Catchypocalypse: The Body, The Blood, The Machine
Updated: Jul 1, 2019
Crosses and Nazi halos
The Thermals were a post-pop-punk band from Portland, Oregan. Led by charismatic and righteously enraged lead singer Hutch Harris, the band carved for themselves a niche in the indie world amongst lovers of catchy, angry, informed tunes. In 2006, they released what is widely regarded as their finest work, The Body, The Blood, The Machine—a narratively driven, self-reflective (kind of) concept record that foretells a tyrannical, fiery, theocratic future. It imagines an end of humanity brought about by the horrible union of the religious right and the military-industrial complex. At the time of its release, it was a fitting cry of indignation and shock and exasperation at the duplicitous marriage between religion and power. In the last couple years, however, the album has found a new relevance and a new audience, as the tenth anniversary of its release coincided with the year of Donald Trump’s election and the band’s 2018 decision to call it quits spawned plenty of good retrospective commentary. In keeping with this critical embrace of TBTBTM, this essay seeks to explore what it says theologically, asking what it brings to Christian discipleship and what it amplifies about how its authors see God and how its authors understand others to see God.
The Thermals and producer Brendan Casty craft on The Body, The Blood, The Machine a tight, sonically consistent, and narratively open album that follows a futile exodus from an apocalyptic, theocratic state. The record is neatly structured lyrically and musically, with Harris switching clearly and believably between the story’s narrators and the band offering brief (and needed) reprieves from its often unrelenting sound. The first (and standout) track “Here’s Your Future” offers the listener a glimpse at the historical theology of the ruling class. It is a grim overture to a pessimistic creation, steeped in fire and brimstone preaching and hawkish elitism. The following several tracks surge forward at breakneck pace, giving us glimpses of cultural indoctrination and forced homogenization but also cries of resistance from those who don’t fit the mold. TBTBTM then takes a subtler turn on the fifth through seventh tracks, reflecting in the chaos on love, doubt, regret, and (briefly) hope, before turning to the last shrieks of all involved as the world melts down in its final three songs. The Thermals, as is often noted, do not stray far from their pop-punk foundation on this album despite its more adventurous thematic tone, but it is a strength here. The meticulously paced and presented rock beautifully accompanies the lyrics, which take an unquestioned center stage, and serves mostly to communicate in familiar language their terrifying message. TBTBTM, despite its grimness, is not an unfun record. Harris is a clever writer and an adept entertainer. It uses its accessibility, however, to invite listeners into its complexity, as big hooks become vehicles for important thoughts.
The God of The Body, The Blood, The Machine is barbaric and spiteful. “Here’s Your Future” establishes the story of God as one founded on possessiveness and hate. For Harris and the Thermals, this distinctly Christian deity (or, more precisely, the tribal god of the religious right) coexists with humanity in a state of constant threat. Humanity is to love and obey God for fear of annihilation. This God has goals, but its goals are limited to new forms of supremacy and control. “Fear me again, know I’m your father / Remember that no one can breathe underwater.” This God is unhappy at the first iteration of humanity, he wipes it out, spawning “a new master race” from Noah under penalty of death. This God is disappointed by the sinfulness he created intentionally, he submits his son to excoriation, torture, and humiliation (Jesus, profoundly, is absent from most of the album). This image of God established in the first track does not grow or change throughout the record. It does not need to. The point of TBTBTM is that humans live out the doctrines of this God through pernicious social systems that allow the powerful to mirror their perception of an exploitative deity.
The Thermals portray this matter especially effectively. The near-future humanity of TBTBTM is divided into three reasonably distinct castes: the wealthy and politically powerful who engineer assured destruction, those who don’t assimilate into their system who must be destroyed, and those who are indoctrinated into their system and are thereby mechanized to do the destroying. As God rained fire from the heavens, so the powerful are entitled to force recruits to kill, “[pounding] them with the love of Jesus” (“I Might Need You to Kill”); they are empowered to reduce the world into oppressive sameness (“An Ear for Baby”); they are free to demand everything, giving nothing, and founding their abuse on the threat of ultimate violence (“Cause God is with us / And our God’s the richest / Our power doesn’t run on nothing / It runs on blood / and blood is easy to obtain / When you have no shame” from “Power doesn’t run on nothing”). All the while, the powerful are promising that they are on the side of the people, and any conflict is strictly the fault of those who do not obey.
