by Hannah Paasch
1961. New York City. The scene opens on an ill-lit, smoky bar, crowded with mesmerized listeners huddled around cafe tables and bottles of beer.
Our protagonist sags back in his seat, shoulders slumped and leaning to the right, a mess of black curls falling from his forehead. He’s played the same little spotlight the night before, and as he watches some square with a guitar finger-pick some chords and breathily eek out something akin to a folk song, Llewyn looks askance at this self-pronounced artist, his drooping gaze heavy with world-weariness and a certain amused disdain.
The chords are the same as his, and the lyrics, though virtually indecipherable might be as well - but the soul is just not there. It’s a mere shell, a discarded exoskeleton of a folk song clinging to a springtime tree; a smiling Stepford archetype of the real thing. It is a fraud – admittedly a harmless, airy sort of fraud - and no one but Llewyn seems to notice.
He turns to his friend, a bright-eyed, over-eager Justin Timberlake (you think I’m kidding; I’m not), whose eyes are glued to the stage, grinning and stupefied. “What do you think of this guy?” he asks.
“An incredible performer,” JT replies without hesitation.
“Is he?” Llewyn asks, incredulous, throwing a hard look at his friend as if to make sure they’re both seeing the same thing. “Does he... have higher functions?”
I knew then that I’d met my on-screen soul mate. Llewyn’s circumstances spiral from bad to ever-so-much-worse, and he yells a lot and throws a couple things and gets in a lot of trains and cars and more trains in search of someone who will GET it; who will hear him and realize there’s no honest song to sing besides these blues. He plays all the right songs to all the wrong people and is an absolute marketing - and otherwise - disaster. Nobody sees him; nobody listens; nobody gets it.
Inside Llewyn Davis may be set in the ’60s, but oh, how it still sings true. Too many of the songs about life and faith these days just try too hard to convince us that life is clean, that trust is easy, that happiness is the measure of our faith. It leaves no room for grieving; it leaves no room for pain. I want to hear a song where our pain still has meaning, where happy endings are not required.
A song that maybe we could all just marinate in with our pain for a bit until our thawed-out nerves begin to wake us up.
Truth is, once we let ourselves listen, everybody likes a sad song. We like them because we know they are true. We can swim around in them and we feel ourselves met; heard; understood. They put melody to our pain and lend a peaceful charm to our wounds. They turn abscesses into scars; they help us heal.
But we’ve forgotten how to grieve.
The other night, over late-night sausage and eggs in a Nashville diner, I sat down a friend of mine who’s devoted his life to the Gospel and the blues and asked him what the point of it all was.
"There’s no escapism in the blues,” he responded, after a moment of consideration. “Every song is a reminder that we are aliens. We are strangers...”
He paused a moment, twirling his fork through a pile of omelet.
“... Don’t get too comfortable.”
We are tired of the platitudes presented as an opiate to soothe the masses, trying daily, hourly to convince us that all is as it should be. We are tired of the optimist telling us, that all will be well, if we can only have enough faith. We are tired of the pessimist, whose singular intelligence somehow always leads him to a hopelessness about our nows that extends to our tomorrows. They are all paths to despair, in their own way.
The prophet mourns over us before we even know how to put words or feet to our sorrow. She shakes our shoulders and begs us to see - really SEE - the dire straits we are in. The bluesman, too, chants our troubles over us, his melodies making them just palatable enough to sneak out of our subconscious and, suddenly, to the forefront of our hearts. Walter Brueggemann calls them ‘voices from elsewhere’ - breaking the silence of a settled order with life-giving dialogue. We cry out to a God who hears and we ask, not that He would rid us of our pain, but that He would be ever present with us in its midst.
Let the heaviness sink in a moment, friends. It’s ok to rest in it a bit. Because before we can re-learn how to hope, we must first re-learn how to grieve;
Before we can sing, “Victory, sweet victory…”
first, my friend...
we’ve gotta learn to sing the blues.
Say you wouldn’t know the blues if they slapped you in the face? (They very well might!) Say you want me to stop talking and listen in for yourself? Good! I like you. More people need to tell me to shut up. For such a sort as you I have prepared a Spotify playlist that just BEGINS to scratch the surface of good prophetic, grieving blues tunes. Search “Hannah Paasch” on Spotify and listen to my playlist, entitled “I Wish I Was in Heaven, Sittin’ Down”.
Hannah Paasch was raised on Jesus and adventure. She is a self-styled storyteller, aspiring songwriter, bridge-builder, and bridge-destroyer, as the situation at hand would dictate. You can
follow her on Twitter @thesettingsun07 and read more of her writing at her blog.
You can follow On Pop Theology on Twitter @OnPopTheology or like us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/OnPopTheology. If you'd like to support what we do, you can donate via the button on the right of the screen.
Image #1 via ZaraWhoa
Image #2 via ArtCrusade
Image #3 via Number Six
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