Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Iron & Wine and Augustine: on grace and mothers

One of Augustine’s favourite biblical texts was Paul’s question to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:7): “What do you have that you did not receive?” – Quid enim habebat quod non acceperat? Against Pelagian conceptions of grace, Augustine insists on the absolute priority of God’s action towards us in Christ. Even when God rewards us for good works, God is merely “crowning his own gifts.” There is, in other words, a sheer incommensurability between God’s gift to us and the gifts that we return to God. Even the best of our gifts are always derivative and dependent on the grace that we have already received.

I think there’s a nice illustration of this concept in the Iron & Wine song, “Upward over the Mountain” (from the 2002 album, The Creek Drank the Cradle – you can hear the song in this clip).

The song is an achingly beautiful depiction of the relationship between a son and his mother. The son is united to his mother through the gift of life and through the history they have shared. He recalls that fragile, fleeting moment after birth, “the blink of an eye when I breathed through your body.” But while acknowledging this connection, he also reminds his mother of the painful distance which adulthood opens up between them. He has outgrown the faith she once gave him: “Mother I lost it, all of the fear of the Lord I was given.” He asks her – impossibly – to “forget me, now that the creek drank the cradle you sang to.”

And yet he remains haunted by their bond, by the fact that his entire life – with all its griefs and freedoms – remains an unfathomable gift. In one of the song’s most poignant lines, he pleads: “Mother forgive me, I sold your car for the shoes that I gave you.” This line could serve as an exquisite parable of the whole relationship between child and mother: even when he gives her a gift, there is a tragic incommensurability between what he gives her and all that he has already received from her. Any gift to the mother is at best a mere trinket, at worst a kind of theft in which the very possibility of giving is painfully wrested from her.

To sell the mother’s car in order to buy her a pair of shoes – that is the kind of half-comical scenario which Augustine describes when he speaks of the incommensurability between grace and gratitude. “What do you have that you did not receive?” It makes you wonder about the way Augustine’s own relationship with his mother might have shaped his theology of grace: perhaps the best cure for Pelagianism is the experience of the mother’s unmerited, presuppositionless giving. So that the proper way to respond to a Pelagian is still the same as it always was: “You’re a very naughty boy – your mother would be so disappointed!”

Augustine – “the son of so many tears,” as he called himself – was deeply aware that he had always already received, that behind all his actions lay a gift that could never be earned or repaid. Indeed, when Augustine mourns the death of his mother, he can only confess: “I will speak not of her gifts, but of Yours in her.”

Anyway, here are the full lyrics of that beautiful Iron & Wine song, “Upward over the Mountain”:

Mother don’t worry, I killed the last snake that lived in the creek bed
Mother don’t worry, I’ve got some money I saved for the weekend
Mother remember being so stern with that girl who was with me?
Mother remember the blink of an eye when I breathed through your body?

So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten
Sons are like birds flying upwards over the mountain

Mother I made it up from the bruise on the floor of this prison
Mother I lost it, all of the fear of the Lord I was given
Mother forget me now that the creek drank the cradle you sang to
Mother forgive me, I sold your car for the shoes that I gave you

So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten
Sons can be birds taken broken up to the mountain

Mother don’t worry, I’ve got a coat and some friends on the corner
Mother don’t worry, she’s got a garden, we’re planting it together
Mother remember the night that the dog had her pups in the pantry?
Blood on the floor and fleas on their paws, and you cried till the morning

So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten
Sons are like birds flying always over the mountain

16 Comments:

Joshua said...

my favorite song from one of my favorite 'bands.' i appreciate the theological gloss via augustine...one might also consider the relationship between upward over the mountain and luce irigary's belief itself

matthew r malcolm said...

Great thoughts... I'd noticed Augustine's utilisation of this verse. A number of the other patristics seem to use it heavily also, with related ideas about pride-deflating grace driving their thoughts.

roger flyer said...

If the ivory tower can't keep you, Paste Magazine may come calling.

