This is turning out to be the unexpected blogging era of musical commentary. Even as I was trashing “Oceans” last Sunday (if you love it, I’m so sorry, I totally listened to it all week out of penance), Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” was already the thing to be talked about. PJ Media reports that it has “dominated every streaming platform since its release,” and that it’s been viewed more than 18 million times so far on Youtube.
Some of those views are mine. I’ve listened to it enough to have some of the lines stick in my head, in particular, the one about “livin’ in the new world with an old soul,” that serendipitous marriage of two familiar, well-worn cliches.
I am always blathering on about “the West” and “these latter days” and “our current culture” which amounts to the same thing. There’s something about the way life is shaped in the United States, and Canada, and all of Europe that feels off, like something essential has been thrown away, or something precious has been broken. We circle around, trying to name it, trying to describe it, indeed, blaming now one group or idea or person and now another for its sudden lack.
Joining this “new world”—clever I think because the word “new” usually means something nice and pleasant, but obviously this “new world” is the pits and nobody is having a good time, in spite of all the indoor plumbing and cheap beer—with the line “old soul” strangely transforms both concepts. I don’t hear very many people use the term “old soul” except once someone did use it to describe one of my children. In that case, it meant that the child had wisdom beyond her years. She wasn’t like other children her age who are just scrolling incessantly on their phones. A person who has an “old soul” doesn’t quite fit in with everyone else who is more comfortably settled into the rhythms and assumptions of the moment.
Which is to say, I’ve been quite captivated by the line, trying to work out the puzzle. Other people are not impressed. Substack writer Brian Mattson dislikes the song immensely. About that line, he writes, “Insert lazy trope about being a traditional ‘old school’ type trying to make it in a new fangled world. Which is weird because I don’t remember it ever being a working class virtue to be a resentful, lazy drunk because you have a job that pays you time a half.” He goes on to explain that he doesn’t “begrudge anyone for enjoying a stripped-down acoustic Appalachian bluegrass tune, even if it is unoriginal and pedestrian (read: boring), or even for enjoying the very over-wrought (read: fake) emotional anguish in the vocal performance,” and he wonders “how we came to the place and time in which self-styled American conservatives cheer a song chock-full of self-pity, victimhood, class grievance, and envy.” He then proceeds to trash the song, line by line, explaining, at length, that Anthony is definitely rich now. I mean, I’m not sure if that’s true. I think I saw a short video during the week in which Anthony explained that he wasn’t rich because he’s been turning down every single lucrative offer. He actually doesn’t intend to sell out, though I suppose time will tell.
That is really neither here nor there. The song is useful because it is illuminating yet another great divide within American, and perhaps even “Western” life. There are so many dividing points, but one that’s been simmering in the back of my head ever since I read Heavenly Participation, is that class divisions get explained away by economics, but really, what has wrecked poor people in this “new world” is the de-spiritualization of the cosmos. Mattson, and others, entirely miss the point about being an “old soul” in this dystopian consumerist world because they get stuck in the mire, trying to work out how much the poor actually earn, instead of looking out over the wasted vista, to see what kind of spiritual world ordinary people have to endure. In fact, in the “new” world, the “Spirit,” the “Soul” doesn’t count for anything at all.
This is my own private theory, but it’s derived from a lot of reading since the dawn of Covid. The “richer” intellectual class—I might count in this group, I have been to college and seminary and am a blogger—derive “meaning” for their lives from all sorts of sources. They may not believe in God, but they do believe in themselves and their ability to be good and to do meaningful work. They might work in academia, which is so obviously a help to the wider world, doing research and writing books about the way things are. They might be doctors or lawyers, or at least have a credential that “means” something.
Though, I should say, the cracks even here are showing. The swift rise of trust in Manifesting as a spiritual practice, the desperate hope in wellness, the preponderance of anger on TikTok, the advent of the anxious Karen as a social trope—though these are largely feminine versions of laptop class meltdown, they all point to the problem of having a soul at all in a world being transformed into one that has no soul.
