This week has been permeated with death. From Paris to Beirut, it’s been impossible to escape stories of senseless and indescribable horror. I have never seen such an outpouring of unrestrained grief on social media on this scale. There are limitless things one could talk about: the politicization of tragedy, the fetishization of disaster or the glorification of victimization. But for now, just a week from the events of that terrible day, I think it’s most important to talk about how we mourn.
My friends and I were driving to Cincinnati when we heard the news. We were headed to a Sufjan Stevens concert, his last show of the year. I was in a Chipotle in Southwestern Ohio as the French police raided the Bataclan. I ate knowing well that people in a concert venue, not unlike the one I was going to, were being slaughtered by members of a cult, and I could do absolutely nothing about it.
Driving into the city, we turned on the radio and listened speechlessly as NPR reporters spoke of their shock and disgust. I pity the world leaders who have to take the stage, again and again, to express their remorse in a way that feels sincere and adequate. The limits of human vocabulary are most clearly shown when it comes to expressing irreplaceable loss.
The concert we were going to was in support of Sufjan’s newest album, “Carrie & Lowell.” Written about the death of the musician’s mother, “Carrie & Lowell” is a treatise on the intricacies and complexities of death. In that Cincinnati concert hall, with the new unexpected context of mass murder, we were able to mourn and ask the difficult questions together. In his shows and on that album, Sufjan never once settles for sentimentality, although there are many instances of hope. In his song “Drawn to the Blood,” Sufjan pleads uselessly, “What did I do to deserve this?” We never receive an answer.
To be able to resonate your loss with another person is healing. To be able to resonate your loss with an entire concert hall is sacred. When an image of the Eiffel tower was projected during a standing ovation, Sufjan did not need to say anything. His music, and our shared experience, had already done all the talking.
Sufjan had come earlier to this very college on the same tour. In the audience were many students. One of them was Chase Froese.
When Chase died this summer, I found that a lot of our friends reacted with different forms of denial. Some did it by keeping up a sort of digital afterlife — corresponding with someone who could not answer. Many others justified her death by saying that it was a “good” thing — and that since she was in heaven now, we ought to instead celebrate her death.
I found this attitude to be a horrible perversion of reality. It has nothing to do with love or the Gospel. While I believe that hope is central to Christian belief, hope doesn’t excuse seeing death — especially senseless, unexpected death — as a good thing. Death being “good” is a comforting thought, yes, but there is little truth to it. Gnostic escapism is ultimately a denial of our own humanity as it doesn’t allow room for us to acknowledge evil or loss.
Instead, I believe that we should see grief as central to our faith. Death is only significant if you love, so to grieve, in a sense, shows that you have loved. Without love, death is meaningless. In the Gospel of John, Jesus knows very well that Lazarus will be resurrected. Yet, he is still deeply moved by his friends’ grief and weeps. Jesus lamented only because he loved Lazarus. He recognized that death was a bad thing — a result of the fall — and was able to mourn with the mourning.
Many Christians treat mourning as a symptom of doubt. We should instead see mourning as a symptom of love. For without love, death is meaningless. While many believe that the Christian response to death is placing our hope in a gnostic heaven, I feel that the true Christian response is to grieve with each other and wrestle with our sorrow. We need to be brave enough to ask questions that may never well be answered. We need to be brave enough to put our faith in a mysterious and often puzzling God. We need to mourn less like we’re denying the horrific realities of death, but more like Sufjan Stevens — never once settling for sentimentality, but instead confronting the world with vulnerability, humility and hope.