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Chemical & Idolatry: Reflections on a Jack Garratt Track and the Apocalypse of John

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

— David Foster Wallace, “This is Water”

Late last year, I fell headlong into the music of Jack Garratt. It started with his EP, Remnants, and continued with the release of his first full album, Phase. There’s too much to say about my love for his music. Suffice to say I find it enchanting.

Meanwhile, in my teaching capacity as a pastor, I’ve been immersed in the study of Revelation. Rather than charting the Great Tribulation, or attempting to decipher which rogue agent on the world’s stage is the “antichrist,” or some such quixotic project (as Dispensationalists are want to do), I’ve been teaching John’s Apocalypse using the cruciform-centric hermeneutic that has been developed by such scholars as Richard Bauckham, Michael J. Gorman, N. T. Wright, and Greg Boyd. I’ve also been learning from works by both David DeSilva and Brian Blount, who read it through the lenses of postcolonial empire criticism and the experience of the African American church in America, respectively. And I also have to give props to Brian Zahnd’s excellent teaching ministry via the Word of Life podcast. He’s spent some extensive time in Revelation in recent months/years and it has been highly formative.

A second lens through which I’ve been reading Revelation is pedagogical. For this I blame the works of James K. A. Smith—particularly his book Desiring the Kingdom, of which he has recently published a layman’s version called You Are What You Love. Smith has succeeded in shifting my focus as a teacher from the dissemination of information to the inspiration of imaginations for the purpose of spiritual formation. (Not that I’ve mastered this; I’ve still got a lot of pedagogical baggage to overcome.)

One of the unexpected discoveries I’ve made thus far has been just how much of Revelation is pastorally concerned with spiritual formation. This should have been more obvious to me, considering that the book is so clearly addressed to seven churches from their bishop. However, I’ve spent so much of my Christian life surrounded by those who read this book as a roadmap to the “end times,” that the pastoral value of the book has rarely been presented as anything more than its ability to predict the future.

This brings me to “Chemical” by Jack Garratt.

Phase has become the soundtrack to my life for the past several months. I listen to it in the car and I listen to it while I write sermons. “Chemical” is one of the tracks that has fascinated me the most. What initially captured my attention was this:

And when you pray, he will not answer
Although you may hear voices on your mind
They won’t be kind

And when you pray, he will not answer
I know this for I ask him all the time
To reassure my mind  

Naturally, my pastoral ears perk up when prayer is mentioned. But this is clearly not a positive assessment. I’m almost ashamed to admit I didn’t understand what this track was about until I watched the video—and then the brilliance of this track blew my mind.

John of Patmos does something unparalleled in the New Testament. Instead of writing in the didactic style of the epistles, which Evangelical Modernists love, or the narrative style of the Gospels and Acts, he writes in the apocalyptic mode of a Hebrew prophet. He writes a book that takes many of the things Jesus preached in his famous “Olivet Discourse” and expands them into something that resembles a Greek drama more than a sermon. Relentlessly paraded before the eyes of our imaginations is a graphic and often grotesque onslaught of nightmarishly disturbing pictures. But as the cruciform-centric hermeneutic has taught us, these images are not meant to be taken as a journalistic, if phenomenological, account of future events. Instead, they are symbols of realities as true today as they were nineteen hundred years ago.

The Seer’s primary pastoral concern is the vision of ‘the good life’ toward which these fledgling churches (and by extension our churches today) were living. Every day, in a thousand different ways, they and we are tempted to place our trust in a story that is not the story of Jesus’s incarnation, self-giving death, and resurrection. The story in John’s day was the “Pax Romana”; the story for many of us today is the “American Dream.” The way John combats this lie is with the truth that empire is beastly and to follow its way is adultery for the people whom God has redeemed. John gives his congregations a new imagining of what ‘the good life’ is all about. Instead of conquest as violent domination, conquest becomes giving faithful witness to God’s grace in and through Jesus. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Messiah Jesus, is revealed as the little, slaughtered Lamb who yet stands and reigns from the very center of the God’s throne. True power is not located in the military might of Rome’s armies but in the self-giving love and wisdom of God demonstrated on the Cross and in the Resurrection.

