“Up The Wolves”: Straining Fitfully Toward Redemption

I enjoyed a long lunch yesterday with a friend who is in seminary.  Among other things, we talked for a bit about the various trajectories college graduates take after intensely pious or zealous undergraduate years.  Some react dramatically against certain experiences, setting off in radically different directions.  Others carry scars in various forms that bear bad fruit for years.  We spoke of particular people and particular events, but I’ll reflect generally.

We talked about how a serious grasp of God’s outrageous goodness and overpowering mercy and magnanimous love and pathetic care and fatherly tenderness helps us to deal well with painful pasts and to live fruitfully into our futures.

We moved on to other topics and had a great time, but thinking about a few people who carry guilt and shame, regret and anger, made me profoundly sad.

When I returned to my office I listened to my favorite Mountain Goats song, “Up The Wolves,” a few times.  I can’t listen to that song with anyone else around because I find it so profoundly moving.

What I love about it is its sweet and simple honesty about the struggle toward redemption from deeply painful experiences, whether suffered from others or self-inflicted.  The song is sort of an “in-process report” in that it doesn’t tell the entire story.  It doesn’t end nicely or neatly with resolution and redemption.

A majority of Mountain Goats songs express John Darnielle’s struggle to get to grips redemptively with the memory of his violently abusive step-father.  Some aren’t easy to listen to.  But “Up The Wolves” must be set within Darnielle’s wider pursuit of redemption, understanding, and forgiveness.  It’s sort of a blend of imprecatory psalm and biblical lament, a cry that arises from intensely felt injustice.

There’s bound to be a ghost at the back of your closet,

no matter where you live.

There’ll always be a few things, maybe several things,

that you’re going to find really difficult to forgive.

All of us have done things of which we’re ashamed.  And all of us have had our sense of justice violated by others.  We’ve been treated badly in one way or another so that forgiveness seems impossible.  It’ll be a struggle.  And forgiveness, since it’s something that we must continually inhabit, will often feel like it’s eluding us.

The second verse points toward a kind of redemption, the hope that the future will bring holistic healing and freedom.

There’s going to come a day when you feel better.

You’ll rise up free and easy on that day.

And float from branch to branch,

lighter than the air.

Just when that day is coming, who can say? who can say?

This is the hope that drives us, the desire to be free of shame or anger that holds us and imprisons our spirits.  But again, we see the honesty that resists romanticizing the situation or minimizing the injustice and the pain—there’s no knowing when restoration will come.

The yearning for rescue is then voiced in terms of the founding myth of Rome.  The resonances of abandonment and its consequences are powerful.

Our mother has been absent ever since we founded Rome.

But there’s going to be a party when the wolf comes home.

The next verse points to the hopeless mechanisms we employ to bring about redemption.  He fantasizes about somehow broadcasting to the neighbors what’s been going on in their house.  Surely if others knew, they’d act to rectify the situation!  This glimmer of hope, however, is dimmed when he realizes that efforts would be misdirected and the situation would only worsen.

We’re going to commandeer the local airwaves,

to tell the neighbors what’s been going on.

And they will shake their heads, and wag their bony fingers

in all the wrong directions,

and by daybreak we’ll be gone.

In light of this hopelessness, he turns to fantasies of spectacular revenge.

I’m going to get myself in fighting trim,

scope out every angle of unfair advantage.

I’m going to bribe the officials.

I’m going to kill all the judges.

It’s going to take you people years to recover from all of the damage.

Our mother has been absent ever since we founded Rome.

But there’s going to be a party when the wolf comes home.

As I said, the song is a sort of “mid-process” report in that it doesn’t turn the corner and provide redemption or resolution.  Set within the Mountain Goats’ wider body of work, however, we know that this isn’t the last word.  Darnielle knows that violence is not the hopeful and redemptive way of dealing with his past.

But it’s a powerfully honest portrayal of how fitfully we move toward healing.  The hope of redemption sometimes fades from view and our fantasies and thoughts turn toward unhelpful or self-destructive strategies.  We often put our hope in violence and spectacular plans for revenge.

Forgiveness is indeed a struggle.  Receiving the grace of God and redemption in Christ isn’t easy.  We have to deal with our overpowering passions generated by violated senses of justice.

The biblical psalms are quite frank about the tumultuous emotional journeys entailed by the life of faith.  We’d do well both to inhabit forgiveness faithfully and welcome honesty about the struggle to do so.

I think of those held by shame and anger.  Lord, have mercy.  Christ, have mercy.

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