Remember when it rained frogs? Unless you were in Egypt during the second plague, the way you would likely remember is if you saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie Magnolia. After horrible, painful things happen for about two hours, down come the frogs. The first time I saw it, I looked at my companion and mouthed, “WTF?” There was a lot to talk about that movie after it ended. When we got to the frogs, my companion said it was the ultimate “pull back the curtain” moment. Anderson’s way of saying to the audience, “This is a movie, and I am its god. Here comes a plague, and the many characters [played by Tom Cruise, Jason Robards, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, et al.]—and you—are going to have to deal with it.”
I thought about those frogs last year when I heard Randy Newman’s “The Great Debate,” which leads off his album Dark Matter. Probably the longest song Newman ever recorded, on the surface it mines familiar territory—God and religion—with a combination of grimace, giggle, and smirk. Newman often (but not always) sings in the voice of a terrible person. In “The Great Debate,” he plays the host (the Narrator) of something like a quiz show that pits scientists against “true believers.” For the first two debate topics the scientists make their case, after which the Narrator, speaking for the true believers, tears down the scientists and leads the crowd in “I’ll take Jesus every time.”
Up until this point, it is just another Randy Newman song. Maybe you find it funny, maybe not. But then the curtain pulls back. Just as the Narrator identifies global warming as the next debate topic, a true believer interjects. He tells the Narrator that “the author of this little vignette, Mr. Newman, a self-described atheist and commonist [sic] . . . creates characters like you as objects of ridicule. . . . a straw man.” He ends his intervention this way:
“I myself believe in Jesus
I believe in evolution also
I believe in global warming
And in life everlasting
No one can knock me down”
This is not from Newman’s well-worn playbook. After revealing his godlike role as the orchestrator of The Great Debate, Newman uncharacteristically gives positive voice to a character who does not see science and religious belief as forever at odds. The character criticizes the toxic cynicism of both Newman as “the man behind the curtain” and the Narrator. In Newman’s world, this is as close to empathy as you would ever expect to get. I almost sighed in relief when the true believer showed up, glad this was not just another cheap shot via what Newman himself calls his “snide third person shit.”
Of course, the Narrator then rips into the true believer. “Oh, we can knock you down, mister,” skipping the debate about global warming and leading the choir in another hymn: “Someone is watching me.” Newman gets to have it both ways—he allows for the possibility of a rapprochement between seemingly irreconcilable takes on reality, then has his Narrator slam the door even harder on this deviant true believer than on the scientists at the great debate.
Once Newman pulled back the curtain, I went back to several of his older God and religion songs.1 And what I heard was someone who, from the beginning, was wrestling with “Is this all there is.” His answer, not what you would expect for an atheist, is a somewhat qualified “no.” Under the guise of (okay, maybe simply while) mocking religion and belief, Newman is poking around theologically as he ponders things like ancient questions of theodicy—why there is evil in the world and all that.
Newman starts this journey with “I Think He’s Hiding” on his 1968 debut album, taking on the then-omnipresent musings about the death of God, whom he refers to as Big Boy.
“Come on, Big Boy
Come and save us
Come and look what we’ve done
With what you gave us
Now I’ve heard it said
That our Big Boy is dead
But I think he’s hiding”
A few years later, Newman released what is probably his most famous song on this theme: “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind).”2 The “four greatest priests” from different faiths, referring to the relentless miseries of life on Earth, beseech God:
“Lord if you won’t take care of us
Won’t you please, please let us be”
God replies, “You all must be crazy to put your faith in me.”
I had always taken this song as purely a takedown of belief, but now it sounds different. The craziness of believers, contra what most atheists might say about them, is not their belief in the existence of God but their faith in the ultimate goodness and/or reason of the divine. In “God’s Song,” God has no apparent rationale for visiting (or allowing) horrible things upon the world. Newman’s target here seems to be theodicy rather than belief per se, in ways that echo Max Weber’s discussion of the concept.
“. . . a recent questionnaire submitted to thousands of German workers disclosed the fact that their rejection of the god-idea was motivated, not by scientific arguments, but by their difficulty in reconciling the idea of providence with the injustice and imperfection of the social order.”3
Newman revisits theodicy in Randy Newman’s Faust, in which the Devil (sung by Newman) initially takes God (sung by James Taylor) to task for promising redemption—faith and prayer are “The invention of an animal/ Who knows he’s going to die.” Later, after the Devil points out to God how frequently the innocent suffer and the horrible thrive, God replies: “My ways are mysterious/Sometimes even to myself.”
