MGMT and Ecclesiastes [Part 2]: Cool Song No. 2


As I said in the first part of this series, life is difficult and complex, and you and I will never have all the answers or know all the secrets. Yeah, so much of life is utterly meaningless and stupid, but the good news is that we can embrace that, without trying so hard to change it; or pretending to have all the secrets.

We see in Ecclesiastes a king of great power and wisdom who tests all things to find meaning and happiness and finds himself at the same conclusion again and again: that everything is meaningless, a chasing after the wind; and that nothing was gained under the sun. However, the hope he gives again and again is that a person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil.

Ben Goldwasser of MGMT told Pitchfork that the new self-titled album is about “accepting that the world is totally messed up, and the apocalypse is going to happen whether we want it to or not, and finding something beautiful to live for.”

In their new music video for their second single, “Cool Song No. 2” Michael K. Williams (The Wire, Boardwalk Empire) “plays a character called The Plant Hunter – a “new jack” thief who spends his days turning genetically modified plants into drugs,” as Rolling Stone describes.

The Plant Hunter is caught up in a system he can’t escape. He’s doing things he never thought he’d do, like killing strangers and putting close friends at risk.

All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless. –Ecclesiastes 3:23

There’s a proverb in chapter 4 of Ecclesiastes that speaks to this dangerous way of searching for meaning, happiness and success through toil:

The fool folds his hand and ruins himself. Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.

There are three mentions of the word “hand” here, and in all three a different Hebrew word is used. The first is the word yad, which is a hand that signifies strength or power. The fool folds yā·ḏāw (his hands), and ruins himself. The fool takes his hands that should be used with strength and power—to get things done—and he takes them and folds them together, refusing to do a single thing with the strength and power he was given. We see this in cynics; those who refuse to participate in this world out of bitterness and past hurts and mistakes; those who say “I’ve seen it all before and there is no way I’m risking it again”. Folded hands may protect someone from hurt but it also prevents anything good and wondrous from coming in as well. All the best things in life begin as a risk.

The second mention of hand is the word kaph, which refers to an open palm. It comes from the root word, kaphaph, which means to bow down. To have an open palm of tranquility is to unfold your hands and be open to all possibilities of this life, whether good or bad.

The third mention of hand is the word chophen, referring to a handful closed tight into fists, “…with toil and chasing after the wind.” And this is the position we find our Plant Hunter. He’s stuck with this hands closed tight, and he has gone too far to escape now.


Things end up going so far that his friend is affected and The Plant Hunter is overwhelmed with guilt, as he does anything he can to save his friend’s life.


After giving this proverb, the writer of Ecclesiastes says:

Again I saw something meaningless under the sun:

There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth.

“For whom am I toiling,” he asked, “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?”

This too is meaningless—a miserable business!

The Plant Hunter fails to save his friend, as he holds his dear friend’s decomposing body.


It is in these moments that the preciousness of life disrupts the closed-fisted blind race of meaningless toil. All that truly matters come in and rupture the meaningless chasing after the wind; the search for meaning and happiness in such temporary and futile things. It’s all vanity. And sadly, many people do not realize they have fallen too deeply into closed-fisted, white-knuckled chasing after the wind until tragedy strikes.

The Plant Hunter finds himself infected with the same thing that killed his friend, and all he can do is mourn the life he’s lost, in the meaningless wind.


If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! –Ecclesiastes 4:10

MGMT and Ecclesiastes [Part 1]: Your Life Is A Lie


With the release of their new, self-titled album this week I want to take my favorite band, MGMT through a filter of analysis. Yet at the same time, why not keep with this mood of favorites and analyze my favorite book of the Bible: Ecclesiastes.

Apparently, MGMT has not had very good reviews on this album so far, but I love it nonetheless. With this being their third major album, they continue to have more of a unique sound that they were always meant for; a sound that songs like Kids or Electric Feel could never quite reach.

Most Biblical scholars would consider King Solomon the author of Ecclesiastes, as well as the author of Song of Songs and Proverbs. It is believed he wrote the colorful, poetic, romance of Song of Songs in his younger years, and then wrote Proverbs when he was more mature, with the wisdom that couldn’t be matched by anyone in the world. His third Biblical work, Ecclesiastes is said to have been written in his old age, reminiscing through all his accomplishments and mistakes, and seeing what was actually just meaningless vapor. And interestingly, this third work of his is the one that most of my friends can’t stand. They can’t stand the depression that comes when you consider his opening phrase:

Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.

Both Ecclesiastes and MGMT share a bit of a message that I see all around me in the depth of all things: that life is difficult and complex, and you and I will never have all the answers or know all the secrets. Yeah, so much of life is utterly meaningless and stupid, but the good news is that we can embrace that, without trying so hard to change it; or pretending to have all the secrets.

Their first music video for MGMT was for the single, Your Life Is A Lie. On the surface it can also appear to have a very depressing and utterly meaningless message, yet I have found deep joy in the concept of this video and find it utterly brilliant.

