I heard it said once in an interview with Michael Pollan that, when it comes down to it, every writer only really asks one question with their entire career. I can’t decide whether I agree with that assessment. As with all aphorisms, part of me straightens up in my chair with that feeling of eureka! It really is that simple! while another part of me sits back, scratches my chin, and bitterly mutters, That is entirely reductive and unfair to all writers. But, for the purposes of this review, I’ve managed to persuade my skeptical half that this observation is valid, because as I listen to J Lind’s songs, I find that they all ask one existentially rattling question: Where and how are we to find meaning given our inescapable condition of contingency?
By contingency, I’m referring to the idea that everything depends upon everything else. For example, think about how you feel when you watch a nature documentary, and all of a sudden that cute little baby tiger is ravenously tearing apart a freshly dead antelope alongside its mother-huntress. Your discomfort arises from realizing that the health of this vulnerable, furry creature you’ve spent the last few minutes coming to know—this miraculous instance of life—is contingent upon the death of another miraculous instance of life. How can this be? How can life be contingent upon death, and vice versa? Is this how creation was intended or not? If you sit with these questions with anything approaching the earnestness of a child, you’ll find yourself very rattled indeed.
J Lind’s album For What It’s Worth broadcasts this message from the moment you glance at its cover art. Taking cues from its title track, the cover depicts a tiger posing alongside a deer, accompanied by a vulture—a portrait of contingency. For more on that album, see my review.
At its heart, The Land of Canaan is kindred to its predecessor, ultimately dealing with that same fundamental question of contingency. As for how it phrases that question, however, it’s worlds apart. You’ll find no neat and tidy parables here, no cleanly-stated morals, and no dramatic scenes of nature. Instead, before anything else, you’ll find in both the cover art and the first track the familiar and baffling story of Abraham in anguish on Mount Moriah after God has commanded him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. This story—one of the most foundational religious stories in all of history—is a fitting choice to set the tone for an album that explores the human impulse towards religion, how that impulse can be spoiled, and how it finds its culmination in radical faith-amidst-contingency.
Before I go any further, I think it would be helpful to zoom out for a quick aside about engaging with both art and scripture. My wise friend, Shigé Clark, mentioned her gratitude for the BibleProject’s How to Read the Bible podcast series, as it introduced her (and me) to the genre of “meditation literature:” stories which are meant to be entered into, pondered rather than analyzed, and soaked in like a hot bath. Meditation literature contains symbols, turns of phrase, and thematic head-nods that both aid the reader in interpretation and bind them together with the whole constellation of other stories that comprise the Bible. And, as Shigé pointed out to me, The Land of Canaan is itself something like a meditation on the meditation literature in which it is grounded.
To help you get started engaging with this meditation of an album, I’ll introduce you to two threads I believe J has woven through it. These two threads begin to intertwine in the moments following any spiritual encounter, and together they form the frayed fabric of religious devotion. The first thread I’ll refer to as the moment of epiphany, and the second thread I’ll call the impulse towards religion. My hope is that these two threads will give you a head start in hearing what this album has to say and forming your own interpretation.
We'll never begin the journey if we refuse to begin it precisely where our feet are currently planted. Drew Miller
An unadulterated spiritual encounter—whether brought about by a near-death experience, a walk in the woods, a moment of prayer, or anything in between—is by definition an encounter with our own contingency. For example, when I stand on a ledge with a sheer drop-off underneath, it’s thrilling precisely because I can’t go any further. I’ve come up against my ultimate limitation, and it is that limitation which instructs me of my contingency upon the limitless. From such a space of profound human vulnerability, one small existential step can take us across the threshold from a mere “thrill” or “adrenaline rush” into what I’m calling a “moment of epiphany.” This step shifts our awareness from our nervous systems to our very souls with the felt knowledge that there is a Life that was here before we were and will be here long after we’re gone. This epiphany of grace comes naturally and frequently to children, who live their lives with a greater natural capacity for wonder than adults. It’s a form of pure spiritual experience, unburdened by doctrine or law or religion—for now.
I say “for now” because none of us can live our entire lives in that state of childlike epiphany. It’s just not practical! We’d be constantly confronted with the fact of our mortality and the vastness of the universe, unable to get anything done. And so, as we grow up, we crystallize that moment of epiphany into a tale that forms the backdrop of our lives. We tell the tale over and over again, increasing our distance from the encounter itself with each re-telling. We codify our encounter with Life into a dependable set of instructions that assure us we are living our own small lives correctly. This movement is our impulse towards religion.
It would be a mistake to stop here and privilege the moment of epiphany over religious instinct, or vice versa. The epiphany is as fleetingly miraculous and impossible to reproduce as a solar eclipse. And while it’s all too easy to demonize the religious instinct as nothing more than “putting God in a box,” it’s the only way we can make coherent sense of what has happened to us. We simply must tell some story about our encounter with Life. And so a spiritually rich life is woven in equal parts from these two threads, which are together constantly creating the conditions for us to choose radical faith-amidst-contingency.
J does a marvelous job of spotlighting these two threads throughout The Land of Canaan. “Funny” begins with the presence of contingency in the songs of birds fighting for their lives (“Making music as a lifeline / that’s a funny way to sing”), then longs for the simplicity of the religious tale to take the edge off (“So here we go, back to the good times / Writing stories in the stars… That’s just who we are”). “Tangerine Skins” reminisces on the narrator’s childhood car rides with his dad, establishing an analogy with Abraham and Isaac’s journey to Mount Moriah in the process: “Where can I run? Your only son… I cannot say what it means to know you love me / You love me, Dad, I know.” It’s a song heavy with the epiphany of belovedness that makes life livable.
