An idol is anything that takes the place of God in our life. They are the things we look to, trust in, and give our allegiance to instead of God. They offer to satisfy the desires of our heart and make us happy, but they never are true to their word. The end of every fling with our idols leads to brokenness, pain, and regret. Every day, we face the choice of giving in to the seductive allure of those idols, or steering clear of them and following after the One who can give joy and who does follow through on His promise to satisfy us and grant us life and joy. To see the power and pain of idols, and to consider where we might find hope, I want to compare and contrast the songs “Vice” by Miranda Lambert and “Ulysses” by Josh Garrels. You can see the full lyrics for each, side-by-side, at the bottom of this post.
A couple years ago, I wrote a blogpost about Miranda Lambert’s song “Vice.” As I mentioned, I appreciate her honesty in the song. If you’ve heard it, you know from her tone, voice, and the lyrics—not to mention it took place after a painful divorce—that it’s a pained song about where we look and what we turn to in our brokenness. The music video adds to the song’s depth, showing the chaos, searching, and the journey of the person’s life behind the song. The song realistically captures the human draw towards idols, and what they do to us. Throughout the lines she looks from one thing to another to find meaning, satisfaction, and for joy. She’s looking for something, and turns to “vices” for what she’s looking for, but none of them come through on their promises. They only leave her emptier. But she returns, or she moves on to the next offer of fulfillment and happiness.
She turns to music, and sitting in her heartbreak, she finds solace in the pain for a moment. She moves from one thing to the next, from alcohol, to relationships and sex, and on to new things—like a new town—and fresh starts. If we’re honest, this longing for happiness and the search for satisfaction, meaning, and joy echoes in our hearts and through our experience. We’ve all turned to idols and put the weight of our longings and expectations on things that promise to give us life, happiness, and fulfillment. But they deceive us. They use us up and hollow us out. They bring chaos, brokenness, and more pain into our lives, not less.
What’s most sad about the song is she never finds an answer. It lacks hope. She fails to see the limits and emptiness of these vices she’s turning to again and again. You feel that she’s stuck. She doesn’t know how to break the cycle, say no, or make a better choice. She can’t see the problem or that these vices won’t suddenly make her happy. And there’s nothing, or no one, in her life to pull her out. Unfortunately, I think the song realistically reflects a non-Christians relationship to their idols (anything we put in God’s place). They don’t have help and rescue outside of themselves. They are blind to the limit of our idols, how they offer fulfillment but leave us empty and broken, and so they’ll go throughout life from one idol to the next.
I want to compare and contrast “Vice” to the song, “Ulysses,” by Christian songwriter Josh Garrels. Both are somber, even sad, heartfelt songs wrestling with our longings, pain, being broken by sin, and the lure of idols. Both are about this journey, the search for satisfaction, significance, and joy. But, as we’ll see, the reality of the gospel in Garrels’ song offers the glimmer of hope and a way out. “Ulysses” offers a way home, the turn back to rest and love.
The song “Ulysses” is a sort of metaphorical rendering of part of Homer’s The Odyssey (as is O, Brother Where Art Thou?, but that’s another post). Ulysses is the Latinized version of Odysseus. The story, if you can recall from High School, is a Greek epical poem about a man’s journey to get back home, out of love for his place and family. Along the way, he faces various temptations, obstacles, and threats on his journey. Garrels’ taps into this theme of our journey, of longing and searching, and of true loves versus the lesser loves (idols) we settle for or that tempt us along the way.
The song speaks to the false idols we turn to—much like Lambert’s song—and how they only disappoint us. They smash us up against the waters, leave us shipwrecked, close to death, and in the darkness. They fail us and break us. That first stanza poignantly pictures what happens when we turn to the arms of an idol rather than our God.
The next stanza refers back to the sirens from The Odyssey. The sirens (usually pictured as bird-like women) sang beautiful, enchanting music that drew men in. They enticed and allured those on the journey, holding out promises to fulfill and tempting them to come closer. But the end-result never goes as imagined. The sirens end up destroying and killing their victims.
The sirens in Garrels’ song symbolize our temptations and the idols that speak to and seduce our hearts. They promise to give what we’re looking for, whether pleasure, meaning, happiness, respect, power, significance, or satisfaction. They say they can fulfill us or deliver on the things we desire. They appeal to our desires and promise something we want. As Garrels’ writes, “Sirens call my name, They say they’ll ease my pain,” but he recognizes they can only deceive us and devour us as they “then break me on the stones.”
“Ulysses” and “Vice” both capture our struggle with idolatry. Temptation, sin, and our idols really are powerful and alluring. Lambert speaks to some of the worldly things we turn to, and Garrels leans into what they do to us and how we feel. Both might resonate with our own experiences and struggles. Both are honest and can teach us.
But note that Garrels’ sees the emptiness, bankruptcy, and hopelessness of the idols/sirens, and he decides he’s had enough. He wants to return home. He wants to be faithful. He wants to be in the arms of his love again. But he knows this will not be easy. He knows he can’t do it on his own. Before it’s too late, he chooses to do whatever it takes and wants to hold firm, or be held firm by, the mast of the ship.
He clings to Christ, he fixes his heart and mind on him, and this is the only thing that will lead him home. Though the sting and pain of sin is real, he sees a glimmer of gracious hope for a way out. We might lose ourself and betray our true love, but that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. We can go home. We can find a better, deeper, true love that does follow through on their promises.
He’s guided by light (the light of the moon), by a true love that lasts and fulfills, and the memories of what it was like to rest in that love that didn’t dash him against the stones. I think the song, in part, gives us a spiritual metaphor (which I think is confirmed if you listen to how he talks about the song, such as when he introduces it in his concert at the Red Rocks). All these images refer to the fact that his only hope and help in this journey, and the only way to overcome the allure of our idols, is to firmly fix ourselves on Christ. His light must be the compass leading us and his love must be what satisfies and keeps us.
While both “Vice” and “Ulysses” picture the struggle with our idols, only Garrels’ finds hope for change and release and finds help beyond himself to give them up, return home, and find our true love.
|“Vice” by Miranda Lambert||“Ulysses” by Josh Garrels|
|Steady as a needle dropping on a vinyl
Neon singer with a jukebox title full of heartbreak
Thirty-three, forty-five, seventy-eight
When it hurts this good you gotta play it twice
Another viceAll dressed up in a pretty black label
Sweet salvation on a dining room table
Waiting on me
Where the numb meets the lonely
It’s gone before it ever melts the ice
Another vice, another call
I wear a town like a leather jacket
Another vice, another town
Another bed I shouldn’t crawl out of
Standing at the sink now, looking in a mirror
|I’m holding on to the hope that one day
This could be made right.
I’ve been shipwrecked,
And left for dead,
And I have seen the darkest sights.Everyone I’ve loved seems like
A stranger in the night
But Oh my heart still burns,
Tells me to return,
And search the fading light.
I’m sailing home to you
Trouble has beset my ways,
But true love is the burden that will
I’m sailing home to you
So tie me to the mast of this old ship