• Aarik Danielsen

Heaven is a Karaoke Bar

Letting their words do the walking, preachers guide the faithful along the highway to hell. Walking around quicksand plots, describing each pebble and pitfall, they warn as they wander. Hands clutch a pulpit’s narrow guardrails and heels dig into carpet as if the force of someone’s will—God’s or their own—might keep them from tripping into the fire.


The sermon turns to heaven, and they give up their grip. Palms drift toward arched rafters or close around phantom brushes, all the better to paint postcard glimpses of eternity.


On some lips, these landscape picture planes fill with evidence of God’s riches—gilded streets, glassy seas. Others resemble knockoff Norman Rockwells, all fishing holes and homey handshakes traded between the saints.


These word paintings rarely impress me. Some sound like boasts on God’s behalf, not an expectant vision of God himself. Others pitch eternal life like a timeshare: the best of whatever you might want. Scenic vistas, pastimes, arts and crafts—you name it, God delivers.


 
Mostly I know what I don’t know. Heaven isn’t a hobbyist’s paradise or a sight lovelier than its architect.
 

Ask me for my own painting and I purse my lips. Sure things scare me, and God forbid I remake the promised land in my own image or interests. Mostly I know what I don’t know. Heaven isn’t a hobbyist’s paradise or a sight lovelier than its architect.


Still, years of Sundays shape my imagination. One vision sticks in my mind like a playlist composed of only one song.


Heaven is a karaoke bar. Or at least it houses one.


Make no mistake: this image terrifies me, and I extend the picture not with a preacher’s confidence but with two shaky hands. Any heaven worth holing up in must span the gap between what I manifest and what I hold in hope. And in a spirit of confession, I concede that I have yet to ascend a karaoke stage.


I want to sing karaoke, but anxiety keeps me from crossing its threshold. I studied vocal music in college and can fake my way along the contours of most melodies. The fear arrives elsewhere, as I envision all eyes on me. In every karaoke daydream, my electric nerves feedback, drowning out “Tiny Dancer” or whatever song I selected.


 
Someone I know is bound to tip back a few glasses of communion wine and sing ‘80s pop hits for their first thousand years of eternity.
 

When I order the world, fearless karaoke singers exist alongside world-class athletes. I esteem them with wide eyes, accompany their feats with sighing. Screwing my eyes shut tight, I picture Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tom taking a stage offered by the film “(500) Days of Summer.” Dizzy from brown bottles of beer and Zooey Deschanel’s presence, he lands the best note in the best Pixies song.

I am in awe—yet sit distant from such daring, my pulse out of time with the rhythms forming this rite of passage.


But somehow my impression heartens me. Given a few seconds’ headstart, I picture my spiritual family queuing to scribble their names on a signup sheet and take turns at the mic. The holy karaoke machine knows any anthem they can dream up.


Sing the songs of old-time religion. Or take your favorite Third Day song with you when you go. But only if you want to. Everything is fair game here.


Someone I know is bound to tip back a few glasses of communion wine and sing ‘80s pop hits for their first thousand years of eternity, only moving the music forward when good and ready.


My friend Luke, who lives and breathes the Beatles, might offer his reading of “All You Need is Love.” Or maybe he delivers “Here Comes the Sun.” Free from guile or the temptation to Jesus juke, he refrains from changing “sun” to “son.” Shot through with all the warmth of God, he revels in a great George Harrison ballad on its own terms.


Striking up The Band, some soul leans hard into Mavis Staples’ verse on “The Weight.” Another gives LCD Soundsystem all it can handle, converting the bass drop on “Dance Yrself Clean” into a prayer. From within the eye of ecstasy, a singer turns their microphone toward a million redeemed voices who send a wordless Arcade Fire chorus into the endless atmosphere.


 
What about me? Perhaps I will pick my favorite song by The Cure, winking at the saints as I sing of romance that’s “just like heaven.”
 

What about me? Perhaps I will pick my favorite song by The Cure, winking at the saints as I sing of romance that’s “just like heaven.” Or in a baritone that’s distinctly my own, yet forever in tune, I’ll croon The National’s “Afraid of Everyone” precisely because perfect love has driven away my fears.


Words that typically scroll across tiny TV screens will be written on our hearts. And we won’t just play the hits. American kids will recognize their pop standards—and innately know French ballads and the sounds of West African high life.


All the vulnerability a singer musters at the microphone will wick away into something like pure euphoria. Pure acceptance. The chords of our bond will linger long after our worldly normal, when the bartender hits the lights and friends spill into the streets. Here there is no last call; here the lights never go out.


Or maybe not. Maybe heaven sounds nothing like this. Maybe one of a thousand preachers got it right. Maybe eternal life is all—or none—of the above. Mostly I know what I don’t know.


 
Each artifact of our living will know its true meaning and none of its mistakes.
 

Here’s what I can affirm. Someday the stars as we know them will collapse on themselves, to be reborn as everlasting bulbs. Towering trees, as omniscient as any created thing, will stretch their roots until they touch the core of a new Eden.


The best of what we’ve made—and the best of what God makes—will survive, this time without blemish. We will tend our gardens without worm or rot, comb libraries without fear that the latest Amor Towles novel is due back before we can finish. Each artifact of our living will know its true meaning and none of its mistakes.


If God’s anointed one comes to fulfill every stroke of spiritual law, how light a thing are our pop songs and pulp fictions? Surely he will fulfill them too, making eternity of all the words we sang into the mirror yet dared not hope. Whatever form eternity takes, I will tune to him and my hesitation will slip away, freeing me to seize the microphone as long as heaven allows.



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