Radio Kings: “The Echo of a Voice”

Wilco, The Whole LoveOver the last two weeks I’ve probably tried many readers’ patience by dedicating a few thousand words to extolling the virtues of two of my favorite bands: The Jayhawks (who released an underwhelming new album on Sept. 20th) and Wilco (whose outstanding new album arrived one week later). “What does this have to do with ‘Exploring Christianity, History, Education, and How They Intersect'”?, someone surely wondered.

Not much, at first glance. But today I’ll try to bring things back to one of the blog’s stated concerns, to share some reflections on what it’s like to be an evangelical Christian and a fervent fan of these two bands, how those two commitments both flow together and exist in tension.

Not long before the two new albums came out, I was e-mailing with a friend of mine who also happens to be a fan of these two bands. The conversation turned to religion, specifically that (if any) of the bands’ leaders (Gary Louris and Mark Olson for the Jayhawks; Jeff Tweedy for Wilco), and my friend admitted something that resonated strongly with me:

I don’t know why it matters to me, but for some reason I want the secular bands I listen to to be closeted Christians.

I couldn’t have put it better myself. Both the desire, and the incomprehension of its origins.

Now, I pray that I share the heart of “God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3b-4) and so hope that Louris, Olson, Tweedy, and everyone else who ever lived will convert to Christ, even knowing that some (perhaps including my favorite singers) will decide to reject him. But I think I’d be especially thrilled to find that musicians and other artists are Christians. And even more disappointed than usual to find those women and men rejecting Christianity.

Now, on one level, it doesn’t bother me that Jeff Tweedy might be singing Woody Guthrie lyrics without actually wanting “Christ for President” (on Mermaid Avenue) or seeking a place on the “Airline to Heaven” (on MM, Vol. II). The former can still inspire us to rethink politics (I couldn’t find a reference to Wilco in a search of this book by Shane Claiborne, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he owns a Wilco album or two) and the latter can still remind “Them’s that got ears” to “Turn [their] eyes to the Lord of the skies.” Tweedy can claim (in the liner notes to the reissue of Uncle Tupelo’s March 16-20, 1992) that he sang the folk-gospel tune “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” with a mental image of “Satan as the guys who threw pizza at me in school” and still encourage Christians to trust that “the voice of Jesus” overthrows one more powerful than teenaged bullies.

And yet I listen to those songs — or to “King of Kings,” one of the better tracks on the Jayhawks’ eponymous debut (a video of them performing the song at sound check in 1985 is a bonus on the new album), with its chorus telling of “People getting ready / To meet the King of Kings” — and hope that there’s no irony, or narrating from a character’s point of view, that these artists that I respect actually believe the Good News they proclaim.

Why? The best answer I can come up with starts with one of the central points in N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian. Wright suggests that the human response to beauty (or to the lack of beauty) is one of the “echoes” of God’s voice that stirs within each and every heart:

The world is full of beauty, but the beauty is incomplete. Our puzzlement about what beauty is, what it means, and what (if anything) it is there for is the inevitable result of looking at one part of a larger whole. Beauty, in other words, is another echo of a voice—a voice which (from the evidence before us) might be saying one of several different things, but which, were we to hear it in all its fullness, would make sense of what we presently see and hear and know and love and call “beautiful.” (p. 40)

Mark Olson, The Salvation BluesSo when Mark Olson sings (on the marvelous title track of his solo album, The Salvation Blues) that “There’s such joy and sweet moments / To be found in this world,” it’s hard not to hear Wright’s “echo” in Olson’s recording. We glimpse the beauty of Creation, but then listen to the two lines that follow (“We know they’ll come to an end / Just how makes our hearts hurt”) and recognize once again, as Wright puts it, that “Beauty, like justice, slips through our fingers” (p. 40). I think this is what makes Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot so powerful: all the jarring noises and disconnected phrases that made a record label decide the band could not reach an audience are precisely why that album did speak to so many. It simultaneously reflected the brokenness of the world that we all experience and blessed us with musical reminders that beauty has not been extinguished. (In Blue Like Jazz, YHF was presumably the Wilco album that Donald Miller put on one night when he “didn’t want to live in a broken world or a broken me,” when he “just wasn’t in the mood to be on the earth,” a memory that precedes his conclusion that brokenness is inescapably part of the message of Jesus and his followers — p. 23.)

So perhaps I hope to find that artists, precisely because they seem to attuned to this particular “echo” (I think of the Jayhawks’ “Come To The River” — off the 2003 album Rainy Day Music — on which Louris sings, “My harp is tuned to the mourning wind / My flute to the voice that weeps within”) are more likely to seek out the voice being echoed. But it’s more than this.

