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The Avett Brothers and Being Human

I’ve been pouring over thick volumes interested in the question of what it means to be human in God’s world. It’s tough sledding. The names Grenz, Zizioulas, Volf, Taylor, and Ricuoer disturb my dreams and haunt my waking hours. Who will rescue me from this body of literature?

Thanks be to God for the Avett Brothers! While Grenz, et al, have been giving me left brain cramps, the Avett Brothers have been soothing my right brain, with much to say on the question, “what does it mean to be human in God’s world?”

I’ve long been a fan of Seth and Scott Avett and their first class band. It doesn’t hurt at all that Rick Rubin, my favorite producer, is involved in the production of their albums. I feel like a grown-up when I listen to the Avetts. I have guilty pleasures, music I listen to with no redeeming value. Ear candy. The fear of public shaming keeps me from listing them here. But the Avett Brothers don’t waste any time on diversions and distractions. They sing about the bone and marrow of life, of avoiding temptation and living into their responsibilities.

They do all this serious music making while being wildly entertaining. I saw them in concert a few years ago. Their performance was ecstatic and full of energy. An Avett Brothers show is a party, but without all the partying. It’s not that they are unaware of the trappings that accompany being professional musicians, but these things are in their rear view mirror. The passion of their performance comes solely from within the music.

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I have been particularly moved by their 2016 album, True Sadness. The song, No Hard Feelings, punches me in the theological gut every time I hear it. The song imagines the last minutes of life and wonders about the state of a life fully lived. The song acknowledges the great leveling of death, how the “rings on my fingers and the keys to my house” no longer hold the same consequence as they once did.

My favorite stanza puts it well:

When the sun hangs low in the west,
And the light in my chest won’t be kept at bay any longer,
When the jealousy fades away and it’s ash and dust
For cash and lust
And it’s just hallelujah
And love in thoughts and love in the words
Love in the songs they sing in the church
And no hard feelings.
All that’s left when it’s all said and done are the hallelujah, love, and no hard feelings.

These kind of sentiments show up in earlier songs as well. For example, the 2012 song, Down with the Shine, sings of “high dollar wine” and the “fat wallet” as things that glisten and shine, but “that poisons the well and ruins my mind. I get took for a ride every time, down with the glistening shine.”

Behind this suspicion of ephemeral things is a clear eyed doctrine of sin. The Avett Brothers know life as a struggle of desire, of diverting paths related to powers greater than the self or will or optimism. One of the songs on True Sadness is a peppy little thing called Satan Pulls the Strings. “My heart is in the puppet box and Satan pulls the strings,” is at least an admission that the thing we want to do is not what we find ourselves doing. On the other side of the desire ledger, though, is the equally infectious song, Ain’t no Man.

Ain’t no man can save me
Ain’t no man can enslave me
Ain’t no man or men that can change the shape my soul is in

In this song, love is the transcendent power that determines whether you serve the darkness or serve the light. On either side of the ledger, Satan Pulls the Strings or Ain’t no Man, the self is porous, to use Charles Taylor’s term, to powers outside of the self that shape in part our desires and influence our behavior.

On their 2009 breakthrough album, I and Love and You, there are several songs that sit on the darker side of things. Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise, Ten Thousand Words, Incomplete and Insecure, and Slight Figure of Speech all explore the fragile side of the human predicament. The most vivid song along these lines on the album, though, is Ill With Want. The opening stanza places the problem directly in the lap of human agency.

I am sick with wanting
And its evil and its daunting
How I let everything I cherish lay to waste
I am lost in greed this time, it’s definitely me
I point fingers, but there’s no one there to blame
The chorus, however, paints a more complex picture
Something has me
Oh something has me
Acting like someone I don’t want to be
Something has me
Oh something has me
Acting like someone I know isn’t me
Ill with want and poisoned by this ugly greed.

In her compelling book, Paul and the Person, Susan Grove Eastman suggests that Paul’s view of the person eludes contemporary readers because we think of the individual as an autonomous, self-possessing, cognitive being. We think of agency largely in relation to reason or the will. But Paul’s “person,” on the other hand, is inherently social. In other words, our identity is not ours alone, but is the product of our relatedness to others. Our agency For us, it seems contradictory to say “I did it,” while at the same time saying my body is subject to powers greater than me. In the poetic imagination of Ill with Want, however, these things are held together easily. It’s me. I’m responsible. But something has me acting like someone I know isn’t me.

All things being equal, I’d much rather get my theology in a great lyric with a backbeat than in a 300+page slog. But there are few like the Avett Brothers who can deliver. Thanks be to God for the Avett Brothers!


Cover Image: Moses [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]


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