Ventilator Blues Revisited

Ventilator Blues Revisited May 18, 2021

“Mechanical Ventilator,” Rcp.basheer, September 27, 2011; Creative Commons.

My son Christopher, who endured a traumatic brain injury in January, and who has been in a comatose state since then, has been breathing on his own since early February. He has not needed a ventilator from that point on, except perhaps on one precautionary occasion. So, at least for a time, there is no more need to play the Rolling Stones’ haunting, eerie, and hard-driving song, “Ventilator Blues” (played here).

I thought about this song while reading Job 34 yesterday morning. Sorry, but my mind works in a ‘funny’ way, especially these days. Hymns and praise songs don’t always play in the back of my head, when I’m reading Scripture; nor does classical, soft jazz, or supermarket music. In Job 34, a young man named Elihu rebukes Job for claiming he is innocent and more righteous than God. What reminded me of the Stones’ song was that Elihu asserts at one point that if God, who is the eternal sovereign over the entire earth, were to take back his spirit and breath, all flesh would perish. We are completely dependent on God for ventilation moment by moment. Talk about “ventilator blues.” Here’s Elihu:

“Who gave him charge over the earth
and who laid on him the whole world?
If he should take back his spirit to himself,
and gather to himself his breath,
all flesh would perish together,
and all mortals return to dust” (Job 34:13-15; NRSV).

There is a very real sense in which all humans are on a ventilator. Just as God freely breathed his spirit into Adam (Genesis 2:7), so he can take it back in an instant, whether for one individual or the entire world. We are completely dependent on God for our life’s breath every instant, just like that primal ancestor: “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7; NRSV).

At least it’s comforting to know we are all in this boat together and that we are all completely dependent mortal beings. Moreover, my family and I are deeply comforted in knowing that countless people hope and pray with us for Christopher’s recovery. For now, while we wait and see and entrust our son to God and medicine’s care, we are grateful that he is not on a ventilator. We are also grateful that much of the time he is breathing only room air, has a strong cough, and requires minimal suctioning from his breathing tube. Even so, the occasional bout of pneumonia will require supplemental oxygen.

Of course, it’s extremely hard to see a young man, especially my young man, so dependent on others. It’s not supposed to be that way for him. Moreover, one cannot help but think when visiting Christopher at the hospital or at the rehabilitation facility, what awaits us all at some future point. I think it is especially hard for young people to grapple with this idea, but it is also hard for a middle-aged man like me.

Here I return to the Stones’ song “Ventilator Blues.” Struck by how often people interpret the Stones’ songs literally, “Song Meaning” claims this song’s not about a woman or about the tune being recorded in Keith Richards’ French villa basement with its poor ventilation, even though a book on the Stones says it is. Rather, “the song is about growing old and dying. In this case, a ventilator means a breathing machine, not ventilation for a basement.” It is worth noting here that the lyrics do include lines about everybody needing a ventilator of one kind or another someday and that there is nothing we can do about it. Sobering.

What is even more sobering, I think, is that even now we are all on the divine ventilator. It’s not just Elihu and Job, or people in critical care situations. Everyone of us is completely dependent on God for our life’s breath. COVID has made multitudes of people all too aware of how delicate, fragile, and transient life really is. Our temporal existence is full of strife and struggle.

Many of us would also struggle with Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” not simply those given over to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, or what I ‘affectionately’ called in Consuming Jesus, “Consumers in the Lap of a Feel-Good God.” We might even struggle to comprehend that Edwards never finished the sermon he delivered in Enfield, Connecticut on July 8, 1741. People were so undone with its message and their sinful condition and dreadful state before God that he had to stop and comfort them. Many souls were revived and experienced assurance of salvation and comfort of divine mercy before departing the service.

