Peter Gabriel - Mercy Street by Peter Gabriel

Dreaming of Mercy

It might come as a surprise to find a rock star singing about mercy since the word has such strong religious associations.

I, for one, wondered if perhaps Mercy Street[1] was another of Peter Gabriel’s lyric fantasies the name of a club perhaps, or some utopian destination. Having grabbed my attention, Gabriel has led me down into the murky underworld of Anne Sexton’s poetry along with its angst. But without Gabriel’s compassionate interpretation of Sexton, I may never have ventured into these depths of human confusion and misery.[2] Nevertheless, in the depth of their music and poetry – and there is almost “underground” about their respective work – I find God going about his own work barely perceived by humans. That work, like pinpoints of light amid human despair, shines out in the darkness. In fact, the language of mercy, when creatively re-worded by contemporary songwriters and poets, has long been spoken about in Holy Scripture, where most importantly, divine compassion drives it.


As one of America’s “confessional poets” in the sixties,[3] Anne Sexton rebelled against romanticism in poetry. Her own self-revelations are characteristic of this sixties literary movement, in which the “I” and its private experience is paramount.[4] To some degree Gabriel’s song rehabilitates people like Sexton, nevertheless, I am cautious on account of several in this group being institutionalized and/or committing suicide; artistic brilliance and mental turmoil sometimes make formidable partners.

Mercy Street refers to dreams which solidify into the nightmare of treatment in a mental hospital. Gabriel’s “confessing all the secret things to the priest who can handle the shocks” initially suggests the positive agency of the confessional, but the lyrics darkly hint too at treatment Anne received while in hospital. Those lyrics may also reveal sexual innuendo, something for which Gabriel has a reputation.[5] Importantly, he understands Anne’s art and interprets her through his lyrics. To “wear your insides out” for example, could equally refer to Anne’s fatigue at her life of perpetual therapy as to her excruciating self-disclosures in print. To perfectly mishear the above would render the same phrase “where your inside’s out” – and a singularly bitter pun at that.

There are matters of broken trust here too. Anne’s relationship with her father has been questioned which, together with her psychiatrist’s controversial release of their taped therapy sessions, makes “in your daddy’s arms” decidedly ambiguous. One would expect listeners to have mixed reactions to this father and daughter all at sea in a little boat.

Gabriel also plays with the image of light throughout this song; someone apparently floundering in water by moonlight dramatically backgrounding the song whenever it is performed.[6] In addition, the phrase “pale green and grey” draws attention to the colour of hospital walls. Hospitals should be healing and comforting. Understanding this as a reference to mental hospitals of the sixties, I shudder instead.

Such is the power of these lyrics that this lament for Anne (and father) continues to hint at better things. Gabriel’s thoughtful absorption of Sexton’s poetry demonstrates great sensitivity to her struggles. Difficult issues like mental illness, sexual abuse, and suicide are traversed, and seemingly impossible hope “pictures a soul/ with no leak at the seam.” Gabriel’s hallmark flute solo further suggests the mere “breath” of human existence claimed by Ecclesiastes’ preacher.[7]

Frustratingly, nothing ever quite resolves, which may be emotionally unsatisfying, but the lack of crisp resolution here is a great song writing technique.

An Awful Rowing

Elements from Sexton’s poem collection The Awful Rowing Toward God,[8] describe the unrelenting effort of rowing a boat towards an “island called God.”[9] They demonstrate the direction and intentionality of Anne’s basic hope and lead to questions about Sexton’s understanding of mercy – the danger of universalism lurks, wherein all are received by God with little discussion about sin, salvation, or the process of sanctification. To consider mercy is to enter a much larger dimension of God than forgiveness alone, and places Sexton on the edge of something enormous. If we are open to it, we may discover one the mysteries of God.

In another poem from the same final collection Sexton envisages God as a poker player – “He wins because He holds five aces.”[10] From Sexton’s point-of-view, this is a trickster God, who knows how to manipulate the rules to unfair advantage. I am myself persuaded that her insight into God is as the one who calls the shots. This means her efforts depend less on herself and more on God’s breaking his own rules. In Richard Rohr’s words “…every time God forgives or shows mercy, God is breaking God’s own rules, being inconsistent…”[11]

In deep wisdom, God extends mercy to all manner of people. We simply cannot stand in judgement. So, along with ancient Job, we might acknowledge, “[we] have uttered what [we] did not understand” (Job 42:3). Tantalisingly then, we circumnavigate the perennial debate regarding Common Grace and Special Grace,[12] without the space to explore specifics here in Mercy Street. For the word mercy implies both a wronged party and a wrong-doer, and thus some requirement of forgiveness. But I note that Gabriel’s lyrics do not aspire to forgiveness. The result undermines the act of confession to which he clearly alludes and the Christian traditions which confer blessing upon one confessing sin.

