Wednesday, August 24, 2011

On The Life of the World to Come

(or Lessons I learned from this Biblically based album)

The lyrics “made for the chapel with some spray paint…” do not seem like something that you would hear in spiritual music. This is because the Mountain Goats’ album The Life of the World to Come isn’t like other religious music that focuses simply on praising Jesus. Rather than spreading pro-Christianity messages, the album focuses on the reason why people become spiritual and their spirituality helps them throughout the hardships of life. Each song on the album is titled after a Bible verse, save for one song being two verses and the final song being a whole Biblical chapter. John Darnielle, the frontman of the Mountain Goats, described this album on their official website as “twelve hard lessons the Bible taught me.” Most of the songs are very vague in nature, leaving the listener to decide what these lessons inscribed in the songs are.

These twelve songs convey lessons that anyone could learn from reading the Bible, regardless of their religious beliefs. These are my own personal interpretations of the songs.

The first song on the album is titled “1 Samuel 15:23” and describes how the narrator goes against Christianity and creates his own religion. The Bible verse reads: “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." This verse helps show that the narrator of the track is rebelling against practices and inventing his own arrogant religion.

“1 Samuel 15:23” starts with the line “I became a crystal-healer and my ministry was to the sick.” Crystal healing is a alternative medicine that has no scientific backing. Going back to the Bible verse, the crystals could be interpreted as idols of sorts. The song seems to ironically juxtapose the narrator’s methods to those of Christianity. The uselessness of prayer is just as arguable as crystal healing. The song goes on to say “I sewed clothes for them/cloaks and capes,” proving that his practices are structured similar to a covenant of a religion would be, rather than just hospital healing.

The lesson I took out of this song is a cautionary one: people will and have always developed and followed spiritual practices out of desperation. The lines “my house will be for all people who have nowhere to go” and “all sad faces at my window/I would welcome them inside” sum this up explicitly. People want to believe there is some greater power that can heal them of any ailment. The chorus is: “Go down to the netherworld/plant grapes” which is a metaphor to create something new in something barren. The grapes being a religion and the netherworld being the world in which we live in.

The second song is “Psalms 40:2” and ties in perfectly with the lesson of “1 Samuel 15:23.” However, rather than developing religion out of desperation, this song deals with joining one. It tells the story of a group of law-breaking travelers seeking a connection with God. The Bible verse “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand” is modified and used as the chorus to the song. In an interview with Pitchfork, Darnielle describes the song by saying “One way you can get really close to God is to sin as hard as you can,” he goes on to say that “[y]ou're not supposed to, but you can test God by doing a lot of terrible things.”

These rebels in “Psalms 40:2” are definitely testing God. They “made for the chapel with some spray paint” and “left that place in ruin,” yet they were “drunk on the Spirit” during the desecration of the church. The narrator asks out to God by saying “Lord, send me a mechanic if I’m not beyond repair.” After these acts, the narrator exclaims that “He has raised from the pit and He will set me high.” The “He” being God. Through these acts they are feeling closer to God through their sinning and their fear of damnation for their transgressions.

The lesson is the fact that everyone in their lowest moment will turn to a God, even if they do not have faith. This sheds light onto why a lot of people choose to believe in a religion: fear. It is the fear that nothing can save you from the inevitability of death and that there is no significant meaning to life. Darnielle explains to Pitchfork that the song is expressing “that your ideas of God will come to rest upon you in your moment of profoundest degradation.” He also poses the question: “When do you cry out to the God you don't believe in?” This question supports the lesson perfectly, rhetorically showing why non-believers would cry out to God.

The seventh song, “Romans 10:9," also deals with the relationship between faith and hardship. The narrator of the song is at the end of his rope and keeping stable through religion. The Bible verse reads: “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The chorus of the song does exactly this, saying: “If you will believe in you heart/and confess with your lips/surely you will be saved one day.”

The narrator in the song “Romans 10:9” is going through a deep hardship, in contrast to the upbeat nature of the song. The narrator says lines such as: “don’t feel like going on/but come on make a joyful sound” and “don’t see what the point is in event trying to fight/look for the bigger picture when I close my eyes real tight.” Through all of the hard times he still proudly states that “a kind and loving God won’t let my small ship run aground.” The lesson is as simple as that. You can use faith as a way to hang on at the toughest times in your life. Darnielle tells Pitchfork that “you have these moments where you look for something to reach for. I think that’s when people are very vulnerable to joining up with religion, when they’re looking for some sort of promise.”

