When John Darnielle sat down at the Yamaha keyboard on stage at Calvin College’s auditorium last spring, his fingers began to play, “O Bless the Lord, God of Our Salvation.” The lead singer of the indie rock band The Mountain Goats told the audience at the Festival of Faith and Writing, “I’m a religious obsessive, so whenever I’m in a place like this, I want to play hymns.”
When Darnielle heads out on tour this month, theater and bar crowds will also get a taste of the religious themes and biblical references that pulse through his literary and often semi-autobiographical lyrics.
He reminded me twice that his 2009 release The Life of the World to Come appeared on CT’s list of best albums that year. Back then, the singer referred to himself as a “Catholic atheist.” These days, a 49-year-old father of two, he describes himself as a theist who prays to Jesus.
Regardless of the labels, Darnielle can quote Scripture as well as his songs would suggest (each of the dozen tracks on The Life of the World to Come had Bible citations as titles, and more than 100 songs in The Mountain Goats canon reference specific passages, creeds, hymns, and teachings), and he has an un-ironic appreciation for Christian contemporary music veteran Amy Grant and the late Rich Mullins. He said Grant’s collection, available on iTunes, saved his life during a dark period several years ago.
But what makes so many Christians drawn to The Mountain Goats’ music? According to reviewer Joel Heng Hartse, Darnielle brings an “unflinching gaze at truth” and a “large-hearted openness to the beauty of the world, the goodness of life and humanity” that resonate with believers over his decades-long career. “Even a song like ‘The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,’ the chorus of which is literally ‘Hail Satan,’ is really a song about how even people who seem beyond the pale of goodness are deserving of love and understanding,” Hartse said.
Those themes have carried over into Darnielle’s 2014 novel, Wolf in White Van, a National Book Award nominee. Always a captivating storyteller in his lyrics—with a lot from his own life to pull from, including a troubled relationship with an abusive stepdad, drug addiction, and experience working in a psychiatric hospital—Darnielle has continued to write. His next book, Universal Harvester, is scheduled to release in February.
Ahead of The Mountain Goats’ fall tour, the lead singer spoke about what spirituality looks like in his life now, from praying with his four-year-old son to grappling with God’s message in the Book of Jonah.
What are the spiritual rhythms in your life? How do you find yourself reflecting and connecting?
I’m the only theist in my house except for my older son. He’s four. He used to like to pray with me at night. He was going through a rough patch after his brother was born… I would stop to pray in the middle of the night when he’d be awake and struggling. And it would work. It would distract him long enough.
I’ll tell you a story that happened recently. We had a cat named Roz. Both our cats died recently, and they were old. They’d been with us since Iowa. This is so interesting because there’s a lot of levels to this… I had this prayer experience with my son, and Roz died. Children can’t understand that, but you want to tell them where the cat went. So I said, “Roz went to be with the Lord,” and we buried her in the backyard.
He was looking around on the stairs one day. I think he saw a cat toy or something. He looks at me. “Roz went to be with the Lord,” he told me. Of course, my heart swelled. You see why people get into child evangelism because it’s amazing to hear a child talk about God. Jesus did the bit about having the faith of a child, and so it really reaches you. So I said, “Yes, buddy, that’s where Roz went. Roz went to be with the Lord.” Well, of course, another day had passed before he sees Daddy and wants to prove himself. He says, “Roz went to be with the Lord!” That’s also a lesson of how performative faith is. It’s a little further from actual faith, but it’s something people also do. It’s like if people are impressed by your confession, then you’ll make it again.
What kinds of things do you pray for?
My prayerful life is strictly one of thanksgiving. I don’t ask for stuff. I ask for mercy for other people. I don’t know the verse, but when Christ introduces the Lord’s Prayer, I take that really seriously. He doesn’t give us any examples of saying “help me get a job” or “help me.” The examples you get from the Gospels are “let this cup pass from me.” You can pray for relief, and you can pray for nearness to God, but giving thanks seems to me the point of prayer.
You said that you have a Catholic background. Do you label yourself religiously? Do you call yourself a Christian, a believer, a follower of God?
