In a recent viral video, musician Alex Chadwick fired up his 1958 Fender Strat and
ripped through “100 Riffs (A Brief History of Rock n’ Roll)":
In the course of these twelve minutes Alex plays riffs from Chuck Berry through the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix to Queen and Van Halen and on through U2, Guns n’ Roses, the White Stripes, and Foo Fighters, illustrating an important truth: it’s all about the riff.
The riff is fundamental in blues, jazz and, of course, rock n’ roll. It’s that opening melodic or chordal bit, that motif that establishes the tone and structure of the whole song and will likely appear a few more times. But perhaps what most characterizes a riff is its association with a whole song. You know if it’s going to be “Pretty Woman” or “Sweet Home Alabama” or “Layla” by the riff. (Tellingly, Eric Clapton introduced his popular live unplugged version of “Layla” with the challenge, “Let’s see if you can spot this one.” The reason it was hard to “spot” was that he had changed the famous riff and, yes, it changed the song dramatically.) So it’s not just a cool instrumental thing that has lots of significance on its own. It’s that that instrumental thing—cool as it may be—has significance mainly because it points to the whole song. The lights go out, the opening riff thunders from the speakers, and the hands go into the air because you know that song…you love that song! That’s rock n’ roll.
Heaven and Earth are full
of the glory of God riffs
God is a riff God. Not a riff god like Jimi Hendrix, but a big-“G” God who reveals himself and his kingdom in the form of riffs. All creation is riff after glorious riff, whether DNA or daisies or daughters or days-and-nights. God seems to love creating so much that he does it over and over, often stringing things together with riffs.
God reveals himself in the Bible this way. There’s the opening riff of God as Creator of all that is, seen and unseen. After it starts things off in Genesis, we hear it again in all kinds of big moments. From the starry-sky covenant with Abraham to reminding a doubtful, stammering Moses who it was who gave people their mouths and ears; from putting Job on trial with the question, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” to the psalmist’s humble affirmation that the LORD made “mere mortals” and “crowned them with glory and honor”; and from the Gospel of John’s new creation story to coming full circle with Paul’s glorious creedal statement that all things—seen and unseen—are made by and for Jesus; and then on to the new heavens and the new earth: in all these the Creator-God riff resonates. And it is heard in the world today—heaven and earth are full of the glory of God riffs.
Of course that’s just one riff among many. If you’ll listen attentively you’ll hear. There are number riffs like 40 and 12 and 7. There are water riffs like the pre-creation chaos and Eden’s rivers and the flood and the Red Sea and baptism and Jesus walking on it and New Jerusalem’s river of life. There are tree riffs like Eden’s trees of life and of the knowledge of good and evil, and Abraham’s oak and the lover’s apple and Zaccheus’ sycamore and a cursed fig and Christ’s cross and New Jerusalem’s tree of life. And there are grand, sweeping thematic riffs like exile and homecoming—heard in the Israelites’ captivity and exodus and in Jesus’ parables like the Prodigal Son and, of course, in the story of humanity’s fall and redemption.
Picking up on these riffs is really fun. You should try it. You just may find your fist shooting up into the air when you hear them. They aren’t always readily heard. It often took many generations before Scripture writers could listen back and pick out the riffs. They had to get to a certain point in the God-song before they began to recognize that same riff that had been repeated, and then to work out what it was about God and his kingdom that it was telling his people. Likewise, in our lives, it sometimes takes a while before we begin to pick up on God-riffs, to listen back to the God-song our life is playing and hear the riffs he keeps bringing in. But when we do, when we pick up on them and even learn to play along, we find our lives resounding with nothing less than the music of God. Here’s how it works...to be continued...