One of my core theological convictions is that humankind has been created with an innate desire for relationship and meaningful connection. No matter whether one is an introvert or extrovert, a homebody or a social butterfly, somewhere beneath the layers of one’s unique personality beats the heart of a very particular desire—a desire to know and to be known, to love and to be loved. It is precisely this relational impulse that inspires the cultivation of friendships and romance, the accommodation of spontaneous conversation and impromptu interaction, and, most certainly, the pursuit of authentic community.
As a Christ-follower, I conceptualize this ontological impulse toward relationship in a very particular fashion. I see it as nothing less than a portion of the Imago Dei—the Image of God—finding expression in the nooks and crannies of the human pilgrimage. An atheist or an agnostic humanist, by contrast, may be inclined to interpret the human desire for connection as the inevitable flourishing of a functional socialization or an outgrowth of one’s biologically-fueled emotional yearnings. For the Christ-follower, however, humankind’s relational proclivities are something more than anthropological happenstance. In fact, among people of faith, these relational proclivities are seen as nothing less than the handiwork of a relentlessly-relational God who breathed into us, not only a breath of life, but also a yearning for intimacy.
Not long ago, I encountered a song that has helped me to think even more deeply about the urgency and theological significance of humankind’s hunger for connection. While the song to which I am referring did not emerge from a specifically Christocentric perspective, it speaks volumes about our culture’s attentiveness to a spiritual longing that can be felt even when it cannot be named: a longing for transformational intimacy and holistic relationship.
“The Shins” is an American indie rock band that has been around since the mid-1990’s. The band’s recently-released album, “Port of Morrow,” is as lyrically clever as it is musically compelling. For me, the high mark of the album is the hauntingly evocative song, “September.” (To watch the video for “September,” click HERE.) Written by James Mercer (The Shins’ lead vocalist and guitarist), “September” calls to mind a love relationship that is transitioning from playfulness to profundity—or, as the song’s title suggests, a love that is moving from summer breeziness to autumnal complexity.
“September” begins in the strange territory of ancient Greece:
Into this strange elastic world
Pontus kindly gave up a pearl
Of his eternal stone and mud
Ain’t she lovely bone and blood
“Pontus” (Greek for “sea”) is a term that has both geographical and mythological significance. Geographically, Pontus was a region on the southern coast of the Black Sea. Mythologically, Pontus was a Greek pre-Olympian sea God. The reference to Pontus giving up “a pearl” is a clear reference to Aphrodite who, we are told, emerged as a pearl from the foam of the sea.
The exaggerated imagery tells us that the love relationship at the heart of this song is not to be taken lightly. In the eyes of the songwriter, the relationship about which he writes is the stuff of divinity and mythological grandeur. Far from a maudlin overture, these words reflect the heart of a contemplative lover who recognizes that this “strange elastic world” has pulled him into a relationship that seems to be imbued with an eternal significance.
Born of the sea
A thousand miles away from me
A court of angels, a ward of the sun
A future forming, a curse undone
Who is this one who has been “born of the sea, a thousand miles away from me?” Is it Aphrodite? Or is the songwriter speaking now of some other “goddess” he has grown to love? Could the songwriter be moving from ancient Greece to present day?
These lyrics compel us to visualize the people with whom we share intimate relationship—the people we love, the people we trust. The lyrics draw our thoughts to the people in our journey who have emerged from the sea of our shared humanness in order to become a “ward of the sun” for us. Their lives shine upon ours, thereby undoing the “curse” of isolation and ushering us into a “future forming.”
Under our softly burning lamp she
Takes her time
Telling stories of our possible lives
And love is the ink in the well when her body writes
Perhaps the deepest portion of the human hunger for relationship is the desire for some new narrative that will bring to us a fresh way of telling the story of what our life means. Holistic relationship has a way of generating new stories, new poetry, new energizing narratives. The songwriter evokes this reality when he speaks of a loved one who concerns herself with “telling the stories of our possible lives” and writing those stories with the mystical ink found in the well of a devoted heart.
I’ve been selfish and full of pride
She knows deep down there’s a little child
But I’ve got a good side to me as well
And it’s that she loves in spite of everything else
Can one ever dare to love another without an ever-deepening attentiveness to one’s own brokenness and failure? Such honest self-inventory is part of the very nature of authentic love, is it not? Authentic love unsettles, inspiring both an honest confession and a passionate desire for sanctification—a passionate desire, in other words, to become something better than what we are. We seek this sanctification, not because we feel compelled to earn the love of someone dear to us, but because that love has already been offered to us (“in spite of everything else”), and we want to live a life that honors that unearned embrace.
A song in the tree has distracted her mind
Some other curious form of life
Has made its presence to her known
And she coos so gently, soft and low
Which one of us has not been distracted by some “song in the tree” that inspired us to look away from the things that matter most? Which one of us has not “cooed” over things that may not deserve to be cooed over? And yet, our deepest relationships have a way of patiently accommodating such distractions until the song in the tree fades and all that remains is the song in the heart.
Her shining face in a million reflections
On tiny raindrops that fall in a veil
Over our city like notes from above
It overwhelms me, just ain’t that tough
Its not that the darkness can’t touch our lives
I know it will in time, but she’s no ordinary valentine
And know when the sun goes down she sheds a darling light
The songwriter takes us beyond narcissistic obsession and “ordinary valentines” to a love that produces light and overcomes darkness. It is a love that falls like both gentle raindrops and overwhelming music. It is a love that can both radiate in a single face and cover an entire city. It is a love that illuminates even in those moments when darkness touches a life.
When I listen to this song, I am reminded that we are at our most spiritual when we are cultivating relationships that are big like the sea and gentle like soft raindrops; relationships that are mutually sacrificial and far too bright to be overcome by nighttime and shadows; relationships that tell new “stories of our possible lives” and that create new poetry with the ink of outpoured love.
Such relationships are possible, not because of our capacity to love (which is notoriously unreliable), but because of the indefatigable grace of the One who created us to need one another and who stubbornly refuses to allow our moments of hatred to have the final word. In the fullness of time, this One willingly “gave up a pearl,” becoming vulnerably and radically incarnate in “lovely bone and blood.”
In the light of such profligate love, how can I not hear in “September” the beating of a divine heart, whether the songwriter is aware of that rhythm or not?