Lancing the Blister Soul: A Review of the Georgia Band, V.O.L.

Shane Rosenthal
Friday, August 3rd 2007
Nov/Dec 1997

I was recently turned on to a rock band by a White Horse Inn listener. After hearing just a few songs by the Vigilantes of Love, I became a fan. With a sound reminiscent of the Waterboys, The Call, U2, Bruce Cockburn, and if I dare say, Bob Dylan, they have nevertheless marked their own territory. You can't listen to V. O. L. without feeling their theology of despair. Their most recent CD, Blister Soul, cries out:

There's a smaller place you go, where there's hardly any sound,
where the deals have all gone sour, and the house of cards comes down,
and the damage is costly, it's beyond all dollars and sense,
you can't measure it with graphs and charts or any instruments,
yeah the thing we cannot speak of, the secret we all know,
…oh this blister soul.

But rather than leaving you to wallow in self lament, they gently point to a theology of grace: "…and the thing that's yours for free is the thing I need the most, stifles every boast, stifles every boast." The music is not overly didactic, or preachy, but comes off as a heart-felt call to deal with the fact of sin head-on. In their quest to look realistically at sin, and the problem of the human condition, singer/songwriter Bill Mallonee and V. O. L. have found the meaning of grace. As reviewer Thom Jurek suggests, "The blister soul is the starting point of everyone's burden and everyone's hope…." (1)

Theologians have often described an inseparable link between original sin and the doctrines of grace. For if one has a superficial understanding of the human condition, there will be a moralistic superficiality in the way we view God's grace and mercy (i.e., people who do mostly good things go to heaven). But if a person believes that "no one is good, no not even one" (Rom. 3), then for anyone to be acceptable to God at all, there must be overwhelmingly powerful grace: "to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness" (Rom. 4:5).

This theological link comes through quite clearly in the lyrics of the Vigilantes of Love. Notice for example the lyrics of their song, "Double Cure," a song off their 1996 compilation CD simply titled V. O. L., released by Warner Brothers (the song's title refers to Augustus Toplady's great hymn, "Rock of Ages": "Be of sin the double cure, cleanse me from its guilt and power"). The lines, "today I am sick of all I am, today is my setback. First I swear I love you, then I stab you in the back," are juxtaposed with the recurring refrain, "I wanna drink out of that fountain, On a hill called double cure." One is reminded of the parable Jesus told of the Pharisee and the tax collector:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men-robbers, evildoers, adulterers-or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 18:9-14).

The tax collector had come to terms with his "blister soul," and cried out for mercy. And it is just this sort of "cry of desperation" that leads one to a proper understanding of justification.

In their song "Parting Shot," we come to one of the most impressive uses of this contrast between sin and grace. "You lie on the flowers here in the wind, I've twisted it all with original sin … there's a knowledge I traded a long time ago, bartered it all for these rags I call clothes." Original sin is not simply used here to blame our first parents, but rather, as Mallonee expresses it, we are all co-conspirators in this spirit of self-destruction. And the reference to "rags" calls us back to the prophet Isaiah's lamentation that "all our righteous acts are like filthy rags … and like the wind our sins sweep us away" (Is. 64:6). But later in the song Mallonee faces his own pessimism by admitting to his audience that he has been "droning on and on," so he changes gears:

Wait, it's bigger than life, it is gracious and grand,
something a child readily understands:
"Hey you know I sure could use a new suit of clothes,
see I've gone all threadbare and my shoes are worn,
now the flowers are growing right out of these bones
[and I can] hear the trumpet sound like Louis Armstrong,
when the Great Divorce happens hide me in your song,
cause I don't deserve it and I don't belong."

I get frustrated with folks who argue that theology is too difficult for the average person. Mallonee is right; these things are quite simple, something even a "child readily understands." In the story of "The Emperor's New Clothes," it was, after all, the child who pointed out that the Emperor was naked. So too, it is easy for us to understand the need for "a new suit of clothes" if we have recognized that our current wardrobe consists of rags. Theologically speaking, this is what is known as imputed righteousness; we are not acceptable to God in our own clothing, but must wear Christ's righteousness like a robe. (2) Mallonee's confidence in this "robe of righteousness" gives him the eager anticipation for the sound of the last trumpet when all things will be made new. But this expectation is nevertheless tempered by the realization that "I don't deserve it and I don't belong." When all is said and done, a person really cannot sing "Amazing Grace" until he has fully grasped the corresponding lines of Newton's classic hymn, "that saved a wretch like me."

In their song, "Who Knows When the Sunrise Will Be," we come to see some of the theological influences of V. O. L. "Martin Luther said to one of his brothers, 'except for one instance, no one can die for another.' The devil makes me fearful about my survival, [but] one's gone before to ensure your arrival." For Luther, Christ had "gone before to ensure [our] arrival." Thus, when Mallonee writes in this song that: "I saw a man on the hill in place of my hell," he is standing in the great tradition of Luther and the other reformers who asserted that the Christian Gospel is not about our efforts, our pursuits, our transformation, or our anything. Rather, the Christian Gospel is about Christ and what he accomplished on our behalf. In the final section of this song Mallonee delivers a desperate cry:

You can count on your charm, revel in your wealth,
improve your appearance, hope in your health,
houses of cards tumble and reputations fail,
marriages crumble and interest rates sail,
there are no more heroes….

We're all blind men, sad men, and dreamers with wishes,
paralytics, lunatics and the back street fringes
[yet, we] all find a place in your home at your table,
you make them well cause you're willing and able….

This is a brilliant description of our time, and yet, instead of being hostile and condemnatory as the Pharisee was toward the tax collector, Mallonee is humble, arguing that the Church is made of such members. In other words, the Church is a hospice for struggling sinners where Christ is the true medicine for our souls. Uh oh, sounds like I've hit the theme of another V. O. L. song, "Welcome to Struggleville."

1 [ Back ] The liner notes of the V. O. L. compact disc: Blister Soul.
2 [ Back ] Is. 61:10, Matt. 22:9-13, John 17:19, Rom. 1:17, Rom. 5:19, Rom. 10:2-4, 1 Cor. 1:30, 2 Cor. 5:21, Phil. 3:8-9.
Friday, August 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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