Radiohead’s OK Christmas: the reason there are jingle bells in ‘Airbag’

When Radiohead’s 1997 album OK Computer came out, I missed it. In my defense, I was twelve years old at the time and in a pretty significant Puff Daddy and Boys II Men phase. In a 2017 New Yorker article Amanda Petrusich recalls that Spin named OK Computer one of the best albums of 1997, calling it “a soaring song-cycle about the state of the soul in the digital age (or something).”

It would be years before I hit my alternative rock phase and tuned to 106.5 the Buzz to hear “Paranoid Android” and start to feel feelings. Still more time would pass before my college acapella group would serenade scores of Arbor Mist-ed sorority girls with our arrangement of Radiohead’s “Creep.”

My interest in Radiohead didn’t peak until Holy Week of last year’s Lent (just as Advent leads up to Christmas, Lent leads up to Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter). I was mowing the grass on Palm Sunday and feeling moody so I put OK Computer on my headphones. I think I was listening to “Paranoid Android” when it first hit me. The line was: 

When I am king you will be first against the wall…
Why don’t you remember my name? 

Then I heard “Subterranean Homesick Alien”

I’d show them the stars 
And the meaning of life.
They’d shut me away 
But I’d be alright.

Then the hits kept coming with “Exit Music for a Film” 

Wake
From your sleep
The drying of your tears
Today we escape
Now we are one
in everlasting peace

The more I listened, the more I was convinced that OK Computer might actually be entirely about Jesus, a sprawling score to a modern Passion Play. The lyrics, the music, it all left me pondering the life and death of Christ specifically according to the Gospel of John. It even starts with a Christmas song with Jingle Bells and all! Check it out! Follow the “I AM” lines.

In the next world war
In a jack-knifed juggernaut
I am born again
In the neon sign
Scrolling up and down
I am born again
In an interstellar burst
I am back to save the universe

“Airbag” – Radiohead

These lyrics about a re-birth that ultimately saves the universe accompanied by jingle bells? I mean come on! How can it not make you think of Christmas! There’s more…

In a deep, deep sleep
Of the innocent
I am born again

Now, for atheist Radiohead fans out there, I acknowledge that I may have just compromised your love of OK Computer by bringing Jesus into it (sorry Joey). I know this wasn’t what Thom Yorke or the rest of the band were going for when they wrote it. But, you have to admit, they did leave the door open for thinking theological thoughts here. I mean the song’s closest thing to a hook is openly salvific:

In an interstellar burst
I am back to save the universe

That’s exactly what the church celebrates at Christmas, the Infinite becoming finite, signifying the dawn of universal salvation through nothing short of an “interstellar” birth. Mary’s body is like the airbag that cushions the descent of God to earth. In her arms at Christmas, Christians see a Power the world cannot hold that has nonetheless chosen to be held, cuddled even, in the “deep, deep sleep of the innocent.”

And if you think the hints of reincarnation in lyrics like “back to save” or “born again” ruin my OK-Christmas Party for one, I actually think they help us understand the Christ of John’s Gospel. Airbag’s hat-tip to reincarnation actually helps us see what John’s exposing in the text read in church on Christmas Day. Namely, that the Incarnate One has been here before. 

Logos in Greek

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being… And the Word became flesh and lived among us. 

John 1

Warning: the next part gets nerdy.

The “Word” discussed here in John 1 (the Word that was “in the beginning” and ultimately “became flesh”). In Greek that word is “Logos” (same root as logic) which is both a Greek philosophical term and a Hebrew theological term. In Greek philosophy the Logos is the Essence of existence, both the logic and source of all that is. In Hebrew Scripture, the Logos is the Word of the Lord through which God creates, liberates, and redeems. 

In his gospel, John takes this link between Greek philosophy and Jewish scripture and suggests its the best way to understand the birth and identity of Christ. Christ is the Logos known to the Greeks as the source of Wisdom and Beauty, and revealed in Hebrew Scripture as the source of Justice and Love. For John (and for us) Christ is Wisdom, Beauty, Justice, and Love, the Logic of God made flesh in real life.

Eagle Nebula’s Pillars of Creation. A Hubble shot that always looked to me like an abstract nativity scene.

If we consider “Airbag” as a Christmas song, Radiohead’s term “back again” helps us understand John’s point, that Christ-as-Logos is someone we’ve seen before: at creation, at Mt. Sinai, in the mouths of the Prophets, and in all other instances of true Wisdom, Beauty, Justice, and Love. It’s all one Logos, revealed now no longer just in principle, but in person. Christ as the Logos-made-flesh is Wisdom, Beauty, Justice, Love, not just in theory, but in a body. In an interstellar burst, the Logos is back to save the universe.

In Amanda Petrusich’s article, she recalls that Thom Yorke insists OK Computer is actually about his own sense of dislocation after a touring schedule so intense it made him lose touch with reality. Petrusich writes that, nevertheless, public opinion “now largely understands OK Computer as a record about how unchecked consumerism and an overreliance on technology can lead to automation and, eventually, alienation (from ourselves; from one another).”

I guess it’s no surprise that, as a Christian, I see Christ in this record. For Christians, whether it’s an expression of Yorke’s post-tour existential crisis, or an audio drama about how greed and technology threaten our cultural soul if not our existence, it’s all very familiar. It’s the human condition, exacerbated by the digital age. It’s all symptomatic of a basic universal disconnect from Reality, and one another. 

Interior of Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem – G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection

The Christian Tradition has a term for this human condition. We call it Sin. It’s a term many may be unable to disassociate from turn-or-burn televangelists or traumatic church experiences, nonetheless it is our term. Sin is not just a moral mistake. It’s a persistent alienation, beyond our control, from the life that really is life (Wisdom, Beauty, Justice, Love). Sin is the term we have for the “jackknifed juggernaut” that is the human condition. 

The Good News of the doctrine of the Incarnation is that we are not left alone in this Sin. Instead, we were joined in it. The Logos of the universe has assumed our condition in the person of Jesus and in him this Logos is waging what Airbag calls “the next world war” against Sin and Death from within humanity itself. And his only weapon is himself. His Wisdom. His Beauty. His Justice. His Love, made flesh in his body

Advent invited us to actually trust that this is the way the world is being saved, through the One who was, and is, and is to come.

Also, this (thanks Britta) is your reward for reading til the end:

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