Myles Werntz, “Erase This From The Blackboard: Pearl Jam, John Howard Yoder, And The Overcoming Of Trauma”

I suggest that Ten represent a real struggle with the question of violence’s inevitability, suggesting that (for Pearl Jam) the solution to trauma and violence lies not in repeating it, but in breaking free of its bonds and presuppositions.  For [John Howard] Yoder, this possibility emerges only because of eschatology – that new possibilities emerge within the world as witnesses to the way things truly are.  Whereas Yoder can claim this on the basis of the witness of Jesus, for Pearl Jam, this is a conclusion which must be arrived at not by means of divine fiat or revelation, but through the continual working out of the “release” – or as I have termed it, the apocalyptic solution – through future albums. – Myles Werntz, “Erase This From THe Blackboard: Pearl Jam, John Howard Yoder, And The Overcoming Of Violence,” in Beaudoin, ed. Secular Music & Sacred Theology, p.122

 Even though what would become “grunge” had begun to trickle on to mainstream radio and MTV by mid-1991, with singles from Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, it was autumn and winter of 1991-1992 that what had been a local, tight-knit scene in Seattle suddenly became this enormous musical event, overturning everything that had gone before.  It was even said that one reason Michael Jackson’s album released in the fall of 1991 had been knocked off the number one position in Billboard’s charts were the millions of kids who were returning their copies they received at Christmas and buying Nevermind.

Just as in Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarrantino posits the existence of only two types of people – you’re either an Elvis person or a Beatles person – I think in those early days of grunge you were either an adoring fan of Nirvana and their quasi-punk, melodic hard rock or Pearl Jam with their blues- and riff-based songs that were less melodic, and less beholden to punk.  I will admit I was a Pearl Jam person, although I qualify that now, noting that the quality of the songs continued to go downhill with each successive album, as if learning to play together, the band forgot that what got them started was not being quite sure how to play together.

To be perfectly honest, I think it was the thematic content of Ten that drew me to the album.  As Werntz points out, this is one of the last records that is truly an album, a collection of songs that, heard together, give even more meaning to the individual songs heard apart from one another.  Themes of trauma, violence, and the open question of whether or not this is a cycle to be repeated a la Nietzsche as we not only embrace trauma and violence as that which forms us, and need to be repeated in order to form us.  Werntz, however, offers an alternative for closure, or perhaps overcoming, through the apocalyptic vision of John Howard Yoder, who rooted his understanding of apocalyptic in Barth’s understanding of the Incarnation.

The final notes of “Release” leave us, then, with two primary options for understanding Ten’s vision of violence: recurrence of the same, or apocalypse.  . . .  [O]ne cannot flee the problem of whether violence and trauma is dealt with; we can “try to erase [trauma] from the blackboard’ as much as we like, but the problem -quite simply – remains. (pp.112-113)

Understanding Yoder’s “apocalyptic” begins with understanding Karl Barth’s complex understanding of the implications of the Incarnation.

As Karl Barth’s writing on the incarnation suggests . . . the materiality of the world is never a matter o  immanence; describing the second person of the Trinity as the “elected human” means in part for Barth that there is no insoluble break between God and the world, but rather that the conditions of immanence are always included within and open to transformation and permutation by the transcendent.(p.115)

Werntz then quotes Paul Daffyd Jones:

Such is the extremity of God’s love.  God does not rest content with the perfections of deity; God intends the radical alterity of a particular creature with whom God can live in fellowship. . . .  For the sake of validating, ensuring and upholding God’s relationship with humankind, God makes this representative human, this “first work” of God, a permanent dimension of God’s being qua Son., thereby securing for all humans the favor of divine companionship. . . .

The human individual, identifiable as the man Jesus, is not overrun by God, even as he is determined by God, even as he is drawn into the divine life. . . . This “enclosure” does not compromise the integrity of Christ’s humanity any more than it compromises the integrity of those who live “in Christ.”(p.115)

Following Barth, this entrance of the Divine in to Creation, or as Werntz puts it in more dramatic language, “[t]his irruption of God into immanence in the person of Jesus” is the true meaning of “apocalyptic”, because it reveals that which was hidden – new possibilities rooted in that very incarnation.  For Yoder, these new possibilities are embodied in the life of the Incarnate Word, and they include not only the option but the necessity for non-violence and the rejection of the cycle of violence and trauma as we, the living Body of Christ continue this work of Son in this world.

While certainly commendable, there is much that is wrong with this view, and Werntz is not blind to it.  Perhaps from the immanent side, the most problematic part is the way violence and trauma, for Yoder are, in the words of “Jeremy”, erased.  In fact, Werntz sides with Pearl Jam, noting that it is necessary to give voice to the violence and trauma in human life as a necessary part of overcoming it.  We cannot pretend it has not gripped us (I think Yoder’s lack of a lived tension, an open dialectic, fails his best intentions here).  Yet Yoder also insists that this apocalyptic action of the incarnation also calls into being a community committed to emulating Christ’s rejection of non-violence.  Even with these caveats in mind, Werntz continues on p.120:

With Yoder’s vision of “apocalyptic” nonviolence in hand, we are in position to see most fully how Ten, for Christian theology, constitutes a kind of “parable of the kingdom of heaven” – not identical to Christian witness, but an analogy made possible by the grace of God.

Werntz says”to hear Ten is to hear the witness of a new social community, in that the album is the performance of a new community and that which produces the community.”

For Yoder, the new community which rejects violence is ordered around the one who inaugurates the community: Jesus – the nonviolent one who bears out the character of God.  For Pearl Jam, however, the rejection of further violence does not immediately yield a new orientation.(p.121)

The reason for this is simple enough: the band left the conclusion open.  Will violence and trauma beget more violence?  Will there be, as the final song on the album says, a “release”?  There is no answer given by the band; as Werntz notes, their subsequent material returned to these same themes again and again, without any actual resolution offered other than naming that which causes us pain (which, as noted above, is very important in the healing process).  Yet Werntz concludes that even with the differences and weaknesses, “speaking of this “newness” is intimately bound up with telling stories about how the old violence has been done away with, . . .”

[F]or it is through these stories that the violence is overcome – the irruption of the apocalyptic “new” within history is not, in other word, knowledge so much as it is a new way of life.  And in this sense, Christian theologians can listen to Ten and say with Jesus that it is “not far from the kingdom,” in that Ten – in its stories and in its structure – gestures in hope toward what Yoder see Jesus displaying in fullness. (pp.124-125)

Yet again, while I believe using particular theological lenses to illuminate theological themes within popular music is important, as I read this conclusion I cannot but think we have encountered yet another Christian theologian who wishes to push the relationship just a bit too far.  Listening to the album as a whole, it is clear the band left thematic matters open and unanswered, to be addressed in later releases in different words.  That a particular theological stance might well offer a way out of the conundrum the band presents in its songs, to say these are parables of the Kingdom is to misunderstand what that Kingdom is.  It is also to do violence to the very freedom of the creature that Yoder, via Barth, insists is part and parcel both of the Incarnation and the Church inaugurated in Jesus passion, death, and resurrection.

Nevertheless, this is an excellent work, providing tools for people to think not only about popular culture, but how many different entry points the Christian faith offers those who seek to see the face and hear the Words of Jesus in our contemporary secular society.