I believe this video reveals all the things we as humans try to find happiness and meaning in, like friends, family (because their lives are lies as well), your purpose, girls, your work, etc. And when we take these things and embrace them so tightly that they have become our meaning—that they have become our life—then the words “This is your life. Your life is a lie.” are terrifyingly convicting.

King Solomon reminisces over similar convictions during the first few chapters of Ecclesiastes. He devotes himself to wisdom, to pleasures, to folly and to his work, and each and every time he ultimately discovers it as meaningless.

Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.

One of the cleverest parts of the “Your Life Is a Lie” video—at least for me—is where Andrew VanWyngarden sings from inside a fortune teller’s crystal ball: “you will survive”.


I love this, because ultimately our promises of survival that we claim over others are nothing more than an attempt of foretelling the future. We don’t know if we’ll survive. We don’t know if things will turn out alright. We don’t know how long this is all going to last. As King Solomon writes in chapter 3:

Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other…Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?

Exactly. Who knows? We don’t know. It reminds me of an old Monty Python sketch where a man opens a talk show with three dead bodies sitting in the chairs beside him and he says “Is there life after death?…and here to discuss it are three dead people.”

Who knows??

However, in the next verse King Solomon does give hope. And it’s a hope that he continues to come back to again and again throughout his survey of all that is meaningless. He says:

So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?

We only have a short time here and we’ll never understand everything about our existence, so he says again and again “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment (2:24-25)?” It’s about giving up this meaningless race to find meaning in fickle things that don’t last. It’s about giving up trying to find the answers to things we’ll never understand and are never supposed to understand. It’s about accepting the mystery of this crazy and complex world and finding joy in the simple things, like eating and drinking with friends, and finding satisfaction with the small things we can accomplish.

Which also reminds me of my favorite part of the music video, right after Andrew sings “You will survive / on your own”. It then cuts to an oddly dressed bald midget and an oddly dressed large black woman dancing joyfully and awkwardly close together in the middle of a suburban street. It makes absolutely no sense and is completely random but it makes me laugh with joy every single time I watch it.


Life is full of mystery.

Full of surprises.

Full of ridiculousness and awkwardness at every turn.

And that’s what makes it so glorious.

That’s why I like MGMT and Ecclesiastes. They always remind me that life is complex and it’s about finding the simplicity of the small things we have during our small existence in the midst of all the complexity that we don’t need to waste time trying to understand. Perfect.


The Holy Spirit Is a Monster [Part 2] (And the Growl is a Groan)


The Holy Spirit is a monster. The Holy Spirit unexpectedly appears as an undomesticated event of transformation. Here is an important portion of Part 1 of this that sums up my notion of Holy Spirit as monster:

I’ve come to understand the concept of monster as an unsettling event that appears in order to disrupt and malfunction everything we consider natural and normal. It short circuits the idea of predictability and calls all structures and norms into question. But most of all it leaves one restless and disturbed; so disturbed that one may even be led to do something about this new revelation of horrific truth.

I want to talk about our participation with this monstrous Holy Spirit in this second part. First, another Derrida quote:

One of the meanings of the monstrous is that it leaves us without power, that it is precisely too powerful or in any case too threatening for the powers-that-be…But the notion of the monster is rather difficult to deal with, to get a hold on, to stabilize.

With this I want to rethink what it means to be “empowered” by the Holy Spirit. I want to re-imagine the discourse as one of humility and powerlessness; of weakness. I am reminded of Romans 8:26, which reads:

the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit itself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.

And is this not what Jesus promises his disciples before his ascent? A Counselor, an Advocate, a Helper (depending on your translation), parakletos in Greek (remember this word for later). He doesn’t promise something that will silence our groans, but something that will groan alongside us; with all of creation.

Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as being an intercessor and also as being a revealer:

“But when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will show you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you. In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.”
-John 16:14-16

The disciples are confused when Jesus says that last statement: “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me” and Jesus reminds them of all the things they will be able to do when he is gone. And it reminds me of even when he tells them that they will do greater things than the works he has been doing, because he is going to the Father. Jesus leaves them with the task of doing greater things than he did in the world. He instructs them to go out be Christ unto the world, bringing his love to full expression through acts of sacrificial love.

We see this beautifully portrayed at the Last Supper in Luke 22:

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

And what is the “this” he is referring to? The ritual? Or something deeper? He says “I give my body over, broken for you, do this in remembrance of me; give of your body as well, in remembrance of me.” And Paul gives this same instruction in Romans 12:1:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship.

We become the return of Jesus by sacrificing ourselves and giving our bodies over the work of the healing and reconciliation of this world. We are what is seen when Jesus says “and then after a little while you will see me.”

And this is made possible by the Holy Spirit. For that word “urge” that Paul uses is the word, parakaleo, the root word for parakletos! The meaning of both is simply a call; a summons. The Holy Spirit is the groan between us and God, calling us from our weakness to be something greater than ourselves in this world.