In some ways, Newman projects God (and the Devil) as an invention of humankind who, once invented, is “real” and takes on an independent agency in the world. But this is not the place to wonder if Newman is a social science constructivist. What does seem clear is that, for Newman, this agency is not typically benevolent. I wonder now if the simple fake hymn “He Gives Us All His Love,” which I first took as a facile send-up of belief, is something darker. What if God does exist, and is giving us all his love? But there just isn’t that much of it?
* * *
So God’s goodness is perhaps not what we have been led to believe. And yet . . . Ten years ago, Newman released an album called Harps and Angels. The narrator of the title tune has a heart attack while walking down the street.
“You boys know I’m not a religious man
But I sent out a prayer just in case
You never know”
Harps and angels then appear to the stricken man, followed by the voice of God who informs him that “someone very dear to me has made a clerical error.” God leaves the narrator with this message, which he then passes on to his “boys”:
“When they lay you on the table
Better keep your business clean”
A near death experience compels this song’s narrator, who is “not a religious man,” to try anything to stay alive, including prayer and proselytizing. God has been good to him, in the “there are no atheists in foxholes” sense. Does this imply a divine goodness in terms of a universal moral purpose to the narrator? Not likely, but you never know. In any event, he concludes:
“So actually the main thing about this story is, for me
There really is an afterlife
And I hope to see all of you there”
I do not know if “Harps and Angels” is based on an incident that Newman himself experienced. There is something clichéd to the narrative arc where a young baby boomer, musing about the death of God and why God allows evil, is changed forty years later into an aging boomer, contemplating death and how that affects one’s relationship to the supernatural. Ten years on, in “The Great Debate,” Newman imagines a reconciliation between the seeming opposites of science and faith. This is an arc that, in spite of all the gags, or maybe because of them, opens space between belief and unbelief, a space that right now seems so elusive and hard to navigate. While in “The Great Debate” that space is shut down by the believers, this is also a moment when some atheists wear their commitment like a faith, their intolerance toward the faithful mimicking the intolerance of (some of) those they scorn. Some see Newman’s songs as a soundtrack to their certainty. In a recent interview, Newman gives a typical hedge. Asked why there are so few great songs about atheism, he says:
“It isn’t there. Because it’s sort of arid. I think a lot of atheists and agnostics would like to receive the spirit.4
Earlier in the same interview, Newman explains why he pulled back the curtain and has a character speak back to, and thus expose, its creator.
“I reached the point where someone else had to speak. It was a necessity. So I did. Then I somehow felt the need to undercut myself by showing the trick. You know, the Randy Newman thing [“You see, the author of this little vignette, Mr. Newman, self-described atheist and communist, creates characters, like you, as objects of ridicule!”].5
Newman appears on Wikipedia’s list of Atheists in Music (Aside: Why does this list exist??) and has publicly said he is an atheist (although he qualifies, “except when I’m sick”).6 But I now hear these songs as his agnostic front,7 a right not to KNOW. The space between belief and unbelief is okay, dark but also kind of funny. Let us ask the multiple kinds of fundamentalists, “Does anybody remember laughter?” Newman’s God songs now land like a stand-up theological comic’s version of fighting against the pull of pure unbelief while not giving into the idea of faith as the basis for morality and purpose. Who knows? God might be vain, amoral, capricious, and capable of being instrumentalized. But not dead. And seems to come out of hiding with age.
Helpful here is Iain Ellis, “What Does Randy Newman Say When He Talks About God,” Pop Matters February 22, 2016.↩
For an early discussion for these themes in Newman’s work see William J. Schafer, “Randy Newman and the Obscure Politics of God,” Theology Today 30, 4 (1974), 409-413.↩
The survey was conducted prior to the First World War. Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion, trans. Ephraim Fischoff, Boston: Beacon Press, 1964, p. 139.↩
He continues, “So I said, ‘I’m going to believe for a second in an afterlife.’ I said, ‘Jesus. It’s so relaxing. Who gives a shit about anything?’ Because I believe I’m going to heaven. It would be great!”↩
He continues: “I would never do that, but I thought in that song, of course I’m going to be on that side. It was too easy and facile, though it worked for five minutes until we got to this guy, and I just felt it needed more bogus credibility, as if I’m really being true with you now. And it’s bullshit straight on, but it’s the truth that I’ll take a character and he will say things that I don’t mean and that I don’t want you to believe either. Absolutely. It’s like maybe I didn’t want to work anymore and I thought this was a good suicide by saying that.”↩