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Michael J. Gilmour 

 

According to Kelton Cobb, the jeremiad is widely used as a narrative framework in popular culture.[1] It offers a variation on the lost paradise script that calls for a return to Edenic innocence. The jeremiad has a biblical origin, of course. In the Hebrew Scriptures, prophets like Jeremiah warn the people of covenant violations and call them to repentance. Cobb observes writers and artists in popular culture constantly returning to the flexible form of the jeremiad to express their conviction “that we have corrupted our obligations toward a providential order that surrounds us.” There are numerous variations on this theme because artists differ in their views regarding “what it is that constitutes corruption, and what it is within us that persists in causing it.” What these writers share in common is the use of paradise myths to explore “the shortcomings of human life” as they address the question, “What went wrong?”[2]

In their 2006 album Neon Bible, Arcade Fire presents two kinds of religiosity in dialogue: one we might call a genuine, biblically informed spirituality and the other an expression of religion tainted by commercialism and self-interest. The band assumes the role of prophet in the jeremiad tradition, calling the audience to be wary of the latter. Cobb continues:

The covenant/jeremiad script is a good one for juxtaposing an ideal order to our boundless imaginations for deviancy. Through it, a stubborn moral faith that persists in the culture continues to have a voice, promoting repentance and invoking a more exalted and inclusive idea of justice than the one that prevails. It offers a proven device for inventorying both a society’s sins and the contents of its conscience.[3]

Indeed, Arcade Fire’s album juxtaposes an ideal order with forms of deviancy, and occasionally we hear hints of a stubborn moral faith. Some characters cannot escape a persistent, nagging conscience.

Not only is Neon Bible a jeremiad, it is also carnivalesque. For Mikhail M. Bakhtin, the term indicates transgressive energies analogous to medieval carnivals during which unofficial culture would mock official culture, temporarily[4] resisting political oppression and totalitarian order—political, ecclesial,[5] or social—through laughter, parody, and grotesque realism. The image suggests liberation from fixed values and imposed modes of behaviour. Those normally subjected and silenced have occasion to speak and freedom to treat the sacred as profane, to mock and ridicule authority figures, and cast off social expectations. 

Neon Bible is carnivalesque in that it offers a parody of Christian symbols. The band identifies this album as a kind of bible[6] and they connect their music to sacred imagery in other ways as well. For instance, the liner notes number the songs and the verses within them using larger and smaller fonts, in a format recalling chapter and verse divisions in modern Bibles. The notes further evoke a mood suitable for something called a bible by including pictures of organ pipes, stained-glass windows and churches, and people in water with crosses on their wetsuits, perhaps suggesting baptism. The band indicates they recorded and mixed the album “at ‘the church’ in Quebéc,” and “St. James Anglican Church in Bedford, Québec, [and] the Église St. Jean Baptiste in Montréal.” When they say they recorded and mixed the album “during 2006 at ‘the church’ in Québec,” they mean this literally. They lived and worked in a nineteenth-century church near Montréal for the year it took to complete the album. Not only does this decision to bypass a more traditional, modern, technologically sophisticated recording studio contribute to the fresh, original sound of the album, the preference for a “sacred space” over a “secular” one has metaphoric value. This expression of unofficial culture assumes the place of official, authoritative religious activity as it constructs its own bible.

There are still other ways the band introduces sacred elements to the album. They acknowledge the contributions of “Gospel Singers” and direct thanks to “the Ven. Dr. Brian A. Evans, Archdeacon of Bedford” and the Église St. Jean Baptiste in Montréal “for allowing us to use their organ.” The album’s cover has a picture of an open, glowing (neon) book (presumably a/the b/Bible). These various visual clues indicate to the band’s audience—before they hear a note—that Arcade Fire is presenting, to repeat my earlier phrase, a kind of bible. This bible draws on various symbols—the sacred sounds of church organs, a chapter-and-verse style of lyric presentation, explicit references to the Bible and ecclesial practices—and in doing so parodies and comments on contemporary Christianity.

The album is rich in biblical imagery; this is no surprise given the principal songwriter’s background. Win Butler grew up in the suburbs of Houston before moving to Québec, and he describes his mother’s side of the family as “really religious.” He refers to his maternal grandparents as “martini-drinking Mormons” and says he attended Mormon Sunday school as a child. He also listened to his grandfather “who would cheerfully undermine the church’s dogma.”[7] Butler also studied Bible at McGill University.[8]

Butler recalls another way religion loomed large during his days in suburban Texas, and his remarks are instructive when considering the Neon Bible songs. He mentions the many megachurches in the area and claims he had contact with them: “I’ve been exposed to that quite a bit—the commercial church.” These institutions embody for him a kind of religion “fused with the culture, [which] becomes more commercial.” In his opinion, this stands contrary to what religion should be: “I’m always suspicious when religion isn’t countercultural.”[9] Implied in these remarks is Butler’s view that religion has two faces. On the one hand, there is a kind of genuine spirituality (countercultural), and though he does not elaborate the point in this context, he does refer to the Bible as “still relevant.” On the other hand, he criticizes religion when it aligns itself too closely with culture and commercialism (megachurches). This second form of religion betrays the influence of contemporary society, presumably its uglier qualities.

