What an Emo Band Taught Me About Reading the Bible
One of my favorite bands from when I was in high school just released a new album, and I when I found out, I couldn’t wait to listen to it. I prepared myself for waves of nostalgia as I hit play on Story of the Year’s first track from Wolves, and I was not disappointed. On my first listen, I’m not sure I even heard any of the lyrics – I just soaked up the sound and immediately loved how it felt like a more mature version of the band I’d loved over a decade ago.
So of course I put it on repeat and listened to it a few more times, becoming more and more familiar with the lyrics with each spin. The writing was emotional, genuine, filled with heart-wrenching questions about love and fear and pain. (Did I mention that Story of the Year is an emo, grungy, post-hardcore rock band?) The album was filled with beautiful lines like this (from “Give Up My Heart”):
Don't make me give up my heart
Don't break free, I'll fall apart
A love I know I would die for
Don't make me give up my heart
Am I man enough to fall in love
And truly know the meaning of what I have become?
Cause all I know is I can't let go
But I'm scared that all the pain I know will find you
Paired with the music, these lyrics ache of fear – the writer knows that the woman he loves is leaving him, breaking his heart. The passion and anxiety is palpable! But there were a couple lines I didn’t understand… they felt just a little off somehow, like they didn’t quite fit in the song. Why is he “scared that all the pain” he knows will find her? What does that even mean?
Looking for Perspective
So I did what any responsible music-listener should do: I looked for an interview with the band about this song. And I found one! Fuse.tv had done a track-by-track question and answer with Dan Marsala, the band’s lead singer and songwriter – this was perfect! (Here’s a link to it, with a warning: there’s a fair bit of language in this interview. I've also dropped the video for the song at the bottom of this post, so you can listen to it as you read if you want to.)
As I read, though, I was stunned. Most of the songs on this album weren’t about romantic relationships at all… they were about Marsala’s children. The images I had conjured for this album were all wrong. “Give Up My Heart” had been written about his love for his daughter.
As I listened to the lyrics again, I realized the lyrics now made a lot more sense. The lines that had felt awkward fit much better within the context of a father-daughter relationship. Marsala wasn’t anxious that his romantic partner was going to leave him, but that his child, who had every ounce of love in his heart, was going to grow up and leave one day. He feared that she was going to go through the same pains in life he’d experienced, and the reality of that broke his heart.
Knowing the songwriter’s intent helped me better understand the song and gave it a depth, a tenderness, that made it even more beautiful to me. How had I misunderstood it so much on my first few listens?
Assumptions Are Blinding
Here’s what I learned: I came into the album with my own expectations of what it would be about, and those assumptions blinded me to the evidence otherwise. If I’d paid closer attention to the verses of “Give Up My Heart,” I would’ve seen clear allusions that Marsala was talking about his children, but I could only see what I expected to see. I assumed it was a simple love song, so that was all I got from it.
When we listen to music, read books, watch films, and so on, we must be aware that we have a tendency to read ourselves into it. Our expectations and assumptions shape the message we get from it. Even when we find it moving, challenging, or surprising, we are still seeing it through the lens of our own experiences. Often that’s exactly what the artist wants us to do – in the case of Story of the Year’s album, Marsala said that he wrote it somewhat ambiguously so people could read themselves into it - but we have to recognize that our interpretation is just that… an interpretation. And paying attention to the interpretations of others adds to the depth of meaning and uncovers truths in it that we would never have found on our own.
Reading the Bible in Community
Our reading of the Bible is not exempt from this. It is limiting to read and study it in isolation or only with others who think and live the way we do. Although the authors of the scriptural texts are not available for interviews (since they lived thousands of years ago…), we can still study Scripture in diverse community. We should be engaging with many different perspectives on our faith:
- Historical perspectives
- Liberal perspectives
- Conservative perspectives
- Latin American liberation perspectives
- Black liberation perspectives
- Feminist perspectives
- Womanist (black feminist) perspectives
- Jewish perspectives
- Muslim perspectives
- And many others
By reading the Bible in community, we better understand the assumptions we bring to it and we expose ourselves to broader, deeper ways of understanding Scripture and applying it to our lives.
"Give Up My Heart" by Story of the Year