Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Theology with Tom Waits

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to Tom Waits’ extraordinary three-disc album, Orphans (2006). It’s a magnificent album, and there are some startling theological insights as well. Here are the lyrics to Waits’ gentle but gritty gospel song, “Down There by the Train” (the song was also covered by Johnny Cash in 2002):

There’s a place I know where the train goes slow
Where sinners can be washed in the blood of the lamb
There’s a river by the trestle down by Sinner’s Grove
Down where the willow and the dogwood grow
Down there by the train
Down there where the train goes slow

You can hear the whistle, you can hear the bell
From the halls of heaven to the gates of hell
And there’s room for the forsaken if you’re there on time
You’ll be washed of all your sins and all of your crimes
If you’re down there by the train
Down there where the train goes slow

There’s a golden moon that shines up through the mist
And I know that your name will be on that list
There’s no eye for an eye, there’s no tooth for a tooth
I saw Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth
Down there by the train
Down there where the train goes slow

So if you live in darkness and if you live in shame
All of the passengers will be treated the same
And old Humpty Jackson and Gyp the Blood will sing
And Charlie Whitman is holding on to Dillinger’s wings
They’re both down there by the train
Down there where the train goes slow

If you’ve lost all your hope, if you’ve lost all your faith
I know you will be cared for and I know you will be safe
And all the shameful, and all of the whores
Even the soldier who pierced the heart of the Lord
Is down there by the train
Down there where the train goes slow

Well, I’ve never asked forgiveness, I’ve never said a prayer
I’ve never given of myself and I’ve never truly cared
I’ve hurt the ones who loved me, and I’m still raising Cain
I’ve taken the low road and if you’ve done the same
Meet me down there by the train
Down there where the train goes slow

The song offers a startlingly uncompromising depiction of the universality of grace. The train’s whistle is heard equally by those in heaven and in hell. Salvation is for the most notorious criminals of history, from the school shooter Charles Whitman down to Judas Iscariot. It’s for the “shameful” ones and the “whores,” for the criminals forsaken by the world, for those who take the “low road” – and, finally, it’s for the blatantly irreligious who have never even “said a prayer.” On this train, all the lonely outcasts are finally gathered into community; all sins and crimes are finally pardoned. On this train, God’s judgment is pronounced as the judgment of “the lamb,” and thus the judgment of grace. For this reason, there is here “no eye for an eye, no tooth for a tooth.” And so the train is filled with the most unlikely characters – they are “all treated the same,” not because they are the same, but because on this train you never get what you deserve.

Should we be committed then to a thoroughgoing universalism – the apokatastasis? I don’t think so. But I think any proper account of the death and resurrection of Jesus will have to take the unconditional character of grace with full seriousness – as seriously as this song does, with its unsettling catalogue of criminals; or rather, as seriously as Jesus himself does when he feasts with outcasts and hookers, and welcomes condemned criminals to join him in his kingdom.

If we can’t finally turn the universality of grace into a system, that is not because of any deficiency in grace itself, but only because grace is always more than we can anticipate or conceptualise: Deus semper maior! And so grace is always a riddle, a disruption, an excess that defies all systematic explanation. It is utterly free and boundless, so that we can never legitimately prescribe its boundaries in any way – not even with a system of universalism.

Still, in encounters with specific individuals, no matter what their crimes or faults, we should always be able to say (not self-righteously, but as one criminal to another): “And I know that your name will be on that list / There’s no eye for an eye, there’s no tooth for a tooth….”

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