Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
Last summer, the Chicago artist Noname released her long awaited debut mixtape Telefone. It was not the boisterous album one might expect for a debut. Rather, Telefone is a short, relatively quiet meditation.
Noname is a contemplative rapper. Her words spill over the tracks, which are subtle enough to not overwhelm her cadence. Never rising above a conversational volume, she packs her bars with images and stories, weaving portraits of people and memories with existential musings. Her intonation bobs and weaves. Sometimes she’s reminiscing, other times confessing, other times reading the listener a bedtime story. Throughout, Noname is always inviting us to attentiveness.
In her work Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil highlights the parallels between such mindfulness and prayer: “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” For Weil, inspired by mysticism, prayer is something more than simply talking to God. Prayer is a quieting of oneself in order to be attentive to the work of God in the world.
And as Gerard Manley Hopkins would say, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” This sacred work is everywhere. It is a discipline for us, being the selfish creatures we are, to get out of the way and be attentive to the world around us. This action requires faith and love according to Weil.
Noname reminds me that salvation is real: that the movement from death to life is a comprehensive reality that will mercifully swallow us up.While art and prayer are not the same, they share this central act of paying attention. Artists and believers embrace such attentiveness themselves, but they also call those around them to deeper attention. Art and prayer both require and provoke a closer attention to the reality of the world.
Deep attentiveness to a broken world, however, will almost always lead us to places of pain and complexity. The best art and the truest prayer both stem from folks who don’t look away when the world becomes too beautiful or too ugly or too complicated to bear. Such is the case for Telefone.
The cover art of the mixtape is a portrait of the artist. Set against a lavender backdrop, a young Noname holds a bouquet of flowers in one hand while she glances up at a small skull perched on her head. This cover art is a mirror image of the music.
At first, death seems to define Telefone. As a black woman from Chicago, Noname has dealt with death’s intrusions in a way that I can only attempt to understand from afar. She raps about police brutality on tracks like “Yesterday” and “Casket Pretty,” the ancestral memory of slavery on “Reality Check,” and the emotions surrounding abortion in “Bye Bye Baby” and “Freedom.” Even in more universal experiences of death—the death of family and friends—Noname never deals in the abstract. “Me missing brother Mike, like something heavy/Me heart just wasn’t ready/I wish I was a kid again.” Death for Noname isn’t an abstract question, but a concrete reality. And she calls her listeners to attend to that experience.
But death never speaks the final word on Telefone because for Noname salvation is just as concrete a reality as death. On the first hook of the album, she raps about “all the little things I need to save my soul.” If death is the skull perched on Noname’s head, the possibility of salvation is the bouquet in her hand. Noname finishes her last verse on the mixtape by calling her own funeral “a Disney fable/cause the king bout to take me home.” It is not death, but God’s salvation that has the final word. As she puts it on the track “Forever,” “They ain’t trynna see me shine, shine/bullet on my time, time/But f**k it, we’ll live forever.”
When I heard this hook for the first time, the weight of hope—real hope, the bouquet of flowers held with a clenched fist even though a skull sits on top of your head—crashed over me like a bucket of ice water. Noname reminds me that salvation is real: that the movement from death to life is a comprehensive reality that will mercifully swallow us up. To this we should pay attention.
Unfortunately, the way we talk about salvation much of the time in evangelical circles encourages us in the opposite direction. It teaches us to be less attentive to our lives and the world around us. In doing this we miss the work of God in the world—ironically, the actual work of salvation.
I have never not considered myself a Christian. It’s the only thing I’ve ever known, really. Everyone in my family that I can think of calls themselves Christian, and as I grew up in the south, cultural Christianity was simply the air I breathed. So at age eight when I prayed “the prayer” accepting Jesus into my heart, it was authentic, but also almost inevitable.
Folks often use the phrase “being saved” to talk about an event like this, but I wonder about this language. It has always felt ill-suited to this experience. Those words are too dramatic, too final, for what was a rather mundane (although not meaningless!) event.
If the end goal of the Christian is to be saved, and salvation is a singular moment of conversion, the implication is that our real work on earth is done immediately following the sinner’s prayer. Sure, explicitly there is the important work of saving other souls, of helping others get to the right side of conversion, and while we’re here, we should live morally, following Christ. But our place in the afterlife is secured. Implicitly, the most important thing is taken care of. We are saved.
It seems easy enough, on this view, to dust our hands of this battered world and pack our bags for a disembodied paradise. The danger, however, is that we might stop truly paying attention to the world around us and become fixated on a more comfortable future. Conversion as salvation, end of story, seems like a much too static way to describe a dynamic process. God seems to be up to more than that.
Noname’s attentiveness to the world challenges and subverts this all too familiar understanding of salvation. The point is not that “I was saved” is untrue, but that it is incomplete. We are also “being saved,” choosing daily to turn from death toward life. We also “will be saved,” looking forward to the day that God will make all things new; our salvation, along with that of the world, will be in full. We are being saved from death in all its forms—personal and communal, physical and spiritual.
And because God’s project is not just about getting individual souls to heaven, but rather reconciling to himself all things in heaven and on earth, we cannot fully unravel our personal salvation from that of the whole cosmos. Salvation is a comprehensive movement from death to life.
When Noname raps, “all the little things I need to save my soul” on the opening hook, I’m reminded of the morning prayer from the Book of Common Prayer: “Dearly beloved, we have come together in the presence of Almighty God our heavenly Father, to set forth his praise, to hear his holy Word, and to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation.” This is a daily prayer describing an everyday dynamic that is both individual and communal.
If prayer is dependent on our attentiveness, as Weil suggests, then attentiveness must also be a daily practice, and like the morning prayer—both individual and communal. “Let those with ears hear,” scripture tells us over and again, but we cannot hear unless we are listening. We cannot see unless we are looking.
Noname has eyes to see and ears to hear. She practices unmixed attention toward herself and the world around her. She is always paying attention to death, both the death that intrudes on her life and the death that is her own doing.
But she does so in order that she might be moved toward life, that she might be saved. May we heed her call to attentiveness and do likewise.
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