Farewell, Josh Ritter: A Review of “Sermon on the Rocks”

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Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age  has been remarkably helpful for understanding my past as a teenage evangelical. I admit that’s a lot like using sledgehammer to crack a walnut; A Secular Age is 800+ pages of dense philosophical argument and my adolescence was not especially complex or atypical. Nevertheless, I’ve found Taylor’s concepts useful for illuminating everything from my experience of prayer to my taste in music.

In the mid-2000s, I was fascinated with doubt. Part of this fascination was just a natural bent towards intellectual inquiry. I thought what Descartes did in Meditations on First Philosophy was badass. I was not cool.

But I did listen to cool music. Cool music was full of the doubt I craved. It was full of ambiguity, especially where it brushed up against Christianity. So I loved Bright Eyes: “Her bed beneath the crucifix, on guests performing miracles, / With the Son of God just hanging like a common criminal. / ‘When I do wrong, I am with God,’ she thought.” I loved Sufjan Stevens: “All the glory when He took our place / But He took my shoulders and He shook my face, / And He takes and He takes and He takes.” I loved Jenny Lewis: “But in the desert underneath the charging sky / It’s just you and God. / But what if God’s not there? / But His name is on your dollar bill / Which just became cab fare.” Most of all, I loved Josh Ritter.

Charles Taylor helped me understand this craving for doubt by getting beyond the binary of belief and unbelief. In Taylor’s lexicon (for a very useful introduction and overview, see Jamie Smith’s summary of Taylor, How (Not) to Be Secular), people may be either “open” or “closed,” that is, believers or unbelievers in the transcendent, but they also can hold that position either as a “take” or a “spin.” A take recognizes the availability of counterevidence and the contestability of one’s position. A spin attempts to explain away everything that apparently contradicts it so that it becomes the only perspective possible. I see now that in my religious life I was stuck in an “open spin.” The intellectual framework attached to my religious background was essentially fundamentalist, “spinny.” I was powerfully attracted to anything “takeish” whether open or closed.

In my reading, this attraction led me to Rob Bell, Donald Miller, and others in the emerging church movement. I ate up Velvet Elvis and Blue Like Jazz and A Generous Orthodoxy. True, I had some misgivings about these writers. Was that open-mindedness or just fuzzy thinking? Epistemic humility or intellectual laziness? But overall, their perspective was enormously helpful in creating space for me to question faithfully.

Josh Ritter was a big part of this. In songs like “Lawrence, KS” (“Preacher says that when the master call us / He’s going to give us wings to fly / But my wings are made of hay and corn husks / So I can’t leave this world behind.”) and “Wings” (“The saints and all the martyrs / Look down on dying converts. / “What makes the water holy,” she said, / “Is that it’s the closest thing to rain.”) he wrote beautiful characters that wrestled with God, who sometimes believed and sometimes didn’t but who never belonged to themselves. In “Golden Age of Radio,” there’s a line so perfect in its takeishness that you can’t tell whether the take is open or closed: “Have mercy on this boy. / He did it all by the book. / But he still kind of has his doubts.”

The Animal Years is Ritter at his most takeish. In an interview with American Songwriter around the time of its release, he said, “Everyone seems to feel so right about themselves, and I just don’t feel that way…. I don’t feel sure about anything.” You can hear his annoyance at the self-righteousness of spin. Uncertainty is the only truthful response to reality. On this album, Ritter can criticize religion at every turn (“Peter said to Paul, ‘You know all those words we wrote / Are just the rules of the game and the rules are the first to go.’”), engage in a little misotheism (“If God’s up there he’s in a cold, dark room, / The heavenly hosts are just the cold, dark moons. / Bent down and made the world in seven days, / And ever since he’s been a-walking away.”), and still offer up a prayer to the deus absconditus (“It’s hard to see how there could be / So much dark inside the light. / Don’t you leave us in the dark.”). His ability to critique without pushing his own dogma, to question without lapsing into relativism, these truly helped me to come to terms with my own take, however different it was from his.

Yet even as Ritter, Bell, Miller, and others were helping me to become more comfortable with my doubts, to find beauty in uncertainty, and to experience faith as trust, there was that suspicion. You couldn’t help but notice that beside all the affirmation of questions and embrace of doubt, there was a certain lack of imagination. Doubt had a certain predictable drift. The holes poked in the Christian narrative were consistently patched with the expressive individualism and secular humanism of National Public Radio, the civil religion of WEIRDistan. And this patching material received so little scrutiny in turn that, at the risk of cynicism, one wondered whether it represented the doubters’ true convictions. Rob Bell proved to be an interesting test case.