This dual perspective contributes to the ambivalence toward religion we hear in the Neon Bible songs. There is such a thing as authentic, genuine spirituality. but it has a materialistic, commercially driven doppelgänger that mimics distasteful features of the modern world—herein lays the band’s social critique. Within the lyrics, we find references to both kinds of religion. There is a bible that is poison (“Neon Bible”), and the Bible that is “relevant.” We discover from this album that the church is a place that can kill you and destroy your family (“Intervention”), but “the church” (liner notes) is also the site of creativity, the sacred space in which the band creates its prophetic music. To illustrate how Arcade Fire articulates their views on religion, I offer here a few brief remarks about two of their songs.              

The powerful “(Antichrist Television Blues)” involves three distinct speeches. The first (vv. 1-2, 9) is a soliloquy presenting the narrator’s rationale for not wanting to work downtown, ostensibly because planes are crashing into buildings two by two. This obvious allusion to 9/11 articulates a perfectly understandable fear and a credible reason for wanting to avoid the rigors of a regular job in an urban landscape. Presumably, most listeners would be sympathetic to his despair at first. However, if we jump ahead to the third speech (vv. 7, 10-14), addressed to his “sensitive child,” we become a little suspicious of his motives. He tells his thirteen-year-old daughter that he worked for minimum wage when he was her age, and he will not allow her to do the same when a better opportunity exists. He is coaxing his “little mocking bird” to get on the stage and sing. She may be tired and afraid, but he insists she perform and convince the men watching that she is “old for [her] age.” Initially there is gentleness in his terms of endearment but his words become increasingly frantic as the song proceeds, as if the girl is reluctant to perform as he wishes. This culminates when his tone changes and he tells her, “I’m through being cute, / I’m through being nice.” He will force her to sing, and his words almost suggest violent coercion.

It is in the second speech, directed to God (vv. 3-6, 8), that we can piece together the story in more detail. This “good Christian” narrator, as he refers to himself, attempts to justify his actions, explaining to God that people must work hard and receive compensation for their labors. He also tells God that his daughter is quite mature for her age, perhaps anticipating the same objection that the men watching the girl, and the girl herself, appear to recognize. This father wants divine permission to let his “bird in a cage” perform for pay.

In an effort to present God with a persuasive case, he appeals to a biblical precedent. He asks God whether he intends to seat his daughters (plural in verse 4 of the song) at his right hand, clearly alluding to the Gospel story where a parent puts the same request to Jesus:

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to [Jesus] with her sons…. “What

do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one

at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matt 20:20-21).[10]

The parent in the song obviously knows this story, but appears to forget that Jesus does not grant the mother’s request, making his appeal to this particular biblical passage rather absurd. Butler certainly knows this; by having his narrator make such a request, it is clear that the father’s actions do not enjoy divine commendation. This father has other biblically based arguments in support of his case. He claims to have God’s best interest in mind, wanting a child on the TV screen so “the world can see what / your true word means,” and he refers to his daughters (plural) as “the lanterns” and God as “the light,” words alluding to Jesus’s metaphors of a city on a hill and a hidden lamp (Matt 5:14-16). 

On stage, the band occasionally refers to “(Antichrist Television Blues)” by the title “Joe Simpson,” after the father and manager of pop star Jessica Simpson, who would therefore be the bird in the cage mentioned in the song. Regardless of the referent intended, the song clearly describes a parent willing to exploit his children for personal gain. This father may tell his girl to perform and “show the men it’s not about the money,” but his words ring hollow. He is the one with an aversion to the idea of his daughter working for minimum wage, and he is the one who becomes wealthy thanks to her talent. We know this because he holds the purse strings tightly; if the girl does not sing, he threatens, “daddy won’t buy her no diamond ring.” He has an opportunity to escape the workaday world by living off the profits earned by his celebrity child.            

There is a polyphonic quality to this song’s lyrics. On the one hand, the father is a person of faith (“I’m a good Christian man”) and biblically literate, evident in his choice of terms and phrases: “seatmydaughterstherebyyourrighthand” [sic] (cf. Matt 20:21); “My lips are near, but my heart is far away” (cf. Prov 26:23-24; Isa 29:13; Matt 15:8); “God loves the sensitive ones” (cf. Matt 5:5). At the same time, this father knows his actions are morally suspect. If this were not the case, he would not need to explain himself to God in the first place (vv. 3-6, 8). This recognition of moral shortcoming is most evident in the closing words of the song, which follow immediately on his announcement to the girl that he will no longer be cute and nice. Returning to prayer, he cries, “O tell me, Lord, am I the Antichrist?!”

This conflicted father is aware of two kinds of sacred discourse. One is the commercially driven religious agenda that attempts to justify the exploitation of a child using biblical tropes. The other is the father’s religiously informed conscience, traces of what Cobb calls “a stubborn moral faith” (see above). Despite his own rhetoric, he knows his actions are inexcusable. His desperate last question—“am I the Antichrist?!”—is the largely stifled voice of conscience, perhaps something implied by the use of parentheses in the song’s title (i.e., it is a muted confession, partly hidden away). The father in this song holds in tension two separate discourses. He is dialogical, debating with himself, driven both by genuine religious ideals and a more selfishly motivated religiosity that hopes to profit from immoral actions.

