Tuesday Longread: Catholicism From Below

I was driving to the radio station where I volunteer today, and I was listening to the radio. Somebody on NPR was talking about the pope, repeating the same old “who will be the pope” nonsense, when nobody really knows. I got annoyed, and turned off the radio, and threw in an old mix CD I made. I came across a few songs by The Hold Steady, and I cranked it up and sang/shouted  along.

It wasn’t until later until I realized how funny it was I’d decided to listen to The Hold Steady instead of hearing about the Pope. After all, Craig Finn, the lead singer of The Hold Steady, is a semi-practicing Catholic. And in that moment, what Finn had to say about God seemed more relevant to me than who was going to be occupying one of the most politically and spiritually powerful positions in the world.

Frankly, I’m sick of hearing about Catholic institutions. I’m sick of hearing about how Catholic doctrine goes against birth control, about how Catholic doctrine goes against abortion, about how Catholic doctrine goes against gay marriage. Catholicism isn’t all about the pope, it isn’t all about Vatican City. The Pope is not infallible, even Pope Benedict said, “The Pope is not an oracle; he is infallible in very rare situations, as we know”. In fact, Catholicism is less about the Pope and Vatican City than its ever been, as the central order of the church becomes more isolated from its constituents in North and South America.

So instead of talking about the Pope (which I’ve already done plenty already, and probably will continue to do throughout the week) I decided this week to write about Craig Finn of The Hold Steady. Finn’s lyrics have always offered a really fascinating and powerful synthesis between Catholicism and the “dark side” of American party culture.

Finn’s strange take on Catholicism is so relevant because we have such a tendency in our liberal society to try to “bracket” religion from large parts of our lives – we want to keep religion a separate, pure, clean experience, a mystical abstract. Catholicism, as a whole, undercuts this narrative with its emphasis on saints, stories, tradition. Catholicism, for much of history, has been a religion of day-to-day lives. One of my favorite religiologists, Robert Orsi, spends a lot of time talking about how growing up Catholic caused him to look at the academic study of religion in a different way. Orsi wrote,

One of the greatest sources of violence in Western history has been the question of what Jesus meant when he said at the Last Supper, “This is my body.” Catholics take this phrase literally and Protestants do not, and rivers of blood have flowed over this theological difference…

Catholics I have spoken to who grew up in Catholic towns in rural Nebraska in the 1940s and 1950s told me they were deeply ashamed of their large farm families because they knew the children in nearby Protestant towns made fun of their parents’ fecundity, associating Catholics with the body and sex in a nasty schoolyard way. Catholic statues weep tears of salt and blood, they move, they incline their heads to their petitioners; recently in the diocese of Sacramento, California, which is near bankruptcy as a result of sexual abuse lawsuits, the eyes of a statue of the Blessed Mother leaked what believers saw as blood.

Throughout his career, Finn has adapted this sort of Catholic notion of the spiritual in a way that you could just as easily call creative or heretical. His songs focus on pimps, drug dealers, prostitute, club kids, and yet really, it’s all about God, the saints, good and evil. There’s not a huge difference between a statue leaking blood from its eyes and Chicagoans with “cigarettes where there’s supposed to be eyes”. Both are fantastical, blending the real and the spiritual.

Separation Sunday

When he was a member of sloppy “hardcore” band Liftr Pullr, Finn gained acclaim for his lyrics. But he didn’t start to really hit his stride as a writer until his second album with The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday Separation Sunday was an album that was dubbed “Egregiously Catholic” by the Village Voice for how it merged American’s dark sex/drug culture with Catholic stories and tropes. It’s never going to be realized as canon, but Separation Sunday is certainly brilliant.

What characterizes Finn’s music is how aggressively he blends the holy and profane, melting the distinctions between the two. “She got screwed up by religion / she got screwed by soccer players”, he sings on “Stevie Nix”,  “Hold your breath and I’ll dunk your head / and when you wake up again / you’ll be high as hell and born again” he sings on “Banging Camp”. And who can forget the brilliant “Cattle and the Creeping Things” where he writes,

“I guess I heard about original sin

I heard the dude blamed the chick

I heard the chick blamed the snake

and I heard they were naked when they got busted

and I heard things ain’t been the same since.”

So, that’s Genesis! Put away your Bibles, kids.

So here’s a “video” of that song (aka Youtube is the new audio player):

Separation Sunday is also, as already mentioned, the most conceptual, story-driven Hold Steady album. It follows a loose cast of characters, Charlamange, Gideon, and Holly (short for Hallelujah). But really, it’s all about Holly. Holly seeks God wherever she kind find God – in drugs, in parties, in sex. Finally, she dies and is resurrected, but ambivalently, seemingly to have learned very little, in the closer, “How a Resurrection Really Feels.”

Now, I could go on about how Separation Sunday sums up the experience of our generation, but really, it doesn’t. It’s fantastic, ludicrous, and overblown. Finn throws out profound one-liners alongside sex jokes and puns, loosely, haphazardly. There are stories, but they don’t always make sense, or have a beginning, middle, and end. And musically, it’s not The Hold Steady’s best album: Boys and Girls in America has that honor.

And yet, I still get the shivers whenever I listen to it. I’ve never “done any drug” other than alcohol, and I fucking hate parties, and yet it seems so deeply meaningful. The characters, and their superhuman-yet-human actions, and their journey, in its weirdness, it’s almost religious oddity, takes on a new meaning. In this way, it’s almost like a modern myth, like The Golden Ass circa 2005 – a tragicomedy about the sheer weirdness of reality.

I Got a New Friend

In the last few years, a lot of people have taken to asking Finn about his changing religious views. This is in part due to his recent album, Clear Heart Full Eyes, where he drops the J-word twenty times, almost entirely positively.

Indeed, there’s something so simple about songs like “New Friend Jesus” that you almost have to wonder whether Finn’s attitude towards religion has changed. Separation Sunday was complicated, confused, and aggressive, and his new music goes down so easily.

But then you start to look at the lyrics, and you see that Finn is just the same old spiritual prankster he always has been:

We drove around all summer long
We parked behind the bars
I’ve got a new friend and my new friend’s name is Jesus

People say we suck at sports
But they don’t understand
It’s hard to catch with holes right through your hands

Religion, after all, doesn’t have to be this big, holy, unseeable, mystic other. It can be, certainly. But more often, it is human, profane, funny, and yet strangely beautiful and meaningful at the same time.

In some ways, the Protestant culture that I’ve come from has said all it has to say about religion – and we have to start listening to others, such as Catholics, to actually start understanding what religion is beyond our narrow viewpoints. Maybe the reason I’ve always found the Hold Steady so intriguing is because listening to them feels like interfaith dialogue.


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