We often think that popular culture is all about mindless entertainment. But we shouldn’t. In many ways, musicians and filmmakers are the philosophers of our day. Whether or not we realize it or care, they guide us in thinking through some of life’s most important issues.
This week I’ve been listening to the newly released Death Cab for Cutie album. Whether that band title makes you excited or confused really isn’t the point. Right now their album is ranked 5 and 6 on iTunes (I wonder how it would rank if they considered the regular and “deluxe” versions together?). I’ve been intrigued by a song called “St. Peter’s Cathedral.” It’s definitely one of the prettiest songs they’ve written.
What strikes me about this song is that it’s an incredibly depressing message wrapped in a beautiful musical arrangement.
The song takes you inside of St. Peter’s Cathedral (in the Vatican), down the granite walls, and into the catacombs. In this context, the band asks you to consider the moment of death, when your “candle” flickers, sputters, and fades:
It’s only then that you will know
What lies above or down below
Or if these fictions only prove
How much you’ve really got to lose
Then the song rises to the stained glass and the ambition of a steeple reaching up towards the heavens. Do these churchly elements point us to the answers, or is there some other explanation?
It’s either quite a master plan
Or just chemicals that help us understand
That when our hearts stop ticking
This is the end
There’s nothing past this [this line becomes the refrain that repeats for 2.5 minutes]
Nope. That’s it. Once you die, it’s all over. With death we have everything to lose because there’s nothing past this life.
That’s a message that you’re bound to hear from time to time. It’s actually a pretty common view amongst atheists, naturalists, and evolutionists. But two things strike me about Death Cab’s presentation: (1) They’ve put it out there into the midst of pop culture, and (2) they’ve presented it in an incredibly hopeful way.
There’s no hope in the lyrics themselves; all of the hope comes from the music itself. And it’s exultant. Maybe it’s difficult to explain how music can be hopeful, but listen to the song and you’ll see what I mean.
Rather than dealing with the difficulty of claiming that our experience of life is nothing more than “chemicals helping us understand” our world, the band chooses to be hopeful in spite of it all. It’s okay if there’s nothing beyond this life because life is beautiful (if we have everything to lose through death, then life is incredibly valuable).
So what’s the point? Do we denounce bands like Death Cab for Cutie as heretics? I don’t think so. I’m still really enjoying this album. To me, it serves as a reminder that we shouldn’t consume any cultural goods without engaging it intellectually. From Karl Marx to Lady Gaga, everyone is asking us to view the world as they see it. We can and should appreciate the beauty with which these worldviews are presented while at the same time seeing and engaging them as alternate views of reality.
But there’s another important reason to listen to Death Cab. They give us a window into what our culture is thinking about. On the one hand, they’ll influence the thinking of a lot of people in their teens and twenties. On the other hand, they’re expressing something that a lot of people already believe. Getting a feel for what our culture is wrestling with helps us to engage the people around us and gives us a platform for sharing the Bible’s answers to these issues.