Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Avett Brothers' narrative doctrine of Love (and Hate)

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
While in sunny Florida this past spring, my friend and I - together with our wives and together without our children - crashed a small hotel room on the beach for three days. We were in town for a wedding, so the clothes strewn around the room were a mix of sand-filled swimming apparel, suit jackets, and dresses. Flip-flops and dress shoes, sunblock and makeup. Late one night, we sat down to share with each other the music that had been tripping our respective triggers in the two years since we'd moved away from each other.

One of the bands my friend introduced me to was The Avett Brothers. They ended up being a sleeper hit for me. The songs he showed me didn't really fit the celebratory mood of weddings and beaches of the moment, but into my collection they went (not them, personally, rather their latest album, I and Love and You). There they waited. Well, this past summer their moment came, and into my heart they walked.

The past two summers have been rough for me. The rigor of graduate academic work has remained, but without the structure of the academic year. These experiences have patterned a physical response of guttural despair at the words..."independent study." Juggling that work with trying to help support the family and be a good husband and father produced some stressful, maybe even depressing, moments. In one such moment, I found myself driving up to Winchester, VA to meet with a professor. The song "Ten Thousand Words" came on and spoke to me at a level a song hadn't done for years. I must have listened to that two or three times on the way up the interstate, tears welling up from the sorry bottoms of my feet.

The rest of my family has also fallen under the Avetts' sway since then. So this past weekend, all three of us drove down to Charlottesville and saw them perform live in an outdoor venue on a beautiful fall night. During the show, Seth Avett performed a song by himself that I hadn't heard before: "The Ballad of Love and Hate," off the Emotionalism album. Here's a very good quality video of the same song performed in 2008 (It's worth switching the vid to HD and going full-screen for this one)...

Now, there are a ton of Avett Brothers songs that are just ripe for theological dialogue. In fact, I've wanted to make this post for months and had a few songs from I and Love and You in mind before hearing "Ballad..." at the show. So in the remainder of this post, I will put the lyrics out for your consideration and then do some theological dialogue with this beautiful song's doctrine (teaching) of Love and, conversely, Hate. A hint at my conclusion: It's very biblical teaching. (I don't want to load that conclusion of mine up on the Avetts; I have no idea what their faith convictions are, and I intentionally didn't go trolling around the web to try and find out, either.) So read on for more!

"The Ballad of Love and Hate" by The Avett Brothers, from Emotionalism (2007)
(Tip: read these as the video above plays...after you've already watched it once, that is.)
Love writes a letter and sends it to hate.
"My vacation's ending. I'm coming home late.
The weather was fine and the ocean was great
and I can't wait to see you again."

Hate reads the letter and throws it away.
"No one here cares if you go or you stay.
I barely even noticed that you were away.
I'll see you or I won't, whatever."

Love sings a song as she sails through the sky.
The water looks bluer through her pretty eyes.
And everyone knows it whenever she flies,
and also when she comes down.

Hate keeps his head up and walks through the street.
Every stranger and drifter he greets.
And shakes hands with every loner he meets
with a serious look on his face.

Love arrives safely with suitcase in tow.
Carrying with her the good things we know.
A reason to live and a reason to grow.
To trust. To hold. To care.

Hate sits alone on the hood of his car.
Without much regard to the moon or the stars.
Lazily killing the last of a jar
of the strongest stuff you can drink.

Love takes a taxi, a young man drives.
As soon as he sees her, hope fills his eyes.
But tears follow after, at the end of the ride,
cause he might never see her again.

Hate gets home lucky to still be alive.
He screams o'er the sidewalk and into the drive.
The clock in the kitchen says 2:55,
And the clock in the kitchen is slow.

Love has been waiting, patient and kind.
Just wanting a phone call or some kind of sign,
That the one that she cares for, who's out of his mind,
Will make it back safe to her arms.

Hate stumbles forward and leans in the door.
Weary head hung down, eyes to the floor.
He says "Love, I'm sorry", and she says, "What for?
I'm your and that's it, Whatever.
I should not have been gone for so long.
I'm your's and that's it, forever."

"You're mine and that's it, forever."

Narrative: Less is more
The beauty in this song is its simplicity, on a number of levels. First, the music itself is simple: One man, his voice and his guitar. Seth's voice is crystal clear (a bit raspy in the video above) and the pacing is thoughtful and deliberate. He's telling a story, after all, which brings us to the next point: The simplicity in the song's storytelling. The move to personify both Love and Hate and to put them in a relationship with each other is brilliant. It allows these fundamental concepts to be explained in a very non-conceptual way. It almost feels redundant for me to be posting this because the song does such a good job of explaining/narrating itself.

We get to see how love and hate work by watching this little scene from their already-established relationship, which we find is not a perfect one. (What relationship is, right?) Part of this song's power over me is that the scene it portrays is one that could have been read out of my own marriage in its younger days. At times, I've played the part of Hate to the letter, and my wife has so-often been Love manifest. Love initiates, Hate is indifferent. (During the show, Seth quipped, "And we all know how cool it is to be indifferent, don't we?" after singing Hate's "Whatever.")

