The Saints Aren’t Coming

The song The Saints are Coming, written in 1978 by Scottish musicians Stuart Jobson and Scott Adamson, and released in 1979 by their art-punk group Skids[1] takes the form of a Biblical Lament while at the same time critiquing the nature of Lament and the faith of those who employ such forms of address.

The Biblical understanding of lament, songs cried out to God by innocents in response to crisis, anguish and grief, is that these are not songs of hopelessness but are a form of prayer where the covenantal God is addressed directly by the suffering in a bold cry for help, explanation and restoration.  There is a “who” in lament and the prayer has a focus on God’s power to save and God’s covenantal responsibilities to do so.  In penning the lyrics “I cried to my daddy on the telephone how long now”, Jobson and Adamson describe this very activity since it is not “the skies” but “my daddy” who is addressed, one who has an evident duty of care and a responsibility to respond to the cry for help.  In a similar way the content of the cry itself, “how long”, is reminiscent of the words used in many Biblical laments[2].

In 2006 and 2008 two cover versions of the song were released, the first by Irish musicians U2 in collaboration with America’s Green Day, and the second by German electronic-martial, neofolk artists Von Thronstahl.  In both of these texts the theme of lament is continued.  The collaborative version was released as a single to raise money for flood relief and reconstruction in New Orleans, Louisiana following the devastation of that city by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005: alterations to the lyrics and images on the official music video[3] address the specific circumstances of that event such that the somewhat generic lament written in Dunfermline becomes an unambiguous cry for help for a specific people in a specific place.  In the 2008 version the music video appears to address the story of a woman mourning her beloved lost in battle[4].

Biblical teaching on faith is confronted by the lyrics of Jobson and Adamson; the prayers of the faithful are not answered in the time of greatest need.  Since “it seems no matter how [we] try…there’s no reply (at all[5])” from Heaven they conclude that the line is dead and God cannot hear us.  A second option offered, in direct contravention of scripture and contradiction of the lament form, that God either cannot or will not act to address the concern of the lament, be that the specific natural disaster of a flooded city or the loss of a much loved soldier on home soil.  In this instance the gap between God’s promises and the lived experience of God’s people has not been bridged by God’s activity, therefore if the covenant is not understood to have been broken it must be understood to be worthless.  In the absence of a prophetic, accusative voice directed at the people it is God who must have failed and therefore, in the absence of divine assistance, it is up to the saints to “come”.

In similar contrast with the Biblical themes of God’s everlasting interest in humankind and capacity to love and to save, Jobson and Adamson suggest, in lyrics removed by U2 and Green Day, that “[t]he stone says this paternal guide once had his day.”   In response to the observation that “[a] drowning sorrow floods the deepest grief” it is said that “a weather change condemns belief.”  God does not come through for Skids nor for Von Thronstahl who retains the original question “how long now”: the changing situation is seen as evidence that if God has acted at all God has only done so by stepping back further.  The deliverance once promised by the covenant relationship and endorsed by the salvation history of the People of God is not coming and the situation will only get more hopeless.  The paternal God has had his day and the theme that belief in such a God is worthy of condemnation as false and worthless is reiterated.  Thankfully the “saints” are coming because God is not; God cannot and will not.

The version released by U2 and Green Day removes the reference to the paternal guide and essentially shifts the blame for the disaster to human weakness, complicity, and corruption.  It is when “the night watchman lets in the thief” we ask “what’s wrong now?”  This is much more in tune with the Biblical idea that it is humankind which gets itself into binds that God must fix.  Whether God allows natural disasters to occur, and in what form this “allowing” takes place is placed into secondary importance by the activities of the trusted men on the wall who enable the enemies to enter the sleeping, vulnerable city.  The coming saints then are not humankind suddenly without God and having to fend for themselves but are the soldiers of the city flooding the walls and gates to resist enemy incursion.  The cry is “hold on, the reserves are sprinting towards you in the power of good” rather than the cry of “we are abandoned and we are all who remain”.  It is the belief that we can trust the night watchmen that is condemned, and the trust that we had entrusted to others which is questioned.  In that ruinous house in New Orleans a place remains for crying out beyond humankind for justice, vindication, and rescue from without.

In taking a Biblical form, that of lament, and subverting it to portray faith as meaningless except for faith in the best of humanity Jobson and Adamson connect with the anti-establishment and questioning of authority explicit in popular punk culture of the late 1970s.  Von Thronstahl revisit the theme with connections to the futility of war and a fascist cause.  U2 and Green Day, in releasing a song in support of recovery efforts are themselves the embodiment of the saints who come, perhaps ahead of the recognised work of God, saints who question whether the motives of men and women always are honourable when disaster strikes.

References:

All references to scripture are based on the New Revised Standard Version.

“The Saints are Coming” (n.d.) Retrieved 30th January 2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Saints_Are_Coming.

U2 and Green Day, “U2 and Green Day – The Saints Are Coming,” on Vimeo (n.d.).  Retrieved 30th January 2014 from http://vimeo.com/5431310

Von Thronstahl, “The Saints Are Coming: Official Video,” on Vimeo (n.d.).  Retrieved 30th January 2014 from http://vimeo.com/45844944


[1] “The Saints are Coming” in Wikipedia (n.d.).  Retrieved 30th January 2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Saints_Are_Coming

[2] For example Psalm 13:1. (NRSV)

[3] U2 and Green Day, “U2 and Green Day – The Saints Are Coming,” on Vimeo (n.d.).  Retrieved 30th January 2014 from http://vimeo.com/5431310

[4] Von Thronstahl, “The Saints Are Coming: Official Video,” on Vimeo (n.d.).  Retrieved 30th January 2014 from http://vimeo.com/45844944

[5] In Von Thronstahl’s version the words “at all” are added to the last line of the refrain as sung by Runa.

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