Mellencamp Theology

In the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, the Apostle writes, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor 13:11-12). Unto itself, it is a beautiful passage, echoing through time and culture, but, indeed, the entire thirteenth chapter is something of a masterpiece of poetical prose – its imagery and rhythms, its fearlessness, the depth of its introspection, the universality in which as readers we find something of ourselves. Its description of Love, for example, I wish really could form the entire basis of religion: “Love is patient, love is kind” writes St. Paul. “It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud” (1 Cor 13:4). These phrases are read at weddings and funerals, perhaps appropriately, but I can’t help but feel that something of the larger comment is lost when I see 1 Corinthians crocheted onto potpourri pillows – living a life that is of love is surely more difficult to do and understand than that sort of empty enthusiasm and cheerleading theology suggests. And likewise, we forget in the beauty of the passages the mind of St. Paul, the extraordinary intimacy into which we step, telling us that he has put away his childish things and that now, when he looks into a mirror, it is not clarity that is reflected.

St. Paul creates for us a hierarchy, placing Love famously above hope and faith – not to their exclusion, I should add; it is almost to the near-nihilistic extremes of Ecclesiastes that St. Paul brushes away everything except Love, saying: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:2). The nothingness that St. Paul’s lovelessness becomes is the same ultimate nothingness that Christian apologists see in a universe without God to author the laws of logic and morality – it is a nothingless that contains prophecy, unraveled mysteries, all knowledge, and faith and likewise, a nothingness that might contain all sorts of temporal, finite, agreed upon moral agreements, but it is ultimately nothingness. It is interesting to me that Christian apologists see that nothingness as a fiction, sometimes believed in, but certainly never an actuality since, after all, in their arguments – or, as they would say with prepositional idiosyncrasy – on their arguments, God really did author the rules of logic and morality – there is always somethingness. But, St. Paul seems to think differently of nothingness – it is not an erroneous description of reality, competing with Christianity, but an actual possibility – sometimes, there is really is nothingness and no somethingness – that could consume us if we do not have Love, a nothingness that is not competing with Christianity, but participating within Christianity’s description and escaped by its prescription.

Love, knowledge, and nothingness cannot, I think, be properly considered without some sense of the story told in time; St. Paul depicts Love as a thing he arrived at in the course of his life, approximating the arrival at Love with maturity and adulthood and while he seems to have escaped nothingness, it is interesting that his knowledge has not increased. He comments that he looks through a “glass, darkly,” a phrase which suggests that he does not have the sort of self-knowledge that we would think comes with wisdom or experience or maturity, but that because he has Love, the somethingness that he has become is more than the nothingness that he was, the child that he was, even if he had had all knowledge. In time, St. Paul’s story is one that points from birth towards the future and towards Love and from Love to the eternal – and, although the text does not support it explicitly, I can’t help but image that St. Paul would feel something like shame were he to glance backward into the past and perhaps that is part of the darkness he sees in his own image.

I have mentioned that the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians echoes throughout time and culture, which is to say that countless philosophers and their greater cousins the artists have returned endlessly to the letter, participating in its tradition and continuing that same mediation that St. Paul began; the content of this video began humbly enough with such an artist.

When I was a young boy,
Said put away those young boy ways.
Now that I’m gettin’ older, so much older,
I love all those young boy days.

John Mellencamp. “Hurt So Good.” American Fool.

Humbly, I think, because I freely admit that John Mellencamp is hardly St. John of Mellencamp and while I agree that it is hardly the heart of a serious student of the science of God that extracts its theology from the Midwest, it is a hard heart that cannot; somewhere in me are the theologies of Britney Spears and the Monkees. Certainly, “Hurt So Good” claims its legitimacy not for its introspection, the beauty of its phrasing, or for being an ancient letter to a troubled Christian community, but its legitimacy rather seems to come from its expressionism, in this case, the entire song, I think, expressing moments of midlife and the lust one feels for younger persons. As listeners, we don’t know if these expressions are ever vocalized – maybe their felt but only expressed in art – or whether the effect is its proposition to the young girl; we don’t know whether her sexuality, being “not as green” as she is young, is evident or imagined in the narrator’s mind, and perhaps the narrator enjoys imagining while not really proposing anything. This is not an untypical expression and we find it repeated in countless other songs, but I return in my mind to Mellencamp’s first four lines, which, aside from echoing and contrasting with 1 Corinthians, also begin the expression of the song from a peculiar place of introspection; it is as if this little expression, a moment in bar somewhere, is only part of a large meditation on a story told in time.

Mellencamp’s story begins in boyhood or with sexual awakening – childhood being a sort of pre-life, I would imagine – and points forward in time towards a parting of sexual lust, which remains constant, and sexual opportunity, which seems to diminish. In one sense, therefore, Mellencamp’s story is dismal and one sees an inevitable torture, a life which by its nature grants us a desire for the very thing that it slowly denies us, this being a pointing forward in time, but, I think, in another sense, shifts the focus from this forward-pointing to a backward-pointing, reversing time, in a certain sense. Backward-pointing, backward-looking, Mellencamp seems entirely aware that the truth of the lust, the fact and knowledge of the lust that he feels is in the past, but in loving those “young boy days,” he seems to disturb the pessimism of aging, the mathematics of diminishing sexual opportunity – the Love for that which isn’t but was but could be is greater than the thing itself.

In a sense, Mellencamp doesn’t see more than St. Paul does in the glass, but certainly, what he sees, he doesn’t see darkly – at the same time, Mellencamp doesn’t, I think, challenge the underlying relationship between Love and nothingness. Mellencamp, like St. Paul, certainly seems aware of the fate of Lovelessness, St. Paul calling it “nothing,” Mellencamp, while not mentioning it, suggesting loneliness, and Mellencamp, like St. Paul, certainly seems aware that the antidote to nothingness is Love; they only disagree in that St. Paul’s Love is predicated upon a poor view of the past, where as Mellencamp’s Love is predicated upon the past itself. Interestingly, both are also convinced that the future is potentially good.

For my part, that my past remains with me, like the promise of the future, is a blessing, and my many missteps and the newness that I wish I could inhabit again encircle and enlightens my heart.

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