to defend my infatuation because the words of the song remind me of some of my college – okay, post college as well – early Friday night into late Saturday morning escapades that I now look at as rather incriminating. While there are positive and negative aspects of the song’s lyrics/message, I would like to look in particular at how “Fancy” portrays power.
The word “power” does not appear in the song’s lyrics, but I think we can safely distill a few conceptions of power from “Fancy.” The most pervasive one is summed up by the line, “Feels so good getting what I want… we don’t give a F**k.” To me – and perhaps I’m not as good understanding pop songs as I am theology (I hope I’m not) – this line describes individual fulfillment achieved through possession and use of apathetic dominance. In other words, “I’ll be happy so long as I have the power to dominate and it is not important to me what the consequences are of me achieving happiness this way.” I’d say that this is a pretty common vision of power. Power is dominance. Can I make you do what I want you to do? And why would a person want dominance? “Fancy” actually says it pretty well, “it feels so good getting what I want.” There is a desire in the heart of humanity to dominate. I believe that this desire comes from one thing in particular: fear of death. The worst enemy a person has is death and dominance is protection against it. With enough dominance, you can escape death – that, at least, seems to be humanity’s project since the beginning.
But this is only one definition of power: “ability to produce an effect.” The second definition: “possession of control, authority, or influence over others,” though the difference is subtle, still has an important difference. “Ability to produce an effect” lacks a true relationship. Only one side of the relationship really matters, the thing producing/dominating the other. But the second definition provides for a true relationship. Control, authority, and influence – although possibly used to dominate – need not be so. This kind of power is, I would say, best described as leading, showing, revealing. And it is this kind of power that is God’s power.
I would like to look at St. Basil’s On the Holy Spirit to take a closer look at the power Jesus uses (see paragraph 3 of Letter 234 for another layer of God’s power). Basil lived during the 300s in present day Turkey. One of the three Cappadocian fathers, Basil was instrumental in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity (especially the notion of the Trinity existing in relation with each other) and is commonly called the father of monasticism in the East. In On the Holy Spirit, Basil describes Christ’s power as coming from his connection to the Father. Basil explains, “When then He says, ‘I have not spoken of myself,’ (Jn 12:49) and again, ‘As the Father said unto me, so I speak,’ (Jn 12:50) and ‘The word which ye hear is not mine, but [the Father’s] which sent me,’ (Jn 14:24) and in another place, ‘As the Father gave me commandment, even so I do,’ (Jn 14:31) it is not because He lacks deliberate purpose or power of initiation, nor yet because He has to wait for the preconcerted key-note, that he employs language of this kind. His object is to make it plain that His own will is connected in indissoluble union with the Father” (Ch. 8:20). Making the point even more emphatically, Basil continues to quote, “‘I live through [by, A.V.] the Father,’ (Jn 6:57) and the power of God; ‘The Son hath power [can, A.V.] to do nothing of himself’ (Jn 5:19)” (Ch. 8:19). Jesus lives through the power of God.
What is it that the power of God does? Basil continues, “For He Himself has bound the strong man and spoiled his goods (Matt 12:29), that is, us men, whom our enemy had abused in every evil activity, and made ‘vessels meet for the Master’s use’ (2 Tim 2:21) us who have been perfected for every work through the making ready of that part of us which is in our own control. Thus we have had our approach to the Father through Him, being translated from ‘the power of darkness to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light’ (Col 1:12-13)” (Ch. 8:18). Jesus reorients us back to God. In Basil’s words, we are translated into something that God can understand. Jesus changes us into something that Life itself can understand and bring into relationship with itself.
Indeed, we can still say that power is the ability to overcome death. But when we look for an example of great power, that is, when death is overcome, we find that the Paschal Mystery is the greatest power humanity has ever seen. And this power was not dominance, which destroys relationship, but revelation and reorientation, which creates relationship. What is the power that Jesus Christ wields but to reveal God and reorient a disordered creation back to God, reconciling our relationship? If God is life, and Christ reveals life and orients us to life, and power is attainment of life, then true power is not dominance but the ability to orient being towards God.