Thursday, July 09, 2009

Josh Ritter

by Jeni

Colin and I got to see Josh Ritter perform at The Varsity Theater Tonight. It was amazing, it was beautiful and it was exceptionally low on hipsters (unlike the preaching conference earlier this week). Not that there's anything wrong with hipsters, I just enjoy being off their radar once in a while.

Anyway, I had always seen such austere pictures of Josh and I was pleased to see him smile almost the whole night through. He was having fun and we could all see it, feel it and hear it.

Of course, he sang my favorite singing song

He also played my theological favorites "The Temptation of Adam" and "Thin Blue Flame." Since I already wrote about "The Temptation of Adam", here, I wanted to share about "Thin Blue Flame."

read lyrics and legally download MP3 here.

In a Jeff Buckley manner, Ritter strums his electric guitar as one would an acoustic as he seeps into "Thin Blue Flame," my latest obsession at the intersection of faith, life and music. My friend Justin originally sent this album to me and we've been talking about the beauty of this song.

It reads like an op-ed piece on the NY Times, 750 words of criticism and hope. It is so wordy, at times, that he begins to sound like the three stooges look when they attempt to walk through a doorway: all three at the same time and unable to get through. But that is how life is, how life in the world is: it creeps in and overwhelms; when you see the world and its multi-stories intricacies, the cup overflows and you have to tread fast, think fast, speak fast, lest you succumb to the waters that threaten to drown.

Ritter employs imagery that I can only hope to capture in the Word and words that I preach:

* A bullfighter on the horns of a new moon’s light
* Trees were a fist shaking themselves at the clouds
* And the lake was a diamond in the valley’s hand

Ritter preaches a gospel that I can only hope to hear:

* Only a full house gonna make it through
* Only a full house gonna make a home
* Only a full house gonna have a prayer

Ritter dabbles in a despair of theodicy and reality that is somehow comforting to question:

* If God's up there he's in a cold dark room/The heavenly host are just the cold dark moons/He bent down and made the world in seven days/And ever since he's been a-walking away.
* Borders soft with refugees/Streets a-swimming with amputees/It's a Bible or a bullet over your heart/It's getting harder and harder to tell them apart/Days are nights and the nights are long/Beating hearts blossom into walking bombs/And those still looking in the clear blue sky for a sign/Get missles from so high they might as well be divine/Now the dogs are howlin' at your door/Singing 'bout vengeance like it's the joy of the Lord/Bringing justice to the enemies not the other way round/They're guilty when killed and they're killed where they're found/If what's loosed on earth will be loosed up on high/It's a Hell of a Heaven we must go to when we die.

With these two immediately above lyrics, Ritter reminds me of Annie Dillard with his preference for the via negativa:

"Its seasoned travelers (Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century and Pseudo-Dionysius in the sixth) stressed God's unknowability. Anything we may say of God is untrue, as we can know only creaturely attributes, which do not apply to God. Thinkers on the via negativa jettisoned everything that was not God; they hoped that what was left would be only the divine dark." (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Afterword to the 25th Anniversary Edition, p. 279.)

He also reminds me of Dillard with his cross-self-references:

* In "Girl in the War," Ritter sings, "But now talkin' to God is Laurel beggin' Hardy for a gun."
* In "Thin Blue Flame," Ritter again references Laurel and Hardy, "Where even Laurel begs Hardy for vengeance please."

* Again in "Girl in the War," Ritter references the office of the keys: "Because the keys to the kingdom got locked inside the kingdom."
* In "Thin Blue Flame," Ritter continues: "If what’s loosed on earth will be loosed up on high/It’s a Hell of a Heaven we must go to when we die."

N.B. anytime anyone can remind of Annie Dillard, I am thankful and my cup overflows.

Ritter also references plays by Shakespeare and Chekhov:

* Caesar's ghost I saw the war-time tides (Julius Caesar)
* The Prince of Denmark's father still and quiet (Hamlet)
* A Run of Three Sisters

Maybe the Chekhov play doesn't fit with the Shakespeare references, for the Shakespeare references seem to refer to conspiracy and betrayal where Three Sisters seems to be for Ritter, as Annie Dillard is for me, that which brings joy and pleasure.

Ritter offers a vision of a different future in light of the present:

* And all wrongs forgotten and all vengeance made right/The suffering verbs put to sleep in the night/The future descending like a bright chandelier/And the world just beginning and the guests in good cheer.

Marc Ostlie-Olson, friend, theologian and all around good guy says this of the future, "In the parlance of Christian discourse, the term 'future' never means more of the present."

Amen, and amen to the image of the suffering verbs being put to sleep in the night.

Lastly two lyrics that are daily bread in a world gone mad:

* You need faith for the same reasons that it's so hard to find
* 'Cause it's hell to believe there ain't a hell of a chance


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice Jeni. Thanks!

7/17/2009 10:36:00 AM  

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