“Here we go.”
Fittingly, this is how Levi the Poet’s new album, Cataracts begins. “Here we go” followed by a deep inhale, as if he’s telling himself and his listeners, “Brace yourself.”
It’s good advice: before listening to Cataracts, you should brace yourself. This album is unsettling, but that is not necessarily a criticism. Sometimes we need to be unsettled.
I have been a fan of Levi’s work for quite some time. Back when I was an angsty teenager, pensive and introspective, yelling into my pillow and at the world, I was pleased to have the comfort of Werewolves and Monologues. As I grew up and dove deeper into theology, Levi was there with three poems that waxed eloquent in the inexhaustible riches we find in the gospel: The Beginning. The Separation., Tetelestai and Joy Seekers. And when I increasingly became enthralled with beauty and its divine origin, and the creative process, and how meditating on these things can be worship, Levi gave me a masterpiece: Correspondence (a fiction). Levi’s artwork has served me in many ways over the years.
So when I prepared to listen to Cataracts, it’s no exaggeration to say that I waited with baited breath, hoping I wouldn’t be disappointed. And I was not disappointed… and then I was a little. But that’s an indictment on me more than it is the album itself. More on that later.
Musically, Cataracts is everything you would hope for it to be after listening to Correspondence, just darker, and more uncomfortable. It feels like struggle. Alex Sugg is the composer behind just about all of LTP’s music, and in Cataracts, he outdid himself. Levi’s voice and lyrics mesh seamlessly with the rest of the sound. To remain unmoved and stoic is an impossibility; Levi and Alex conspire to swallow up their listeners into whatever is happening. As such, the experience of listening to their work is visceral.
“The Ft. Lauderdale Five” feels like getting sucked by an undertow and drowning.
“Big Business” makes you feel a little icky, like maybe you grabbed something slimy and now need to shower.
“The Dark Night of the Soul” feels like desolation.
And “Keep Forgiving” feels like nostalgia, comradery, and rest.
There is no cheerfulness in this album. That’s not to say that there is no joy, because there is, certainly. In the final track, “Keep Forgiving,” we’re pulled into joyful resolve—but it’s not cheery joyfulness. Not like “Chapter Six: Traditional Values Worldview” or “Chapter Nine: Cap Gun Death” from Correspondence; those songs are pure optimism—the absolute confidence that the end of the story will be happy, and that getting there is going to be a blast for those who resolve to make it so. You won’t find any of that in “Keep Forgiving.” There is joy, yes, but not a candy-like sweet joy, it’s more savory. It’s the relief you feel after intense physical struggle, when your joints and muscles still ache. It’s the relaxed fatigue you feel after an intense cry, when your cheeks are still salty and wet with tears. And it’s a fitting song to conclude the album with, because up until that point, the listener will find little relief from the struggle and the tears that precede.
Power and Abuse
A major theme of the album is a critique on the abuse of power. There’s no way that Levi could have foreseen the damn break of victim testimonials that would immediately precede the release of Cataracts, but it’s hard to call it coincidence (and easy, as a Christian, to call it providence). What Levi has given us in this album is a poignant critique of abusive power that sets itself apart from the clamor and shrieks that seems to pervade the rest of our public conversations. Part of what makes Levi’s contribution unique is the fact that he is even-handed; he’s not simply yelling. In this album he is able to sympathize with the abused and the abuser, express anger for the existence of abuse, apologize for abusing, and encourage a way forward for all.
For those who are familiar with Levi’s personal story and history, the context of Neo-Reformed Evangelicalism (or “New Calvinism,” or the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement, or whatever you want to call it) shapes many of the observations he makes. Levi is leveling the same charge against his own tribe that Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel articulate in their recent work, The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb. The charge goes something like this: we’ve abandoned Jesus’ way of seeking and exercising power and authority, and have replaced it with the power-grabbing strategy of “the Dragon.” A timely critique that is confirmed by experience. It’s no coincidence that CEO-modeled Mega Church pastors seem to fight over headlines for their respective controversies and scandals. When vanity and celebrity status compel leaders to lead like rock-stars, it should not be a surprise when they spiral out into oblivion, like rock-stars do.