But nowhere in The Land of Canaan do these two threads work together with such synchrony and nuance as in “City on a Hill.” In this single song, J simultaneously shows tenderness towards the moment of epiphany without sentimentalizing it and faithfully critiques the impulse towards religion without a trace of cynicism. The chorus of the song conveys both in stride:
And were our hearts not burning within us? Did not the rocks cry, “this is why you’re here”? Let us defend this most holy mountain Let none disturb our city on a hill —J Lind, “City on a Hill”
Notice how subtly the heart-burning, childlike awe of the first two lines turns to the ownership and line-drawing of the second two lines. Is it wrong to have a most holy mountain? I don’t think so. But who is the narrator seeking to defend it from? Where is the implied threat? In a variation on the chorus at the end of the song, the words shift:
And were our hearts not burning within us? Did not the Lord say, “there’s no other way”? Let us protect this most precious garden Because we need it, the apple and the snake —J Lind, “City on a Hill”
This is one of J’s playful moments of allusivity, where it’s impossible to totally grasp what he’s saying—but that very looseness, when grounded skillfully in a source text, makes for an excellent entry point into this meditative posture I mentioned before. I can practically hear the voice of Tim Mackie in my head saying, “Okay, now we’re working with the words garden, apple, and snake, which the author clearly intends to hyperlink us back to the story of the Fall.” Within my interpretive framework of the two threads—the moment of epiphany and the impulse towards religion—I would say that this line is citing the Fall as the origin point of Christianity’s religious story, the moment that establishes protagonist and antagonist, the boundaries of in and out. “We need it” in order to locate our own spiritual encounters, our own epiphanies, within a larger context of moral and narrative value judgments—preferably value judgments that will land us inside the “most precious garden.”
What makes “City on a Hill” a truly great song is that it values that need for religious context as legitimate, even as it critiques the petrification and weaponization of it. Alexander Schmemann puts it very well in For the Life of the World: “Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. But Christ who is both God and man has broken down the wall between man and God. He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion.” And in many ways, that quote gets straight to the heart of The Land of Canaan: it explores the language of religion as a means of grappling with contingency in a world where this wall between God and humanity remains, yet has been promised to be removed once and for all.
In an effort to give the listener plenty of space to enter into its meditative posture, The Land of Canaan politely refrains from didactic moralizing. However, if there’s any “moral of the story,” however implicit, it no doubt comes straight from J’s personal hero, Søren Kierkegaard. There are a smattering of moments throughout J’s album that instruct the listener make the leap from the comfort of the religious impulse to the existential tightrope of Kierkegaard’s faith-amidst-contingency. In the final verse of “So It Goes,” J joins Jesus in the moments before his arrest and crucifixion:
While sweating in Gethsemane, I prayed one final prayer To find the crack in everything, the truth within the dare So now I’ll take up this old cross to see just how much I can bear There might not be a ‘why’ but I don’t know, I don’t care And so it goes, and so it goes… And in some way, I’m not alone And so it goes —J Lind, “So It Goes”
The uniquely transformative gift of the Christian story is that it offers us just this portrait: God in Jesus holding the oh-so-human cup of contingency—praying, just as any of us would, that this cup would pass from him. But in the ultimate moment of self-surrender, Jesus drinks the cup in solidarity with humanity. And so it goes, and so faith becomes possible.
Full disclaimer: I don’t know much about Kierkegaard. If you have questions, I bet J would be glad to engage with you in them. But I do know that in his work Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard enters into the story of Abraham and Isaac to investigate the nature of this faith-amidst-contingency. After giving Abraham a peek into the story of Israel, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac, whose very life is Abraham’s miraculous epiphany. In following God’s command, Abraham is brought to his own moment of self-surrender in the face of terrible contingency. In order to carry out God’s request, he must abandon every promise God has made to him—from the promise of his descendants outnumbering the stars to the promised Land of Canaan—and choose naked faith instead. It’s not until Abraham has raised the knife that God stops him, provides a ram in place of Isaac (J ends his album with the words “Agnus Dei,” by the way, which means “lamb of God”), and keeps all his promises. And so it goes, and so Abraham’s radical faith becomes the narrow passage into the entire story of the Bible.
By situating his songs within this baffling story, J explores the interwoven threads of epiphany and religious impulse as a drama that takes place against the backdrop of Abraham’s faith. And that faith is the only honest place to go in this life—a surrender of certainty, of our “most holy mountains,” and even of our precious childhood epiphanies, in the hope (with a healthy dose of human doubt) that God will keep his promises.
And yet this surrender, this faith-amidst-contingency, must not be treated as an end destination or a reward for “being good.” Cliff’s-edge moments have a way of finding us at various points in our lives without any of our help, and romanticizing them does nothing to help us make the leap of faith. I suppose that’s why J chose the title The Land of Canaan: it may be the promised land, but in a way, it’s not the point. So often, our own narratives of arrival somewhere else keep us from the terrifying gift of the present moment, which is the only way into faith to begin with.
This is not to say that there will be no arrival or that there is no fabled “Land of Canaan” where all wrongs will be righted—it’s the promise of redemption that lends meaning to our human struggle to begin with—rather, it is merely to acknowledge that we’ll never begin the journey if we refuse to begin it precisely where our feet are currently planted. As J sings in some of his album’s final lyrics:
When you reach the end and drop the pen and reach again, you’ll find That it’s the day that you’ve been waiting for ‘Cause it’s today that you’ve been waiting for —J Lind, “The Day That You’ve Been Waiting For”