Friday, November 02, 2007

Well-Ended Stories That Don't End Well

"He never reached the door."

As a twelve-year old reading that closing and clinching line of a Ray Bradbury (long before I met and prayed for him) short story, I was impressed that it was a far more creative, effective, visual (and less violent) way to end the scene than spelling out what the reader "saw" between the lines:

                                           the man had been shot to death.

I can still remember where I was, and what I was doing.

I still can see the spot on the page where that sentence was typefaced ; the emotions that suddenly swirled as the import and imagination of the ending landed on me...thirty some years ago.

The memory is clearer and more detailed than JFK's assassination before it,

Such is the power; drama and trauma of a good art; of story well-told, of a well-ended narrative...

...especially when it doesn't end well.

The memory of myself catching that realization/revelation as a preteen is perhaps just as formative in me as 9/11.

Is there room for good art; place for restrained violence; for true "fairy tale endings" (just read some of those fairy tales and nursery rhymes..."when the bough breaks/the cradle will fall/down will come baby/cradle and all....whoa!) ; for actual intelligence, imagination and creativity; for thoroughgoing honesty and lament in music that Christians listen to (as opposed to that ridiculous pseudogenre "Christian music)?)

Have I gone too far?
can You reach me?
I've gone too far...

Uh, excuse me, Michael Pritzl and the Violet Burning. You missed that page in the rule book; you can perhaps begin, but you musn't end a song/prayer like that! It's unresolved; worse, it is resolved, in the "wrong" way.

Loose ends. So loose that the singer/character in the song may well hang himself when the last note fades.

You gave him enough rope, Michael.

Or to match the metaphor of the song at hand ("Underwater"),
 you are going to
               let God
                    let that poor soul drown.

 Shame on you, a fully professing Christian.


Bless you for the fully Christian profession that

sometimes it just feels/is like that.

Even though it didn't end well.

Or mention Jesus.

Maybe He'll show up in the sequel.

Or something sometimes more biblical:

                                                       Maybe not.

When is the last anthemditty you heard on "Christian radio" that mentioned a pastor? So far, so's good to mention and honor our clergy. But how about a pastor who ends the song with a divorce and devastated divided flock? (We have all read about such cases in the newspaper, but how about in a "Christian" song) Or even worse in evangelicaldom; ending the song/psalm/prayer with a (gasp) question and question mark:

and your wife says hurry, we're late for church
and you can barely see
and your head still hurts
and the preacher starts preaching
and you feel remorse
he's got five little kids and a big divorce
and your wife looks down and says she don't know how
he's been her guiding light for ten years now
and his marriage is over, it's barely alive
and how in the world will ours ever survive?
(Michael Knott/LSU, "Double")

And I didn't even dwell on the narrator's hangover... in church.

Because things like that don't happen in the real world.

Just in the Bible.

And in newspaper stories that, very Christianly, don't end well.

Of course, the classic is the retelling of The Prodigal Son in which the unthinkable is thought.. out loud. And captured for eternity (or the rest of earthly life) on CD before it could be tidied up, and brought (hijacked) to happy ending. In this scenario, the prodigal son (brace yourself) not only doesn't come home; but celebrates that choice as such a spiritually appropriate and liberating moment that "for the first time, I feel love."

Some people, including me on some days, find that song unlistenable.

But what I find more often unlistenable is the revision of the song (U2's "The First Time") that Bono occasionally sang in concert years later. He actually dared to/yielded to the temptation to...brace yourself... tie and tidy up the loose ends; and gave the poor prodigal guy the keys back.

The guy repents, and comes back to the Father.

It's all good.
And it rhymes.

It might even play on Christian radio.

Forgive him, Jesus!(:

The actual lyric varied according to night and venue, but it usually went something like:

"I left by the back door, and I threw away the key...

But grace will lead me back to Thee."

Whazzup with all that?

The definitive U2 blogger Beth Maynard tells the story better than I can:

Drawing on the parable of the Prodigal Son, it depicts "my Father" as a "rich man" with "a rich man's cloak" who offers "keys to his kingdom" and a home among "many mansions" with "many rooms" -- but just as we're marveling at this tender generosity, the narrator abruptly declares, "But I left by the back door, and I threw away the key."