Artists not only help us perceive the problem; if Wright is correct, they are essential to the solution. (Don’t romanticize artists, I can hear Kathleen Norris say, Or denigrate them. Writing in The Cloister Walk, she warns that it’s “dangerous for artists to contemplate, that the culture that trivializes and spurns them would also, paradoxically, look to them for hope of transformation” — p. 41.) Wright concludes that if Christians are to join in God’s mission of bringing heaven and earth back together, such that they “overlap and interlock” (p. 222), then “the church should reawaken its hunger for beauty at every level” and commit to the renewed exploration of “Art, music, literature, dance, theater, and many other expressions of human delight and wisdom.” Christians cannot possibly be “agents of that new creation” by neglecting beauty, since

The arts are not the pretty but irrelevant bits around the border of reality. They are highways into the center of a reality which cannot be glimpsed, let alone grasped, any other way. The present world is good, but broken and in any case incomplete; art of all kinds enables us to understand that paradox in its many dimensions. But the present world is also designed for something which has not yet happened. It is like a violin waiting to be played: beautiful to look at, graceful to hold—and yet if you’d never heard one in the hands of a musician, you wouldn’t believe the new dimensions of beauty yet to be revealed. Perhaps art can show something of that, can glimpse the future possibilities pregnant within the present time. (p. 235)

Alas, too often the church has ignored or even demonized arts and artists. (Not to pick on the Reformed, since many from that tradition are so adept at “culture-making,” but I can’t help thinking here of Zwingli and Calvin’s disdain for church art and of the Puritans’ antagonism towards the theater—in both cases, rooted in a concern that nothing distract from or compete with the sermon as the primary mode of communicating the Word.) So where we find the church treating the arts as “irrelevant bits around the border of reality,” Christians are bound to seek out such “[glimpses] of future possibilities” in avowedly secular music.

So we listen to Olson identify the fleeting nature of “joy and sweet moments” and imagine that he believes in a Savior and not just “Salvation blues” (“and these blues will help us all,” he adds), that he doesn’t view Christianity as one of the “death tricks / Roamin’ in these hills,” as one of the many “kinds of medicine / That will make you ill.”

Gary Louris
Gary Louris - Licensed by Creative Commons (Toni Verd)

And we listen to Louris’ soaring tenor confess that “Selfish thoughts and selfish reasons / Lead to my own demise / Once this world is taken from me / Stripped bare my soul will rise” (on “You Look So Young,” also from Rainy Day Music) and hope that the baptismal imagery of “Come To The River” (“If you wanna taste the water / Gotta come to the river” — recycled on the new album’s “Stand Out in the Rain,” where Louris sings, “Take me down to the river tonight / And let me stand out in the rain”) reflects something more than the faint imprint of repeating Catholic liturgies as a child. (This 2008 interview touches briefly on Louris’ religious upbringing, and notes his interest in the work of the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, a Christian existentialist.)

And we ponder Tweedy’s perhaps imponderable lyrics on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and dare to think that an album full of heartbreak, decay, conflict, lost innocence, miscommunication, “picking apples for the kings and queens of things I’ve / never seen” (from “Radio Cure”), and other hallmarks of the Fall might also contain hints of Redemption and Restoration. That “You have to learn how to die / if you wanna wanna be alive” (from “War on War”) is a capsule version of Romans 6, or that “I know I would die / if I could come back new” (from “Ashes of American Flags,” two tracks later) does the same for 1 Corinthians 15. Or even that “Jesus, Etc.” is actually addressed to, well, you know who. As are “What was I thinking when I let go of you?” (from the leadoff “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”) and “I’ve got reservations / about / so many things / but / not about you” (the album-closing “Reservations”).

Jeff Tweedy
Jeff Tweedy - Licensed by Creative Commons (Greg Dunlap)

But such interpretations seem far more speculative than those naturally arising from lyrics like this one from “One Sunday Morning,” the long, lovely closing track on Wilco’s new album:

I said it’s your God I don’t believe in
No your bible can’t be true
Knocked down by the long lie
He cried I fear what waits for you

The “he” being Tweedy’s father, who, now deceased, “knows he was wrong.” And so Tweedy, having “heard the war and worry of the gospel,” concludes simply, “I was born to die alone” (on the catchy “Born Alone”).

Now, that’s probably too tidy a conclusion, since elsewhere on the album Tweedy “can’t help it if I fall in / Love with you again…” (“Dawned on Me”). As on all Wilco albums, Tweedy’s angst leaves plenty of room for declarations of love for his wife, children, and others dear to his heart (see “Reservations,” above). And that brings us right back to N.T. Wright, who also identifies the desire for human relationships — however risky and difficult they may be — as another “echo of a voice.”

But if we go with a hermeneutic in which what’s clear illuminates what’s murky, it seems like my friend and I should probably let our hopes for Tweedy’s conversion hibernate and simply enjoy the music for the beauty it provides.

Or better, we should follow the advice of Ron Augustine, in his five-star review of The Whole Love for Christianity Today, and let such “humanistic and existentialist” lyrics as those in “One Sunday Morning” and “Born Alone” serve as “challenges to Christian listeners, who shouldn’t take Tweedy’s convictions lightly.”

Mostly, we should be challenged by yet another example of a tragic pattern that recurs throughout church history: that the very people called to be “Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Cor 5:20) so often prevent the reconciliation God seeks. (“Don’t judge the Message by the messenger,” this ad reminded viewers of the Vikings-Chiefs game yesterday afternoon.) As possessors of free will corrupted by sin, individuals are perfectly capable of rejecting the most perfectly proclaimed Gospel; in the case of Tweedy, like so many others, I fear that those put in his life as Christ’s ambassadors somehow substituted “war and worry” for peace and hope, and so made the Truth sound like “the long lie.”

If anyone should come to Christ, shouldn’t it be someone whose vocation as an artist leads them again and again down “highways into the center of a reality which cannot be glimpsed, let alone grasped, any other way”? That, having so clearly heard one echo of God’s voice, they follow this calling and yet seem to reject “the reality” not just in spite of Christian witness but perhaps because of the nature of that witness… It makes my heart hurt, even as I fall in love with their art again.

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