Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Arcade Fire's "Intervention" As A Warning Against "Enthusiasm"

Just three albums in, Arcade Fire have taken their place at or near the top of quality music currently being produced. This monumental piece from their 2007 sophomore album Neon Bible still blows me away. Here's the direct link in case the embedded audio below doesn't work.


The king's taken back the throne.
The useless seed is sown.
When they say they're cuttin' off the phone,
I tell 'em you're not home.
No place to hide,
You're fightin' as a soldier on their side.
You stay a soldier in your mind,
But nothin's on the line.
You say it's money that we need,
As if we're only mouths to feed.
I know no matter what you say,
There's some debts you'll never pay.
Workin' for the church while your family dies.
You take what they give you and you keep it inside.
Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home.
Hear the soldier groan, "We'll go at it alone."
I can taste the fear.
Lift me up and take me outta here.
Don't wanna fight, don't wanna die,
Just wanna hear you cry.
"Who's gonna throw the very first stone?"
Oh! Who's gonna reset the bone?
Walkin' with your head in a sling,
Wanna hear the soldier sing:
"Workin' for the church while my family dies."
Your little baby sister's gonna lose her mind.
Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home.
Hear the soldier groan, "We'll go at it alone."
I can taste your fear.
It's gonna lift you up and take you out of here.
And the bone shall never heal,
I care not if you kneel.
We can't find you now,
But they're gonna get their money back somehow.
And when you finally disappear,
We'll just say you were never here.
Been workin' for the church while your life falls apart,
Singin' hallelujah with the fear in your heart.
Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home.
Hear the soldier groan, "We'll go at it alone."
Hear the soldier groan, "We'll go at it alone."
It's a bit of an intimidating task to attempt an analysis of this song. It's worrying to think there's no way one could ever do it justice. But that's the way with all works of art. How could you ever be worthy to try to plumb the depths of The Divine ComedyCrime and Punishment, or The Iliad? You can't.

Oftentimes in literary works of art a particular image or set of images will be dwelt upon or repeated so as to draw attention to it and delineate its centrality. In a piece of music the obvious place in which to accomplish something like this is the refrain, which is why a lot of the time the refrain will contain the song's core.

In "Intervention" the refrain changes a bit as it gets repeated. Nevertheless, the basic content remains the same: the entreaties of one family member to another, "working for the church while [his] family dies." This over-zealous dedication to religion leads to "every spark of friendship and love [dying] without a home." Then, "the soldier," put off by the inability of his friends and family to appreciate the divine mission that is harming both them and himself, groans "Fine. I don't need your approval."

I think the crux of the song lies in the fact that it is not religion itself, but a particular kind of religion which "the soldier" has espoused. It is a religion which revolves around "singin' hallelujah with the fear in your heart," in other words, a religion of emotion, one focused on one's own personal "experience" of God first, and "friendship and love" second. Ronald Knox calls it Enthusiasm.


This disordered religion leads the soldier to neglect his responsibilities in favor of fighting an imaginary holy war. His misguided perception of the world sees one so depraved, so totally lost, that "there's no place to hide." In reality, he's only "a soldier in [his] mind," for, as we shall see, this is not the real war, but one made up by men convinced all men and the entire world are inherently and completely evil.

The consequences get more and more dire as the song goes on. At first it's just that they're "cuttin' off the phone." The family needs money; both the speaker and the soldier know this. The soldier sees only a lack of money: "You say it's money that we need, / As if we're only mouths to feed." The truth is that the family's real lack is the soldier's refusal to contribute, to pay off his debt of responsibility to the family: "I know no matter what you say / There's some debts you'll never pay." If he would do that, there would be no money problem.

Eventually, the debtors and loan sharks come to collect. When they do, the family that the soldier himself abandoned will now abandon him. He refused to "fight" and "die" for them, why should they for him? Of course, the truth of the matter is they should fight on his behalf. Real love, real family asks for nothing in return. But when one member chooses his own interests over his family, even if they're religious, the pattern begins to repeat itself. Evil begets evil, and, in the end, they will relish in his pain just as much as the loan sharks: "Just wanna hear you cry."

The family, speaking to the soldier, are warning him of the things to come if he continues down this path. When it comes time to face up to his debts, he may quote Jesus self-righteously: "Who's gonna throw the very first stone?" But when they break his leg anyway, there won't be anybody to "reset the bone." His foolish faith certainly isn't going to help: "The bone shall never heal, / I care not if you kneel." We'll see how zealous you are when you're "walkin' with your head in a sling."

Real faith, real religion, real Christianity, is never at odds with one's responsibilities to one's family. The essence of our duty to God is our duty to others; it is through them that we serve the Lord; it is by loving them that we love him. Love, remember, is not an emotion, but an action, the service of others. So that when Scripture says "Love your neighbors as yourselves," it doesn't mean care about them, it means care for them.

Real Christianity happens in the home and on the street. This is why traditionally Christianity sent only consecrated religious into the mission field, those who had dedicated their entire lives to the Church and would not be leaving anything behind.

Religion is the duty we owe to our Creator, which is to be like him by loving and serving those around us. A religion which asks you to put God before your family is no religion at all, for it seeks not the welfare of "our neighbors," but only the inflation of our own self-righteous ego.

4 comments:

  1. Maybe because of the music video I saw this movie first in, but I've always seen it differently than you. My interpretation is that it actually is talking about war, the kind of holy war which never ends because both sides KNOW that they are in the right, because God has told them to do this.

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  2. Maybe because of the music video I saw this movie first in, but I've always seen it differently than you. My interpretation is that it actually is talking about war, the kind of holy war which never ends because both sides KNOW that they are in the right, because God has told them to do this.

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  3. i too found it different to the above. I don't think songs a re that ordered or that specific. I doubt they set out to write a story about a religious man and his family. I think Win would of come up with lines at different times after seeing different thing and they all would of meant something different yet all related to not just religion but to a specific one. they recorded it in a protestant church so i figured they were singing about a catholic church. and how apt if they were. the line "you say its only money that we need as if were just mouths to feed" i took that as though Win was speaking on behalf of the poor throughout the world. As churches and charities all say 'give money, send money now" the real truth is they need more than just money to purchase food so they can get fed. They need much much more than that. They need inclusion, they need to be lifted out of the cycle of poverty and that takes a long term commitment from many powerful institutions and governments. And the soldier to me, was some man who was fighting the church but he was all alone and no one would join him in going after the church and the part about working for the church as your life falls apart...was a very broad sweep at the countless number of people who devote so much effort and time into the church and right there, in their own backyard, in their own family, real bad shit is taking place and they do nothing about it but continue serving the church instead. thats how i sing it. not one clean cut story

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