Friday, March 05, 2010

The Power of God Has Broken Our Complacency like A Bullet in the Side: Notes of Grace, Illness and Violence in Popular Culture Part 4

Part 1 begins here, and part 2 (on Clement of Rome) continues here. Part 3 (on Flannery O'Connor) can be found here.

Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens, an American Episcopalian and song-writer, offers another theological perspective on violence, this time from pop culture of a more recent vintage. In 2005 Stevens released a song on the album, Illinoise, about serial killer and rapist "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.":

His father was a drinker
And his mother cried in bed
Folding John Wayne's T-shirts
When the swingset hit his head
The neighbors they adored him
For his humor and his conversation
Look underneath the house there
Find the few living things
Rotting fast in their sleep of the dead
Twenty-seven people, even more
They were boys with their cars, summer jobs
Oh my God

Are you one of them?

He dressed up like a clown for them
With his face paint white and red
And on his best behavior
In a dark room on the bed he kissed them all
He'd kill ten thousand people
With a sleight of his hand
Running far, running fast to the dead
He took of all their clothes for them
He put a cloth on their lips
Quiet hands, quiet kiss
On the mouth

And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid

We could hardly think of a person whose biography is more macabre than John Wayne Gacy's. He was convicted for the rape and murder of 33 boys and young men between 1972 and 1978. He buried 27 of his victims in a crawl space under the floor of his house. It's a story of a small business man, married with children, divorced twice, active in his local Democratic Party, who would dress up occasionally as pogo the clown. Stevens picks up on these kind of biographical elements, and offers us a portrait of a man with a mundane, middle class, bourgeois life of John Wayne t-shirts and swing-sets in the suburbs; a man who nevertheless, kissing his victims gently, chloroforms, rapes and murders them, hiding their corpses under the floorboards.

What I find remarkable about this song is that, while it follows the conventions of the murder ballad, it is also more than that. It has the hallmarks of the genre – it is descriptive, without a moral voice pressing to make sense of the violence. It describes characters either carrying out violent acts or suffering at the hands of another person's violence. There is carefulness with the truth. Stevens doesn't disfigure Gacy through any omniscient moral judgment against him. Rather, the acts speak for themselves. We have John Wayne Gacy, Jr. – a clown, serial rapist and killer. But there is also a kind of grace present, according to the internal constraints of the portrait. We are prevented from the simplicity of judgment, or of rationalization, and we are given a man with "quiet hands, quiet kiss, on the mouth." If this was a song about judgment, through a moral voice independent from the story, we would be prevented from seeing Gacy's life as a moment describing some kind of grace; if it was an apology for a serial killer, we wouldn't be able to plumb the depths of depravity. Instead, all these pieces of the life of this man and his deeds are laid out.

Most interesting in this lyric is the entry of the observer into the narrative himself as morally culpable. Stevens cries out "Oh my God", in both recoil at the horror, and in prayerful petition to the source of grace, inviting us to see a man, and a world of tortured relationships and deeds, subject to both grace and judgment. It leads to a horrible sympathy, even compassion towards a person whose behavior is inexcusable, but whose nature is shared*: "And in my best behavior," sings Stevens, "I am really just like him; Look beneath the floorboards; For the secrets I have hid". The significance, in this moment for this participating observer, is not judgment as though Gacy's story was no more than an opportunity for another morality tale. Nor is it a way of giving Gacy a free pass, chalking up his deeds to some equivalent of criminal insanity. It is an opportunity to find a fellow sinner, under judgment and in the hope of grace.

Sufjan Stevens, again on the album Illinoise, offers some theological reflection in the song "Casimir Pulaski Day", but this time on illness:

Golden rod and the 4-H stone
The things I brought you
When I found out you had cancer of the bone

Your father cried on the telephone
And he drove his car to the Navy yard
Just to prove that he was sorry

In the morning through the window shade
When the light pressed up against your shoulder blade
I could see what you were reading

Oh the glory that the lord has made
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth

Tuesday night at the bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

I remember at Michael's house
In the living room when you kissed my neck
And I almost touched your blouse

In the morning at the top of the stairs
When your father found out what we did that night
And you told me you were scared

Oh the glory when you ran outside
With your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied
And you told me not to follow you

Sunday night when I cleaned the house
I find the card where you wrote it out
With the pictures of your mother

On the floor at the great divide
With my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied
I am crying in the bathroom

In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low
And the cardinal hits the window

In the morning in the winter shade
On the first of March on the holiday
I thought I saw you breathing

Oh the glory that the lord has made
And the complications when I see his face
In the morning in the window

Oh the glory when he took our place
But he took my shoulders and he shook my face
And he takes and he takes and he takes

Stevens is working to his usual songwriting strengths here, with a story of another kind of violence, the kind of violence that disease is to a body, in this case cancer of the bone. A depth of sadness permeates, made even more powerful through the use of the mundane and the ordinary: sunlight on a shoulder, a person peeking a look at what someone was reading, the weekly routine of cleaning a house, and family pictures, but each punctuated by regret, weeping, and fear. The everyday is loaded, and freighted, with human failing, just as the terminal diagnosis of cancer is interrupted with a gracious gift. Stevens sums this up as a complicated, divine glory, arising from otherwise simple acts in the midst of tragedy: "Oh the glory that the lord has made; And the complications you could do without; when I kissed you on the mouth." The Lord's glory is not what simplifies, or what makes sense of things. It makes things more complicated. Nor does it mean that our character escapes from mourning his lover’s passing, nor does it mean that his lover escapes from bone cancer. The glory doesn't come with moral clarity; the glory doesn't come as contrary to the horrible death-dealing logic of cancer and it's effects on human relationships. The glory is a complicated interruption of a particular person's life as he copes with a friend's deathly illness.

So when the main character looks in the window, and sees a transparent reflection of himself, at once him and at once a world seen through him, he sees this glory again: "Oh the glory that the lord has made; And the complications when I see his face; In the morning in the window; Oh the glory when he took our place; But he took my shoulders and he shook my face; And he takes and he takes and he takes." This is where he meets the lord, in the self that is at once not himself, a lord who "takes his place," and reaches out to take the character by the shoulders, shaking his face. There is no miraculous interruption of the narrative and the cancer deals death's blow. The grace of the Lord's glory saves no one from that particular violence. And yet, this is the moment where the glory, and grace of the incarnation, penetrates most deeply into him, even as he is shaken by the Lord who takes and takes and takes.

part 5: The Wrestler, and Conclusion