Tuesday 17 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….”


AndrewE said...

Thanks Ben.

A genuine question: how can we, encountering specific individuals, be "always able to say... I know that your name will be on that list..." if we are not committed to a thoroughgoing universalism?

byron smith said...

Great song. I've been a Waits fan since seeing (and hearing the soundtrack of) Down by Law. I'll have to look out for the album.

Anonymous said...

A "startlingly uncompromising depiction" of the grotesqueness of grace is just what the song is. Waits' literary world reminds me of that of Flannery O'Connor (who greatly admired Barth and read Aquinas every night before going to bed). Of one of her characters, Mr. Head in "The Artificial Nigger", O'Connor narrates: "He saw that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise."

Waits in his lyrics and O'Connor in her fiction deal with the problem of evil by confronting us with the arresting menace of God's almighty goodness.

Ben Myers said...

"the arresting menace of God's almighty goodness" -- beautifully expressed, Kim!

And thanks for your query, Andrew. I think we can "always" say this to the individual because we don't address the individual on the basis of any general theological system, but on the basis of the gospel. And the gospel simply is the announcement (to a specific person in a specific situation) that "God has said Yes to you once and for all in the death and resurrection of Jesus."

In other words, I think we can always be confident that this particular person is a recipient of God's reconciling grace -- even though we can't extrapolate from the specificity of this situation to any general theory of universalism.

Some Lutheran theologians have expressed this point in relation to the doctrine of election. If someone asks me, "How do I know I am among the elect?", I can answer: "I know God has elected you because I'm now announcing God's promise to you!"

The maiden said...

Bravo! I'm sending a copy of your post to my 13 year old son, who's as much a fan of Waits as I am.

Guy Davies said...

Nothing to do with Tom Waits, but I have some breaking news that Faith & Theology readers will want to hear. In the comments to this post, a Welsh reader claims to have met Kim Fabricius. This kind of blows a hole in the Ben = Kim hypothesis. I'm sorry if that leaves readers with a sense of shock and disbelief, but facts are facts.

Anonymous said...

This box set "Orphans, Brawlers, Bastards" has served as my intro to Tom Waits. I can't decide whether Tom's or Cash's version is better because each is full of special character in its own way. Waits' version is sung in a Black preaching style and Cash of course is much more country. But the "Altar Call" invitation is as strong in each! Thanks for this discussion. For those interested, I've set up a theo-musicology blog over at http://hardcountry.wordpress.com with Religion professor David Fillingim of Shorter college.
I recently did a lengthy intro to Johnny Cash.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the attraction of Universalism is very personal. Some experience the reality of their own sins so deeply that they can’t think of anyone who has sinned more than they have. Everyone else can be excused – the arch-villains like Hitler with the lunacy defense. But in the personal case, many may not find any defense believable (nor should they); one may sense a depth of sin that is not even yet conscious…..such that if redemption is an eventual healing of all, then even they are included.

Maybe the attraction is related to the sense of not having enough time to repent. The desert father Sisoes upon his death bed felt he hadn’t yet begun to repent…..and if repentance and salvation are at all connected….it may feel better, be a better expression of faith, that salvation is ultimately about what God does….and who would God leave out of His own work?

Great song and post. Thanks.

a. steward said...

Nice post, Ben. Tom Waits is so great. The pirate music sort of bothers me, but his album Bone Machine is one of my favorites, period. Check out the songs "Black Wings" and "Jesus Gonna Be Here" - they're both pretty great songs, and good examples of his theological allusion.
Kim, I think you're right on in drawing a connection between O'Connor and Waits. I just posted a little reflection of my own on grace in O'Connor's stories. Along with many others, I'd throw P.T. Anderson in there as one who makes it a point to show the abundance of grace as sin increases.

Anonymous said...

I like your suggestions, a. chapin. They seem very human. I think the desire in me to closely define who's in and out can be a position predicated on distrust: precise definition is needed because I cannot trust the judge is entirely beneficent. I find my desire for universalism is often predicated on despair: I am not entirely sure the affairs of this world matter much to God. The insistence of God's freedom forces me to trust and hope in Jesus alone.

Hope that's not too overwrought: the Waits' lyric both moved me and condemned most of the worship songs I've sung recently..

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for mentioning Bone Machine, Adam. I love "Jesus Gonna Be Here" -- especially those delightful lines:

Well I've been faithful
And I've been so good
Except for drinking
But He knew that I would...

a. steward said...

Hehe - that is a great line. And voice on that song is such a kick, too.

Anonymous said...

but...why not universalism?

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