Bon Iver, Peter Rollins and the art of unburdening lives

On a whim I decided to listen to Bon Iver this week. My brother loves them and I thought “what the heck! Why not!” – he got me hooked on the wonders that are Mumford & Sons and Ben Howard, so I figured they might be worth a go!
My thoughts at the moment are that Bon Iver are… Freakin’ brilliant!
What has struck me about each of these artists is that there is no identifiable desire to craft a single; to write something that presses all the buttons for certain mass popularity.
In each case these artists, as far as I tell, simply bear their soul. They communicate real experiences and longings – real struggles, real pain, real hope, real life.
And the spectacular thing is, when this happens, we join them. We participate. We can make their words our words because we need constructive outlets for our own pain, our struggles and confusion through which we can access hope, if not healing.
On some level I’ve been doing this, as I try to discern just what exactly the lyrics to some of the Bon Iver tunes are or as I sing along with Ben and Mumford.
This thought takes me back to a reflection Peter Rollins had in his latest book Insurrection.
Rollins’ at one point quotes Danish theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, who writes, in many senses, about what the above artists have been able to help some of us do.
‘What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music… And people flock around the poet and say: “Sing again soon” – that is, “May new sufferings torment your soul but your lips be fashioned as before, for the cry would frighten us, but the music, that is blissful.”’ (73)
Sadly at times I’ve found my interaction with Christian music wholly lacking in this regard. I too often find that songs insist on telling me that God is big and great; that everything will be okay; that God’s got a plan etc. (none of this is, of course, wholly incorrect or mistaken and what I’ve presented is rather caricature-ish; yet they bear truth and represent a chronic abstraction of a great many other Christian truths.)
I want a poet, I need a poet, as Kierkegaard describes – because it’s easy to get people to believe something they would really like to be true. It’s something else entirely to get people to doubt constructively. It takes great skill to help people enter the place of pain and grief and to help the eventual growth of life and hope happen.
What if Christian music generally, and ‘worship’ music specifically, utilized “the full range of human emotions, bringing radical doubt, ambiguity, mystery, and complexity”? (Insurrection, 73)
I need to wrestle with the pain of life; with the thought that I may not get out of a situation that is down right awful; that my illness may not leave; that God may not have got this one. I need people to help this process; and the music and lyrics of those more capable is a vital way of seeing this happen.
The Crucifixion is not just an event undergone once but is something Christians undergo quite thoroughly throughout their lives – it is a way that calls us to experience God-forsakenness within the totality of our lives.
“A properly Christological reflection should lead us to see the felt experience of God’s absence as the fundamental way of entering into the presence of God. For if being a Christian involves participating in the Crucifixion then it means undergoing this earth-shattering loss… In Christianity when one is crushed by a deep, existential loss of certainty, one finds oneself in Christ.” (Insurrection, 24)
What if Christian poets were to do this? What if they were to craft music that takes us to that place? Where we can recognize that it is at a cross, and only at a cross, that we discover and begin to experience life in its fullness – yet even this is in part, as through a glass darkly, in the sense of a battle between the night and a new day as dawn begins to break.
“I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” Philippians 3:10-11
Listening to the music of Bon Iver, Mumford & Sons and Ben Howard (and I’d like to add a band called Oceansize at this point) has been a way of discovering poets as Rollins’ and Kierkegaard imagine them. While these artists, excluding Mumford & Sons, don’t go the route I am discussing in any fully rounded Christological sense, something like it is being done as we flock to them while they sing their words and craft outlets through which we can wrestle with the content of our lives.
May we look for and create more music that does this…
After The Storm, Mumford and Sons
And now I cling to what I knew
I saw exactly what was true
But oh no more.
That’s why I hold,
That’s why I hold with all I have.
That’s why I hold.
I will die alone and be left there.
Well I guess I’ll just go home,
Oh God knows where.
Because death is just so full and mine so small.
Well I’m scared of what’s behind and what’s before.
And there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.
Keep Your Head Up, Ben Howard
I saw a friend of mine the other day and he told me that my eyes were gleaming
Oh, I said I had been away, and he knew
Oh, he knew the depths I was meaning
And it felt so good to see his face or the comfort invested in my soul
Oh, to feel the warmth of a smile, when he said:
“I’m happy to have you home, oh, I’m happy to have you home.”
Come Talk to Me (Peter Gabriel cover), Bon Iver
In the swirling curling storm of desire
Unuttered words hold fast
With reptile tongue, the lightning lashes
Towers built to last
Darkness creeps in like a thief
And offers no relief
Why are you shaking like a leaf?
Come on, come talk to me
Oh please talk to me
Won’t you please talk to me
We can unlock this misery
Come on, come talk to me
I did not come to steal
This all is so unreal
Can’t you show me how you feel?
Now come on, come talk to me
Come talk to me
Come talk to me
The Frame, Oceansize
I can hold you all together
You won’t fall
With the troops that we assembled
And the bond we forged
Though this sketch is getting old now
The cracks don’t show
Time won’t change a thing when I’m gone
Don’t grab the wheel too tightly, my son
Everything you need is done, I would’ve thought you’d won by now
Oh no, no, oh, no, no, no