I think it is important to recognize how aesthetic experiences, like listening to well crafted music, can intersect with our intellectual life. So when these spheres happen to intersect nicely in my life, I feel I should share them with you! After all, if we only pursued intellectual endeavors, life would get pretty boring.
As I was listening to the Avett Brothers the other day, this song really gripped me. Partly because it ties in really well with some of the literature I am currently reading and also with some writing I did last spring for my Ethics class in Philosophy. Give it a good listen here.
The Weight of Lies:
In my philosophy class in Ethics last semester, I wrote a paper on a chapter of a book called Monk Habits for Everyday People, by Dennis Okholm. The book is a study of some of the practices of the Benedictine monks and attempts to show how these practices might be needed and useful tools for the church at large. In this chapter, Okholm is concerned with a rather interesting vow that the Benedictine monks take–a vow of stability. For Benedictine monks, this means that they commit to stay with the same community for the rest of their lives.
Yep. Your whole life. On the surface this seems like a rather strange and unnecessary commitment. How might a commitment to remain around the same people for one’s entire life be beneficial in growing closer to God?
The Benedictine vow is rooted in the insight that Christian character is formed in a large part by the community that one is surrounded by. Further, this formation process is not something that is immediate or happens quickly. To explain how community can work in this way, Okholm quotes Michael Casey:
When God sets about purifying a human being, the process is accomplished in large measure by human agents. This is because the components of our being which block our receptivity to grace are the very blemishes which other people find ugly. The negative reactions of others serve as a mirror in which we can see reflected those deformations of character against which we need to struggle.1
Thus, the purpose of this vow of stability is that it ensures that the Christian community that one has placed oneself in is effective in improving and cultivating one’s moral character. In order for any community to work this way, we actually have to stick around for a while in one place. The process of sanctification is one that takes place not in terms of months or years, but in terms of decades and over lifetimes. Given this, a commitment to stability in regards to one’s Christian community (primarily one’s church, but a circle of friends can also fill this role) is hugely beneficial because only when one is integrally connected with one’s community can that community serve as a means towards sanctification. Put more bluntly: if we don’t hang around long enough, it is unlikely that anyone will notice all the ugly things about us because we are really good at hiding them. Further, if we are consistently moving around it is almost impossible for a community to shape our character.
Here the song from the Avett Brothers ties in almost too perfectly. The subject of the song is a man who is a great example of someone who is living a life that is in direct opposition to what a commitment to stability would look like. Consider the first few verses:
Disappear from your hometown
Go and find the people that you know
Show them all of your good parts
Leave town when the bad ones start to show
Go and wed a woman
A pretty girl that you have never met
Make sure she knows you love her well
But don’t make any other promises
The weight of lies will bring you down and follow you to every town ’cause nothing happens here that doesn’t happen there
So when you run make sure you run to something and not away from ’cause lies don’t need an aeroplane to chase you down.
Here, the subject of the song is a drifter. Someone who is not satisfied with his current community (his hometown) and so he uproots himself and tries to plant himself somewhere else. But instead of remaining there, he leaves once his flaws of character become evident to others.
His act of running represents not only a lack of courage, but also an unwillingness to engage in the sanctification project that God has intended for us. He fears commitment because it is painful to have others expose one’s flaws and also demanding to have the strength to confront the defects and short-comings in one’s life.
In many ways, this character portrait we have in this song is very similar to Rabbit, the main character in John Updike’s novel Rabbit, Run. Rabbit is a twenty-six year old male whose life peaked in high school when he was the star of the basket ball team. Now, he is a salesman demonstrating the MagiPeel Peeler in five and dime stores. His job is obviously not fufilling, and his marriage is less that pretty. By his account, his wife is inapt and stupid, along with being an alcoholic. So he takes off, leaving his wife and small son to fend for themselves. He begins driving aimlessly through the countryside, attempting to go south, but ending up going west. On the way he stops for gas and asks the farmer tending the gas pump some questions about where the roads lead. After a bit, the farmer asks Rabbit, “Son, where do you want to go?” Rabbit replies, “Huh? I don’t know exactly.” The farmer goes to grab a map for Rabbit and when he returns says, “The only way to get somewhere, you know, is to figure out where you’re going before you go there.”2
Rabbit is just like the individual in the song. He is not running “to something” but “away from” something.
This difficulty of Rabbit pervades the novel; he never really can figure out where he is running to. He flees the relationships he is involved in whenever they become difficult, tedious, or unattractive. Rabbit runs, in part, because it offers a way out of his problems; it gives him a sense of freedom. By running, Rabbit becomes blind to his own self-centeredness and failures in his relationships.
In a certain way, Updike seems to present Rabbit as the result of the meme of unbridled freedom that is exalted in America. Freedom understood in this sense is the ability to fulfill any and all of the possibilities one chooses to pursue; to have nothing restraining one’s will. Anything that might get in the way of this individual will is suspicious and should be dispensed of.
Rabbit, Run and “The Weight of Lies” both offer a well needed counter narrative to this problematic idea of unbridled freedom. At the end of the novel, Rabbit turns out to be a tragic character; his flaws of character cause severe harm to everyone around him. In “The Weight of Lies,” the subject of the song is not a happy individual. Perpetually running away from his character flaws, always attempting to look forward and never back, he can never find peace because his past lies and mistakes show up in front of him again and trip him up.
Okholm summarizes what is going on here quite nicely. He notes that we tend to think that
“the grass is greener in another marriage, another church, another house, another job. The trouble is, once we wanter over to the other pasture we usually find out the hue is about the same. But it’s not just the hue that remains the same; we remain the same. Conversion and growth in character happen when we remain, not when we run.”3
So what should we take away from Okholm, Updike and the Avett Brothers? First, our strong near absolute concept of freedom that has been handed down to us because we live in the United States is a rather poor guide to use when we are considering sanctification and other aspects of morality. In many cases it will be wholly incompatible. Second, we should place more value upon remaining in one place and around the same people than we currently do. Given the way our global world is set up, it may impossible to fully realize the ideal of stability in community that Okholm is advocating. But to recognize stability in community as the ideal and to aim for it would be a good first step.
If you’re interested in a more detailed account of what a commitment to stability might look like, take a look at the paper I wrote.
1. Dennis Okholm, Monk Habits for Everyday People, (N.p.: Brazos, 2007), 95.
2. John Updike, Rabbit Run, (New York: Fawcett, 1996)
3. Okholm, 92.