My Twenty One Pilots Obsession (apologia pro musica sua)

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A very fun to write entry from my journal:

“What’s with the Twenty One Pilots obsession, Tom?”

I was asked this question a few weeks ago by a local reader of my blog, who quickly added: “Just kidding!” She asked a good question. What’s my good answer? Of course, there’s always something inexplicable about why you like this kind of music and not that. My taste in music is quite eclectic and idiosyncratic, spanning Athonite Byzantine chant, Pat Benatar, Lara Fabian and Twenty One Pilots. But here are a few reasons I can articulate: Sharing my daughters’ joy in them. Their alternative sound. Their artful and substantive lyrics. Their youthful passion. Their apparent sincerity. Their refusal to indulge in our culture’s sexual pathologies.

But most of all, I am enamored by their willingness to plunge headlong and clear-eyed into the tangled anxieties of postmodernity, all the while remaining free from its caustic cynicism, in order to open up the possibility of redemption in Christ. Twenty One Pilots is about the work of re-enchanting a thoroughly disenchanted world. Their quest to reach the victims of our age of anxiety makes me think of the Greek word St. Paul uses in his Acts 17 “men of Athens” speech (in vs. 27) to describe the non-Jewish world’s searching quest for the one true God:  psēlaphēseian. It means something like “groping about,” referring to what a blind man does when he tries to make his way through a dark and unfamilar space.

Tyler and Josh are ready to join their generation, and all seekers, in this stumbling journey through the darkness led along by the light of a divine darkness that is faith. Western culture is ever-more a de-sacramentalized world, made incapable of gesturing beyond itself, of supporting the pursuit of the ecstasy of charity outstretching toward God and neighbor. It is a world rendered flat, insipid and banal by a progressive evacuation of the infinite dimensions of transcendence. The motto of (post)modernity, fearful of the Most High, is “stay low.” This is the world Twenty One Pilots rebels against, a world described so powerfully by David Bantley Hart:

Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an even greater number of desires to gratify, and to abolish as many limits and prohibitions upon desire as it can. Such a society is already implicitly atheist and so must slowly but relentlessly apply itself to the dissolution of transcendent values. It cannot allow ultimate goods to distract us from proximate goods. Our sacred writ is advertising, our piety is shopping, our highest devotion is private choice. God and the soul too often hinder the purely acquisitive longings upon which the market depends, and confront us with values that stand in stark rivalry to the one truly substantial value at the center of our social universe: the price tag. So it really was only a matter of time before atheism slipped out of the enclosed gardens of academe and down from the vertiginous eyries of high cosmopolitan fashion and began expressing itself in crassly vulgar form…In a sense, the triviality of the movement is its chief virtue. It is a diverting alternative to thinking deeply. It is a narcotic. In our time, to strike a lapidary phrase, irreligion is the opiate of the bourgeoisie, the sigh of the oppressed ego, the heart of a world filled with tantalizing toys.

Twenty One Pilots sings of the epic themes of human existence: life and death, hope and despair, sin and redemption, love and violence, addiction and freedom, alienation and presence, fear and trust, God and man, et alia. Their songs are sometimes quiet, sometimes screaming, sometimes whimsical, sometimes grotesque, sometimes searching meditations on the complex relational interplays between man and God, man and man, and man within himself. So many of their songs are deft condensations of latent beauty-truth-goodness, of faith-hope-love found fully in Christ. They make these triplets haunt, infest, inhabit, infiltrate our world of uncertain shadows, but never in a moralizing or preachy way. Their lyrics make clear that prayer need not simply be an effusion of plastic pieties, but can be a raw, gritty experience turned upward in “hope against hope” that postmodernity’s deafening silence masks something far deeper: an exquisitely attentive Word of eternal listening.

I write and comment on them because they are a sign, a witness, an example — even at times, exemplar — of the lay vocation to consecrate the world to God with all the quiet subtlety of transubstantiation. Just think of how in the Liturgy, without notice, the bread and wine are radically remade into a New Creation by the God who makes all things new. We lay faithful are to employ our secular genius by renewing the secular world in Christ, embodying daily the challenging truth of these majestic words from the Second Vatican Council:

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds (Gaudium et Spes #1).

And while we Catholics must have a strong ecclesial [churchy] center from whence we are sent out among the wolves (Matt 5:44), as strong Communion leads to a strong Mission, and must avoid being assimilated by our materialist and consumerist society, we also mustn’t succumb to simply holing up in a gated community. We cannot rest secure in confidently smiling out from our airtight apologetics-Ziploc bag, being bearers of Truth who look on a confused world only to curse its darkness. No! Instead of such triumphal insularity, we must unzip all our synthetic seals and be poured out into the midst of the din of sin, the moans of despair, the rebellious sounds of revelry, and there sing a new song that all can join in on. We must with confident love invite the intoners of postmodernity’s cacophony to hear our rich harmonies, and make it clear our song is for them and about them. We must give them opportunity to come to know in us the Jesus who said to the safely-sealed-up chief priests and elders: “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots enter into the kingdom of God before you” (Matthew 21:31). We must take up Pope Francis’ challenge to the youth at World Youth Day:

I want to tell you something. What is it that I expect as a consequence of World Youth Day? I want a mess. We knew that in Rio there would be great disorder, but I want trouble in the dioceses! I want to see the church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures. Because these need to get out! … if they do not do this, they become a non-governmental organisation, and the Church must not be an NGO.

