Remembered Sounds: Coming to Life
by Michael Wright
In a discussion on kairos and chronos time in A Secular Age, Charles Taylor invents the phrase “kairotic knot,” an image for graced moments that gather our daily lives into deep significance and mystery—an experience of the presence of God. The arts can facilitate this kind of gathering, each form offering its own interwoven experiences of time—helping to envision the future, lift the gauzy veil of the present, or in the case of The Normals’ Coming To Life, reanimate my past.
Released in 2000, The Normals’ second album is squarely in the CCM folk soundscape of the time (bongos and strummy guitars, harmonicas, upright piano), and Andrew Osenga, the lead singer and songwriter who would later join Caedmon’s Call, carries each song with an earnest and reedy voice. Taken as a whole, the songs explore faith within the quotidian—there’s bad weather and prayer, confessions of faith and road trips, couches and doorways and the longing for restoration. Like the psalms, Coming to Life is a daybook for frayed emotions and the daily struggle to cultivate an authentic faith.
Listening to these old songs, my past and present shift and gather together, not into specific memories of the music (although it was one of my favorite albums at the time) but into a kind of sympathetic vibration between memories and music.
As the first song “Every Moment” begins, I am walking down the empty hallways of my high school into my biology teacher’s classroom, a lunch-hour haven for awkward teenagers. I watch him laugh and hug the custodial staff—one of the few teachers to call them by name. I place my lunch on the lab table, swivel toward the other students who crave that same loving attention, and we sing lovers and loners and vagrants and kings we’re finally home.
Now I’m skipping mandatory chapel to argue with my Bible professor, a debate that blurs into multiple meetings during my senior year where he gives me permission to ask questions that scare the both of us, and in our prayerful confusion, we bow our heads and sing, When we’re both lost, God is found.
I’m crying into my hands on a couch in my youth minister’s office. I’m confessing to him that God feels far away, that I feel numb during the very worship services I’m supposed to be leading, that I feel confused and alone. He shares some theological advice, but neither of us knows that I’m beginning my first year of a decade-long struggle with undiagnosed depression. This time, Andrew Osenga is in the office too, singing on my behalf, I know peace lies in silence / And prayer is its heartbeat but / I don’t feel it beating in me.
And when I hear the chorus of the title track, more memories braid together into a single knot, each thread essential: a conversation with my mother in an idle car, unexpected tears at a film, reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking On Water, a preacher shocking me into insight, discovering hymns hidden in poetry, all of it gathering together into a crowned knot of fire—
I am coming to life.
Michael Wright (MA, Theology and the Arts) is the associate editor for FULLER studio and magazine at Fuller Seminary, and he writes and lectures on religious poetry, popular culture, and spirituality. Connect with him on Twitter at @mjeffreywright.