biblical wisdom, Brothers Karamazov, Christian, Ecclesiastes, evil and suffering, Job, josh ritter, theodicy
There is much that I could say about the Christian problem of evil and theodicy in terms of development and contemporary theological manifestations, and I will perhaps at some point write it all down here. At the moment, though, I want to make a very small foray into the matter by suggesting that, if you are a Christian, you should really pay attention to the work of Josh Ritter, who is I would argue one of the most brilliant lyricists in modern music.
Personally, I was first attracted to Ritter’s music by its resemblance to Biblical wisdom, and the first song I heard of his (Bright Smile) reminded me so much of the crypticism of Song of Solomon that I knew I had to track him down and hear more of his songs. Further listening has convinced me that his work has much in common with the Biblical books of Ecclesiastes and Job, two of my favorite Biblical texts. The problem of evil is raised in a variety of songs, such as Harrisburg, Folk Bloodbath, Girl in the War, and In the Dark; the cry for something something or someone evoked by the experience of evil and suffering is articulated in “To the Dogs or Whoever;” and Josh often finds his answer in a position that lies somewhere between humanism, in the best sense of the word, and a gesture toward a sacramental theology wherein the grubby roots of things lead one to something higher, almost implicitly incarnational though the Christology in the background is rarely articulated and may not even be fully understood by Ritter himself. Songs expressing this tentative answer to the problems of evil and suffering include Lantern and Long Shadows.
Despite the excellence of his songwriting, it was with some measure of trepidation that I recently picked up Josh’s recent book – borrowed it from my sister, actually – and began to read it. Contemporary musicians often have a bad habit of assuming that their success in one medium guarantees their success in another, and too often popular artists depend on their popularity as means of legitimating their own frivolous and mediocre forays into areas that are not their primary medium. My fear was that Josh, an excellent musician and lyricist, had written an amateur novel as a side project.
However, I was thrilled to find myself thoroughly mistaken in my initial impression. Josh is a poet, and what comes out best in his songs also dazzles in his novel, Bright’s Passage. To return to the theme of this post, the novel does an excellent job of raising numerous questions about the goodness of God, the existence of evil, the role of the human will, suffering, destiny etc. – everything one would expect to find in a work raising the question of the problem of evil and the possibility of formulating a successful theodicy or defense. I will not tell you how he deals with this question, and indeed I’m not even sure if Ritter always understands himself the full extent of the questions, problems and images he catches by the tail – what is certain is that he has a good sense for live questions, and he seems happier to encounter a living mystery than a neat and solid but dead answer.
So why am I suggesting that you read this book? It is by no means a Christian story if by that we mean a story where the characters find all their answers in God. But then, by that measure, neither is Ecclesiastes on its own, for the immense longing it creates can only be answered by another work, nothing less than the work of Christ. And it is in creating this Ecclesiastean longing that Ritter excels, particularly against the backdrop of contemporary culture. The early existentialists seem to have thought that a rejection of God on the grounds of his alleged responsibility for suffering and evil (think Ivan Karamazov) would bring humans to a state of tragic nobility – they may not be comfortable or happy, but at least they would be honest and aggressively destroy illusion. The interesting thing is that this is not what happened. Once God was rejected there was no particularly good reason to be honest or to destroy illusion – if we’re all going to die, we might as well die comfortably (the modern idea of a “good death). And it is more comfortable not to think of things that disrupt us like death, suffering, and God, so we devise ways to distract ourselves, bread and circus games, so to speak – or, to use the latinate turn of another modern author, panem.
What I appreciate about Josh’s work, both in his songs and his novel, is that he doesn’t let go of disturbing things. His art begins in the chinks and flaws that modern culture seeks to hide, and that signal its eventual doom. And he doesn’t flinch. Yes, he questions God, but so does Job. And no, I don’t know if he is a Christian, though I pray for him. What I do know is that someone questioning God because of the evil in the world is likely to be a good deal closer to finding Him than someone who gives up on the search altogether and self medicates through analgesic media – or, indeed, who, like Job’s friends, have made a corrupt and falsified version of faith into their own personal brand of analgesic. Though it can never be considered the eschatological end of the cosmos, there are times when a cry of pain is exactly what we need to hear – not only do we need to hear, but we need to listen, and support those trying hard to listen. “In the dark I thought I heard somebody call,” says Ritter in one of his songs; so did I, and that is precisely why I am a Christian.