Sigh No More: Walking the Path of Conversion

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There is a kind of classical conversion narrative which has operated in many sectors of evangelicalism, including those which I have experienced. According to this narrative, we are all sinners, fallen short of the glory of God, and only Christ is able to redeem us from our sins. When we turn to Christ (usually through having been led to him by the evangelizing efforts of Christians), and, as the trope goes, accept him as our personal Lord and Savior, we are redeemed, re-made in conformity to him. This conversion narrative can be rather thin, and reduce conversion entirely in terms of a single moment in which we are brought into Christ. In this understanding, there is certainly room for continued spiritual growth, but in my experience it usually is understood in terms of discipleship, rather than conversion. The moment of conversion is radically unique, and that first turning toward Christ is when we become a Christian, and differs fundamentally from any growth that comes afterward.

This kind of conversion story is heavily illuminated by three principles from C.S. Lewis – enchantment, disenchantment, and re-enchantment. In his essay, “Talking About Bicycles,” Lewis recounts a conversation with an un-named friend who describes how, when he first began to ride a bicycle, he was utterly taken away by the exhilaration of the experience: “that apparently effortless and frictionless gliding … that seemed to have solved the secret of life” (Enchantment). As he grew older, the day to day realities of the bicycle took away the joy of it: “the bicycle, itself, became to me what his oar is to a galley slave” (Disenchantment). When he returned to cycling later in life, the problems were still there, “but again and again the mere fact of riding brings back a delicious whiff of memory. I recover the feelings of [Enchantment]. What’s more, I see how true they were – how philosophical even” (Re-enchantment).

Having in mind this classical conversion narrative, and in light of the upcoming release of a new Mumford and Sons album, I would like to use it to read a sort of structure into Sigh No More. Let me be clear: I doubt that Mumford and Sons intended to give the album the shape of a conversion narrative. Rather, I want to propose a sort of “spiritual interpretation” of the album which begins with this understanding of conversion, but progresses toward a more nuanced understanding of conversion as continual journey toward eschatological fulfillment.

The first song (Sigh No More) functions as an altar call, a moment in many forms of evangelical Christianity where those present are called to come forward and commit (or re-commit) themselves to Christ. The evangelist exhorts his audience to “serve God, love me, and mend!” We may be tempted to trust in our own devices, “but man is a giddy thing,” and we cannot work out salvation on our own. Instead we must turn to Love, which is God: “it will not betray you, dismay or enslave you, it will set you free.” Here, the notion of freedom is not one of self-determination or the ability to do what pleases, but of freedom from the bondage of sin. As Augustine says many times in many ways, the will is either free from righteousness and the servant of sin, or free from sin and the servant of righteousness. This latter sense is the truer freedom, because it enables us to “be more like the man you were made to be.” The second song (The Cave) continues the exhortation to repentance. “It’s empty in the valley of your heart,” and you know you are walking the path of destruction. The evangelist sees this danger, but he assures us, “I will hold on hope and I won’t let you choke on the noose around your neck.”

Here, the voice changes to that of the convert. He knows that it is a narrow road he is asked to walk, but he promises, “I’ll find strength in pain, and I will change my ways.” He has come to know his true identity in Christ, or as he says, “I’ll know my name as it’s called again.” Sin has left his life devoid of meaning, and so he begs, “Let me at the truth which will refresh my broken mind!” Recognizing his sin, but comforted by his conversion, the newly reborn Christian throws down the gauntlet to sinful temptation: “So make your Siren’s call, and sing all you want! I will not hear what you have to say, cause I need freedom now, and I need to know how to live my life as it was meant to be.” He ends by re-affirming his born-again identity, “I will know my name as it’s called again!” Here, we are in the stage of “Enchantment” of a sort of naive first coming to belief, which can be naive and un-nuanced.

