Friday 18 April 2008

A rain of frogs (and other horrors)

Thanks again for all the kind help with my lecture on Magnolia – I’ve just gotten back from presenting it. As it turned out, the lecture was actually a two-and-a-half hour session. So I called it “Monstrous Grace: Pauline Apocalyptic and Popular Culture,” and I talked about Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, Tom Waits’ music, and finally Magnolia as guides to the interpretation of Paul. Your suggestions for reading on Magnolia were all extremely helpful!

Anyway, I thought people would need to be eased gently into Tom Waits’ music, so I started with this film clip – “God’s Away on Business”:

                Digging up the dead with a shovel and a pick
                It’s a job, it’s a job
                Bloody moon rising with a plague and a flood
                Join the mob, join the mob...


Anonymous said...

Now I know you're teasing about this clip being a gentle easing into the floods of Waits' nightmare visions.
If you really wanted to soften the blow, you would have picked one of his 'grand weepers', like Train Song or Ruby's Arms. Then again, you were going after the apocalypse, I suppose...
Now can we just convince Waits to go on tour at least as often as the Pope?! I'd give my left lug nut to see him up close and personal.

Ingie Hovland said...

Hey Ben,

Will we get to read your lecture? It sounds interesting.

Ingie (who enjoys reading your blog)

Anonymous said...

Any killers or thieves there, Ben? They must have resented Waits having them share a verse with lawyers.

My daughter is a lawyer, but from now on, to save face, I think I'll tell people she's a killer or a thief. Though, to be fair, it's the 99% of lawyers that give the rest a bad name.

Btw, while (pace Waits) God was away on business, a dubious-looking engineer arrived at the Pearly Gates, and Peter, to avoid the admin, sent him straight to hell. After a week of the unbearable heat, he spoke with the devil about making some improvements. "How about I build a few swimming pools and install some air conditioning?"
"Sounds great," said the devil. So the engineer went to work, and within a month hell had become a paradise.
When God returned from business, he phoned the devil for one of their regular chats. "How's things down there?" God sniggered. "Pretty hot, huh?"
"Actually, no," replied the devil. "We've just got an engineer who's provided the place with air conditioning and swimming pools."
"What!" boomed God. "What was Peter thinking! The engineer is supposed to be up here!"
"Too bad," replied the devil, "we're keeping him."
"That's what you think," stormed God. "I want that engineer, and I'm going to sue you to get him."
The devil grinned. "Yeah? Where you gonna find a lawyer?"

Sorry to be so off topic. Sue me.

roger flyer said...

come on!
tom waits has always been a pretender.

it is so hip to be into him lately.
a flat out nilhist.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Ingie: thanks for your interest, but unfortunately I don't have any script for the lecture, just a scramble of notes that I didn't use much anyway.

Roger: "a flat out nihilist" — yeah, I hate the flat ones. Fat nihilists are much more fun.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant! One of my favorite music videos.

roger flyer said...

Did I say flat out? I meant farted out.

In all honesty, Tom Waits is the sort of world weary cabaret voice (it is an act, you know--check mid 70's 'records') that breeds hopelessness in people of faith.

Yes, he's a brilliant lyricist--but some people of faith on the net who worship this guy just don't get the profound damage God hating 'art' can do to the human soul.

As one wag called it 'Soul S and M'...

Anonymous said...

"I'm handcuffed to the bishop and the barbershop liar
I'm lost at the bottom of the world."

If Tom Waits hates God, I'll eat my Filipino boxspring hog (and the razorweed onions I made to go with it!).

roger flyer said...

Put it in a bun and slop some bbq on it. If Tom Waits loves God, he's gotta surly kind of love. Not the kind of love I know.

Ben Myers said...

"a surly kind of love" — yes, Roger, now you're getting closer to the truth! Here's an example (from the song "Never Let Go"):

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

The "love" here is absolutely "surly". The reference is both to Job's devastation at the hand of God (Job 19:20: "I am escaped with the skin of my teeth"), and to Jesus' abandonment by God in the crucifixion ("you leave me hanging", "tied to the mast", "one leg to stand", etc). But like the Psalmist (Ps. 139), he confesses God's nearness even in the depths of hell, even when God is absent.

That's a surly love; nothing sentimental about it. And it's one of Tom Waits' recurring preoccupations: the appearance of grace even (and especially) in hell itself.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Ben, that's just too good! I was going to quote from Blind Love, but Never Let Go could just be the theme song for the mystics I know and love.
Off to make some fried black swan with some bruleed okra seeds. Stinks like hell and the neighbors complain, but who cares about neighbors when you're in hell!

roger flyer said...

