The contemporary music that best appeals to me falls into a folk or urban folk genre, and I like it most when it voices alienation and loss. When it touches faith, as it frequently does, it nudges up against a faith that is absent or mislaid and one hears a wistful grief for its absence.
To be absolutely honest I never heard of punk rocker Patti Smith until Pope Francis selected her for a Vatican Christmas concert. She’s not my style. But since digging through her lyrics, I think she speaks for many in words even I can understand. If Pope Francis seeks to touch sentiments of lost faith, Smith wasn’t a bad choice.
The most offensive lyrical line quoted by critics against Smith appears in Gloria: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but he didn’t die for mine.” There’s something suggestive about it, perhaps a pride that rejects any implication of committing any sin on her part that would ever require Jesus’ intervention? The next line seems to say so: “My sins my own / they belong to me, me.” Is that pride? Or resignation?
I didn’t read the song that way, not as pride; I didn’t see it anywhere in the lyrics. I did read of someone ensnared by sin, deceived into helplessness with no ready means of rescue, someone resigned. And in reading that I found myself tossed back to a parish experience I prefer not to relive.
I’ll call her Rachel. When I knew her she was a bright, talented young girl, not long out of high school, living at home, and working as a receptionist for an auto dealership, saving money for college. She attended worship every week. Then, abruptly, she left home, rented a room, and moved some miles away.
I went looking for her. To listen to her parents, Rachel just packed up and walked off. I went to see her at work and took her to lunch and fussed at her about never letting us see her at worship.
She had had an abortion, the story came out. Her boyfriend got her pregnant (yeah, I know, there are two in any tango, still). He insisted on an abortion, holding their relationship hostage until she did it. When it was done he abandoned her anyway, but not before her father joined in the pressure to end her pregnancy when it was apparent she was expecting. I can’t remember the statistics I’ve read, but an amazing number of women are shoved in exactly that same way, by a man or men.
She said only two things I can remember after so many years. “I can’t go there anymore.” Did she mean church or home? But before I could ask her to expand she let it out, eyes down, voice soft, right there in a restaurant. “I had an abortion; God will never forgive that.”
For some reason I immediately thought of that old philosophical teaser, can God make a rock so heavy that even he can’t lift it? “Little Rachel,” I thought, or maybe I said it aloud, “imagining a sin so big even God can’t forgive it?” Aloud or not, that’s what she meant.
In confession and absolution as Lutherans practice it (though it is practiced far too infrequently) the pastor must ask, “Do you believe the word of forgiveness I speak to you comes from God himself?” The penitent must answer yes.
I like that phrasing and I think it probably summarizes every encounter between penitent and confessor. God is the ventriloquist; the pastor is God’s dummy. He speaks words that are put into his mouth, words he is commanded to recite but cannot utter as his own. And it is only by God’s goodness they will be heard and believed.
It is lament that I hear in Patti Smith’s Gloria. That’s what I hear in “Jesus died for somebody’s sin, but he didn’t die for mine.” I never saw Rachel at worship again, and though she did graduate college she never again received communion from my hand, and I weep at that as I write it.
Russell E. Saltzman is a former dean of the North American Lutheran Church. His latest book Speaking of the Dead, is available from ALPB Books. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His previous articles can be found here.