It has not been a great summer for politics or peace. But it’s been a comparatively good summer for music. The Lumineers and the Avett Brothers have both released songs I can’t get out of my head. But a song that may be outpacing both groups is from a previously little-known group called the Strumbellas, who have flooded the airwaves with their haunting song “Spirits.”
The song has a unique crossover appeal. It seems to have broad popularity across a variety of age groups. But it does not feature the electronic, boring pop sound which passes for hit music. The song is catchy, while also being mature. While I don’t claim to understand the exact meaning behind the song, I got into a discussion over one line in the other night:
And I don’t want a never-ending life.
I just want to be alive while I’m here.
At first glance, we agreed that it is not exactly a Christian message. In fact, it appears to express a desire exactly at odds with Jesus’ promise of Divine life. The singer seems to endorse the modern (vaguely gnostic) religion of “living for the moment,” rejecting the possibility of judgment, heaven, and ultimately God himself. The music video featuring a New Orleans-style Day of the Dead celebration adds to the embrace of death in the song.
It is possible that this is exactly what the group is trying to express. But if it is, I’d be disappointed, not just because it contradicts the message of the Gospel, but also because it would be so boring. Hidden behind a very good hit song is nothing but a “live for the moment” (translation: live for myself) motif we’ve seen thousands of times?
But what exactly is being rejected here? The words are clear: “I don’t want a never-ending life.” The two lines are immediately repeated, as if to embody the feeling of the interminability of heaven which they decline. But that’s exactly the point, isn’t it? Do we Christians actually believe in a “never-ending life?” Of course, if what we mean is a life which has no end, then yes, we believe that the coming Reign of God is so momentous that our entire existence will change, and each of us will live forever.
But if what this means is a life which goes on ad infinitum, yet remains more-or-less as it is, then the singer is absolutely right to reject it! I think that most people’s perception of heaven – including, at times, my own – is just that: it’s our life now, just longer. In fact, it’s so long it goes on forever! But that could sound dull at best.
At worst, it sounds like an absolute nightmare. A never-ending life filled with murders of police officers and innocent people watching a fireworks show on a beach? A ceaseless existence of broken relationships, denigration of ethnic minorities, and the fog of war?
We are right to reject the way the world is: a world in which the tentacles of evil are ceaselessly at work. We reject as well the limits which sin imposes on ourselves and our communities. We beg for something different. If heaven is just more of the same, well, no wonder so many people aren’t interested.
“I just want to be alive while I’m here:” when heaven seems impossible or unappealing, the desire to live life to the fullest here is all we are left with. Of course, we are left wondering what exactly a good life consists of. “Spirits” doesn’t answer the question. But it’s the exact question which was asked of Socrates at the dawn of philosophy. It is the question which Jesus answers infinitely more profoundly through his life and death.
The present we truly seek is not the momentary pleasure of today, but the eternal life of God in heaven. That life is not just a succession of elapsing time; it is the very purpose of our existence. It is the answer to the question posed by each of our lives.
Eric Banecker is a seminarian at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and a contributor to the seminary’s blog, Seminarian Casual, on which this post first appeared.