I Will Never Die, Part 2

By Sadie Sartini GarnerJanuary 16, 2024

I Will Never Die, Part 2
This article is a preview of the LARB Quarterly, no. 40: Water. Become a member or subscribe today to get this issue plus the next four issues of LARB Quarterly.


IT NEVER OCCURRED to me that I might die one day. That I would definitely die one day. But I desperately did not want to die.

I finished reading the Book of Revelation in the summer, sometime in August, in my computer chair in New Orleans. Somewhere late in the book, tribulations have taken over the earth and terrible things are described as happening to people—it wasn’t necessarily clear to me what was happening on that first and what is to this point only full reading of Revelation. It was a riot of confusion is what I remember; I remember opening it up knowing that there were more interpretations of this last, strangest book of the Bible than any other, and that my attempt to make any kind of meaning of it was almost certainly going to fail to conform to any of the most correct-seeming ones—there were simply too many ways to take it, and the language was too vague, so I went with the scariest reading to be safe. This, I thought as I read, is going to be really bad for those people.

I liked that I had this thought, that the word “those” came to me in that moment. It separated me from the pack. If I’d thought, This is going to be really bad for us, I would obviously be including myself, but even if I thought, This is going to be bad, it would be as though a part of me were left behind, as a witness, braced for impact. This is going to be bad for those people—I did really think it, but it was as if I knew that this was what I was supposed to think, that by this point, in the Bible’s final pages, it was time for me to identify with those who were at that point no longer present among its pages (or so I supposed at the time). It felt spontaneous, and it was, in the sense that it had just popped into my head. And I didn’t challenge it, so it felt a bit like mine. But I did look at it strangely.

There were many praise songs about death, I would come to find out. “Sin has lost its power, death has lost its sting.” We were told that Jesus had defeated death on the cross. This was the way it was always phrased, “Jesus defeated death on the cross,” but there was no real explanation of what exactly that meant. What did it mean to defeat death? If he did defeat death, didn’t it happen three days later, when he was resurrected? Didn’t he defeat it every day for the rest of his time on earth, when he was walking around, spending time with his friends, clarifying his message, not rotting and decomposing?

And if he did defeat death in the sense people meant—which is to say, that this defeat meant those of us who follow him will never die—why has every person who has lived since that moment, even those who love him or try to love him or devote their lives to determining what it means and feels like to love him—why have they all died too? We were told that those who died in the Lord were merely asleep, then we were immediately told that this was a form of metaphorical language, that it wasn’t as though you’d be buried alive snoring, though some people didn’t want to be cremated, just in case.

Jesus at one point in the Gospels says that anyone who wants to follow him must take up their cross and die daily. Every day, dying just like that, finding life through constantly choosing death. This seemed like an especially strange or cruel formulation for living a good life to me, at the age of 20, as I tried to emerge from the shadows. Walking through campus one day, listening to Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on my iPod, I noticed for the first time that Jeff Tweedy was saying the same thing. “You have to lose—you have to lose,” he sang, and even though it sounded like he was trying to encourage the person he was singing to, it also sounded like he wasn’t thrilled to be delivering this information. “You have to learn how to die, if you wanna wanna be alive,” he added. The melody was bouncy, and the song twinkled with the optimism of freshly realized truth. The harmonies cleared a bright path where once there was only bramble. But even when he sang it, it still amounted to the same thing: dying. Dying.

A friend from Bible study was flabbergasted one night, reading over Jesus’s words, after having gone through something particularly difficult and unpleasant that his faith had prompted him to undertake. He was a good guy, a good friend. I always suspected he’d suffered some kind of social death, and that was what had him down on this evening. “I get it,” he said. “Dying sucks. It really sucks.” And he’s right. But everyone dies. No matter how they live. Life consists of small denials. That’s what choices are—in selecting one thing, you cut off another. This is simply emotional health. Or not even emotional health—it’s a plain function of living. We could not see that at the time. It seemed as though only Christians, who would never die, were the ones who truly knew what it was to die.

“You will never taste death,” people would say, but death was on the tips of our tongues. It was a spice we mixed into every meal. A life, when properly prepared, should taste of ashes.