Yet in the third song (Winter Winds) we see temptation once again beginning to rear its head. He begins to fall for a woman, but he finds himself incapable of the commitment of marriage, and so “my head told my heart, Let love grow, but my heart told my head, This time, no.” He recognizes that his desires are in conflict with his new-found faith and his intentions with the woman, as he says that “the shame that sent me off from the God that I once loved was the same that sent me into your arms.” In the next song (Roll Away Your Stone) the conflict between faith and desire leads the convert to express anger at the claims of Christianity: “You told me that I would find a hole within the fragile substance of my soul, and I have filled this void with things unreal, and all the while my character it steals. But ‘darkness’ is a harsh term, don’t you think?” He is dismayed by the flesh lusting against the spirit, and many of the lyrics of this song evoke a man torn between the two. He has not yet turned his back on faith, but he has misunderstood the freedom he was promised, and holds fast to a desire for a self-determining dilution of freedom. As a result, his relinquishment of desire is begrudging: “I’ll be found with my stake stuck in the ground marking the territory of this newly impassioned soul!” He accepts, but not entirely, and so he ends on a note of suspicion towards God: “You’ve gone too far this time. You have neither reason nor rhyme, with which to take this soul which is so rightfully mine.”

As the fifth song (White Blank Page) begins, the convert has given in to his libidinal desires, to sex without marriage, and asks himself regretfully, “Can you lie next to her, and give her your heart as well as your body, and can you lie next to her, and confess your love as well as your folly, and can you kneel before the King and say I’m clean?” Of course, all three questions have an implicit answer of “no.” Having fallen from grace, he turns from faith, with the “white blank page” as a metaphor for a new beginning. Coupled with “a swelling rage,” we can see the all-too-common pattern of sin leading us to abandon the life of faith, coupled with an anger at the tradition which proposes this morality to us. This, of course, is the standard fall from grace in the conversion narrative plotted out above, where one’s Christianity is either seen to be false or relegated to the “back-slidden” category, and where in fact many become “angry ex-Christians.” Perhaps he himself believes that his faith has been shown to be a sham all along, and so his swelling rage lashes out. It is also the moment where the initial starry-eyed “Enchantment” has buckled under its own weight, and given way to a bitter “Disenchantment.”

Yet already at the beginning of the sixth song (I Gave You All), his tone has softened. He says to God “I never meant you any harm,” and in an exquisitely embodied image of the sorrow of God at the loss of one of His little ones, he remorsefully sings that “your tears feel warm as they fall on my forearm.” But he is not yet ready for reconciliation, as with a broken heart, he asks “How can you say your truth is better than ours?” Still, the refrain “I gave you all” shows that he believes he did his best. The anger resurfaces as he levels the accusation that “you rip it from my hands and you swear it’s all gone, and you rip out all I had just to say that you’ve won!” At the root of his anger, however, is the haunting power that Christianity still has over him, as seen in the haunting final refrain of “I gave you all.”

In the seventh song (Little Lion Man), we see the tug of faith on the strings of his heart. The convert reminds himself that he is weak, “you’ll never be what is in your heart.” This weakness leads to a failure to uphold the ethical claims of faith, as he acknowledges in the punchy lyric: “But it was not your fault but mine, and it was your heart on the li ne, I really fucked it up this time, didn’t I my dear?” As much as he acknowledges his failing, he is not yet able to go further toward surrender. Still, the admission is a deeply significant moment in his story. He is now at the point Augustine describes in Confessions 7.17.23, soon before the tolle, lege: “I wondered at my inability to remain in the enjoyment of you, my God. I was caught up by your beauty, but at once torn away from you by my weight of fleshly habit. Though I remembered you, and in no way doubted that I must cling to you, I could not yet cling, for the corruptible flesh weighs down the soul.” In Confessions 8.5.10, he explains this oppressive weight of sin in greater detail (remember that Augustine was already a believer in Scripture, as he tells us in 6.5.8; the great conversion of Book 8 is a conversion of the will, a newly-given willingness to commit to Christianity morally): “From a perverted will [that is, a will perversa, turned away from God], lust is made, and when we serve lust, habit is made, and when habit is not resisted, addiction is made. Harsh enslavement held me fast with these entangled chain-links.”

