18 November 2013

Barth, Hell and the Kings of Leon

by Dr Mark McConnell

The other week in my first year Introduction to Theology class I was taking about Barth's understanding of election. Jesus Christ is the elect and all humanity is elect in him. This understanding of election leads many people to accuse Barth of ""universalism"" - the idea that, in the end, everyone will be ""saved"".

My own understanding is that Barth wasn't a universalist. Yes, everyone IS reconciled in Jesus Christ, but that does not necessarily mean that everyone will know and experience that reconciliation. It would seem that it is somehow possible to choose to reject this reconciliation. It remains possible to disbelieve this reconciliation in Jesus Christ and to believe the ultimate lie. (For a very helpful discussion on this point see Roger Olson’s blog post on this issue – http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2013/03/was-karl-barth-a-universalist-a-new-look-at-an-old-question/)

In class, to back up this view I offered a quote (From “Memories of Karl Barth” by Eberhard Busch, in How Karl Barth Changed my Mind, ed. By Donald McKim, 13-14) about Barth's thoughts about hell:

(Barth saw hell as)… an immense desert… (that was) unbearably cold, not hot. In this cold, forsaken desert there was sitting one person, very isolated and very lonely; so much so that Barth became depressed just observing the loneliness. Ending the narration of his dream, Barth said to his friend, “There are people who say I have forgotten this region [hell]. I have not forgotten. I know more about it than others do. But because I know of this, therefore I must speak about Christ. I cannot speak enough about the Gospel of Christ.

For Barth hell is ultimately the loss of what makes us human... our relationality. It is the ultimate loneliness. It is the ultimate isolation. Hell is not merely some sort of legal punishment. It is the ""natural"" outworking of sin which is a deeply relational thing.

After the lecture one of my student's sent me a link to a video of an interview of Caleb Followill, the lead singer of Kings of Leon, talking about how their song ""Cold Desert"" was written. It's pretty incredible how both Caleb's experience and words parallel Barth's vision of hell.

Caleb was so drunk he didn't even remember recording the song. All was free-flow apart from the first verse. In his ""drunken stupor"", however, he did remember saying ""Jesus don't love me"" and he remembered it as the saddest thing he ever said. This line is sung in the third verse.

I'm on the corner waiting for a light to come on,
That's when I know that you're alone.
It's cold in the desert, water never sees the ground,
Special unspoken without sound.

Told me you loved me, that I'd never die alone
Hand over your heart let's go home.
Everyone noticed, everyone had seen the signs,
I've always been known to cross lines.

I never ever cried when I was feeling down,
I've always been scared of the sound.
Jesus don't love me, no-one ever carried my load,
I'm too young to feel this old.

Here's to you, here's to me, oh to us,
Nobody knows
Nobody sees
Nobody but me.

As Caleb mentions, when he listened to the recording of the song for the first time he was floored. It was spine-tingling – and not in a good way. At the time producer Jacquire King said, ""That verse – I felt that way my whole life."" Even though Caleb didn't remember recording it, he knew that every bit of it was truth and so, even though the production is not great, it is a song that he will not re-record – a pure, natural, honest moment that could never be recaptured.

And then there is the story of his experience one night of the cold lonely desert. He admits that the desert has always had a hold of him. For him the cold of the desert not only means that it gets cold, it means that this is what he has chosen.

Here is the interview...

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