Hmmm...ok. But I don't see him saying that...
Does Mr Waits ever balance the message of Job?
'Though you slay me, I will trust in you.' Is that what he's saying? i really don't think so.

My son (who reads your blog) just suggested that I read your posts before I continue riding my horse.
(As a songwriter and amateur theologian, I owe it to you and St. E that courtesy before I spout off anymore. )

But in my opinion if you are going to quote songwriters stretching their wings as theologians, find equally brilliant ones with a ttad less blackness of soul mixed with their genius ( the short list of Bruce Cockburn, Leonard Cohen and maybe even The Boss come to mind...)

roger flyer said...

I also don't get the concept that God is continuing to rescue people from hell...? Is that theological idea you're proposing...

and sorry to St E....but I don't get it. You're in hell because you're alive on this earth or because you eat stinky foodl?

Anonymous said...

No, Roger, my family is in hell because I eat stinky food.
Would Dylan meet your theological criteria? If so, and I doth quote: "Something is happening here, and you don't know what it is..."
The theological virtue of hope can often lie, as Luther has well taught us, sub contrariis
I would say that this fits Waits perfectly. Perhaps the darkness you see in Waits is the dark night of the soul. I don't deny that it is full of irony, irreverence, and teasing at Christian piety, sugar-coated or otherwise (His Chocolate Jesus is a classic in this vein). But, its not for everybody, so I feel no real need to convince you to like Waits. LIke East Carolina vinegary-barbed barbecue, (versus the sweeter KC Masterpiece variety), its a tang some would rather not tangle with. So I say if you hear Jesus in Leonard Cohen, (I hear more Zen buddhism, due to his long standing relationship as a student of Joshu Sasaki Roshi), I say, may the Lord multiply his blessings more and more, even in the voices of those who, like Cyrus of Persia, have not a clue that they are vehicles of the anointing power of our God.

roger flyer said...

I get it.

a few brief comments...
Yes, your family probably agrees with you about your eating fetishes--especially if you eat stinky cheese. (The older you get, the more you'll find you like it.)

Something is happening here what it is ain't exactly clear... and I don't get it, but please keep patronizing a village fool like me so I can see the beauty of Wait's soaring praises.

Yes, Dylan fits my criteria. Definitely some Zen Buddhism in Cohen. 'Hallelu-JAH'

Have you read the 'Dark night of the Soul? or are you referencing some idea you've heard about it?

Finally, may I say that staring at the sun will make you blind, or hanging with a carnival barker will alter your perception of reality.

Anonymous said...


I've gotta go with Ben on this one, and suggest that you've misunderstood Waits... and I wonder if you've also misunderstood Cohen. After all, many of Cohen's songs are (or were) equally "black". Take, for example, "Hallelujah". Although other artists have made it into a more sentimental worship song, or, even worse, a love song, Cohen's original is one of the most bitter songs that I've ever heard. Here's the kicker: in all of its bitterness it remains a worship song... and it is the pure "blackness" of the song that transforms it into such a breath-taking worship song.

The same goes for Waits. In fact, Waits' songs only appear to be black -- really Waits' music is about as black as Tim Burton's movies. Sure, death and killers, junkies and whores and monsters, predominate -- but Waits and Burton both know that there is no need to be afraid of such people (or things!). In fact, precisely because Waits has realized that God is found in hell, Waits has also discovered that there is a strange sort of beauty to many hell-ish places.

In my own life, I have made the same discovery. For me, Waits is (often the only) worship music I can listen to while junkies shoot up on my front steps, and little girls turn two dollar tricks in my back alley. It's not that a carnival barker has altered my perciption of reality, its that I've realized that carnival barker speaks more truth than many in the audience realize.

Inside a broken clock, splashing the wine with all the rain dogs
Taxi, we'd rather walk, huddle a doorway with the rain dogs
For I am a rain dog too

Oh, how we danced and we swallowed the night
For it was all ripe for dreaming
Oh, how we danced away all of the lights
We've always been out of our minds

Ben Myers said...

Roger: good point — but if the carnival barker he happens to be "carnival barker for kingdom dot come", then your perceptions might just be altered for the better! (If you're interested, I've occasionally posted some theological reflections on Tom Waits' songs: there's a list of posts here.)

And speaking of family: my wife loathes and detests Tom Waits. The only advantage is that he makes her appreciate the sound of Bob Dylan's voice!