Death never had a sting for me. One night we were sitting around the house in Baton Rouge, me and my roommates and another friend. The latter was the worship leader. He was only a couple of years older, and he was already married, but he would sometimes come around to hang. “What would you do if you died and you found out it all wasn’t real?” someone asked, probably the worship leader. It wasn’t meant to ferret out any weird answers, just something the asker was curious about. I said that I would probably not be too upset, that being a Christian still would have caused me to lead a good life, a life I could be proud of. It was my assumption that, in this scenario, I would still be welcomed into heaven. “Not me,” one of my roommates said. He was leaning back, shaking his head. He was often full of shit, which was my favorite thing about him, but he meant this. “I wouldn’t believe them.”

At the time, I found this declaration of certainty very impressive. I still do. I admire its lack of logic, how stridently it refuses what would have, in this scenario, been as plain as day, all in the name of love. Some nights, when we lived together, I’d come home from the coffeeshop, and he’d be lying on the couch in this very same living room, all the lights off, Built to Spill’s cover of “Cortez the Killer” burning on the turntable like a cigarette in an ashtray. Once I caught him using his fist to drive his entire torso up and down diagonally across his waist, pumping like an oil derrick to the heavy part of “Greet Death” by Explosions in the Sky. He was a ginger, already balding with a full-on tonsure despite being in his late twenties, and supremely handsome, and he once recorded a hymn he’d written on a nylon-string guitar that unrolled with the rustic delicacy of a haiku. Come to think of it, he may not have been full of shit. He’d worked in food service when he got saved, I think because he thought his evangelical coworker was hot and she used that to the Kingdom’s advantage. He absolutely meant what he said. At the gates of whatever new heaven, the opening of a great and unfamiliar and unpromised cosmos, he’d simply refuse. He knew it was true. Everyone else agreed with him. Who knows, maybe it was one last test. Some short years later, he became the first of my friends to lose their faith.

Lying down on the couch having a moment with Built to Spill, letting Explosions in the Sky throb through me. I wasn’t sure if I was still capable of that kind of thing. Anyway, there was so much to do. It made the idea of sitting down and listening to music in this way feel indulgent. If I had a record to review, I could put my headphones on, sit at my desk with a notebook, and examine how it did the things it was trying to do. That was work, that was productive, there was a utility to it that, even the most conservative people at my church assured me, was good and helpful for the world. Having music on in the background, letting a record perfume the day as I walked to class or sat eating a sub at Inga’s, that seemed fine too. I couldn’t imagine simply putting music on and listening. Life was too short to waste in that way.

People were at risk—they might die without knowing the Lord, and if they didn’t know the Lord, they would be sent to hell. And there were always people around. Even if you yourself, when you got to the base of things, when everything else burned away, didn’t really care about saving anyone other than yourself. You still had to find a way to do the work. Even if you weren’t on campus, you could be browsing Facebook and responding to things that were tangentially about Jesus. Jerry Falwell died that year, to much rejoicing, and while I understood him to be an agent of chaos and hate, I nevertheless found myself arguing that to celebrate his death made one no different from Falwell himself. Loving one’s enemies meant not cheering for the end of their life, I thought. But not all of my friends were compelled to love their enemies.

The leader of our Bible study one night told us about a friend of his whose father had recently died. In life, this father had not been a believer, and his son—the Bible study leader’s friend—had been respectful of that. He hadn’t wanted to drive a wedge between himself and his dad; he’d wanted to enjoy the life they had together. When his dad died, he burst into the church in tears, raging and wailing at whomever he encountered. “My dad is in hell now!” he was shouting. “And you could’ve saved him!”

Or maybe that’s not how it goes. Maybe the son wasn’t a believer at all, and only became one later, after his dad’s passing. Maybe the dad was a Christian but not a deeply engaged one—not a Super Christian, as we might have called him. And the newly converted son was. Being a Super Christian meant that following Jesus was your full identity, though you wouldn’t have phrased it that way. If you were a Super Christian, you wouldn’t know it, probably. You would probably say, “I’m just trying to follow Jesus the way he asks us to,” when someone at church said something about the intensity of your faith. And that would be a sincere answer. In high school, someone said that if anyone ever heard a cardinal say they wanted to be pope, that cardinal would be automatically disqualified from becoming pope. Even though papal history suggests this can’t possibly be true, it stuck with me, the idea that, in order to realize your ambitions, even spiritual ones, you couldn’t admit them to yourself. The Super Christian felt this way too, but without the self-expression. Surely, to even think of oneself as being a Super Christian signified a lack of humility, and thus meant one was not, in fact, what one saw oneself to be.

