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A Theological Mashup of The Civil Wars ‘Poison and Wine’ and Kierkegaard’s ‘Works of Love’

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The mashup is everywhere.

This practice of taking two distinct songs and winding them together has become the thing to do on the internet. I personally have no musical ability, so any mashing I would do would inevitable destroy the parts and leave nothing worth hearing. But I have become addicted to the indie folk band The Civil Wars' new album (Barton Hollow) not only for its smooth vocals and catchy hooks, but also for its lyrical depth, it's probing of the human condition and the contradictions of love.

So not being musically inclined, I've decided to do a mashup all my own. I've decided to mash John Paul White and Joy Williams's (who are The Civil Wars) song, Poison and Wine with the thought of Soren Kierkegaard in his Works of Love, to present some of my thoughts on love, marriage and its many conundrums in late-modernity. Not an academic article, my objective is not to say everything about love or tie up every loose end, but like a good song, to reach for something true. To me Poison and Wine encompasses both the reality and mystery of marriage (of committed love) with all the paradox, frustration, bounded-ness and even hatred that love can so quickly propel to the surface (even in the healthiest of relationships)-- using Kierkegaard we'll explore these realities.

You must watch or listen to this first before reading on.

You only know what I want you to
I know everything you don't want me to

Oh your mouth is poison, your mouth is wine
Oh you think your dreams are the same as mine

Oh I don't love you but I always will
Oh I don't love you but I always will
Oh I don't love you but I always will

I always will
I wish you'd hold me when I turn my back

The less I give the more I get back
Oh your hands can heal, your hands can bruise

I don't have a choice but I still choose you

Oh I don't love you but I always will
Oh I don't love you but I always will
Oh I don't love you but I always will
Oh I don't love you but I always will
Oh I don't love you but I always will
Oh I don't love you but I always will
Oh I don't love you but I always will

I always will
I always will
I always will
I always will
I always will

The first lines of the song begin the clash of paradoxes that exist throughout the song as two lovers call and respond. The song opens with John Paul White singing, "You only know what I want you to" and Joy Williams answering, "I know everything you don't want me to." This series of paradoxes, at least to me, seem to be the heart of love and marriage in our time. They are paradoxes between what Kierkegaard would call the "love of the poets" and the "love of the eternal," two loves Kierkegaard believes are distinct.

I think so many of us--myself include--find ourselves stuck, perplexed as we try to mediate between the eternal realities of love and the warm waters of the poetic love of our culture. We've been told that love is only the romance of the poetic (of top 40 ballads and romantic comedies). But the sensations of this love seem to collide with the sharp rocks of the mystery of the eternal, of a love that stands in the bright, blinding glow beyond time. We are confused and frustrated because we view love through the hermeneutic of the poetic (of the consumptive), assuming that love is only what you and I construct and choose. But there is a reality to love that, through our choosing to love another, then stands outside of our construction. It becomes more than what the two of us have created, because in binding our lives together, in love we've created an eternal event; we've allowed the eternal to bind two into one.

So in his first lines we hear ourselves, we assume so quickly that our lives are our own, that we can reveal only what we want, when we want. And we can, as long as we refuse to love. But once we love, we can never hide again. We are known, and known from our core; there are no hiding places in eternal love. Of course, this is why so many dudes have such a hard time saying the words "I love you," because to say it is to sacrifice the control of your own disclosure. To return her words "I love you," with your own is to be forever naked to her, forever exposed; it is to allow her to see your soul, to glimpse you from the eternal, to put to burn all your hiding places. Exposed, you're out of control; you are swept up into eternity. The bachelor can't say "I love you" not because he is heartless, but because he knows, he fears, eternally being exposed to her, never being in control again, bowing to love's eternal exposing realities.

Love binds itself to us and as it does all our layers created to protect and hide our broken being dissolve; love exposes the frailness of our humanity to the beloved. But, if we can find the nerve, this disclosing is a gift, for in it I am seen by the beloved. It is the beloved who sees me naked, in my shivering, yearning humanity, standing uncovered. And she holds onto me in my frailness and takes me to her own shivering being, embracing me through it. And this grasping is the embrace of the eternal, for she sees me as I am, she sees me next to her own exposed humanity. Our love now transcends time, because our two beings have been wrapped into one. It is hard for me to remember a time when she was not with me; all other accents of love in my past now wear her scent. I wonder beyond the logical if there ever was a time when I didn't know her, because she fully now knows me. In her love it is as though there is no past; there is no time I was without her. We have entered the eternal.

Love exposes; your fig leaves shrivel and die in the white-hot heat of its eternity. This comes with a danger -- you are forever weak to her, forever exposed; in the mutuality of love you can never hide again. He thinks she only knows what he wants her to, but she know it all. She has seen him through the window of love and the x-ray that opened his being to her and he can never hide from her again. Even in anger, even when she doesn't have all the information, she knows, she knows. She knows he is trying to do the impossible -- to hide from her his being that has become one with her own. But it is impossible, for the two are now one. He can hide from her as much as he can hide from his left arm. She knows all because she has loved him from the eternal and because, even when anger and hate corrode love's smooth surface, he can never hide from her again. She knows everything because she loves him not as the poets and screen-writers of romance have framed it, but she has loved him from the eternal where all is revealed.

