“Christianity should never give any onlooker the right to conclude that Christianity believes in the negation of life.” — Francis Schaeffer
I’ve often wondered what might happen if Josh Ritter, one of my favorite modern songwriters, were ever to meet Francis Schaeffer, the famous American pastor and intellectual who in 1955 founded L’Abri in the Swiss Alpine village of Huemoz.
If you spend any length of time listening to Ritter’s music (and you really should spend some time with it) you’ll quickly realize that the man is simultaneously fascinated with religious themes and repelled by what he has seen of Christianity and of the Christian god.
In this sense he fits neatly into the category of “misotheist” as described by Bernard Schweizer. For Ritter the issue isn’t necessarily whether or not God exists. Rather, the issue is that if there is a God then he is a cosmic killjoy, a tedious bore of a being who would create us with the capacity to love and then fence it about with so many rules that the joy and wonder of it all is snatched away.
Indeed, it’s the theme of love and particularly romantic love that has consistently delighted Ritter throughout his career and that has produced some of his finest work. At his best he is one of our greatest singer-songwriters for capturing the many complicated feelings that romantic love can arouse—the naive, sentimental love that gives way to experience in “Kathleen,” the desperation of separated lovers in “Girl in the War,” or the joy of reunion in “Snow is Gone.”
When Ritter turns to religion, he turns to it in the way that a pagan romantic would, sensing in it an enemy to the experiences that have given him such joy in the past. One of the most notable examples of this is his song “Galahad” which you can hear below:
Briefly, the song is Ritter’s subversive retelling of Galahad’s finding of the Holy Grail. The angel guarding the grail sees Galahad coming and tries to convince him that he doesn’t want to go to heaven, telling him that heaven cannot offer any of the pleasures of life available to Galahad on earth. “When you’re an angel thinking’s all that you can do,” says the angel. (There is some NSFW language in the video, FYI.)
Undeterred, Galahad drinks from the grail and dies. But rather than ascending to heaven he simply lies there on the ground while the angel proceeds to take his armor, put it on, and go out into the world to enjoy all the pleasures that Galahad had foolishly shunned. It’s the sort of scene Woody Allen might have written once upon a time or perhaps Erasmus if Erasmus were not a Christian.
The first single from his forthcoming record has a similar feel but the tone feels more confident and aggressive, perhaps a predictable consequence of the way mainstream America has shifted in the five years between when I first heard him play Galahad at a concert in Omaha and the release of “Getting Ready to Get Down”:
Mama got a look at you and got a little worried
Papa got a look at you and got a little worried
Pastor got a look and said, “Ya’ll had better hurry”
Send her off to a little bible college in Missouri
And now you come back sayin’ you know a little bit about
Everything they ever seemed to hope you’d never figure out
Eve ate the apple ’cause the apple was sweet
What kinda god would ever keep a girl
From getting what she needs? …
The men of the country club
The ladies of the ‘xilliary
Talkin’ ’bout love
Like it’s apple pie and liberty
To really be a saint
You gotta really be a virgin
Dry as a page of the
King James Version
No ohh la la’s, no oh hell yesses
No I can’t waits I got to see you againses
Turn your other cheek and take no chances
Jesus hates your high school dances
They said your soul needed savin’ so they sent you off to bible school
But you know a little more than they were sure was in the golden rule
Be good to everybody, be a strength to the weak
A joy to the joyful, the laughter in the grief
And give your love freely to whoever that you please
Don’t let nobody tell you ’bout who you oughta be
And when you get damned in the popular opinion
It’s just another damn of the damns you’re not giving
I’m getting ready to get down
Getting ready to get down
Getting ready to get down
At this point it should be apparent that Ritter is a kind of western pagan, in much the same way that Sheldon and Davy Vanauken were prior to their “encounter with light” at Oxford. For Ritter the defining problem with religion actually has very little to do with traditional theological questions about the existence or nature of God. Rather, Ritter simply cannot reconcile the thou shalt nots that he sees in Christianity with the pleasures of love.
Were Schaeffer alive today, he’d strongly sympathize with Ritter. In Death in the City Schaeffer warned the church of what she would face if she remained entrenched in a kind of comfortable, middle-class Christianity that was closed off to the kind of questions and experiences Ritter is raising. For the middle-class Christian Schaeffer said two values had come to be paramount—personal peace and affluence.
