Listening to Torres and Reading the Bible

Picture of waterfall overlayed with the text "How much truth would you like to buy?"


Striving to understand the Most Import Thing and to walk in it honestly imprisons the seeker in perpetual disillusionment, likely without the escape of total cynicism. In order to be faithful to the pursuit of truth, you must be willing to believe whatever you have to believe, even if you must accept terrible truths. However, accepting something as the truth necessarily closes the door. Even if you paid a dear price for your truth, even if you had no other choice but to accept the terrible truth without losing your integrity, the act of accepting it as the truth makes it difficult to deal with other things that are outside this sphere of truth. Eventually, the new or external experiences become the new Terrible Thing that you have to choose whether or not to buy into, and the cycle repeats.

“How much truth would you like to buy?”

This question is sung by indie rock artist Mackenzie Scott in her song “The Harshest Light,” penultimate track in her 2015 album Sprinter. Both Torres albums so far released voice the condition of being inexplicably and silently unhinged, desperate for meaning while every human connection turns out to be either fake or tragically short-lived. Although filled with many themes, including adoption and abusive or one-sided relationships, the spiritual wilderness experiences recurs. More subtle in the 2013 album TORRES, the spiritual quest becomes more prominent and more specific in Sprinter, where experiences relating to being raised Baptist are both evoked and directly referenced. (I’m much more familiar with Sprinter’s songs, and unequally among those; this is an evaluation of a theme and not a comprehensive critique of the artist’s whole body of work.) The song “Chains” from the first album sets up the drama running through Sprinter, with its narrator confessing that she had until that point kept her feet on the ground but soon plans to run once the second-person “you” character frees her, presumably in order to seek real truth as indicated by the line, “I am starving for the truth.”

The Harshest Light” questions whether it is even possible to be authentic in the search for whole truth. The next lines describe what we probably all do in order to stay sane:
Chew and swallow it good,
Coffee to chase the mirror down.
We close the door and decide to go no further. Willingness to embrace the real truth is replaced by the vision of truth that we already have. Maybe we realize that we’re swallowing our own mental construct and forcing our view of reality to conform to it, or maybe we succeed in believing in our own idols.

Recently the door was kicked open again for me as I read the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke:
He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” (Luke 13:22-24, ESV)
According to the evangelical exclusivist theology that I was raised to believe, this is one text demonstrating that the vast majority of people who have ever lived have gone to hell. This is a hard concept to accept, and the cost in emotional well-being, in the ability to care about life enough to invest in real things, and in social integration is potentially high. (To be fair, the exclusivists who taught me would probably say that the real act of “entering the door”—the true Terrible Truth that must be believed—is not the existence of a literal hell, but the acknowledgment of being a depraved sinner needing undignified and undeserved rescue.)

Reading the Bible as a Christian can tear you apart. For me, at this moment, the Terrible Thing is the assertion that many who truly seek to enter will be lost. These Bible verses raise other questions and conflicts to the evangelical mind, most notably the problem of being commanded to “strive” for salvation. Salvation being completely unearnable is held as a centrally important doctrine, defended with several passages.

Learned exclusivist theologians have made thorough systems to explain such problems, and I have no legitimate claim to be better at reading the Bible than them. However, when asked to defer my problems by accepting the systematic theologies, the system itself becomes a far greater monster that I’m expected to swallow whole. This is tangential. The important thing is that taking the Bible very seriously and reading it rigorously can cause the misery of staring into the abyss. Mackenzie Scott’s songs are the clearest and best expression of this spiritual despair that I have yet found in any kind of artistic media.

Since I had never before listened to popular music very seriously or found it particularly inspirational, I owe Jeffrey Overstreet a hefty finder’s fee for bringing Torres to my attention with his column at Christ and Pop Culture. (I reveal my ignorance; by “popular music” I mean more-or-less anything with lyrics.)

Probably the flagship Torres song as the title track of the later album, the song “Sprinter” reads like a template for the frequently voiced experiences of people dissatisfied with evangelicalism. The major points tell the story of having formerly been a zealous spiritual “sprinter,” of being exhausted from trying so hard, of being sick of belittling platitudes and angry about hypocrisy. The imagery in the lyrics is both vivid and subtle. It implies that the real spiritual race is a long one requiring endurance, that in order to run the long race well we need to unlearn the frenzied sprinter training of our past. The word “decedent”—meaning legally dead—evokes complicated theological themes. Being decedent—declared dead, dying-but-dead-already—is a central metaphor in Christianity.

