Escaping the Monsters

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There’s something scarier than these monsters.

In my iTunes library, I have a playlist labelled “Songs I Play Too Much.” All of the entries on that list are songs that for a time seem to sum up where I was in life and how I felt about it at a particular point of time. When a song catches my feeling in this way, I tend to play it, again and again, for weeks. (Hopefully I am not the only one who does this!)

Right now, that song is “Monsters,” by Imagine Dragons. This stanza is particularly interesting to me:

If I told you what I was,
Would you turn your back on me?
And if I seem dangerous,
Would you be scared?
I get the feeling just because
Everything I touch isn’t dark enough
That this problem lies in me.

Notice what the speaker’s concern about his relationships with other people tells us: “If I told you what I was,” he wonders, “would you turn your back on me?” A question like this implies that there may be something truly wrong with the speaker, dark and serious enough to drive people away. The fact that he wonders whether other people would be “scared” suggests he is not worried about a social snubbing over entertainment choices or even religious or political affiliation. He is worried that he is broken and dark in ways that are truly terrible, ways that if brought to light would logically drive other people away. 

Notice too how the trouble which the speaker bears affects his environment as well. “Just because / Everything I touch isn’t dark enough,” he concludes “that this problem lies in me.” The speaker’s wording here suggests that the world around the speaker – the things he “touches” – are getting darker, and that he is responsible. After all, since “everything [he] touch[es] isn’t dark enough,” the speaker himself concludes “that this problem lies in me.”

No wonder then that in the chorus the speaker concludes:

A monster, a monster,
I’ve turned into a monster,
A monster, a monster,
And it keeps getting stronger.

The idea that the speaker has “turned into” a monster suggests that whatever he is wrestling against, whatever terrible wrongness is within, it is undermining his humanity.

Interestingly, the idea that human beings are wrestling against a “monster” which threatens who are are meant to be is not unique to contemporary culture. The song “Monsters” reminds me of modernist poetry, specifically T.S. Eliot’s preconversion works. Consider (briefly) his poem “The Hollow Men“:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass.

As in “Monster,” the speaker sees himself as somehow wrong, and sees this wrong part of himself as destroying his humanity. In Eliot’s poem the speaker is destroyed by nothing so dramatic as a monster; his “headpiece” is simply “filled with straw,” suggesting a fundamental foolishness. Yet even this problem turns him from a human being to something less: a straw man.

Importantly, his loss of humanity threatens his spiritual well-being; the fact that a stanza further on he is worrying about the “final meeting / In the twilight kingdom” – death – suggests that the speaker is not in a good place, spiritually.

To put this in the terms of faith, what both speakers have discovered is that they are fallen. There is something wrong with them, whether a “monster” or simply a “headpiece filled with straw,” and that wrongness threatens who they were created to be. To give into this wrongness is to become a grotesque, monstrous version of a created human being. 

This discovery is one that I think all human beings make (or at least are capable of making) at some point in their lives. Francis Spufford refers in Unapologetic to his discovery of the “human ability to f*ck things up”: our tendency to turn monstrous, no matter how good our intentions.

I myself have lately been aware of the detritus that accumulates on human life. (Perhaps this is because I am more than a year into my thirties.) I remember my childhood as a time of simplicity and purity. Not that it was Eden: I fought with my parents, I lost my friends, I made stupid decisions. But my childhood was simpler; as an adult I discover that I have built up strong and sometimes destructive personal and emotional habits. These habits are hard to break, they can be controlling, and sometimes I like the speaker in “Monster” feel as though the “monsters” I deal with threaten who I was created to be.

To get how ordinary this is, think of a pocketwatch. If you take a gorgeous pocketwatch, and leave it unattended, at first it will still perform just fine. Glance down at the pocketwatch a day, two days, a week from when you first left it, and it will show you the time clearly. But come back in a month or a year, and it will be covered with dust; the time will not show up clearly.

This, I think, is what growing older is like for human beings. As we get older, we screw things up and are hurt when other people screw things up; sometimes we screw things in up in a recurring way, making it feel as though we are fighting a “monster” or a “demon” inside us. This is simply the result of being broken people living in a broken world.

This is why I like “Imagine Dragons” and modernist poetry: It is one half of the gospel. We are fallen people. That is a reality of life, and it is right to acknowledge it.