Love is beautiful and everyone knows it and feels it. Life is somehow more real in Love's presence. Hate is proud while pacing the streets, "a serious look on his face." (This one hits me: Critique of my own public speaking always brings this up: "Quit scowling.") Where Love travels, certain "good" things follow: "a reason to live" and grow, trust, and caring attachment. Hate, meanwhile, looks cool and serious (and alone) sitting on his car, ignoring the beauty of the world around him, consumed instead by the world that is himself. (Oh...this one really gnaws at me.)

On the way home, Love takes a taxi and we see the only other character in this song, the young man driving her home. Upon seeing Love, the young man is filled with hope. In the recorded version of this song, this line in the song is delivered like all the rest. But in the two live versions I've seen (including the one above), Seth delivers this line with a soaring intensity and a melodic variation that is moving. Perhaps we have been this young man whose heart is so moved upon seeing the very manifestation of Love. I know I've seen it and felt it...as well as the man's second reaction: sorrow at the thought of never seeing Love again. It's a heartbreaking and dreadful thing to imagine.

The last three stanzas of the song paint the closing scene: Love and Hate reunite. It's far past late as Hate staggers in, "lucky to be alive." (Been there.) Love is concerned for her lost partner yet is waiting, patient and kind. (In the video above, Seth comments: "As always." Yes!) Showing some sense of guilt, however genuine, Hate apologizes. It is in this moment that we see perhaps a bit of weariness from Love. She shrugs, "I'm yours and that's it. Whatever." Her reflection of Hate's indifference back on him is perhaps to illustrate that Love is no doormat for being trod upon. Yet her next phrase shows that there is self-sacrificing commitment beneath the weariness: "I'm yours and that's it, forever." Freely (though not without cost) she gives herself.

The closing line of the song gives Hate the last word. (There is some online discussion as to whom this line is attributed, but I'm going with Hate.) It is perhaps a bit of a down note on which to end the song, but it's consistent with Hate's nature: "You're mine and that's it..." A sense of possession is what Hate has for his partner, with the same sense of finality out of which Love gives of herself. And so they'll continue...

Doctrine: How is this not biblical?!
Again, I don't want to place Christian teaching right into the mouths of The Avett Brothers, but this song is just screaming biblical themes all over the place. In one case, it's right out of Scripture: "Love has been waiting, patient and kind" is the narrative equivalent to 1 Corinthians 13:4, "Love is patient, love is kind." In fact, verses 4-6 of the chapter can be seen to inform much of the way Love works as a character in the song.

As I mentioned above, the move to personify these two and put them in relationship and then tell a story is so, so right. It's a great example of how I think theology should be articulated and reflected upon more often. As a story, it also resonates with the broadly narrative approach of the Bible itself. Relationality is inherent to both love and hate and the Bible is chock full of stories about relationships and how they should (and perhaps more often, shouldn't) work. Relationships with God, self, and neighbor (not to mention enemies) are taught to be established on the bonds of love, thickly defined and experienced.

Hate is by nature not making their relationship very easy, yet Love wearily perseveres. The topic of forgiveness is hinted at in this song when Hate says "I'm sorry," and Love says "What for?" (cf. "(love) keeps no record of wrongs" 1 Cor. 13:5.) While one may worry that this is "cheap grace" Love is displaying, I don't think that's the case here. As previously noted, she seems to turn Hate's indifference back on him for a passing moment. Love without judgment is indeed cheap grace (and forgiveness without judgment is logically impossible), but this little barb intended for Hate shows our Love here is not without judgment. Hers is a judgment couched in love (how could it be any different?) and intended for correction, perhaps a wake-up call to her partner, "who's out of his mind."

Conclusion: A qualification to "Less is more"
The metaphorical framework for this song makes it a great case study for love in one-to-one relationships, which is great; we need more of these, for sure. However, it can take some interpretive imagination to see how this story might work in a corporate sense, especially within the church. After all, in the 1 Corinthians text which I've related this song to, the relational context isn't a couple, rather it's the church. Further, note how often this same text gets read in wedding ceremonies (and parodied in the movie, Wedding Crashers) and you get the sense that the only way people know it is in relation to a couple.

So my qualification here isn't a critique of the song itself, but rather 1) a critique of our culture's too-often reductionistic sense of love (which many in the church swallow happily, to our peril), and 2) a reminder that not only does a "thick" expression of love need to be practiced in couples' relationships, but it needs to happen within the church as a gathered body, the body of Christ. Yes: Thick, costly love within the Body, with members relating to each other. Yes: Thick, costly love as the Body relating to the wider world in which it finds itself, that same world that God loved so much that Jesus showed up to radically transform our understanding and practice of love. I mentioned this next passage in my post about U2, and it jumps to mind again: "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Jesus was talking to his disciples, the future founders of the church, when he said this. Jesus did exactly that on the cross, and Spirit-filled, loving Christians are called by him to take up their crosses daily and follow (cf. Luke 9:23-26). This implies sacrifice, just as Jesus showed, and just as Love showed in our song here. Jesus' standard is higher than mere human hearts and hands can achieve, but reaching for it in faith, we must.

So I commend this beautiful and moving song to you. Let it speak its strong message to your heart and let the teaching soak into your life. It's hard enough to make the realities of love illustrated in the song manifest in our personal lives, but Christians are called and empowered to do just that and more. In our relationships, personally and corporately, we're to be lovers in the thick, costly sense. May it be so, forever.

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