When I was eleven years old my dad took me to see the arrival of the Space Shuttle Enterprise as it landed in my hometown of Mobile, Alabama on its way to the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans. It arrived on the back of a modified 747, and as I remember it these two technological marvels made a long sweeping turn over the gathering of spectators and then lined up for an impossibly-slow landing where they seemed to hover in mid-air.
I was utterly transfixed, marveling at the fact that a million pounds of steel could not only be mated to one another but that this strange contraption could manage to take-off and land safely. How did the wings on this 747 didn’t snap off under the stress?!
I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a PASTOR!
No, I’m joking; that’s still a paragraph or two away. I wanted to be an aerospace engineer.
So, I went to Space Camp, I purchased a telescope, and I even read Sky and Telescope Magazine on the regular. None of this however made me much better at math, a skill that is apparently required for engineers and one which my high school math teachers consistently demonstrated that I did not possess.
I eventually found a more appropriate, if somewhat less-lucrative intellectual pursuit in “liberal arts.” While NASA’s technical achievements continued to interest me, I gave up on the idea of ever working on them personally. And, overtime I grew more and more intrigued by the more philosophical aspects of humanity’s fascination with space, wondering for example: why are we putting men and women in a dangerous space vehicles in the first place? And, what would possess these astronauts to risk their lives in order to leave the earth for only a few days?
Is the pursuit of escape-velocity just a “sciencey” perspective on a far more metaphysical quest?
A few years before NASA launched its first Space Shuttle, it sent two unmanned probes billions of miles into the Solar System to orbit Jupiter and Saturn and send back pictures and data.
These vehicles did more than send information back to earth however, they carried information from it – messages to be more exact. NASA placed two “Golden Records” on the Voyagers, actual LP’s coated with gold, carrying organic sounds such as that of a human heartbeat, along with classical and contemporary music.
Now, let’s stop right here for just a moment and consider the fact that the scientists and engineers, upon conceiving of the plan to send two spaceships into deep space, had the wherewithal to say, “hey if these things are gonna be traveling through the universe at 30,000 miles an hour then they’re gonna need some tunes!” How boss is that?!
So, NASA created the ultimate mix-tape, sending Beethoven, Blind Willie Johnson, and Chuck Berry (one white guy and two black guys, surprising choices given that it’s the late 1970’s) into space. But why? Why fly “Johnny B. Goode” into the deepest recesses of our galaxy? The answer is…
Yeah, just in case, a 100 million years or so in the future, one of the Voyagers might happen to encounter some aliens, the smartest people on our planted wanted to make sure these “ET’s” knew that it was us who invented Rock and Roll!
Well, maybe that was merely a hoped-for corollary to a more serious goal! Sending music on the Voyagers was an earnest and contemplative affair in reality. Annie Druyan was the creative director of the Voyager Interstellar Message Project, the organization that picked the sounds and music to include on the two golden records. She reflected on the inclusion of Beethoven:
“The first thing I found myself thinking of was a piece by Beethoven from Opus 130…when I first heard this piece of music I thought, Beethoven, how can I ever repay you? What can I ever do for you that would be commensurate with what you've just given me? And so, when my colleague said, ‘This message is going to last a thousand million years,’ I thought of this great, beautiful, sad piece of music, on which Beethoven had written in the margin the word ‘sehnsucht’, which is German for ‘longing.’"
There was something about “longing” that communicated something essential about humanity. To Annie Druyan, human longing – the desire to encounter something beyond what we see and touch – was so central to our existence as humans that to her Opus 130 was saying, “this is who we are.”
We are creatures who long. And isn’t this part of what drives us to strap ourselves on top of rockets in the first place?
Humans have been singing for as long as we can remember. And songs have been used to express our longing for probably that same length of time. The Psalms are evidence of this. They are songs which describe – and occasionally claim to answer – the human yearning to discover that which is beyond the confines of our physical world. These songs describe how one particular nation discovered that “the beyond” actually speaks and that this speech could be captured in song.
These artists used music to not only chronicle their revolutionary spiritual experience, but to reimagine it, and share it with others. Their audience was of course one another, singing these songs in community, but they wrote them for us as well: fellow travelers who, though separated by thousands of years, are still wrestling with the very same questions they were.