The result of this had been the creation of a “plastic culture,” a term that Schaeffer took from many of the students who came to his and Edith’s home at L’Abri. The children of that plastic culture rejected it as being empty and vapid, concerned only with status symbols and comfort and thus incapable of addressing the deepest questions and longings of the human heart. And Schaeffer said these students were right to reject that culture.
Yet, of course, there are other options besides a kind of misotheistic paganism and plastic Christianity. What’s intriguing is that I suspect Ritter knows in one sense that there is more to the faith than these (probably deserved) caricatures he has drawn in his most scathing attacks. In one of his finest songs, “The Temptation of Adam” he invents a story with remarkable overlaps with the Christian story. It is immediately after the outbreak of World War III and a man and woman have found their way into an old missile silo where they hope to wait out the war.
At first she is cold to him, but overtime he wins her over and they fall passionately in love. Yet all the while the man lives with the awareness that their relationship only exists because of this missile silo and, ultimately, because of this war.
As the song builds to its crescendo this second Adam explains that he has come to a choice—he can hit “that great big button” to launch the missile and nuke the world or he can accept that their love is only a temporary thing to be enjoyed until they can leave the shelter. And as the song ends we’re left wondering what the man will do, whether he will spare the rest of the world or choose to preserve his love:
Oh, Marie there’s something tells me things just won’t work out above
That our love would live a half-life on the surface
So at night while you are sleeping I hold you closer just because
As our time grows short I get a little nervous
Oh, I think about the Big One, W.W.I.I.I.
Would we ever really care the world had ended
You could hold me here forever like you’re holding me tonight
I think about that great big button and I’m tempted
And that is perhaps the most striking thing about Ritter’s take on misotheism. When you actually come to the point, Ritter doesn’t quite live up to the paganism of the Vanauken’s because Ritter’s love is too narrow. Thus to hear Ritter we are left with the bleak constraints of drab religion or the heroic grasping after romance of the individual stranded in a hostile world.
“Temptation” isn’t the only Ritter song that paints creation in these terms, after all. The world’s many threats to love are an enduring theme in Ritter’s work, whether that threat comes from politics as in “Girl in the War” or “Temptation,” via some unspecified personal difficulty as in “Snow is Gone,” through some other sort of external opposition as in “Wolves,” or through religion as we’ve already discussed Even death itself is implicated in “The Curse.”
Thus we come to the irony at the heart of Ritter’s work which is his simultaneous reveling in love and his deep struggles not simply with religion or even specific human entities, but with the nature of created reality itself. Ritter delights in love but ours is not a world where love can be at home.
This is where the Christian story really could say something substantive to Ritter if he will hear it. In Christianity the love that exists between people, whether romantic or simple friendship, is not a foreign thing to creation, but is rather deeply at home in the world. It is what God intended when he created. When God creates, he says at the close of each day “it is good.”
To make the point even more apparent, God’s plan of dealing with evil and sin in the world is not to snatch his people out of the world, but to take on flesh himself and enter into the world, doing battle with the foreign evil that has invaded his good world.
If Christ is at the heart of Christianity then so is a robust affirmation of creation. As Robert Farrar Capon, another Christian I imagine Ritter would enjoy, memorably put it–“the road to heaven does not run from the world but through it.” And it is in that running that we discover that our loves, our joys, our delights are not in conflict with the world but belong to it, indeed that they cannot be separated from it.
Creation is not at war with romance; rather it is the stage on which romance is acted out and furnishes us with the raw materials needed to tell our stories and sing our songs. And if we love the creation well, we will transform those materials into worthy tales indeed, for in Christianity we do not sing our songs to a lone lover in an abandoned missile silo but rather, in Capon’s phrase, fling them at the stars.
Indeed, Schaeffer would affirm much of what Ritter is doing in his work as a beautiful statement of the love that one human being can feel for another. Kathleen will forever be the song I think of when I remember the early days of getting to know the woman who is now my wife. And yet when we come to the point, Ritter’s vision cannot sustain a world, it can only sustain a couple—and it’s far from clear to me in his work that it can manage even that. It is only in Christianity that we find the means for preserving the goodness of creation and for truly giving ourselves to the romance of love. And while we may not find that sort of faith at the Bible college in Missouri, we likely could at a chalet in the Alps.