Awkward Endings

The other day in class we discussed endings to biblical narratives. Some of them don’t end with what we might call a “satisfying resolution.” This is certainly the case with Mark’s Gospel, which ends abruptly and on a very awkward note.

Such endings, however, are very effective, depending on the author’s intentions. Mark is destabilizing throughout – jarring, even – and it’s likely that he means to provoke a reaction among hearers with his abrupt and surprising ending.

If a writer wants to agitate readers, provoking them to reflect on what they’ve heard and what it means for them, then a satisfying resolution may hinder his aims.


I remember the first time I watched “No Country for Old Men” with some friends. Being unfamiliar with the story, I was very upset with its ending. I’ll never forget my friend Bob turning to me and saying, “think about it.”

I did. I couldn’t get it out of my head for about a week.

Then I read the novel and watched the film a few more times, continuing to converse with friends about various characters and turns in the plot.

Awkward endings provoke reflection. U2’s song “The First Time” has an ending like this. It’s a lovely song from their album “Zooropa.”


The first verse is about a lover. The second verse seems to be about Jesus:

I have a brother, when I’m a brother in need
I spend my whole time running
He spends his running after me.
I feel myself goin’ down
I just call and he comes around.
But for the first time I feel love.

As the final verse begins, it’s about a heavenly Father:

My father is a rich man, he wears a rich man’s cloak.
He gave me the keys to his kingdom (coming)
Gave me a cup of gold.

In their book U2 by U2, Bono said that as they wrote the song, they got to the end and just couldn’t bring themselves to end it tidily. It just wouldn’t do to bring about an easy resolution. So they wrote:

He said “I have many mansions
And there are many rooms to see.”
But I left by the back door
And I threw away the key
And I threw away the key.

Why did they do this? That may be the wrong question. Bono has expressed frustration at times when fans assume that U2’s songs are all autobiographical. It’s not that Bono himself is choosing to remain (or become) a prodigal, or throw away a relationship with God. None of that is in view here.

They’re weaving a narrative and they recognize the incongruity of a tidy ending with how untidy life is, how much the life of faith lacks easy or simplistic resolution.

I still wrestle with that song. Why does he throw away the key? What could he possibly prefer to the Father’s goodness? Is he bent on self-destruction and just can’t help himself? Am I like that? Are there times when I prefer the route of folly and self-destruction rather than receiving a good gift and entering into blessing?

An awkward ending. A brilliant song.

8 thoughts on “Awkward Endings

  1. timneufeld

    Thanks, Tim. This is such an appropriate interpretation of scripture and art. And what U2 does so well is mimic the parables. I think many of U2’s prose end as awkwardly or surprisingly as the stories Jesus told, though we’ve become so familiar with them we don’t realize how stark they were (like the end of Mark).

    And then these stories, especially with U2, have a way of resolving in unexpected ways. “The First Time” is one of my favorite songs, so I was delighted to hear it live with just Edge accompanying Bono. They’d made it through the whole song, and then Bono added a line I hadn’t heard in any recorded version of the song: “I threw away the key, yeah, I threw away the key. God knows, give it back to me, And for the first time, I feel loved.” That line clinched it as a prayer, turning the parable into a petition, a plea for grace. (On other occasions Bono would sing “Only grace can give it back to me,” or “God help us, give it back to me.”) In the same way, the whole ZooTV tour did this on a larger scale, ending with the haggard, used-up devil McPhesto singing “Love Is Blindness” and disappearing into the night with a chorus of “I can’t help falling in love with you.” Chilling, unsettling and not the happy ending we want. I’ve often ended one of my own classes with that clip and students would leave telling me they felt disturbed and “dirty.” They’d much prefer U2’s walk-off with “40” echoing in their hearts. Yup, scripture does the same if we let it.

    Thanks again!

    PS Here’s the clip I was talking about. You can’t see me, but I’m standing about 10 ft in front of Edge. Thrilling. Especially for this song.

