Sunday, January 13, 2013

Apocalypse Now... or Later: 8 Songs on the Theology of the End Times

I am not generally a very superstitious person, but I have to admit that when numerous individuals sought to have Mayan apocalypse end of the world parties last year, I was a little cautious about tempting and/or taunting fate. At any rate, the apocalypse didn't happen, nor did it happen when I was in 8th grade and some other failed prophet claimed it would end during my 3rd period study hall. For me, these non-events only lend greater credence to the words of Jesus Himself who said rather pragmatically, "No one knows the hour except my Father who is heaven." Perhaps one of the more interesting things to come out of this cultural fixation about the end times is that it is not only the religious folks who seem to be expressing a deep sense of foreboding about the not so distant future. Even those with primarily a secular world view sense that something is awry. Indeed, these days it is not only the hell-fire preacher who declares that there will be a day of atonement- now he is joined by the environmentalist, the Drudge report, and all of those young zombie enthusiast who seem almost to want to hasten it. Some see the times ahead with utter despair, perceiving only death and destruction in our future, while others see the coming times as period of painful purification, which will give way to a new era of peace. But whatever one's conception of the "end times", it is always helpful to look at such phenomena through the eyes of the artist, who has been kind enough to provide us with any number of perspectives on the issue.

1. The Cranberries - Zombie

Granted, this early 90's (light) grunge hit wasn't about zombies per se, but it nevertheless does lend a little insight into the mentality of said beasts (why else would she use the term)?). The song condemns the decades old political feud (and resulting violence) between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland; "It's the same old theme since 1916, in your head, in your head, they're fighting. With their tanks, and their bombs, and their bombs and their guns. In your head, they're dying. In your head, in your head, Zombie, Zombie..." During the end times, one can certainly envision any number of scenarios wherein there might be individuals wandering about who have, in many respects, "left the building"; people so psychically traumatized by some cataclysmic event that they no longer resemble the person they once were. Or maybe the zombies are simply people like Adam Lanza who are so drugged up and detached that a mass shooting like the one in Connecticut doesn't phase them. All the same, the type of "zombie" that Dolores O'Riordan of the Cranberries is speaking about is not simply someone who is vacant, but someone who appears to be occupied by some ungodly force. Call it possession, call it a pathology if you like, but whatever it is the result can only be characterized as something bestial, something which is so metal minded that one wonders (like in the movie I Am Legend) if they can even be brought back.

2. Prince - 1999

Back in 1982 when this classic was released, the year 2000 and all of the drama surrounding it must have seemed  far away enough to be harmless. How else do you explain a song as brazen as this one? Sure, there are plenty of people out there who are down right terrified about the end of all things, but then again there are also those who seem quite unaffected. Count the artist presently known as Prince among those who fit into the latter group; "... When I woke up this morning could have sworn it was Judgment Day. The sky was all purple, there were people running everywhere. Tryin' to run from the destruction you know I didn't even care. They say 2000, 0 0, party over, oops, out of time. So tonight I'm gonna party like it's 1999." Some might respond to this eerie "purple" sky and all of the impending doom with a deep sense of shock and horror, but Prince simply responds with presently popular YOLO. In fact, he was YOLO before YOLO was fashionable. Indeed, some approach their impending death and judgment with a desire to repent and make amends, while others say, as did the Dave Matthews Band; "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die." This is not to say that one should not appreciate every moment that one has on this earth, but that's not what's going on here. The message is more like; 'you're gonna die anyway so you might as well just live it up, or as Prince so eloquently put it, "So if I gotta die, gonna listen to my body tonight..."

3. Soundgarden - Blow Up the Outside World

Occasionally in the world of rock n'roll, which is known primarily for its insatiable capacity to indulge itself, there are those that rebel against this kind of rebellion. Yet even this rebellion is ultimately no less destructive than the former. I suppose it is part of the metal spirit to always want stuff to be broken and/or blown up. Thus, even when a musician finds himself disillusioned with a world that has become too decadent and commercial, he doesn't want to fix it, or offer any solutions, he simply wants to annihilate it altogether; "I've given everything I could, to blow it to hell and gone. Burrow down and blow up the outside world..." In many ways this song is kind of a sequel to Black Hole Sun which states "Black Hole Sun won't you come... to wash away the rain." Such apocalyptic angst might go in one of two directions. As suggested in Black Hole Sun, it might entail something more positive; something that implies a hope that God will restore all that has been squandered; "Heaven send hell away, no one sings like you anymore...". On the other hand, one might see things more from the perspective of the song Blow Up the Outside World, where you become so disgusted with everything that you just wish it all away. If you choose the latter, then you perceive the world to be unsalvageable and therefore believe that the only solution is to end it all. According to this perspective, the world is rotten with decay- as exhibited above- and thus God (or something else) must bring it to a close.