But Mega Church pastors are not the only ones in the Reformed Evangelical world who stand to be confronted by Cataracts—those fellows can only thrive within a subculture that places a premium on vanity and notoriety. Mark Driscoll didn’t come out of a vacuum. And if “Big Business” is anything, it’s a song describing the kind of system that can create a Driscoll. With lyrics like these, the point is hard to miss: “Behind liturgy like a smoke screen we bow down to money and the powers that be and treat one another like competing teams functioning hierarchically and calling the winnings gospel (repeat).”
“The Ft. Lauderdale Five,” on the other hand, describes what it feels like to be a casualty of this kind of system. Under the boot-heal of any abuser are the abused, and this song communicates the view from below:
It appears as though there is such a thing as a victim, though she could never admit it until the pastor propositioned its existence (and specifically as it stood in relationship to him). And all of a sudden the movement is exposed as illusion. She said that the hardest thing she had to do was admit that she was abused. You never get it until you do.
None of these critiques or observations, however, are all that new. We’ve heard them before. What Levi brings to the table is a self-critical honesty that remains balanced. In “Big Business,” for example, the abuser is humanized when his or her ascent to power is made to be personally conceivable. In other words, it’s not just monsters who become monsters—the best among us is not immune from becoming our worst nightmares. Notice:
When I started tip-toeing with the lusts of the flesh, I thought it was love, and it became exactly that. Hand in hand, dancing in the way of the dragon, heart of man still convinced it was the way of the lamb, and I didn’t realize that I had abandoned the path until I finally glanced down at my own two feet and had the thought that even wolves can learn to bleat like sheep.
Alongside this kind of humility that admits any one of us can be the abuser, Levi also takes this all a step further with his own admission of guilt—both in enabling leaders to abuse power, and in abusing power himself. This is really the nutshell of Cataracts’ first track, “Simul Justus Et Peccator” (appropriately titled after Martin Luther’s coined Latin phrase that translates “simultaneously justified and a sinner”).
Levi helped to turn the wheels of the machine.
He contributed to the hype.
He made the celebrities he feels compelled to blame.
He played the part of the machismo power-grabber:
I keep filing out confusion from underneath my fingernails like gunshot residue. Like a constant reminder that I held a weapon, too. Like I helped pull the trigger and then deferred all of the blame to you. Like Complicity written all over me. Like biblical masculinity that I crushed my wife beneath. Like she needed me as the assurance of things hoped for but as yet unseen.
This kind of willingness to level a serious critique while simultaneously admitting fault is foreign today, and as such, it is a breath of fresh air.
But here’s the brilliance of the way these themes are developed in Cataracts: in the end, no one can dismiss the critique as altogether irrelevant to them. For those who don’t know Levi’s story or background, Reformed Evangelical subculture may be the last thing they think of when hearing these songs. These songs tap into a problem that pervades this whole sin-seared world, which is bigger than any single tribe. One way Levi retains this wider application is by refusing to name the villain (with the possible exception of the lyric, “like the way God became a literal Trump card,” but I’m not sure that counts).
For example, in both “The Ft. Lauderdale Five” and “Big Business,” several audio clips of women talking are incorporated into the song. In “The Ft. Lauderdale Five,” it is a woman who shares her experience as a victim of some sort of abusive system, and in “Big Business,” it is a commentator, explaining the dynamics of someone rising to tyrannical power. The clips in both songs are well-placed and interesting in and of themselves, but what is particularly telling is the fact that every time the respective narrator is about to name the person or organization or system she’s talking about, she’s censored: “All of those are easy prey for *bleep.*” “I was cursed and told that because I left my *bleep* without the blessing of my *bleep,* terrible things were going to happen to me.”