The eleventh song is titled “Isaiah 45:23,” and goes hand-in-hand with “Romans 10:9.” The song deals with having intense faith no matter how terrible life currently is. The Bible verse: “By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear” is the motto of the song’s narrator. The end of the verse is sung in the lines: “Let every knee be bent/and every tongue confess.”

The narrator in the song is in the hospital, about do die. The chorus “and I won’t get better but someday I'll be free/‘cause I am not this body that imprisons me” states that although the person is dying, they are looking forward to death as a passage to a peaceful afterlife. The person praying thanks God for the wonderful life they had by saying “let me praise You for the good times/let me hold Your banner high.”

The lesson behind the song is very similar to the lesson of “Romans 10:9:” Not only can faith can get you through the most terrible times, it comes to you when you need it most. The narrator speaks to God, “should my suffering double/let me never love You less,” and “If my prayer goes unanswered that’s alright.” The person is calmly waiting to leave the world for a better place they are sure exists.

The fifth song, “Hebrews 11:40,” gives a more optimistic view of why people have faith than the previously mentioned songs. It tells a story of a man down on his luck in a terrible world, but is confident that he will someday reach eternal happiness. The Bible verse: “God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect,” stands as the prime belief of the narrator. The chorus: “If not by faith then by the sword/I’m going to be restored” takes the Biblical verse into consideration. By dying, the sword being a metaphor for him being killed, he will join God in Heaven, becoming restored and made perfect, since having faith while being alive won’t completely restore him.

From the single Biblical verse alone the lyrics do not make complete sense, but when it is taken into context it becomes clear. The verses prior to “Hebrews 11:40” tell about people who believed in non-Christian religions and practices and how they were killed and tortured for it, never getting what their religion promised them. The Mountain Goats’ song explains this in the lines: “Masks hanging on the tomb walls/Where the coven grieves/Witches hiding in the brambles/Ground level down where the dry leaves/blow and burn slowly/No ground is ever gonna hold me.” These lines describe covens suffering and witches slowly burning but never getting the retribution they were promised.

The ultimate lesson hidden within “Hebrews 11:40” is that people choose to have faith because they believe that they will get eternal happiness from it after death. The line of the chorus: “if not by faith, then by the sword…” is a reference to verses earlier in chapter 11 of Hebrews where they start with “By faith…” regarding many different people and events. The second part of the line references the verse “Hebrews 11:40,” that He has something planned for us after we die. The chorus can translate to: “Not by faith alone, but by death I will be complete in the kingdom of Heaven.”

The twelfth and final song on the album is titled “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace,” and shows another way people can find faith in God. This song tells a story of a man who has committed murder and is driving to Mexico. In an interview with Paste Magazine, Darnielle explains that the song is about “someone who tortures someone to death.” The lyrics of the song are much more vague than this, only giving the listener the lines “someone will need to mop this floor for me” and “I had his arms tied up behind him/We were together all day.”

The chapter Ezekiel 7 of The Bible explains that God brought an apocalypse onto Israel for their sins, sparing no one. This chapter is juxtaposed in the title with the term “permanent efficacy of grace.” Grace is God’s gift of love to people who do not deserve it. God is definitely showing grace to the narrator of this song; after killing the anonymous man, the narrator finds their car “like a cathedral in a dream of the future.” The chorus: “Drive 'til the rain stops/Keep driving” shows God’s grace in its truest form. Although the narrator has committed this horrible sin, God lets him escape without punishment.

The lesson behind this song is that some people will take getting off innocent, or God’s grace, depending on what you believe, for granted while some will actually become spiritually connected to God from it. This is the permanent efficacy of grace the title mentions. In Ezekiel 7 the people of Israel learned that they were wrong and died for their transgressions, but without God’s wrath they would have continued to sin. While in the song the narrator, blessed with grace, becomes “High as the clouds now/Flying” and possibly changes his ways.

The fourth song on the album, “Philippians 3:20-21,” deals with how we live and what people believe happens after we die by focusing on a man who committed suicide. Rather than dealing with why people have faith, such as the six songs previously mentioned, it shows why people may lose their belief in God.

