The title of this song alone proposes a theological paradox that is difficult to even grasp. Efficacious grace is a concept most closely associated with Calvinism, the long-time reigning contender for most aggressively unlikeable strain of mainstream Christian thought. To put it in grossly oversimplified terms, Calvinists believe that salvation is only attainable by those whom God has already chosen to save. Because of original sin¹, every human being is born into a state of total depravity that renders them unable to love and serve God – except, that is, for the people that God elects to save out of his own mercy. These people are so wholly redeemed that they can never truly fall out of God’s favor, no matter what they do.
If it sounds like a decidedly pessimistic view of salvation, then I should reiterate that I’m working from a limited understanding of these ideas – I’m certainly no Calvinist scholar.2 But it certainly raises all sorts of obvious questions, even for a layman like myself: is there room for free will within this conception of the divine? And how does the knowledge of predestination affect those of us living on earth?
These are the sort of questions that Darnielle is grappling with in “Ezekiel 7 And The Permanent Efficacy Of Grace,” which, to be blunt, is about someone being tortured to death. The song follows the torturer as he leaves the scene of the crime (dropping the chilling lie, “someone will need to mop this floor for me”), walks to his car in a daze (“like a cathedral in a dream of the future”), gets as high as he possibly can and still operate a motor vehicle, and drives out into the desert, trying to outrun the awful act he’s committed, uncertain of where he’s headed.
Out of all the songs on The Life Of The World To Come, “Ezekiel” has the most interesting and loaded relationship to its title. In light of Darnielle’s reference to efficacious grace, we must consider whether such a concept applies to a man like the narrator of this song, who has done unspeakable things to his fellow man for purely selfish reasons. Of course, if we believe that this man is one of God’s elected, then the answer is a simple yes – regardless of what he does, he will eventually be welcomed into the Kingdom of God.
But then, there’s the other half of that title: Ezekiel 7, a long chapter where God promises to pour out his wrath on the people of Israel and deliver disaster after disaster upon them. “I will not look on you with pity or spare you, I will punish you for your ways and for your detestable practices.” The contrast between the Calvinist deity and the God of Ezekiel is extreme, for somewhat obvious reasons — Ezekiel is a book in the Hebrew Scriptures where as Calvinism is tied directly to the concepts of the New Testament — but I have to believe that Darnielle had more in mind than illuminating the clear differences between the gods of two interconnected but still unique faiths.
It seems that, by referencing Ezekiel 7, Darnielle invites us to consider the other side of efficacious grace; namely, if you are not one of the saints that God has chosen to preserve, and there’s no hope of salvation – what’s the point of trying? Judging from the heavy drug use and the brief, pained recollections of what he’s done, the narrator of this song seems at least somewhat troubled by his conscience – but if we suppose that he’s done this before, then he’s not troubled enough to consider changing. And if he truly was born into total depravity with no hope for anything beyond this life except the cold embrace of the death or worse – who can blame him?3
- Original sin, by the way, is one of those fun bits of widely-accepted Christian doctrine that is not explicitly outlined in the Bible. Like many such bits, most of the justification for it comes from the writings of Paul, and like many things that Paul advocated for, it has probably done more harm than good.
- Oh, man, can you imagine? Eugh. I mean, just… eugh, you know?
- If I haven’t made it clear, I find Calvinism highly objectionable for a lot of reasons I won’t go into here, some of which delve into broader concerns about religion in general but most of which concern my belief that a deity who would off-handedly consign a large percentage of the population to eternal damnation doesn’t sound all that holy to me.