I couldn’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent listening to Radiohead while staring out the front window of my childhood home, a very long time. I’m not living, I’m just killing time.
Staring out the window I’d sometimes find my thoughts transfixed on eternity, and a great tribulation would spark off in my head. Now I wasn’t so concerned about eternity in hell (I was a good-living Christian sure), but it was eternity in heaven that irked me.
Would we just go to church daily for…forever? Sing songs to God for…ever? I don’t really like singing. It all sounds…boring. I mean, I want a perfect body, I want a perfect soul. But what does that matter if everyone else is perfect too. Everything in its right place. Would we know everything? That would be awful, nothing new to learn or see or taste or hear? Perhaps my thoughts are misguided and a little naïve but I couldn’t shake them.
And let’s not get started on judgement. For some reason envisaged as me watching my life on screen. Like when I’m at the pearly gates this’ll be on my videotape, me just sitting here listening to Radiohead, staring out a window and internally panicking about eternity. I wonder is there a fast-forward button anywhere?
Maybe Heaven isn’t just the boring church stuff though…maybe in Heaven you get to do what you most love, like sipping a whiskey, kicking a ball, tending a garden, or reading a book…forever. Imagine anything stretched out to eternity and it loses some of its charm. It all felt so dull.
That can’t be right though, can it?
Isn’t the idea of heaven meant to be hopeful? Truth is, eternity scared me. It just seemed like a very long time. These concerns were never voiced for fear of what people would think and say. I’ll tell all my friends, but they’d never believe me. They’d think that I’d finally lost it completely. So, they remained private and undealt with for the longest time but couldn’t be forever. The elephant that’s in the room is tumbling, tumbling, tumbling. Once your thoughts start thinking it’s hard to stop them or hide them.
All of us are going to die. This world is going to end. Every day, something painful and destructive is fed into our lives. War, destruction, fires, violence, immigrants locked up, immigrants fleeing, sexual abuse and assault. Racism. Sectarianism. Murder. Suicide. Cancer. Heart attacks. We could go on and on. How do we answer the questions these bring? We all went to heaven in a little row boat, there was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt? Where’s the truth? What’s the use?
As much as I love Mary Oliver, I do struggle right now to know what to do with my ‘one wild and precious life’. It’s been a crappy year, eh? I’m not here, this isn’t happening. Is the purpose of all this to just endure? Doesn’t sound too wild or precious to me. I’d rather an understanding that drives into the complications and chaos than one that oversimplifies what suffering is. Or beauty. Or what this one life is for.
Sometimes it feels like I too easily grab for ‘cheap hope’ and ultimately it doesn’t satisfy. Is hope a thing with feathers? Now that you found it, it’s gone. Can it fly away at any moment? Just ’cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there. So how do we know? Is hope only possible when privilege allows for a future?
Radiohead kicks me away from cheap hope, hard. They capture and intensify the feelings of being trapped, refuse to shy away from the ugly side of life and bury their head in the sand. Their lyrics clearly point out the systemically sinful matrix of economic, social and religious powers that haunt our lives. Powers for whom success, all too often, accelerates the failure of the planet and its most vulnerable people. Like their job is to catch the mouse, squash his head and put him in the pot. This is what you’ll get when you mess with us. Radiohead deny these powers an unchallenged existence.
Can we reimagine another way forward than submission and ignorance in favour of comfort? Are you such a dreamer to put the world to rights? Or maybe we’ll stay home forever, where two and two always makes up five. Stay in the shadows and cheer at the gallows. Abandon all reason, avoid all eye contact. Where life will feel just like spinning plates.
We might imagine another poet, whose economics, politics, and religion led to him being let down and hanging around, crushed like a bug in the ground. Who declared, in all seriousness that down is the new up. Asked us, what it profits to gain the whole world if it cost us our souls. Taught that you should turn the other cheek, living in a glass house.
I’d be crazy not to follow, follow where you lead. Some days that seems easy and other days impossible. There’s a gap in between, there’s a gap where we meet. Where I end and you begin. Asked to leave the comforts I seek, to give up myself for the other, whoever. To act responsibly in the world, to give entirely of myself even to point of becoming guilty. And that response is precisely an incarnational Christlike gesture.
The church should love the world more than the world loves itself. And certainly more than the church loves itself. The church should be forever emptying itself for the other, not so they will join the crew and take a seat on Sunday morning but to reflect Jesus, the man for others. Immerse your soul in love. He walked around asserting I set you free and the church should follow suit.
Radiohead’s music does not, by itself, lead me or us into a utopia, in fact most untrained ears would say the opposite, that they are simply depressive bleepity-bloop. But for those who have ears to hear, their lyrics traverse the spectrum of fragility and resilience. The problems with the environment, capitalism, technology, power loom large over Radiohead’s output but all the while there is a resistance and a beauty that remains ever-present. Despite the substantial challenges that cast a shadow over our lives, Radiohead remain resolute. One of the great gifts of Radiohead is their ability and commitment to be as true to the world’s beauty and goodness as to its rot and sourness.
Truth be told, I don’t know what heaven is or what eternity holds for us. But I’ve listened to a lot of Radiohead and I understand that we need beautiful art, with creative anger and beautiful conflict, to help us bear the weight and work of the present. Fantasy is all well and nice (and a ticket to Heaven would be a lovely thing indeed if I could get my hands on one), but without addressing the reality of our human condition and the systems that crush us, it’s just escapism. And that only exacerbates the problem. This life has problems that need us to keep showing up. That is what salvation heralds us towards. Not to escape the patterns of this world, but to disturb them. You can try the best you can, the best you can is good enough. We offer a Resurrection that is real and felt now, today, and I don’t know what it fully looks like in the future yet, but I really think it’s not going to be eternal church services. Praise Jesus. It’s gonna be a glorious day….
2. Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter Happier More Deductive; ed. By Brandon W. Forbes and George A. Reisch
3. All these things into position: What Theology can learn from Radiohead; Robert Cady Saler
Theme photo by R Briggs