Chuck Berry at Thirty-Eight Thousand Miles an Hour

When I was eleven years old my dad took me to see the Space Shuttle Enterprise as it landed at a former Air Force base in my hometown of Mobile, Alabama. It would later be placed onto a barge for a slow float down the Intracoastal Waterway on its way to the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans.

It’s only partially accurate to say that the Enterprise “landed” however; it was merely a passenger, fastened to the top of a modified 747. As I remember it these two technological marvels made a long sweeping turn over the spectators gathered below, lining up for an impossibly-slow landing.

I was utterly transfixed, marveling at the fact that a million pounds of steel could not only be mated to one another and still fly, but even more that the wings on this 747 didn’t suddenly snap off under the stress!

I knew at that moment exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up!

A pastor.

No, not really; that strange vocational choice came many years later. I wanted to be an aerospace engineer.

In preparation for this exciting career I went to Space Camp, I acquired a telescope, and I even read Sky and Telescope Magazine on the regular. Surely any 11-year old who subscribes to a magazine like that is destined to work for NASA!

What I didn’t do was make “A’s” in high school math, and while this isn’t technically a prerequisite for becoming an engineer, getting “B’s” (and, let’s face it: “C’s”) after your dad stayed up till 3 a.m. tutoring you (again!) in “Algebra II” is a likely indicator that “liberal arts” are in your future. So, in college I gravitated to courses in which I was expected to read long books with big words and few pictures, but not once did I have to carry a scientific calculator to class!

While NASA’s scientific and technological achievements continued to interest me, I eventually gave up on the idea of ever working on them personally, and over time I grew more and more intrigued by questions that would more properly relate to the “why?” rather than the “how?” of space exploration.

Why, for example, are we as a species so fascinated with space to begin with?

What would possess men and women who ARE good at math and could presumably make a lot more money in the private sector choose instead to pursue a career as an astronaut even when the likelihood of ever making it into space are quite low?

Is achieving escape-velocity as much about escaping meta-physical boundaries as physical ones?

A few years before NASA launched its first Space Shuttle, it sent two unmanned probes on a journey deep into the Solar System to orbit Jupiter and Saturn in order to send back pictures and data.¹

A photo of Jupiter taken 40 years ago by Voyager 2.

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 in 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 that hatched the plan to send two spaceships into deep space, not only put radios on board, but also had the wherewithal to think, “hey if these things are gonna be blasting through the universe at 30,000 miles an hour then they’re gonna need some tunes!

So, NASA created the ultimate mix-tape, sending Beethoven, Bach, Blind Willie Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, and others into space. But why? Why fly “Johnny B. Goode” into the deepest recesses of our galaxy? The answer is…

…“Extra Terrestrials!”

That’s right, just in case a 100 million years or so in the future, one of the Voyagers might happen to run into some aliens, the smartest people on our planet wanted to make sure these “ET’s” knew that it was us who invented Rock and Roll!

Well, perhaps that was just a corollary to a more serious goal; sending music on the Voyagers was in fact an earnest and contemplative affair. Annie Druyan was the creative director of the Voyager Interstellar Message Project, and helped to choose the sounds and music to include on the two Golden Records. She gives us a sense of what was at stake when she reflects 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.’”²

To Annie Duryan, and perhaps to Beethoven, “longing” — the desire to encounter something beyond what we see and touch — communicated something essential about humanity. 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 ancient 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 melody.

These artists used music to not only document their revolutionary spiritual experience, but to reimagine it, and to share it with others. Their audience was of course one another — singing these songs in stationary and traveling communities — 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.³

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, were encountering 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 sound a lot like ours: they are infused with love and loss, hope and frustration, ecstasy and despair.

The Bible even has its own version of Elvis! David is The King of Israel who wrote, or at least commissioned many of the Psalms.

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, though 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 as well as 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 could just as easily be a description of the author’s present emotional 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 often irreverent, many of them moving between an expression of 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 achingly-somber “Dark Was the Night” is 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 relational 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 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. The Psalms too are 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’ hymns might travel only a few hundred meters through the air, yet they 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 — as well as their complaints — to him. He descended with a song of creation as it were, and a melody of love for a tiny desert tribe who themselves were completely surprised to learn, and often resistant to the idea that they would be the bearer of his broader love for the entire world.

The Psalms acknowledge this particular love as well as its more universal cousin, and give us hints through imagery and metaphor, that God will visit his world again in a mysterious yet corporeal form. 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 and still impossibly avant-garde, God re-enters the story already-in-progress in the person of his son: Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus comes as God’s incarnate “song”, becoming an enfleshed answer to the questions that the Psalms which preceded him asked. Growing up in a Jewish household he would have surely sung these songs regularly, doubtless becoming intimate with their polarities of magnificent joy and utter desolation. Yet, unlike other Jewish children, he would not only sing of this tension but grow up to become it’s resolution.

His death would give meaning to the sadness of death: God sees, feels, and even joins us in dying, while his resurrection would begin to justify the obstinate joy that says “keep singing” for death no longer has 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 consumes our world, if Jesus is to be believed, his song will echo into eternity giving us a reason to believe that our songs of longing are not in vain.

[1] The original mission only included Saturn and Jupiter but was later expanded to include Uranus and Neptune.

[2] I discovered this quote in Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing by Christopher West.

[3] Psalms 120–134 are called “Psalms of Ascent” because they were sung as Jews traveled between their home and Jerusalem.