The Gospel According to Twenty One Pilots

My son Aidan is a big Twenty One Pilots fan. And the whole family likes the group. So last week the four of us went to the Emotional Roadshow concert when Josh and Tyler came to Dallas.

With their recent Grammy win and continued success on the music charts TØP has gotten a lot of attention over the last year. Some of that attention has been faith-based as Josh and Tyler both identify as Christians.

The concert was absolutely amazing. Musically and theatrically. TØP really know how to put on a show.

Much of the concert was devoted to TØPs most recent album Blurryface. As I've listened to Blurryface and watched the concert I kept seeing theological connections with my book The Slavery of Death.

The Slavery of Death is a theological and psychological meditation on this text from Hebrews:
Hebrews 2.14-15
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 
In this passage the power of the devil in our lives is described as our slavery to the fear of death.

As I describe in The Slavery of Death, and relevant to the music of TØP, our fear of death manifests in one of two ways, what psychologists call basic anxiety and neurotic anxiety.

Basic anxiety involves our survival instinct, our fight or flight response in the face of danger and threat.

Neurotic anxiety, by contrast, involves our worries about living a significant and meaningful life in the face of death. Neurotic anxiety is often social and comparative in nature, the insecurities we experience in how we measure up in the eyes of others.

In short, basic anxiety is about survival and neurotic anxiety is about self-esteem.

In the West our material affluence and medical sophistication have insulated us from basic death anxiety. Consequently, our slavery to the fear of death, the power of the devil in our lives, manifests less as basic anxiety and more as neurotic anxiety. Our fears are less about survival than about feelings of inadequacy and insecurity.

And it's here, in this arena, the space where neurotic death anxiety functions as the power of the devil in our lives, where TØP is doing some profound theological work.

The album Blurryface and the Emotional Roadshow concert are deep theological explorations of our slavery to neurotic death anxiety. And both the album and concert end with a vision of emancipation, the hope of being set free from the power death and the devil.

The gospel according to Twenty One Pilots.

Blurryface is a concept album. The opening song "Heavydirtysoul" sets us up by giving us a vision of sin with a longing for salvation:
Can you save
Can you save my
Can you save my heavy dirty soul?
What's the source of this spiritual predicament? What makes our souls heavy and dirty?

Taking a cue from the Eastern Orthodox tradition, TØP argues that death is our primary spiritual predicament. Heavy, dirty souls are created by our fear of death. As it says in 1 Corinthians 15.56, "the sting of death is sin." As TØP sing "Heavydirtysoul":
Death inspires me like a dog inspires a rabbit.
Just like it says in Hebrews 2, the fear of death is the power of the devil in our lives. Death creates our spiritual predicament, our heavy, dirty souls. 

But as noted above, our fear of death is neurotic in expression, tangled up in our feelings of shame, guilt and insecurity. The second track of Blurryface "Stressed Out" makes this very clear.

In "Stressed Out" we're introduced to the character Blurryface, Tyler's alter ego, the shadow side of his personality. Tyler wrestles with Blurryface in "Stressed Out" and throughout the album. Theologically, Blurryface represents the "sinful nature" famously described by Paul in Romans 7:
For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out...

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?
Just as Paul links the "sinful nature" to a "body that is subject to death," TØP links the demonic power of Blurryface to the fear of death. Beyond lyrics like "Death inspires me like a dog inspires a rabbit," skull imagery features prominently in the TØP aesthetic, and for a part of the concert Josh and Tyler perform in skeleton consumes. The relationship between death and neurotic anxiety is a huge theme in TØP's music and performances.

We trace this association, the footprints of Blurryface, through the whole album. Here's the introduction of Blurryface in "Stressed Out":
I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink
But now I'm insecure and I care what people think

My name's Blurryface and I care what you think
My name's Blurryface and I care what you think 
Notice how our "sin nature"--Blurryface--is rooted in neurotic anxiety. The power of the devil in our lives is that we're insecure and that we care what people think. This social insecurity is used by Blurryface to spiritually cripple us.

Neurotic anxiety haunts every corner of the album. We're stressed out in "Stressed Out." We're trapped in our heads in "Ride":
I've been thinking too much
Help me
There's the neurotic guilt in "Polarize": "I wanted to be a better brother, better son." In "Fairly Local" Tyler confesses, "I know I'm emotional," the lyric that gives us the title for the Emotional Roadshow concert.

All this is the work of Blurryface, the power of the devil enslaving us through neurotic death anxiety. It all builds up to a spiritual crisis in the song "Doubt":
Scared of my own image
Scared of my own immaturity
Scared of my own ceiling
Scared I'll die of uncertainty
Fear might be the death of me
Fear leads to anxiety
Don’t know what’s inside of me
Deep in this spiritual pit, enslaved to the fear of death, a cry for salvation is once again uttered:
Don't forget about me
Don't forget about me
Even when I doubt you
I'm no good without you
A vision of salvation comes in "Goner," the final track of the album, a song title that once again connects neurotic anxiety with death.

"Goner" begins with a prayer for deliverance, exorcism even. The power of the devil in Blurryface is decisively confronted. Much like the early Christians renounced the devil at baptism:
I've got two faces
Blurry's the one I'm not
I need your help to
Take him out
To break the demonic hold of Blurryface the prayer at the start of the album--"Can you save my heavy dirty soul?"--is revisited:
Though I'm weak
And beaten down
I'll slip away
Into the sound
The ghost of you
Is close to me
I'm inside out
You're underneath

Don't let me be gone
Salvation comes in the final lines of the album. How is the devil's power at work in neurotic anxiety to be broken? How is Blurryface and demonic tools of shame, guilt and insecurity "taken out"? The final lines of the album:
I'm a goner
Somebody catch my breath
I'm a goner
Somebody catch my breath
I wanna be known by you
I wanna be known by You
If you listen to the song (please do) the petition climaxes in a scream of pain and longing, need and desire. The best prayers always do. And the last word of the album, that last "you, " is held, so I've capitalized it in the lyrics above.

Salvation comes to us through relationship with the One--the You whose Ghost/Spirit is close to us and underneath us--who fully and finally knows us. As Augustine says it, "Our hearts are restless, until they rest in You."

Our neurotic restlessness comes to rest in You, comes to rest when we are finally and fully known by You. Known, and therefore loved, in all our brokenness, insecurity, shame, guilt and inadequacy.
For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror;
then we shall see face to face.

Now I know in part;
then I shall know fully,

even as I am fully known.

1 Cor. 13.12

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