“Devil worship,” I answered without hesitating. “At least that’s what I was taught as a teenager,” I added. “But now that I think about it, it might not be true.”
Memories flooded back to me of Christian school chapel services, during which speakers projected images onto a large screen, pointing out the Satanic symbols on album covers, or played segments of songs backwards to reveal the hidden messages, all in an attempt to frighten us away from listening to “the devil’s music.” It didn’t work. We still listened to the music – not because we didn’t believe the propaganda. We assumed everything the grown-ups were telling us was true. We just didn’t care all that much.
But now I started to wonder.
I turned to Google curiously, ready to question what I had always thought I’d known. Ten minutes and two articles later, I texted my friend back. “Never mind,” I said. “It’s about materialism and the ‘dark underbelly of the American dream’.”
The articles I had found were transcribed interviews with Don Henley and the other members of the Eagles. They were first-hand accounts, direct quotes from the original sources. It was a little embarrassing to read in these same articles Henley's bemused reaction to the “urban legend” interpretations of his song, one of which I had been taught – and had believed without question, until this very minute.
Most of the dogma I was raised with clung to me throughout my twenties. My kids were little, and I wanted to raise them “right”, so I didn’t dare deviate far from how I myself had been raised. But as my kids entered their teens, and I my thirties, I began to give myself a little room to explore. I started systematically examining not just what I believed but the rules by which I lived. I pulled doctrines and philosophies and assumptions out of my metaphorical “box” and examined them one by one. Most of them I put back into the box for safe keeping because I was still fully persuaded of their truth and importance. But others I discarded – some with a touch of bitterness, others with an amused smile.
Today was a good reminder for me. As I discard my previous understanding of “Hotel California”, I am confronted with the fact that clearly I have not finished sorting through the box of my assumptions. I have not consulted primary sources for every view that I hold.
In my college classroom, I warn my students that it is tempting to “read into” a fictional text what you want it to say when analyzing literature, just as it is tempting to take statistics out of context when supporting a thesis. Both are dishonest. But even worse, both are the sign of a person who is more interested in defending their preconceptions than discovering the truth.
Today I learned something new. I set aside an erroneous belief for a correct one. Sure, it’s not life-changing to finally understand the bizarre imagery in a confusing old song. But I think the real lesson for me was how easy it was to find my answer, once it occurred to me to ask the question.