The verses of the Bible describe what Christians believe happens after death:

“But our citizenship is in Heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”

The man’s constant struggle with depression, leading to the suicide, is shown with the lines “Hope daily for healing/Try not to go insane/Dance in a circle with bells on/Try to make it rain.” The death in this song is shown in the chorus with the lines “nice people say he had gone home to God now/safe in his arms, safe in his arms.”

Darnielle talks about the message behind the song with PopMatters, stating:

“the Catholic church doesn’t generally having [sic] a problem teaching that suicides go to Hell, and their case seems to be on solid doctrinal ground, too—but do you really want to worship a God who’d make somebody without enough internal strength to resist the urge to self-annihilate?”

This question poses a good argument about religion. This Christian belief that people who commit suicide go to Hell is touched on in the chorus of the song as well. After the positive beginning of the chorus, “nice people say he had gone home to God now/safe in his arms, safe in his arms” the lyrics go on to say, “but the voices of the angels that he heard on his last days with us/Smoke alarms” which brings up the fact that he did not go “home to God” like the people are saying he did. Since he committed suicide, the angels supposedly told him he was rejected from Heaven. The “smoke alarms” line is a metaphor of the angels indicating that he is cursed to the fires of hell.

The lesson to the song is that there will constantly be things to make a religious person question God. “It's kind of an angry-at-God sort of song” Darnielle tells Pitchfork. He also mentions that “in the case of people who are so damaged they wind up taking their own lives, well, you’d think an all-powerful God could have prevented that.” This thought leads back to the questioning of why people who commit suicide would go to Hell. It argues that ultimately God is the one who decides if the man will end up killing himself when creating him.

“1 John 4:16” is the eighth track on the album and also deals with the testing of faith. It is an account of a man facing hardship from being a Christian. The Bible verse reads: “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” The song begins with the line “In the holding tank I built for myself/it’s feeding time.” The holding tank is a metaphor for the belief in religion. It is a holding tank from problems the person is facing because of it. It is also a place where he can obtain food, which is a metaphor for the positive things people find in religion such as comfort, piece of mind, etc.

The song later describes his comfort in God with the chorus: “And someone leads The Beast in on its chain/But I know you're thinking of me ‘cause it's just about to rain/So I wont be afraid of anything ever again.” The Beast is a figure in the Book of Revelations related to Satan. The aforementioned holding tank led the narrator to this fate of facing The Beast, a feat that Christian’s had to endure in Revelations. Yet during this, the person feels that God is watching over the event, so there is no need for fear.

The lesson behind “1 John 4:16” is that your beliefs will constantly be tested, and in the mist a true believer will surpass the trials. This is expressed further with the lines: “And if the clouds are gathering, it’s just to point the way/to an afternoon I spent with You/when it rained all day.” The “You” being the God he believes in and the clouds being shaped from Him, leading the person to a path of what they believe is righteousness. This metaphor is extended from the chorus and the line “The endless string of summer storms that led me to today.” The string of summer storms being the way his God and his belief in God has mapped out his life.

The ninth track is “Matthew 25:21.” Similar to “1 John 4:16,” it focuses on the concept of facing trials. It is a first-hand account of a person watching a loved one die of cancer. When compared to the concept of the song, the Bible verse chosen to title this song gives it an “angry at God” feel, as if dealing with death is an assignment to surpass. The verse reads: “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” This teaches the reader that if you surpass a burden, you will get even heavier burdens to deal with, the burden in the song being the death of a loved one.

The song starts off describing the situation: “They hooked you up/to a fentanyl drip/to mitigate the pain a little bit.” It goes on to explain the emotional effect that watching someone pass away has on a person with the lines “Tried to brace myself/but you can’t brace yourself/when the time comes/you just have to roll with the blast.” This line pokes at the Bible verse as a way of expressing that although he completed other tasks, the narrator was not ready for one this intense. Later in the song another set of lines of desperation poke at the Biblical verse yet again: “And then came to your bedside/and as it turns out/I'm not ready.”

The lesson to this song is that you will be faced with many responsibilities and hardships in your life that you have to overcome, no matter how impossible they may seem. Despite the fact that the narrator felt unready, as any person would, to leave someone they love, they were still able to get through it. The song concludes with the lines “And you were a presence full of light upon this earth/And I am a witness to your life and to its worth/It’s three days later when I get the call/And there’s nobody around to break my fall.” Although there was nobody to comfort the narrator through this tragedy, the positivity of the mindset that they knew this amazing person who passed away proves that the person will be able to get through it after all. The lessons of these previous three songs never tell the listener to find solace in God, but rather just state that there will be many problems in life that will either make people skeptical that God exists or angry at God.