And yet, being a Super Christian, with all its certainty and commitment, seemed like the goal. It was the end product of the disciple-making process. Nobody would come out and say it, of course, but think of the power of a ministry that could say: We mint Super Christians.

It was the first and possibly only thing people knew about you. You thought about the Lord the same way other students thought about football. He was a constant presence, the engine humming in your life. But Super Christians weren’t Holy Rollers. They were grounded, observably grounded, and very focused. They did their schoolwork. They held steady jobs. They were financially responsible. They didn’t seem to get quite as much enjoyment out of watching Dumb and Dumber or playing Wii with everyone, though they would do their best. In my memory, the Super Christians I knew were steely and confident, the ones who were willing to call the Lord to mind when the conversation would veer toward gossip, or when whatever was on the screen started to get a touch too racy. They had the power to convince everyone, with only a sentence or two, that we should be focused on other things. Nobody—that I can recall—argued with them. When they spoke in social situations, everyone would see the truth of their statements and would experience a dampening of spirit. We called this being convicted, as in, “Wow, John really convicted me the other night,” quickly noting that, “actually, it was the Holy Spirit moving through John.” The Super Christian would speak, and the whole group would listen. They would turn off the TV. They would remember Jesus.

We were convicted constantly. We were constantly being brought back into focus.

At church, in a Mars Hill video, I heard a song by the Album Leaf. It was a big, boisterous song—it used tiny electronic clicks and beats to slowly crank open a big, blooming orange-and-red flower of sound. In the video, that blooming was used to represent clarity—the song opened up at the same time the main character had a big revelation that returned them to first principles, to the Lord. At home, in my bedroom, I put my headphones on and closed my eyes. I felt the trickle of programmed synths run down my ears. Small whips of sound lashed back and forth off the beat, their unpredictability and soft insistence urging me to come forward. Did the song bloom for me? Did it bring me somewhere? Or rather, did it bring me back from somewhere? Had I made it?

This was my regular pattern. I would read about a record on Pitchfork, something new and brilliant and moving. The critic would talk about the profundity of the music, how it opened new vistas in the heart, how it connected them to themself. How it made them cry. I wasn’t sure about being connected to myself—I was sure about the idea of being connected to Jesus—but crying, that I would like to do. I would find the record somewhere, though because I had stopped downloading music illegally after my conversion, and because there were no great record stores of note in Baton Rouge, I have no idea where I would find this music. The internet must have been involved in some way, but that way is lost to me now. I would track down this music, though, and I would put it on, and I would hope to have the exact kind of direct experience that the Pitchfork writer had described. I hoped to feel the thing course through me too, if the thing could be identified as God. As the Holy Spirit. Something cool blowing on my open wound, soothing it. I would believe this was my own private version of God. An experience that I probably couldn’t share, since there was no real biblical provision for it. It would feel true, though, in a preverbal, preconfessional, undefinable way. When it worked.

It never worked.

It sometimes worked. If the conditions were right. The conditions, I can now see, were that there had to be no conditions. It had to come upon me spontaneously. The Album Leaf song worked in the video because I’d never heard it before, and because it was being used in an emotionally charged situation. I can see now that what I wanted from music, from new music, was simply to ingest it, like a pill, and fall asleep. I wanted to use it. I didn’t care about it as someone else’s expression. I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to hear anything.

To really hear music required too much of me. It required a little death, a loosening of attention or grip on my own experience. What did my roommate feel when he had on that Built to Spill record? Was he thinking about his own life? Was he wondering how he ended up here, an evangelical Christian, in a house with other evangelical Christians five years younger than himself? Did he let himself wonder? Or was he really moved by the music in itself, independent of what it made him think about or feel? Is anyone?

I felt nothing. I felt very little. I wanted so badly to feel. I was not aware of what I felt. And so I was determined to muscle my way into understanding the music. I was not going to be moved, but like a tree planted in the water, I could at least put my roots down, stand above the music, assert myself over it, be a solid presence in a world that seemed intent on growing more liquid at all times. I wasn’t feeling it. I could get it.

