How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
On Sunday, March 8, 2009, with morning light peeking through rain and warming the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral, the Bishop of Paris listened as an Italian philosopher—one who has characterized his work as an “ink-blot” and theology as the ink—delivered, in his own words, a homily against the Church. He made a strange distinction between the “end times” and the “time of the end,” or, as he read it in the Apostle Paul, “the time that remains.” He argued that the church, desperate to put down its own roots in the world, had forgotten that we are all in exile from our true home, sojourning through the world. We point to the second coming of Christ while forgetting that He has already come, and indeed that He never fails to come to us still through His Spirit. If the Church cannot grasp this and transform time itself in the process, he said, “it will be swept away by the disaster menacing every government and every institution on earth.” The disaster he referred to is a crisis of legitimacy. Here, at the beginning of the 21st Century, power has a hard time justifying itself any longer. The speaker’s message is simple: if Christianity cannot offer a unique form of life for our times, then its claims to truth hold no weight. It is simply one more institution.
Fast-forward to Friday, April 20, 2018. On a day that some set aside to worship drug culture, an abnormally cold spring is settling across a nation frozen with political angst. A new and garish album cover lines store shelves and accosts passers-by with the sight of a grinning hunchback offering the viewer the contents of his open hands: a be-tentacled beating heart. Hard-rock band A Perfect Circle has returned with Eat the Elephant, their first album in 14 years. Three days later, the band performs their single “TalkTalk” on Jimmy Kimmel Live: “Thoughts and prayers: adorable,” sings frontman Maynard James Keenan to the delight of an enormous audience, only to swerve suddenly in an unexpected and candid direction for late-night television: “Faith without works is dead, dead, dead / Sit and talk like Jesus, / Try walking like Jesus.” The end times are clearly on their minds; but so is the work of those who live in the time that remains.
But on Eat the Elephant, Christianity’s legacy is not its active ruination of the world but its failure to hold fast and prevent its message from being used to ugly effect.The time of the “public intellectual” has certainly come to an end. Though he is one of the new millennium’s most popular philosophers, Giorgio Agamben—whose Notre Dame homily was published through the University of Chicago as The Church and The Kingdom—is hardly a household name. A Perfect Circle is another story. Despite playing in a genre often found too harsh for popular listening, the band has become one of the most successful and well-known of the last 20 years. This is owing in no small part to Keenan’s eccentric and cloistered personality, which is only matched by his haunting voice and lyrical ingenuity. Circle’s legacy of relevance and quality has been widely noted, with critic Tom Day stating in 2004 that they had “literally defined ‘alternative’ rock as we know it.” A music video for “Judith,” a song about Keenan’s late mother and a lead single from the band’s first album, boasts 23 million views on YouTube at the time of this writing. There, guitarist and founder Billy Howerdel assaults listeners with a scream of “F— your God!” not even a minute into the song, while Keenan mournfully chastises,
It’s not like you killed someone
It’s not like you drove the hateful spear into His side
Praise the One who left you broken down and paralyzed
He did it all for you.
Howerdel’s music and Keenan’s messages have long been directed at those who “never thought to question why,” and Eat the Elephant is no exception. The title track invokes an old joke as its paradigm: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Indeed, since the band began writing again roughly 10 years ago, current events seem to have left them biting off more than they can chew, with Keenan psyching himself up on the opener:
Just take the stab
Just take the swing
Just take the bite
[And] go all-in . . .
Commentary on a world like ours must begin somewhere, anywhere, and Keenan is no stranger to such critique. A Perfect Circle’s previous album, eMOTIVe (2004) is almost entirely composed of droning, minor-key covers of anti-war songs. A similar critical narrative emerges on Eat the Elephant, as “Disillusioned” urges in hymnic fashion for listeners to scrap the mediating influences of their computer screens and “silicon obsessions.” Speaking of a crisis of power and legitimacy much like Agamben does, Keenan laments that, in our frustration, we “run / towards anything glimmering.” The stakes are high, as the shadowy figure of “The Contrarian” stands ready to use our gullibility and lack of attention against us.
