Jack White and the Kingdom of Underland

One of the reasons I love taking road trips is the hours it allows me to catch up on podcasts and content I never seem to get to in the hustle and bustle of daily life. The one I just had was no exception. I was listening to NPR's All Songs Considered, particularly Bob Boilen's interesting interview with Jack White about his new album, "Lazaretto."

Jack White, if you are unfamiliar, is difficult to describe or categorize. He is a troubadour. Poet. Guitar player. Actually, an anything player. If it makes sound, he plays it. Punk rocker. Avant Garde seems a fitting phrase. He exploded on the scene years back with his two-piece band, The White Stripes. He's a visceral singer and magnetic performer.

Most of the interview with Boilen is typical banter about the craft of songwriting and recording, but it took an extraordinary turn.

Boilen: What do you make of coincidences? I deal with this a lot, wondering about fate. Where is fate? Is there fate? Do things happen for a reason or purpose, or do you just put two things together and make a purpose from them?

White: Uh...

Boilen: So this is about God.

(Laughter)

White: Well, I think this is the most beautiful and the most scientifically sort of sad thing about that topic. When I was younger, you know, I had heard about synchronicity--when things are happening at the same time that means everything is going the right way. 

White then shares an example of a remarkable coincidence that occurred to him regarding a 1942 penny. He continues:

White: But I read this article a couple years ago that scientifically, though, our brain--we have to create patterns. We look for patterns of similarity all the time.

Boilen: M-m h-m-m.

White: We're trying to find things that are similar so that our brains can make sense of them. And that--shockingly--is the seed for a lot of romantic ideas for a lot of people on a day-to-day basis. For a lot of artists--you know, that it was "meant to be." But actually it's our brain focusing on patterns trying to discover patterns all the time. And it's a little bit sad to say that--I hate even saying that out loud because it kind of kills a lot of romance about things.

Let me pause here. This really is profound. Secularism has constructed a universe Jack White thinks he lives in, where the only thing that is "real," the only thing that "counts," is matter in motion. What is "really" happening is chemical reactions in our brains. Notice how wistful he is here for a very different kind of universe, one he wishes he lived in, one with romance, meaning, purpose, and enchantment.

And he understands the stakes. He recognizes the acid content of secular scientism: it erodes everything that makes life meaningful or worthwhile. That is why he "hates even saying that out loud." Because it "kills a lot of romance about things." He wants to live in a romantic world, but is convinced he really lives in a sterile, sanitized, disenchanted world where all "meaning" is merely supplied by the wishful thinker. Boilen agrees, but he offers one, crucial caveat:

Boilen: It does. But when those moments happen, it's really difficult to let go of the romance of it.

White: Oh, I think we shouldn't. God, what else--we've got nothing else to talk about.

I daresay you'll not find a more haunting diagnosis of the secular condition. Resigned to our futility, knowing that life is nothing more than play-acting.

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"One word, Ma'am," he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. "One word. All you've been saying is quite right, I shouldn't wonder. I'm a chap who always likes to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won't deny any of what you said. But there's one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things--trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's a small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say. --Puddleglum, to the Queen of Underland, The Silver Chair.

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Maybe, just maybe, we should doubt all of this doubt. Maybe Jack White needs to stamp the fire the way Puddleglum did and shock himself to his senses. Maybe we don't live in the "black pit of a kingdom" secularism has constructed. Maybe there really is romance. Maybe there is meaning. Maybe there is a God who works all things for the good of those who love him and significance isn't just a chemical reaction in our heads.

If he hates "saying it out loud," he should stop believing it in his silence.