“Revelation does not contain two competing Christologies and theologies—one of power and one of weakness—symbolized by the Lion and the Lamb, respectively. Rather, Revelation presents Christ as the Lion who reigns as the Lamb, not in spite of being the Lamb. […] ‘Lamb power’ is ‘God power,’ and ‘God power’ is ‘Lamb power.’ If these claims are untrue, then Jesus is not in any meaningful way a faithful witness.” [1]

The New Heaven and New Earth is a vision the world gone wrong finally made right. It is a reimagining of the vision of shalom ubiquitous among the writings of the Hebrew prophets—not just some tranquil “peace,” but the world as it should be. This is the vision the churches are to be proleptically embodying now in part as a foretaste of what’s to come.

But, like a fish in water, we unconsciously swim in the current of our surrounding culture and the desires of our hearts are molded and shaped by our environment. We are indoctrinated into believing that ‘the good life’ is found in the acquisition of power, wealth, and pleasure. We surrender our agency to the pursuit of these ends and we become instruments of the powers that be. This is what the psalmist is describing when he warns that placing our trust in human-made idols numbs us to the life-giving Spirit of the Creator God.

The idols of the nations are merely things of silver and gold, shaped by human hands. They have mouths but cannot speak, and eyes but cannot see. They have ears but cannot hear, and mouths but cannot breathe. And those who make idols are just like them, as are all who trust in them. — Psalm 135.15-18 NLT

Here’s how N. T. Wright puts it:

“You become what you worship: so, if you worship that which is not God, you become something other than the image-bearing human being you were meant and made to be. […] Worship idols—blind, deaf, lifeless things—and you become blind, deaf and lifeless yourself. Murder, magic, fornication and theft are all forms of blindness, deafness and deadliness, snatching at the quick fix for gain, power or pleasure while forfeiting another bit of genuine humanness.” [2]

“Chemical” is about the power we give our idols—with which they mercilessly destroy our humanity. The “love” idols have for us is the “love” of an abusive master. It is not a relationship of mutuality, interdependence, nor understanding; it is a relationship of utter domination. As David Foster Wallace put it, “[they] will eat you alive.”

My love is overdone, selfish and domineering
It won’t sit up on the shelf
So don’t try to reason with my love
My love is powerful, ruthless and unforgiving
It won’t think beyond itself
So don’t try to reason with my love

My love is chemical, shallow and chauvinistic
It’s an arrogant display
So don’t try to reason with my love

The apostle Paul famously describes love in a letter to the Jesus-disciples of Corinth. If you’ve ever been to a wedding, you probably know at least this much Scripture.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. — I Corinthians 13.4-8 NIV

Our idols aren’t patient or kind; they aren’t self-giving or forgiving. Our idols demand subservience at all costs—especially the loss of our humanity.

The pastoral mission of John of Patmos is to inspire the imaginations of God’s people—to place before them the vision of the Lamb Who Was Slain—the only One worthy to reign in heaven—because he is the embodiment of self-giving love. The Lamb moves us to worship not because of some ‘shock and awe’ display of brute force. No, the Lamb moves us to worship because the self-giving love of God smites our hearts with a power that could never be possessed by tanks or bombs. The image of God being restored in God’s redeemed people is the vocation of serving as priestly rulers on God’s behalf, reflecting God’s loving reign into the world God loves.

The questions with which John of Patmos confronts us are of allegiance and trajectory.

What vision of ‘the good life’ is forming the desires of our hearts—the shape and aim of our lives—through the everyday practices in which we often unconsciously participate?

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  1. Michael J. Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness Following the Lamb Into the New Creation (Cascade Books, 2011), p.139.
  2. N. T. Wright, Revelation For Everyone (Westminster John Knox, 2011), p.92.