People who enjoy attacking the band on religious grounds (and who take any artistic creation as baldfaced autobiography) have had a field day condemning this sentence. I've never really understood the objection: the son does after all leave in the parable, U2's musical setting at that moment is ineffably sad, and a faith-filled lovefest resolution would have been way out of place on Zooropa. Besides, the liturgical form for sacramental confession with which I'm most familiar puts words in your mouth that directly echo these lyrics: "Father, you clothed me with the shining garment of Christ's righteousness, and established me among your children in your kingdom. But I have squandered the inheritance of your saints, and have wandered far in a land that is waste." Some of us tell God regularly that we left by the back door and telling him is considered a prescription for spiritual health.

However, all these years later in a live context, this poignant ending just isn't playing out the same way. Bono is experimenting with the verse to see what can be delivered authentically in the more religiously-assured context of the Vertigo tour.

Elsewhere (9:22 in this audio), Beth defends songs like the original version of "First Time" with a delightful debunking of the fallacious and pharisaical conclusion that "just because someone writes about sin, they're in favor of it." . Amen and touche.

(For more discussion of this seminal song, and video examples of it in both incarnations, see "Preaching Ecclesiastes and Throwing Away the Key".
For a full-blown (and overblown, as I wrote it) essay on the theological significance of how U2 ends/doesn't end their lyrics, visit this page.)

U2 fan's will be familiar with "40", basically a reading of Psalm 40:1-3's declaration of trust and waiting on the Lord, but tweaked with a shocking counterpoint; "How long to sing this song."

Of course, followed with a question mark.

That's the point.

And how can we complain when that lyrical complaint itself is simply imported not from the singer's "ungodly" doubt, but from another equally inspired scripture: Psalms,

Is there place in the canon and church/radio playlist for honesty/lament/well-ended stories that apparently don't end well? There is place in the psalter for all the above and more: imprecation ,virtual deus abscondit and veritable cursings of/by God.

"Jesus...I am waiting here Boss..
           I know You're looking out for us..

                                                 but Maybe Your hands aren't free."

Oops,I better stop, the F-word even makes a cursory  (bad pun intended appearance in that psalm/song...

"We are Christian by faith, not by genre," Jon Foreman of Switchfoot explains. Which may explain how this band of deep Christians apparently see no contradiction to appearing at Christian festivals and Victoria's Secret commercials.

Sometimes these songs are honest reflections of where we are in life and pilgrimage ,
or even imaginations/artistic and sympathetic portrayals of those who are in such spots. They may well be representations of artistic seasons we are in. ("Oh, that was U2's postmodern irony era.")

But we ban that stuff.

I'll never forget the shock and fear that registered upon hearing Amy Grant (then reigning queen of Christian pop) title a song "Faithless Heart," and even admit temptations toward an extramarital affair. I actually thought "Oh my goodness, if she keeps producing songs like that, she'll actually/inevitable have an affair.

I don't know that she did, but her marriage did soon not end well.

And maybe it was my fault for judging her for being honest.

Even Johnny Cash occasionally wanted "coffee, not Jesus."

Even Jesus, who prayed Psalm 22, uncut and uncensored, didn't always relieve the tension of the
bridge lyric by a slappy happy third verse.

And Psalm 22 for all its PinkFloydish agnosticism/atheism/apocalyptic/aopophatic is "To be sung to the tune of 'Doe of the Morning."

Go figure.

Or don't.

Maybe there is no irony, only gospel truth,  in a
"God, I 'm not on speaking terms with you" prayer.

Some never reach the door.

Soundtracking my writing at the moment is The Prayer Chain song ("Mercury)" with a haunting (healing?) refrain:

"It takes years to get there."

I hate that about life and faith and honesty.

But it does.

As a pastor ( a preacher needs pain" Bono insisted in perhaps his most passionate, indiscriminate "worship" song), I need to
           to remember,
                        to confess,
                                  to preach the truth that:

                                               Some people never reach the door.

His hands were shaking under the covers.
His body was cold...Suddenly he was very afraid...

He slipped from the bed and was walking across the room when his brother’s voice said, ‘Where are you going?


His brother’s voice was quite cold. ‘I said, where do you think you’re going?’

‘For a drink of water.’

‘But you’re not thirsty.’

‘Yes, yes I am.’

‘No, you’re not.’

Captain John Black broke and ran across the room.

He screamed. He screamed twice.

He never reached the door.

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