These lines from “Sprinter” are more directly relevant to the experience described in “The Harshest Light”:
Wound up in a holding pattern,
Circled my landing in a lather.
Unnerved, I laughed.
I planned the snag.
Then went down for a [...]
(I don’t know what that last word is, but it's clearly not “decedent” as LyricWikia claims.)

This flight-related imagery (“holding pattern” having aeronautical connotations) brings to mind the convergence of flying with mundane running and walking in one passage evangelicals hold in great esteem. The protagonist is hysterical, constrained in the endless death-spiral to the point of insanity, ending in gleeful self-sabotage.

Waterfall” from the first album offers a more gentle reflection on the paralysis of trying desperately to do the right thing while always standing at the brink of the deep end. However, this is no simple matter of not doing the Big Bad Thing. The ultimate decision to jump—to fall—is no simplistic rebellion. More emotionally distant than in the songs in the Sprinter album, the narrator calmly contemplates “all the possibilities,” observing that the inevitable outcome in any case, once over the brink, is destruction. Every possible step is deadly, and ultimately there is “nowhere to go but down.”

While some of the Torres songs seem to validate the narrator, there is rarely a sense of righteous indignation, as if the narrator is perfectly just and we must listen to her complaint. (“Son, You are No Island” is probably the exception, but this brilliantly written song is very nonstandard. Its narrator and its protagonist are separate, and neither can be easily identified with the songwriter even in a vague way.) Despite the inevitability of downfall, neither “Waterfall” nor “Sprinter” nor “The Harshest Light” absolves their actors from responsibility for their decisions. On the contrary, these songs heavily emphasize the burden of responsibility that is dreadfully real in the moment of decision even while being continually dragged back to that moment in a dysfunctional cycle.

In “Mother Earth, Father God,” Torres questions whether the conflicted and tempted wanderer is morally responsible for his or her condition. After all, we were born into a fallen world that has set us up to fall. However, Torres answers by acknowledging that she had been warned regarding the treacherous “kiss.” It seems horribly inadequate to interpret the “kiss” as the deceitful allure of worldly vanity without unpacking the many other ramifications arising in light of other Torres songs’ romantic love themes, but this interpretation is helpful for analyzing the central conflict of “The Harshest Light.”

This sense of epic binary choice described so vividly in the opening lines of “Mother Earth, Father God” reaches its most critical expression in this stanza from “The Harshest Light”:
Yahweh said, Eat of my body
And you will see,
But eat of that tree
And you will be free of me.
The song appears designed to match this most critical moment of decision for the protagonist with the listener’s decision about what the song means. The song can easily be seen as a deconversion story. This interpretation relies on the type of secularism that considers religious belief to be a cowardly emotional consolation shielding adherents from the harshness of the godless reality. The deconversion angle offers an immediate and intuitive understanding of the lines “It was all in my mind / And my body was fine.” The protagonist’s religion was a figment of her tormented mind—or the thing tormenting her mind—and disobeying the old prohibitions brought only the realization that they were arbitrary.

But the pendulum can swing either way. We aren’t told whether Christian communion is the shallow truth that turns out to be only a reflection. It might instead be the archetypal “tree”—the Tree of Knowledge, perhaps in this case falsely definitive and incomplete human knowledge. To know that the Light is harsh, you have to be able to see. In the song, the gift of sight is offered through the eating of God’s body. Christian communion is depicted as the Terrible Truth that cannot be casually swallowed down. The lines leading up to the binary choice between God’s body and the tree describe the narrator’s awareness of the corrupting influence of “ill fame” and her admission of being “misguided.” People with secular worldviews can probably have morality systems involving wariness of fame and appreciation of guidance, but this makes more sense from the dualistic “God versus the World” point of view that someone raised in a conservative evangelical community would understand. By the Christian interpretation, “my body was fine” could be taken as a surprised and joyous relief; you are all right despite your internal struggle, and God’s body is offered for you.

