“Roll Away Your Stone” by Mumford & Sons – An Interpretation: Narrative of a conversion

Knowing the potential perils of song interpretation, I nevertheless could not resist this song by Mumford & Sons that seems to be quite unique in popular culture in regard to its subject. I may be taking the song too literally, but I find this song to be a narrative of a spiritual conversion.

Roll away your stone, I’ll roll away mine
Together we can see what we will find
Don’t leave me alone at this time,
For I’m afraid of what I will discover inside

The first line refers to the stone that was rolled away following the resurrection of Jesus. The song begins with an image of renewed life but the focus quickly shifts inward and is therefore mostly about the struggle of “conversion.” The narrative begins with the singer wanting himself and his companion to “roll away” their stones. The singer is unsure what “they will find,” but he does seem to know and fear discovering things inside himself. This fear makes him not want to be alone. It is possible that the “roll away your stone” at the beginning signifies that the one guiding him here is none other than Jesus. In some ways this this makes the most sense, and can easily fit the entire song, but I will present another possible interpretation toward the end.

Cause you told me that I would find a hole,
Within the fragile substance of my soul
And I have filled this void with things unreal,
And all the while my character it steals

This second verse reveals what he has been afraid of discovering, but what he expects to find since his companion/guide has forewarned him. His fears are made more explicit, consisting of an inner emptiness that has been filled with things that are false. This has stolen his “character” (true self) away. This is a very accurate picture of idolatry and the tendency of the worshipper of a “deaf/dumb” idol to become like that idol. Blaise Pascal eloquently wrote of this inner void in man, and what alone can fill it:

What is it, then, that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself. (Pensees #425)

Darkness is a harsh term don’t you think?
And yet it dominates the things I see

Here he struggles with whether “darkness” is to harsh of a term to describe himself or the world, but he admits that darkness is what dominates life as he knows it. This is the stumbling block that many fall upon, preventing their acceptance of the biblical God and what he says about the nature of man. The simplicity of the lyric is profound in the way it portrays this struggle.

It seems that all my bridges have been burned,
But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart,
But the welcome I receive with the restart

He realizes that all  of his opportunities have been squandered, so that he is now trapped where he is. But his companion/guide tells him that his realization brings him to the place where he is ready for the new life. This is because the new life is not the result of self effort, or turning over a new leaf. It is the reception of a new life that comes by grace. The penance of a long walk home will not change the heart, it is only changed by the welcome received at the “restart.” This part of the song strongly alludes to the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, and possibly also to the conversation in John 3, of Jesus with Nicodemus, about the need for a new birth

Darkness is a harsh term don’t you think?
And yet it dominates the things I see
Darkness is a harsh term don’t you think?
And yet it dominates the things I’ve seen

The inner struggle continues, being a struggle that he cannot really ever escape from, except by giving in to its truth. This is the tragedy of human life and responsibility, the possibility of not ever giving in, the haunting regret when it is too late. The only day that offers salvation is “today.” We can never be sure of tomorrow.

Stars hide your fires,
These here are my desires
And I will give them up to you this time around
And so, I’ll be found with my stake stuck in this ground
Marking the territory of this newly impassioned soul

The first line may refer to a feeling of judgment he senses when looking at the stars which are consuming fires. The pervasive chorus/theme of darkness, the night with stars, may again show the setting is of a Nicodemus who comes by night to Jesus with a feeling that his soul is not right. The second line shows that the struggle nearly over as he admits before the consuming stars what his desires have been. Now he will give them up to “you” (God I presume) “this time around” which may imply that he has previously turned the other way. This time he stakes his claim, marking the new territory of “this newly impassioned soul.” His desire now is to give up his old desires, to cast off the old lethargy, to seize hold of the new passion.

But you, you’ve gone too far this time
You have neither reason nor rhyme
With which to take this soul that is so rightfully mine

The most difficult part of the song because of what seems to be a change of who he is addressing or thinking about. But I think the answer is in trying to find if there was any “enemy” that he mentioned previously. In the second verse he said “And I have filled this void with things unreal, and all the while my character it steals.” So it is really the part of himself that has sought to fill the void, and buried his true self in the process. He realizes that in order to change he must not allow his old self to dominate. He sees that he has no logical or aesthetic reasons (“reason nor rhyme”) that amount to proper authority over him; therefore his old claim on his soul (essential self) is unwarranted. In other-words he is actually rejecting his old self in favor of the new self. This is why conversion is so difficult, because it is going against the grain of what one has always been. But this is the only way – as Jesus said – if we seek to save our life we will lose it, but if we will lose our life we will save it. We must give up the old life to be given by grace a “restart,” a new life.

This song certainly provides quite the “narrative of a conversion.” I mentioned at the outset that the companion could be Jesus. Another possibility is that it could possibly be the conversion of  a couple. Normally conversion is thought of as a solitary affair. In one way it must be solitary, because it entails the existential responsibility of each individual. But this does not mean that it cannot be nearly simultaneous. Biblically speaking, there are several records of entire households being converted simultaneously. Certainly then, such blessed conversions of couples can also happen. Also, though conversion may “technically” be a private affair, it cannot remain so because we live in society with others. In the narrative of this song the companion is somewhat the teacher of the singer in the conversion, and that is oft the case in real life. We invariably “lead” each other, as seen in the Adam and Eve narrative, for good and for ill. May it be for good!

It is also possible, since an interpreter of a song cannot really know the intent of the author of a song, that this song could be the narrative of the restoration of a troubled relationship. The religious imagery of conversion may be used to describe the internal depths that need to be plumbed and transformed, for the salvation of the relationship. It is always interesting that many songs can be “read” as depicting a male/female relationship, or depicting the human/divine relationship, or both at the same time. The reason for this phenomena is simple, because the moral universe “in which we live and move and have our being” encompasses both, and the male/female marriage relationship is essentially a “type” or symbol of the human/divine one. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians plainly says that human marriage is an earthly symbol of the more ultimate “marriage” of Christ to the Church. If the song is actually about the salvation of a relationship, it does not remove the fact that the imagery used to show that process is that of conversion.

In conclusion, this song by Mumford & Sons seems to either utilize, or actually portray one of the most difficult,  important, and ironically uncommon aspects of human life, namely conversion. People are, and in the main have always been, afraid of conversion, because they equate it to “being taken.” For this reason we can thank Mumford & Son for providing a convincing narrative of conversion. They show that resisting conversion is actually the “being taken,” by our own fallen self, fully bolstered by the masses in the collective darkness. The common but ironic reality of fallen human life is that “the crowd is untruth,” as Soren Kierkegaard wrote. Of course SK did not originate that sad reality. It was Jesus of Nazareth that said,

Matthew 7:13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

This warning from Jesus does not necessarily mean that at the end of history more people will have been “lost” than “saved.” The warning is more about the two ways, the hard narrow way, and the easy wide way. The main point is about what we need to do. A crowd of people cannot pass through a narrow gate and walk a hard way, only individuals can do so. A crowd of people can only go the wide and easy way. Therefore we must leave the crowd, if we are to enter the way of life.

God’s peace,

Comments, questions, critiques are always welcome!

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content

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