The Gospel of Luke recounts the risen Jesus appearing among his disciples on the evening of the resurrection and asking for something to eat. “People have talked a lot about what is up there,” said Chicago-based singer-songwriter Steve Thorngate. “Is he proving that he’s actually human? Is he trying to get them to show him hospitality, to teach them something? My favorite [explanation] is that he’s hungry.”

Thorngate’s worship hymns are rooted in the stuff of everyday life. Like his 2018 Advent-Christmas collection After the Longest Night, Thorngate’s new album and songbook, Life & Death & Life, distills orthodox theological ideas into short, catchy songs intended for congregations. This album focuses on Lent, Holy Week and Easter, but it echoes the previous collection’s country-folk instrumentation and features vocal harmonies from Thorngate’s siblings, children and extended family.

Living Lutheran spoke about these new songs with Thorngate, who holds a Master of Arts in theology from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and served for a decade as director of music at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, Chicago.

Living Lutheran: For your Advent album, you set yourself a challenge of not casting darkness in a negative light. Did you give yourself similar challenges with these songs?
Thorngate: Not exactly. With that Advent and Christmas record, the big governing theme was the natural cycle of darkness and light. I’m always returning to the natural cycles of creation as my starting point, so what emerged for the second record was the natural cycle of life and death.

What was the most challenging song to write?
“All Our Strife.” I set out to write a song for Good Friday that was specifically based on … what’s become known as Girardian atonement theory. There’s the traditional atonement theories, and the dominant one in the West has been substitutionary atonement, which goes back to [11th-century theologian] Anselm: God sacrifices Jesus on behalf of people who are sinful; God can’t tolerate sin, so somebody has to die. There have been others throughout Christian history that have rivaled that idea, but it’s become quite dominant.

I have since encountered another way of thinking about the atonement. It’s based on the work of the French theorist René Girard, but it’s been developed by some Christian theologians, including James Alison and Mark Heim. It revolves around the idea of a scapegoat. Cultures inevitably find themselves with internal conflict because people all want the same thing, so violence comes up in societies almost inevitably. And so, somebody gets sacrificed. Somebody gets scapegoated so that the community can tell themselves the problem is that person. In so much myth, when someone is killed, scapegoated, sacrificed, the story is told in really oblique ways, like they don’t want to talk about what happened.

By revealing what it takes to scapegoat someone and exposing that mechanism, God is able to persuade us to do better, to not keep perpetuating that cycle.

The big difference in the Christian story is that our Scriptures show the victim in all of his suffering. And by revealing what it takes to scapegoat someone and exposing that whole mechanism, the Christian God is able to persuade us to do better, to start again, to not keep perpetuating that cycle. Of course, the other thing that’s different from most other stories of human sacrifice is that the victim doesn’t stay dead. What I have found in it, personally, is it has really restored the resurrection to a primary place in my theology.

So I was trying to write a song that was not an abstraction about theology but was extremely concrete and short, about this problem of strife and conflict in a community and the need to find someone to blame, and then the way that God says, “Slow down, that’s not what we’re going to do anymore.”

What’s your favorite song in this collection?
It might be “Burn to Ash.” It felt a little audacious and ambitious to write such a bald kind of Ash Wednesday song about mortality. I like the call-and-response thing, and the way that the B sections take a different voice. I conceived of it as the A sections being an anxious group of Christians, and the B sections being some sort of leader, trying to express a message of hope. That’s why I wanted to do it as a call-and-response. But the hope is very halting; it’s not pie-in-the-sky. It’s “I think maybe we can be hopeful,” you know?

Your songs have a striking fascination with bodies and dirt. Did the Lent-Easter subject matter suggest this through line to you, or is that something you’ve been exploring in your own practice and it came out in your work?
Both but especially the latter. I’m pretty insistent that the Christian faith is concrete and embodied or else it’s nothing. I’m not very interested in a theoretical faith. I think my orientation toward the natural world and natural cycles of the world is pretty closely connected to that emphasis on the body and on flesh.

So I think that emphasis on bodies has always been implicit in my writing, but it’s certainly more explicit with this newer project, because [it chooses] to focus on literal life and death as opposed to some kind of theological abstraction based on the resurrection or the crucifixion. And also—you mentioned dirt—I think I used the metaphor from the Gospels about the buried seed.

I’m pretty insistent that the Christian faith is concrete and embodied or else it’s nothing. I’m not very interested in a theoretical faith.

That to me is a really powerful image, because on some level it’s a metaphor—Jesus isn’t actually going to grow a tree—but it’s not just a metaphor. People really do die, and they really do turn into compost, and they really do help other things grow, and to me that’s extremely generative, spiritually. In a culture where we so often think of ourselves as just brains with computers, the simple and obvious idea that we are fundamentally flesh needs to be said again and again, and I think church is the right place. Fundamentally flesh and fundamentally earth.

The song “Save Us” has a really intriguing form, and it’s also simpler lyrically than your other songs. Did you envision that being used in a particular liturgical context?
I have often found myself, when I’m working in churches, wanting something with a lot less words. Everybody’s go-to in our world is Taizé chants, and I love Taizé chants. [I wanted to write] something that is almost hypnotically meditative, because it’s so repetitive, maybe even more repetitive than most Taizé chants. So I imagined it during the distribution or something like that where people can’t look at words.

To be honest, I was thinking more musically than liturgically. I wanted to write something that was not melodically driven, as sort of an experiment for myself. I’ve always been obsessed with melody. But I wanted to write, and especially to record, something where the textures and the instrumental palate were really at the fore and the melody was so repetitive that it almost doesn’t register as melody. I wasn’t explicit about this on the record, but it is the closest thing I have to a Palm Sunday song on the record, because “save us” is the translation of “hosanna.”

At the other end of the spectrum, “All Flesh” is wordy to the point of being funny. You mentioned that it was inspired by the songs you write with your kids?
I come from a family of singers and also a family of jokers and goofballs. And my dad was notorious for, if we came home from school with some catchy song in our heads, he would learn just enough to be dangerous, and then he would make up ridiculous words to irritate us.

So I’ve definitely inherited that thing. And my children are musical, and we love to sing together, but they’ve come to sort of expect me to make up ridiculous stuff. Really the goal is, can you spit out legible words fast enough to fit this meter and rhyme scheme, even if they’re complete nonsense? And the kids eat it up.

I think I came upon the tone of that song because the basic message, that God’s Spirit is for everybody, is obvious enough, and yet there’s so much resistance to it that, it’s almost funny. It’s like “No, no, seriously: everybody.” So I just ran with that and got a little carried away with the rhymes.

Josh Langhoff
Josh Langhoff is a church musician and freelance writer in the Chicago area.

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