The explicit eucharistic imagery in “The Harshest Light” carries with it the connotation of partaking of God’s death. Death is another candidate for the Terrible Truth that must be swallowed, although the imagery of stepping into the light when embracing death seems odd without the Christian interpretation.

The concept of death is treated most directly in the the Sprinter song “The Exchange.” The profound tragedy in that song goes far beyond my ability to understand or describe, but among many other themes it evokes the imagery of the other big sacrament (or ordinance for the Baptists). “I’m underwater,” Torres repeats. Among lines about preparing for a grand, final departure is the remark, “I pray to Jesus Christ incessantly. … I’m still underwater.” Addressing her family from a tragic distance with a fear of inevitable loss and separation, the protagonist says, “I’m underwater / And I don’t think you can pull me out of this.” The imagery constructed from all this includes the idea of being plunged underwater but being stuck just beneath the surface before getting pulled out again. It sounds like a Baptist-style full immersion baptism gone horribly wrong. But the sense of being both drowned and left behind in the water is not foreign to the real meaning of Christian baptism.

To me, the conflicted experience of stepping into the “harshest light” that Torres sings of reflects Jesus’ command to strive to enter the narrow door. The recurring imagery in the New Testament regarding the door to salvation includes the idea that Christ Himself is the door. The sacraments of communion and baptism represent Christ—His body, His death, His resurrection. Therefore, all this sacramental imagery can be seen as entering the door-that-is-Christ. In “Waterfall,” the inevitable plunge down into the the deadly waters evokes the surrender to the baptismal tides.

It would be a horrific betrayal to reduce these songs to mere sermonizing. If Mackenzie Scott were hypothetically to come out as an atheist, I hope I would still be able to respect the insight these songs offer on the pursuit of real truth, even though the sense of shattered but keenly desperate faith is one of their most compelling qualities to me. These songs attest to the experience of being pulled in many directions at once, and perhaps their power comes from the refusal to belittle the painful ambiguity of the journey by confidently asserting the destination. Nevertheless, I think this sacramental view is one justifiable interpretation of several overarching themes in the songs. The expression of a particular kind of spiritual struggle combined with the detailed poetic descriptions of circular psychological turmoil holds a lot of power.

Taking some fluffy concept of “seeking the Truth” as the objective partition between heaven and hell—as I badly want to do—merely reasserts the old holding pattern. How can I know that I’ve given the typical evangelical experience a fair trial when I haven’t tried to convert every unbeliever I’ve ever met? How can I claim to have sought the truth when I know, with the narrator of “Chains,” that I’ve only ever fooled myself into believing what I want to believe? (I’ve done this by being falsely dramatic about spiritual matters, manufacturing fake emotions and pretending that I’d had a real experience. I also do this by being overly dramatic about the scope, intensity, and importance of my experience of being disillusioned with evangelicalism.)

I enjoy imagining that I’ve had my own dramatic “sprinter” experience, but I’ve never suffered at the hands of the conservative Baptist community I grew up in, and I was only ever given more investment and concern than I deserve or understand. I never directly witnessed blatant hypocrisy or betrayal. It was all in my mind. Though I’ll go down to the end affirming that I have no real right to complain, I’m constantly strangled by the unsolvable quandary the Bible puts me in. I can’t accept reassurance, least of all from people whose beliefs I largely share but whose experiences of those beliefs are so alien to my own. I don’t know exactly where I am, and I have no way to know where anyone else is. Paraphrasing “The Exchange,” I can no longer claim to know where we’re going.

It is in acknowledging that “The Harshest Light” can be taken in a decidedly anti-Christian way that I find comfort in my pro-Christian interpretation. By refusing to accept objective comfort regarding my existential condition or the ultimate fate of others—or of the meaning and authenticity of life itself—I sometimes find hope that all might be redeemed.

Like the response of Jesus to the question of whether only few people would be saved, the Torres songs are pessimistic and ambiguous but retain keen paradoxical hope. Many who seek to enter will not be able to, so no one can boast of being a True Seeker. Standing on the precipice and watching every possibility cascade into destruction, there is no room to believe that even the best-intentioned efforts can succeed in being true. My hope and belief is that by unfathomable grace, returning constantly to the paralyzing grip of striving to do right and to be what we cannot be is not in vain.

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