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.
It’s been a long, hard week—and that’s not a political sentiment so much as a statement of fact: lots of people, not only in America, are working through lots of complicated emotions this week, and that’s hard.
I’ve had many conversations with my Christian friends over the last few days, asking about how they’re processing the nation’s and their own emotions. The prevailing impulse (in my community at least) was to look to the future: What do we do now? How do we choose to behave? How do we feel?
As I processed these questions, my mind turned often to Regina Spektor’s most recent album, Remember Us to Life. Spektor released the album on September 30, and though I’ve listened to almost nothing else since, this week has brought new relevance and power to the music. Spektor’s trademark has always been to blend genres into unexpected yet seamless hybrids of folk, rock, pop, and everything in between. Remember Us to Life takes this stylistic synthesis a step further by applying it to her songs’ lyrics. Each song deals with both sides of every story, mixing them together so that it’s hard to tell where one starts and the other ends, who’s right or who’s wrong, whether light and dark really cancel each other out. Nonetheless, Spektor brings all these anxieties to a hopeful conclusion that love still has power even in a broken world.
Remember Us to Life opens with “Bleeding Heart,”a loner’s anthem describing a classic outcast: stuck at the back of the bus, too shy to talk in a crowd, more comfortable alone at home than out in the world. The dreary existence Spektor describes in the quietly lilting verses is contrasted by the loud, almost exultant chant of the chorus: “Never-never mind your bleeding heart.” The character in “Bleeding Heart” obsesses over her own pain, stomping it down and ignoring it.
A twist comes in the third verse, when outcast becomes so absorbed in her own pain that she grows helpless when faced with the task of comforting someone else. This character never learned how to feel properly; she let the hurt of being ignored conquer her ability to reach out to others. The final lines of the song, then, make a gentle exhortation: “How long must I wait? / Until you heal your bleeding heart.” It’s Spektor’s plea for the whole album: don’t let the bad you experience overwhelm your capacity for good.Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to sit down and share a coffee with the devils in our lives.
The dichotomy “Bleeding Heart” sets up—that between handling our own hurt while remaining compassionate toward others’ pain—plays out in the all the stories that follow. Sorrow, disappointment, and hate are never so consuming that they blot out all the good. In life, both sides exist in permanent tension, and it’s up to us how we choose to live with that. The rest of the album, then, reads like a how-to guide to living in that tension, as well as an encouragement to choose kindness, hope, and joy despite the reality of evil.
One of the most illustrative songs, “Grand Hotel,” is a bouncy tune that could be the soundtrack to Wes Anderson’s interpretation of Hieronymus Bosch: “Somewhere below the grand hotel / There is a tunnel that leads straight to hell,” Spektor croons to a bouncy melody, “But no one comes up for the souls anymore / They come for some comfort and for the dance floor.”
The idea of making peace with devils comes up again in “TornadoLand,” in which Spektor sings,
And all the monsters in your mind
Just wanna be nice
They wanna be kind
They wanna play nice.
Spektor doesn’t so much point at the devil and laugh as wave him over, shrug, and offer him a sip of her coffee. She’s not encouraging complacency, though—far from it. In “The Trapper and the Furrier,” she holds the wicked accountable for the damage they do, indicting characters who extort other people’s pain for their own advancement. These songs aren’t encouraging listeners to complacency about the evil in the world and in ourselves—instead, they encourage the brave decision to accept that evil exists and to do the best we can with that reality—perhaps even to the point of transforming that evil into good.
This argument comes to a comforting conclusion in the album’s final song, “The Visit.” “I’m so glad that you are here,” Spektor sings, “And I know that it’s been years / Time’s best friend is fear / That’s how it can find us / And do its greatest kindness / Always to remind us / That it’s our only time inside / This body and this mind.” The song emphasizes that the key to fighting despair is to accept life’s inevitable changes—that despite its highs and lows, we need to love each other regardless.
As believers, we’re posed with a few ways of tackling the evil in the world and in our own lives after we turn to Christ. We can ignore it, wrapping ourselves in assurances that once we’re saved, sin isn’t a factor for us anymore; we can acknowledge that it’s a problem for other people, but count ourselves lucky to be freed from it; or we can recognize that despite our new identities, we still have to struggle with sin in our hearts and in the world.
Confronting sin and evil doesn’t have to be a terrifying prospect. That’s the hope we have in Christ: that His “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). And accepting that we live in a world in which evil exists doesn’t mean we have to despair. In Remember Us to Life, Regina Spektor encourages us to remember the beauty in the world and our capacity to give grace to others in the same way grace was given to us.
Maybe after a long, hard week, it’s not such a bad idea to sit down and share a coffee with the devils in our lives. We might learn a little about perfect love.
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