John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats has been turning out beautifully crafted, insightful songs for quite some time now. On nearly all of his projects there are continual echoes and allusions to Biblical themes and verses; Scriptural language permeates his songs in a way rarely matched by other contemporary musicians (including the explicitly confessional ones!). Darnielle is himself a self-described lapsed Catholic, who has- whatever the current state of his religious practice and devotion- assimilated Scripture to a remarkable degree, enough that it simply is there in his music- not a forced presence, but integral to the stories he tells in his music.
While most of his albums have been full of Scripture, this year he has put out an album that is entirely composed of songs developed out of his interaction with specific Scripture verses. Lest there be any ambiguity in the project, titled The Life of the World to Come, each song is titled with the verse reference. So far I’ve only listened to the free track- Genesis 3:23 (get it here, left side bar)- but will hopefully get a hold of the full album before too much longer, and perhaps offer a more detailed evaluation. This song, at any rate, is quite good: Darnielle meditates on the loss of Paradise, his Adam breaking into the place he used to live but knowing he cannot really return. The Garden is not really there, it is no longer home and cannot be. Darnielle’s Adam here is not an epic character- few of Darnielle’s lyrical characters are, but rather ordinary people caught in the immensity of a fallen world with occasional glimmers of grace. The emphasis for Darnielle though is usually on the desperation, the longing, the search for signs of redemption in a world that very obviously is in need of it.
If Darnielle has only this year gone to direct Scriptural exegesis of a sort, John Ringhofer’s project Half-Handed Cloud (several free tracks on the right hand column there) has produced a whole commentary on the Bible, built out of quirky (sometimes really, really horns and toy piano and found sounds swirling all around quirky), short (almost never over two minutes in length) songs that usually draw directly upon a Scriptural verse or story and expound upon them. Ringhofer moves just as well in the familiar stories and great Christian themes as he does in the more obscure and difficult Old Testament stories. In all of them, his exegesis is deeply Christological, tying Eden and Abraham and Levitical regulations into the mystery of Christ. The quirky, psychedelic even (and certainly not for everybody), disjunctive nature of his music serves as one of his best exegetical devices, if you will, startling the listener into a new appreciation of the text, as the often times familiar passages and verses are transformed into new-yet-old texts, meanings bursting to sudden life- and then moving on into another joyous meditation, exploration of another Scripture passage.
One of the important functions of good exegesis must surely be to draw the reader/listener back into the text, to refresh the Scripture in her mind and heart, so that her reading/recitation/listening does not, as al-Ghazali puts it, simply exist on the lips, but enters into the heart. Or rather- the heart becomes present to the words, they become a single unit, Scripture and the heart united and alive. I could list similar understandings across the spectrum of late antique and medieval writers, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim: true understanding must pass from the surface to the heart, must break through the ease of familiarity and rote reading. I suspect that our ancient exegetes would have understand what John Ringhofer’s Biblical songs are doing: joyously connecting with the heart of Scripture, and through this exploration of the Bible, reaching out to God and rejoicing in His grace and incarnated presence. For Ringhofer is always directing the listener, through his psychadelic two-minute singing Scripture exegesis, to the grace and love of Jesus:
Not that I know,
But that I’m known,
You told me I’m Yours and now You’re making me Your own,
And it’s a gift
Because You lifted me out of the past
I tried to honor
What You commanded with my labor,
But now I haven’t just been told
I have been loved.
Throw Your arms wide,
Taking Your bride,
Making us like Yourself and cleansing us inside,
We wore out our sponge,
The dirt didn’t budge
‘Cause the fudge was all cake-on and corroded,
And we just wouldn’t let You hold it,
That’s when we found You pure but messy with our blood.
Oh in the past we tried to honor,
What You commanded with our labor,
But now we haven’t just been told
We have been loved.
Now that I’m known