Steve Earle, Me, And Ol’ Causa Sui

May 26, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

Musician and author Steve Earle has long traded in stories of limits and transcendence of limits. This is the case in his latest offering. Perhaps I should say offerings because he has simultaneously released a novel and an album of the same name, I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive. This title, in turn, is a Hank Williams song. The novel revolves around Doc Ebersole, a fictional friend of Williams who is being haunted by the singer’s ghost ten years after his death.  The novel has met with critical praise.

The focus of this posting is a particular song on the album entitled simply, God Is God. The lyrics follow.

God Is God by Steve Earle

I believe in prophecy
Some folks see things not everybody can see
And once in a while they pass the secret along to you and me
And I believe in miracles
Something sacred burning in every bush and tree
We can all learn to sing the songs the angels sing
Yeah I believe in God
And God ain’t me

I’ve traveled around the world
Stood on mighty mountains and gazed across the wilderness
Never seen a line in the sand or a diamond in the dust
And as our fate unfurls
Every day that passes I’m sure about a little bit less
Even my money keeps telling me it’s God I need to trust
And I believe in God
But God ain’t us

God of my little understanding, don’t care what name I call
Whether or not I believe doesn’t matter at all

I received the blessins
And Every day on earth’s  another chance to get it right
Let this little light of mine shine and rage against the night
Just another lesson
Maybe someone’s watching and wondering what I got
Maybe this is why I’m here on earth, and maybe not
But I believe in God,
And God is God

What I find interesting in these lyrics is the use of traditional religious symbols and images in a modern way that is consonant with Ernest Becker’s insights. Images of mighty mountains and burning bushes, of miracles and prophesy, singing angels and little lights that shine are juxtaposed with the wisdom of knowing that you don’t know. I associate the insight most clearly with Socrates but it is found in philosophy, religion, and psychology. Earle addresses a “God of my little understanding” and acknowledges “every day that passes I’m sure about a little less.” His search for meaning concludes “maybe this is why I’m on earth and maybe not.”  Undergirding all this uncertainty is the causa sui realization that he is not the ultimate author of his mortal fate. God is God. Earle’s response to this reality would draw a knowing smile from Becker. When he refers to every day as another chance to get it right and commits to let his little light rage against the night he gives expression to the existential faith of a Tillich or Kierkegaard. Beyond these insights, Earle’s way of believing is also important. It is a tentative faith that leaves room for doubt and stands in contrast to the ideological extremism that characterizes too much religious expression. At the same time, it is powerful enough to allow him to rage, and most importantly, to create. Living in this liminal space is perhaps a way forward. Steve Earle is a fine traveling companion.


  1. I find Bill’s “exegesis” of Earle’s song right on the money. The three sentences before the last one ought to be draw a nod from any reader of Becker, this finding of ideological extremism the source of much of the evil in the world. Good piece, Bill, really a good job.

    • Thanks for your kind words of support. Great to know someone’s checking it out. I’m beginning the novel and may blog on it later if warranted

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