The eighth song (Timshel) finds the convert longing for the warmth of faith, for the one to whom he must cling. But he, like Augustine, is tangled in the chain of sin, and so it is faith, not lustful habit, that he resists: “Cold is the winter, it freezes your already cold mind.” Yet the self-determination of man over against obedience to God continues to have a powerful hold over him, as he says, “You have your choices, and these are what make man great, his ladder to the stars.” This desire for self-determination leads, in the ninth song (Thistle & Weeds), to a plea for an exception to the high claims of Christian life: “Spare me your judgments, and spare me your dreams, cause recently mine have been tearing at my seams.” The desire to return to Christ is still outweighed by his fear of living the life of faith: “I’m on my knees, and your faith it shreds it seems.” Yet the draw that Christ has is so potent, that he needs to dig in his heels and resist, crying out “I will hold on” to the idolatrous desire for self-determination. The power of faith begins to take an almost threatening character, as he sings that “the water” (signifying baptism) “creeps to my chest,” and yet he still holds out. He reflects on the need for grace, in a passage evocative of the Gospel and Augustine alike, with the seed of the Good News as the beginning of faith, and the rain as the strengthening of the will, both divine gifts: “Plant your hope with good seeds, don’t cover yourself with thistle and weeds, rain down on me!” The desire for deep Christian community is still strong, though, and so he says “Rain down on me!” Finally, after again trying to “hold on” to his self-determination, the dam breaks, he knows that he cannot live without grace, his resistance dissolves, and he turns back to Christ, with a deeper, “Re-enchanted” understanding of the meaning of that commitment, and especially of the need for grace: “Rain down on me!”

As the tenth song (Awake, My Soul) begins, he is back at last, and looks with regret at his past failings, exclaiming “how fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes!” The accusation which before had been leveled at faith is now directed to the illusion of sin: “I struggle to find any truth in your lies.” His initial optimism about his ability to live the life of faith on his own power has been shown for the mistake it was: “And now my heart stumbles on things I don’t know: my weakness I feel I must finally show.” Throughout the song, and especially at the end, the refrain functions as a potent call to a re-vitalized faith and life of the spirit: “Awake, my soul, for you were made to meet your maker!”

The twelfth song (After the Storm) is strikingly muted, as both the blustering optimism and the struggle with faith have given way to a quiet and steady restfulness. The convert has returned, but with a new perspective that lends a realism to his understanding of the Christian walk, Lewis’ “Re-enchantment.” He expresses his faith by saying, “After the storm [his bout with disbelief], I run and run as the rains come, and I look up…On my knees, and out of luck I look up,” “out of luck” as he fumbles to express the preveniency of grace. The expression of Christian spousal love which follows exposes the shallowness of his lustful dalliances: “I took you by the hand, and we stood tall, and remembered our own land, what we lived for!” We see the realistic shift in a growing distrust of the current age, expressed poignantly in his new-found eschatological orientation. Hearts break now, but one day, God will wipe every tear from their eyes: “There will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears, and love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.” The conversion comes to its final point, when the album ends with this line, and its paired expression of hope: “Get over your hill and see what you find there with grace in your heart, and flowers in your hair.”

Our convert began by turning to Christ with a real faith, but a sort of naive assumption about his ability to live fully the Christian life, which we can think of in terms of that Enchantment, that initial rush of uncomplicated delight Lewis’ friend describes. As true as that joy is, it doesn’t account for the reality of his situation, and the enduring experience of sin in his life. When sin once again rears its ugly head, he bitterly abandons the life of faith, and believes that it has no room for him; this is his Disenchantment. But the hold that Christ has on his soul is too strong to allow him to stay away. Instead, he returns to the faith, in a more sober but deep-felt way. Along with a renewed understanding that what ability he has to live rightly comes from the gifts of God, he also has his eyes on the Last Day as the completion of conversion. This is his Re-enchantment, a recognition that the day-to-day temptations come, and he can expect to fail to fully live what he is called to. But though the righteous man falls seven times a day, he rises up again, and this rising up will be fully attained in the new heaven and the new earth.

Joshua Gonnerman

Joshua Gonnerman is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at the Catholic University of America, where he is working on a dissertation on grace and predestination in the thought of St. Augustine.