The narrator of the song, “Keep The Car Running,” is anxious about a vague sense of impending doom.[11] This song describes the contents of a recurring dream situated in a city where unidentified men come to take the sleeper away. They know his name because he told it to them, which implies a personal connection with them, but still he does not want them to find him. The recurring call to keep the car running signals his intention of fleeing before (or when) they arrive. The narrator does not tell us explicitly who these men are or why they frighten him. He feels a “weight that’s pressing down” and further describes a deep-seated fear that he has known his whole life, knowing its name “since before I could speak.” This weight and this fear are distinct from the men themselves, and he adds the detail that they “don’t know / where / And they don’t know / When It’s coming.”

The capitalization of “It’s” (as it appears in the liner notes five times) suggests a specific crisis, perhaps the biblical judgment. The reference to the lion lying with the lamb elsewhere on the album—an image frequently linked to the millennium/kingdom of God in some Christian circles—lends support to this reading (see “The Well And the Lighthouse” and Isa 11:6, 65:25). This does not reveal explicitly the identity of the men he is running from, those who know about the “weight” causing the singer’s “fear” but not when or where this crisis will occur. However, it seems plausible these men are religious teachers who preach fear to their congregations, even if their messages lack clarity and detail (i.e., the when and where of divine judgment). Though it is risky to link a songwriter’s biography to poetic lyrics, it is striking that Win Butler is so open about his connections to organized religion during his childhood. The fact that the singer wants to run from them (“I can’t stay”) suggests his desire to leave behind the fear mongering—experienced since infancy—that traumatizes him. He cannot escape the fear itself, it would appear, because he continues to have these disturbing dreams, but he can avoid those who promulgate that fear. 

If this reading is correct, it supports the suggestion put forward earlier that Neon Bible distinguishes actual, genuine religious content from institutions and other manifestations of that religion that are suspect in the songwriter’s view. The narrator of this song wants to distance himself from those who represent the kind of piety that thinks it appropriate to frighten children in the name of God for the sake of religious instruction and proselytizing.[12] This song resembles “(Antichrist Television Blues)” in that it comments on what is arguably a form of child abuse—broadly defined—by religious authority figures, namely that they are willing to scare children.            

To conclude, Neon Bible is an illustration of unofficial culture resisting official—in this case ecclesial—culture, questioning its coercion and abuses by presenting a parody of the Church and its biblical basis of authority. Other songs on the album explore similar themes (consider especially “Intervention” and “Neon Bible”). Arcade Fire’s lyrics subvert and ridicule authoritarian, commercially driven Christianity. The band, in this carnivalesque reversal of roles, takes the place of (literally in) the Church through their symbolic act of choosing to record in that venue. The band’s album functions as an alternative bible, in effect replacing the Bible. Through parody, they challenge the questionable ethics and practices of churches in consumer culture. 

Michael J. Gilmour, Providence College (Canada)

 

Notes

A longer version of this paper appears in the online Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. I include an adaptation of ideas presented here in Gods and Guitars: Seeking the Sacred in Post-1960s Popular Music (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2009).

Arcade Fire won a Juno (Canadian equivalent of a Grammy Award) in 2008 for Neon Bible in the category Alternative Album of the Year.

[1] Kelton Cobb, The Blackwell Guide to Theology and Popular Culture (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005), esp. 213-20.

[2] Ibid., 220, 227.

[3] Ibid., 227-28.

[4] “The official feasts of the Middle Ages, whether ecclesiastic, feudal, or sponsored by the state, did not lead the people out of the existing world order and created no second life. On the contrary, they sanctioned the existing pattern of things and reinforced it” (Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World [trans. Helene Iswolsky; Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1984], 9).

[5] According to Bakhtin, sacred parody was common in medieval times (ibid., 14).

[6] I use lower case when using the word “bible” as a category. I use upper case when referring to the Christian Scriptures or the album and song titles that include the term.

 [7] Gavin Edwards, “The Magnificent Seven,” Rolling Stone 1027 (2007): 63-64, 66-67.

[8] Colin Larkin, ed., The Encyclopedia of Popular Music (5th ed.; New York: Omnibus, 2007), 66.

[9] Taken from Ryan Adams, “Arcade Fire,” Interview 37.7 [2007]: 101.

[10] In Mark’s version of the story (10:35-40), the mother does not appear.

[11] The idea of a future calamity appears also in “Black Mirror,” where the singer tells us, “I know a time is coming / [When] All words will lose their meaning.”

[12] This song reminds me of anecdotes friends tell of the trauma experienced from watching Donald W. Thompson’s rapture movie, A Thief in the Night (1972), as children. Undoubtedly, a new generation of children are experiencing similar anxieties because of the books and movies in the Left Behind franchise. In both of these examples, religious teachers emphasize aspects of a future judgment. 

 
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