Sometimes it’s lonely being the only country music listener at the table. During a lull in last nights D&D game we indulged in a philosophical digression whilst the DM scanned the module we were battling, like you do. We were discussing religion, specifically the more toxic forms of Christianity and their doctrine of Hell. And I pointed out that my favorite liberal Christian blogger Fred Clarke had a great blog post about how he doesn’t believe in that kind of hell, and explained it using the classic tune Pancho and Lefty, the signature song of late but legendary songwriter Townes Van Zandt.
But still there was a stretch of several hours there where, willingly or not, I found myself thinking about the lyrics of “Pancho and Lefty” and especially about the lyrics of the final verse, the only one I remembered well:
The poets tell how Pancho fell
Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel
The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold
So the story ends we’re told
Pancho needs your prayers it’s true,
But save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do
Now he’s growing old
This verse suggests something of the scandal of grace. The singer is willing to extend that grace to Lefty, to forgive him his greed, cowardice and betrayal. But what gives the singer the right to do this? It was Pancho who was betrayed, after all, so it seems that only Pancho should have the right to forgive that betrayal. By usurping that right, the singer seems to be claiming something like the divine prerogative.
This is, after all, what God is like. God is willing to forgive our enemies for wrongs they have committed against us, to extend mercy where we are unwilling or unable to grant it. That hardly seems fair. Not only that, but God is always going on about how we have to be willing to join in this prodigal grace, to join in the party for our prodigal brothers, to join the Ninevites in celebrating that the capital of Babylon itself can be spared. And if we insist on simple justice and responsibly refuse to join in this wanton confetti-showering of forgiveness, God has the nerve to suggest that we’re cutting ourselves off from that very same grace.
Some people, of course, don’t think that this is an accurate picture of what God is like. They believe that God is not as merciful as Townes Van Zandt. That seems to me to be a theologically precarious proposition, which is, I guess, my point here: If there is a God, then God must be, by definition, bigger and more merciful than Townes Van Zandt.
When I got to the end of the anecdote I was surrounded by quizzical faces looking at me as if I had begun speaking in tongues. They’d never heard one of my favorite songs. We do this a lot, my friends and I. Despite having so many crossover’s in our various cultural tastes, there are acres of territory where we are still strangers in the other’s landscape.
I do think Fred makes a very good point. As an ex-Catholic it’s a take on God that is too generous by far. In Dante’s Inferno betrayal is the worst of sins. The wretched souls condemned to the 9th circle of Hell are trapped in the frozen lake Cocytus, forever bound as far from Gods love as can be. One can certainly see the appeal of a God who welcomes even Lefty into his grace in the end.
Ah well, The song’s been recorded by some of the greats, Emmylou Harris, Willie and Waylon, or Willie and Dylan. I’m partial Steve Earle’s take on the tune, from his album Townes, a tribute to his old friend and mentor. Enjoy…
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