But if the motive here is to stop looking for the right place to begin and to “just begin,” it feels painfully obvious that the band has been beaten to the punch a hundred times over by the break-neck pace of the very media machine it condemns. Profane high-points peak with the soaring, Douglas-Adams-inspired “So Long and Thanks For All the Fish,” an anthem celebrating two years of high-profile celebrity deaths and praising those who have gone ahead, leaving the rest of us to endure the final curtain-call of our “atomic pageantry.” Reviewers have noted that the album goes downhill from here, unable to finally avoid the pretention and virtue signaling that has already saturated so much of our discourse. Art and politics have made some beautiful music together, but lately their relationship carries all the nuance of a Super Bowl riot where winning and losing doesn’t determine if you’re going to start that dumpster fire, only why. So when the album winds down, with repetitions of “Get the lead out / [and] Suck it up, buttercup,” it’s hard to feel like any sort of difference has been made.
Keeping with the political tenor of the times, A Perfect Circle fearlessly brings religion into the fray once again. Despite all the missteps on this album, this is how they keep my attention, as unlike many a loud anti-religious act whose knowledge of what they lambaste could barely fit on one side of a guitar pick, Keenan’s biblical literacy ought to give listeners pause. The album’s fourth track, “The Doomed,” paints a bleak inversion as the Sermon on the Mount becomes a war march:
Behold a new Christ, behold the same old horde
Gather at the altering: new beginning, new Word
And the Word was Death, and the Word was without light
The new beatitude: Good luck; you’re on your own.
The message is just as stark for those who want no part in the new regime:
Doomed are the poor
Doomed are the peaceful
Doomed are the meek
Doomed are the merciful
For the Word is now Death
And the Word now is without light.
A clarion of the end of days, “The Doomed” is not easily dismissible—or appropriable—as a simple atheistic anthem for our times. Something valuable has definitely been lost. Keenan has maintained an, at best, ambivalent relationship with his Baptist upbringing and a hypocrisy he felt he could not ignore. His mother’s stroke was the occasion for his writing “Judith,” a tight-wound tear into the problem of evil that might even leave C. S. Lewis scrambling for words. But on Eat the Elephant, Christianity’s legacy is not its active ruination of the world but its failure to hold fast and prevent its message from being used to ugly effect. Intentional or not, “The Doomed” becomes a sort of affirmation through negation, a dystopian description that also provokes longing for its inverse, a world best described in the Gospel of Matthew. Under the shadow of the rich and powerful, the implicit call to action is this: What is the opposite of “Good luck; you’re on your own”? And what does it look like when put to work in the world?
On “TalkTalk,” the band makes it clear that “thoughts and prayers” is not the beatitude they’re looking for. From Charlie Hebdo and Pulse to Sandy Hook, Parkland, and Santa Fe, A. J. Willingham notes in a recent CNN headline that the phrase has gone “from common condolence to cynical meme,” a fixture of this generation’s ever-darkening humor. But in a perverse way, as on “The Doomed,” A Perfect Circle seems to want to restore some of the force that the sentiment has lost. “Don’t be the problem, be the solution,” Keenan chants, invoking the Epistle of James and providing concrete examples of exactly what he means:
Try braving the rain
Try lifting the stone
Try extending a hand
Try walking your talk or
Get the f— out of my way!
Keenan’s demands that someone walk on water or rise from the dead seem cynical and restrictive, until we remember a similar injunction from Christ: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12 ESV). Our tendency to forget this brings us back to Agamben’s critique: so long as our “thoughts and prayers” are always pointing to the future, to the “end,” our faith can only express itself in terms of present crisis rather than abundant life. Both the Italian philosopher and the American rockers seem to be expressing the same message: that the stakes of the game no longer belong to those who can best prepare us for the end of time, but to those who will help us live in “the time that remains.” Of the roughly 2 million viewers whom the band urged to “walk like Jesus” on Jimmy Kimmel, it’s impossible to know how many took the challenge seriously, or who might see any hope at all in doing so.
Perhaps this is the elephant in the room for us as Christians, who so frequently speak—as Gerhardus Vos taught us to—in terms of “already but not yet.” Are we ready to have faith that we’ve been equipped for the life that is “already” here? That what has “not yet” come is perhaps not our greatest responsibility? While governments prepare for crisis, will we perform Incarnation? That remains to be seen—but if Keenan, Howerdel, and their crew continue to have the impact they’ve cultivated over decades, then we should begin preparing answers to those questions.
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