Jesus comes to reveal the monstrosity of God, in suddenly appearing and disrupting and unsettling everything; leaving his disciples restless as they wait for the parakletos. And the Holy Spirit is then sent to enact this monstrosity in the world through us, as Galatians 5:19-22 tells us, upsetting the norms of “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.” And disrupting it with the uncontainable fruits of “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” for these are each the exact opposites of the “obvious works of sinful nature” that Paul compares them to; “threatening the powers that be” as Derrida says of the monster.

And Paul says “Against such things there is no law”, for trying to contain these fruits by law is attempting to domesticate the monstrous: the groan of the Holy Spirit that cries out for something more than the “obvious”. We must leave the Holy Spirit as Derrida explains the monster, as “difficult to deal with, to get a hold on, to stabilize”, because this is what opens us up to a whole world of transformation; as we wait here, not knowing what to pray for as we ought, broken and weak, groaning in tune with the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit Is a Monster [Part 1]


For me, the most provocatively pesky part of this idea of the “God-Head” has always been the Holy Spirit. I grew up in a charismatic, Pentecostal church, so the Holy Spirit always seemed to be involved in and responsible for nearly everything; unless it was something bad. Those times it was a ‘demonic Spirit’. It looked to me as if the Holy Spirit functioned as a tool to use, or a force, or a mysterious and invisible being that Christians invited into a place to make us feel at peace with God.

“We invite your Holy Spirit, Lord…”

And the night would end with people commenting how much they really felt the Spirit move during worship or something, leaving me thinking “Which part?” Was it the part where we sang that last line of a Jesus Culture song thirty times or that part where people actually started vocally inviting the Holy Spirit in?

I was never able to really relate with this view of the Holy Spirit. And because of this, I admit there have been times where I just wanted to give up on the idea of one, thinking of it as just a psychological crutch. But I could never bring myself to it. I knew I had felt something working within me and around me quite a few times in my life; something greater than myself, and it wasn’t because of something bad I ate the night before.

However, this feeling was never a feeling of affirmation, or a feeling of a force that made me feel at peace. This feeling was usually quite disturbing actually. It never left me with a feeling of “everything is going to be okay”, but with one of “everything is not okay; everything is different, you don’t have the answers, and you are in brand new territory.”

This is where I want to bring in the idea of monsters, because the more I study out the concept of monsters the more it reminds me of my experiences with this Holy Spirit. A well known quote from French philosopher, Jacques Derrida tells us:

“Monsters cannot be announced. One cannot say: ‘Here are our monsters,’ without immediately turning the monsters into pets.”

Our word monster comes from the Latin word monstrum, which is ‘a sign or potent that disrupts the natural order as evidence of divine displeasure’. It may have derived from the verb monstro, “show” (see “demonstrate”), or it may have even derived from moneo, “warn”. For the Roman philosopher, Seneca the monstrum is “a visual and horrific truth”.

With viewing monstrum as a sign, this sign must be startling or deviant to have any impact, so monstrum came to mean “unnatural event” or “a malfunctioning of nature”. The Roman historian, Suetonius said “a monstrum is contrary to nature (or exceeds the nature) we are familiar with, like a snake with feet or a bird with four wings.” This makes sense in light of the Greek equivlant, teras (meaning of uncertain affinity), which is where we get the word ‘teratology’, which is the study of abnormalities. The word teras appears in the Greek New Testament as well to mean “wonder” (more on that later).

So from all this I’ve come to understand the concept of monster as an unsettling event that appears in order to disrupt and malfunction everything we consider natural and normal. It short circuits the idea of predictability and calls all structures and norms into question. But most of all it leaves one restless and disturbed; so disturbed that one may even be led to do something about this new revelation of horrific truth. And is this not what one could mean when they say they are ‘led by the Spirit’?

The Holy Spirit is this unnatural event that provokes and malfunctions our norms. I use this word ‘event’ more in the way that the American philosopher, John Caputo talks about God being an event, and an event being what is happening within what is happening. When speaking of the Event of God and the Name of God, he says:

“There is always something uncontainable and unconditional about an event…The event is the open-ended promise contained within a name, but the promise that the name can neither contain nor deliver…[An event is] a disturbance within the heart of being, within the names for being, that makes being restless.”

We see in Acts 2 during Pentecost Jesus’ disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised them. And what do we see here? Are the disciples affirmed? Do they receive a confidence that they have what it takes? No, rather this is a disturbing event that changes absolutely everything, leaving no previous norm affirmed or at peace. When Peter explains the implications of what had happened he quotes Joel saying “I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy [which should always be an act of disruption, the way it is in the Old Testament]. I will show wonders (teras) in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke.” Peter proclaimed this gift of the Holy Spirit to all, and as we have seen this “gift” of the Holy Spirit is not a gift of affirmation, but one of transformation. And transformation is only made possible through the disruption of previously affirmed structures and norms.

Later on in the same chapter it says the apostles fulfilled this promise and participated in the pouring out of the Spirit as they performed “many wonders (teras) and miraculous signs”. This shows us that the work of this Holy Spirit is a disruption that we take part in, which I’ll write more about in the next part (with more awesome Derrida!).