July 01, 2004
Having left 1989 behind for a good 15 years now, it can be rather disconcerting to walk into a CD shop and suddenly find yourself thrust back there, back into all the angst and insecurity that was the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. At least it was for me; I was 14. The cause of this sudden transportation in time? Morrissey, lead singer of one of the ‘80s greatest band, The Smiths, has released a new album.
If you don’t know The Smiths, it may be either an accident of history (by my estimates, you need to have been born no earlier than 1965 and no later that 1977), or it may have to do with the particular way you coped with the angst and emotion of the teenage years. At my school at least, I observed two basic strategies: the first was to invest all that excess energy and self-awareness in the diverting activities of sport, adventure and outdoor pursuits; the other was to face the issues head on, and sink deep into a world of insecurity, black duffle coats and bad poetry.
For those of us who chose the latter course, The Smiths were invaluable allies. Their music, and Morrissey’s lyrics, provided part of the soundtrack for the group that dealt with mid-‘80s—early ‘90s adolescence the unhealthy way.
The Smiths give the game away in their song titles; tracks like ‘Heaven knows I miserable now’, ‘Never had no-one ever’ and ‘Unlovable’ brilliantly capture the sentiments of adolescence. Insecurity was a major theme—
People see no worth in you
but I do.
I know I’m unlovable,
You don’t have to tell me. (‘Unlovable’)
And its attendant emotion, loneliness, was never far from view—
If you’re so clever, why are you on your own tonight?
If you’re so funny, they why are you on your own tonight?
If you’re so terribly good looking, they why do you sleep alone tonight? (‘I know it’s over’)
At times, especially on the theme of unrequited love, Morrissey captured some real pathos—
I know it’s over—still I cling
I don’t know where else I can go…
see, the sea wants to take me
the knife wants to cut me
do you think you can help me? (‘I know it’s over)
And it was all done with a distinct literary bent; not many pop groups spend whole songs on the respective merits of Keats, Yeats and Oscar Wilde as poets (‘Cemetery Gates’).
Adolescence passes; the smelly black duffle coat ends up at St Vinnies, bad poetry either becomes good poetry or (as in my case) ceases altogether, and humiliating interactions with the opposite sex slow (sometimes marginally) in their regularity. Hence the strange feeling of being thrust back there all over again, thanks to Morrissey.
Like my duffle coat, Morrissey has left some things behind. Almost beyond recovery, he has left behind his partnership with Smiths’s guitarist Johnny Marr, and with him, much of The Smiths’s musical brilliance. However, Morrissey has certainly not left behind adolescent misery; on his new album, for your listening pleasure you will find songs like, ‘How can anybody possibly know how I feel?’, ‘The world is full of crashing bores’ and ‘You know I couldn’t last’.
The most striking title for me, however, comes at track 3, ‘I Have Forgiven Jesus’. What has happened between Morrissey and Jesus? I don’t propose to be able to answer that question personally for Morrissey. But, as an artefact of 21st century pop-culture, I want to see what we can learn from it, at least about ourselves.
As a song title, there is something very clever about it. Even, I presume, for the hard-core Smiths/Morrissey fan, we get that something is wrong with the statement. ‘I have forgiven Jesus’ just sounds weird, sounds the wrong way round. Isn’t it Jesus that usually does the forgiving? Perhaps having seen The Passion of the Christ, or perhaps just by growing up in Western culture, we know enough to know that Jesus didn’t do too much that needed forgiving. And we know that, somehow or other, Jesus is normally in the business of giving, not receiving, forgiveness.
That’s just the title. On closer inspection, the song turns out to be almost a creed for a Western, 21st century person’s primary stated reason for rejecting the Christian message:
I have forgiven Jesus
for all the desire
He placed in me when there’s nothing I can do
about desire. (‘I have forgiven Jesus’)
The song turns out to be a kind of lament or complaint-psalm about (homo?-) sexual desire.
I have forgiven Jesus
for all of the love
He places in me
when there’s no-one I can turn to with this love
The last stanza moves from third to first person, with Morrissey now addressing Jesus himself with his complaint:
Why did you give me
so much desire?
When there is nowhere I can go to offload this desire?
Why did you give me
so much love
in a loveless world…
Jesus—do you hate me?
Essentially, the song is a meditation on desire, which becomes a prayer of complaint, directed to Jesus, about that desire.
C.S. Lewis once observed that, if the sensuous language of the gospel promises are anything to go by (the bread of life, living water, rest, wine and song) it would seem our problem is not that our desires are too strong, but too weak. According to Lewis, we are half-hearted creatures, happy making mud-cakes in a slum because we cannot imagine what is meant by a holiday at the seaside.
And thus, on theological reflection, it may be that the desire Morrissey complains of is not to be faulted for its intensity—the snuffing out of desire is a Buddhist, not Christian, strategy. The Christian gospel does not propose to contain desire, but to heal it, renew it and even intensify it—making our loves and affections correspond to that which is truly lovely and worthy of affection.
But, for all this, perhaps my affections for an old comrade-in-angst have led me astray. Perhaps I am being too generous to a song that could, on a quite reasonable reading, be labelled blasphemous, and offensive to Christian sensibilities.
That, however, has not been my reaction. Rather, Morrissey’s song has pushed me in two different ways. Firstly, I think there’s something right about it. As a song (again, I’m not making any claims about Morrissey himself—I’m speaking of the song’s persona) it demonstrates something of the Psalmists’ instinct to go to God with our troubles, something of the New Testament exhortation to “cast all our cares upon him” (1 Peter 5:7). Unwanted sexual desire is surely no exception to that rule. Would to God that more of our friends and family who struggle in this area did something of what this song does, and took that struggle to the Friend of Sinners. Would that more people knew the truth of another song—
What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sin’s and grief’s to bear
Secondly, it must be said, there’s something very wrong with this song. It’s hard to think of a more vivid language for capturing the spirit of independence and rebellion than in the line, ‘I have forgiven Jesus’. It bears eloquent testimony to the human spirit, which refuses God, and stands in judgement on him, our creator. It is that spirit of independence from our creator that robs us of receiving from him the Desire of the Nations, the Bread of Heaven, Living Water. We will only know him when we are able to take Morrissey’s sentence and re-work its grammar—switching the verb from the active to the passive voice, and the subject to the object; that is, to be able to know and say, ‘I have been forgiven by Jesus’. And so, to the man who more that any other sang me all the way from 1989 to 1992 and beyond, I feel I owe you a debt. As any decent beggar ought to do, I want to let you know that, somewhere between 1989 and 1992, by the grace of God, I’ve found some food…
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