Monday, 31 December 2007

Tom Waits: theologian of the dysangelion

To my delight (and my wife’s dismay), my collection of Tom Waits CDs has grown nicely this Christmas. I’ve been absolutely addicted to Tom Waits all year – I can hardly bear to hear anything else.

I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to describe Tom Waits as a “theologian” – as long as we add that he’s a theologian of the dys-angelion, the “bad news.” His songs conjure up a swirling chaos of monsters and madness, devils and despair – and on the horizon of this dark world we glimpse the first faint glow of dawn, the surprising appearance of grace “de profundis” (Psalm 130:1).

God himself suddenly breaks into these songs as a strange and threatening – even monstrous – presence, as an unaccountable interruption of the world’s (dis-)order. One of Waits’ most astonishing theological pronouncements, for example, is the gleeful hiss: “Don’t you know there ain’t no devil / That’s just God when he’s drunk.” Or on another occasion he wonders: “Did the devil make the world while God was sleeping?”

In such songs, God bursts onto the stage not as a benevolent projection of our own wishes and desires, but as the one who overturns our expectations and shatters our projections of deity. God appears not as a supreme being who calmly “completes” and “perfects” nature, but as the one who interrupts nature in the apocalyptic newness of grace. Divine grace, for Waits, is thus a kind of unnatural incursion, a perversity, a disruption of the way things are. Grace interrupts, it shatters and strips things bare to the bone. And so Waits portrays grace in a way that is uncompromisingly – often shockingly – menacing and grotesque.

Even in Waits’ more “orthodox” gospel songs – and there are many of them, such as “Way Down in the Hole”, “All Stripped Down”, “Down There by the Train”, “Never Let Go”, “Make It Rain”, “Take Care of All of My Children”, “Come on Up to the House” – even here, grace appears as a perverse interruption of a world of murder and brutality and Satanic seduction. Grace breaks open this world like a nightmare or an earthquake – wholly unexpected, unconditional, presuppositionless; impossible to be tamed or assimilated. As Rowan Williams remarks in his study of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, “the actuality of grace is uncovered in the moment of excess – which may be in a deliberately intensified gracelessness” (Grace and Necessity, p. 105). A “deliberately intensified gracelessness” – that is the world of Tom Waits’ lyrical theology. And it’s in this way that Waits articulates the euangelion through a startlingly brutal and disturbing declaration of the dysangelion.

Grace shines from the abyss. It appears in the mode of the grotesque. And if grace is itself dysangelion, it is “bad news” precisely for those of us who are already complacent in our own religion and our own righteousness (our own ready-made “Chocolate Jesus”). It is “bad news” because tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of us (Matt. 21:31), because (as Waits puts it) those who “never asked forgiveness, never said a prayer” are nevertheless grasped and held by grace. It is “bad news” because God – if he is really the God of grace! – is not the God we want, not the God we think we need. He is the God who does not “fit”, but interrupts. He is the God whose Yes is hidden in a shattering No.

But this “bad news” is indeed “good news” – the best and happiest news! – for the undeserving, the criminals, those riddled and rotten with shame and doubt. As Waits puts it in one of his more conventional gospel songs: “Does life seem nasty, brutish and short? / Come on up to the house!” At the world’s dark end, all that remains is grace – grace for the ungodly, which is therefore the grace of God.

Anyway, I’ve gotten carried away with this prelude – but the real point of this post is to list some of my favourite theological lines from Tom Waits’ songs. Here are a few (you can read all his lyrics here):

“I’m close to heaven
Crushed at the gate.”

“Hell is boiling over and heaven is full
We’re chained to the world and we all gotta pull.”

“God used me as a hammer, boys
To beat his weary drum today.”

“The devil knows the Bible like the back of his hand.”

“God builds a church
The devil builds a chapel
Like the thistles that are growing round the trunk of a tree.”

“I left my Bible by the side of the road
Carved my initials in an old dead tree.”

“You can drive out nature with a pitch fork
But it always comes roaring back again.”

“Did the devil make the world
While God was sleeping?”

“I swang out wide with her
On hell’s iron gate.”

“Well, you say that it’s gospel, but I know
It’s only a church.”

“Well, I got to keep myself, keep myself faithful
And you know I’ve been so good
Except for drinking
But He knew that I would...”

“Goddamn there’s always such a big temptation
To be good, to be good
There’s always free Cheddar in a mousetrap, baby…”

“Well they’ve stopped trying to hold him
With mortar, stone and chain
He broke out of every prison
The boots mount the staircase
The door is flung back open
He’s not there for he has risen…”

“Don’t you know there ain’t no devil
That’s just God when he’s drunk.”

“Well, you leave me hanging by the skin of my teeth
I’ve only got one leg to stand
You can send me to hell
But I’ll never let go of your hand.”


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