The thing is, I hate to say this to somebody from Christianity Today, but I pray to Jesus. That’s who I pray to. But at the same time—this is going to sound terrible—Christians over the years have made something of a bad name for themselves. So when you want to identify as a Christian, it’s sort of like maybe you might have fiscally conservative policies, but to identify as a Republican is to throw your hat in with some bad actors. And so I don’t know. I’m hesitant, even though Jesus is the person I pray to. That’s whose name I say in my dark hours, but I don’t strictly know that I identify as Christian. I have a hesitancy about it.
I think a lot of our readers can at least relate to the feeling of simply wanting to call themselves a “follower of Christ.” Tell me more about how religious themes in your work have been received by your fans, because I know there are Christians who love your music, as well as atheists and others.
I have a spiritual hunger, but everybody has a spiritual hunger. Most grown people, once you get past being mad about the Crusades and stuff—which is a totally valid position—are able to look at the Bible and say what a remarkable testimony it is of people trying to wrangle with ideas bigger than themselves. Anybody can look at the ministry of Christ and think it’s quite radical and quite transformative to human history. So I think—I mean, I’ve had people come from various places. There were some people who were bummed, mainly atheist rationalists. Most people grow out of that, but not necessarily into theism. When you’re in a reactionary place where you see the Bible and you are mad about it: now, come on.
You talked a little about this Amy Grant moment. What period of your life was that, where you felt like you had a new awakening or a new sense of connection with God?
I was going through a whole bunch of struggles that I don’t talk much about personally that involve my body, and I couldn’t sleep. I was having real trouble sleeping. That will get you into some dark places. The problems are ongoing, but I learned to deal with them. If you know these Rich Mullins songs, like “Nothing Is Beyond You,” Rich Mullins confesses to his doubt and fallibility constantly in a way that a lot of CCM people don’t. A lot of CCM people, they want to present themselves as models, or if they say that they’re fallen, that’s all they say: “Oh yes, I’m fallen.” Rich Mullins, like specifically, identifies his own ignorance, our own inability to comprehend things further, things that are beyond us. “Nothing Is Beyond You” is this incredible confession. I used to listen to that one every day. I listened to “Sing Your Praise to the Lord” and Amy Grant’s music for a long time. Her voice is so amazing, but also Amy Grant’s story. If you go find any Amy Grant story or video on the Internet, you will find a lot of professed evangelicals calling her a whore and things like that because she’s divorced. She got all kinds of abuse from the very community that both had nurtured her, but that she had given a lot to.
I was interested in that dynamic because I’m an entertainer, too. So I know people come to have expectations of you, and then if you don’t meet those expectations, they personalize it very incredibly when it’s actually your work. I don’t know Amy Grant, and neither do any of her fans. It’s just her work. So, there’s a lot of axes along which I was able to relate to her stuff. Plus she’s an amazing singer, and the musicians on her records are great.
How has your ongoing struggle with your body changed how you think of your work and your music?
I’m growing older. This happens. I think my relation to my body is going to be in constant flux. I used to be strict Augustinian: Body is just a cage for the spirit. But I don’t really believe that anymore. I’m not sure where I am at with it. But I do like what it does. St. Francis called his body “Brother Ass.” They used to call him “mule.” So, I like that idea because a mule’s alive, but it also is stubborn.
You quote the Bible so much in your music. Is there a passage of Scripture that has meant a lot to you, like a “life verse”?
Most people’s are going to be from the Gospels or from the Proverbs or Psalms, something like that, but mine is “Should I not pity also Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than”—I can’t remember the number, however many hundreds of thousands of people—“who cannot tell their right hand from their left and also much cattle” (Jonah 4:11).
To me, this is the greatest verse. I love Jonah to pieces. And it’s a very profound question God asks Jonah. Because God is saying, “You wish ill on your enemies. If you don’t wish ill on your enemies, I’m going to call you a liar. You do. If you have an actual enemy, you want harm to come to him.” Right? And in Jonah’s case, Jonah tries to help a bunch of people out according to his knowledge, and they just laugh at him. And then he goes out into the water. It doesn’t go well for him. Everything just goes to hell. When he comes back on the shore, nothing’s changed. God has changed his mind. The city doesn’t get destroyed.
God does a much gentler version of the Job speech. Well, you know you’re not looking at the big picture here. And that that is the last verse of the book is also a great thing. It’s the opening instead of the closing.