Friday, November 13, 2009

The Power of God Has Broken Our Complacency like A Bullet in the Side: Notes of Grace, Illness and Violence in Popular Culture Part 1

I had the opportunity to present a keynote address to the Canadian Institute for the Study of Pop Culture and Religion in September. As I prepare my manuscript for publication, I will be posting the sections here. Enjoy!

A number of years ago, as I listened to Johnny Cash's American Recordings for the first time, I was taken aback. The first track on that album was a re-recording of Cash's murder ballad, Delia's Gone, a story of the cold-hearted murder of a woman by her jilted lover. Because Delia's Gone is written according to the conventions of the murder ballad, there is no independent moral voice narrating any kind of judgment for the violent acts described, such as the female victim being tied to a chair, shot in the side, visibly suffering, being shot again, now to the death. The lack of moral voice is extraordinarily unsettling, because all we are left with is the single voice of the unrepentant killer. Only a cold rationalization of the act itself, and even a commendation of misogynist violence to the listener remains, Cash singing that " . . . if your woman's devilish, you can let her run; Or you can bring her down and do her; Like Delia got done."

Cash's biography makes this recording all the more startling. Cash was a man of faith and an ordained minister. He was a man who did prison concerts out of simple obedience to Jesus's command in Matthew 25:35-36 to visit the prisoner. "I'm trying very hard to be a practicing Christian," said Cash. "If you take the words of Jesus literally and apply them to your everyday life, you discover that the greatest fulfillment you'll ever find really does lie in giving." Most surprising, though, is not that Cash recorded Delia's Gone early in his career, but that he re-recorded it so late. This second recording, unlike the first, cannot be explained away as a reckless instance of a young man living the show-business life. No matter how tempted we might be to try to categorize Cash's artistic production according to some schema of "backsliding young man recording murder ballads" and "older faithful man recording hymns", we can't. Because of his choice to re-record Delia's Gone, Cash actively resists that schema.

We cannot assume that because Cash professed to be a Christian, he would be preserved from tasteless artistic production. However, upon reflection, it is my contention that Cash was doing something faithful, theologically significant, and part of a particular American, theologically driven, cultural tradition. Within the context of the whole American Recordings album, does two things. One he places it alongside other songs of redemption and grace. The second is that the narrative of Delia’s Gone remains discrete as a story. Deliah’s Gone remains distinct, with a coherence of its own, while making room for this particular story to be placed within a larger theological schema that includes the possibility of the redemption. But by allowing Deliah’s Gone to remain discrete, the unfolding of the drama of sin is allowed to impact the listener in full force without any mitigating moral voice of judgment. The world of Deliah’s Gone is pursued by the God who redeems, but that world includes human choice which, in this case, takes a disastrous and destructive turn. God pursues the people of this world not because the good and moral choice is possible and right, but for the opposite reason: because the moral good is not pursued, and needs a God who can redeem despite the depths of human depravity.

As such, Cash defies any notion that theologically charged artistic production should be reduced to moralistic, pious religious propaganda; nor does American artistic production necessarily need to conform to narrative apologies for the cultic power of the will. And he's not alone; Flannery O'Connor, Sufjan Stevens, and Daren Aronofsky each in their own way resist reducing their craft to pietism. My contention here is that the pursuit of violence, illness and death is theologically significant, allowing a dogmatic imagination to examine the significance of a created, fallen world under both judgment and grace, and offers an alternative to the more common American story of human potential as an ultimate good. As we will see, as we look at Flannery O'Connor's fiction, Sufjan Stevens' songwriting, and the film The Wrestler in more detail, it is in the pursuit of the fallen where we find some of the most profound illustrations of God’s graceful pursuit of a world under judgment.

part two: Clement of Rome

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