Music is unquestionably a gift from God. He didn’t have to create us with the ability to hear, much less to hear sounds so exquisite that we’re moved to tears. And yet he created the complex physics of sound and enabled our brains to interpret all of the beauty that eardrum vibrations can convey.
Christians, who should be the most attuned to God’s gifts, often find ways to limit our exposure to the depth and potency of music. For example, we like to limit our enjoyment of music to a specific subgenre we call “Christian music.” I’ve written on this before, and I also discuss it in Resonate (so, you know, you should probably buy a copy for everyone you’ve ever met…). My goal is not to degrade the music coming out of the Christian Music Industry, but to call us to engage with the wonder of God’s gift beyond this small marketing demographic.
In this post, I’ll explore one brilliant piece of music that those who remain within the confines of the Christian Music Industry will never experience: the song “Afterlife” by Arcade Fire. (I wrote about Arcade Fire a bit in Resonate, but this song released after the manuscript was submitted, and I’ve fallen in love with it.)
Though Arcade Fire is not a “Christian band” by any definition I’ve heard, they frequently explore religious themes. In fact, they even purchased an abandoned church for rehearsals and recording and to give themselves access to an ultra-churchy pipe organ. So I wasn’t a bit surprised when their latest album, Reflektor, spoke of searching for the “Resurrector,” exposed the harmful effects of pornography, and meandered through other religious concepts. But I was surprised at the hopeful wrestling of “Afterlife.”
The song begins with a start: “Afterlife. Oh my God, what an awful word.” As Christians, we long for the afterlife. But Arcade Fire made me think here. After. Life. That is pretty crazy. The hope we have for the future comes after life. As the song puts it,
“After all the breath and the dirt and the fires are burnt…
After all this time, after all the ambulances go
After all the hangers-on are done hanging on
In the dead lights of the afterglow”
It reminds me of how odd our hope for the future must sound, of how odd it truly is that Paul would tell us not to “mourn as those who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).
The song also asks, “When love is gone, where does it go?” What a question! When we lose someone we truly and deeply and actively love, what becomes of that love? This question is followed by the related question, “Where do we go?” This has got me thinking so much about the ache of love in the absence of a loved one. It raises the question typically asked only at funerals, and then only briefly. And the question of where love goes leads me straight to this profound passage in the New Testament:
“Love never ends…So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:8, 13)
The song never answers the question, but it does not shy away. The repeated refrain is:
“Can we work it out?
Scream and shout till we work it out.”
That’s as good a summary of the human experience as I’ve heard. We’re asking where we go, and our lives are a series of screams and shouts directed toward finding the meaning to our existence, the meaning that we know exists but remains just beyond our grasp. As the Preacher said,
“I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14)
Best of all, the music is incredible. Mysterious, hopeful, inspiring, exultant, beautiful. Hardcore music asks some of the same questions, but something about the way Arcade Fire explores the issue in the actual music, not just in the lyrics, strikes me as compassionate, honest, and full of longing.
It’s not that Arcade Fire is teaching me about the afterlife. It’s not that I’m ready to add their song to the end of my Bible, or even my theology books. But their creative approach to these concepts has pushed me to think and feel my way through these all-important issues with a greater sensitivity and some fresh thoughts. And I’m deeply indebted to them for it.
So to those who would appreciate God’s gift in its fullness I say: Enjoy every ounce of musical beauty that Chris Tomlin conveys in his music, but don’t turn up your nose at Arcade Fire. The gift of music is being joyfully explored in many “secular” places.