Gina Messina-Dysert, “Is God Absent On ‘Grey Street’?:Theodicy, Domestic Violence, And The Dave Matthews Band”

[T]heodicies are unable to fully address questions that arise as a result of tragic suffering.  In order to properly address the problem of suffering, I embrace Anthony Pinn’s approach of “nitty-gritty hermeneutics”, a method that pursues the questioning of evil without restricting its inquiry to the confines of doctrine, allowing for additional discourse and examination of the problem of suffering.  Further, I examine music’s ability to allow for explorations of anguish experienced as a result of injustice, as well as its ability to acts as a coping mechanism and source of accompaniment for those sharing a similar experience expressed within a song. – Gina Messina-Dysert, “Is God Absent on ‘Grey Street’?: Theodicy, Domestic Violence, and The Dave Matthews Band”, in Beaudoin, ed., Secular Music & Sacred Theololgy, p.77

This particular essay acts as a bridge between sections of the book.  The last in the section “Theology Through Community”, it is followed by “Theology Through Song”.  Messina-Dysert seeks to understand “Grey Street” by The Dave Matthews Band – a song – as a way for a community – women who have survived situations of domestic violence – both as an entry point to their questions about the situations, and the role of God in their suffering.  This topic is typically discussed, since Leibniz, as theodicy.

The reasons for looking for resources through which women who are trying to rebuild their lives after the horror of domestic violence that are not within the established church or its doctrine are two-fold.  The history of the Christian churches is built in no small part in denying moral or full human agency to women.  Recent theological experiments in feminist and womanist theologies cannot erase two millennia of an established church telling women they are the source of sin in the world, both in the beginning through Eve and in each moment through their sexual temptation.  The other problematic matter is the ways traditional theodicies seek to defend God’s traditional attributes, particular benevolence and justice, in the face of the reality of unjust oppression.

This “nitty-gritty hermeneutic” Messina-Dysert mentions is defined and explained on pp. 80-81:

This method does not limit inquiry and allows for expanded discourse and further examination of the problem of suffering and evil, which in turn offers a deeper understanding of the overall issue.  The term “nitty-gritty” signifies the “rawest layer of truth” and acknowledges the “rough edges” involved in suffering.  It involves “hard labor” or strong and aggressive inquiry and does not “soften” the experience of those who suffer.  Unlike theodicy, it allows the the freedom necessary to explore questions regarding evil.

The song, “Grey Street”, is clearly about a woman living in an abusive situation.  Messina-Dysert speculates on the source of Matthews’s clarity in his emotional description, using the metaphor of color to describe the loneliness and horror in which the protagonist finds herself; apparently Matthews’s sister died as the result of domestic violence, so the issue is one with which he is familiar.  Prior to examining the specific song, Messina-Dysert notes that social science research has found that women living in situations in which they are trying to survive domestic violence find in music not only an escape, but a voice that lessens their sense of loneliness, their fear and shame; in short, in music these women realize they are not alone, perhaps at and through the only way available to them..

“Grey Street” can be understood as an emotional validation and response to the experience of women in domestic violence situations.  Like the blues, its lyrics are concerned with truth as it arises out of experience and validate the extreme suffering endured within a violent relationship. . . .  According to David Tetzlaff , music “locates truth either in the lived experience of a community it aims to represent, or in the unique creative vision of the musician.”  Examining this song from a feminist standpoint in relation to my personal and professional experiences with domestic violence, I have come to conclude that “Grey Street” is a powerful resource because it offers women in abusive relationships a language to express their grief and confusion about God’s role in their suffering and the opportunity to become liberators for themselves. The surfacing of nitty-gritty- hermeneutic in this song interprets theological themes based upon the complexities of living within an abusive relationship and encourages the listener to “remove the psychological comforting theological crutches and develop themselves as liberator.”  As Dwight Hopkins explains, “The image of God planted in all creation, Christian and non-Christian, means a reflection of divine co-laborer and co-creator.  In other words, God does not work alone. . . .”  The song does not limit women in their inquiry and does not insist they maintain specific qualities about God.  “Grey Street” allows women to break free of doctrine an d assert their genuine thoughts and feelings.  It validates their suffering, provides comfort, and gives permission to speak their pain.  Accordingly, this song can in fact act as a theological resource for women.(pp.84-85)

Finally, Messina-Dysert writes:

[S]alvation is not simply a promise, but rather it is all that sustains our lives, our bodies, and love.  Music nourishes and can act as that glass of water and provide redemptive moments within a life of radical suffering. . . .

“Grey Street” also has the ability to function in this way for women in abusive relationships.  Because the song properly addresses theodicy questions for victims of domestic violence and acknowledges the overall feelings of isolation and despair experienced in this particular situation, this song allows for transcendence, a sense of accompaniment, a means to cope, and momentary salvation; thus women become their own liberators.  It is through this experience that the divine is experienced; it points to God being at work within our lives in relation to others.  Thus, God is not absent on “Grey Street,” rather God accompanies us in our suffering and is experienced within momentary salvation.(p.88)

With a bit of sleight of hand, Messina-Dysert reasserts the benevolence, omnipresence, and even loving-kindness of God, matters she had previously said made traditional theodicies problematic.  She has also reasserted particular doctrinal affirmations concerning God, even though she insists that “Grey Street”, as both a theological and therapeutic tool allows women to explore outside the bounds of traditional doctrine.  It is for these reasons I believe that, up until the final sentence of the paragraph quoted above, this is an excellent article.  The best theodicies are those that refuse to do more than acknowledge that evil exists; sometimes it is radical evil on an interpersonal level, while at other times it is on a social, political, or even cultural level that can decimate whole populations, or at least attempt to do so.  That this is so needs to be acknowledged, without ever once explaining such away.  Even concepts such as evil and sin have failed to capture the depth of human depravity that has become far too commonplace in our world.  Whether or not God is “guilty” or “innocent”; whether or not “doctrine” is in need of protection from the questions raised by the very real suffering of women escaping situations of horrific violence, coming back around, T. S. Eliot-like and seeing the place we began for the first time is not an answer at all.  It might well be enough to say that a song such as “Grey Street” provides for women in situations of domestic violence that momentary respite from the loneliness, shame, and fear with which they live the rest of their days.  The mystery of God’s absence in human suffering, personal and communal, is one that cannot be assuaged by empty affirmations of Divine Presence, even in a song that questions that reality.  We do a disservice to the victims, to our faith, to Dave Matthews, and to God by trying to swing round the hard questions that remain no matter how hard we try to affirm Divine Presence.

That such presence may well be little more than the four minutes of Dave Matthews’s song goes a bit to far.  It can be an entry point, as Messina-Dysert says, for examining the situation of domestic violence itself, and echoing Matthews’s words about prayers to a God who either cannot or will not hear, we should leave the answer to the presence of God up to the women as they move through the process of healing.  Perhaps that four minutes will be enough for them to remember the Divine Comforter.  Perhaps not.  Both are equally valid human responses to situations otherwise nearly identical.  Theological reflection that does not leave open the possibility of rejection is not real theological reflection; it’s intellectual masturbation. No sleight of hand, no matter how earnestly made, no matter how slick, can change that.