The Reading Room
Christian Prudence in C Major
In recent months, financial services company Northwestern Mutual has used the chorus from a song by the Americana band “The Avett Brothers” in a commercial about managed wealth. The song, “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” soars: “I had a dream/ and one day I could see it.” For Northwestern Mutual it is a material dream, but for the band it has to do with moral objectivity.
“There’s a darkness around me that’s covered with light.And the fine print that tell me what’s wrong and what’s rightAnd it flies by day and it flies by night and I’m frightened by those who don’t see it.”
The Avett Brothers, out of eastern N.C., fill up all the mid-size venues they play in the U.S. and abroad. They perform at least two sold out shows a season at the fabled Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado. They’ve appeared on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, at Madison Square Garden, and in 2017, HBO released a documentary entitled: “May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers.”
Perhaps most interestingly, the Avett Brothers sublimate Christian themes into their music in a way that strikes a chord with believers and unbelievers alike. In doing so, they demonstrate a talent for innovation and imagination from which others might learn; the themes they choose to emphasize, moreover, seem to be those to which practically anyone is drawn.
The prudence the band applies to its artistry is of interest because Christians in politics are sometimes clumsily imprudent rather than deftly prudent. Should non-believers even care? They should: the foundations of Western Civilation are widely recognized as resting upon the Greek Philosophical tradition, the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the Enlightenment. Everyone with a concern for the health and promise of the society in which they live has an interest in the best each of these three traditions can provide.
The Avett Brothers are not an easy group to characterize. The brothers, Seth and Scott, who harmonize as only siblings can, have a background in raucous rock; nonetheless, they best fit into the “Americana” category with talented artists like Jason Isbell and Larkin Poe. Seth and Scott Avett alternate on piano, guitar, and banjo. Bob Crawford plays upright and electric bass, and the fourth member, Joe Kwon, is a South Korean cellist with a degree in computer science whose hobby is growing, cooking and eating a variety of fine cuisine. Sometimes the band is a bit frenetic, but that is redeemed by a keen talent for writing beautiful ballads, one after another.
In addition to their insistence that relative morality is a scam, the band also deals with several themes that anyone can appreciate: they include human suffering and uncertainty, our shared mortality, and a sense of transcendance.
Suffering and uncertainty so characterize much of the band’s music that they have been called fatalists. Their 2016 album is entitled “True Sadness.” In this, they distinguish themselves from some of the contemporary Christian music available. I once asked an intelligent young woman why, after growing up in a fervently evangelical family, she now described herself as an atheist. She explained, “I couldn’t stand the certainty.” That kind of surety is hard to find in the Avett Brothers' music. Even more, the title song flirts with despair in a way that Kierkegaard could appreciate. The singer confesses,
“ ‘Cause I still wake up shaken by dreamsAnd I hate to say it but the way it seems
Is that no one is fine
Take the time to peel a few layers
And you will findTrue sadness”
It is only in this context—not in triumph—that the singer asserts God’s presence. For some, the contrast may be too sharp, an unorthodox contradiction; but, many others will understand exactly what the band is describing:
“I cannot go on with this evil inside meI step out my front door and I feel it surround me
Just know the kingdom of God is within youEven though the battle is bound to continue”
The song “Winter In My Heart” is even gloomier. It was written and recorded during a period of agony for the band’s bass player, Bob Crawford, and his wife, as they discovered that their two-year old daughter had a malignant and disabling brain tumor.
“It must be winter in my heartThere’s nothing warm in there at all
I miss the summer and the springThe floating, yellow leaves of fall”
Though one may hope the song discovers a glimmer of light, the tone just gets darker as it concludes.
Christian music—as well as Christian theology—does not deny, but certainly does not celebrate, the shared humanity of Christians and non-Christians. To find that, one best take recourse in the Books of Proverbs and the Book of Job. Whether in the New Testament or even in most of the Old, the separateness of believers is the central theme. The Israelites were a people apart, and at times endured tension even among the twelve tribes of Israel, until the fatal split between the northern (Israel) and southern (Judah) kingdoms in 930 B.C.
In the New Testament, though the deep division between Jew and Gentile is dissolved on the occasion of Peter’s dream in Acts Chapter 10; that chasm is replaced by the unbridgeable gap between Christian and non-Christian. Short of conversion, the shared humanity between believer and non-believer is a faint theme at best.
But while this doctrine is not contradicted, the music of the Avett Brothers follows an alternate route that may be helpful for our times. They emphasize a shared identify among all, an attitude most vividly expressed in “Live and Die.” The song explains that everyone is united by our inescapable mortality.
“You and I, we’re the sameLive and die, we’re the same
You rejoice, I complain
But you and I, we’re the same
Hear my voice, know my name
You and I, we’re the same
I want to love you and more
I want to find you and more
Where do you resideWhen you hide, how can I find you?
Finally, the band embraces a view of eternity that is neither pushy nor exclusive, expressed, for example, in their song “The Once and Future Carpenter” performed here for CNN Music. The title is clever: at first blush one would expect this to be a narration of the life of Jesus, but the “carpenter” in the song is Scott Avett who, in an earlier life, worked construction:
“Once I was a carpenter, man my hands were callousedI could swing a metal mallet sure and straight
But I took to the highway, a poet young and hungryAnd I left the timbers rotting where they lay”
But the strongest element of the song is found in the chorus and it has to do with Avett’s assessment of his own life lived under something higher than himself. The theme of humanity is reiterated as well, and the stanza includes a passing reference to the Grim Reaper.
“Forever I will move like the world that turns beneath meAnd when I lose my direction I'll look up to the sky
And when the black cloak drags upon the ground
I'll be ready to surrender, and remember
Well we're all in this togetherIf I live the life I'm given, I won't be scared to die”
This is not an unreachable doctrine for anyone. All should agree that a life lived worthily softens the anxiety associated with death, and even enables the individual to face his or her demise peacefully whether religious or not. Such an attitude produces one of the band’s loveliest songs, “No Hard Feelings,” which a kind of musical life-long examination of conscience, implausibly written by two men so young.
The 16th chapter of Luke contains “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager” about a manager who, fearing reprimands for mismanagement, sucessfully renegotiates several loans owed to his master and so receives praise rather than condemnation. Jesus then offers this remarkable observation: “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.”
This is not the only time that scripture endorses shrewdness. Jesus explains to his disciples, “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves, therefore be shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16). In both cases, the word translated “shrewd” is phronimos. There are other New Testament instances, the Apostle Paul warns, in which phronimos, might be fueled by human conceit. So there is a fine line: be shrewd but not too shrewd; be clever in the right way for the right purposes.
Perhaps there is a lesson here: as the Western world continues its relentless drift toward secularism, those who wish to knead a spiritual leaven into the world might consider imaginative ways of doing so. Christians are fond of repeating the mantra “a call to holiness.” The word “holy” implies separation from those people who are not Christian. While neither Scripture nor the Avett Brothers issue a “a call to inclusiveness,” they do seem to suggest “a call to cleverness.” In this way, all may navigate, as “No Hard Feelings” explains, “life in all its loveliness/ and all its ugliness.” Whether in politics, culture, or interpersonal relationships, there may be a difference between what the spiritually-minded want to say, and what others need to hear.