It was 1993 or so, and I was riding in my brother’s Jeep in Laguna Beach. That close to the Pacific shore, the ocean never lets you forget its presence, forever whispering inland with its clean, blue, sharp breeze. The windows were rolled down and the leather was cool under my thighs despite it being a warm day the caliber of which, back in tropical Missouri, would have produced a slick of seat-sweat faster than a Missourian can mispronounce “Versailles”. My brother was sooooo cool. I’m talking mega-next-level cool. Not only was he a member of the fabled Gen X I’d been hearing so much about on MTV (which would gradually return to visibility after my parents had it “fuzzed out” by the cable provider, at which point my mom would catch us watching it and call the cable guy and initiate the cycle anew), but he was a surfer and a semi-punk, which meant he listened to stuff like Bad Religion and the Descendants. Unacquainted with the finer distinctions of musical genres, I thought this meant he was definitely a full-blown punk, despite an absence of mohawk and leather, and I was awed. That day, a song came on the radio in his car that I’ve never forgotten. It was “Dear God” by XTC, and I balked as the lyrics emanated from the speakers in a child’s voice: Dear God, I hope you got the letter and I pray you can make it better down here I don’t mean a big reduction in the price of beer (okay, so not exactly lyrical genius going on here) But all the people that you made in your image See them starving on their feet ‘Cause they can’t get enough to eat from God Then the drums pick up and the acoustic turned electric and a thin British countertenor came in, bracing, bitter and biting, nearly growling, over a shimmering and jangly sheen of guitar and bounding rhythm: Dear God, I’m sorry to disturb you but I think that I should be heard loud and clear. We all need a big reduction in amount of tears And all the people you made in your image see them fighting in the street ‘Cause they can’t make opinions meet about God I can’t believe in you I won’t believe in you I’m not necessarily recommending that you watch the music video for this little ditty, but in the course of “researching” for this newsletter, I did and gee, was that ever an experience. This fellow is angry. And it was the eighties. 10-year-old me was absolutely scandalized to the point of paralysis. What was this?! Are we even allowed to believe this? Further… is it true?! The points seemed valid. They sounded legit. “Did you make disease and the diamond blue? Did you make mankind after we made you?” And the fact persisted that my brother was cool. These preposterous blasphemies, packaged in a rather catchy Brit-pop tune, were not making him run off the road. The ocean appeared between buildings as we sped along. Still there, still salty, still massive and frothing and churning. The asphalt beneath us remained, and the hard earth beneath that. Yet someone did not believe in God. At this point in my young and whitebread life, this was nearly as inconceivable to me as someone’s parents being Democrats. I knew atheists (and Democrats, for that matter) were out there, theoretically, but here was one singing about it on the radio, and thus presumably getting paid for it!
It’s not that I was even raised in evangelical subculture. I went to youth group literally once. Bible-reading wasn’t an integral part of our home life, and I don’t have a dramatic childhood encounter with Jesus to report. Yet belief in God was a given, a baseline; before I turned just as unquestioningly atheist and lib myself at 14 or 15 as I was unquestioningly Republican and vaguely deist before (a turnabout whose drama I relished, and which my dad forever blamed on me attending Catholic high school) I remember having long pre-bedtime discussions with my dad about God, about infinity, about the universe. God was God. I didn’t know exactly who He was, but by golly, He was just... there. Of course He was. Mr. Andy Partridge of XTC was blowing my little mind, unkindly. Were we even allowed to believe this? And was it true? The song haunted me, with its soaring bridge and scaled descent back into fuming heresy. Like a child handling a grenade, I was equal parts fascinated and fearful. I can’t blame my teenage foray into atheism all on the song, of course. Yet it cracked a fissure in my cloistered little world where God amounted to little more than background noise, an avuncular figurehead who had little actual bearing upon my life. Jesus? He was a kindly, soft-focus sheep-herder with Brylcreem waves and a dreamy, ethereal bearing. The cross? Yikes. I wasn’t even sure what that was about. I tried to think about Christmas more. Baby Jesus was non-threatening. When “Dear God” piped through my brother’s radio on that day, I found out, to my horror, that there is more than one song in the world. There is the song of anger, of defiance. It is the song sung alternately in the Bible by Adam and Eve in the garden, by Job, by Cain, by Jeremiah and even Naomi (“Call me Mara, for God has made my life very bitter.”) It is a song I have sung. How can so many songs be sung? Why does the aroma of Christ smell good to some and totally reek to others? (2 Cor 2:15) It’s an argument many use for the untenability of any religious faith, that so many songs, so many versions of reality abound among the human race. How can so many people feel so differently about the nature of reality and the existence of God, which topics are so bound up together I’d venture they are, in fact, interchangeable? My best answer is I don’t know, although I enjoy speculating. (Why are you so obsessed with atheists?! My husband often asks me). Unbelief and its outworkings - the unavoidable logical conclusions that are yet so readily brushed aside by those living off the residue of Judeo-Christian history - fascinate me. Almost always, though, if you poke hard enough at an atheist (as I’ve been known to do, and am learning to do more kindly), the intellectualizing dims and the heart of the matter emerges. As Andy Partridge puts it, once he’s done viciously beating a perfectly innocent tree with a pair of hammers (really, don’t bother with the video) while enumerating all the things in which he does not believe (heaven, hell, the pearly gates, the thorny crown) and insisting God does