Once upon a time, I swooned for Radiohead. “Creep” was my soundtrack in anxiety-riddled days when I traded slides for combat boots, just before I kissed my high school paramour goodbye. I hacked off my peroxide locks, dyed them aubergine, and drank Mountain Dew by the two-liter because the new beau who seemed both too cool– yet who liked me– had sent me a mixtape with the song “Creep.” Few words hit chords so true to the weird vibrato of my soul:
I don’t care if it hurts
I want to have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul (Radiohead, “Creep”)
I don’t care if the blade across my wrist hurts, the food hurts, disappointing everyone who thought I’d marry that boy from high school hurts.
I want to fast, to pray more, I wanna stop those pimples.
I want to be skinny with these breasts.
I want God to look upon me with favor. I want to be good but cool too.
“Creep” wrung from me the convoluted identity crises of a Christian college freshman, particularly a home-schooled girl. High school was spiritually and socially awkward for me. I tried to fast for a weekend once in my senior year. I went into my “prayer closet,” e.g. my bedroom with my Bible and a journal. I vaguely remember an adult saying that fasting wasn’t necessary (never mind the “when you fast” phrase out of the Lord’s mouth) but if I did, I shouldn’t sit around in sackcloth and ashes. Don’t be a Pharisee for the rest of the family. I failed by midnight, which lingered in my memory.
I didn’t see all the fuss about Radiohead for years, though I absorbed them like a nicotine patch because my husband played OK Computer non-stop for months. Later, “Fake Plastic Trees” came to thaw my high-functioning depressive states. (Ask me later about how crazy stress causes me to over stock the pantry via Amazon orders, or how I used to can fifty quarts of cherry jam even though we didn’t grow cherries.)
While we were in seminary, we tried not to be too pious, which is to say devoted to showing up at every liturgical service, all the prayers at all the hours, listening only to chant and reading/contemplating the lives of the saints while rejecting The Cure, The Poisonwood Bible or the like, and watching The Office devotedly. (In Eastern Orthodoxy, piety, coupled with humility, is a desirable state of being to cultivate. It’s a very pre-Pilgrim’s Progress iteration of Christianity.) By the third year– and with almost twenty grand on credit cards due to disasters– I drove to the monastery grounds with “Fake Plastic Trees” playing at eleven (see Spinal Tap.)
It wears her out
It wears her out
She lives with a broken man
A cracked polystyrene man
Who just crumbles and burns
He used to do surgery
For girls in the eighties
But gravity always wins
And it wears him out
It wears him out. (Radiohead, “Fake Plastic Trees”)
My husband almost broke in those years. He’d be gone ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day while I tried to support us, full time teaching online. I had my first recognizable panic attack since college. We were worn out. So I just sat in our rusting van on the monastery grounds and let the song wail at me while I wept. Who gave two pennies that one of the monks had chastised me recently for driving up with “Tether” by the Indigo Girls leaking out of my windows?
“Matushka, keep the music holy on the grounds.” (Aside: the term Matushka is for a deacon or a priest’s wife, a reverence for pious women. Hashtag failed.) For me, Radiohead is the soundtrack of personal failures.
Radiohead, for all its acclaim and critical success, seems comfortable with imperfection, which is a sound starting place for reading Robert Saler’s All These Things Into Position: What Theology Can Learn from Radiohead. In spite of all the praise my husband heaped upon the band, I heard only licks or lines that expressed the dissonance of attempting a significant existence. The reason I probably struggle with Radiohead is that I fall easily into the trap of living for significance. They always seem to dismantle it.
This book will not tell you what a Christian should read theologically into Radiohead lyrics. Nor will it prescribe what to make of spaces where we might be tempted to reconcile “sacred to secular.” This book unpacks what we can learn from a band with a history and body of work that can be dismissed as one dismisses a marriage of 75 years.
Saler’s book is a series of essays that might stand alone, but are better together. After his backgrounding on the phenomenon of Radiohead’s fan base and artistry in the intro, Saler opens with an essay about the tension of being authentic in the marketplace. As a Gen-Xer, this would have once raised my ire. But as a good writer must do, Saler moved me from point A to point B on what it means to be meaningful in corrupt consumer systems. This is a tension for the Christian. I grew up while CCM and evangelicals became power-houses in the American markets. I read the literary tripe and listened to the cheap, throw-away music that barely passed as theological. I was hungry for real art, while my friends smashed their Smashing Pumpkins CD’s in the dorm halls of our Christian university. The barely disguised praise-love ballad made me want to fly the bird. Real artists, as Saler explains, can cultivate success without sacrificing its progeny on the Molech of money.
My cousin Caleb, a pastor of what he calls “a value-meal-sized” church in Indiana, raised this issue a couple of years ago. “When, not if,” he said, the government finds enough reason to strip churches of their 501c3 status because of financial abuse (ours–not the government’s), what will we have to show and say for ourselves in doing good instead of being the local country club? The Christian purse is busting with coinage, and the trouble is how we’ve responded to this clout. As the “Nones” flee, citing the partisan (hypocritical) message of the Church, we look more and more like a club. We are the Order of Odd One Issue Voters, small supper clubs with religious themes, who sort into homogeneity that doesn’t even realize how it excludes the “other.” We are deaf because we are affluent enough that we can afford to be deaf.
