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Stairway to Heaven

by Mark Peres

April 4,2005

On Friday night, I cheered with hundreds of others as the Charlotte Symphony played songs from the Led Zeppelin canon. A full string orchestra, woodwinds and percussion enveloped hard-driving drums and lead guitar. Singer Randy Jackson sang vocals capturing the soaring octaves of Robert Plant. Conductor Brent Havens led amplified violins and oboes through power riffs of “Kashmir” and “Whole Lotta Love.” As the relentless muscular stomp and searing notes reverbed through Ovens Auditorium, I thought of faith and reason.

In Charlotte, religion and pragmatism are our daily bread. Our local news is leavened with belief and what to do about it. It informs our architecture with church spires, our arts with opposing sensibilities, and our politics with models of the common good. We start our week in Sunday service, in fellowship with citizens of similar stripe and sentiment, plunge into workdays where the marketplace of commerce and government has us give unto Ceasar, and then we rest and return to our faith to start anew.

From this cycle and swirl, our civilization rises. At our fullest, we are citizens of the world and of the divine, acting rationally in history and on the world stage, in contemplation of faith-driven realities that ask us to be greater than what we behold.

In 1998, I read for the first time, “Fides et ratio,” a towering encyclical by John Paul II that explored the relationship between faith and reason. Here is the opening sentence: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth – in a word, to know himself – so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” The encyclical went on to explore the quest for knowledge and meaning that has been with us since our most ancient of days. We are called through all of our resources – philosophy, science, action and devotion – to journey toward truth and an understanding of the mystery of life.

I’m certain I read the encyclical while listening to “Misty Mountain Hop.” Since I first absorbed the music in a college dorm room surrounded by National Geographic posters, my music coda has been the blues-powered rhythms of Page, Plant, Bonham and Jones. Led Zeppelin has fed me intravenously through the years, infusing blasts of melody and creative power that resonates – as all great art does. Only Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, among humanity’s greatest achievements, does more for me musically, revealing the face of God.

The interchange between black and white, between the subtle and explicit, between the sacred and profane has always fascinated me. It fascinates me in the arts, in religion, in the civic realm. I studied history and philosophy of religion, and saw it all clash as a practitioner of law. Many years ago I wrote a novel that remains unpublished. It was 300 pages of instant karma – a protagonist’s journey through the visceral tissue of mind, body and soul. From the muck to the clouds we play.

We see it in Charlotte. We see it in family conflicts and in the halls of Congress. We see it in heroic figures of the ages who have lived and died in our time and place. What we see is aspiration and contradiction. It is our human drama. In our human heart is a desire for something greater that each of us express uniquely and imperfectly. What ultimately inspires is fearlessness in spite of imperfection that communicates something very basic on a universal scale.

So as citizens in a timeline of history, we are to plunge in, looking inward, forward and upward. If this imperfect magazine has a motto, it is: “Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” We see our school system, our traffic, our skyline, in our small Piedmont town, and we dream. We see our leadership, our debates, our foibles, and we awaken.

The amplified two-necked guitar, harmonica, drums, tympanis, bass, organ and Celtic symbols of Led Zeppelin beckon. In the soaring stomp of “The Battle of Evermore” to “Ramble On,” there is aspiration and contradiction, one modality that brings us closer to truth and the mystery of life.

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