Anonymous said...

Roger, now you're talking! Actually, I don't mind carnival barkers. Do you know the theologian William Stringfellow? When Karl Barth came to America, Stringfellow was the one American theologian who impressed him. (He's also a favorite of Rowan Williams). Stringfellow wrote a number of books, but never wrote the one he most wanted--on a theology of the circus, something he dearly loved. I suspect he would have loved Waits as well.
As for going blind looking at the Son, I am now sorely tempted to quote from Blind Love, the only kind of love....But I'll resist, sort of. If I'm blind, I'll hope its akin to Saul on the Damascus road.., and I'll make this my prayer: 'all the better to hear you with my dear' (sweet Lord).'
Oh, and i'm thinking of the dark night of the soul in Saint John of the Cross, but you can also find a similiar idea in a lot of the mystics.
For what it's worth, my brother, I agree, and I too think you get it, and get it good.
And now I'm going to make like a bakery truck and haul buns...

Ben Myers said...

Dan, thanks for that very moving comment. And E.P., I'd love to hear more about Stringfellow's projected "theology of the circus"!

Ben Myers said...

Sorry, Saint Egregious: I just called you EP (a Freudian slip which reveals how highly I think of you!). But I meant to say S.E.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and Ben, I don't want to make you jealous, but about five years ago at a wedding dinner we were playing a game going around the table saying which musical artist we would most want to hear live before we died. When we got to my spouse, she said, without a second of hesitation, 'Tom Waits'. I almost fell off the chair (I had noidea!) and pleaded her to marry me all over again, even if it meant getting rice marks all over my face!

roger flyer said...


Me thinks you may be the ones who have been duped by a siren song.

Thanks for welcoming me into the boys club! Sounds like I made it through the first round of hazing.

Dan said: I've gotta go with Ben on this one, and suggest that you've misunderstood Waits... and I wonder if you've also misunderstood Cohen.

I thought I could bring my own ihermeneutic to the songs, no...?

i think I'm a good deal older than you guys (might be wrong) I was writing songs when Tom was being covered by The Eagles (Ol' 55) and I used to sing Heart of Saturday Night in peanut bars. I'm well aware of his brilliant lyrical talent.

But damn it fellows!

If he is sweet talking you brainiac theologians with these bleakest of world-views, what hope is there for a few little Bible soundbites--'whatever is good, whatever is pure, let your mind dwell on these things...etc.'

Oh I know I'm naive. Sugar coated, vanilla, white bread, and the genius of Tom Waits is his stinky cheese man persona. But where is the good news in it?

For the reocrd, Ben-Your wife has musical taste, and TW is the only man on the planet who makes Bob sound like he can sing.

And again I reiterate, Tom is an act. I saw him on Letterman. Same schtick he had in 1976. Except while perfecting the act, he smoked and coughed his lungs out.

but I will read your posts, and I'm not so cavalier as to say I couldn't be convinced that you guys might be onto something (I just really doubt it.) Unless you're trying to tell me that enjoying him is like limburger cheese, a highly refined acquired taste.

'You know I loved you baby ever since I put your picture on the wall.' TW

Thanks for humoring me. It added a little levity to my day. Look for future posts from the pie in the sky man.

Anonymous said...

Ben, there's a smattering of thoughts about the circus in Stringfellow's The Simplicity of Faith, but most of his ideas on this are still unpublished, I think and in the files at Cornell University here in the U.S. Here's a snippet:
"It is only since putting aside childish things that it has come to my mind so forcefully - and so gladly - that the circus is among the few coherent images of the eschatological realm to which people still have ready access, and that the circus thereby affords some elementary insights into the idea of society as a consummate event. This principality, this art, this veritable liturgy …this common enterprise of multifarious creatures called the circus, enacts a hope, in an immediate and historic sense, and simultaneously embodies an ecumenical foresight of radical and wondrous splendor, encompassing, as it does both empirically and symbolically, the scope and diversity of Creation."

roger flyer said...

We are all lost boys fantasizing about running away with the circus.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I'll confess, I'm no different. I'm a fat farty nihilist. But I'm not weird about it. I'll take my stand with Meister Eckhart when he wrote this about the nothing of nihilism;
“’Paul rose from the ground and with eyes open he saw nothing.’ It seems to me that this little word [i.e. nothing] has four meanings. One meaning is: When he got up from the ground, with eyes open he saw nothing., and the nothing was God; for when he saw God, he [Luke] calls this a nothing. The second: When he got up, he saw nothing but God. The third: In all things he saw nothing but God. The fourth: When he saw God, he viewed all things as nothing.”

