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Roger Freet

A Bigger Tool Kit

Theology from a prog rock band.

In 2006, the heavy "prog rock" band Tool released their fourth full-length CD, 10,000 Days. Since Tool puts out new material every five years or so, each release tends to be a big event. The band has been touring nonstop since May 2006 with shows booked through this September, and 10,000 Days claimed the #1 Billboard slot after its first week on-sale with no advance media hype—the result of a rabid, word-of-mouth fan base eager to devour the band's latest achievement.

I was riding the train home from work that day in May 2006 when my cell phone rang. Without introduction, the voice of an old friend coolly announced, "Remember, the new Tool CD is out today." Excellent! Fortunately my wife and kids were otherwise occupied, and I hunkered down with the new CD, hoping for a set list filled with infectious, odd-timed grooves, demanding lyrics, and frequent displays of technical prowess that would spark "How do they do that?!" conversations with other musicians for years to come. (I'm a drummer myself, and Tool's Danny Carey routinely astonishes me.)

At the end of the evening I was not disappointed, but I was surprised. Along with all that I'd come to expect from Tool, there was something more, in the haunting two-song set entitled "Wings for Marie" and "10,000 Days (Wings part 2)." As best as I could tell—no lyrics were provided in the CD packaging—this seemed to be a commentary on a life well lived by someone close to the band. Thanks to one of the fan-run websites, I discovered that a complete set of unofficial lyrics generated by spontaneous fan submissions was already available within a couple days of the CD's release.

The lyrics—and some additional online digging—revealed that this two-part song is a lengthy meditation by the singer, Maynard James Keenan, whose mother had died during the making of 10,000 Days. The title of the CD—and the corresponding track—refers to her 27+ year-struggle with paralysis caused by a stroke.

Keenan, who was raised a Baptist, transports listeners to his mother's funeral at the local family church. One by one, pastors and church members rise to recount tales of Judith Marie's victorious Christian witness. But their comments are awash with a perverse boasting that flattens all suffering and life experience into some kind of generic triumphalism:

Listen to the tales and romanticize,
How we follow the path of the hero.
Boast about the day when the rivers overrun.
How we rise to the height of our halo.

Listen to the tales as we all rationalize
Our way into the arms of the savior,
Feigning all the trials and the tribulations;
None of us have actually been there.
Not like you.

Keenan's disdain for such spiritual showboating—in contrast to the private, suffering faith of his mother—is visceral. He portrays a church community so eager to preach the good news that it forgot, or never understood, how real saints are made. "My mother's suffering is not a rhetorical device," Keenan seems to suggest. "Why have you co-opted her memory and turned this funeral into an opportunity for self-congratulating motivational speeches? It's not about you."

To some extent, a listener's response will depend on his readiness to accept Keenan as a reliable witness. Those for whom churchgoer and hypocrite are synonymous—a good segment of Tool's audience, perhaps—will be inclined to trust the singer. But even those who are put off by Keenan's own self-righteousness, his boundless disdain for the "ignorant fibbers in the congregation," might want to hear him out. He devotes most of the 17-minute set to marveling at his mother's life of persistent faith. The lyrics overflow with gratitude for her prayerful devotion:

It was you who prayed for me so
What have I done
To be a son to an angel?
What have I done
To be worthy?

This little light of mine, the gift you passed on to me;
I'm going to let it shine to guide you safely on your way,
Your way home … .

You are the light and the way, they'll only read about.

Daylight dims leaving cold fluorescence.
Difficult to see you in this light.
Please forgive this bold suggestion:
Should you see your Maker's face tonight,
Look Him in the eye, look Him in the eye, and tell Him:
"I never lived a lie, never took a life, but surely saved one.
Hallelujah, it's time for you to bring me home."

Scathingly honest in his own self-critique, Keenan catches himself falling into the same trap as the churchgoers he just castigated. Readily admitting that he too is set in his ways—arrogant and resistant to change—he acknowledges that his mother's Christian life is all the evidence he should require for naming what must be true if the God of Jesus really exists.

If there is any truth to be found in the Christian story, then surely it shines forth in the suffering witness of this saint. Pleading for heavenly justice to be done, Keenan longs for his mother to "Shake your fists at the gates saying, 'I have come home now! Fetch me the Spirit, the Son, and the Father. Tell them their pillar of faith has ascended.' " This is indeed a song about a life well lived from the perspective of one who experienced it firsthand: "[You] didn't have a life, but surely saved one … . You were my witness, my eyes, my evidence. Judith Marie, unconditional one."

This was not the first time Keenan wrote about his mother's faith. The song "Judith," released in 2000 with another band he fronts called A Perfect Circle, is a vicious attack on his mother's spiritual fidelity:

You're such an inspiration for the ways that I will never ever choose to be
Oh, so many ways for me to show you how your savior has abandoned you

F___ your God
Your Lord, your Christ
He did this
Took all you had and
Left you this way
Still you pray, never stray
Never taste of the fruit,
Never thought to question why

It's not like you killed someone
It's not like you drove a hateful spear into his side
Praise the one who left you broken down and paralyzed
He did it all for you

How did the singer get from that point to the meditation that followed Judith's death? Would anyone listening to him a few years ago have expected it? Look where God, uninvited, shows up after all.

Very well, very well, you say, but Keenan is no Christian. For all the tenderness of his love for Judith Marie, he's still full of pride, reveling in his attack on the faith. Why look to him to reflect back to the church its own shortcomings or remind us about how real saints are made? Can't we find this critical feedback within the church? Yes. But the dubious distinction between Christian and non-Christian music is as unhelpful as the proposed dichotomy between the Bible as the source of all truth and its supposed rival pagan sources. All truth is God's truth. Categorically accepting or dismissing claims according to the source alone leaves us open to committing the same mistakes as the romanticizing parishioners at the funeral, or following the path of Keenan's own confessed arrogance at refusing to change when his mother's life clearly revealed the true character of God.

The Holy Spirit is the giver of all gifts. If someone elects to use those gifts in the service of God, good. But those gifts are not rendered dormant or defunct by virtue of our intent. An artist who explicitly rejects God, as many have done, nevertheless remains a "sub-creator," as Tolkien said, a creator in the Creator's image. We should be suspicious of our tendency to insist that God only shows up in the right places. Sometimes, pagan sources can most accurately reflect back to Christians the power and lasting impact of genuine witness. You never know when and where God might reveal himself.

Roger Freet is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and a senior editor at HarperOne Publishers.

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