I found The Hold Steady much later than I should have. They’ve been making music since 2004 in the Bruce Springsteen mold. Rock and Roll and great stories. They even sound a little like the Boss. They’re from Minneapolis, which is where I discovered them while I was taking courses for my doctorate at Luther Seminary. Still, I didn’t buy any of their stuff until their 2010 release, Heaven is Whenever. I loved it.
Recently, I’ve been buying some of their older work. This week, I’ve had their 2005 work, Separation Sunday, on a loop. It’s a fascinating album. Every song features the adventures of a young woman named Holly. Actually, as we find out toward the end of the album, “her parents named her Halleluiah, the kids all called her Holly.” Her name is fitting, as the album traces her experiences through both drugs, sex, and religion. And all of this simultaneously.
Here are some snippets to give you a feel for Holly’s world of mixed images and experiences..
She’s got a cross around her neck that she ripped off from a schoolgirl in the subway on a visit to the city. She likes how it looks on her chest with three open buttons. She likes the part where one brother kills the other. She has to wonder if the the world ever will recover. Because Cain and Abel seem to still be causing trouble.
He was breaking bread and giving thanks. with crosses made of pipes and planks. leaned up against the nitrous tanks… i’ll dunk your head. then when you wake up again. you’ll be high as hell and born again.
tiny little text etched into her neck it said “jesus lived and died for all your sins.” she’s got blue black ink and it’s scratched into her lower back. it said: “damn right i’ll rise again.” yeah, damn right you’ll rise again.
the priest just kinda laughed. the deacon caught a draft. she crashed into the easter mass with her hair done up in broken glass. she was limping left on broken heels. when she said father can i tell yr congregation how a resurrection really feels?
she said: i was seeing double for 3 straight days after i got born again it felt strange but it was nice and peaceful. it really pleased me to be around so many people. of course half were just visions but half of them were friends from going thru the program with me. later on we did some sexy things.
halleluiah came to in a confession booth. infested with infections. smiling on an abcessed tooth. running hard on residue. crashing thru the vestibule. the crucifixion cruise. she climbed the cross and found she liked the view. sat reflecting on the resurrection. talking loud over lousy connections. she put her mouth around a difficult question. she said lord what do you recommend? to a real sweet girl who’s made some not sweet friends. lord what would you prescribe? to a real soft girl who’s having real hard times.
I won’t pretend to have the album solved, to know exactly what’s going on in the songs. It might be too obvious to say that there’s not a great distance between religious experience and getting high, or to say that people who like to get high or whose lives are a mess are also close to the Kingdom of God–that hitting bottom and finding God often go together.
But I’m more interested in the way that being “born again” can fit neatly beside other experiences in people’s lives. Like it might fit on someone’s bucket list: get my pilot’s license, party with the Stones, swim with sharks, see Paris, get born again. It’s one experience among others. Life is a buffet. Try it all. See what sticks.
I’ve sat by “hollys” on plane trips, and when they find out I’m a theologian, they say something like, “that’s so cool, I accepted Jesus into my heart at a church camp. I’m a very spiritual person. Lately, I’ve really gotten into Buddhism and Amway.” You get the idea. Spirituality is completely internal, impressionistic, idiosyncratic, without content, and so can be set easily alongside other experiences in life, even if they’re at odds with one another.
I find it interesting in Mark’s gospel that Jesus refuses an easy identification of his identity with the expectations of others. He demands silence from the demons and tells others to keep quiet about their experiences with him. Jesus’ life has a specific content that is not as easily co-opted as spiritual language or experiences. He is the one who will die at the hands of others and be raised on the third day, calls us to take up our crosses and follow him, and unless we’re clear about this, he doesn’t want us calling him Christ or Son of God or inviting him into our hearts.