When St. Paul preached in Greece, he said “In Him we live and move, and have our being” (Acts 7), referring to the Christian God, but citing a pagan — one of “[the Greeks’] own poets,” Epimenides.
I find this beautiful and refreshing, in that any secular poet, artist or philosopher might depict God in a way that is both true and vivid to the mind’s eye. It doesn’t matter whether they call themselves Christian, or even whether they claim to be referring to “our” God1.
Great bodies of water — lakes, seas, rivers — have become for me, lately, a vivid picture of the God I know. In one of my recent podcasts, Once Around the Lake, the lake is essentially an analogue of God. I have also begun to look closely wherever I find a reference to lakes and seas, to see whether, just perhaps, I have stumbled across another link in a divine trail — whether, somewhere in the picture, I can catch a new glimpse of “He whom my soul loves.”
So of course this song captured my attention. It seems to me that God, in the person of the river, is one of the characters in this song.
Good poetry, especially when set to music, fills the mind’s eye with layer upon layer of meaning. The picture of God as the river certainly happens to fit with Epimenides’ beautiful picture: “in Him we live and move and have our being.” Flynn himself even seems to suggest the connection when he asks “Lord, take me away…”
But what is happening in this river? The lines “The water can’t drown me, I’m done / with my dying” strongly call to mind the character of Riderhood in Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. In the book, Riderhood is a firm believer in a common superstition that once a man “comes through drowning” he can never be killed by water.
In fact, though, Riderhood does die by drowning. If we read more closely, the line I just cannot stay / Or I’ll sink in my skin and my bones creates the possibility that the singer has in fact died and is floating down the river:
The phrase “I’m everywhere now” has a very real double-sense: one in that the singer, now dead, is “everywhere” as a spirit; and another in that perhaps his/her body is beginning to be subsumed back into the elements as it floats down the river. Ugh, you say! But death, in fact, forms a very crucial part of the pictures by which we understand the “new life” of a believer. The believer has in a very real sense died once already, and in the new life can no longer be drowned. This, in fact, is the exact picture of baptism.
What of God as the river? He is both the instrument of our drowning and the thing that sustains us and carries us “without even trying” — without effort, simply because it is his nature.
I’m not saying this is the only or right way to interpret this song. I’m just trying to share the sense of poetic discovery that it gave me, a sense which I more and more believe is one of God’s most often-neglected gifts.
In the line Paul quotes in Acts 7:28, Epimenides’ subject was actually addressing Zeus.↩