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Tom Waits: theologian of the dysangelion
by Ben Myers
To my delight (and my wife’s dismay), my collection of Tom Waits CDs has grown nicely this Christmas. I’ve been absolutely addicted to Tom Waits all year – I can hardly bear to hear anything else. I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to describe Tom Waits as a “theologian” – as long as we add that he’s a theologian of the dys-angelion, the “bad news.” His songs conjure up a swirling chaos of monsters and madness, devils and despair – and on the horizon of this dark world we glimpse the first faint glow of dawn, the surprising appearance of grace “de profundis” (Psalm 130:1).
God himself suddenly breaks into these songs as a strange and threatening – even monstrous – presence, as an unaccountable interruption of the world’s (dis-)order. One of Waits’ most astonishing theological pronouncements, for example, is the gleeful hiss: “Don’t you know there ain’t no devil / That’s just God when he’s drunk.” Or on another occasion he wonders: “Did the devil make the world while God was sleeping?”
In such songs, God bursts onto the stage not as a benevolent projection of our own wishes and desires, but as the one who overturns our expectations and shatters our projections of deity. God appears not as a supreme being who calmly “completes” and “perfects” nature, but as the one who interrupts nature in the apocalyptic newness of grace. Divine grace, for Waits, is thus a kind of unnatural incursion, a perversity, a disruption of the way things are. Grace interrupts, it shatters and strips things bare to the bone. And so Waits portrays grace in a way that is uncompromisingly – often shockingly – menacing and grotesque.
Even in Waits’ more “orthodox” gospel songs – and there are many of them, such as “Way Down in the Hole”, “All Stripped Down”, “Down There by the Train”, “Never Let Go”, “Make It Rain”, “Take Care of All of My Children”, “Come on Up to the House” – even here, grace appears as a perverse interruption of a world of murder and brutality and Satanic seduction. Grace breaks open this world like a nightmare or an earthquake – wholly unexpected, unconditional, presuppositionless; impossible to be tamed or assimilated. As Rowan Williams remarks in his study of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, “the actuality of grace is uncovered in the moment of excess – which may be in a deliberately intensified gracelessness” (Grace and Necessity, p. 105). A “deliberately intensified gracelessness” – that is the world of Tom Waits’ lyrical theology. And it’s in this way that Waits articulates the euangelion through a startlingly brutal and disturbing declaration of the dysangelion.
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