From his early days of hiding his music and being afraid to perform in front of an audience, Dan Smith and his band, Bastille, have left their mark on the music world. Their most famous song, “Pompeii,” peaked at number five on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2014. It’s hard to believe that it is already five years old. The song and its accompanying music video offer us a chance to take a hard look at our culture and ourselves.
The Roman city of Pompeii was destroyed in 79 AD, due to the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The catastrophe claimed the lives of at least 1,500 people in the ancient city. Tourists to the city today can view the haunting corpses of the citizens of Pompeii, frozen in volcanic ash just moments before their death. The song is imagined as a conversation between two of these corpses that have been petrified in ash for hundreds of years.
The song opens with a chorus of “Eh-eh-oh, eh-oh,” a rough equivalent of the Latin “Alas.” The two characters lament as they look back on the days before the eruption.
I was left to my own devices
Many days fell away with nothing to show
It’s not entirely clear what Smith means by these lyrics, they could be referring to all the years that the corpses have lain frozen in volcanic ash, or it may refer to the days before the eruption. Were the people of Pompeii indolent, wasting their lives prior to their death?
We were caught up and lost in all of our vices
In your pose as the dust settled around us
As Smith rides through the mostly abandoned city, he becomes alarmed when everyone he encounters has creepy black eyes. Something is clearly taking over these people and we must wonder if this is what Smith means by being caught up in our vices.
The parallels to the city of Pompeii are also interesting. When archeologists began investigating the site, they discovered numerous brothels, erotic art, graphic sex advertisements, phallic symbolism, and other sex symbols. It would seem that the people of Pompeii were obsessed with sex in many forms. Tragically, female slaves were used in brothels to satisfy the sexual appetites of men, including married men (it was normal and acceptable in ancient Rome for married men to get sexual pleasure from slaves). Many of these images and artifacts were locked away and hidden for years, due to their graphic, erotic nature. Even today the museum that houses these artifacts does not allow minors without an accompanying adult.
Though many are appalled by these discoveries, some see reason to celebrate the sexually promiscuous culture of Pompeii, as though it were some sort of golden age before Christianity’s influence arrived. However, this is to overlook the obviously degrading nature of what occurred in Pompeii. It was not a matter of “free love,” it was a matter of abuse. Sex slaves were kept in dark cells and used and abused on a regular basis. It would seem that this was not done merely in the back alley, but was a regular and “normal” part of life in Pompeii. This is nothing to celebrate.
Perhaps this sexual perversity was one of the vices in which everyone in Pompeii was caught up. We may even see this as a parallel to the black eyes that are taking over everyone in the music video. The chorus continues:
But if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like
Nothing changed at all?
And if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like
You’ve been here before?
What do these lyrics mean? They could mean that these people were thinking of a happier time before the eruption, but I wonder if there might be another meaning. Does it seem like nothing changed at all because the people were already “dead” before the eruption?
When we use sex in any and every way we please, we become less than who we were made to be. We hurt and exploit each other for pleasure, instead of loving and serving one another. We become like corpses—dead to beauty, seeing only how we can satisfy our own cravings. Perhaps the people of Pompeii were already “dead” in this way.
Though often accused of being prudish, Christianity’s views on sex are designed to protect us and to help us become more fully who we were made to be. Indeed, far from being anti-sex, the Bible teaches that God was the one who created sex to be enjoyed in the context of a marriage relationship between one man and one woman.
On a side note, I wonder sometimes if people in Hell also feel “like nothing changed at all.” We oftentimes think about Hell as a place where God drops unsuspecting people who forgot to go to church, but what if Hell is actually God giving some people what they really want? If we want nothing to do with God in this life, will God honor that choice and allow us to live frozen in our defiance forever? This is the true horror of the reality of Hell—that (according to C. S. Lewis) “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ’Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ’Thy will be done.’”¹
Just to clarify, I am not arguing that Dan Smith had all this in mind when he wrote the song, nor am I saying that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii was the direct judgment of God on the city for their sexual promiscuity. However, the song leaves us with much to think about.
Oh where do we begin?
The rubble or our sins?
These are the questions we must ask as we look at our own culture. There is moral decay all around us, but what do we do about it? Do we start by trying to rebuild the government, pass new laws, or make everyone conform to Christian morals? Or do we start with ourselves, with our own brokenness? On the surface, it’s easier to try to fix society: “If only we could get this person elected,” “If we could change that law,” or “If we could just get people to stop watching Hollywood movies…” But these are not ultimate solutions. If we are to truly see change, we must go deeper.
We must begin with the heart. We must recognize our own brokenness and our need for Christ. We must help others to see this need, as well as showing them Christ in a loving and compassionate way. I often wonder if this is why Paul does not condemn Philemon for having a slave, Onesimus. Instead, Paul elevates Onesimus to the level of a brother (Philemon 1:15-16), a shocking move in a culture where slaves were regarded as less-than-human. I think if Paul had begun a crusade to abolish slavery in the ancient world, he would have almost certainly failed. But the Gospel seed that was sown in the hearts of people eventually led to changed lives and the end of slavery in many parts of the world.
Beginning with our own sins and brokenness is hard. Fortunately, we are not left to do this on our own. Christ has promised to forgive and heal; and he offers this healing to the world. For Christians, we can have confidence that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion . . .” (Philippians 1:6)
Sign up here to receive weekly Reflect emails in your inbox!