And Iron and Wine would like the review even if it couldn't be used as a press clipping.

the don said...

brillianT!

Kitty said...

reminds me of a poem by poet laureate Billy Collins:

the lanyard

The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room
bouncing from typewriter to piano
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
I found myself in the "L" section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word, Lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past.
A past where I sat at a workbench
at a camp by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips into a lanyard.
A gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard.
Or wear one, if that’s what you did with them.
But that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand
again and again until I had made a boxy, red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold facecloths on my forehead
then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim and I in turn presented her with a lanyard.
"Here are thousands of meals" she said,
"and here is clothing and a good education."
"And here is your lanyard," I replied,
"which I made with a little help from a counselor."
"Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth and two clear eyes to read the world." she whispered.
"And here," I said, "is the lanyard I made at camp."
"And here," I wish to say to her now,
"is a smaller gift. Not the archaic truth,
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took the two-toned lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless worthless thing I wove out of boredom
would be enough to make us even."

(billy collins)

Jon said...

Augustine on God as Mother?

Chris TerryNelson said...

Beautiful Ben. Thanks!

Brian Lugioyo said...

Ben,

Thanks for sharing that song from Iron & Wine - wasn't familiar with his music.

I'd like to also point you guys to the album of Roy Joseph Schenkenberger that you can listen to at http://www.amazon.com/Broken-Mankind-Ongoing-Redemption-Thereof/dp/B0019KDJ44/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=dmusic&qid=1227634824&sr=8-1

Brian

Bryn said...

This idea of giving back that which was already recieved is echoed in, among others, Schmemann's "For the Life of the World" in which he discusses man being blessed by God so that man can in turn bless God through that which is given to him (or her). It would be interesting to see if this kind of contemporary Orthodox understanding of sacramentalism could be reconciled with Augustine.

I also really like Iron and Wine's stuff. Thanks for the post.

scott said...

A beautiful song from what is still my favorite Iron & Wine record. The Paste feature on them a few months back over-praised their ingenuity, I thought, but Sam Beam's a deserving indie icon nonetheless.

roger flyer said...

Poets and singer-songwriters are the best theologians. The truth told slant.

Davey Henreckson said...

I've been buried under work lately, so I missed this post when it first came out. But this was wonderful stuff.

Davey Henreckson said...

I've been buried under work lately, so I missed this post when it first came out. But this was wonderful stuff.

matthew r malcolm said...

Great thoughts... I'd noticed Augustine's utilisation of this verse. A number of the other patristics seem to use it heavily also, with related ideas about pride-deflating grace driving their thoughts.

Kitty said...

reminds me of a poem by poet laureate Billy Collins:

the lanyard

The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room
bouncing from typewriter to piano
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
I found myself in the "L" section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word, Lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past.
A past where I sat at a workbench
at a camp by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips into a lanyard.
A gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard.
Or wear one, if that’s what you did with them.
But that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand
again and again until I had made a boxy, red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold facecloths on my forehead
then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim and I in turn presented her with a lanyard.
"Here are thousands of meals" she said,
"and here is clothing and a good education."
"And here is your lanyard," I replied,
"which I made with a little help from a counselor."
"Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth and two clear eyes to read the world." she whispered.
"And here," I said, "is the lanyard I made at camp."
"And here," I wish to say to her now,
"is a smaller gift. Not the archaic truth,
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took the two-toned lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless worthless thing I wove out of boredom
would be enough to make us even."

(billy collins)

Brian Lugioyo said...

Ben,

Thanks for sharing that song from Iron & Wine - wasn't familiar with his music.

I'd like to also point you guys to the album of Roy Joseph Schenkenberger that you can listen to at http://www.amazon.com/Broken-Mankind-Ongoing-Redemption-Thereof/dp/B0019KDJ44/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=dmusic&qid=1227634824&sr=8-1

Brian

Post a Comment

New book

Archive

Contact

Although I'm not always able to reply to all emails, please feel free to contact me.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.

TOPO