I walked out of Rust and Wax, my neighborhood vinyl store, a happy man last week- I’d scored a copy of the War on Drugs’ new live album, Live Drugs. It’s been on nearly constant repeat on our record player since I brought it home. Their indie-Americana music is multi-layered and expansive, a wall of instrumentation that creates an atmosphere which envelops lead singer Adam Granduciel’s yearning, Dylan-esque voice.
One of my very favorite songs of theirs is the first track from their album Wagonwheel Blues, entitled “Arms Like Boulders.” (They performed an acoustic version of it just a few nights ago on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert).
The song is a barreling stream-of-consciousness, conceived originally when Granduciel was driving up California’s iconic Highway 101. As layers of guitar, harmonica, and synthesizer lurch along, Granduciel sings:
“And so now, now that you realize
That planets are spheres with oil on the inside
And your God is only a catapult
Waiting for the right time to let you go
Into the unknown, just to watch you hold your breath
Yeah and surrender your fortress
And your thoughts will tumble like rocks do
Over the valleys of factory oceans
The Turkish carpets are flappin’ as the wind
Drops you down to the surface
Yeah, when you’re looking for your sweethearts
And you’re, you’re the kind to hide your eyes from the sun
And in your world, the strong survive
But I won’t take my body down…”
Those lines have arrested me from my first listen. They evoke the mingled despair of living in a world devoid of God — “your God is only a catapult / Waiting for the right time to let you go / Into the unknown”- and refusal to give up hope “I won’t take my body down / you don’t have to lay everything down”.
I’ve thought a lot about the paradox pictured in that song over the last week. Like other preachers following the lectionary, this past Sunday I preached John 1.43-51— Jesus’ encounter with a skeptical Nathanael. His particular skepticism is different, of course, from the 21st-century, post-secular flavor of doubt evoked above. But reflecting on Jesus’ interchange with Nathanael has made me wonder over my friends and neighbors who today would exclaim “Christianity?! Can anything good come out of Christianity?!”
It’s not for no reason, of course, that many of my friends and neighbors imbibe a deep skepticism of Christian faith. Look no further than the grinding suffering visited upon the planet by the COVID-19 pandemic, or the way in which Christian language and symbol was invoked in the baptized nationalism of the violent, insurrectionist riots at the Capitol last week, for example.
This is why I love that Philip’s response in John 1 to Nathanael’s skepticism is simply, “Come and see,” and Jesus’ response himself is a promise of what Nathanael will come to see: “You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1.51)
Jesus is alluding, of course, to the strange old story of Jacob’s midnight encounter with God in Genesis 28. God ambushes Jacob by night with a dream of heaven opened, and a ladder/ramp/zigguraut connecting earth and heaven to one another. Jacob wakes thunderstruck:
“Surely the LORD was here, and I didn’t know it!”
“How awesome is this place!”
“This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!”
In narrating this Nathanael conversation to us, of course, John wants us to bring our own skepticism to Jesus. This gives me the hope that, two millennia later, as so many people I care about wonder if God is simply an idea waiting to catapult us into a meaningless abyss, we’re still invited to come and see about Jesus.
To watch Jesus teach God’s truth, heal the sick, feed the hungry masses, expose religious corruption, suffer a sin-destroying death, and experience the victory of resurrection. And to wind up saying of the Crucified One from Nazareth,
“Surely the LORD is here, and I didn’t know it.”