Death as a lover: reflections on a song

vic chesnuttThis week I heard Vic Chesnutt’s song “Flirted with you all my life” on the radio. I didn’t know about him or about his work but when I heard this extraordinary piece of music I had to find out more. For anyone who doesn’t know Chesnutt was an American singer and songwriter. He enjoyed high status as a “cult” musician and then later broke through into wider success after an album of versions of his songs by a range of other performers was released. He died, at his own hand, in 2009.

“Flirted with you all my life” was described by him as a “break-up song” about death, in which he says that following his various suicide attempts (“even kissed you once or twice”) he realises that he is not ready.

 

FLIRTED WITH YOU ALL OF MY LIFE

i am a man

i am self aware

and everywhere I go

you’re always right there with me

i flirted with you all of my life

even kissed you once or twice

and to this day I swear it was nice

but clearly i was not ready

when you touched a friend of mine

i thought i would lose my mind

but i found out with time

that really, i was not ready

o’ death…i’m not ready

o’ death you hector me

and decimate those dear to me

and tease me with your sweet relief

you are cruel and you are constant

when my mom was cancer sick

she fought but succumbed to it

but you made her beg for it

“lord jesus, please i’m ready”

o’ death….clearly i am not ready

 

This song expresses some things that, as a Christian and as a minister, seem extremely important to me.

First most important the close connection between being human, self-awareness and death.

I’m sure Chesnutt is right to link these in the opening of this song. To be aware of oneself is to be aware of one’s mortality. The reality of death is essential to who and what we are. The beginning of the  Christian story about human being goes like this. “We” (humanity as a whole) were created by a transcendent and everlasting God for a a particular role and purpose within the cosmos, the role described both as representation (“image” and “likeness”) of God within the realm of that which is not God (creation) and as “stewardship” or “sovereignty” over it. One aspect of our relationship with God was that we were instructed not to overstep a limit involving asserting too much moral autonomy (not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). If this limitation was transgressed the result would be death (“surely you will die”).

It is sometimes re-told as if death is visited on human beings as a punishment for their sin or disobedience (something like this is often implied in accounts of Christ’s atoning work based on “penal substitution” but I don’t think this is really true to the story as told in Genesis. Death comes to Adam and Eve as a (necessary) consequence of what they do, not as God’s punishment for it. It is true that God prevents them from eating from the second tree, the tree of life, which would allow them to live forever but not that death itself is God’s action.

In the Genesis story full self-awareness, the knowledge of good and evil, brings death. “I am a man, I am self-aware, and everywhere I go, you are always with me.”

This insight, that death is a constant companion (“you are cruel and you are constant”) is essential to understanding the vocation to Christian life. Its missionary impulse has a complicated set of different elements that different strands in the Church emphasise, sometimes at the expense of others. Some think primarily in terms of “saving souls” for eternal life in another world. They regard preventing people from going to hell after death as the main point of conversion. Others talk about “building the Kingdom”, of reshaping this world so that it conforms to values of peace and justice, making Christianity largely a matter of political and social change. Both of these have some warrant in the Biblical witness (although I would regard both as mistaken in claiming centrality for their preferred missionary direction).

What this song reminds us is that in the narrative of fall and resurrection (to compress the Christian story to its minimum elements) it is death itself from which we are first of all to be saved. Judgement comes into it (and after all judgement succeeds resurrection). Injustice comes into it (a life lived in conditions of oppression falls short of what is promised) but in my view death is the great enemy that Christ defeats and these other things are ancillary.

What we have to offer the world is an alternative to death as the release from suffering. Our missionary impulse should, I think, be the conviction that the saving encounter with Jesus transforms this life by identifying death as our enemy and by promising victory over it. Chesnutt’s song is brave and true in facing the centrality of death to our nature as self-aware human beings, as men and women. It is brave and false in dealing with that reality by making a lover of death.

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