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Jason Isbell, “Coupling with Death,” and Psalm 137

“Listen to this one.”

My friend and I exchanged song recommendations one afternoon via text.  An abuse survivor, she sent me Grammy-winning Jason Isbell’s song Yvette.

The song, like many good southern songs, tells a story.  The narrator is watching his friend from school being raped by her father, from the street through a window.  He’s holding a Weatherby, (which after a little googling, I realized was a rifle), and is considering shooting the father to stop it from happening again.

I’d sent her Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” song, so I wasn’t expecting this. But death was on her mind.  It was Holy Week, ​the Thursday before Easter Sunday which commemorates the Last Supper of Christ before his crucifixion. After I switched gears from Stevie Wonder, I listened to the lyrics of the Isbell song:

I might not be a man yet,

But your father will never be,

So I load up my Weatherby.

I let out my breath

And I couple with death.

I couple with death.

Being “coupled with death,” one of the best descriptions of Holy Week. 

I’m a theologian, so I’m more apt to be discussing theology than pop culture. On the same day, another friend and I had been exchanging not country songs, but troubling passages of Scripture. We were discussing the notion of “Biblical inerrancy” and we were sharing passages that express violent sentiments that seem wrong to us as contemporary readers. The one that I shared was  Psalm 137, and you might call this Psalm the “Yvette” for the Jewish exiles. 

Like “Yvette,” the author is feeling furious and helpless in the face of a horrible injustice. Their Babylonian captors are mocking the Jews, telling them to sing happy songs in their captivity.  

He refuses to sing the joyful “songs of Zion,” and like the author of “Yvette,” he lines up his enemies in his sights.

Happy is the one who repays you

     according to what you have done to us.

Happy is the one who seizes your infants

     and dashes them against the rocks.

If you’re surprised such imagery is in the bible, you haven’t been paying attention. Contrary to some of our pastel-colored best-selling Christian books and greeting cards, the bible doesn’t shy away from violence and death – in fact, (spoiler alert) the whole story hinges on it. Psalm 137 isn’t saying God endorses these impulses necessarily, but that God’s big story understands it, encompasses it, and ultimately will rework it. 

I read Psalm 137 and I think, Yeah, that’s real stuff.  That’s what that Ukrainian grieving mother is feeling right now. That’s what the families of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others might be feeling.  

It’s a hermeneutical journey which begins in a place of injustice, fury, yearning, and angst. 

Scripture is ultimately a grand, mysterious story that climaxes in the Cross and will find final resolution in the Resurrection.  You have to read all those troubling texts like Psalm 137 in the same way. They are those parts of the story where the reader goes, “Huh, what was that?” and then the scene or line vaguely sticks in the back of your mind as you are swept into the next chapter. The trained and skilled reader files that away – they know there was something there, but they are likely to interpret it mistakenly in the moment. 

True meaning awaits. 

In literature and cinema, this is called a “red herring,” and – just as you shouldn’t take friendship tips from Job’s pals – Scripture has its equivalents.

If you believe the “inerrancy” resides in the overall plot, not in each specific line, then you should be disturbed by Psalm 137, but disturbed in the way that a viewer of a Hitchock movie is meant to be disturbed by certain scenes. Viewers are internally horrified by those “scenes of terror” (feminist biblical scholar Phylis Trible rightly called certain rape stories in Scripture “Texts of Terror“). 

The disturbance has a purpose – Hitchcock is often evoking some truth about the viewers’ own depravity – but the viewer still trusts the story. In fact, the experienced Hitchcock viewer especially trusts the story because they’ve learned over multiple engagements to trust the auteur behind the story. That auteur is the true Inerrant One – we can trust he is directing the movie such that it will resolve things in a satisfying way by the end. That’s how we’re meant to trust Scripture.

But you have to get all the way to the end.

Psalm 137 leaves you hanging, wanting resolution – just like Isbell’s last stanza.  Is there a solution to the injustice that occurs all around us?

Isbell’s song ends with the assurance that bad things won’t happen anymore for Yvette.

Saw your father last night in the window, the light made a silhouette.

Saw him hold you that way, he won’t hold you that way anymore, Yvette.

But whereas Isbell’s song suggests that this promise will be fulfilled the moment he pulls the trigger on his Weatherby, the Bible points to a different moment. 

I’m writing this on Resurrection Sunday, when death was defeated, not with more death, but by the One who absorbed death in his unquenchable Life. This Life will fulfill the promise that one day all the Yvettes will be made whole, all the abusers will be stopped, and justice will finally “ring out for all of God’s children.” 

Martin Luther King, Jr. said those words in 1963.  It hasn’t happened yet, as evidenced by the headlines of the past couple of years.  As evidenced by the yearning in your heart for something other than what’s happening all around us.

True art doesn’t shy away from death, rage against injustice, and the true angst of existence, and neither does the bible.  It wrangles with it honestly. That’s why we trust it, as we stagger through this world – turning our heads from the red herrings – and keep turning the pages through the painful vicissitudes of life until we truly get to the end of the story.

Then, we’ll be able to truly sing a different, more joyful, song.

Curtis Chang is the Founder of Redeeming Babel.
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