I’d like to take a small detour from movies to discuss a band whose music has recently captured my imagination: The Oh Hellos, a folk-rock duo from Texas led by siblings Maggie and Tyler Heath and a rotation of bandmates. Maggie and Tyler are Christians, and their faith is tightly wrapped into all of their music. Their music does not sound or read like many mainstream Christian artists, instead, they borrow from mythology and history as well as scripture to tell stories with skillful musicianship. Like an Oh Hellos cinematic universe, there is a continual storyline across the body of their work– two full-length albums and four EPs– which is what I want to explore here.
This storyline is that of one narrator’s Christian walk, from conversion into spiritual maturity. Or, to use theological terms: Justification– being made right in the eyes of God; Sanctification– the ongoing process of being made more like Christ; and Glorification– the final transformation of believers into eternal beings united with God forever. I’m going to look at how their first two albums tell the story of justification and sanctification on an individual level, and then how their four EP’s tell the story of corporate sanctification with glimpses into glorification. After reading, I hope you will be inspired to listen to this band’s fantastic work, and enjoy the rich (and true!) story they tell.
Through the Deep Dark Valley: The Prodigal Son & Justification
Through the Deep Dark Valley (2012) retells Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son, drawing from it the universal story of how every believer and, in turn, all of humanity, has broken away from God our loving father, and will eventually make their way back into his forgiving arms.
The album opens with “The Valley,” which sets up the premise. The band bellows: “We were born in the valley of the dead and the wicked…We were born in the shadow of the crimes of our fathers/ Blood was our inheritance/No, we did not ask for this/ Will you lead me?…We came down to the water and we begged for forgiveness.” Being born in sin, we needed to be led away from it and saved. But who will save us? What will that journey from sin entail? “Inheritance,” “water,” and “forgiveness” are all recurring symbols.
The main meat of the album is a series of seven songs that directly retell the parable, beginning with the track “Second Child, Restless Child,” which draws up a portrait of the narrator, the younger son who desires to run from his father’s home and pursue freedom: “See, I was born a restless child/And I could hear the world outside calling me.” “Wishing Well” tells of the son experiencing the freedom he thought he wanted, yet coming to the end of himself: “Curse my restless wandering feet/Prone to wander endlessly.” These lyrics are a reference to the old hymn “Come Thou Fount,” which has the line “prone to wander, Lord I feel it.” References to “Come Thou Fount” litter the album. “Wishing Well” closes with the son realizing all of his adventures have left him feeling empty. The son has nothing left, both physically and spiritually, having squandered his father’s inheritance and love.
“In Memoriam” is the climax of the younger son’s story. He returns home and is fully embraced by his father. The song explores the son’s feelings of shame and guilt: “But I’m sure I’ll find you waiting there for me/And by the time I blink, I’ll see your wild arms swinging/Just to meet me in the middle of the road/And you’ll hold me like you’ll never let me go…But you are far too beautiful to love me…Heaven knows I’m prone to leave the only God I should have loved/Yet you’re far too beautiful to leave me.” Note again the use of “prone to leave” as a reference to “Come Thou Fount.” Also note how the use of “beautiful” goes from explaining why God should not love us to explaining his mercy.
“The Lament of Eustace Scrubb” is next (and is my favorite The Oh Hellos song). The title comes from the character Eustace Scrubb from the fifth book in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The Oh Hello’s love for C.S. Lewis drives their second album, which Maggie Heath describes as “basically C.S. Lewis fanfiction.” But we’re not there yet! Eustace Scrubb has a radical conversion experience in Dawn Treader, and the parallels between him and the prodigal son (and, by default, all of us) are sung here as the narrator asks forgiveness from his brother and father. This song ends with the lines “When I touch the water/They tell me I could be set free,” evoking baptism.
“I Was Wrong” concludes the younger son/narrator asking for forgiveness. It also ties in the larger story of man’s rejection of God starting in the garden: “And I was torn from the start/I was torn between my God and my Father…/As I took from the tree that was rotting…Now I’ll hide my shame with woven leaves.” “I Have Made Mistakes” comes after forgiveness as an acknowledgment that “I have made mistakes, I continue to make them” and detailing how, even though the narrator knows he will continue to sin and be prone to wandering, he will come back again and again to repentance, and “Nothing is a waste, if you learn from it”.
