When I Dream of Michelangelo…Counting Crows, Anselm, Art and Western Culture

The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo

Within this post I want to trace out some thoughts on Anselm, religious imagery, and the question of the closeness God. Is he near or far away?

The title is another reference to a Counting Crows song, because I think Adam Duritz has brilliant a way of phrasing things that I think deep down a lot of people really think, even if I disagree with him.

The reason he is brilliant is because he lets his thoughts wander, and he is willing to share his deepest and most intimate thoughts with people, without much self-censorship.

I wrote a post a while ago on one of his other songs, Anna Begins.

You see, Adam is perfectly capable of writing a coherent song, from eerie to lighthearted, and this one probably falls among the middle of his best efforts, though I enjoy the Americana sound very much.

(See the song that made the band famous, ‘Round Here , or Hardy Candy which a play on words, that speaking of a memory, literally means ‘bittersweet — hard candy…sweet, but tough).

But, some of his best songs are where you get the impression that he is simply rambling…because that is what a lot of us do when we think. It shows us our patterns of thought. The featured image above is the painting I am pretty sure he is thinking of in this song, ‘the Creation of Adam’ by Michelangelo.

Adam only makes reference in passing to the idea I want to speak about…he is talking about a relationship with some woman most of the time…but that is what makes the idea I want to reference altogether more powerful.

You see, it is so unconscious that it is part of his very diction, the language that he speaks and the way that he thinks.

Because of the brevity of the lyrics and other factors, I don’t think his thoughts are quite going to compete with the theologian I want to compare him with; but Adam definitely represents the large milieu of Western Culture at present, who have so much cultural history tied to Christianity, but who want to untether themselves from it.

(Unfortunately, such a mission is working off borrowed capital then. How long can a culture really have something that values equality, justice, and freedom like Christianity when it unties itself, breaks itself off, from its intellectual and moral source?)

Anyways, here is the song…in color are the relevant lyrics. Try to listen to the song while looking at the picture below or reading the lyrics.

You know I don’t like you
But you want to be my friend
There are bodies on the ceiling
And they are fluttering their wings
It’s okay, I’m angry
But you’ll never understand
You dream of Michelangelo
They hang above your hands
And I know, she is not my friend
And I know, cause there she goes
Walking on my skin again
And I can’t see why
You want to talk to me
When your vision of America
Is crystal and clean
I wanna white bread life
Just something ignorant and plain
But from the walls of Michelangelo
I’m dangling again.
And I know, she is not my friend
And I know, cause there she goes
Walking on my skin again and again
Saturn on a line
The sun afire of strings and wires
Spin above my head and make it right
Anytime you’d like, you can catch a sight
Of angel eyes on emptiness and infinite
And I dream of Michelangelo when I’m lying in my bed
I see God upon the ceiling
I see angels overhead
And he seems so close
As he reaches out his hand
We are never quite as close
As we are led to understand
And I know, she is not my friend
And I know, cause there she goes walking walking walking
And I know, she is not my friend
And I know, cause there she goes
Walking on my skin again and again
On my mind
Oh Lord no
Yes she’s walking on my skin again and again

So, to summarize all these lyrics, in order to describe his relationship with this girl he is probably imagining the picture above which is painted atop the Sistine Chapel. Here is a visual as to what he is singing about. You can see the Creation of Adam picture upside down on the very top center.

Sistine Chapel Ceiling

He is saying that he and this girl are not as close as they have been ‘led to understand’. The simile he uses to compare his relationship to the Sistine chapel is how people say, and write, and paint about how close we are too God…but he thinks it is all a façade, and so too is his relationship.

Straight from the vivid descriptions he admits he is suspended in a world of wonder and of brilliant colors and attractions. But when he looks up in the blue sky, he sees a world of ‘emptiness and infiniteness’…a cosmogony of nothingness.

Yet, when we as Christians look up in the same blue sky, we see a world of ‘order’ and ‘purpose’ and ‘meaning’.

What he clearly believed…at least at the time of writing this song is that God is not near. You see, he says, “we have been led to understand [that God is close], but the truth is, we are never that close.”

The effect of that though, it’s attractive, because if there is no God you can live any way you want, or at least so you suppose.

He claims ‘understanding’. But I want to contest if you don’t have God, you don’t even have a chance at understanding the world.