nothing but disappoint: And if you’re up there, you’d perceive My heart is here upon my sleeve And if there’s one thing I don’t believe in It’s you. My heart is here upon my sleeve. I’m bleeding, I’m desperate for you to come down here and fix it before we all bleed out all over the place and creation’s groaning softens to a whimpering unto death. Perhaps I’m so obsessed with atheists because in them I still see traces of myself, my anxious wondering, my angry defiance at a God who doesn’t provide ready answers but instead provides Himself. But there’s the key, the pivot, the blowing wide open of this whole roiling story of enmity between the God who sings one song but also gives us humans the fearsome freedom to our riotously varied interpretations: we bleed for Him to come. But He did come, and He bled, and we were the ones who raised Him up – not to glory or fame or honor – but on a torture device. In the end, it’s all I have to offer an atheist, this God who bleeds. It’s all I have to offer myself. It’s all that there is and ever was and ever will be, and it is the only song that makes a lick of sense in the oceanic clamor of suffering in which the whole wide world has been engulfed since Eve said I don’t believe in you, or at the very least I’m not sure I believe in your goodness. I could run this show, and maybe I could do it better. I was with my brother again a few weeks ago in Zion National Park. He’s not a believer, still, though I don’t know that I knew that back when Andy Partridge rained upon that otherwise idyllic SoCal day. He’s open to discussion, though, and the privilege of it is not lost on me. Philosophical and spiritual debates tend to activate the sinful adrenaline-intoxicated side of me that desires above all else to win, to be the last (wo)man standing atop the debris-hill of damaged relationships into which I can spear my flag of polemical triumph.
Yet this time I find myself slowly shedding my old worn talking points and returning to the naked truth, the only song I know or care about anymore: the Gospel. The God who bleeds. The God who entered the bleeding world and was crucified by it, for love’s sake. Dusk falls quietly, gently, padding along on silent feet, muting the striated rock face across from our hotel rooms. The deer who gathered on the lawn each night we were there, and likely every night for the promise of sure food, wander away slowly, spooking at a sound here and there and sprinting a few feet on their thin nimble legs before resuming their grazing, raising their long-lashed liquid eyes to observe my children with a naivete that still carries some creaturely remnant of Edenic sweetness. Even the rocks cry out, says Jesus in Luke 10:49, in praise, in relief, in ecstatic worship that the only One who can hold and heal all this, the tumbling red wave of the world’s pain, all this bleeding, all this starving on our feet and fighting in the street that we’ve created by demanding our independence. On our way home, we sing another song when we stop at our old neighbor’s house in Colorado for a night. Ellen ventures outside their door every night around 9:30, just before turning into bed with Wayne and their unbearably adorable poodle-dachshund, Jake. She goes and stands and looks up at the stars, every night, even in the bitter cold and the stinging wind of the winter months on this barren highland, not quite plains and not quite desert. And she sings: lyrics of her own creation, with a melody that is a little different each night. She’s penned new lyrics this night - “In the Blink of An Eye” - printed out on a page of office paper, and she admits she’s still “learning” the melody, as though it comes from outside herself, transmitted by the Holy Spirit. I believe it does. To some, it might just sound like an old lady’s meandering warble. To me, and to God, it sounds heavenly. My eyes tear up and I can feel my voice catching with emotion so I fall silent next to her for a moment, stop trying to match the tune the Spirit weaves. I’m always a step behind this marvelous woman, anyway. I look up at the stars, too, as she sings. Maybe it’s not lyrical genius, this, in the eyes of the world, but there is a taste of the sublime in its purity, in its trust, its devotion. His plan was perfect in every way He hung the sun to light up the day The moon at night up in the sky Once again in the blink of an eye Put the stars, that twinkle in the sky And it was all in the blink of an eye Just for us in the Blink of an Eye He sent his son on the cross to die Then again in the blink of an eye He joined his father up in the sky And through his mercy and his grace Is now in heaven preparing us a place We sing, me, my husband, Arrow and Izzy, under a purpled night sky pricked with the light of thousands of ancient burning spheres of gas suspended in unfathomable reaches of space. I find myself thinking it again, as 10-year-old me did when she first heard the acrid bite of XTC’s invective. But this time when I think it, it is with slowly dawning wonder anew, with the juggernaut of hope hijacking my own cynical narrative: Are we even allowed to believe this? Further… is it true?! The Gospel pierces me anew. Can I die to my world-weariness again, to my impulse to beat trees with hammers in order to vent my frustration at this churning world of pain, can I really and truly sing it without holding something of myself back, can I relinquish my graven fear that He is not all He says, that there is some Machiavellian catch in this love He offers? Can I sing without steeling and fig-leafing the most secret parts of myself against the naked vulnerability of loving – truly loving – the Lord of all creation, and allowing myself to be loved by Him? Can I sing it? Can I be simple enough to believe the truth? Let it be so, Lord, let it be so. Dear God, let it be so. My very life depends on it. Jesus loves me, this I know. It is one song, this symphony creation sings, one song that hints at the restoration of all things even as the groaning strikes discord. And the song it sings, it sings to the God with us, Immanuel, who bled and died to make it right. His heart was on His sleeve. Oh, was it ever. A heart that bled for the whole world, for me, for you. It is so. Let us sing, like children, like fools, delirious with hope and joy. Jesus loves us.