The Longing for Meaning: Phoebe Bridgers' "Chinese Satellite"
The past few weeks I’ve found myself listening over and over again to a song from Phoebe Bridgers’ haunting 2020 album Punisher called “Chinese Satellite.” Despite the evocativeness of that title, this is not a political post or a commentary on global relations. But with the recent reports of Chinese balloons appearing above American skies, perhaps a song with a name like “Chinese Satellite” has a little extra relevance.
The song has resonated with me because it’s a nakedly honest expression of one unbeliever’s desperate wish for there to be something more in the world than what she thinks there is. “I want to believe./Instead I look at the sky and I feel nothing,” she sings at one key moment. The song is about a search for what is often called transcendence, something beyond the material experiences we live with each day. For me, the most poignant line is the singer’s pained confession in the face of the nothingness she perceives: “I want to be wrong.”
It's often noted that the so-called New Atheists of the early 2000s are different from the atheists of earlier eras. The New Atheists seem gleeful to rid their world of God, or they exult in their anger at a figure whose existence they deny, while a previous generation of non-believers lamented the loss of meaning that came with believing there was no God. The tone of the New Atheist talk was glib and nonchalant. What I appreciate about Phoebe Bridgers’ song is the fact that it takes seriously the big questions of meaning. To have hope in the face of our dying and significance in the everyday routines of our living is something that matters.
The longing for meaning is a basic feature of human existence. It’s one of the reasons why we love telling stories: stories put things in order, supplying seemingly random or disconnected events with a deeper meaning. To believe in God—and particularly to believe that the true God is the God revealed in Jesus Christ—is to find that life is deeply meaningful. We live in a world that is ordered and cared for, even when it seems to be laden with tragedy. And our life in time is one that always moves forward, straining toward God’s future plans for the renewal of all creation.
The song’s title comes from a line that is as telling as it is funny:
Took a tour out to see the stars
But they weren’t out tonight
So I wished hard on a Chinese satellite.
The image this summons up could be something out of one of the biblical prophet: a person trying to wish on a star (or maybe to pray) finding themselves instead wishing on the only object they can see when they look at the sky. The human desire to worship something is so strong that when we lose faith in the true God we look for a substitute wherever we can find it (see Isaiah 44:12-17). But the lyric doesn’t come across like a punchline. I’m usually close to tears each time I hear it, because the singer’s longing for more is so intense.
As a Christian, I happen to be convinced that Phoebe Bridgers is as mistaken as she says that she wants to be. The desire she expresses at the end of the song—“I want to go home”—is one that in Jesus Christ we believe already to be pledged by God. One day he will make his home with us forever, and we will find our lives to make the full sense that they were always meant to, as we become completely at home in God’s presence. For now, her song is a beautiful testimony of what many people around us are feeling.
“Chinese Satellite” reminds me that I shouldn’t dismiss the questions of my non-believing friends, and certainly that I shouldn’t resort to smugness or to blaming others as they sort through these questions. If we can understand their longings we will be better able to come to grips with our own, and only then will we fully appreciate the gift that Jesus is. And in some moment of honest connection, we may be able to communicate with these friends the good news in a way that touches their lives as meaningfully as it has touched ours.