In anticipation of their new album, “Eat the Elephant,” A Perfect Circle released three new singles which have gripped my imagination and my prayer. Led by Maynard James Keenan, the band is a symphony of musical ingenuity and cultural critique. Yet, their critique is done very creatively and passionately. I reflect on these songs and the truths they contain to show how our non-theist and agnostic brothers and sisters can know truth, point to it, and can call out Christians for not following it. There are many ways, in our post-Christian culture, in which Christian disciples have not striven for the excellence that Christ has called his followers to live. I offer some of the truths articulated in these songs for our prayer and reflection.
The first song, which has been traveling the radio waves the past few months, involves the exhortation in the Letter of St. James to living a vibrantly active and consistent faith. In the letter we hear, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14-17).
For St. Paul too, faith was always attached to action. Faith is never solely a mental exercise that boosts our existential and spiritual self-esteem. It certainly does that, but faith is furthermore the relationship we live with God which gives us the foundation for building up the Kingdom of God in our world.
“TalkTalk” begins with an acknowledgement: “You’re waiting on miracles / We’re bleeding out / Thoughts and prayers, adorable / Like cake in a crisis / We’re bleeding out / While you deliberate / Bodies accumulate.” While the Kingdom is “now, but not yet,” it can certainly appear, at times, that the “not yet” part is quite overwhelming. Our world today is seemingly marked by evil, division, war, and other moral atrocities.
Simultaneously, our internet culture’s response to such atrocities could be characterized by “thoughts and prayers,” which Keenan calls “adorable.” In fact, prayer is absolutely essential to Christianity and we Christians are called to pray unceasingly to strengthen our world against the affliction of evil and temptation. Furthermore, true intercessory prayer to God, the Blessed Trinity, has unimaginable power to bring about change in our world.
I sometimes worry, however, that “thoughts and prayers” can be a line easily offered—said aloud or typed—and yet the prayer may not necessarily follow and the action may follow even further behind. I pray that as Christians, who believe in the real power of prayer, we don’t offer “thoughts and prayers” flippantly.
Nevertheless, I think it is this inconsistency to which the song points. As Christian missionary disciples, action should always follow our prayer. We can’t just talk; we need to act. This holds true for individuals, families, parishes, and larger institutions. In this light, Keenan prophetically sings that Christians should strive to “Sit and talk like Jesus / Try walking like Jesus.” Faith in Christ, should not just be on our lips, but should emanate in our actions and through our being.
The second song is concerned with the division cause by society’s current Pavlovian preoccupation—to its own destruction—with technology. Many people today, especially young people, are incredibly addicted to technology and social media. Such technology has been discovered to have a profound impact on the body’s dopamine levels—an effect not dissimilar to drugs and alcohol. Nowadays, it has practically become a birthright to own a personal cellphone and a social media account, while the majority of teens and even middle schoolers have literally become addicted because of this “right.” Before the verse hits, a “Dopamine, on dopamine” chant can be heard in the background.
While numerous studies have been done on the matter, the full repercussions of technology are not yet fully known or appreciated. Certainly, I think that we can see the effects of incessant technology use in our own lives and in our own families. How many family dinners have been broken up by newsfeeds? How many people do we try to ignore by pretending we’re extremely busy in scrolling through the pictures on our phone? How many minutes/hours do we keep ourselves from sleep because we have to distantly observe what all of our friends had done that day? Said well in the pre-chorus, “We’ve become disillusioned / So we run towards anything glimmering.”
Keenans’s plea to the masses is heard in the chorus as he sings, “Time to put the silicon obsession down / Take a look around / Find a way in the silence / Lie supine away with your back to the ground / Dis- and re-connect to the resonance now / You were never an island.”
God has given us technology as a gift and tool to use, but as a very powerful and influential tool, it can easily come to rule our lives without us noticing. When technology begins to hurts us and our real relationships with others is when it no longer serves its true purpose. On the opposite end, another tool God has given us to live happy and fulfilled lives is silence. Silence is a rare commodity today in a world of screens, newsfeeds, and noise.
I find very interesting that, after the first chorus, the song breaks into an intimately human piano melody which communicates something of the beautiful encounter of relative silence amidst the “noise” of the rest of the song.
Usually I am not a massive fan of music videos, but the video for this song portrays its meaning quite profoundly. The video is like a modern day Allegory of the Cave, portraying human beings as slaves and technology as a shadow of a more real reality. In the end, God created us for unity, for real human relationships, and for love, not for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. As Christian disciples, we need to defend ourselves against unbridled use of technology and social media, which disconnects, and instead promote a healthy use, which allows us to “tune in” and embrace each other.
The last song is the most unnerving of the three. When I first listened to “The Doomed” I didn’t know exactly what to think. I was a little creeped out, but also intrigued. The more I listened and reflected, the more I found it to be true in today’s world. The riff that plays throughout the song is haunting, while the truth beneath the lyrics is even more haunting.
“The Doomed” is a reversal of the Beatitudes. As the Beatitudes, the heart of Christ’s teaching, are ways in which human beings live excellently—spiritually and morally—on the path to heavenly glory, Maynard wants to point out that today’s society is marked by a new set of beatitudes, namely, viciousness. Nowadays, the “blessed” are the fornicates, the rich, the envious, the slothful, the wrathful, the vain, and the gluttonous. The verse lines that address these people are highlighted by the hauntingly distorted guitar riff.
The song sees the truly blessed, as they are proclaimed in the gospel—the pious, the pure of heart, the peaceful, the meek, the merciful—are those who are doomed. The virtuous, the poor, and the underprivileged are those who are on their own, ready to be trampled by the new “blessed,” the vicious and the powerful. In regard to the musical dynamic of the song, during the lines that speak of the truly blessed, the haunting guitar riff recedes and a calmer, more peaceful melody comes forth. There is something uniquely dissimilar about those who practice real virtue.
In the Nicomachean Ethics (Book II), Aristotle talks of the reversal of vice and virtue in man—namely, the vicious man. This happens when a person is so entrenched in vice, in sin, that they perceive their very viciousness to be virtue and real virtue to be vicious. They cannot imagine another way out of this situation either. Their sinfulness has blinded them to what was really true about human excellence and led them to act abhorrently to their brothers and sisters. This man, according to Aristotle, is the one who is truly doomed.
Yet, at the end of the day, even though our world may seem to be backwards at times, evil may seems to triumph, and the meek and humble may seem to be the doomed of this world, as Christians we know the exact opposite to be true in regard to how God has intervened in human history and has changed the outcome of human salvation. Evil men are not the truly powerful; death will not ultimately conquer life. The paradox of Christianity lies in the everlasting life that comes from the cross.