Now, if you’re really curious, you probably have enough information from the clip to find out the identity and the context of the narrators. But that’s not the point. The fact that the identity of the villains are censored is significant, because it disallows the listener to deflect blame solely to the other. Who is to blame? Who’s the bad guy? What is this evil system? Who’s the enemy? Maybe Reformed Evangelicalism? Maybe the American Political system? Maybe Donald Trump? Maybe Mark Driscoll, or Levi the Poet, or me, or you?
Levi thus serves his listeners by making them uncomfortable in a fashion typical of any prophet. He plays the role of Nathan, saying in all directions (including his own), “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7)
Raging, Doubting, Resting, Forgiving
Like most of Levi’s work, Cataracts is deeply personal. The tracks on this album were forged in struggle; some uniquely his own, and some vicariously experienced through his friends and family. For example, “The Dark Night of the Soul” is a lament of sorts for a friend who experienced the unimaginable tragedy of watching his daughter die. It’s a song in which Levi takes the opportunity to “weep with those who weep,” so to speak.
But this song is not only an expression of Levi’s sympathy for a friend, it becomes an exercise in empathy for the listener who has ears to hear as well. I described the song as “desolation” earlier on in this review, and that is exactly what it is. For those who allow themselves to stand at such a devastating vantage point—one from which “the world is grey,” and “the mountain is no longer a mountain and the rivers have turned to snakes”—they will have the opportunity to empathize with those who truly suffer, when certain questions that you weren’t prepared for bubble up involuntarily. What does faithfulness look like in the face of such horror, when God seems to have abandoned you? What do you do with suffering that doesn’t seem to sanctify you one bit, but only fills you with rage and hatred and resentment?
You tell God about it, that’s what.
Free from pious platitudes.
And through it, relief comes in the most counterintuitive way:
I’ve been searching for the sadist who keeps taking his sweet time to let us see, or let us leave, or let us move on with our lives. Now that you’ve finally shown yourself again, I’ve got my fists raised high for the bliss it is to finally have a Christ to crucify (and then to kiss). You let me lose my mind and I loved you for letting me hate you, and I barely recognize the lines the rivers make on the mountain face or the color of your eyes. I thought that they were black and white. I thought I knew the creeks. I thought that they were black and white. Keep forgiving.
Levi himself is no stranger to these kinds of questions. His own bout with doubt and lack of clarity is unmissable in Cataracts. Whether you want to call it an “existential crisis” or a “period of deconstruction” or something else (if phrases like that become too dramatic or too tired to describe anything without trivializing it), it is clear that Levi, in Cataracts, documents something significant with his relationship to God. Something unsettling, and then settling again.
The crisis is owing, in part, to the shocking and unsettling epiphany I pointed out already: the “you are the man” moment, when Levi faced down the reality that not only were his heroes no heroes at all, but also the cold hard truth that he contributed to their ascent. He played their part. He aided and abetted the perpetrators of spiritual and emotional abuse.
This is a horrifying revelation in and of itself. But when you find out that you had actually invested more theological and emotional security than you had realized (or would ever care to admit) into those people, their downfall is not simply a disappointment, it is tectonic plate-shifting. This seems to be the essence of the crisis Levi welcomes his listeners into with Cataracts.
I’m paralyzed. Everything that has been so right for so long now just seems so wrong, and I don’t know how to start over, and I don’t know how to hope for anything beyond the approval of men who, somehow, had me convinced that buying their indulgences was the equivalent of hearing the voice of God. How do I learn to hear him if they’re gone?
If I was wrong about them, how do I know I’m right about anything? They were my barometer. They were my navigation. They were my gauge for orthodoxy.
What Levi is grieving at certain points in Cataracts is not simply the fact that he exacerbated the problems he now mourns and opposes, but also the prospect that maybe he was wrong about everything. If mere men had become idols whose fall was unmistakable and devastating, how is he now to determine where his lust for their approval stopped and his true theology started? If his foundation for belief had unwittingly shifted to their opinions, where was it to be found now that their opinions had become (principally) meaningless? Even more importantly, how was he to determine if the voice he heard was the voice of God or simply the voice of their specters?