Anonymous said...


Look, I don't mean to be taking pot-shots at you or anything like that; if you bring a different "hermeneutic" to "Hallelujah" then, by all means, let me know what you think. Still, the blackness of Cohen is easy to point out from other songs -- I'll simply refer you to "Chelsea Hotel #2" or "Everybody Knows" and leave the exegesis up to you! Of course, I'm also a fan of Cohen, but I fail to see how he is any less dark than Waits (in fact, apart from a few notable exceptions -- like "If It Be Your Will", I find Cohen to be even more bleak than Waits). Again, I raise this point, not to beat on you, but to invite you to further dialogue.

That said, I fail to see how Waits being "an act" impacts the significance of his music. Of course it's an act -- he's an artist, and he performs quite well.

Finally, I really don't think that Waits offers us a "bleakest of world-views". Again, I think that the comparison with Tim Burton is instructive. Themes of death, loneliness, and the monstrous, dominate Burton's films... but Burton has discovered a way of playing in the presence of these things and, by so doing, he has discovered that these things often mix and blur with that which is good, beautiful, and pure -- in ways that we never imagined. Waits also understands this. And I think my experiences are leading me, or have already led me, to the same understanding (although perhaps age will led me to your understanding... or, then again, perhaps age will cause my to stink like limburger cheese... but I hope not, because I've always hated smelly cheese). The brawlers, bawlers, and bastards that populate my life, Waits songs (and the Gospels!) are truly, oddly, and simultaneously, those who are being broken down by the oppressive powers of Sin and Death, and those who are deemed beautiful, breath-taking, and pure by the God who loved us so much as to send his Son to die for us (and surely this crucified Son provides us with the best example of a monstrous beauty!).

So, yes, by all means, let us contemplate that which is good, and beautiful and pure, but let us never conclude that the junkies, and whores, the monsters and thieves, the alleyways and rundown motels, are excluded from our contemplation of these things.

Ben Myers said...

Hey Roger, I just looked you up in iTunes and MySpace: nice to hear your own music. The vocals in "Song is a baby" are really beautiful.

roger flyer said...

It's morning here.

I'm humbled by all the gracious responses and thanks for checking out my songs, Ben. I think I'm getting a cyber buzz from all the love.

My website/somewhat inactive blog is

I got turned on to you all through my son Ry who is a theology student--rainandtherhinoceros

My confession:

I made my living singing for children all through my 30's and into my 40's. (Think Raffi)
So you see TW and his song (and Tim Burton's) ism for me, a nightmarish lullaby.

I am also a recovering Vineyardesque worship pastor, youth leader, charismatic evangellical, Bible loviing, cabin hidden Midwesterner.

I'm scared to death by the brawlers, bawlers, bastards. I want to hold Leonard Cohen in my arms and lead him to Jesus. I want to give Tom Wait's a weekend in a cabin on the North Shore of lake Superior and lock him in there with the Holy Spirit.

I want more encounters with God as I've been suffering through the dark night of the soul and I really want the sun to shine again.

Anonymous said...

Roger, I appreciate very much what you are saying. It is tempting to romanticize the stench, the isolation, and the squalor of a soul cut off from hope, bereft of God's presence. Does Waits give in to this romantic nihilism? After listening to a song like Georgia Lee, I think he has seen deeply into the dark night and does not wish to minimize at all its pain and sense of dereliction. Existential staring into the abyss profits no one, of that you are surely right.
What is remarkable is when we are given glimpses of the son even in the dark. When that happens, and we are surprised by joy, then songs of exuberant play can pop out of the poopies, no? So take a song like Dylan's Buckets of Rain, or Wait's "Come on up to the House' or perhaps even one of your own?
One of my favorite lines from Waits, which I think speaks directly of what you are saying, is this: "Come down off the cross, we can use the wood."
Sometimes we have to resist the urge to be deep, ironic, and angst-y. Become like children, singing children's songs.
And so, for me now, its hi ho, hi ho...Thanks so much for the conversation, Roger. Its meant more to me than I can say, my brother!

roger flyer said...

Thank you for your kindness, Saint E.I'd love to hoist a pint with you sometime (without your stinky okra and other stuff, but I'd have to find out your secret identity and where you live to do that.)

