The Meaning of Fire
When you watch the music video “When a Fire Starts to Burn”—by Disclosure, an English electronica brother-duo—there is only one thing you truly need to know: soon enough, you will find yourself entertainingly swept up into a flagrant Pentecostal exploration of a very old subject matter. This is why, if I can offer you an unsolicited piece of advice, I’d highly recommend experiencing this mesmerizing song-and-video inside a Panera restaurant, ear-buds in, while sitting comfortably beside an altogether fake fire.
From there, at least you can begin to see the complex field of meaning.
Once upon a time, a man who was formerly married to Christie Brinkley lyrically opined: We didn’t start the fire. Perhaps you remember. As is usually the postmodern case, so much hinges on that pesky word: “we.” I suppose we can say: he was mostly right. On the other hand, he was a little wrong. I mean, just ask Christie Brinkley.
In current popular music, meanwhile, singer Alicia Keyes has made the subject far more personal with her classic employment: This girl is on fire. See also: Kobe Bryant when he’s making shot after shot or Peyton Manning when he’s throwing seven touchdowns. So, as is apparent, radical distinctions must be made between this casual, almost flippant, sense of meaning and the sense explicit in, say, the revolutionary act of a Tunisian fruit vendor.
Going back all the way to the new-old stories that humans tell about our ancestors, fire has a foggy mythology. It has been said that neanderthals mastered the art of making it and controlling it. I don’t know about that, but I do appreciate those Geico cavemen ads—especially the one where the caveman goes bowling with his friends and seems to be having a good time until it suddenly dawns on him that he is being exploited for the sake of advertising. He's all the wiser for it, I say.
Whatever its debated origins, surely the light of fire became our first mirror to see ourselves in the dark world. The warmth of fire: a first oven to feed ourselves in the cold world. Then came the tools for construction, then the weapons—God, the weapons!—for defense, and for plenty of offense. The meaning of fire had been unleashed in numerous directions and from disparate types of energies.
In sacred history—in the Book, in particular—it will not surprise anyone at all that the meaning of fire is all over the place.
For example, fire proves to be very instrumental in the epic covenant between God and Abraham, who became an ancient exemplar of monotheistic faith in an atmosphere mostly hostile to it. We see the fearful figure of Moses, minding his own business on the other side of the wilderness, when, out of nowhere, a fire comes to him through a solitary bush with a heavenly angel in the middle of it. A meaning like this is bound to be compelling, especially when contrasted with the abject normalcy of our modern lives.
From the Book, we imagine that the first recorded case of “if you play with fire you might get burned” occurred when Aaron the priest tragically lost two sons due to an unauthorized fire. If this incident wasn’t so incredibly frightening and sobering, I’d say it reminds me of a friend, in college, who set off a firecracker inside the dormitory for the hell of it. Unlike Yahweh, the Resident Director had no authority to kill the poor kid.
However, fire is quite like that: it can serve our whims on a whim.
The Book goes on to show that we will sometimes (often) use fire to make hideous things glow with the pseudo-brightness of God—as in the case of the Golden Calf. Or we will use fire to peacock our illusory human powers, including our grand intelligence. Take the prophets of Baal, who, in a kind of human-divine foot race, tried to conjure God’s fire before the prophet of the Lord could, giving Prometheus a run for his fire-stealing money.
Fire tells quite a tale in the Book. Upon another prophetic encounter, the Book says that a man named Isaiah watched in astonishment as an angel took a fiery coal from the temple sacrifice and cleansed the would-be prophet’s lips. Lord, have mercy! Then, there’s the case of a few young Jewish exiles in Babylon, who, when forced to bow down to the created likeness of the original Nebuchadnezzar, were thrown into a fiery furnace. God delivered them without a single hair being singed—a meaning of staggering consequence for believers and unbelievers alike.
Moving right along, thirty years or so after what is said to be the quintessential history-altering intervention—in Bethlehem, in Judea, in the Roman Empire—a raving-mad Jewish evangelist named John the Baptizer would shock-and-awe the people by preaching that the Messiah would opt for fire as a means of baptism. Maybe this simply means that purification upon the road to salvation is not so cut-and-dry, especially for religious types. For his part, Jesus was fiery at times—his tenderness not excluding his strength. Like when he warned the withered branches to be careful: you might get collected and tossed into the fire.
After he left, it was widely reported that tongues of fire “rested on” more than a few people, redeeming and resurrecting all manner of unsuspecting human languages. At the scene of the incident, “What does this mean?” became the rhetorical question par excellence. Still, if a person is curious enough, the question hasn’t lost one ounce of provocation across the centuries.
Finally, toward the end of the Book, we get a letter from the brother of Jesus in which he offers up the other-side-of-the-coin meaning to “tongues of fire.” James compares our tongues to little fires which are able to set whole forests ablaze—the spark originating in the depths of hell. To squeeze further meaning from fire, one of the more creative contributors to the Book proclaims: “Our God is a consuming fire.” And the very last author has us putting the Book down and brooding on a vision containing a roaring lake of fire, leaving us with a highly parsed sense of heat and light, cold and darkness.
Notwithstanding all the hermeneutical hubbub, on most days I suppose that I still prefer a good fire—most fires, that is; and some meanings, that is. There is that one fire I could do without, way back at high school camp in Ohio, when I looked straight across the flames and noticed that my former girlfriend was snuggling with her new boyfriend. Of course, nothing that Billy Joel could say or possibly sing was of any consolation, metaphorically speaking, because, well, when a fire starts to burn…