4. Radiohead - No Surprises

One thing that must inevitably accompany the end times, at least according to most literature on the subject, is that much feared totalitarian state. Yet this terrible government is not like your grandfather's despotism. Indeed, these leaders cite benevolence for everything they do. And if they have to re-educate you in the process they will do so by hitting with velvet pillows until you lose your mind. They are truly the government that is good, not because God wills it, rather, they are good for goodness' sake. Sadly, their aim is not goodness, despite all the pleasant language they employ. Their aim is to alter the very definition of man, and to engineer him in such a way that the organ of his will has all but been demolished. Some might call this the destruction of humanity, while others may argue that in order to achieve true peace we must do away with man's inherent "willfulness." In any case, this particular song approaches this idea of "will-lessness" from the inside. If ever there were a band who embodies this dystopic nightmare, it would have to be Radiohead. Practically everything they write feels like it should be on the soundtrack to Brave New World, 1984, or Fahrenheit 451; "A heart that's full up like a landfill; a job that slowly kills you. You look so tired and unhappy. Bring down the government, they don't speak for us... I'll take a quiet life, a handshake, and carbon monoxide. No alarms and no surprises... Silent..." At the heart of the dystopic tale there is always that element of powerlessness in the face of an absolute power. In some cases their freedom may be lost because some terrible despot merely usurps it, while in others (as embodied in this song) it is forfeited, and even preferred, to freedom. Humanity is exhausted and has come to revile liberty, and so prefers the aforementioned regime as long they promise comfort and peace (in another age they called it "bread and circuses"). In these end times, if this scenario is correct, we should expect to see some kind of far reaching totalitarian state (or states), one that will no doubt require that every man, woman, and child in the name of peace and love must imbibe whatever Kool-Aid they are dishing out. Many will be deceived. Only the strongest in spirit will survive these trying times; "There will be great tribulation, such as has not been seen since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will be. And if those days had not been shortened, no human being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened" Matthew 24:21-22.  

5. Muse - Uprising

The song Uprising by the band Muse continues this dystopic theme; "Paranoia is in bloom, the PR transmissions will resume, They'll try to push drugs that keep us all dumbed down, and hope that
we will never see the truth around. Another promise, another scene, another packaged lie to keep us trapped in greed... and all the green belts wrapped around our minds. And endless red tape to keep the truth confined...They will not force us. They will stop degrading us. They will not control us. We will be victorious..." Unlike the previous song, this citizenry possesses a little more fight to them. In other words, yes, there are some that will simply go with the flow during these times, but there are also those who will attempt to resist. In the book of Revelation, there is a passage which declares that the "Beast" will demand that everyone receive his mark either on their hands or on their forehead; "It (the beast) forced all people, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to be given a stamped image on their hands or their foreheads, so that no one could buy or sell except one who had this stamped image of the beast name, or the number of his name" Revelation 13:16-17. One could no doubt envision this happening in any number of ways in this age of the "scanner". In any case, the focus of the song is one that suggests triumph in the face of systematic degradation. In fact, in the song Resistance from the same album, Muse suggests that guns are not the primary tool by which this battle is decided. Rather, according to them, "love is our resistance." It may perhaps be difficult for some to envision "love" as a powerful weapon, especially in the face of so menacing a force, but that is indeed the proposal of Muse, the proposal of the book of Revelation, and furthermore the proposal of the Song of Songs, which states; "Love is stronger than death; devotion as unyielding as the netherworld". Song of songs 8:6.

6. Peter Gabriel - Here Comes the Flood

Combine the Biblical image of the Flood with a songwriter's mystical dream and what you get is probably the most beautiful and poetic song on the list. For most of us the Flood simply invokes a cataclysmic event, combined with a divinely constructed life raft, a family, and some animals. But Peter Gabriel brings his own twist to the table. According to several accounts, he had a dream of an apocalypse, but it was not a flood of water that deluged man, rather a flood of messages and information coming over the airwaves. No thought was to be private anymore. And only those whose thoughts were true could withstand this "flood" of exposure. Written back in 1977, the song is nothing if not prophetic, especially considering how today practically nothing is really private anymore; "For whatsoever things you have spoken in darkness, will be published in the light. And that which you have whispered in the ear in the inner chambers, will be proclaimed from rooftops" Luke 12:23. Can anyone now doubt the veracity of such a statement, whether one is talking about Judgment day, or whether one is talking about the direction in which our culture and technology are headed?

When the night shows
the signals grow on radios
All the strange things
they come and go, as early warnings
Stranded starfish have no place to hide
still waiting for the swollen Easter tide
There's no point in direction we cannot
even choose a side.

I took the old track
the hollow shoulder, across the waters
On the tall cliffs
they were getting older, sons and daughters
The jaded underworld was riding high
Waves of steel hurled metal at the sky
and as the nail sunk in the cloud, the rain
was warm and soaked the crowd.

