I’m an agnostic nowadays, but I grew up Catholic, which means I get to enjoy the existential dread of the former and the omnipresent guilt of the latter. (I’m doing great, thanks for asking.) My family was not particularly observant–we only went to Mass on Easter and Christmas, and eventually not even then. Still, I was baptized, I took my holy communion, and when I was in high school I was confirmed. My confirmation name was Philip, which I picked because the namesake saint was a funny guy who liked dogs and I thought that ruled.
What I remember most about my Catholic experience was how small it made me feel. I don’t mean that in the sense that it made me feel bad about myself, although sometimes it did. I mean that, as a Catholic, you’re constantly aware of the size and the weight of your religion. The solemn masses, the creaky old pews, the grand silence of an empty church–it reminds you that you’re just a tiny part of something ancient and powerful, something that has existed long before you were born and will exist long after you die. I felt like an ant at the bottom of a mountain.
I kept thinking about this as I listened to “Revival in Lincoln”, a dark, evocative new song by the Canadian singer-songwriter Graeme Kennedy. “Revival in Lincoln” is sung from the point of view of a preacher who, as the title suggests, conducts revival meetings, a form of religious service intended to bring in converts. They’re mostly conducted by Baptists and other evangelicals, and they’re quite popular around the Bible Belt.
Over the ominous twang of an acoustic guitar (and later the equally-ominous rumble of a piano), Kennedy laments that the soul-saving business just isn’t what it used to be. “There was a time you could smell the souls for miles,” he sings in the opening lines. “All those open wounds covered up with cheap perfume.” He remembers how powerful he once was, blames various modern innovations for this lack of spirituality, and longs for another revival.
It’s immediately clear that something isn’t right about our narrator. He sings about souls like a shark smelling blood in the water. He relishes the power he has (or had) over other people, leading them shaking and weeping into the promised land and bragging that “only dust dared walk the streets” when he stood to speak. He wishes he could cast a plague to bring about another revival. Most strikingly, he always sings about himself: the lyrics are filled with “I” after “I” after “I”.
This narrator is no humble shepherd, no faithful servant of the Lord. He’s a narcissistic megalomaniac, a man who got drunk on power and is struggling through the metaphorical hangover. The only time he mentions God is when he describes dancing with Him and fighting the Devil in his revival meetings, as though he’s somehow equal to either of them. Behind his righteous exterior is a man consumed by his own monstrous ego, and Kennedy’s careful writing shows you the depths of the narrator’s self-importance.
“Revival in Lincoln” is a stark illustration of a certain evangelical mindset, the idea that bringing people to God gives you the righteousness and power of God Himself. The Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and Kenneth Coplands of the world see religion as a tool, or a weapon: something to serve your needs, something to inflict upon other people. I was never a particularly religious person, but I know that God sees this hubris as blasphemy: if “Revival”’s narrator doesn’t know that yet, he’ll learn it at the pearly gates, and he’ll have plenty of time to think it over on the long way down.