I am pioneering a new sub-genre of theological writing, here. Maybe Tony Hunt would care to follow suit with some of his hipster indie music, or even Shawn Wamsley with some his angry music (if he can find some that isn’t of the devil).
At first glance Dave Matthews may seem like an unlikely source for discourse on Christian spirituality. He grew up a Quaker, but in a 1998 interview Matthews spoke of how the death of his sister led to the losing of his faith, “I’m glad some people have that faith. I don’t have that faith. If there is a God, a caring God, then we have to figure he’s done an extraordinary job of making a very cruel world.” In 2001, he indentified himself as an agnostic. However, in some ways he and his music are natural places to turn. His songs are filled with theological references and biblical allusions; he is undoubtedly the heir to a long, venerable folk-rock songwriting tradition, which includes Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and others, and which is deeply conversant in Christian scripture, theology and spirituality.
Focusing on songs from his seminal 2007 RCA release Live at Radio City which Matthews recorded with long time collaborator, Tim Reynolds, I want to explore some themes in the lyrics of Dave Matthews’ music which speak about Christian faith and practice, and to experiencing—or more accurately, confronting—God in surprising and authentic ways. Some of these themes are bluntly critical of certain aspects of Christianity, while others seem to document an authentic search for God, who appears in the music almost as an unrequited lover to agnostic Matthews.
Don’t expect to find anything systematic about theology a la Dave Matthews. We’ll be relying on two sometimes-competing hermeneutical principles. Sometimes Matthews makes overt references to God and the Church, several of his songs are directed at God specifically as agnostic prayers. These we will interpret in a straightforward way, relying on authorial intent. Other songs, however, allude to scripture or use theological language to speak about human relationships and experience without trying to say anything about Christianity or the divine. In these cases, we veer toward a hermeneutic of audience created meaning, reading God and the Church in where Matthews probably did not intend. If this methodology irks you, you should be reading Justice Scalia opinions, not this.
As an example of these two hermeneutical methods being used together in a single song, I will briefly look at one of my favorite songs on the album, “Two Step.” The song itself is about two lovers celebrating life in all its bitter-sweetness. The chorus offers this:
“Celebrate/ Celebrate we will / ‘Cause life is short, but sweet for certain/ Hey, we climb on two by two/ to be sure these days continue.”
“We climb on two-by-two” references the animals boarding Noah’s ark. By alluding to Noah’s mission of repopulating the earth after the flood, Matthews seems to be suggesting that it is our God-given duty to live, and enjoy life, and make babies. So we arrive at a two-liner theology of sex that isn’t too far away from where Matthews intended to go.
Within the same song we find these lines:
“Hey, my love/ You came to me like wine/ Comes to the mouth/ Grown tired of water all the time/ You quench my heart…”
Here, Matthews is obviously making no allusion to God or the Divine at all, but that doesn’t mean I am not free to rip it from its context and find in it a wonderful bit of Eucharistic poetry. Doesn’t Christ come to us, like wine in our mouth? I certainly grow weary of the blandness of a watered-down, purely symbolic understanding of Communion, and I certainly find my heart sated in taking the Eucharist. It’s a completely unintended interpretation—Matthews would probably be appaled by it—but still provides an accurate and poignant theological reference point.
So, you’ve been warned. I will play loose and free with lyrics.
It is almost cliché to say that much of Matthews’ music is about love and sex (almost as cliché as it is to say that much of Matthews’ concerts are about pot). Many songs are very simply rhapsodies in praise of having sex with beautiful women (i.e. “Two Step” above). While some might find these conjugal hymns shocking, there is, with a few notable exceptions, nothing in the lyrics that explicitly denies biblical sexuality. In fact, they are a site of resistance, an oasis of refreshment for those of us who have grown up dealing with the puritanical, and quite simply repressive body-hatred of certain parts of Evangelical church culture.
On the whole, love for Matthews is a keystone thematic principle that transcends sex. Love is the only sure thing; the bedrock of life. For example, “When the World Ends” is a song about two lovers who will endure the end of the world in each other’s arms. Typical lyrics include:
“When the world ends/ Passion rising from the ashes,”
“When the world ends/ We’ll just be beginning.”
Matthews makes a bold claim here that love transcends catastrophe, even apocalypse. In the song “Oh,” we find a similar theme, but this song is written not about lovers but Matthews’ grandfather:
“The world is blowing up/ The world is caving in/ The world has lost her way again/ But you are here with me/ But you are here with me/ It makes it okay.”
Love makes anything bearable; disaster and suffering lose their finality in the presence of a beloved one.
In a third song from the album, “Eh Hee”, Matthews makes the claim that, “with the love that my mother gave me/ I’m gonna drop the devil to the floor.” Here love is martial. Love does not simply make evil bearable, love destroys evil. Back in the chorus of “Oh,” we discover that this love is intense, unstoppable, and gratuitous:
“I love you oh so well/ Like a kid loves candy and fresh snow/ I love you oh so well/ Enough to fill up heaven/ Overflow and fill hell.”
All three of these songs are speaking of human relationships with lovers, grandfathers and mothers; yet in each, Matthews’ images of love are couched in eschatological and theological language, leaving an opening for us to apply these ecstatic visions of love to God and to Divine love. When St. John writes that God is love, and when St. Paul writes that nothing can separate us from the love of God, did they mean to go as far as Matthews goes? Can the imagination of the Church keep up with Matthews’ imagination when trying to understand the unfathomable love of God? Does God’s love for all of us “fill up heaven, overflow and fill hell?” Some Christians’ definition of hell is precisely that place where God and his love end. And yet Matthews’ love for his grandfather transcends that boundary, as did St. Paul’s love for his kinsmen (Romans 8). If God is God, can his love for his children be any less?
When applied to love that God’s children are commanded to have for each other and the world, Matthews’ vision of love certainly stands in contrast to some prevailing notions in the Church. Whereas, like St. Paul’s, Matthews’ concept of love overcomes evil, some in Christianity at least appear to believe that love is optional and that hateful rhetoric, militarism and the tea party will somehow conquer evil and end suffering in the world. Can Matthews’ lyrics call the Church back to a place where indefatigable love for all people is truly our bedrock; where we stop striving with the weapons of this world and rely on the self-sacrificing love of Christ to transfigure everything with which it comes into contact?
Part 2 (coming soon, with reflections on “Don’t Drink the Water,” “Save Me,” “Eh Hee” & more!)