I don’t suppose we will ever know exactly what John Piper meant by tweeting “Farewell Rob Bell,” but it did seem that with Love Wins Bell had turned a corner. The sneaking suspicion that maybe Bell thought he had God more figured out (or perhaps “boxed in”) than he was letting on was getting harder to ignore. By the time we got What We Talk About When We Talk About God, the transformation was complete. God is “our brushes with spirit, our awareness of the reverence humming within us.” He is mostly depersonalized and completely defanged—content to be just what we think we need. It’s the now familiar tale of Oprahfication, the capture of spirituality by what Taylor would call a Closed World System. Bell had lost his takeishness. In Bell’s new closed spin, God was just another name for the brass heaven; no more surprise attacks on our consumerist individualism.

Though I hate to say it, Sermon on the Rocks is Josh Ritter’s Love Wins. And like with Rob Bell or Donald Miller or the other Oprahfiers, we kind of saw this coming. I wanted to give Ritter the benefit of the doubt, to believe he could stay takeish. The Upper Middle Brow was crouching at the door, but “Timshel.” I knew we had dodged a bullet with The Beast in Its Tracks. It was a breakup album. It was personal. And yet, Ritter hadn’t “fully succumbed to self-delight.” This time, I’m not so sure.

Ritter has described the style of Sermon on the Rocks as “messianic oracular honky-tonk.” On the album’s opening track, “Birds of the Meadow,” he takes on the persona of a street-corner doomsdayer with shades of Hazel Motes: “I come to tell you that the end is nigh / I come to prophesy. […] Before the whole thing’s over you’re gonna shout my name / I don’t care if you believe me.” There is no precedent in Ritter’s catalog for this presumptuousness, this claim to speak with authority. Even the spurned lover of Beast peppered his complaints with “perhapses.” But on the very next track, Young Moses doubles down on the prophetic bravado: “I do not need your mansions. / I will live in a house of soul. […] I’ve been up on the mountain. / I’ve been to the end of the line. / I’ve pierced the fiery curtain, / And the only face I touched was mine.”

Ritter’s characters are suddenly full of proclamations. They’re sure of themselves and so, it seems, is he. The possibility of being wrong, the threat of being held accountable, every self-doubt is exorcised. Ritter has never identified with this preachy, spinny disposition before. Like one of the old Ritter’s Pharisees, the new Ritter “shouts to the converted.”

And it’s boring. A spin is a reductionist echo chamber where characters become caricatures. This is painfully obvious on the album’s lead single, “Getting Ready to Get Down,” which besides being a total dumpster fire on a technical level (With monotone, rapid-fire verses, a pointless hook, and cheesy production, it’s Ritter’s “Macarena.”), shares far too much narrative DNA with Footloose. Clichés abound as a young libertine with a heart of gold faces off against the Ladies Auxiliary in a small town untouched by the sexual revolution: “Now, people cross the street when you walk in their direction / Talk between their teeth and throwin’ epithets. […] Back off the bus in your own hometown / Say you didn’t like me then, you probably won’t like me now.” And lest there be any confusion about his appraisal of this self-satisfaction, Ritter hastens to add, “When you get damned in the popular opinion, / It’s just another damn of the damns you’re not giving.”

Once upon a time, Ritter said, “The important thing for me was to write about the ambiguity and the uncertainty in the world. I think that’s an under-expressed sentiment.” But what he’s doing on Sermon on the Rocks, this full-throated embrace of expressive individualism, this identification of self-actualization with sexual liberty, this is pure smarm. These are the most run-of-the-mill, over-expressed sentiments our cultural moment has to offer.

So farewell, Josh Ritter. I’ll see your show whenever you’re in town, and I’ll buy your next ten records. But if I’m right (and I hope I’m not), you’re on a slippery slope to irrelevance. Not that you can’t turn this around. “Henrietta, Indiana” reminds me of the good times we had. “My Man on a Horse (Is Here)” is a gem. So I’m not certain. I’m withholding judgment. I’m trying to stay takeish. Go and do likewise.

[Picture: Pillow basalts on the Pacific seafloor (Hawaii): Courtesy of NOAA, via Wikimedia Commons]

Charlie Clark

Charlie Clark lives in his hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee with his wife Sarah. An alumnus of Dartmouth College and the University of Tennessee College of Law, he works in his family’s fourth-generation scrap metal recycling business. Charlie is a founding editor of Fare Forward and chairman of its board of directors.