    1. timgombis

      This is awesome, Tim, thanks! Indeed, I love it when Bono re-performs or ad-libs their songs and opens up new dimensions of the narratives. Profound stuff at work.

      What got me thinking was the final lines of “A Song for Someone” — I’m a long way from your Calvary . . . Goodness, that’s haunting. Gotta give that one some thought!

      1. timneufeld

        The now-but-not-yet of “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” continues, something akin to Paul’s “pressing on” passages. One of the most intriguing allusions for me on the new album is from “The Troubles”:
        “God now you can see me
        I’m naked and I’m not afraid
        My body’s sacred and I’m not ashamed”
        Pretty primordial!

    2. Chip

      Interesting, Tim. I see perhaps a little different trajectory for MacPhisto, at least in Live from Sydney. The whole encore is a five-song story arc for the character, who displays a false bravado and swagger in DGPFYCC that is quickly revealed to be a front during the phone call. The call leaves MacPhisto devastated, but the intro to “Lemon” rejuvenates him, and it’s “on with the show” . . . until he comes face-to-face with God, personified throughout the concert by the camera. MacPhisto initially delights in mocking God in a Judas-like fashion (note the similarities here with “The Fly” in UTEOTW), but the mockery cannot wipe away the confession we know as WOWY. By the end of that song, MacPhisto is emotionally spent and doesn’t want to face reality — or God — in “Love Is Blindness.” But finally at the end of his rope, he can’t help but admit that despite all of his many efforts, he “Can’t Help Falling in Love” with God, land leads the audience in a communal confession of that truth.

      I have an unwritten essay in my head about this arc and the role of the camera in the entire concert! And I see it as profoundly moving rather than “unsettling.”

  2. Chip

    Back two decades ago, I considered “And I threw away the key” to be the lyrical ending, too, followed by one of the saddest wails I’d ever heard and a closing chorus of either somewhat regretful or entrenched.apostasy. But for the last decade or so, I haven’t been so sure, as I sometimes hear the wail, the swelling music that follows, and the final chorus as tinged with wonder and amazement or awe — wonder that God still loves him or her despite apostasy. I like both takes.

  3. Dave Wainscott

    Tim: fantastic post!

    As Tim N above knows, this is classic for me as well.

    In 2007, I wrote an article for “The Bohemian Alien” called “Well-Ended Stories That Don’t End Well,” where I spent some time on this song (in the original and revised endings).
    Other great examples I use there are Michael Knott/LSU’s devastating “Double” which ends with a pastor getting divorced, and The Violet Burning’s “Underwater” (“Can You reach me? Have I gone too far? I’ve gone too far.” Interestingly, like U2, they have gone back and forth on how to end the song).
    Also, a Ray Bradbury short story that changed my life.

    I so love what Chip said about “The First Time”: “I like both takes.”
    You may know this, but an early and rare version of “The First Time” was
    recorded by a reporter, where the ending is:

    My father is a rich man
    He wears a rich man’s robe
    But I left by the back door
    I took another road

    He has many mansions
    He got many rooms for me
    He’s got those shiny shiny things I love
    But I threw away the key

    When you’re done in the gutter
    Sometimes, I guess, you can only look up
    So for the first time
    I feel love

    You can hear it here:

  4. youngman44

    Great, great piece, Tim. Thanks! (Helps that I’ve been a U2 fan since ’81 ;)).

    And, I love the Mark 16:8 ending. And thanks the other Tim for that link to the song. I’ve never had occasion to hear that live.

    I also see a similar element the more popular I Still Haven’t Found … On the JT tour Bono used to say, “This is a gospel song for a wandering heart” …

    “I believe in the Kingdom Come
    Then all the colours will bleed into one
    Bleed into one.
    But yes, I’m still running.

    You broke the bonds
    And you loosed the chains
    Carried the cross of my shame
    Oh my shame, you know I believe it.

    But I still haven’t found
    What I’m looking for.”

    There’s still a longing and emptiness to life … even one of faith. We still haven’t found what we’re looking for (cf. Romans 8 and the groaning of creation).

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