Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Meaning of Magdalena Lyrics

This song is about a yearly pilgrimage made to Magdalena, a town in Sonora, Mexican every year. In the historic church is a famous statue of San Francis Xavier, though it is meant to be Saint Francis of Assisi--it is kinda complicated. Look it up, and any of the other names or terms I mention below, for more background. The best background piece on the pilgrimage I found was here.   This song hints at tons of religious history and theory.  One could write, and many have, books on the topics touched on in this song.   More than a few wars have been fought over the ideas expressed, too.   I can give you a quick taste, though. 
It is easiest to break down by verse.
Please don't tell me I can't make it
/It ain't gonna do me any good
/And please don't offer me your modern methods/
I'm fixin' to carve this out of wood
Historically the journey to Magdalena was hard. Poorer people would beg on their way.  This narrator isn’t giving up.  He’s going to do the walk.  “Please don’t offer me your modern methods” is a reference to the redemption the narrator seeks.  Asking a saint for a blessing is an old-school, Catholic way of seeking redemption. The Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther’s 95 Theses turn mainly on stuff like this.  Martin Luther was upset that some of the Catholic clergy had sold “indulgences” to the local people for forgiveness.  He was angry that they thought they had to buy forgiveness, which had already been offered by Christ.  They merely had ask for it and then to earn it by repentance, not cash.  The best modern illustration is something like carbon offsets for environmentalists. They believe in lowering carbon emissions but think that, by paying for their own continued emissions, that they don’t actually have to work to reduce their emissions themselves.  That is, they can buy the privilege to keep sinning yet tell themselves that they are doing well, all the while the only practical result is a bunch of authority types get richer.  The Catholic Church of the time had similar issues.   Martin Luther wrote up a list of such grievances and posted it for discussion. And so began the Protestant Reformation. 

Protestants typically believe that you gain forgiveness by personally asking for it and repenting--trying to stop sinning. So the narrator is refusing the "new" way of asking forgiveness and going to do it the old way--do some task and then ask for a saint’s blessing.  “Carve this out of wood” might be a reference to the St. Francis statue’s feet being wood, or just to old skilled craftsmanship; doing it the old way.

This verse shows how BF can write lyrics that can be taken multiple ways by listeners. If you are Catholic for example, you can listen and think he is celebrating this pilgrimage--I’m seeking redemption in the tradition of my ancestors. Many commenters I've seen get that vibe from the song. If you are Protestant, and I am, then you can pick up a sigh of frustration feel from this song; the frustration of trying to explain that you don’t have to go through this for redemption and, as the song will assert in a moment, that this type of redemption is useless. 
From Nogales to Magdalena
There are 60 miles of sacred road/
And the promise is made to those who venture
/San Francisco will lift your load
This is just background on the journey.  Go there, ask St. Francis for forgiveness, and it will be granted. 

In the land of old Sonora
/A shallow river valley cries/
The summer left her without forgiveness
/It's mirrored in her children's eyes
Sonora is the state in Mexico where Magdalena is. It is a desert.  For Protestants, baptism is a baptism of belief--it is done on confession of belief in God, not when you are born or join the church. This is such a big deal to some denominations that it is why Baptists are called Baptists.  Furthermore, for many denominations, Baptists and Mormons included, baptism is essential and requires a full dunking so the valley “left without forgiveness” is a land without water.  (UPDATE: Listening a few months later, I think "the summer left her without forgiveness" might be a reference to increased cartel activity, murder, in that the cartel guy whose story this is now needs forgivness for his sins.)  “Mirrored in her children’s eyes” I think refers to the holes and emptiness in the lives of people without God in their lives.  Either that or tears.  The desert doesn't have water/forgiveness so you see the water in the people's eyes.   

Note well, I don’t mean to start a Catholic and Protestant war on the web.  If you have ever wondered why Catholics and Protestants fought so often in history, this is the crux of it.  How are we redeemed in Christ?  Does man need an intercessor, an authority, before God?  Protestants answer with a resounding ‘No!‘   This is a big deal, something that has driven hundreds of years of Western history, and Flowers has written a pop song about it.  The man has some serious cojones.


Prodigal sons and wayward daughters/
Carry Mandas that they might/
Be delivered from the depths of darkness
/And born again by candlelight/
And born again by candlelight
Prodigal sons and wayward daughters are Biblical references to sinners.  They come with Mandas, a desire for a miracle or forgiveness.  They whisper them in the statue’s ear, kiss his head, and receive his blessing. 

Blisters on my feet
/Wooden rosary/
I felt them in my pocket as I ran
This is a short description of the physical realities of the journey, burdens that you carry. 

A bullet in the night
/A federales's life
/San Francisco do you understand?
Historically Sonora has seen much violence. This is a reference the drug traffickers and the resulting violence in the Sonora desert today. Because of its remoteness, drug cartels can easily hide there. There is so much violence now that the main company that does tours for the old Missions including Magdalena, is thinking about stopping.  This is also one of the reasons for the Arizona law everyone talks about today.  Many of the real baddies in Mexico come seeking forgiveness. The narrator is such a man, and his Mandas is to ask forgiveness for shooting a cop. 

Tell him that I made the journey/
And tell him that my heart is true
/I'd like his blessing of forgiveness
/Before the angels send it through
Tell Saint Francis that I did it and I’m sincere; bless me. Once again, if you are Protestant this verse is sad because someone is asking forgiveness of from a middleman. 

And I will know that I am clean now
/And I will dance and the band will play/
In the old Artu Cantina/
Cups will runneth over the ancient clay/

And if I should fall to temptation/
When I return to evil throws
/From Nogales to Magdalena/
As a two time beggar I will go/
Where I know I can be forgiven/
The broken heart of Mexico
/The broken heart of Mexico/
The broken heart of Mexico
I’ll treat these two verses together. Whereas the previous verse is sad because people don’t need a middleman for forgiveness, this one hits at one of the two major obstacles* to redemption, not trying. One will not be redeemed by merely asking for forgiveness. One must try to reform. What are blisters on your feet, a cross in your pocket, and a sincere heart to the difficulty of actually changing your ways? After the whispering in the ear of the saint, there is a big party in the town. The verse suggests of an attitude like, ‘God forgives. Why should I worry about being good. I can go ask for forgiveness again. As a two time beggar I will go. Let's go party!’ And things never change. That’s why this is the “broken heart of Mexico.” 

*In case you are wondering, the other major obstacle to redemption is pride. It is one thing to be proud of an accomplishment, of a job well done. It is entirely another to think that means you are all that.  To quote CS Lewis, “The trouble begins when you pass from thinking, ‘I have pleased him: all is well,” to thinking, ‘What a fine person I must be to have done it.’ If you are that kind of proud, then you are too busy with keeping up appearances, so to speak, that you can’t see God. [Updating about 2 years later: not trying is more that you haven't actually asked for forgiveness, that you are just putting on a show and then returning to normal activity. The two obsticles to redemption are Pride and Despair, i.e. either you don't need redemption or you are so corrupt that even the most forgiving God wouldn't grant it.]
Like I said, this isn't your typical pop song. Not by a long shot.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good analysis. Thank you.