Friday, October 19, 2012

Mumford & Sons among the virtues

From Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Last night I noticed in my blog traffic reports a spike of visits from this NPR story on Mumford & Sons new album, Babel. The author, Ann Powers, linked to my fall 2010 post, The Avett Brothers' narrative doctrine of Love (and Hate). This post has surprised me because it's now two years old (to the day!) but is consistently in the top ten list on any given month, and people often find it by searching for an answer to the question: "Are the Avett Brothers Christian?" (<--See for yourself.)

But anyway, on to Mumford. First watch this...

Then read on for some reflections on the three things related to Christian virtues which I see emanating from this beautiful song: Humility, embodiment, and purpose.


"How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes." With these words, the song opens, vulnerably putting human frailty on the line. At the root of many pre-modern vice lists was pride, the shadow twin to the virtue of humility. I've increasingly found that the Christian life must have at its root this virtue that recognizes we are fallible creatures. So much that goes wrong in American Christianity, and indeed Christendom throughout the ages, is a misplacement or loss of this virtue and the malpractice of its shadow. In his life, teaching, lordship, and death, Jesus is the exemplar for humility: He washed feet, he criticized the impulse to worldly power, he humbled himself to fill the human form, and he walked to the cross.

This song exhibits our frailties and failures, but it also points to something deeper and redemptive...


Later in the song - after the first groaning, pleading anthem/prayer is sung..."awake my soul" - Mumford makes these profound statements:
In these bodies we will live
In these bodies we will die
Where you invest your love
You invest your life
There is an Augustinian wisdom emerging from this stanza, a wisdom that circumvents dualistic Western thinking about mind & body, spirit & matter, inner & outer. We are creatures, through and through - body is soul, soul is body. And love in this lyric is a soulfully embodied act, an investment of all that we are. As James K.A. Smith argues early in his book, Desiring the Kingdom, "what defines us is what we love" (p. 25).


But there is always a directionality to what we love, what we deeply desire; an insatiable longing for something that pulls at us. That is what the song closes with: the end to which we are being pulled in our creaturely existence, and the end to which our investment of embodied love should be oriented (but often isn't)...
For you were made to meet your maker.
In the Augustinian sense, humans are lovers to the core of our being, and the ultimate love from which and for which we were created is God. But the corrosive effects of sin misdirect our longings, putting us "off the mark."

Missing the mark?

In an article in Christianity Today, I was struck by this quote from Marcus Mumford, that the lyrics on their last album, Sigh No More, were "a deliberately spiritual thing but deliberately not a religious thing. I think faith is something beautiful, and something real, and something universal, or it can be."

There are a few ways to take this. On the one hand, I think I get what he's saying and why he's saying it. He's trying to be somewhat vague in order to appeal to some broadly shared (at least in Western cultures) emotions and experiences. I get that. On the other hand, though, it's almost like the substance of his own lyrics go deeper than his statement, because the whole "Oh, I'm spiritual but not religious" thing is a luxury afforded to bored consumerists set adrift on a sea of choice, and love in this context is often seen as an emotion and the only ethic connected to it has something to do with "being nice."

The kind of costly love (remember, it's an investment of your whole life) that "Awake My Soul" hints toward - the kind of love his minster father preached about - goes deeper and farther than a mere "spiritual thing" or even a "religious thing." The faith he longs to have be beautiful, real, and universal has a particular shape. "The grain of the universe," to borrow John Howard Yoder's phrase, looks like the cross of Jesus Christ, and true lovers are those who bear crosses.

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