Brandon Flowers and the Song of Redeeming Love

January 11, 2014 | 11 comments
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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.

11 Responses to Brandon Flowers and the Song of Redeeming Love

  1. Nate Oman on January 11, 2014 at 9:29 am

    Testing.

  2. Russell Arben Fox on January 11, 2014 at 9:33 am

    This a fine post, Nate, with some interesting reflections. I like how you negotiate the always-complicated argument with your colleague over Mormonism’s Christiantiy–acknowledging the legitimacy of the way he frames the debate, but pointing out that the stories will tell ought to matter at least as much, if not more, than our doctrine (especially since, I would add, it is the stories which bring people into, and keep them embracing, Christian principles, rather than any particular congregation’s version of Christian teachings). As for the music, I like The Killers, but I haven’t listened to as much of them as should; this post is another reason I should do so. So thanks!

  3. Dwight A. Hurst on January 11, 2014 at 10:52 am

    I too am a recent Killers and Flowers fan. Thanks, Nate, for this thoughtful piece.

  4. DaveR on January 11, 2014 at 12:50 pm

    I love the Killers and have all their albums, and if this post inspires anyone to give them a listen, that’s great. However, I think your friend might be projecting the values he loves onto his new favorite musician. I’ve listened to most of the tracks on Brandon Flowers’s solo album, and I didn’t pick up on any Mormon influence. As for the Killers, I can’t think of any religious influence at all. If you want incredible music, the Killers are your band. But if you want to sing the song of redeeming love, you probably need to look elsewhere.

    For anyone who’s never listened to them, I’d recommend starting with Hot Fuss, then go to Sam’s Town and proceed from there.

  5. Wilfried on January 11, 2014 at 1:04 pm

    Thanks, Nate. For quite a few years now, Brandon Flowers has been a great image for the church all over the world.

    Just a month ago, BYU professor Quint Randle gave a fascinating paper entitled “Themes of Mormon Doctrine in the Lyrics of Brandon Flowers” at the yearly conference of the European Mormon Studies Association in London. There is much subtle Mormonism to find, in and between the lines. Millions of his fans around the world know he is Mormon. I’m Brandon Flowers and I’m a Mormon has been viewed close to a million times.

    My favorite is Human. Loved to see him in this concert.

    His standing up to atheist Richard Dawkins on Norwegian television has been put online by numerous fans.

  6. Kevin Barney on January 11, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    You had me at “Charlize Theron.”

    No doubt the lyric “or are we dancer” hearks back to Gold and Green Balls.

    One would think the song “Will You Be My 8-Cow Wife?” would have some sort of Mormon influence, but I can’t seem to place it…

    (Enjoyed the post.)

  7. Katherine Morris on January 11, 2014 at 7:28 pm

    Nate: “Only the Young” is totally about the Restoration. Listen to it on repeat while watching the Church’s Restoration video on mute and you’ll be convinced.

    Don’t forget this fun article in the Juvenile Instructor on the Joseph Smith imagery in the “Only the Young” music video: http://www.juvenileinstructor.org/conveying-joseph-smith-brandon-flowers-arthur-kane-and-the-mormon-rock-star-image/

    Wilfried: Where can I get a copy of that paper?

  8. Luisa Perkins on January 11, 2014 at 7:34 pm

    Nicely done.

  9. Craig H. on January 11, 2014 at 7:47 pm

    Nice post Nate. I think you’re right that stories preceded and still trump abstract formulations of doctrine, for most people. And maybe that’s why they can bear so many different readings, from various traditions, and even make you see better what you have in common with others. At least for me, the honest sharing of personal faith-experiences, in story form (sung or spoken or written), has done more to promote interfaith understanding than discussions of doctrine have, because it’s easier to see ourselves in a narrative than in a doctrinal exposition.

  10. Dave K on January 11, 2014 at 8:31 pm

    I love The Killers. My kids current bedtime song is exitlude. There are very many songs with LDS touch points. Start with Prize Fighter and Heart of a Girl from their most recent album, Battle Born. Be Still almost crosses the line into EFY territory. At the same time, not all songs are church dance appropriate. Mr Brightside is an obvious one.

    On a related note, Brandon and his wife named their son Ammon. So LDS themes pervade more than just his music.

  11. John Mansfield on January 13, 2014 at 8:39 am

    Heart of a Girl from the Battle Born album to my ear is borrowing something musically from If You Could Hie to Kolob. When it reaches the line “There is no end. There is no end,” I was expecting it. Others tell me they don’t hear it.

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