Thursday, August 14, 2014

Is That All There Is?

I was 12, I think. A neighbour and I, along with his younger sister and her friend, were trying to recreate the magic of Abba in his parents’ bedroom with a cassette recorder and whatever current songs we could sing along to.

Somehow we stumbled on to a recording of Peggy Lee’s 1969 hit “Is That All There Is?”

I’m going to let Wikipedia explain why, not yet in high school and having not really even started living yet, I found the song spectacularly depressing:
“The lyrics of this song are written from the point of view of a person who is disillusioned with events in life that are supposedly unique experiences. The singer tells of witnessing her family’s house on fire when she was a little girl, seeing the circus, and falling in love for the first time. After each recital she expresses her disappointment in the experience. She suggests that we ‘break out the booze and have a ball — if that’s all there is ...’ ”
I didn’t know this at the time, but the song is a near-verbatim adaptation of Thomas Mann’s 1896 story Disillusionment later set to music with additional lyrics from Jerry Lieber and his wife Gaby Rosenberg, a Jew who escaped the Holocaust. It was Gaby who introduced her husband to Mann’s story and may have been the driving force behind the song.

Perhaps to Gaby, Mann’s bleakness seemed perfectly reasonable:
“And then I fell in love, with the most wonderful boy in the world.
We would take long walks by the river
Or just sit for hours gazing into each other’s eyes.
We were so very much in love.
Then one day, he went away and I thought I’d die.
But I didn’t.
And when I didn’t I said to myself,
‘Is that all there is to love?’ ”
I think we recorded a version of it, but I can’t say for sure. I know it cast a pall over me in a way I was unable to account for at the time. But I hadn’t heard it in years until I happened across it as background music in a recent, equally despairing TV drama.

It’s 2014, more than forty years later. What are the chances?

But there’s something about that song. In a world where Christ is absent or unknown, everything it says makes perfect sense. We’re born, and right away we start our march toward death. If everything goes right (and since we happen to live in Canada, where life expectancy is pretty decent), we get 79.5 years on average as men, or 83.5 as women, the latter couple of decades often with declining faculties or increasing pain.

If that’s the end, and if most everything in between is less than it’s cracked up to be, why not break out the booze and have a ball? The apostle Paul, after all, said pretty much the same thing a couple of millennia ago:
“If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’.”
(1 Corinthians 15:32)
Break out the booze indeed. Except that isn’t the only thing Paul said:
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
(1 Corinthians 15:20-22)
And of course we know that in addition to the hope of resurrection, the believer in Jesus Christ has the prospect of the life of God within him now:
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
(John 10:10)
In John 10, the Lord describes himself as a shepherd caring for his sheep. That shepherd’s care is famously described by David in the psalm that begins with the words, “The Lord is my shepherd” and goes on to describe all the ways in which the Lord demonstrates his love for his own in this life, not only in some far-off future day.

When I first heard “Is That All There Is?” in the early ’70s, frankly, I was a narcissistic teenager. I felt sorry for me. I wondered if disappointment, disillusionment and ennui were all I had to look forward to. I harboured a horrible suspicion that Peggy Lee was right, and that the things that I looked forward to — relationships, sex (did I mention I was a teenager?), family and perhaps even some moderate degree of career success — would turn out to be as empty as the scenarios Lee describes with all the languid diffidence of a truly lost soul.

And actually, in and of themselves, they are.

But for the Christian no event in life is “in and of itself”, is it, because “for those who love God all things work together for good”. In the grip of the same life events that evoke despair in the unbeliever — loss, unmet expectations, relationships that don’t end well, and even the “valley of the shadow of death” — the believer can say “You anoint my head with oil”, “My cup runs over” and “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies”.

Or as Asaph puts it in another psalm:
“I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.”
(Psalm 73:23-26)
And if THAT’s all there is, hey, I’m good with it.


  1. "But for the Christian no event in life is “in and of itself”, is it, because “for those who love God all things work together for good”."

    Are you sure that in context this means what you suggest it means?

    1. I think so. I mean it very generally; I wasn't attempting an exposition of the Romans passage or implying that everything works out wonderfully, or happily, or precisely as I would choose. I'm saying that it works together for "good", that being the accomplishment of the Lord's ends in my life (culminating, of course, in conformity to the likeness of the Lord himself, which is where Paul concludes in Romans).

      In other words, there is meaning in what I go through; it is not random. The circumstance itself, however dire (or pleasant) it may be on its own, is not "all there is". I think David knows this too: when he describes the things the Lord does for him, I don't think that "you anoint my head with oil / my cup runs over / surely goodness and mercy" merely mean "The Lord gives me good stuff" or "It's good to be king", but that even in times of serious trial the believer can rejoice in the knowledge that he is being shepherded and cared for. David had some pretty tough times, but knew he had a caring guide and fellow traveler through all the circumstances of life.

    2. I’m always dubious when I hear that verse quoted in connection with the vicissitudes of life.

      The “all things,” I think, refer to the previous elements of the Divine bestowment. But yes, ultimately the whole process works for good.