Practicing Prodigality with The National

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The song that drew me to The National at first was “I Need My Girl,” and I heard it during a very discouraging season of my life. It’s a worn irony, this aching comfort of sad songs for sad people, but when I first encountered Matt Berninger’s grainy, plaintive lyric “I keep feeling smaller and smaller,” I listened to the song on repeat for two hours. Since then I’ve been a foul-weather follower, if you will. Every time that certain loneliness or melancholy hits harder than normal, I know I’ve got someone who will sit still with me in that place for a while until it’s time to move forward.

The National’s new album I Am Easy to Find is like an entire lifetime of those places, slipped into the space of sixteen songs. It is their eighth and longest studio album, and it’s my personal opinion that it cannot be fully appreciated without experiencing the accompanying short film of the same name.

The director Mike Mills collaborated with The National to create what amounts to a portrayal of an entire life in less than half an hour. The score tells the story hand-in-hand with micro-moments of one woman’s existence, and the story is thematically linked to the push and pull inherent in that imagery. Throughout, Alicia Vikander’s character remains ageless in appearance in every stage, from newborn to elderly—she is the same person, even as the world and her experience of it shifts around her. We see her losses and gains, her leavings and arrivals, her repetition of experiences over time, her failures and joys.

These songs live in the space between deep brokenness and longing for transcendence, always tethered to something more bright and beautiful than their flaws.

Chris Wheeler

The National surrounds these visuals with a textural soundscape dominated by a series of female vocalists and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, representing a range of identities. And through all of this weaves an unrelenting admission of brokenness, fear, and pride warring against loyalty, faith, and love. The tension is relational, as our love for ourselves pulls us away and our love for others pulls us back.

The song “Oblivions” portrays a long-term relationship where both parties don’t really know what they’re getting into:

It’s the way you say yes when I ask you to marry me
You don’t know what you are doing
Do you think you can carry me over this threshold
Over and over again into oblivion?

Even though the people entering this covenant are different in essence due to their promise, they still carry with them remnants of their old, unattached. They are easy to find, but they are still shifting and growing. The singer admits, “I’ve still got my fear,” but in the midst of the flaws, the other won’t walk away.

Similarly, Berninger and vocalist Kate Stables sing together in the title track:

There’s a million little battles that I’m never going to win anyway
I’m still waiting for you every night with ticker tape, ticker tape.

The National’s songs traditionally uphold this tension of attractions as an essential force of existence. These songs live in the space between deep brokenness and longing for transcendence. They are a kind of soundtrack for our current pilgrimage. They aren’t comfortable, and they’re weird and incoherent sometimes, and they wander. But they are always tethered to something more bright and beautiful than their flaws. They uphold high ideals and recognize that humans are consistently unable to reach them unaided.

In this way the characters in their songs inhabit familiar space and a familiar tension—especially for those of us who struggle with ourselves in the light of God’s holiness and perfection. And isn’t that all of us? Aren’t we all prodigals, returning home caked with the mud of our wanderings, with fear in our pocket and shame on our backs?

I’ve only recently been able to articulate, and that rather poorly, a way of living faithfully in that space between. It has to do with the affections (with help from Jonathan Edwards and James K. A. Smith) and the practice of writing poetry.

The best way that I’ve come to understand affection is, admittedly, by contrasting it with my modern conception of emotion. Emotion is something that happens to you. We experience and exhibit various strong feelings as responses to various stimuli—a person, a place, a picture, and so on. Often emotions are fleeting, superficial, and not necessarily related to action.

Affections, on the other hand, are connected to both mind and body in a more holistic way. Jonathan Edwards contrasts them with “passions” (or emotions) this way in The Religious Affections:

“The affections and passions are frequently spoken of as the same; and yet, in the more common use of speech, there is in some respect a difference; and affection is a word, that in its ordinary signification, seems to be something more extensive than passion; being used for all vigorous lively actings of the will or inclination; but passion for those that are more sudden, and whose effects on the animal spirits are more violent, and the mind more overpowered, and less in its own command.”

Ultimately, affections are vitally connected to faith by the inclinations of the will.

When we accept Christ, our deepest desires experience a fundamental shift. While we still struggle with wanting those things we wanted in our natural human state, we begin to desire those things that are of God. We are awakened, in a sense, to the loveliness of our Father and alerted to the ugliness of our sin and everything that opposes our Father.

In a regenerated person, our godly affections war against our ungodly affections, seeking to submit them to this new paradigm of glorifying and enjoying our God. As we encounter attractions to things that are evil still existent in ourselves, we must fight against them for the sake of a higher attraction. Edwards says it this way:

As all the exercises of the inclination and will are either in approving and liking, or disapproving and rejecting; so the affections are of two sorts; they are those by which the soul is carried out to what is in view, cleaving to it, or seeking it; or those by which it is averse from it, and opposes it. Of the former sort are love, desire, hope, joy, gratitude, complacence. Of the latter kind are hatred, fear, anger, grief, and such like; which it is needless now to stand particularly to define.

James K. A. Smith, in You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, gets at the same fundamental tension. Jesus didn’t just come into the world to renew our intellect, but to redirect our loves.

Jesus’s command to follow him is a command to align our loves and longings with his—to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he is all in all—a vision encapsulated by the shorthand “the kingdom of God.”

This is why repetition, which we pursue in artistry, liturgy, worship, and prayer, is essential to living life in Christ. As we turn again and again in total need to the face of Christ and receive grace in our brokenness, our desires themselves are shaped. An intellectual understanding of God’s grace cannot change me, but a habitual receiving of his grace does.

Like my poet friends in The Poetry Pub (join us there!) I’ve been trying to understand all this through writing poetry. I want to develop a deeper understanding of how to let thrive those affections that make me love God more and more each day. I want to get into the habit of hating my sin and all that stands in opposition to him. So I’m attempting to live in the tension of an attracted life in a similar way to The National, by creating art. Writing poetry becomes a continual wandering and return, a practice in prodigality. Through it I come again and again to the throne of grace to receive what I cannot earn. Through it I repeat God’s promise to me, his name for me, when I have trouble believing both of those things.

In some sense, I’m learning to repeat this verse from “So Far So Fast:

Don’t you know someday somebody will come and find you?
If you don’t know who you are anymore, they will remind you
We don’t see you around here anymore, it’s okay
I will say your name out loud and you will be home
There are so many things that drive me crazy
What you think I am, it’s never been me
Hearing you talk always saves me
Can you get away and talk to me?

And slowly and imperceptibly, with each line and each return, I continue my gradual collapse into Christ.


2 Comments

  1. Jen Rose Yokel

    @jroseyokel

    An essay about The National and poetry-writing on The Rabbit Room? Is this real life?

    So good, Chris. I’ve loosely followed The National since High Violet came out, and never could quite articulate why their songs get to me. (I haven’t taken the time to dig into this new record yet… maybe when the weather starts getting cold again. “Foul-weather follower” indeed, haha.) So thanks, I think you put words to a lot of things for me in this piece.

  2. Thomas Leonard

    @tleonard

    Love these two lines: “Writing poetry becomes a continual wandering and return, a practice in prodigality” and the last one, “…I continue my gradual collapse into Christ.” Can’t wait to listen to more of this album!

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