If you follow your logic through to the ultimate end of it (rather than introduce an inconsistency of ‘purpose’ and meaning borrowed from Christianity in Western Culture) you ultimately have to resign yourself to hopeless agnosticism and hedonsim in which you reply “I don’t know”.

If you don’t believe that God goes out of his way to reveal himself (called ‘special revelation’), you don’t even have a hope.

Sure, there are competing claims to whose ‘special revelation’ is correct, but shouldn’t that be expected? Iron usually isn’t counterfeited, rather gold is.

Anselm of Canterbury

Anslem is the one who comes up with the phrase, “Fides quarem intellectum” which is “Faith seeking understanding”. He says, “I believe in order to understand”.

Peculiarly, it is not the understanding that leads him to believe, but the believing that leads him to understand. The order is reversed from the way we naturally think about it but he realizes that faith in something always preceeds understanding. You always have to put your faith in something before you begin to comprehend.

If you believe God is not near, that he does not reveal himself, there is nothing big enough in the world and hardly your imagination that can give you any reason to think you know what you are doing or talking about. It comes down to time and energy. There is simply too many factors to calculate on even any minuscule topic that you cannot comprehend. You can’t fact-check the entire universe.

But if you believe in Daniel’s God (Daniel 2:28), that there is a God in heaven that reveals mysteries, you have hope of understanding, because God has made it possible for you to understand some things truly (not all things exhaustively). [I can know that a dog is a border collie, but I may not know all the intricacies of the DNA that pulses through her genes].

Adam claims to know that he knows there is nothing out there, but there is no good rational foundation for that claim. Why should I trust him?  Why should I trust that God is not near as opposed to generations of historical witness that God is indeed active and working in the world?

In light of the fine tuning of the universe? In light of the five natural proofs of God Aquinas gives? (See simple Animated Videos about the five natural proofs for God here)

[And Anselm’s ontological proof, which Aquinas does not include not because it is not valid, but because he doesn’t think it is convincing]

Now, Duritz is not really looking to delve deep into theological discourse, but that is the point. It is just part of his diction, the language he speaks, the way he sees the world…not an uncommon one these days.

Basically, it seems that he uses religious imagery as a quarry for his own romantic impulses, one of the most elevated and most important features of his (not to mention most other people’s) life. Consider the song that got his band Counting Crows off the ground, ‘Round Here.

Step out the front door like a ghost
Into the fog where no one notices
The contrast of white on white.
And in between the moon and you
The angels get a better view
Of the crumbling difference between wrong and right.
I walk in the air between the rain
Through myself and back again
Where? I don’t know
Maria says she’s dying
Through the door I hear her crying
Why? I don’t know
Round here we always stand up straight
Round here something radiates
Maria came from Nashville with a suitcase in her hand
She said she’d like to meet a boy who looks like Elvis
She walks along the edge of where the ocean meets the land
Just like she’s walking on a wire in the circus
She parks her car outside of my house
Takes her clothes off
Says she’s close to understanding Jesus
She knows she’s just a little misunderstood
She has trouble acting normal when she’s nervous
Round here we’re carving out our names
Round here we all look the same
Round here we talk just like lions
But we sacrifice like lambs
Round here she’s slipping through my hands
Sleeping children better run like the wind
Out of the lightning dream
Mama’s little baby better get herself in
Out of the lightning
She says It’s only in my head
She says I know it’s only in my head
But the girl in car in the parking lot
Says “Man you should try to take a shot
Can’t you see my walls are crumbling?”
Then she looks up at the building
And says she’s thinking of jumping
She says she’s tired of life
She must be tired of something
Round here she’s always on my mind
Round here hey man got lots of time
Round here we’re never sent to bed early
And nobody makes us wait
Round here we stay up very, very, very, very late

 

All this to say, He uses the religious imagery like a quarry for a larger, more individualistic storytelling. And I love what Duritz does…he’s a great storyteller…but that’s pretty much what it is.

That girl doesn’t seem like she understands who Jesus really is…but the point he is trying to make by saying she ‘understands’ Jesus is to point out that every lover feels like a martyr when it doesn’t work out. Adam knows about religion…he seems to have rejected Christianity, but definitely it is still in the back of his mind, just like a lot of others in the Western conscious.

Western culture may have largely rejected the foundation it was built upon, the schools, the universities, the government…but its still there in the back of our minds, and Jesus is ‘much closer than we have been led to understand.’

(A rough, …but I think the very best version of the song, as played on Howard Stern Live)

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