There’s a band I want to assume things of, oversimplify, and generally deliver as something far less than listening to their art would ever do: The Oh Hello’s, may they live long enough to change the world and short enough to resist the temptation towards solo projects.
But before speaking of them, we will of Walker Percy, that unfailingly dark and usually drunk Catholic novelist who says through his character Binx Bolling, in The Moviegoer, “To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be on to something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” Life is made livable by the possibility of something around the corner. The lack of possibility, the death of the search, is precisely what we express when we despair, that “there’s nothing left that can be done.” All that’s needed to destroy despair is a single possibility. Says the mighty and ever-living Gerard Manley Hopkins:
NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be…
Can something, indeed.
More than that, to become aware of the possibility of the search is to become aware of our own lack. To know we can seek is to know that there is something we have not found. The fact that a person can wake up and feel “the search” — the possibility of coming to some meaningful existence, of discovering the truth about the world, of finding joy, of finding something — speaks to his incompleteness — of his not having these things and thus the possibility of searching for them.
The Oh Hello’s, in their album Through the Deep, Dark Valley, deliver the search masterfully, spinning images of yearning, restlessness and longing bright enough to have you quit your job and make a living selling corn liquor to hikers:
We were young when we heard you call our names in the silence
like a fire in the dark
like a sword upon our hearts
and a favorite:
see, I was born the second child
with a spirit running wild, running free
and they saw trouble in my eyes
they were quick to recognize the devil in me.
And simultaneously — and by virtue of an honesty that rings well with warm guitars — they deliver the necessary lack every search presupposes:
I have made mistakes, I continue to make them
the promises I’ve made, I continue to break them
and all the doubts I’ve faced, I continue to face them
It’s precisely by digging their teeth into “the search” that Maggie and Tyler Heath are making great music far more Christian than Christian Music is making anything great. The possibility of the search is the necessary presupposition for the existence of Christianity. For what is Christianity? Christianity is the Gospel. But what is the Gospel? It is a terrifying, obnoxious piece of news, that you need saving, and there is a savior — news that claims to be the truth about the person, the reason for his restlessness, and finally, his destiny. But what makes a piece of news? A piece of news is only a piece of news if it is new, experienced as a truth previously lacked. Telling me that Hitler invaded Poland is many things, but it is hardly news. So if there is to be Christianity, it must be heard by ears aware of the possibility of the search, acute with not-having and not-knowing and therefore pregnant with the possibility of finding something. Prior to the security of the Gospel is the insecurity of being human, and to deliver this lack — which is the possibility of a search — is to make Christianity possible in the person who hears and believes.
But it gets worse. Christianity must be news that remains new. The moment it is not new is the moment it is not news and thus not the Gospel, breaking upon us like the dawn, always offensive and astonishing in quality. If we seek God, find him, and are done, we are in despair, for in finding God we have lost the possibility of the search. We are no longer “on to something.” We have finished something.
How, then, is it possible to be a Christian? How can we have our Savior and not render his salvation a known, expected fact? In short, how can we be continually seeking a truth we have found? Love, you idiots.
Christians are not called to “find out about God.” Christians are called to love God. Love is a finding that is not a negation of the search. If I desire to find my beloved, and having found her, am finished with my search, she no longer is my beloved, for to love is to strive after her, and if I am no longer striving, I am no longer loving. But if I really do love her, than I am about the business of infinity, always uncovering greater depths. The more I see the beloved, the more I know that I do not know her. The more I value her, the more I understand that I do not value her enough. The closer I am, the more I am aware of the distance between us, and the more I strive to close this distance, the more I love.
This is why a lot of “Christian music” needs to repent and believe in the Gospel. We forsake the search for the sake of a certainty that “Jesus Saves,” and thereby negate the fact that salvation is the last thing we could deserve, or ever have expected, changing the very quality of our salvation, which was supposed to be something that inspires “fear and trembling.” Our music sounds Christian, indeed, we expect a certain sound out it, but Christianity is either constantly astonished by its own existence or it is not Christianity.
The Oh Hello’s express a constant astonishment over the love of God, preserving the ever-new, and I just love it:
I took my chance and bit down deep
the weight of the world was crippling
now I’ll hide my shame with woven leaves
I was wrong
and I’m so, so sorry
I knew you’d never forgive me
but I was wrong
and I’m so, so sorry
The album ends with Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, and the beauty of it is this surprising arrival of Christianity. It is not a cognitive conclusion that “Jesus Saves.” It is not even an expression of language. It is the music of Christianity, ringing like Church bells. The album ends with an invitation to an encounter as the summit of its search. It is as if I asked Maggie and Tyler Heath to give me the truth, and they told me he has a name, and wouldn’t you like to meet him? Here, put your hand in his, we’ll leave you two to talk.
Surely all Christian talk of God should end in music? Surely we speak more about who he is — a person, can believe that? — if we finally falter, words failing, ending beautifully, lamely, with an invitation to an encounter with what we cannot say, a meeting with that which we cannot grasp, but can only strive towards in love? Evangelization as failure — that’s good. I like that. We are not just trying to bring people to a conclusion. We are trying to bring people to love, and thus to be ever unable to come to conclusions.