But as I have wrestled with my own internal monsters, I have become increasingly aware that half the gospel will not do. After all, “Monsters” is a very one-sided song. Consider the chorus again:

I’m only a man with a candle to guide me,
I’m taking a stand to escape what’s inside me.
A monster, a monster,
I’ve turned into a monster,
A monster, a monster,
And it keeps getting stronger.

On the one hand, the speaker asserts that he’s “taking a stand to escape what’s inside”, suggesting that he is going to vanquish his internal monster. He is going to stop screwing things up, and become a real man.

But only four lines later, he acknowledges that the monster inside him “keeps getting stronger”. The fact that he mentions this after he declares his stand against the monster calls into question whether he will actually be able to escape his internal monster and reclaim his humanity. Perhaps the monster will reclaim him.

Thus, “Monster” is incomplete, ultimately hopeless. It accurately captures the way we fallen human beings feel but cannot help us figure out what to do about these feelings. For this, we need the whole gospel: that through Jesus Christ we become the people that God created us to be.

We tend to reduce the gospel to, “Jesus Christ died so our sins could be forgiven.” Yet true (and glorious!) as that is, the Gospel teaches us more than this, and in its teaching guarantees victory against the monsters within.

Here is what the Gospel teaches:

It teaches that in Christ we are not only forgiven our sins, we are made righteous. Two weeks back, I was listening to the “White Horse Inn” podcast (recommended by a friend) on “the great exchange”. In the words of one of the speakers, the gospel means not only that “our sins go to Christ,” but also that “Christ’s righteousness comes to us.” If we are only forgiven, without being made righteous, we are but a blank slate; we are perhaps rid of the monster but need to work ourselves into being the hero. Yet the gospel understood in all its fullness means not only that Jesus kills the monster but also that He bestows on us his essential heroic nature; we are rescued from the monstrous version of ourselves, and become the person God created us to be. 

Of course, “becoming who God created us to be” has notes of Joel Osteen and self-help philosophy in it. Yet whereas Osteen & Co usually deploy this phrase to signify that we through our own efforts become either 1) more successful at work, or 2) kinder generally, I do not mean this at all. I do not believe we were created to be either successful at work or nice generally; being successful and nice is good, of course, but neither of these things is our telos. Our telos, our purpose, is to be made in the image of God, and through Jesus Christ this image is restored to us. Thus, through Jesus Christ we literally become who were were meant to be, though we do not become so through our own efforts.

Nor do we become who were were meant to be all at once in this lifetime. The Gospel does not teach this.

It teaches that God is patiently working on us through His grace, steadily making us more like him. In I John we read this:

God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. (1.5)

And then we read this:

If we walk in the light as He is in the light, . . . the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. (1.7)

So far, none of this is new. We have sinned, yes, but “the blood of Jesus Christ” guarantees that we can find forgiveness and righteousness; we can be made new. As we “walk in the light” and model our lives off Christ’s, we become through the grace of God steadily more like Him.

And yet, this does not happen all at once. We make forward progress, only to slip backwards again. We squash down one monster, only have to it pop back up again, like a kind of spiritual Whack-a-Mole.

And so, John reassures us with this:

The darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining. (2.8)

There is darkness in us, yes. We are fallen and monstrous. But the darkness has been beaten through Christ, and even now it is “passing away”. We will one day be wholly like Christ and will no longer fight our demons. 

As I bring this post to a close, my Pandora station (the one which introduced me to “Monsters” in the first place) is playing Sam Mendes’s “Three Empty Words,” its refrain reminding us that “we can’t fix what’s broken.” Brokenness is indeed all around us, it is inside us, as Imagine Dragons notes, and it is right to acknowledge and remember the monsters we fight.

But the monsters are only half the story. In the second half comes the Red Cross Knight, and in that second half alone we find what we need actually do what Imagine Dragons only sings about: “take a stand to escape what’s inside”.

The monster is real, but in the Gospel there is hope.

 

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2 thoughts on “Escaping the Monsters

  1. Yes, yes yes!

    I was just listening to that “Great Exchange” podcast this morning, but I like the knight/monster imagery better. Also, I found a passing comment in that podcast helpful. It was something like, “Our sins are not cleansed up until the point we are saved, and then we are given a blank slate and have to, in a manner, do penance for the sins after that. Rather, we are given the rank of “hero” (in Megan’s terms) and then told to live in the joy of that.” Of course, living in the joy of a new nature means that when we act in accord with the monster, we act contrary to our identity. A sobering and hopeful thought.

  2. Pingback: Thanksgiving | Meditations & Miscellany

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