The album’s loose story follows a couple that does not obey. Like Lot, they fruitlessly flee the corrupt new world order without looking back (unlike Lot’s wife). They support each other in being distinctly not ideal, seeking only dignity to be and think and even worship differently. They find solidarity in their shared goal of escape. They struggle with doubt but find fulfillment in one another, which emboldens them to make the ultimate departure on “Back to the Sea.” Again pulling from the story of Noah, the indoctrinated are marched two-by-two to their own genocide. The freedom-seekers instead turn away and follow the evolutionary chain backwards: “But I’m turning around / And I’m gonna crawl… Back to the Sea.” TBTBTM ends in everyone’s death.
The Body, The Blood, The Machine arrived into an America that was giving up all pretense of goodness while simultaneously claiming its atrocities to be ordained by God. The Iraq war was, according to George W. Bush, God’s idea. This war was in part justified by Saddam Hussein’s torture of Iraqi civilians, which was proof (the administration claimed) of their ultimate evil, yet the United States felt that torture of similar depravity was necessary to “save American lives.” The war was initiated on the claims that Iraq was producing Weapons of Mass Destruction despite the UN’s prohibiting them to do so, which was untrue. Throughout, George W. Bush claimed to be both founded in and guided by his faith, a moral smokescreen that did nothing but shroud the administration’s motives and bludgeon any ethical backlash. These days, things aren’t better. U.S. troops still occupy the Middle East, and our president (an admitted sexual abuser and fraudster) is believed by almost 50% of a major political party to have been willed to the presidency by the Almighty. Hutch Harris was not excited about his entry into office.
Why, given the ongoing crisis of being the West is mired in, should we listen to TBTBTM? Because it is an apocalypse, and apocalypses aren’t descriptions but road maps.
The Thermals recognized in 2006 an essential cudgel of the right with which pro-human sides of American society are still attempting to reckon, an unabashed embrace of evangelical “Christianity” not as authentic informer of being but as strategic instrument by which to occupy moral discussion by default. The Thermals depict this playing out as explicit social control (then social extermination) in TBTBTM. What is God? The powerful can tell you and anyone else is heretical. What should I do about God’s presence in my life? Obey or suffer the consequences. If I have a morally dissenting perspective, it is invalidated automatically due to its not having come from “God” of God’s arbiter’s, the moral conservatives. The right accurately calculated its opposition’s sluggish response to this strategery, as the Republican Party’s opponents have frequently invoked practicality or idealism or even “justice,” but almost never morality. And so, the first lesson is to embark on a kind of reclamation, to reinstate cultural recognition of pluralism and progressivism within Christianity and to reestablish that, yes, non-“Judeo-Christian” (a bizarre linguistic amalgamation of two completely distinct religious paradigms) people operate within legitimate moral frameworks. It is also to recognize that morality itself can be diverse, that what is right or wrong is complex and that people can disagree and be varying degrees of right. “We don’t wanna die / Or apologize / For our dirty God / our dirty bodies.”
The second is to unmoor Christianity from the historicism to which its been welded since the birth of liberalism. “G.W.F. Hegel looked at history as a road map of human progress with Christian trinitarianism the highest achievement,” write the Workgroup on Constructive Christian Theology, “His argument suggested that religion, like all other spheres of worldly existence, is profoundly historical, processive, and dynamic in character, revealing an infinite Spirit realizing itself in the finite and carrying the finite ever further toward its fullest self-realization” (39). If Christianity is the highest achievement of human history and history’s self realization is achieved through European civilization’s march forward, then all sorts of atrocities get rewritten as necessary struggles for the eventual resolution of humanity. The Thermals, in refreshing specificity, argue for the opposite. The inevitability of God’s destructive force (as in “Here’s Your Future”) and the sociopathy of those who can force their will into inevitability (as in “Power Doesn’t Run on Nothing”) thrive on this charitable interpretation. The Thermals seem to suggest something quite radical on “Back to the Sea,” departing the procession of history for the infinite embrace of biology.
In the end, Harris and company created something with lasting impact and relevance for Christians and secularists alike who hope to be liberating actors (or dissenting non-actors) in the United State’s reckoning with its own soul. Perhaps in the action that springs from solidarity we might avoid the fate of The Body, The Blood, The Machine, but such reformation will take effort, drive, and uncompromising caring, none of which seem to be in short supply on this album.