“Tiny little text etched into her neck, it said, ‘Jesus lived and died for all your sins.’”
If you listen to The Hold Steady, you notice that Jesus shows up in strange places. He is etched in a neck tattoo, chilling with the Father in a character’s drug-induced hallucinations, and in the embrace of “young and awkward” lovers, just to name a few instances. If you listen to the band long enough, you notice that Jesus never leaves.
Unlike the one-dimensional Jesus of most Christian music (you know, the beatific guy who smiles beneficently upon you from up above), Craig Finn’s Jesus gets his hands dirty. He makes his first appearance in “Sketchy Metal” from the band’s debut, Almost Killed Me, lounging with the Father and forgiving the sins of the drunks and the druggies: “Jesus rolled his eyes when his dad made Jesus jokes.” The first time I listened to “Sketchy Metal,” I remember thinking that Finn wasn’t taking Jesus seriously enough. I was expecting Jesus to be in a reverential, quiet church, filled with mild-mannered people who shun loud parties and raucous behavior. After all, I had always been told that’s where Jesus spent his time. Over the years, I’ve realized that maybe I was the one not taking Jesus seriously enough.
If I really take Jesus at his word, then I shouldn’t be shocked to see him frequent the places, and mingle with the people, that Craig Finn so eloquently describes in his songs. On the band’s second album, Separation Sunday, Finn seamlessly integrates Jesus into the album’s narrative, giving him a constant presence and surprising power. Late in the album, on “Chicago Looked Tired Last Night,” Finn offers an explanation (or perhaps a confession) for the ubiquity of religious imagery on Separation Sunday: “We gather our gospels from gossip and bar talk, then declare them the truth…and even if you don’t get converted tonight, you gotta admit the band’s pretty tight.” Can the Gospel, in some form, be found in these unconventional places? The rest of Separation Sunday delivers an uncompromising “yes” to this question.
Jesus and the cross reside in the dark shadows of Separation Sunday, not lying in judgment, but waiting to offer redemption. Christ first appears on the back of Holly’s neck, in the line that opens this piece, and then he takes up residence. He makes his home with the misfits and the castaways; he walks alongside the depressed and aimless who are searching for meaning. In “Banging Camp,” crosses “made of pipes and planks” sit in the background, while our characters go through an unorthodox baptism service: “He said, ‘Take a hit, hold your breath, and I’ll dunk your head. When you wake up again, yeah, you’ll be high as hell and born again.’” By connecting spiritual experience with drugs, Finn suggests that the people indulging in both perhaps share a common motivation—something that Walker Percy would call “the search,” a quest for meaning.
Finn’s characters are looking for something beyond themselves to redeem their reality and give meaning to their lives. Often, they turn to killer parties, drugs (prescription or otherwise), alcohol, and sex, seeking to break the monotony and terror of mundane existence. In of itself, this kind of statement is nothing special, as people have been trying to ‘fill the void’ inside since the beginning of time. Yet, Finn takes it an extraordinary step further and asserts that meaning, redemption, and Jesus are found alongside the vices and sin that plague humanity, not in a separate, cordoned-off area where the purity of religion never intersects with the depravity of the world. “We had some sweet stuff stuffed into our socks, and Jesus Christ in all his glory,” goes “Charlemagne in Sweatpants,” mingling the glory of Christ and the intoxicating presence of narcotics.
In the end, some of Finn’s characters never find a purpose, content to continue running from cops and gangs, going to sketchy parties, and getting high as hell. Others, however, in moments of abject desolation, accept the grace that’s been there all along. On Separation Sunday, Holly encounters Jesus, waking up in a confession booth in “Crucifixion Cruise.” She is “infested with infection and smiling on an abscessed tooth,” but her poor, lowly condition doesn’t stop her from starting up a conversation with the Almighty. And it certainly doesn’t stop Him from listening to her.
The album’s final word comes on “How a Resurrection Really Feels,” a glorious celebration of second chances and a sober reminder of our perpetual brokenness. Holly’s “been disappeared for years,” but “today she finally came back,” striding into church on Easter Sunday, her “hair done up with broken glass”, interrupting mass to ask: “Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?” The hoodrat, the girl who has been walking on “shady streets” and attending druggy parties, explodes into the mild-mannered, reverent church service and unexpectedly brings Jesus along with her. Yet, even as the prodigal returns, she notes that she is one step away from going back out on the streets: “She said, ‘Don’t turn me on again. I’ll probably just go and get myself all gone again.’” In her honesty, Holly can’t offer an assurance of better behavior nor a guarantee that she is going to become a faithful, demure church-goer; in fact, she can’t bring or promise anything. In that regard, it’s good that the fatted calf has already been slaughtered, the robe has already been placed around her shoulders, and the biggest, loudest party you can possibly imagine is already underway.
We’re all invited, and I hear Jesus is making the wine.
“She’s got blue-black ink, and it’s scratched into her lower back, says, ‘Damn right you’ll rise again.’”