the life of the world to come

Ezekiel 7 And The Permanent Efficacy Of Grace

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

 

  1. 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.
  2. Oh, man, can you imagine? Eugh. I mean, just… eugh, you know?
  3. 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.
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Enoch 18:14

“Enoch 18:14” falls within the very slim category of Mountain Goats songs inspired by video games¹. The refrain is lifted directly from a semi-obscure PlayStation 2 game called ‘Odin Sphere’, but the context of this quote (and the plot of the game itself) is a convoluted mess that has nothing to do with the song itself. In fact, despite its status as an apocryphal song from The Life Of The World To Come, “Enoch” feels more of a piece with Transcendental Youth, the band’s masterful exploration of sickness and isolation.

I saw some old friends as I came to the city gate
They asked me where I’d been of late
I hadn’t been anywhere, but what was I going to say
Two hopeful people, looking at me that way

I’m thinking specifically of “In The Shadow Of The Western Hills“, another song that didn’t quite make the album it was written for. The protagonist in that song–like most of the characters on Transcendental Youth–is doing his best to cope with an uncooperative mind. We find him at the end of his rope, desperately trying to hold himself together while looking for a way to re-enter his old life. He’s recently been hospitalized, following some sort of episode so intense that when he calls a friend and tries to apologize for something he’s done or to at least just explain himself, he’s so thoroughly alienated her that she hangs up on him mid-sentence.

The narrator in “Enoch” isn’t explicitly dealing with mental illness, but he’s carrying around some sort of heavy load. In the world of the song, it manifests as a ‘curse’, but it’s not hard to draw a line from that to any range of personal traumas. Like the guy from “Western Hills”, he’s standing at the edges of the life he used to know, but where that character was pounding on doors and being refused entry, this character is greeted by a couple of smiling old friends who want nothing more than to welcome him back into their joyous company.

But he hesitates.

We stood in the sunlight, and they asked me where I’d been
Held the gate open, and told me to come on in
I saw the damp green grass, so nice on the other side
Couldn’t explain myself to them, but I tried

It’s not a ground-breaking proclamation to say that you can never really know another person. It isn’t exactly a comforting notion, but the simple fact is that you cannot crawl inside a person’s brain and feel the same sensations they feel. This is not always a bad thing — the raw, unfiltered contents of a person’s mind don’t typically represent who they  actually are as a person. But there are times when you need to cross that barrier, which is easier said than done.

The narrator in this song is suffering under the weight of something that he knows his friends have never experienced. It’s so deep within him and so closely bound to his sense of self that he couldn’t possibly communicate the reality of it, even to the people who love him. The acceptance they offer makes him think for a moment that maybe he could explain his curse to them, and maybe it would offer some relief, but in the end, he knows it’s no use.²

The ground was dry but giving, the sky was nearly black
Saw some old friends when I looked back
Remember my old home, haven’t forgotten yet
What happens on the day when I forget?

The narrator in “Enoch” ends the song with one last look back towards the safety and comfort he’s giving up. Before turning away, he briefly wonders what will become of him when he’s forgotten his old home and his old friends, when even the illusion of support is gone from his life. But a more frightening question goes unasked: does he really have to do this? Is he really so damaged that he has no choice but to walk into the darkness? Or is he not allowing himself to be a part of something good because of a curse that might be self-imposed?

You and your brother
You both escaped the curse
You can’t comprehend what it’s like

1. The more famous entry in this category, “Thank You Mario But Our Princess Is In Another Castle,” was one of the first Mountain Goats songs I ever heard; a strange entry point, since it’s the only song in their catalogue that could have conceivably been written by Jonathan Coulton.

2. Besides, if you’re already that caught up in your own pain, the desire to share it with someone can start to feel ugly and selfish. At first you think it would be healthy, maybe that it would even be the first step on the road to healing — but after a while, it starts to feel like a manifestation of the most toxic kind of narcissism. After all, what kind of person would really want to force the fullness of their disease onto someone else, someone they love, even? And you can see how that sort of thinking can quickly send you into an even deeper spiral of self-loathing — it’s all a mess.