“Send Me an Angel”: Some Spiritual and Historical Ruminations on Contemporary Music
by Ed Blum
I’ve spent the summer on the road. Virginia may be made for lovers, but southern California is made for drivers. If I want to meet Matt Sutton for dinner in Huntington Beach, I have to drive; if I want to get to downtown San Diego, I have to drive. If I want to make a meeting, I have to drive. My poor little Honda Civic is taking a beating; thankfully my radio has been blaring some new songs that continue to inspire my spiritual strivings and interest in religion. I wanted to take you on a quick jaunt through the emotive, sensual, fun, and energizing moments I have had in the car with some new (and not-so-new) songs.
Since driving is my theme, it is fitting to begin with the band Death Cab for Cutie. I hate their name... or rather the second half of their name. For some reason, the word “cutie” irritates me. “Death Cab” strikes me as a better name, but that would be too dark for their fun, albeit eerie, pop. My favorite Death Cab song is “Soul Meets Body,” because it makes me think of the intersection of race and religion – where the soul and the body meet, collide, and blend. But that’s an old song, a more recent one chock full of religious inspiration is “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.” It’s a relatively slow song with simple guitar accompanying voice. One portion of the chorus brings me great hope. Lead singer Ben Gibbard smoothly voices of the hereafter:
No blinding light or tunnels to gates of white
Just our hands clasped so tight
Waiting for the hint of a spark
If Heaven and Hell decide
That they both are satisfied
Illuminate the NOs on their vacancy signs
I am fascinated by the idea of heaven and hell being satisfied, that both are full, that neither will take new visitors. It comforts me – perhaps I deserve to go to hell, but will not have to because there are no more vacancies. And heaven has rarely appealed to me. So what will the dark be like if heaven and hell are satisfied? I do not know, and I find the confusion inspiring.
Then, Death Cab juxtaposes an experience in Catholic School with alleged true love:
In Catholic school as vicious as Roman rule
I got my knuckles bruised by a lady in black
And I held my tongue as she told me
"Son fear is the heart of love"
So I never went back
Since I never went to Catholic school, I have no idea how common this is. I have heard a tale or two of the meanness of nuns; and we all know about the sexual voraciousness and deceit of the Catholic church, but the nun’s claim to be teaching love through the physical violence is striking. And, as historians, we know that Catholic school teachers have not been the only ones to use physical force to uphold principles. In the late 1850s, a Boston court dismissed charges against a teacher for beating a Catholic boy because he refused to read the Protestant 10 commandments. In this case, little Thomas Whall had his knuckles bruised not by a lady in black, but by a prejudiced, evil teacher who viewed Catholicism as an impediment to the glory of American liberty. Each time I hear these Death Cab lyrics I think about the stereotype of Catholic mistreatment of children and the amnesia about Protestant abuse. Then I feel a contradiction within myself about the song: I wonder if I’m OK with hell being satisfied when it comes to those who violate children? I wonder if I would want hell to have vacancies for men like the teacher who beat Thomas Whall?
Then there’s Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida.” Cold Play got a bad rap in the Judd Apatow film Forty Year Old Virgin. As actors Seth Rogin and Paul Rudd (two of my absolute favorites) played video games (I believe it was Mortal Kombat), they accused each other of being gay (a “put down” in films that elicits a ton of laughter and shows me just how homophobic our culture is). At one point, one explains that he knows the other is gay because he listens to Coldplay. I really enjoy Coldplay, and don’t see it connected to my sexuality at all. “Viva La Vida” is a fascinating song, where the chorus runs:
I hear Jerusalem bells a ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
I’m not going to comment on the chorus, but it is so clearly replete with religious imagery that it strikes me as a spiritual onion – layers upon layers, some of which lead to tears when exposed. There is another line that captures my attention. Near the end, the singer exclaims: “For some reason I can't explain / I know Saint Peter won’t call my name.” Now, most lyric databases have Coldplay claiming that they know Saint Peter “will” call his name. But my ear hears another lyric. I hear the singer claiming that Saint Peter “won’t” call it. You can judge for yourself. But following my own ear, I am thrown back to the problem of heaven and hell – the problem from which Death Cab had almost saved me. What do I think of Saint Peter at the pearly gates? Will I get in? And what of the people I study? Did Saint Peter call their names? Or, and more importantly for my scholarship, how did their beliefs about heavenly lists influence their choices? Were American missionaries the bourgeois, imperialist, and hyper-nationalists I and so many others paint them as or were they people hoping that heaven had vacancies and that Saint Peter would call their name (or perhaps the names of the individuals they encountered abroad)?
These are the questions I have as I speed up the 5 to Los Angeles. These are the thoughts I have as I scroll through the radio stations. Just as songs like “Send Me an Angel," “Like a Prayer," and just about anything from Phil Collins led me to spiritual highs and questions as a teenager, so now Cold Play and Death Cab let me ruminate on my own spirituality and my life in the religious history of our nation.
There are so many other songs that I could discuss that whirl me into different worlds of American religious history. Bruce Springsteen, Dave Mathews, and The Killers all have great songs about Jesus that are helping me on that project; Eminem was inspiration for Reforging the White Republic; Jars of Clay, and their song “Redemption,” gave me the rhetoric and spirit to approach lynching and the sacred in W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet. Eventually, I plan on writing some on demons in America, and I have a coterie of devil songs just ready to roll on my I-Tunes. I would love to hear more about how music is influencing you, your religious life, and your scholarship. Please feel free to comment or drop me a line.