In 1998 my friend Anime Emily gave me this tape that had a “mix” on one side and Athens, Georgia indie-rock band Neutral Milk Hotel’s album In the Aeroplane over the Sea on the other. I spent three weeks listening to the first two songs on Side A over and over before, one day, I let the tape run. When it eventually turned over I heard, for the first time, “The King of Carrot Flowers parts 1-3.” I really liked the song, until I heard that one phrase… the deal maker/breaker… the one line that would eventually crack me open again and again.
“I love you Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, I love you, yes I do.”
My immediate response?
What. The. @#$%?
You will have to forgive me, impulse responses being what they are, but, well, I could not help it. If you have heard the song, you might know what I mean. If not, you can go listen to it and come back (if you’re pressed for time skip to 1:50 and wait until the you get hit in the face at 2:25). Understand this, though: I was appalled. My post-Berlin-wall, pre-Twin-Tower, sub-urban, proto-hipster sensibility had been deeply offended.
I spent most of the eighties listening to the name of Jesus being spoken by hypocritical televangelists. Their words described an airbrushed Jesus that in no way reflected my own reality.
I spent most of the early nineties listening to people openly mocked Christian beliefs, gleefully naming the aforementioned hypocrisy. The only bands that could get away with being spiritual and saying the name “Jesus” were either they who must not be named or Spacemen 3. Even in those contexts the mention of Jesus Christ was questionable, but outside of those two? No way it could be good.
He sang it the first time, and I had a brief moment of hope: maybe that was it. But then there it was again, this time accompanied by a wall of wailing thunder. “I love you Jesus Christ!”
The questions started firing one after another like a hundred little bottle rockets in my brain: What? Was he kidding? Was he serious? He could not be talking to the Jesus. Right? What in the name of God was going on? Was this just another crappy attempt at being all faith-y? Was it another chance for some hipper-than-thou pseudo-intellectual to take pot-shots at a religion he had not bothered to understand?
Regardless, there it was. The name of Jesus. Pronounced so unmistakably in a song that, at least up until that point, I had loved. And I had no idea what was going on.
Truth be told, I never found out. I am not sure anyone knows or if the artist has ever mentioned it, or what. What I do know is that that particular song described for me, in a single instant, the entirety of my post-adolescent search for something of the Transcendent in a world riddled with subjective world-views, empty coffee-cups and too many cigarettes. In that moment, I was reminded of my youth and of coming of age: of being filled with the awkward wonder of sex and sense, of fits of laughter followed by uncomfortable silences, of strange family dynamics felt in odd friends’ houses. And it made present the experience of finding one person who made life fun, of learning how to share time, and exploring the always extraordinary and confusing world of intimacy, joy, bodies, desire, and delusion.
All of those moments where I had felt the undeniable confusion of existence, and had been unable to name what (or whom) I sought came swimming back to me along with my own need to struggle with the question of existence. Those few sung words described the beginning of my faith, a faith hatched in inappropriate and messy circumstances. And they described the profanity of using the sacred to describe the familiar.
Some of my friends might have listened to those wailed words of a love professed and heard nothing but irreverence and profanity. The thing is, my own dawning awareness of God had sounded much the same. In that song I heard the sacred and I was reminded of the event that changed my world… changed the world.
Maybe it is not right, you know, taking a song like that, where there is no way of knowing what the artist’s intention was and trying to name it as a moment of faith.
Then again, I think that I am in good philosophical company when I say that finding something in a text that the original author never intended is part of the way that humans do business. We interpret. We all interpret. It’s what we do every time we open a piece of scripture and find something that reflects our own experience. The original authors, they were not talking to us in the particular, they didn’t know me or my life. Yet, there it is: we open up the bible and… there we are, right there on the page.
Similarly, I think that’s one of the secrets behind good art. Good art is open to being interpreted in a number of different ways. Another secret? It names something, be it beautiful or ugly, that is so much a part of human life that it must be named. Likewise, using the name of Jesus Christ in any pop reference also has a secret: it must reveal something of the Transcendent or it’s just air. It has to resonate with our hope in resurrection, salvation, transformation in a way that speaks to the truth of human reality and of the mysterious affection the Divine has for us. Using the name “Jesus” has to be about describing the encounter between our messy human reality and the Transcendent One. Even better: as Christians we are asked to steep ourselves in the imagery of our tradition, to learn the language of salvation. So many of the words we still use to describe Christ are remnants, pieces of stained glass windows through which we still peer in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Divine. They’re all that are left over from centuries of holy efforts to describe millions of particular encounters with Jesus.
I mean, he was a man. Think of the embodied Jesus, the human being, the man from Nazareth, fully human, like us in all things but sin, mixing it up in dusty alleys and strange homes. Think of Him dining with hookers, tax-collectors, and misfits, and, yes, it was considered entirely profane. How profane? So profane that they called a human being the Son of God. They said that a man somehow embodied the essence of that which was so ineffable that it could not even be given a proper name (the tetragrammaton, YHWH – the sounds of which could ever be spoken, or even really known). They said that in this man, in his name, was the revelation of God that provided the possibility for salvation. They said that we were all invited to become sons and daughters of God. Talk about profane, well, Jesus Christ.
But that is not where it ends. Think of all the names: now the Prince of Peace, now the One who is to come, or the Wonder Counselor, the God- Hero… think of all of those cryptic references that they came to believe described the guy sitting with the outcasts. These names exist for us not as magic to be invoked, or statements of fact to prove, but as descriptors, the truths of which are revealed through faith. They testify across the decaying generations to the fact that we can have an experience of the Transcendent. That it’s possible. That our worlds can be expanded by an encounter with what we call God. That this has been found in Jesus Christ, and can be found again, and that I can find it, too.
Well, that is, I can find it if I’m honest. Because, here is the deal: We believe in a Jesus who is fully human and fully divine, but more often than not it seems like His divinity is remembered and humanity forgotten. And we can’t let that happen. We have to stay balanced. Because all that God gives us of Himself we can only receive through our human eyes, our human minds, and our human hands.
But God does come. Often in the mundane. It might happen quietly at first. Or maybe it comes in uncomfortable ways, in places that it hurts, where we are sinful or sorrowful. Maybe it comes in places where we are grateful, through the smiles of friends who know the truth about us and love us still. Or when we’ve felt the happy coincidence of hard work and “luck.” Regardless, it happens to us here, on Earth, in our humanity.
I still go back to that song.
The reason I love it these days is not because it describes some ultimate moment of revelation, or even because it is edifying in any traditional sense (I mean, I would not play it at a wedding, you know?). Today I love it because it describes a moment of confusion, the sense of grasping for a word, a name, that can hold all of me.
Is the singer naming his faith in Christ? Does he know what he is saying? I am not sure it matters. What I know is that the moment I felt like that is the moment my adult faith emerged from the womb of adolescence.
It was a moment when I emerged from confusion, that I sought and found something that made me feel joyous and free. I grasped for a name to describe it, and came up with Jesus. Later, I found a home in the Church and have received “grace upon grace” in return.
And now, every time I hear it, I sing the words of that song with everything I have. Because, regardless of what the person who wrote it believes, my faith in that name rectifies all that comes before or after. Such is the power of Jesus Christ.