He continues, "Your mouth is poison, your mouth is wine." It is poison because to him, it calls out, revealing the absurdity of his hiding, he can go nowhere without her now; the two are one, this truth is toxic. Her "I see you," once the graceful invocation to turn two into one now is lethal. For her beaconing screams of his flight. But even in its venomous cacophony, it remains. He remembers it as sweet wine, for when her voice speaks he is freed from time and drawn into the eternal. She speaks the words that bind. It was the rolling wine of her voice that spoke eternity into time by confessing, "I love you," in the first place. He yearns to drink it more, to taste it like before, but he has become drunk on himself.

She returns, "You think your dreams are the same as mind." Now she has fallen into the trap of the poetic love herself. She sees him from the eternal, he cannot hide from her, but now she believes that her own being is not found in the eternal present of their love, but in her dreams of the future. She has taken the deceptive carrot of the poetic and believes she is her dreams, and therefore her love should assist, should be the freeway into the fulfillment she reaches for in her future, even over and against him. She now doubts their love as much as he does, because their love, in her mind, must bow to the future, to her self-fulfillment in the future.

The poet whispers that there can be no love if you cannot be free. But the love of the eternal does not make you free for your future; it makes you free NOW, free to be for, free to have your being grasped by and bound to another now, to find yourself eternally in the now, satisfied and content in the now. This is often why, when we find this eternal love, the NOW seems to stretch on and on; it as if forever exists in the now of her glance. But her future has become her god and if anything darkens it, it must be slayed by the violent wrath of her idol. The poet's love is always a fetish for the future; it is always about comparison, Kierkegaard says. She wonders if it might be possible to have a better future with a different love. She wonders if she shouldn't choose her dreams of the future over her love in the eternal, comparing what is to the ever shiny what might be. But the poet is wrong. Because the poet's infatuation with the future, with a future love un-grasped on the horizon, always ends in tragedy. It always ends in betrayal; it always ends lonely, because the poet's love is never the naked, frail humanity of the other, but the sparkly toy of infatuation. Poetic love for the future is just that -- it is love not for an other, but for another possibility, for itself. It is no longing for the embrace of another broken person, but for what might be.

In our culture it is hard for the single woman to settle. She fears the "settle"; "I never want to have to settle," she tells her friends. But settle for what? Unlike the dude she doesn't fear powerless disclosure, but her dream of the future, of a future love. And even when she finds him, when she finds the one who isn't a settle, she must always compare him to her expectations, her poetic expectation, what she dreamed her love would be. He now is no longer good enough as himself, but must be always compared to her dream, to her expectation. He is no longer a person but a fantasy. And so she threatens her love for he is never allowed to be him (his broken, naked self) but must continue to try to play the part of her poetic future dreaming. The poet asks her, is he really what you imagined? Or might there be something, someone better in the future? in the next verse he and she return paradox for paradox. She sings, "I wish you'd hold me when I turn my back," he answers, "The less I give the more I get back," and she continues, "your hands can heal, your hands can bruise." But then before the long concluding chorus, they sing together, "I don't have a choice but I still choose you."

The poet is nauseous with this statement; the poet's love can only exist in the ultimatum of choices, in the freedom to choose for myself. But the lovers admit that eternal love is election, that love is never simply chosen. It stands in very opposition to selecting love like breakfast cereal. You never choose love; love chooses you. We have no choice when the eternal appears; we have no choice when eternal love binds us two into one. And this election, this reality that we are now from two to one, leads to our great frustration for we are without choice. And even in my anger, even in my budding hatred as I would try to choose against you, I find that I can't, that we are bound in the eternal. Our lives are now one. Even if we should choose to file papers and end this love, it will not cease, for it has become eternal. It will, now that we have tried to smother it, haunt us; your smell and my embrace mark our beings.

But as the lovers in this song assert, in the eternal of love, though I am chosen, though I am bound to the beloved beyond my will, even in my election, I would choose you, I would still choose to be with you. Though beyond my will we are one, though our oneness makes for great frustration, I am when I am with you. Though it was the eternal in love that elected us, because it is eternal, it is what I would choose; it is done beyond my will, but never violently over and against it. I feel that even though it chooses me, I choose it, and did so long before this moment of saying, "I love you." I have been choosing all along, because in the love of the eternal there is no was and when, but only the event of the now.

And then the powerful chorus begins, taking over the song as it is repeated and repeated, "Oh I don't love you but I always will." The lovers sing it seven straight times, a perfect seven times. It is the collision of the poetic with the eternal. The sparkle of the poetic it is over; they do not love each other. She wants her future and he wants his secrets. But they cannot allow, love will not allow, the poetic to be all there is. She may not love him and he may not love her as the poetic demands, but they cannot escape that they always will, that in the eternal, in the reality of the two becoming one, even when the poetic love has been tainted in hatred, he cannot shake her and she cannot let him go. When the poetic tells them their love is dead, the eternal defies this. She may leave, he may never return to her, but he will never be able to pry her from his being, for they are one. And while in the poetic he may hate her, in the eternal she will always be with him; he will always long for her, for she sees him, for her voice has been the wine of salvation. And they know, they know, that whatever they choose, to serve the poetic or the eternal that, "I always will love you," I always will, I always will, I always will, for the eternal will stand.

This article first appeared on Next Wave: Church and Culture

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