The only thing that keeps me from driving this car
Half-light, jack knife into the canyon at night
Signs and wonders, Perseus aligned with the skull
Slain Medusa, Pegasus alight from us all

Do I care if I survive this, bury the dead where they’re found
In a veil of great surprises I wonder did you love me at all?

The only thing that keeps me from cutting my arm
Cross hatch, warm bath, Holiday Inn after dark
Signs and wonders, water stain writing the wall
Daniel’s message, blood of the moon on us all

Do I care if I despise this, nothing else matters, I know
In a veil of great disguises, how do I live with your ghost?

Should I tear my eyes out now?
Everything I see returns to you somehow
Should I tear my heart out now?
Everything I feel returns to you somehow
I want to save you from your sorrow

The only reason why I continue at all
Faith in reason, I wasted my life playing dumb
Signs and wonders, sea lion caves in the dark
Blind faith, God’s grace, nothing else left to impart

Do I care if I survive this, bury the dead where they’re found
In a veil of great surprises, hold to my head till I drown
Should I tear my eyes out now, before I see too much?
Should I tear my arms out now, I wanna feel your touch

Should I tear my eyes out now?
Everything I see returns to you somehow
Should I tear my heart out now?
Everything I feel returns to you somehow

Sufjan wrote “The Only Thing” on a recent album, Carrie and Lowell. The whole album is an elegy upon his mother’s death. In this song he wrestles with suicide, despair, and searching for meaning in her death. He connects images from his own life to images and symbols in Greek mythology, the book of Daniel, the gospels, and Revelation. The three essays about this song will be an attempt to answer the question: What in the world do these books have to do with the assortment of memories from Sufjan’s life, as well as his grief in regards to the loss of his mother?

Let’s start with the book of Daniel.

One basic connection is clear: the book of Daniel is all about signs and wonders, and so is this song. Daniel is one of God’s children who had a particular affinity for “signs.” He loved the study of the heavens more than those Babylonian astrologers he worked alongside. He was so gifted that he was eventually put in charge of all of King Nebuchadnezzar’s learned profs. In Daniel, all the main characters receive signs or messages they don’t understand. Ignorance of their meaning causes great paranoia. The only remedy lies in finding an interpreter. Like Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and Daniel, Sufjan is searching for the meaning of images or “signs” from God, his past, creation, and mythology. How appropriate that Sufjan explores his own grief in light of the book of Daniel.

Let’s call to mind the basic narrative of Daniel to discover where Sufjan takes the phrase “signs and wonders.”

The first wonder of God that Nebuchadnezzar witnessed was what we could call mind-reading. Daniel caught wind of King Nebuchadnezzar’s intention to kill every last wise man in town. They were all incapable of telling him what he had dreamed and the dream’s interpretation.

Those idiots.

Daniel told his friends to “seek mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that Daniel and his companions might not be destroyed…” “Then the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night.” Upon receiving the dream and its interpretation, Daniel praises God saying, “He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him…I give thanks and praise for you have given me wisdom and might.” To summarize: Nebuchadnezzar received a sign in a dream, and the wonder he experienced was hearing both his dream and its interpretation from Daniel. What wonder that God knows the most inward experiences a person can have. If you’re hearing overtones of Sufjan singing “signs and wonders,” you are on the right track.

The second wonder that Nebuchadnezzar witnessed was the fiery furnace. He threw in Daniel and his friends for refusing to bow down to his god. He sees them survive being burned alive, and sees a fourth who’s appearance “is like a son of the gods.” After they come out alive even Nebuchadnezzar declares that they serve “the most high God.” Shortly after is this miracle, Nebuchadnezzar, in a moment of inspired lucidity, says the line from which Sufjan borrows:

I thought it good to declare the signs and wonders that the Most High God has worked for me.

 How great are His signs,
And how mighty His wonders!
His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
And His dominion is from generation to generation.

It seems that he learned his lesson. God is the everlasting King, not him. God gives signs and interprets their meaning, not just scholars. But as is often the case with us, what we confess with our mouth is not yet realized in our behavior. It took another dream, another interpretation, and living like a beast before we get true obedience from Nebuchadnezzar.

For Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar to learn, the signs and wonders had to be in large, dramatic letters. They had to be interpreted and repeated to him by a holy man of God. Experiencing them led to wonder, awe, and humility. For Belshazzar, it also meant terror of judgement.

Is Sufjan using the phrase he lifted from Daniel consistently with how the book uses it? Does water stain writing on a Holiday Inn wall have something to do with a literal hand writing messages on a wall?

First, neither Belshazzar nor Nebuchadnezzar were grieving a death. Sufjan’s play with death as a sign and a veil is not present in Daniel.

It’s even more complicated when the reality you don’t understand is the death of a loved one. The whole world reminds Sufjan of his mom, and yet the world hides her from him. A sign points to something beyond itself, but with death, the whole world points to something absent, something gone. The world becomes a veil, an obstacle, a promise with no fulfillment.

“In the veil of great disguises” says Sufjan, “How do I live with your ghost?”

In this song, he’s back in forth on the answer to that question. Suicide is a real thought for him. Yet he continues on, for now. Perhaps one day Sufjan can also proclaim with Nebuchadnezzar about God, that “He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him.” But he’s not there yet. If everything in the world returns to someone who’s gone, then why live in the world?

In the next blogpost I’ll explore why Sufjan calls down “The blood of the moon on us all.”

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