In the early 80s, an image campaign began in the city of Atlanta with the hopes of encouraging Atlantans to see their city with pride and hope—despite some of its darker plaguing issues of race relations, violence, poverty, and unemployment. The jingle was endearing, if cheesy, chirping birds in the background and all:
There’s a feeling in the air, that you can’t get anywhere… except in Georgia. I taste a thousand yesterdays and I still love the magic ways of Atlanta.
The lyrics stayed mostly the same for years, though they came out with a country version, as well as a version featuring the Commodores in the mid 80s. The accompanying pictures were all hometown, feel-good scenes: firm hand-shakes, hot dogs in the park, a couple blissfully showing off their engagement with the city skyline behind them. All of it was meant to inspire nostalgia, loyalty, and camaraderie—and to counter some of the more negative images and present uncertainties at that time. Those who remember it speak of the “Hello Atlanta!” song quite fondly, attesting to its convincing look at Atlanta’s unique brand of urbanism and the pride that the song actually did drum up for their city.
Makes no difference where I go, You’re the best hometown I know. Hello, Atlanta. Hello, Georgia. We love you on 11 Alive!
The song served as something of an anthem for the city, so much so that Ira Glass recently featured it on his program This American Life.(1) He interviewed people who remembered the song. And then he completely burst their unique sense of city-pride by playing for them the exact same song and lyrics with “Milwaukee” or “Calgary” substituted out in chorus and pictures. As it turned out, this “image campaign” was a syndicated campaign that took place in 167 different cities worldwide. There’s a feeling in the air, that you can’t get anywhere, except… fill in the blank.
In the chapters of Isaiah, the ancient prophet presents a complex meditation about the destiny of Jerusalem into the crises of exile and the promise of Jerusalem out of exile into new well-being. This city of intense promise that he lauds in poetry, in lament, and public proclamation is not a song like Hello Atlanta (or Hello Any City, USA as it turns out). Isaiah’s is not an image campaign meant to play on a syndicated sense of nostalgia for the masses, pie in the sky images of life meant to erase the darker scenes of their present reality. Nor is it the sort of meditation that one can substitute a different city or a different set of people and still hold onto any semblance of his bold and hopeful lyric.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, he proclaims, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted…to restore faint spirits, to give gladness instead of mourning.(2) For a people who had been through the darkness of captivity and exile and the loss of everything they loved and held near, this is exactly what they had longed to hear from the God they suspected had abandoned them and the city they loved: Through Isaiah, God says, I have not forgotten you. In fact, I am sending good news for you in darkness. I am going to comfort you who mourn and care for you who are grieving. I will bestow on you a crown of beauty instead of the ashes you have been sitting with. And I am bringing garments of praise for you to put on, instead of the spirit of despair you have been carrying.
Isaiah paints in stirring metaphor and image the potent Hebrew concept of Shalom. We translate this word as “peace” in English, but this misses far too much. While it is possible to consider peace abstractly, shalom cannot be extracted from its multi-level application to every part of life as we know it. Shalom is closer to human flourishing. It is God’s gift of peace, but it is also God’s enacting of good news, God’s offering of well-being in such a way that we are able to hold it, to take it in, and taste it—like the great wedding feast Jesus uses to describe what it looks like to be gathered together in God’s care and comfort. Shalom is beauty for ashes and comfort for the grieving. It is not an abstract, inaccessible picture of life as it could be or life simply as it will be one day. It is not an escape vehicle from the harsh realities of life. Surely God’s promise of shalom involves dimensions beyond time as we know it. But the Hebrew word Shalom very profoundly aims at the flourishing of bodies and souls and life as we find it presently, dark though it is.(3) Beauty and comfort and release and gladness and joy are indeed proclaimed, but it all comes as the promise of a God who is somehow present in the midst of Israel’s complicated, difficult, dark and beautiful realities.
In a time when religion is often viewed as an opiate or an escape from reality, Isaiah presents a clear challenge. His description of life renewed is not at all like an image campaign to help us forget the harder realities of life, to woo us with images that simply erase our earlier recollections of despair. If we were going to put it in terms of an image campaign, in fact, Isaiah’s promising words and the gospel that brings these promises to life sing a rather unflattering, enigmatic song about a very meek Son of God who appears on the scene of a fairly unimpressive city: not the Jerusalem of royalty and fanfare, but the back streets of Bethlehem where we are given not easy answers but a baby who embodies something far different.
The promise of God’s shalom is not a thin attempt to distract us from our own darkness or a flimsy pat on the back for the profound brokenness of the world. It is not an image campaign to make us feel better, but the unexpected gift of one who, somehow, mercifully, can hold it all.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) “No Place Like Home,” This American Life, episode 520, March 14, 2014. Ira Glass tells the story from the point of view of Calgary.
(2) See Isaiah 61, particularly 61:1-3.
(3) “Dark though it is” is a line from the W.S. Merwin poem, “Thanks,” written in 1927.