This tiny nation reached out to the beyond, and discovered – to their sheer astonishment – that the beyond had first reached out to them. They were not finding something hidden, but according to their telling, a personal God who not only answers their longing for ultimate meaning but was the one who placed this desire in them to begin with. Despite the historical distance between us and them, their songs do seem a lot like ours. They are infused with love and loss, hope and frustration, ecstasy and despair. The Bible even has it’s own version of Elvis: King David!
While we put songs of our longing on space ships, the people that wrote the Bible put their longing into stories, prophesy, lament, dogmatic and apocalyptic letters, poetry, and music. And, even while believing that a personal God had revealed himself to them, they still wrote songs that were full of questions, confusion, distress, and at times even protest of God’s actions or his putative absence.
Psalm 121:1, “In my distress I cry to God” could be read as a prescription for prayer in times of sorrow, but it could just as easily be a description of the author’s present state, saying to Yahweh something along the lines of “Hey, do you see us down here?! Do you know what it’s like to be us?!”
The Psalms are irreverent, often moving between a bare expression their longing to rattling God’s cage with it. In our world of performative, shallow religious piety, the Psalms don’t waste time with Top-40 banalities. Instead, the gut-wrenching blues of Blind Willie Johnson – his “Dark Was the Night”, also traveling on the Voyagers – would be a more fitting accompaniment.
At times the Psalms don’t seem to ascend any farther than the human voices that carry them. And yet they maintain a deep conviction that they are not launched into the unknown in the same “what if?” fashion of the “Golden Records.” There is a sung assurance that a personal God is listening, and despite the recurrent bafflement that at times constitutes these prayers, they spring from the data of previous encounters.
These besotted poets do believe that they have met a God who, in explaining himself, would simultaneously be explaining the nature of their humanity and pointing them to a possible solution to their seemingly-unquenchable desire for transcendence.
The Voyagers were time capsules of longing, carrying the recorded sounds of our cosmic homesickness far into the future. When we read the Psalms, we are excavating a time capsule of sorts, containing ancient records of the spiritual experience of a pilgrim people – people like us who want to exceed the boundaries of our workaday experience. Like them, we long to know whether there is someone out there is one who knows us and thinks well of us, one who is inclined to fix the broken and disappointing parts of our lives.
It would be 2500 years after the Psalms were composed that mankind would finally begin to challenge the constraints of gravity, rocketing into lower earth orbit and later launching our songs into deep space – far beyond anything our Psalm-writing ancestors could have imagined. Yet, distance is relative in this case. Even if they were sung by a particularly-large community of the faithful, our ancestors’ Psalms might only travel a few hundred meters through the air and yet still find their way to a place far beyond the singers’ known world. And ours.
These melodies: equals parts cosmic longing and relational adoration, went “up” farther than the Voyagers will ever travel, making their way to the very ears of God.
They went “up” because God, the hearer in this case, had first come “down”, inviting them to sing their hopes – and their complaints – to him. He came “down”, singing a song of creation as it were, and a melody of love for a tiny desert tribe who themselves were surprised to find out that they would be the bearer of his larger love for the entire world, a love that could not ignore the plight of his beloved.
As it turned out God would answer the longing of the Psalms in person. In a denouement that was at once entirely-consonant with the preceding narrative (properly understood) and impossibly avant-garde, God’s son enters into the story already-in-progress as its main character! Jesus came as God’s incarnate “song”, becoming the answer to the questions that the Psalms which preceded him raised. Growing up in a Jewish household he would have been intimately familiar with the tension in these songs between magnificent joy and utter desolation, but unlike other Jewish children he would not only sing of these polarities but grow up to become their resolution.
His death would give meaning to the sadness of death: God sees, and feels, and even joins us in dying, while his resurrection would justify the obstinate joy that says “keep singing” for death will not have the last word.
While the songs onboard Voyagers 1 and 2 will outlast all of humanity and will be speeding through the universe even as our sun becomes a red giant and presumably consumes the earth, but if Jesus is to be believed, his song will echo into eternity and thus there is a reason to believe that our songs of longing are not in vain.
 The original mission only included Saturn and Jupiter but was later expanded to include Uranus and Neptune.
 I discovered this quote in Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing by Christopher West.