Twenty One Pilots has gone out into the streets, casting seeds of hope into the field, leavening our cultural grammar, salting our syntax and illumining our lexicon with a grammar, syntax and lexicon drawn out of the inkwell of the Gospel. Yes, they do so imperfectly, as it always must be. But they are risking precisely what I passionately believe our Church absolutely must begin to seriously and systematically cultivate among the lay faithful: not simply inward-facing ecclesiastical ministers but outward-facing ecclesial apostles; not simply keepers of an enclosed garden, but day laborers ready to go out and work day after day in the hot sun cultivating the hard, rocky, weed infested field of the world. We need culture-makers willing to risk everything to cast seeds into the world.

In the movie, Risen, there’s an amazing scene where the Roman tribune Clavius, in his frantic search for the corpse of Jesus, interviews a blind old woman named Miriam. She tells him she heard the voice of the risen Jesus. He spoke to her. After Clavius dismissed this as lunacy, Miriam walked away. But she stopped, turned back and said to Clavius in an ominous tone: “Don’t you want to know what he said to me?” He said, “Sure.” She told him: “He said, ‘You are seeds, already cast.’” Then she said, referring to Clavius’ plan to crush this new messianic movement: “You’re too late.”

We are the seed casters and the seeds cast.

It only seems appropriate to leave you with another Twenty One Pilots song. I will not comment on it other than to say that this song is their manifesto of refusal to succumb to the commodifying, mass production-oriented and often heartless tendencies in the pop music industry. Here’s to hoping and praying they will remain part of the faithful resistance, (re)inscribing a new heart onto the chest of an increasingly heartless culture. As usual, lyrics are below the video:

They say stay in your lane, boy, lane, boy
But we go where we want to
They think this thing is a highway, highway
But will they be alive tomorrow?

They think this thing is a highway
If it was our way
We’d have a tempo change every other time change
‘Cause our minds change on what we think is good
I wasn’t raised in the hood
But I know a thing or two about pain and darkness
If it wasn’t for this music, I don’t know how I would’ve fought this
Regardless, all these songs I’m hearing are so heartless
Don’t trust a perfect person and don’t trust a song that’s flawless
Honest, there’s a few songs on this record that feel common
I’m in constant confrontation with what I want and what is poppin’
In the industry it seems to me that singles on the radio are currency
My creativity’s only free when I’m playin’ shows

They say stay in your lane, boy, lane ,boy
But we go where we want to
They think this thing is a highway, highway
But will they be alive tomorrow? Will they be alive tomorrow?

I’m sorry if that question I asked last
Scared you a bit like a hazmat
In a gas mask
If you ask Zack
He’s my brother, he likes when I rap fast
But let’s back track, back to this
Who would you live and die for on that list
But the problem is, there’s another list that exists and no one really wants to think about this
Forget sanity, forget salary, forget vanity, my morality
If you get in between someone I love and me
You’re gonna feel the heat of my cavalry

All these songs I’m hearing are so heartless
Don’t trust a perfect person and don’t trust a song that’s flawless

They say stay in your lane, boy, lane, boy
But we go where we want to
They think this thing is a highway, highway
But will they be alive tomorrow?
They say stay in your lane, boy, lane, boy
But we go where we want to
They think this thing is a highway, highway
But will they be alive tomorrow?

Will they be alive tomorrow?
(Will they be alive tomorrow?)

They say stay in your lane, boy, lane, boy
But we go where we want to
They think this thing is a highway, highway
But will they be alive tomorrow?
They say stay in your lane, boy, lane, boy
But we go where we want to
They think this thing is a highway, highway
But will they be alive tomorrow?

5 comments on “My Twenty One Pilots Obsession (apologia pro musica sua)

  1. Jennifer says:

    The obsession is contagious. My entire family has caught it. We have some fantastic 21p kitchen dance parties… but I digress.

    Your commentary on 21p’s masterful ability to deeply engage and interface with the wider culture is spot on. Brilliant! They GET real people. I join you in offering hopes and prayers for them and the ‘faithful resistance’. The “Church Militant”” or “resistance” imagery really, really gives me encouragement. because it’s really hard, especially if you’re the only one in your family or inner circle who is Christian. If you feel like a scattered seed that fell in the middle of nowhere. Or like a para-trooper who dropped in from the skies… . I get so easily discouraged but you’ve got to recognize that you’re on a mission, you’ve landed behind enemy lines and the people around you aren’t enemies, but are an occupied people who need to be rescued. And you find and connect to other soldiers and regroup in the ecclesial basecamp and you get to communicate with the King himself but you still have a mission to get back out there…

    • Thanks for your words, Jennifer!
      How happy I am to know I have spread this musical contagion — Dance parties in your kitchen makes me feel I have succeeded in my writing mission!
      Your comments on the hardships of being a lonely soldier in the field, and your use of battle imagery is rich! Communicating with the King, other soldiers, the ecclesial basecamp. Love it! It reminds me of a line written by one of my former colleagues, Nathan Eubank, as part of an article he wrote about the “reversals” present in the Gospel of Luke. He says: “Thus, the lowly are lifted up, not by joining a conquering king, but as a conquering king joins them.”
      Lowly soldiers led on by such a lowly High King!
      Thanks for commenting.
      A blessed Holy Week 2u

  2. landryinman says:

    Fantastic article! I love the obvious bridge that the gospel has the ability to create through the music of Twenty One Pilots. Between Christians and unbelievers alike.

  3. WoopieCushion says:

    Awesome to begin catching up with NealObstat in this Octave of Easter! Happy and blessed Easter to you and the family brother!

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