Godless Mouse: How Isaac Brock poses the most important threat to Catholic education


Published: April 30, 2009

At 3:30 in the morning late last spring, I heard the gun shots ring out from the parade. In pajamas, I joined the growing crowd of onlookers. Thirty-some-odd dumbfounded undergrads kept an even fifty-yard radius from the lone gunman in the center of the field, as if he were firing field goals and not bullets. The absurdity of standing in the shooter’s unobstructed view was offset by his getup: boxers, a tank-top undershirt, cowboy boots and hat. Any threatening air was mitigated by his portly and elderly physique, and by the fact that he never lowered his gun away from the heavens. Everyone quietly concluded that whatever his beef was, it was up there.

His face was cast in shadow, so we could not tell who it was, but my stomach twisted with a hunch. Earlier that week, I had met in Father McManus’s office to discuss my theology thesis, and forgot my CD player with Modest Mouse’s “Lonesome Crowded West” at the foot of my chair. I left a note in his mailbox about it and thought nothing more. Sure enough, as I got within ear range of the deranged man pointing his rifle to the sky, I heard him scream, “God, if I have to die, you gone have to die!”

Father McManus is just one sad and personal example. All over the country—Loyola, Boston, Regis, Marquette, Seattle, Jesuit educators precariously exposed to students listening to Modest Mouse are falling from the ranks of the priesthood.

A friend at Gonzaga put me in touch with his former professor whom he once gave a copy of Everywhere and His Nasty Parlor Tricks. James Levino, 63, now shares a studio space in Portland, Oregon. He has abandoned his clerical collar and cassock for v-neck and plaid. He is currently learning bass for his roommate’s band and attempting to win over a crush he had pursued for years before entering the seminary. I asked him what sparked the radical shift.

“For me, it was the song, ‘So Much Beauty in Dirt.’ That title just ran contrary to everything I was ever taught. I was brought up believing that there is no enchantment without God. I was familiar with the beauty in literature and marvels of science, but still held fast to those old… prejudices. Then Isaac Brock sings a song about watching M.A.S.H. and lying in the grass and I fucking lost it.”

The discussion took several turns, involving exegeses of Brock’s lyrics. Regarding the song, “Trailer Trash,” Levino remarked, “They’re just singing about the saddest people and how they make the most pathetic pastimes sound beautiful. You can’t help these people with God.” Each time he repeated “God” his tone became more choleric and shrill. “Goood  can’t make life richer for these people! You cannot buy them a home with Gooood!”

Levino’s former colleague, whom he did not wish to name, had a breakdown several weeks after Modest Mouse did a show in Spokane. He was delivering a sermon on the emptiness of faith without religious practice. Midway through citing a passage from Psalms, he stopped speaking and stared at the floor for a long time. An altar boy went to check on him when he finally muttered into the microphone, “Every time you think you’re talking, you’re just moving your mouth…”

“Cowboy Dan,” was the same song that turned McManus.

Levino explained, “You do not understand what it takes to get up on a pulpit and assume divine proxy. It requires absolute self-certainty. The perpetual self-questioning of Isaac Brock is the antithesis to this. It literally encompasses the transition from righteous self-assurance to pissing in a can of Schlitz at 4 p.m. because the edge of the bed seems pointlessly distant.”

The same colleague attempted a triumphant return for his own grand-nephew’s baptism a month later. Just as he was about to christen the child, the priest paused, looked to the crowd, threw the holy water in the air and began to twirl singing, “Well we sat on the edge of the river, the crowd screamed ‘sacrifice the liver,’ If God takes life he’s an Indian giver…”

As two outraged attendants dragged him out he continued, screaming, “Who would wanna be, who would wanna be such a control freak?”

I asked Levino if he was removed from the priesthood. “No, he was transferred. Given the official line on pedophilia, it would be plain wrong for them to get up in arms over technicalities like belief in God.”

This led me to believe that perhaps Father McManus could be tracked down.

Sources led me to a retreat in upstate New York that serves as a halfway house for “recovering” priests. There was small building for severe cases. He was in solitary because of his corrupting influence on the other patients.

McManus was escorted to meet me by two large guards. A third man entered to monitor our conversation. He claimed to hold a high rank in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Though, I had never heard of a “trustee,” evidently they exercise controlling influence on the moral codes of Catholic universities.

McManus was clearly still drugged, his eyes rolling upward and his head side-to-side. When he saw the trustee, he belted out in his baritone voice, “Well all the apostles are sitting in swings, and I’d sell off my savior for a set of new rings, and some sandals, with the style of the strap that clings best to the arrow!”

The trustee slapped him once across the face.

I asked McManus how he was.

He replied, “I’m iiin heaven, trying to figure out which sack, they’re gonna stick us atheists into, when Peter and his monkey laugh, and I’ll laugh with them… not sure what at.”

The trustee jumped across the room, hand open, out and ready. I stopped him claiming I may be able to reach McManus.

I asked him about that track, “Styrofoam Boots,” and he came alive. For a brief moment, he was the old fiery lecturer. “The bulk of their discography consists in intense laments over the beauty in anomie and the absurdity of impossible happiness. That is, sad songs. Here, though, Brock offers a theological argument…”

McManus was referring to Brock’s encounter with God in the song (“He moved just like Crisco disco, breath 100 percent Listerine”). He continued, “Before the epic drum solo, as a whisper that sparks a whole gale, Brock gently tips Western tradition on its side with one aphorism, ‘God takes care of himself, and you of you.’ Don’t you see? This is not dogmatic atheism. This is a deduction from God’s very nature. He does not interfere with us any more than He is above and beyond us…Any more than He is a He!”

I responded that while Brock is a brilliant lyricist, it would be dubious to ascribe to him any erudite atheism, seeing as his sole public statement on the subject is “I’m 100 percent on the whole Christianity thing being a crock of shit.”

McManus replied enigmatically, “To attribute a subject to a book is to fabricate a beneficent god to explain geological movements. Thoughts like this don’t need to be transmitted linearly. Just be open to them and shake yourself free from convention. Just like standing in the tall grass, doing nothing, think nothing. What we have in this world is what we need: oxygen to breathe, etc. The natural conclusion to this is that we recognize what it is to be. Because that is what life is…”

He then looked over each of his side as his breathing became heavier, betraying some awful, sudden anxiety, “…pure immanence!”

The trustee hissed, “Get him!” his pupils suddenly two vertical lines. McManus had his eyes closed and recited lyrics under his breath as if in prayer, “You m-missed when time and life sh-shook hands and said goodbye.” The guards jumped on McManus, lifted him above their heads and marched him into the next room, the trustee circling them with a flute and demonic dance. McManus continued, “For your sake, I hope heaven and hell, dooo exist but I wouldn’t hold my breath.” There was a trapdoor in the corner with a sign over it that read “Over-liberated.” Just before they threw him in, McManus yelled to them, and possibly to himself, “you wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste the afterlife!”

The three men suddenly began to compose themselves and brush their clothes. When they again became conscious of my presence, they politely asked me to leave.

The following week I met Levino again. I told him what happened at the retreat. “Yeah,” he said fondly, “they’ll do that. As an altar boy I got flogged for ringing the bell to the Gillette tune.”

I chuckled and let the subject drop. Then, I reflected on the event for a while and realized I had neglected to ask something, “Do you believe God exists?”

Levino abruptly threw down his paddle ball and gave me an annoyed look. “Don’t you get it yet?” he said. “That’s beside the point.”