For years I’ve been mulling a presentation on “The Gospel According to the Mountain Goats.” Last night I subjected a handful of unwitting, unsuspecting, and otherwise unprepared victims to my plan.
There were no conversions, though I think that at least one heart was strangely warmed.
The Irreligious Pious
There are two types of martyrs in the world. There are the prophets who are killed by the Powers who will not hear the truth. Then there are the heretics, killed by the pious, who are only recognized as martyrs in a later generation, when the pious Powers who killed are recognized to be more heretical than the heretics whom they slaughtered.
This is a tricky distinction. Which was Jesus? It probably depends on whom you ask in what year.
John Darnielle’s would-be martyrs are, of course, of the latter sort. His heretics are of the sort that you know they are behaving out of accord with what the Powers say you may do. But when the result is care for the poor, clothing the naked, feeding even the wraiths, is it possible that true religion has sprouted in the seedbed of heresy?
1 Samuel 15:23
That’s the song’s title. 1 Samuel 15:23. Here’s what the verse says: “”For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king.”
Here’s the song:
In concert, John Darnielle has said that this is a song about “safe spaces,” and “a song about good faith.”
What do we do with the diviner who brings life? Where is condemnation? When s/he is part of the army of heretics who are more faithful agents of God on the earth than those who call themselves by God’s name and enforce God’s law?
Who knows what the guy in this song said or did, or why he’s so confident when the Day of Reckoning arrives? But today’s expunged heretic is tomorrow’s pious martyr.
“But that song, the title track, that’s about a guy really getting into how he’s about to suffer a really painful death. When people talk about ‘living life to the fullest’ they often mean they’re gonna have a bitchin’ weekend or whatever, or an intense relationship, but to me, you know who lived life to the fullest? Martyrs. People who got thrown to lions and had to listen to tens of thousand of people applauding while the lions ate them alive. Those are guys who are really drinking life to the lees, right? So that’s what heretic pride is – really enthusiastic role acceptance.” —John Darnielle
From Justice to Grace
These next two songs aren’t ones I would have picked out on their own. The first repeatedly says, “God damn these vampires.” It’s a strong curse. And it’s one that seems worthy of their object: people whose drug addictions and peddling have helped ensnare the singer into a life of living death.
So if you don’t want to listen to a song that says such strong words, skip the listen.
But the place where it becomes beautiful, to me, is in its juxtaposition with the other. In “Steal Smoked Fish,” there is a series of blessings, including the line, “God bless all vampires every night.”
This, of course, created a tension that I needed resolved:
That movement from “damn them” to “bless them,” that’s what I found remarkable. The growth from, “I want you judged,” to, “I’m one of you. I forgive myself. I love you. I forgive you. I want good for you. I want good for us.” That’s what I’m talking about. Growth. Grace. Forgiveness.
Finding their way back into that tightly guarded paradise that is The Garden of Eden. Through the birth of a boy. To a couple of kids who have no business having a baby. Born in a place that has no place being a birthing room. As one person put it in conversation last night, “All you have to do is replace ‘San Bernardino’ with ‘Bethlehem.'”
Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod?
In the real world, redemption comes at a price. Or, put differently, redemption is something we need because we are paying a price beyond our bearing.
The song title alludes to Job 1. And whenever your life can serve as an allusion to Job, you’re completely hosed.
“And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?”
Ok, you’re not completely hosed, because there will be new life. Evolution or salvation or something. You will rise above your station. Eventually.
But the pain between now and then for the one who is good… Lord have mercy.
In the liner notes to the album on which that song appeared, an album that contains several such autobiographical songs reflecting his upbringing by an abusive stepfather, John writes this:
“Made possible by my stepfather, Mike Noonan (1940-2004): May the peace which eluded you in life be yours now.”
That blessing for life after life is strong and beautiful. And it leads us to the question of Eschatology.
Eschatology. The end. When everything gets set to rights. It’s the time when we find out, to our surprise, who we are, good and bad. It’s the time when the mess we’ve made of our lives and the beautiful moments of grace work themselves out into a coherent picture, maybe for the first time.
We don’t yet see as we ought to see. We don’t yet know as we ought to know.
After running through this litany of heavy songs, many of which have lyrics amenable to diverse interpretations, I thought that a discussion of Mountain Goats eschatology could end on a light note, with some practical life lessons that everyone can take to heart.