If testimony and evidence mean anything, Eric Clapton is in a good place. In February, he earned his 19th Grammy (for The Road to Escondido) and reunited with Blind Faith bandmate Steve Winwood for three widely acclaimed concerts at Madison Square Garden. The North Korean government invited Clapton to become the first rock musician to play the last bastion of true Communism; he has yet to decide whether to accept the invitation. In 2007, Clapton completed a 133-date world tour, hosted the second Crossroads Guitar Festival to raise money for his substance abuse center in Antigua, and hit The New York Times bestseller list with Clapton: The Autobiography. He's been happily married to Melia McEnery Clapton for six years, and they have three little girls who think the world of their daddy, without a thought for his troubled past.
This all seems pretty sedate for the man whose work with a Gibson Les Paul led counterculture enthusiasts to declare on subway walls that "Clapton is God," the man "adopted" by Muddy Waters and commissioned to carry on the legacy of the blues. But his road has seldom been smooth. From the age of 9 when he learned that he was born out of wedlock to his "auntie" and an unknown Canadian soldier, he struggled to find a safe place. Feelings of isolation and insecurity haunted him throughout life, drawing him to the gritty alienation of the blues. But there is a spiritual side of Clapton that was scarcely known. It almost always influenced what he thought and did, and the kind of music he wrote and played.
Clapton never set himself up as a model of Christian faith, and admits as much. He grew up in rural Surrey attending a local congregation of the Church of England, and in his autobiography, wrote that he "grew up with a strong curiosity about spiritual matters, but my searching took me away from church and community worship to the internal journey." The foundation of his minimalist faith is reflected in the favorite hymn of his youth, "Jesus Bids Us Shine":
Jesus bids us shine with a clear, pure light,
Like a little candle burning in the night;
In this world of darkness, we must shine,
You in your small corner, and I in mine.
That implicit recognition that we serve God individually — in our own "small corner" — made sense in a working-class neighborhood where Clapton found little spiritual encouragement.
By 1969 he was drawn to the genuine warmth of Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, who opened for Blind Faith on their 1969 tour. Delaney's "persona of a Southern Baptist preacher, delivering a fire and brimstone message … could have been off-putting," observed Clapton, "if it wasn't for the fact that when he sang, he was … absolutely inspiring." One night, Bramlett challenged Clapton to start singing: "God has given you this gift, and if you don't use it he will take it away." Clapton, always unsure of himself, followed his advice.
Just days later, two Christians came to Clapton's dressing room after a show, probably drawn by the performance of "Presence of the Lord," the showstopper on the Blind Faith tour. To young believers, the song seemed like a tentative response to 1 Samuel 6:20 — "Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this Holy God?":
I have finally found a place to live
Just like I never could before
And I know I don't have much to give
But soon I'll open any door.
Everybody knows the secret,
Everybody knows the score.
I have finally found a place to live
In the presence of the Lord.
The two Christians asked Clapton to pray with them. As they knelt, he saw "a blinding light" and sensed God's presence. His testimony was open and honest; he told "everyone" he was "a born-again Christian." But the nature of his faith was tinged with a kind of superstition that would remain suspect in light of any systematic theology.
As Clapton's legend grew, so too did his destructive behaviors. Within a year of his conversion he became addicted to heroin, kicked it, but moved on to alcohol, sexual promiscuity, and a string of failed relationships. "Bad choices were my specialty," he said. In 1987 he hit the bottom. Failing through a month of rehab, he fell to his knees and finally "surrendered" to God, dedicating his sobriety to his newborn son, Conor. Four years later, when Conor died in a fall from the window of a 53rd floor of a Park Avenue apartment, Clapton admitted, "There was a moment when I did lose faith." Still, he found the strength to present a session to his Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on "handing your will over to the care of God." Afterward, a woman confessed that he had taken away her "last excuse" for drinking, a confirmation to Clapton that "staying sober and helping others to achieve sobriety" is "the single most important proposition" in his life.
In his autobiography, Clapton elaborates on the beginnings of his prayer life — that 1987 rock-bottom moment at the rehab treatment center.
"I was in complete despair," Clapton wrote. "In the privacy of my room, I begged for help. I had no notion who I thought I was talking to, I just knew that I had come to the end of my tether … and, getting down on my knees, I surrendered. Within a few days I realized that … I had found a place to turn to, a place I'd always known was there but never really wanted, or needed, to believe in. From that day until this, I have never failed to pray in the morning, on my knees, asking for help, and at night, to express gratitude for my life and, most of all, for my sobriety. I choose to kneel because I feel I need to humble myself when I pray, and with my ego, this is the most I can do. If you are asking why I do all this, I will tell you … because it works, as simple as that."
John Powell is associate professor of history at Oklahoma Baptist University.
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