This group has swallowed and is regurgitating a poignant lie. The best version of it I have ever seen is an old College Humor video where each cast member falls into a nostalgic reverie about some past period—the Victorian era, the Middle Ages, they go back to the dawn of time (if I am remembering correctly) in five-second increments. Just when the group starts to be persuaded about the beauty of some other age, the sensible cast member reminds everyone about there being no plumbing, about the diseases, death, and lack of social equity, saving them all in the nick of time. In the end, they conclude, sadly enough, that the present will have to do. In this way, under the guise of contentment and gratitude, each member of the group is forced to accept that material quality of life is the only valuation worth considering. If you don’t have antibiotics and plumbing, you don’t have anything.
Now, I don’t think that’s true. Much as I love indoor plumbing and not dying in childbirth, I think the lack of transcendent meaning produces a new and terrible kind of misery that modern people don’t have the capacity to endure. But it’s a less aesthetically repulsive idea for someone who can live somewhere nice, and who can keep trading over one set of goods for another, as soon as the old have become obsolete, buying more faddish techniques to stamp out the gnawing despair that maybe there is nothing more to life than another Target run. When you take it into the hinterlands and make “the poor” buy it, it isn’t quite so pretty. It means a kind of despair that can’t afford wine and has to settle for fentanyl and fudge rounds.
Today is Sunday, which means that in mere moments I have to go to church, to the place where the worshiper submits to the ancient and increasingly—in this new world—perverse idea that the soul requires something more than just more plastic, and that, to get what is needed, the person has to let go of every pretense, every demand, every idea that anything material can fill the void.
Funnily enough, the Gospel for today is one that many “elite Christians” use to undermine the spiritual foundation of the created order. Out of a sense of their own warm compassion for themselves, they explain that the woman in this short, appalling moment taught Jesus not to be such a bigot. In this way, they, unwittingly, strip him of his divine nature and his human purity, both of which are necessary for him to be the Savior of their souls.
In the real story, only Jesus is good, but the woman is exactly the sort of person who would, today, embarrass everyone who hates Oliver Anthony’s song. They think they would be on her side, but look how her very existence humiliates everyone:
And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.”He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
The disciples, notice, “beg” Jesus to send her away while she is “crying out” for help. Clearly, they didn’t believe that her desperation or need counted for anything. Clearly, they thought her troubles were too insignificant to merit Jesus’ attention. Probably, she had brought her affliction on herself. Her daughter had a demon. How did that happen? She was probably in the wrong place at the wrong time. She probably didn’t spend her SNAP money in the approved way. She probably was really depressed and tried to ameliorate her despair in a manner that only made things worse, the way everyone is doing now.
She should have stayed home and accepted her fate, because, being poor and desperate, she deserved it. If she waited around, someone from some social services would come and give her a chart to help her work out a routine for her child.
But Jesus is God, and he has power. And his power is not random, unrelated to his divine Sonship, his cosmic reign over everything. Nothing that has been made can be separated from him and still live. Without Christ, there is no height nor depth nor beginning nor end. He is the only hope for any soul-satisfaction, any healing that goes into the depths of the person to finally satisfy her and make her free.
When you wrench him out of his own creation, when you try to stop people from coming to him with their actual problems, you are casting a dark pall over the world, you are being totalitarian and cruel to the very person you purport to care about.
“O woman,” says Jesus, lifting her up out of the dust, “great is your faith!” You know more than any of the faithless people standing around here. You knew to fling yourself down for mercy at the source of all hope. And so, as a result, you and your child are “well.”
I don’t mean that as a scare quote. It’s just that the old lie is the same in every kind of world, that one about being well by having a lot of things that won’t actually make you well. Don’t go to God, grateful even for the crumbs that fall from his table, go online, go buy more, go far away from the truth and the life, never admitting how hungry and sick you really are. Lecture those even more desperate than you about how they should just work harder.
Or, this morning, admit that your weary soul needs only one person—Jesus. Also, go to church. Hope to see you there!
Find me on Substack!