One night, the café hosted a talent show. The café was attached to the church, and it was staffed by members of the college ministry’s leadership team, all of whom were students. The coffee was free, and of reasonably high quality. The room was pleasingly dark, there was a free desktop computer you could use if you didn’t have your own laptop. Praise and worship music drifted quietly from recessed speakers in the ceiling. There were bookshelves stuffed with volumes that I would occasionally browse, including a rewritten version of the Bible called The Word on the Street. It was meant to impress the MTV Generation with its swagger and command of slang. It was written by a young British guy, and he called the Pharisees “the Tutting Club” because of their “‘tutting and frowning’ routine.” I’m not sure that anyone I knew had ever met a British person before.

I didn’t play music in front of people, not even at the house. To do so would have been to allow people to hear what I was listening to. It would risk the conversation, the possibility of someone telling me Christians shouldn’t be listening to this kind of music. This is how I want to interpret my past right now, but in truth, at the time, I didn’t want anyone to hear what I was listening to and say, “I don’t get it.” And I didn’t want anyone from church to hear what I was listening to and say, “I get it.”

The guy who said “Dying sucks” played a breezy little folk shuffle in the Jack Johnson mold that positioned Jesus as just another down-to-earth soul, the friend who radiated positivity and inner depth even when he wasn’t speaking. I played the song “Strangulation!” by My Morning Jacket, a very long song that I can now see is probably about autoerotic asphyxiation. (Some of my church friends who were there that night lived above a guy who died that year in an autoerotic asphyxiation mishap. They were fairly worldly people, but they had no idea how to talk about it, other than to be stunned and a little embarrassed by it.) I didn’t really care what the song was about, only about the way that its melody made me feel, and the way it seemed to revel in its own brokenness for twice as long as it should have. I fumbled through it, uncomfortable for the wrong reasons. I suspect my discomfort was palpable.

But when I played “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel, the anxiety left me. It’s a love song, and a fairly simple one, structurally speaking. It sips from the same pool of intermixed longing, sadness, and memory as Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight,” or even more, Georges Méliès’s 1902 film Le voyage dans la lune, on which the “Tonight, Tonight” video is based. It feels like a song written by someone who is already dead, singing for someone who is also already dead. It’s so antique in its disposition that its sentiments feel completely removed from the present, which in turn makes it feel like a miracle that it communicates to the present so clearly. It’s a ghost song. And it knows itself to be a ghost song. “And one day we will die / And our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea,” go the first lines of the chorus.

When I see an old picture of a person who I know is still alive, and they’re standing next to a dog, I immediately assume the dog is now dead. Generally speaking, it probably is. And this makes these photos feel haunted and tragic, even if nothing much is really happening in them. “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” feels the same way. Death is simply there, in the song. It’s unavoidable; its name is gratuitous. That’s the part of the song that feels the easiest for me to believe.

When I thought about my own death, which I did not do, I assumed that Jesus would return before it was my time to die. Plenty of Christians had died throughout the years; I was obviously well aware of that fact, of the many millions of believers who had preceded me into eternity. But it would happen soon, his return—so many people were sure of it. I wasn’t so sure of it, but I was warmed by the idea that, if it did happen soon, it would mean not having to suffer the uncertainty of death, the ambiguity of the experience itself, being completely enveloped by pain I could not anticipate and brought I could not be sure where. Nor would I have to face the sudden certainty I’m dying. In this moment, right now, I’m dying, not quite getting to say clearly to oneself, I am now dead. Ambiguity crushed by certainty without articulation, without speech, an extremely rational fact that couldn’t be rationalized. Death was described as so many things: as rest (from our labors), as reward (for our labors), as a state we’d enter where we could praise God constantly without the interruptions commonly called life. It was never described as what it is: the first moment in your life that can be fully understood as it’s happening to you.

The next line in “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” is the one I don’t believe. I’m not sure that the singer believes it, either, singing as he is from deep in history’s well, from what is essentially the other side of the veil. Or maybe he believes it, even if he’s not personally experiencing it at the moment, even if he understands the now of the song to be some time decades ago. He believes he said this once. That he may have said this. That this may have been said by someone, perhaps. “But for now we are young,” he sings. “Let us lay in the sun / And count every beautiful thing we can see.”

LARB Contributor

Sadie Sartini Garner is a music critic and writer living in Long Beach, California. She has written for Pitchfork, The Ringer, The A.V. Club, The Outline, Resident Advisor, FLOOD Magazine, and Filter Magazine, among other places.


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