“The Truth is a Cave,” I think, could be read as from the Older Brother’s perspective if the older brother came to repentance himself. This narrator sings of trying so desperately “To be the child that you wanted,” that he wore himself out with staunch obedience and duty, becoming self-righteous and legalistic so that “the truth became a tool, that I held in my hand/And I wielded it but did not understand.” But he comes to realize that instead of God/his father asking him to do everything, God/father has already done it, and simply calls out to the son for a personal relationship. “Valley- Reprise” repeats many of the same lyrics as the beginning, but ends with “Still you lead me, never leave me/Never leave me” and then an instrumental cover of “Come Thou Fount.”
Dear Wormwood: Leaving your abusive master & the beginning of sanctification
Dear Wormwood (2015) is inspired by C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. The Screwtape Letters (1942) is written as a series of letters from experienced demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood (also a demon) on how to better tempt his human project. In the album, each song is written like a letter between two parties. Typically, it is the narrator versus an abusive power. So it’s like the human is speaking back to his demons, his personal Wormword and Screwtape. After all, sin is our abusive master who we were slaves to, and the work of sanctification is the daily work of resisting again and again the sins of our flesh. We are not freed from all of our sins the moment we’re converted. It is an ongoing process; the three steps forward, two steps back of progress. But it’s not just enough to leave behind your sin– you must find something or someone more glorious to replace it with.
After an instrumental “Prelude” the album opens with “Bitter Water,” which has the narrator acknowledging that his/her relationship with the other party is toxic, but still desirable, singing: “I still taste you on my lips/Lovely bitter water/The terrible fire of old regret is honey on my tongue…I know I shouldn’t love you but I do.” Like a bad ex, we have sins we cling to that we know are destroying us, but we can’t imagine living without them.
“There Beneath” has the narrator see a king character (Jesus) being presented as an alternative thing to worship and love–a beautiful, more worthy thing. This sets the stage for the narrator to finally end/leave the abusive relationship.” In “Exeunt,” the narrator ends the relationship, singing: “Even when you hunt me with ire, relentless/Batter down my door when you find me defenseless/I will not abide all your raging and reaving/I have set my mind and my will: I am leaving.”
“Caesar” goes back to focus on the narrator’s new love and zeal for Jesus, the new and better ruler and object of affection. “Caesar” uses crucifixion imagery to set up the second part of the album, which is retelling how Jesus’s death and resurrection killed Death itself, Death and sin being our ultimate enemy. “Caesar” introduces a three-song storyline dealing with this death to Death, beginning with “This Will End,” which sees the narrator wondering if the afterlife is going to be worth the pain that comes with living. He comes to the conclusion that even though there is “endless battery” between him and sin/evil, there is a “kind of love” that the sin/evil cannot even comprehend, the love of Christ. This directly sets up the two-parter of “Pale White Horse” and “Where is Your Rider.”
“Pale White Horse” depicts Death as a horse, with Satan as its rider, drawing upon Revelation 6:8: “Neither plague nor famine tempered my courage/Nor did raids make me cower/But his translucent skin/Made me shiver deep within my bones/It was a pale white horse/With a crooked smile/And I knew it was my time. “Where is Your Rider” has the narrator gloating that even though Death may kill him, this horse is riderless. Satan has been defeated! Death has no lasting power against Christ. The band gloats: “The shadow of Hades is fading/For He has cast down Leviathan, the tyrant, and the horse and rider/Where is your rider?” It ends with a celebration of Christ, proclaiming “He has hoisted out of the mire every child/So lift your voice with timbrel and lyre/We will abide, we will abide, we will abide.” The lyrics have multiple allusions to Revelation and apocalyptic literature, along with references to 1st Corinthians 15:55-57: “‘O death, where is your victory?/O death, where is your sting?’”
“Dear Wormwood” is a return to the original concept of letters, with this titular song tying all of the themes of the album together. The narrator directly confronts his demon and calls out how the demon has worked through the narrator’s life: “You have taught me well to sit and wait/Planning without acting/Steadily becoming what I hate.” But he finally calls out, “I know who you are now,” and “Now I understand you…And I name you my enemy…/I want to be more than this devil inside of me” The album ends with “Thus Always to Tyrants,” which sings that while there will always be evil powers and sin, a victory is coming and it’s worth waiting for.
These two albums focus on the individual’s faith. In the next four EP’s, The Oh Hellos move into examining collective, corporate faith. Themes of power and abuse come into the forefront as the band reckons with the way the Church has responded to political upheaval and has compromised the Gospel. We’ll explore that in part