By Michael Ruffin
I am at times afflicted with chronic lyricosis — which is, on the off chance you have not heard of it, a malady characterized by the habitual misunderstanding of song lyrics.
When I was a child, I thought the hymn that affirmed “‘Whosoever’ surely meaneth me” instead said, “Whosoever Shirley meaneth me,” which caused me to wonder who Shirley was and just what she had to do with getting saved, anyway. Chronic lyricosis has often afflicted those who listen to rock music; for instance, many people misunderstood Jimi Hendrix’s lyric “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky” as “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy.” And, for longer than I care to admit, I heard Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “stuck in Lodi again” as “sucking an old tire again.”
The folks on the syndicated “John Boy and Billy” radio program coined the phrase “chronic lyricosis,” and they have made it famous with several skits featuring John Boy singing songs as he (mis)understands them. One skit is an advertisement for a television special called “John Boy’s Chronic Lyricosis Christmas,” which includes his (mis)interpretations of several well-known songs.
Another bit features John Boy’s rendition of Mel Torme’s standard, “The Christmas Song,” (you know, the one that begins, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.”) John Boy’s version includes such lines as: “Chipmunks roasting on an open fire; jet frogs ripping at your clothes;” “You know that Santa’s gonna change; he’s loaded lots of poison goodies on his train;” and, “So I’m ordering this simple face to kiss someone who might be you.”
There are Christmas songs in the New Testament, too, and sometimes I think that we Christians are afflicted with chronic lyricosis when we hear them.
For example, the angels who appeared to the shepherds sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14, KJV). While “brokenness” sounds nothing like (and is nothing like) “peace,” it sure seems that we must hear “on Earth, brokenness … toward men” instead, given that so often we are willing to settle for less than a whole, sound, maturing relationship with God and less than a growing, improving, maturing relationship with each other. Sadly, while such relationships are the essence of what the Bible means by “peace,” we too seldom seem interested in accepting and pursuing that kind of peace in our lives, in our churches, in our communities, and in our world. In that case, we seem afflicted with Christian Christmas Chronic Lyricosis.
Then there is that wonderful song of the expectant Mary, the Magnificat, in which she proclaims of God,
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53, NRSV)
But the ways that we so often think and act toward others and the priorities that we so often set make me wonder if we don’t hear, “He has scattered the humble” and, “He has brought down the meek” and “lifted up the proud” and “filled the full with more good things” and “sent the poor away empty.” I wonder, in other words, if we are not in fact afflicted with Christian Christmas Chronic Lyricosis.
I suppose that we are all limited in our ability to hear; we are limited by our circumstances, by our upbringing, by our experiences, by our biases, by our preferences, by our assumptions and by our sins. Sometimes, for whatever reason or reasons, we just mishear the great songs of Christmas.
It might be easier to hear them our own way, to internalize our initial misunderstanding, and never to stand corrected. But we will more fully and effectively live out the Christmas spirit — indeed, the Christian spirit — if we will hear the great songs of the Good News of the birth of Jesus Christ as they are written and if we will believe them so as to do them!
Then we might move much more closely to the “peace on earth” and to the “lifting up of the lowly” that the birth of Jesus Christ was intended — so the songs say — to inaugurate.