Sunday Sermon: In praise of subversion

The word “subversion” (or “subversive”) is often misunderstood as being some sort of synonym for “opposition” or some such thing. It’s actually subtler than that. Subversion is an act of destroying or attacking from within — it involves getting inside the thing you’re attacking, and persuading other people inside that thing to participate in destroying or weakening it.

From the perspective of religion, a song like XTC’s “Dear God” isn’t really subversive, except to the extent that some religious person might look at the title and decide to check out the song, thereby being exposed to the explicitly anti-religious sentiment in the song itself.

But there’s an anti-religious anthem that really is subversive — so subversive that most people (including, I suspect, most atheists) don’t actually realize it. The song is Julie Gold’s “From A Distance,” popularized by Bette Midler a few years back. It’s wonderfully subversive, in that it can get a crowd of people singing along with “God is watching us, God is watching us … from a distance,” without realizing what the song is actually saying.

At first blush, the song appears to be yet another bromide in a long tradition of attempts (some simperingly well-meaning, some downright scary) to find good news (or Good News) in the midst of tragedy. It looks like yet another iteration of “God answers all prayers, but sometimes the answer is no,” or something along those lines.

It’s closer to the mark to say the song addresses what theologians call the “Problem of Evil” — how can an omni-max God allow evil to exist?

What the song actually says becomes clear when you look at the verses and chorus together (and separating the message between verse and chorus helps slip it into the minds of people who might notice if the whole premise were put into one verse or one line).

From a distance (the song says), the world looks like a nice place. You don’t see that it’s full of poverty, disease, war and hunger. From a distance, you might think the world is a place of harmony, with hope and peace echoing through the land.

And the chorus, of course, supplies the punchline. God is watching us — from a distance. Why is there evil? Because God can’t see it. That’s what all those folks are saying when they join in on the chorus, waving their hands over their heads and singing “God is watching us, from a distance.”

Best. Joke. Ever.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Catherine on September 20, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    I know, right? I actually sang this at a religious girl’s camp as part of a campfire service when I was a teenager. I was agog that NOBODY, not even the grownups, could recognize what the song really meant. It doesn’t even take reading between the lines. It’s pretty explicit.


  2. Posted by Bluejay on September 20, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    I like your interpretation. But could it also be interpreted to mean that the image of peace and harmony “from a distance” is the IDEAL to strive for? Perhaps the song was written with the same sentiment that made Carl Sagan point to photos of distant Earth – the “pale blue dot” – and say, see, we’ve got to get our act together because we’re all on this one fragile little rock in space.


  3. Posted by J. Allen on September 21, 2009 at 11:27 am

    I recall my entire church singing this. I guess it really does cut against the ‘personal jesus’ concept at the least, and points out an uncaring deity at the most. Obviously many Christians can interpret it to fit their worldview, but the word ‘distance’ could certainly unnerve them quietly.

    I had the Crash Test Dummies album ‘God Shuffled His Feet’ when I was a young christian…I think it may have helped me question the nature of God outside of what the church was saying, though it was not blatantly anti-religion.


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