Read Part 1
“Don’t Drink the Water,” a song which evokes images of both the South African apartheid and the persecution of Native Americans, is Matthews’ moving indictment of oppression and empire. The song is narrated by the oppressor who possesses the other’s land with confidence:
“I have no time to justify to you/ fool you’re blind / move aside for me.”
Toward the end, Matthews breaks into the first verse of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” and then ends the song, still singing as the oppressor, who now explains how it really is with a disturbing clarity that deserves to be quoted at length:
“This land was made/ And I’ll build heaven and call it home/ And I’ll live with my justice, and I’ll live with my greed in me/ live with no mercy/ and I live with my friends at feet/ and I live with my hatred/ and live with my jealousy/ oh I live with the notion I don’t need anyone but me/ Don’t drink the water / There’s blood in the water”
These lyrics expose the poverty of the oppressor himself, who drives away, and crushes, and burns all others, so that he is finally consigned to a kind of hell—living with himself alone.
Implicitly, this song critiques wide swathes of Christianity that are historically responsible for going along with, and in many cases providing the ideological backbone for, oppression, and imperialism. The condemnation is complete whether we are talking about the Dutch Reformed church of apartheid, the pietistic Protestants behind American expansionism, Catholic “missionary” activity among the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, or Anglicanism which “held the coat” for the British rape of several continents. It is a crushing indictment of all those who believe they can build heaven on the backs of the poor and the dispossessed.
But the song is not without a subtle note of hope. “Don’t the water/ There’s blood in the water” is surely a reference to the terrible slaughter of innocents that was the result of South African and North American apartheid. These lyrics also make the historically accurate point that through brutality, the oppressor poisons the resources he fights so hard to take. However, I believe there is a biblical allusion in these lyrics. Blood in the water references the Exodus narrative when God plagues Egypt for refusing to end the oppression of the Israelites. So, Matthews evokes—perhaps inadvertently—that great story of liberation, how God freed the Israelites from slavery, how through Christ God “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” [Luke 1:52] and how, in the final shakedown, God will vindicate the oppressed and the downtrodden.
As a self-identifying agnostic who writes lyrics replete with Christian and biblical themes, you would expect Matthews to insert a healthy dose of skepticism to his songs, and he indeed does. In “Eh Hee,” in addition to that faith in love mentioned in part 1, we a find a deep suspicion of religious leaders and teachers:
“Be wary of those who want to try to convince you/ that they know answer no matter the question / Be wary of those who believe in a neat little world/ Cause’ it’s just fucking crazy, you know that it is.”
Could you ask for a more succinct and devastating critique of the Truth Project? These lyrics comprise the warning label that every postmodern would put on the products of modernity, especially the Christian products of modernity. These are the lyrics that keep Dinesh D’Souza up at night.
Of course, Christianity does not have to be that way. Making truth claims, as the Church most certainly does, doesn’t mean you have to be an ass about it as some in the Church most certainly are. It doesn’t mean we have truth completely figured out, nor does it mean that we’re the only ones who posses truth in our faith tradition.
“Praise God who has many names…”
There is such a thing as absolute truth, but there are also truths that bend, truths that are not always true for everyone at all times (There, Baby Boomer generation of Christians, that wasn’t so hard, was it?). Matthews lyrics call us, the Church, to stop focusing on being right and start focusing on overcoming evil with good (love).
Continuing with songs where Matthews directly engages with Christianity, we come to the “Save Me.” In an imaginative retelling of Christ’s temptation in the desert, Matthews casts himself as encountering a man in the desert (Jesus), and becomes his “tempter;” he offers Jesus food and drink—a perfectly humanitarian thing to do, but he refuses:
“No, my faith is all I need.”
To which Matthews replies,
“Then save me/ Mr. walking man/ If you can.”
As the song progresses, Matthews role as the Adversary who dares Christ to save him morphs to a humble person who wants to believe, who wants to be saved, but can’t figure out how, and wonders if it even still possible:
“You don’t need to prove a thing to me/ Just give me faith, make me believe/…Save me, Save me/ Stranger if you please/ Or am I too far gone/ to get back on?”
Expressed in these lyrics is a real sense of longing, of wanting to find faith in God, but coming up short. In the video recording of the Live at Town Hall concert, a totally hammered Matthews introduces the song in an interesting way: “This song is a comedy…song. Maybe, no, maybe it’s tongue in cheek. I don’t know, maybe it’s a plea for help from the heavens. I don’t know. You decide.”
By the end of the song a third voice enters,
“You might try saving yourself.”
In this fractured soteriology, then, we have a God who doesn’t have time for sinners such as Matthews, we have a satan who cries to God for faith, and we have a Pelagian who tells the penitent to save himself.
There is a danger in the Church to write off such people as the narrator of this song. Sometimes the attitude is that if you don’t simply have faith in God, if it doesn’t come easy, then there is no room for you in the Church. But faith doesn’t always come easy. Who hasn’t felt abandoned by God? It’s not that Matthews didn’t have faith before. He asks if it’s too late to get back on. Matthews the agnostic and many like him are having an extended (permanent?) Dark Night of the Soul. The Church should not only welcome these folks, and encourage them, but we should also welcome their voices and opinions, and let them challenge our own over-confidence, our own self-assuredness. Maybe we are afraid of them because they threaten to expose our own doubts and frailties to the members of our community and to ourselves.
Part 3 (coming soon, including some notes on the song, “Bartender”)