Saler’s second essay is about consolation, or how hard it is to find and offer it in a dying world. All of us are going to die. This world is going to end. Every day, something enormously painful and destructive blows up our news feeds. Fires in Paradise. War in Damascus. Hurricanes in the Bahamas. Shootings in Miami, Vegas, Dayton, et all. Immigrants locked up. Immigrants fleeing. Divorces. Sexual abuse and assault. Murder. Suicide. Cancer. Heart attacks. (It starts to feel like a new verse to “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”)
How do we answer the questions all this pain brings? Saler notes that we Christians have trafficked in “cheap hope.” Having borne witness to some of the personal tragedies in that litany, I’d testify that I’d rather choose a theology that descends into the complexity and chaos than one that oversimplifies what suffering is. Or beauty. Or what this one life is for. (I struggle with “one beautiful, wild life” right now. It’s been a crappy few years.) If we cannot endure this life, with all its kingdom reality and connections to eternity, will heaven be a consolation?
I once asked my teen daughter, as we walked to Liturgy, “But isn’t the idea of heaven hopeful?”
“Eternity scares me. It seems like a long time.” Her reply chipped a part off my heart, until I remembered my adolescent years and the fear that I’d be stuck singing saccharine tunes and feeling false cheer until I took Advil for a fake smile. Imagine winning the Wonka factory and only eating sweets for eternity. Someone give me a gosh-darn leaf to nibble!
There’s something of sadness in all our lives, but what if we realized it’s holy? Holy sadness. Bright sadness, as we call it during Lent. Sober sadness. Sober deepness that is not nihilistic despair.
Heaven is not the easy solution to earth’s pain. (Robert Saler)
Truth be told, we don’t know what heaven is. My venerable prof Dr. Wes Gerig said once he thought heaven would be whatever brought us joy- for some roller coasters. For him, ping pong. I imagined that out to eternity. It all felt so banal. I think it’s because there is so much pain and imperfection in the present, I can’t trade now for a fantasy of exquisite fun. That is what Christianity can learn from Radiohead. We need beautiful art, with artful deconstruction and beautiful dissonance, to help us bear the work of the present, which is bearing our crosses. Fantasy is all well and nice, but without addressing the reality of our human condition, it’s just escapism. And that only exacerbates the problem. This life has problems that need us to keep showing up.
Saler’s second essay meant the most to my husband, who is a priest, because it hit on the problem that seems to weigh down Radiohead’s members – ecological disaster. It’s what calls them to metanoia, or turning around. I thought it set up the penultimate point of the book: Saler’s insights on what Radiohead teaches us about salvation.
I personally loved the essay on salvation, maybe because I’ve finished Malcolm Gladwell’s recent season of Revisionist History wherein he discusses the Jesuit practice of descending into the particulars. For me, the particulars have been so fraught: how to abide with families anguished over death by suicide, or kids in the grip of addiction, or friends who respond to the hurt of infidelity by getting back at the spouse with the same sin. What of siblings who found it eased their souls to stop worrying about God and hell? What of my friends who are not cis-gender, straight folks but, man, they just miss going to church? Yet they can’t find a way to be attracted to someone of another gender nor to be alone?
I found that Saler’s final essay resonated with me most, maybe because this last essay digs into the spiritual quandaries and the enigma of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It calls us to be malleable and sharpened in the flame as the Holy Youths (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendigo). Saler writes that Christ descended into our particulars and moved “beyond ‘ethics’ as a disembodied Christian formalist purity” which calls us to the “vitality of transgressive discipleship, one which makes the Christian vulnerable to the horizon of the neighbor’s need in a manner that eschews purity for connection and genuine service– the Christian, like Christ, as ‘the man for others.’” Or as Corinthians says, Christ becomes sin for us.
What of our call to cover over others’ sins, not hound after them? To “hound” is to be predator. To be predator is to see ourselves as bigger and to see others as vulnerable.
What really stung in Saler’s final thoughts was how hope is a kind of middle class consolation. The poor suffer. The rich don’t. The ones in the middle taste enough but also tend to buy into hope like a candy. Is hope is a thing with feathers? It can fly away at any moment. The suffering know. It sings a tune without words, like a soul-grieving dirge. And it can never stop. It can become a dream deferred. It can sugar over or explode.
What we peddle as Christians, what we learn from Radiohead, is not innocuous mantras to chant. Mantras don’t ease the suffering of the troubled. What we offer is the Cross, Christ crucified, the capacity to carry crosses together, to do this so we don’t have to sleep alone with our heads in the dirt when we need to rest. But also , we offer a Resurrection that is real. We don’t know what it looks like yet, but it’s likely not to be eternal ping pong. Nowadays, I’m okay with the kind of heavenly chorus where I sing when my lungs are full of breath, breathe prayer when they aren’t. Or where I hang my head and sway like I’m at a great shoe-gazing rock concert where the band connects the beautiful and the sorrowful like Golgotha. Radiohead is willing to be what they are: beautiful, but not savior. Thank God.