This whole struggle reaches a crescendo in “As Far as the East is from the (Navel to the) West.” It’s hard to miss with lyrics like, “The night that I finally began to fear whether or not I’d lost my faith… I thought it was too late. I wrote down the confession like a hook for a song: ‘When I stopped believing in God, I blamed it on him, and thought, “well, if this is what you want…”’”
By far, this song was the most discomforting for me. It’s where I felt the disappointment I mentioned at the beginning of the review, and also where I realized that the particular disappointment I felt was an indictment against me. It was a disappointment occasioned by a kind of prideful idolatry—the same kind of idolatry Levi seems to be confessing in this album. Before I was really able to sit down and read the lyrics and listen along closely, all I heard were little phrases that made me think “Oh no, not again. Levi has gone the way of Derek Webb and Gungor and Pedro the Lion, etc. Another amazing, orthodox creative has bitten the dust.” to which Levi promptly replied “I hope that my Jesus is bigger than all of my heresy, but before you agree, I hope that yours is too. Maybe you and I could talk before we write one another off? Maybe we could both be quiet.”
Right for the jugular!
In reality, if I did ever conclude that Levi had “abandoned the faith,” I really would be heartbroken (rightly so, I think. That’s love if “abandoning the faith” is what it is, right?). But I wasn’t merely grieving the loss of faith. The initial discomfort wasn’t just the concern of a friend and a fan who still feels “cruciform certitude” about all the things I presumptuously assumed Levi had abandoned. It wasn’t as noble as that. It was also my own idolatry. I got all panic-y when I heard “where are the waterfalls? Where’s the boy down to backflip into the river?” I was like, No Levi! He’s still there! Don’t leave that boy behind, his musings are my favorite.
I loved that “we had Levi.”
We, the reformed, evangelical, heady, theologically solid guys, had this amazing creative. We had Levi to prove that an increase of creativity doesn’t necessitate “squishy theology.” And the prospect of “losing Levi” as a poster-child was more unsettling than I’d like to admit.
What I had missed was the simple fact that Levi was documenting not merely the conclusion, but the process. Truthfully, over the years there probably has been subtle difference in theology and philosophy that have increased between Levi and someone like me. And maybe he is in the process of even distancing himself further in some areas (for example, it’s hard for me to imagine that Levi would self-identify as a full thoated complementarian at this point, whereas I am more than happy to take that description on). Just like I seem to be distancing further away from my own Calvary Chapel roots. But in the end, nothing major has changed between Correspondence and Cataracts by way of theology, and even if it had, that shouldn’t determine how quickly I’m willing to write him off.
The criticism he offers in this album cannot be reduced to “another egalitarian, liberal,” not only because Levi can’t be reduced to that kind of description, but also because his criticisms stand on their own. The presence of vanity, power-hunger, and braggadocios machismo is something that needs to be pointed out in my tribe. My Twitter feed needs to see the egg on its face. This is a prayer that we—me and my people—need: “Heavenly Father, I have no interest in selling doves for the market. Flip the tables. Braid the rope. Taper the whip.” And while I would never want to reinforce any notion that doubt is intrinsically virtuous (I don’t think Cataracts does this, by the way), I hope I can always conclude such a prayer with, “Maybe I don’t have every answer I thought I did but, God, damn them, I still have You.”
So thanks be to God for albums like Cataracts.
And thanks be to God for phrases like “keep forgiving,” which can be directed in every direction:
Toward song-writer poets you’ve depersonalized into a reason for theological bragging-rights.
Toward spouses and church members and employees you’ve abused (sometimes in the name of Jesus).
Toward victims who have been abused, and attempt to pay back their abusers with bitterness that inflicts damage on no one but themselves.
And, preeminently, toward God, who routinely gets misrepresented, dishonored, and sinned against.
Please, keep forgiving.