Reception History and the Grateful Dead

History of interpretation and history of reception or influence (Wirkungsgeschichte) are fascinating and often times helpful sub-categories of biblical hermeneutics. I think there is an important difference in distinguishing these related categories. History of interpretation, in my understanding, examines how texts have been exegeted throughout the church. Reception more broadly investigates how texts have been received throughout history, which can include art, movies, music, and ecclesiological contexts. As with all hermeneutical approaches, at times these are more helpful than others but personally, they are always interesting. As I was listening to one of my favorite bands, the Grateful Dead, early this morning I heard the following words from “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo”

On the day that I was born
Daddy sat down and cried
I had the mark just as plain as day
which could not be denied
They say that Cain caught Abel
rolling loaded dice,
ace of spades behind his ear
and him not thinking twice

This piqued my interest to examine exactly why they alluded to the Cain and Abel narrative. Sadly, I don’t think this garners much fruit by way of helpfulness for interpretation but it is interesting nonetheless—especially if you’re a Grateful Dead fan.

My understanding of this song chronicles the story of a man who from the beginning of his life is destined with hardship but one most overcome this difficult life and press ahead even though life is going against you. The Dead’s understanding of the Cain and Abel story is that Cain was “marked” by God, destined for destruction. “Rolling loaded dice” and “ace of spades behind his ear” references the inequality and advantage that Abel had. Cain had no chance. Even though the man in the story is identified with Cain as being marked, out he picks up his bootstraps and moves onward.

This foray into reception history probably falls into the more unhelpful side but I think it does alert us to a three helpful points. First, cultural understandings of biblical texts are often devoid of both contextual and theological aspects of the text. Second, the use of the Bible is deeply embedded in our culture. The language of the Bible appears everywhere[1] from everyday language, to movies, and yes, even to Grateful Dead lyrics. Lastly, and most importantly, it forces Christian theologians and interpreters to wrestle more closely with the text.

  1. As noted by the first observation having the language of the Bible embedded into culture does not make one necessarily influenced by it or make the culture a Christian one.  ↩

Tags grateful dead, reception theory, history of interpretation