Struck by Russ Ramsey, Free for CAPC Members
Death’s party-crashing ways are detailed in a new book by Russ Ramsey, titled Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death.
The Human Condition is an album of paradoxes. It is Jon Bellion’s debut full-length album, yet he’s been writing, producing, and providing vocals for significant radio hits (including “The Monster” by Rihanna ft. Eminem) in recent years. Born and raised in Long Island, New York, Bellion defies genre—The Human Condition slides smoothly between sing-along pop, hip-hop, R&B, and gospel, among others. Bellion is only 25 years old, yet The Human Condition is an attempt to transcend his own experiences, to say something about the nature of what it means to be truly human in a broken world.
Perhaps we ought to agree with Bellion that the greatest paradox of all is that no matter how far you run, your whole life is in the hand of God.Bellion seeks to find the universal in the specific. Perhaps it is a bit of a stretch to suggest that Bellion’s own experiences, characterized by significant success at a young age, really reflect the paradigmatic human condition. Some might even say that this album embodies a sort of myopic pseudo-authenticity that characterizes a uniquely millennial way of approaching the human condition. But if what Frederick Buechner says is true—“that the story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all” (10)—then Bellion’s attempt to use deeply personal reflections as a paradigm for the broader human condition is a sensible artistic impulse. Some of the most personal and specific lyrics on the album are also some of the ones that carry the most emotional weight.
Lyrically the album occupies the space created by the paradox of human rebellion and yearning for redemption. Bellion is not shy about admitting his own failures, often using exceedingly strong language, yet these revelations characterize some of the most powerful moments on the album. Whether confessions of drinking, sexual indiscretion, or simply melancholy, Bellion’s honesty and vulnerability invite the listener to connect with his lamentations while simultaneously partaking in his longing for something more.
Bellion explores the limits of human knowledge in the acoustically-driven “Maybe IDK” —reflecting on the absence of answers for all of life’s hardships and sorrows. He wonders, “why I feel short when my money’s tall / I wonder why I miss everyone and still don’t call.” But rather than moving him to skepticism of God, these questions move him to contentedness in his creaturely limitedness: “I guess if I knew his plans / I guess he wouldn’t be God”—and later in the chorus: “Maybe I don’t know, maybe I don’t know / Maybe that’s okay.”
Perhaps one of the most profoundly paradoxical themes in The Human Condition is that we all experience the brokenness of a fallen world, and yet we collectively agree to ignore or paper over the places that are the most deeply broken. “We live in an age where everything is staged / where all we do is fake our feelings / I’ve been scared to put myself out there,” Bellion sings, reflecting on our age’s particular tendency to hide by staging our Instagram photos just right, or self-selecting the details we disclose on our profile pages.
In “Morning in America,” Bellion explores how we deal with the gap between who we claim to be and who we actually are: “We’re secretly out of control, nobody knows it / We’re secretly out of control, nobody says it,” seemingly echoing the sentiments of author Sammy Rhodes in his book This Is Awkward that “[o]ne of the saddest realities of life is that the things we need to talk about the most, we tend to talk about the least” (5). In a more personal take on the same theme, “All Time Low,” Bellion confesses,
I’ve been trying to fix my pride
But that shit’s broken, that shit’s broken
Lie (lie, lie), lie, l-lie, I try to hide
But now you know it.
And yet, Bellion comes back to the paradox: “Yeah, we’re secretly out of control and everyone knows”—we all act like the fact that we are out of control is a big secret, but it’s actually one that everyone is in on. One of the primary ways we deal with the reality that we are out of control is that we corporately agree to pretend like our own lives and everyone else’s are under control, and that the class president who overdoses is a radical exception, instead of a more common reality simply slipping out of the shadows.
By the album’s conclusion with “Hand of God,” Bellion’s come full circle. References to his own personal successes and demons in “He Is the Same” give way to the confession that his whole life is in the hand of God. He confesses, “I am just a man, I am just a man / Who lusts, gives, tries / Sometimes I lose my way,” recapitulating the fallenness he’s considered throughout the tracks leading up to the finale. For Bellion fallenness is not just about the things within himself that he can’t seem to change, but those outside of his control as well. Bellion provides death as the final and chief example of the uncontrollable: “Tears at a funeral, tears at a funeral, I might break /Angry at all the things, angry at all the things I can’t change.”
If fallenness is part of the human condition, then the final track’s turn to a soaring gospel-music infused refrain that “[Y]our whole life’s in the hand of God / Nothing has changed, he is the same” reminds us that rebellion is only part of the story. Wherever our human brokenness leaves us, it still leaves us a longing for redemption. Philosopher James K. A. Smith describes this phenomenon as “cracks in the secular”—places where the secular worldview of our age offers an insufficient explanation for reality, leaving us with a longing for mystery and the transcendent. Bellion gives us glimpses of the cracks through lines like, “All this shit, I can’t explain / Is it by design or random fate?”
We are people who simultaneously reject our creator by rebelling against him while longing to be in relationship with the transcendent One who can make things right. Perhaps we ought to agree with Bellion that the greatest paradox of all is that no matter how far you run, your whole life is in the hand of God.
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