Thursday, July 10, 2008

Secular and inconsolable?

It's been nearly a month since my last post. In the meantime, I've been to Mount Rainier, Portland, San Francisco, and now, nearly a week after touching down on the east coast, I'm starting to settle back into Ithaca again. I've got coffee here in front of me, and on the stereo a mix I made last night for a woman I work with. In one of my first posts I wrote, however briefly, about the exquisite contrast between what Chris Pureka sings and how she sings it; there's something similar going on, I find, in Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins' "Born Secular," where Lewis sings, "I was born secular and inconsolable," and no one believes her, not for a second, at least not me. Maybe it's the way the twins come in with their carefully stacked harmonies--somewhere between 1960s pop radio and the kind of evangelical singing I expected, and missed, in the churches of my youth--and maybe it's the way Lewis sounds just like a Christian visionary when she says that God gives, then "takes away / from me." That feeling of destitution, of being abandoned, is as old--and as questionably secular--as the Song of Songs.

Not that I would want Lewis to tell me how religious she was, or how much consolation she found in God, no matter how much I really do think that "What a Friend We Have In Jesus" is a breathtaking song. Lewis's song is hopeful in spite of itself, and this irony is no small thing, especially given the hopelessly unironic alternatives: the self-congratulating crap that passes for Christian music on evangelical radio stations like KLOVE, for example, or the no less earnest atheisms of Tori Amos's "God" or, forgive me, Allison Moorer's "The Duel." These last two are, to be sure, complicated songs; I'm not doing them justice. And of course I believe in a God present at the heart of every atheism, a God who, in more traditional language, is even present in the heart of hell, whatever hell is. (This is what I take away from Dante and the Apostles' Creed.) But the gaps that inhere within what we sing are more forceful than any attempt at seamlessness, at staying on-message. As I write this paragraph, I realize that I'm as guilty of trying to say just one thing (instead of two or three or an indeterminate number of things) as any of these other folks.

Last fall I found myself walking away from a concert with a woman I know, and she started talking about Emmylou Harris, about how much she loved her music, despite how "Jesusy" it was. ("Jesusy" is an orthographic challenge: writing it, I can't help thinking of the Argosy Casino, on the Ohio River near my folks' house, and how someone maybe once thought that it should resemble, but not too closely, the ship Jason and the Argonauts sailed away on: it wouldn't be another Argos; it would just be Argos-like, "Argosy.") To me, the trace of Christianity in Emmylou is in the grain of her voice, not the lyrics of her songs, and I'd almost say the same thing about Julie Miller, even though her lyrics tend to be more overtly religious. (Both voices hover on the brink of despair and exasperation, only to come swooping back up--or down--when you least expect them to.) But I am a sucker for the Jesusy, if not always for Jesus. To the extent that I can speak of my faith these days, it's not happening in church, where I tend to pop in about thirty minutes late, grab communion and leave. Part of that might have to do with where I am: even as a fake southerner (born in, of all places, Illinois), I don't quite know what to make of sober Yankee religion; even as a fake Californian (but is there anything else?), I can't quite accept how little room there seems to be, in this liberal little town, for folks without families in front of the pulpit, and for women behind it. Part of it, too, might have to do with the ironies of Lewis's song, and how they speak more truthfully of the ambivalence that haunts every hope worth its name. The closest thing to a religious experience I've had in recent memory was watching Karin Bergquist bang on a cookie sheet in Louisville, Kentucky, as my little sister sat beside me and I chewed on a bourbon-glazed ice cube.

What, then, would it mean to be something other than secular and inconsolable? The best I can hope for these days is that somehow, in the midst of my occasional fits of despair (oh, you know, about the usual things: whether this is the right place, the right job, the right life), the Watson Twins, or Julie Miller, or Emmylou, will suddenly swoop down to harmonize with me as I gripe and wallow; and that their sudden burst of song will open up some crucial distance between what I'm saying and how, in spite of myself, it's being said.