Lord, here comes the flood
We'll say goodbye to flesh and blood
If again the seas are silent
in any still alive
It'll be those who gave their island to survive
Drink up, dreamers, you're running dry.

When the flood calls
You have no home, you have no walls
In the thunder crash
You're a thousand minds, within a flash
Don't be afraid to cry at what you see
The actors gone, there's only you and me
And if we break before the dawn, they'll
use up what we used to be.

Lord, here comes the flood
We'll say goodbye to flesh and blood
If again the seas are silent
in any still alive
It'll be those who gave their island to survive
Drink up, dreamers, you're running dry.

In some sense you can argue that the apocalypse will be a series of events drawn out over an extended period of time, but there is also an immediate aspect; a shock that freezes the heart with a terror that is all too real; "In the thunder crash you're a thousand miles within flash." Jesus says something quite similar when he mentions the story of Noah in the Gospels "But as in the days of Noah, so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days that were before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be." Matthew 24:37-39.

7. Pink Floyd - Two Suns in the Sunset

There are actually several songs that correspond to the message of Two Suns in the Sunset. All concern some sort of nuclear holocaust, and all lament what they perceive to be a kind of stupidity that will/has led us up to this point. The 80's were  marked by that feeling that nuclear war was just around the corner (I used to have nightmares about it). 99 Red Balloons was about how World War III began as a result of 99 red balloons unleashed in the summer sky only to be mistaken for some sort of missile attack (sounds plausible). The Future is So Bright... is even more sardonic than the former, for the reason the future is bright has more to do with a nuclear fire than personal achievements. For Waters and Pink Floyd, the apocalypse is not only stupid and unnecessary, but it is also revelatory at the same time. When everything is about to be blown to smithereens, we really do see things as we should have seen them all along; "And you'll never see their faces, and you'll never hear their voices. You'll have no recourse to law anymore." Granted, the last bit is an odd detail, but it does point to something that we are far too likely to take for granted: law and order. We assume that everything will always run as it has our whole life, but when all of that breaks down, when lawless reigns, one may for the first time understand why the Israelites rejoiced over the law of the Lord being given to them, or why everyone was so happy when the real refs returned after having to endure their replacements. Rules were all of a sudden seen as valuable. "Finally I'll understand the feelings of the few; ashes and diamonds, foe and friend, we were all equal in the end." Death is the great equalizer, reminding us in a way that nothing else can, just how foolish it is to live life storing up treasures in a world where "moth and rust doth decay". Today a nuclear war is only one of many ways in which our technology has taken on an apocalyptic character. This is yet another reminder of our need for some intervening force to save us from our own Frankensteinian death wish; "People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with great power and glory. But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand." Luke 21:26-28                  

8. Enigma - The Return to Innocence

I chose this song as the lost one on the list in part because at least it is an apocalypse which offers us some hope. I also selected it because there is something incredibly primal and native about it. Most of the words are fluffy and forgettable (this is Enigma after all), but the opening line as well as the chorus give it a pleasing atmosphere; "That's not the beginning of the end. It's the return to yourself; the return to innocence." The video contributes to this feeling of innocence by shooting everything in reverse so that the end of the video is actually the beginning. The chorus, which appropriately has no words, is a chant, which gives it a distinctly tribal feel. Yet despite the fact that it has no words, it seems to express rather eloquently this feeling of longing, coupled with the desire return to a state of purity. In a sense tribal music is the perfect vehicle to express the feeling of not just the innocence of an individual, but the original innocence of mankind. I applaud this attempt to offer hope in the face of these uncertain, perhaps even apocalyptic times. It is far easier to write a song that only expresses the fear and dread of humanity. The only thing I would dispute is the idea that humanity can return to a kind of primordial childhood. In truth humanity can no more return to original innocence than an adult can become a baby again (as is implied in the video). As Christ suggests in the Gospels, a man cannot return to his mother's womb- he therefore must be "born again". The way in which this new birth comes about is not simply by going backwards, but rather enduring a period of trial and tribulation, so as to be utterly uninhibited by worldly attachment. Man will return to innocence again, not because he has no experience of evil, but because he has seen its full measure, and has finally come to the awareness of its complete and utter. Thus, no longer being divided within himself, he can finally and unreservedly choose the good; "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" Revelation 21:1-4.


  1. Fascinating! Another song that really has a kind of apocalyptic vibe is Zero Sum by Nine Inch Nails. The interesting thing about this song is that it seems to be taking place after some apocalypse, looking back at the past; it spends a lot of time shaming the human race for all the evil we have collectively done, and yet it also shares a sense of the loss we would feel once we realize the order that we currently take for granted is missing.

    1. Thanks for the tip, I will check it out. In case you're interested, In the next post I am going to do the same theme, but with movies.

  2. Man comes around?

    Great stuff, by the way!

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