This is going to meander a bit at first but bear with me. Each semester I have to grade something like 1,340,567 pages of student exams. It is horrible. To dull the pain, I pick a new music group each semester as my “grading discovery.” Last semester I picked Brandon Flowers and the Killers. I’d never paid much attention to them, but I got interested after I saw Brandon Flowers’s “I am a Mormon” video spot. It was a happy discovery. I like them.
Much to my surprise a long-time friend of mine, an accomplished lawyer and former stake president, also recently discovered Flowers’s music through his daughter. After hearing that I was enjoying the Killers, he sent me a long and fascinating email with his theological interpretations of Brandon Flowers’s lyrics, which he finds filled with Mormon ideas. For example, in “Crossfire,” a song about a man rescued by his love he finds a reference to the Mormon interpretation of Eve and the fortunate fall. (That would make Chelize Theron in the video into the mother of the human race.) In “Only the Young” he finds embedded ideas from the plan of salvation and even coded references to the Hebrew terminology of redemption and atonement.
My friend then turned his attention to Brandon Flowers’s song “Magdelena,” which he notes is Flowers’s most overtly religious song but also his least distinctly Mormon one. The song is sung by a man making the pilgrimage from Nogales, Mexico to the shrine of Saint Francis in Magdelena. Rejecting “modern methods,” the pilgrim carves his rosary out of wood and walks on blistered feet to the shrine, seeking “San Francisco’s” intervention for forgiveness of his sins. He makes the journey, obtains his salvation, and promises that should he fall again as a “two-time beggar” he will return to “the bleeding heart of Mexico.”
I find “Magdelena” deeply moving. Were I inclined to a creative reading, I could dispute my friend’s assertion that it lacks Mormon themes. The appropriation of the Catholic imagery of wood, clay, and pilgrimage might have in it echoes of some Mormon sensibility about the spiritual superiority of embodied relationships to the divine in opposition to, say, the more transcendent images of Protestant grace. But this is not what moves me about the song.
Rather, it is the simple structure of its Christianity. Jesus never appears in the lyrics, where the singer’s pleas are addressed entirely to “San Francisco,” but there is no mistaking the basic structure of sin, repentance, and forgiveness through the intercession of a savior. It is the power of that story of redemption that renders the Catholic imagery of the song deeply moving to at least one Mormon listener.
The song reminded me of a recent, good-natured argument with a Catholic acquaintance. (His favorite Brandon Flowers’s song is “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas,”, which wonderfully captures the despair of a wasted life hoping for redemption. It also captures the feeling that comes when the 1,340,567 pages of exams land on your desk to be graded.) The point of argument was whether Mormons are Christians. He insisted that the Mormon rejection of Nicaea and our acceptance – or at least toleration – of Joseph Smith’s most radical ideas about divinity mean that Latter-day Saints can never be Christians. I understand where he comes from, and while I think he’s naïve about the rhetorical agendas at work in denying Mormon Christianity, I respect his position. Listening to “Magdelena”, however, I wonder if there is a simpler test of Mormon Christianity. In a sense religion is a set of stories that we tell to ourselves about God and the world. As Mormons we have lots of stories that are uniquely our own – Joseph Smith and the Gold Plates, Nephi and his brothers, the weeping God of Enoch – and some stories that we share with others, albeit at times with our own twist, like Eve in the garden. Our central story, however, is ultimately the story of sin and redemption through Jesus of Nazareth. A Mormon is a Christian not because of any particular theological formulation but because when he kneels a “two-time beggar” before the Christ he cries “My Lord, my God, rescue me a sinner.”
In a sense, it is the fact that “Magdelana,” with it’s Catholic imagery, captures the central spiritual experience of Latter-day Saints – or at any rate this Latter-day Saint – that makes Mormonism a Christianity. It is our soul’s response to that song of redeeming love.