Two years ago Andrew Peterson posted an essay here on the Rabbit Room in which he describes the experience of reading Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s novel The Yearling.
I sat on the front porch at the Warren on a rainy day, read the last sentence, turned my head so my children wouldn’t see my face, and wept. I asked God, aloud, “Why must it be so? Why must it be so?” Why must the bright wonder and innocence of youth be shot and killed? Why must the little boy in me pass into the night, gone like a ghost? Why must I spend the second half of my life grieving that boy’s departure from the world, always seeking him, always wishing for a world untainted?
Soon, however, Andrew found that he was no longer grieving his own past, but his children’s future.
I thought of all my children, and the loneliness that will dog them all their days, and how I long to protect them from it. But the world is drenched in sorrow. For in these precious few days of childhood the Lord grants us a glimpse of Eden, and as we age we are called back again and again to remember what was lost, and to reclaim it, to tell its story. We weep for the death, and hope in the resurrection, when Christ’s Kingdom of wise, old children may walk a healed world unharried by the looming certainty of death and more death.
Light for the Lost Boy, one suspects, was born in that moment on the porch where AP sat surrounded by children fast approaching adolescence, The Yearling still fresh and raw in his heart. He explores the aching truth that the fully alive heart of a child must always come to terms with a broken world stalked by death and sorrow. And he lets us sit in it a while and wonder, not rushing to a solution.
The first words of the first song, “Come Back Soon,” drop us into a swirling chaos where a boy is forced to deal with death:
I remember the day of the Tennessee flood
The sound of the scream and the sight of the blood.
My son, he saw as the animal died
In the jaws of the dog as the river ran by.
One of the many things I love about Light for the Lost Boy is the fact that the light it offers is light for this world—the one in which we are so often confused and doubtful. AP tells the truth about what it is like to live here. The son who sees the animal die beside the flood-swollen river doesn’t get a pat explanation from his father. Rather, the boy’s experience is a comment on the man’s:
If nature’s red in tooth and in claw,
Then it seems to me that she’s the outlaw.
Cause every death is a question mark
At the end of the book of a beating heart.
And the answer is scrawled in the silent dark
On the dome of the sky in a billion stars
But we cannot read these angel tongues,
And we cannot stare at the burning sun,
And we cannot sing with these broken lungs,
So we kick in the womb and we beg to be born.
As the old saying goes, “For every difficult question there is an easy answer. And it’s wrong.” AP wrestles with exceedingly difficult questions in this record, and he resists the temptation to offer any easy answers. We live a world full of sin and hurt and sadness and confusion; the gospel answers all of it, but it doesn’t twinkle it away like pixie dust. The angel at the gate of Eden doesn’t step aside. He doesn’t sheathe the flaming sword.
The hope of the gospel is not clarity in our confusion, but the knowledge that God is at work in spite of the fact that we don’t understand what he is up to. Consider these lines from “The Cornerstone,” in which AP describes his boyhood experience of God:
I read about the God of Moses
Roaring in the holy cloud,
It shook my bedroom window panes.
I did not understand then,
I do not understand now.
I don’t expect you to explain.
I don’t mean to suggest that these songs are without hope. There is plenty of hope throughout Light for the Lost Boy, but it is hard-won, born out of an honest wrestling. Rather than anesthetize the discomfort of this world, AP treats that discomfort as a clue to a deeper truth.
Light for the Lost Boy is literally a nostalgic record. We think of nostalgia as a longing for the past, but etymologically speaking, it’s a painful longing for home–nostos (homecoming) + algos (pain). What often passes for nostalgia is sentimental and naive, not idealizing a past that is gone, but a past that never existed. In its desire to go back, most nostalgia is not especially productive. The home-pain of Light for the Lost Boy is another thing altogether. It is a spur to look ahead to the New Heaven and the New Earth, as AP puts it in “Day by Day”:
And it hurts so bad
But it’s so good to be young.
And I don’t want to go back.
I just want to go on and on and on.
It is indeed good to be young. One of the sorrows of parenthood is the fact that our children can’t stay young and we can’t do their growing up for them or absorb their heartache. As a father of teenage boys, I find “You’ll Find Your Way” especially moving:
When I look at you, boy,
I can see the road that lies ahead.
I can see the love and the sorrow
Bright fields of joy,
Dark nights awake in a stormy bed.
I want to go with you, but I can’t follow…
And I know you’ll be scared when you take up that cross.
And I know it’ll hurt, ’cause I know what it costs.
And I love you so much and it’s so hard to watch,
But you’re gonna grow up up and you’re gonna get lost.
Just go back, go back,
Go back, go back to the ancient paths.
Lash your heart to the ancient mast,
And hold on, boy, whatever you do
To the hope that’s taken hold of you.
No amount of idealizing of childhood is going to change the fact that our children grow up and get lost and have to find their way just as we did.
At the end of The Yearling, Jody Baxter’s father Penny makes a remarkable speech. He has worked hard to shield his boy from the hard realities of their world, but the time comes when his man-made Eden collapses.
You’ve seed how things goes in the world o’ men. You’ve knowed men to be low-down and mean. You’ve seed ol’ Death at his tricks…Ever’ man wants life to be a fine thing, and a easy. ‘Tis fine, boy, powerful fine, but ’tain’t easy. Life knocks a man down and he gits up and it knocks him down agin. I’ve been uneasy all my life…I’ve wanted life to be easy for you. Easier’n ’twas for me. A man’s heart aches, seein’ his young uns face the world. Knowin’ they got to get their guts tore out, the way his was tore. I wanted to spare you, long as I could. I wanted you to frolic with your yearlin’. I knowed the lonesomeness he eased for you. But ever’ man’s lonesome. What’s he to do then? What’s he to do when he gits knocked down? Why, take it for his share and go on.
This is a lovely speech, and it speaks to the instincts of every father everywhere. But in the end, it demonstrates the limits of a father’s love. Do we really have to “take it for our share and go on”? Or, to ask it another way, what does it mean to “go on”?
This is where AP has surpassed his subject matter. It feels like a spoiler to say this, but Light for the Lost Boy reaches a climax with this astonishing truth:
Maybe it’s a better thing
To be more than merely innocent,
But to be broken and redeemed by love.
Maybe this old world is bent,
But its waking up,
And I’m waking up.
It’s not fair to the album to skip straight to the ending like this, because Light for the Lost Boy earns this ending. To quote Flannery O’Connor, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.” Light for the Lost Boy is a story that proves its truth in ways that can’t be summarized. You just have to live with it.
Those of us who are parents all wish we could protect our children from the brokenness of the world we brought them into. To put it another way, we all wish our children didn’t need the gospel. But they need it as much as we do. And the gospel is sufficient.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.