I have a song on MySpace (Roger Flyer) which gently tackles my dark night. It's called Hope deferred (from Proverbs)

You know the Grand Inquisitor scene in The Brothers Karamazov? If not go get a copy. When Waits tells Jesus to come down off the cross, is he playing the Grand Inquisitor?

Anonymous said...


In negotiating my own "dark nights", I made a surprising discovery. It was precisely by confronting my fears of the brawlers, bawlers, and bastards, and the places they were found, that I was able to discover Jesus as Emmanuel, the God who is with us, even in the darkest places.

You see, when I was young(er) I was deathly afraid of, well, pretty much everything. I was an extremely timid child -- the sort that had to be taken out of Sunday school because I would cry and cry as soon as my parents left me (if that was how I felt in Sunday school, you can imagine how I felt at when I began attending a very large and violent high-school, or when I ever ended up in downtown, or rundown, neighbourhoods!).

However, by the time I hit sixteen, I decided I needed to confront my fears, so I began doing different things -- walking in the woods at night, going to "bad" neighbourhoods, walking in alleyways downtown, hanging out under bridges, that sort of thing.

Initially I was terrified... but then something changed. Slowly, these journeys became wonderfully contemplative. Slowly I began to understand that these places were suffused with the presence of God, and, wonder of wonders, I discovered the sacramental presence of Christ in the people who populated these places. In the midst of all this godforsakenness, and in my own "dark night", where was Christ? Here in this brawler; here in this bawler; here in this bastard. Perhaps, in your own dark night, you might discover the presence of God in these people (note that the single most repeated command in the Bible is "Do not be afraid!").

Of course, all is not well in such people and such places -- indeed, I have also witnessed great evils, and horrible acts of violence in these places (a kid who got his face cut open with a box-cutter, a prostitute who had her toes cut off because she tried to run away, a girl with scars all over her thights because that's where her dad put out his cigarettes, and on and on it goes). But this is precisely why I am drawn to Waits' "nightmarish lullabies." Working, as you have done, with children, may cause you to recoil from the nightmarish side of things; but working, as I have done, with those who are in exile, causes me to be attracted to lullabies that are found in nightmarish places. Raffi just doesn't speak to the people I know -- his world strikes us as entirely fictional, we have no frame of reference for such things. But, in the carnival of street culture, Waits' offers us a form of way that we can recognize and to which we can cling.

Finally, two last points on Waits.

(1) Waits isn't playing the Grand Inquisitor in "Come on up to the House". Rather, he is inviting the poor and the suffering, and not Christ, to "come down off the cross", and so the appropriate parallel isn't Dostoyevski, it's the liberation theology of Ignacio Ellacuria and Jon Sobrino.

(2) Having spent some time camping on the north shore of Lake Superior, I'd love to be locked into a cabin there with Waits and the Holy Spirit!

Grace and peace (and my apologies for going on so long!).

roger flyer said...

May i just pause in silence for a minute to salute this entry.

roger flyer said...

That was a very humbling post. Thank you. I don't really know what to say. I am truly deeply touched. And grateful for a heart like yours. Very very grateful to God.

Maybe we could meet on the north shore of Lake Superior sometime. A couple bawlers.

A few responses...
I must say that I think this whole Tom Waits thing is a bit like stinky cheese. There are those (specifically children aged 2-7 who would be better served by my music for children or Raffi's than tom Waits. Agreed? And even a pimp's 5 year old girl would be better served by 'He's got the whole world' than
God's away...on business. Agreed?

And in every brawler, cutter and bastard is a mother's son who needs to know some sense of safety and some vision of wholeness and goodness and love and the milk of human kindness. And I will be one who will let them suck. Because I am compelled by love. Just as you are. Each in our own deserts, ghettos or pre-schools.

Anonymous said...

Just a quick note to distinguish myself from my father.
Although he is indeed the original R.O. Flyer, he is not the R.O. Flyer who operates the blog Rain and the Rhinoceros -Just thought I'd clarify as you've been referring to him as "R.O."
Good discussion though!

roger flyer said...

And I couldn't be prouder of a son.
R(oger) O. Flyer

Ben Myers said...

Speaking of fathers and sons, the only reason I'm now hopelessly addicted to Tom Waits is that my dad switched me on to him last year (my Bob Dylan addiction comes from the same place) — so I have a lot to thank or blame him for, depending on your point of view!

roger flyer said...

R.O. (Jr) has a Bruce Cockburn addiction he got from me. You should hear him sing and play
Lovers in a dangerous time.

As I'm new to the intimacy of bloggers world...who are you guys!!!?

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