Edwards’s intent was to prepare the people to meet their Maker and to make things eternally right with God before they did. After all, he and they lived at a time when most realized life is but a vapor and their lives could be snatched away at any moment. Many children died very young in colonial New England due to the harsh conditions. Prayers at bedtime were uttered in hopes of seeing the next day. Ravenous wolves, which were no respecters of persons, would tear up graves. It was quite the time, and quite the sermon. Take for example these words from “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”:

Site in Enfield, CT, where Jonathan Edwards preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” July 8, 1741; picture taken by Paul Louis Metzger, March 10, 2018.

the earth don’t willingly yield her increase to satisfy your lusts; nor is it willingly a stage for your wickedness to be acted upon; the air don’t willingly serve you for breath to maintain the flame of life in your vitals, while you spend your life in the service of God’s enemies. God’s creatures are good, and were made for men to serve God with, and don’t willingly subserve to any other purpose, and groan when they are abused to purposes so directly contrary to their nature and end. And the world would spew you out, were it not for the sovereign hand of him who hath subjected it in hope. There are the black clouds of God’s wrath now hanging directly over your heads, full of the dreadful storm, and big with thunder; and were it not for the restraining hand of God it would immediately burst forth upon you. The sovereign pleasure of God for the present stays his rough wind; otherwise it would come with fury, and your destruction would come like a whirlwind, and you would be like the chaff of the summer threshing floor. Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” A Jonathan Edwards Reader, ed. John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema, Yale Nota Bene (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), page 96.

As I wrote elsewhere, based on this sermon with his talk of God dangling us over a fiery pit like one holding a spider, you might think Edwards was morbid, fixated on judgment and hell—a real pessimist. If true, Edwards’s literary spider web, which he spun, would lack any sense of hope, optimism, beauty, and ultimately, aesthetic wholeness. Now, depending on who you ask, that would be a mistaken assessment, and not simply because Edwards loved symmetry. Edwards loved beauty and proportion. We must give proportionate but not inordinate measure to “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and frame it in the context of the totality of Edwards’s sermonic and literary repertoire. The editors of A Jonathan Edwards Reader assert,

As important as Sinners is…it cannot stand alone. Enveloping it is a cosmic optimism so inclusive that it binds individuals and planets into a universe of ultimate judgment and redemption. Even in Sinners, the reader discovers that all is not lost. The pessimism of sin and an angry God is overcome by the comforting hope of salvation through a triumphant, loving Savior. Whenever Edwards preached terror, it was part of a larger campaign to turn sinners from their disastrous path and to the rightful object of their affections, Jesus Christ. “Editor’s Introduction,” in A Jonathan Edwards Reader, ed. John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), page xviii.

Moreover, the editors refer their readers to A Divine and Supernatural Light, which presents God’s love and grace in glorious terms. This particular work addresses the individual, while Edwards’s publication, A History of Redemption, provides a cosmic vision of the redemption from a Trinitarian perspective. “Editor’s Introduction,” in A Edwards Reader, page xix.

As with Edwards’s works, we must account for the big picture perspective. Yes, apart from God’s sovereign pleasure, our breath would be taken away, and we would perish on the spot. Talk about ventilator blues. But there is hope for all of us, just as there is hope for Christopher, whose condition is stable and generally more flexible and comfortable. Just as Edwards’ editors claim, “all is not lost.” There is radiant hope for each person through Jesus, who is “a triumphant, loving Savior,” and for a cosmic redemption. There is also hope for my son Christopher. Speaking for others who have expressed similar thoughts and prayers of undying support, one dear friend prays that God will “restore Christopher to full health, full life and that his life would result in life (in every sense) for many.” As the classic hymn “Spirit of the Living God” played here goes, “fall afresh on me.” Fall afresh on my son and lift him up, fall afresh on all of us, and raise us up to newness of life.

About Paul Louis Metzger
Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology & Culture, Multnomah University & Seminary; Director of The Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins; and Author of numerous works, including Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church and The Gospel of John: When Love Comes to Town. You can read more about the author here.
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