Give me everything good and I’ll throw it away
Wish I could quit but I can’t stand the shakes
Choking the smoke, singing your praise
I think there’s a God and hears either way
When I rejoice and complain
I never know what to say
If I had an addiction it would be music. Sometimes I spend hours on YouTube scanning from one song to the next just trying to find one that can satisfy my craving. The trouble is I don’t really know what I’m looking for. It must be rare as I often end my search frustrated—sympathetically relating to Mick Jagger in “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”
But every once in a while I find it, and when I do it ends up on replay for weeks. Such was the case with Julien Baker’s “Rejoice.” This song has made me think a lot about what it means to create art and exactly what my responsibilities are as an artist. I have come to believe that most of my answers can be found in a proper understanding of honesty.
“Rejoice” doesn’t reflect my usual listening habits. It’s acoustic, and slow, and trying very hard to be depressingly melodramatic. I don’t mind sad songs if I can connect with them, but truthfully, most just bore me. However, Julien’s song is different. I don’t really know anything about her, whether she’s a Christian, or writing from personal experiences/feelings or not, but she connects to her songs in way that can only be described as honest. No, I don’t think all her statements are necessarily “true,” but they are in the sense that they express a very real anguish.
Why did you let them leave and then make me stay?
When you know my name and all of my hideous mistakes?
I am reminded of a beautiful short documentary that has greatly impacted my understanding of honesty in art. The interview conducted by Fuller Studio features Bono (of U2) and Eugene Peterson (translator of The Message bible) discussing their mutual love of the Psalms. Something Eugene Peterson said has been on my mind a lot during my personal quest for artistic integrity: “The only way we can approach God is if we are honest, through metaphor, through symbol.…Imagination is a way to get inside the truth.”
In life, we learn restraint—To maintain appearances by tempering the expression of our emotions in social settings. It’s a necessary and good skill to have in life as we know our emotions are not always right, but reading the Psalms you are struck by their reckless abandonment. In Psalms 94 the psalmist questions God:
1 O LORD God, to whom vengeance belongeth; O God, to whom vengeance belongeth, shew thyself. 2 Lift up thyself, thou judge of the earth: render a reward to the proud. 3 LORD, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked triumph? 4 How long shall they utter and speak hard things? and all the workers of iniquity boast themselves? 5 They break in pieces thy people, O LORD, and afflict thine heritage. 6 They slay the widow and the stranger, and murder the fatherless.
In Psalms 22 David complains to God:
1 My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? 2 O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.
14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels. 15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death. 16 For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.
As an artist, I am understanding more and more the need to embrace these feelings, not to indulge in them, but to express the truth of where they come from, and to understand. In his gospel, John records what is the single shortest verse in the bible while recounting the death of His friend Lazarus: “Jesus Wept,” (John 11:35). It’s incredible that the creator of the Universe would know sorrow. Before he raised Lazarus from the dead—literally minutes before he would turn their sorrow into joy—Jesus felt the pain of Mary and all of those who had gathered to mourn their loss, and it drove him to tears.
When reading the Psalms we understand, like Bono, that “they have this rawness, a brutal honesty…. Explosive joy, deep sorrow, confusion.” What the Psalms convey is not strictly truth that can be understood through reason. The psalmists do not mask their feelings, but neither do they wallow in self-pity. It is only through embracing the truth of why we feel the way we do that we can begin to understood the true meaning of trust, conviction, love, sorrow, joy anger, and justice. Otherwise, they are just words.
I love The Lord of the Rings trilogy authored by J.R.R. Tolkien. I see a lot of parallels between characters in his books and the struggle between humanity and God. Like Frodo, we sometimes wish we can be free of all pain, but that’s not the world we live in. Echoing Solomon in Ecclesiastes 7:10, Gandalf’s words are full of wisdom:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
“I don’t want to escape that—the violence,” Eugene Peterson said. Neither should we. We should seek to face it so that we can understand and learn what to do with the gift of life we have been given.