God, Jesus and the afterlife in Paul Simon's new album

Paul Simon’s last album was entitled Surprise, but it’s his newest album that is quite surprising.

It’s all about God, Jesus, angels, and the afterlife. And the album cover looks like a multi-coloured DNA helix, causing speculation that this album is really about a search for the meaning of life.

The lyrics of the album’s first cut, "Getting Ready for Christmas Day," are taken directly from a 1941 sermon by famed Atlanta preacher Rev J M Gates.

“I took a big chunk of this guy’s sermon, which was recorded in 1941,” said Simon. “It was like it was meant to be there.”

The catchy, African-inspired and bluesy rhythm of that first track underscores the chorus:

Getting ready for the power and the glory and the story of the Christmas Day.

Those aren’t the only religious lyrics in Simon’s new album, So Beautiful or So What.

In the song "Afterlife", Simon imagines meeting his Maker this way:

After you climb,
up the ladder of time,
the Lord God is here.

Face to face,
in the vastness of space,
your words disappear.

And you feel like swimming
in an ocean of love,
and the current is strong.

But all that remains
when you try to explain
is a fragment of song…

Lord is it,
Be Bop A Lu La or
Ooh Poppa Do
Be Bop A Lu La or
Ooh Poppa Do
Be Bop A Lu La

Ben Witherington, seminary professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, says the song reminds him of John Donne’s poem ‘A Hymn to God, my God, in My Sickness’.

"In that poem Donne talks about tuning up here below to get ready to sing in the heavenly choir," he said.

"In fact he talks about preparing to be made God’s music, and thinking here how to tune his instrument. I think Paul is being made God’s music even now, he just isn’t fully aware of it.”

Simon has said about So Beautiful or So What, “I thought right away, this is a really special album.”

Witherington goes on to remark that singer Paul McCartney, upon hearing some of the new album, said to Simon, “Aren’t you a Jew? How come you’re singing about Christmas and Jesus, and that sort of stuff?"

Simon was born to Jewish Hungarian parents in Newark, New Jersey. He has included other Christian-themed lyrics in previous songs, such as "Bridge Over Troubled Water" with Art Garfunkel and various songs in the album Graceland.

But in Simon’s previous album, he spoke harshly about religious belief:

How can you be a Christian?
How can you be a Jew?
How can you be a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Hindu?
How can you?
Weak as the winter sun, we enter life on earth.
Names and religion come just after date of birth.

Simon even included a song called “I Don’t Believe”, in the album.

But the new album seems to show a change of heart.

In an interview with NPR on Tuesday, interviewer Steve Inskeep asked Simon about the religious references in the new album.

“The fact that there is so much reference to religion in this album makes me wonder if you're thinking about religion more, or thinking about God more.”

Simon responded, “I don’t think it's really so much about religion. There are quite a few references to God or in a spiritual sense. And I guess I would have to say from the evidence of this album that I am thinking about it more."

The album also include the lyrics,

God and his only Son
paid a courtesy call
on Earth one Sunday morning.
Orange blossoms opened
their fragrant lips,
Songbirds sang
from the tips of Cottonwoods,
Old folks wept for his love in these hard times.

Rolling Stone magazine has called Simon’s new album “the best since Graceland.”