The third track is “Genesis 3:23” and, in contrast all of the aforementioned songs, does not deal with spirituality. The words from the Bible verse “So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken” are used to express the emotion Adam felt from leaving his homeland, rather than the concept of being literally banished from somewhere.

The narrator “picked the lock on the front door” and entered the house of which he used to live. The lines “see how the people here live now/Hope that they’re better at it than I was” shows that he lived in this house at times of hardship. He then starts to recollect his past experiences in the house. Although the lines “hours we spent starving within these walls” and “fight through the ghosts in the hallway” tell that the narrator had a lot of bad memories there, he is happy recollecting that part of his past.

The lesson behind this song is that no matter how bad our life has been, every horrible moment defines us as a person and makes us who we are today. Darnielle explains to Pitchfork, “when you go back to the places where the pain was at, you find that there was more stuff there, and that there’s stuff about it that you miss just because it’s you.” This lesson is supported with the lines “Drive home with old dreams that play in my mind/And the wind at my back.” Thus the good and bad memories are now meshed into dreams while that past is behind him.

“Genesis 30:3” is the sixth track on the album, and doesn’t deal with spirituality either. The song is about a couple who is madly in love with each other. The verse of the Bible is also about two people who are in love. Darnielle, in an interview with Paste Magazine, says that the Biblical story is “the most beautiful love story [he’s] ever heard in [his] life.” The verse reads: “Then she said, ‘Here is Bilhah, my maidservant. Sleep with her so that she can bear children for me and that through her I too can build a family.’” In this story, Rachael is unable to bear children for Jacob, so she decides to give her servant Bilhah to him has a surrogate. The fact that Rachael decides to do this arrangement ties into the Mountain Goats song perfectly with the chorus: “I will do what you ask me to do/because of how I feel about you.”

The lesson behind this song is simple: true love will be able to surpass any hardship. The song reads simply as a love song, with lines such as: “Sounds kind of dumb when I say it but it's true/I would do anything for you.” Furthermore, it explains that although bad times are coming, they “had a hard time believing” because they were so in love with each other. Although there is trouble ahead, the narrator feels safe and explains it with the lines: “you keeping care of me/keeping watch.”

The tenth track, “Deuteronomy 2:10,” is the last of the three songs to not touch on spirituality. It shows three separate accounts of the last living creatures of now extinct species. The Bible verse: “(The Emites used to live there—a people strong and numerous, and as tall as the Anakites.)” is just a parenthetical verse that many people would pass up without much notice or thought. Darnielle commented on the verse in an interview with PopMatters: “that is the saddest thing I ever heard, this whole race of people who’re just a parenthesis now.” The fact that most people wouldn’t pay attention to the small parenthetical verse supports the sadness of the race being extinct. It is almost as if they never even existed.

The first verse of the song is an account of the last Tasmanian tiger, the second is the dodo bird, and the third is the golden toad. The end of each verse is similar to: “Feel in my bones just what the future has in store/I pace in circles so the camera will see/Look hard at my stripes, there'll be no more after me.” Each one ending with the last line “there’ll be no more after me.”

The lesson behind “Deuteronomy 2:10” is that everything at some point will die and be almost forgotten, no matter how numerous or powerful. One race of powerful giants were marked down to no more than a parenthetical reference in the Bible. When this occurs, the last member of the species can do nothing and gets rendered virtually useless to its unchangeable demise. The line “I have no fear of anyone I'm dumb and wild and free,” from the verse about the last dodo describes this perfectly.

These twelve songs from the Mountain Goats album The Life of the World to Come hold lessons that were taken from the Bible. Most of these lessons deal with why people believe in religion and how faith will be tested, rather than persuading the listener to believe in God. A few others have different meanings, such as “Genesis 3:23,” which describes how your past defines you as a person. Also, “Genesis 30:3” covers love, “Matthew 25:21” explains that you can surpass any task, no matter how daunting, while “Deuteronomy 2:10” expresses that everything is mortal and will someday inevitably die. Although the album has Christian overtones, you can still take something of importance out of this album regardless of religious beliefs.

By Josh Grube: Mr. Grube is currently a Mass Communication student working for his college's newspaper and indie/alternative radio station. He also enjoys making videos and music.

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