Perhaps that is asking too much of Gabriel, who has not, of course, set out to write theologically. Anne’s “gnawing pestilential rat”[13] however can hardly be ignored as a metaphor for the sin that God will take “with his two hands and embrace”[14] in which I find an oblique reference to the crucified Christ, though more artistic, perhaps, than theological. So, in the end, sin, mercy, and salvation all get a bit smudged.

Mercy Street nonetheless appears to point to something (or somebody) beyond itself. The intrinsic function of a signpost is captured by Gabriel’s haunting phrase, “'Swear they moved that sign.” On the one hand this suggests that something unexplainable has occurred. On the other, it may just open us up to the mystery that mercy is. Being a part of the chorus, the phrase is repeated, emphasising both the sign’s navigational duties and any subsequent confusion over its misplacement. A signpost to Mercy personified, whether misplaced or inaccurately presented, is a provocative thought. How do I express mercy – and in what ways do I perhaps fall short?

Faith gleams faintly from Anne’s inky text where, to borrow from Tim Keller, God is at work “infinitely, immeasurably, unspeakably beyond my largest notions of what he is up to.”[15] Paul, the Apostle, puts it quite bluntly: “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead...” (Eph 2:4–5, NRSV, emphasis added). Mercy, for Paul, originates in the heavens and having come to earth in Christ, and by the Spirit, propagates via a new community of redeemed human beings. Once excluded and without hope, Christians live in the power of God’s Spirit, whose creed (when put into modern song) rehearses “Our Judge and our defender … forgiveness is in Him.”[16] Paul, in the Jewish tradition of God’s self-revelation as “loving (Heb: ḥě·sěḏ)[17] and compassionate (Heb: rǎ·ḥûm)”[18] (Exod 34:6), may well have had this passage in mind as he wrote his letter to the Ephesian Christians.

Anne Sexton doubtless had her difficulties with intergenerational dysfunction similar to that which afflicts people in our country.[19] New Zealand’s own James K. Baxter, shortly before he died, testified to “the healing of old wounds through the hands of an undenominational pastor.”[20] The recent publication of Baxter’s personal letters reveal the depth of his iniquity and struggles[21] and those who must now deal with his legacy of wrongdoing are justly sceptical of the sincerity of this “healing.” But denying forgiveness would also deny the restorative power of the Holy Spirit, so until the “Book of Life”(Rev 13:8) is opened, I suppose we will all have to suspend judgement.

Leaving Anne then, out in the boat with her father, I note that mercy is picked up by Christian singers and songwriters ready to share their own stories[22] of human inconsistency and of God’s boundless mercy. Those stories touch on the awkward truth that many of us persist in approaching God on our own terms (rowing) rather than on his terms, and we wear ourselves out in the process (an awful rowing). The Light of Jesus certainly does shine in the darkness but that darkness neither overcomes, nor comprehends it, says the Gospel of John.[23]

Peter Gabriel’s song-writing inspires me to discover mercy at work in the artistic world about me. In this, he challenges my own everyday practice of mercy; but I guess in the end the God of Mercy makes the most sense to people who (as precious stones) he has recovered from the deepest, darkest, places of all.

Peter Jelleyman graduated from Laidlaw College in 2012 with a BTheol. He currently works as a broadcast technician for Rhema Media in Auckland, enjoys poetry and music, and is particularly interested in what musicians are saying and how they are saying it. Peter blogs in his spare time and relishes any occasion in which can explore the sonic world of musical synthesizers.

[1] Mercy Street – lyrics by Peter Gabriel:

[2] By referencing Anne Sexton, and Peter Gabriel, the writer does not unconditionally endorse their work. The dark themes they struggle with are representative of themes which concern society as a whole and he approaches these with caution.

[3] Confessional poetry is associated with people such as: Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, W. D. Snodgrass, and Anne Sexton. They did not enjoy universal acclaim and received plenty of criticism from the literary establishment in North America.

[4] See website Poets.Org:

[5] Peter Gabriel, original lead singer for the prog-rock group Genesis, was famous for his dramatic performances and sometimes very weird lyrics. Theatrical, philosophical, avant-garde, and prolific, the band produced albums like: Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, Selling England by the Pound, The Lamb Lies Down in Broadway. “I prefer things to give an air of meaning, rather than meaning itself,” Gabriel is reported as saying in – Chris Welch, The Secret Life of Peter Gabriel (London; New York: Omnibus Press, 1998), 88.

[6] Mercy Street – the video clip communicates life as a struggle for survival and in my view, makes archetypal references to Charon (the ferryman of Greek mythology) who takes passengers across the river Styx to the underworld. This metaphor for death and dying matches the tenor of Anne’s depression and suicide attempts:

[7] Ecclesiastes’ protagonist Qoholet protests the brevity of human life. Translation of the difficult Hebrew word hě·ḇěl (lit. “breath”) as “vanity”, “futility” , or “temporality” gives Ecclesiastes a reputation for pessimism, but below the surface, his approach is actually profoundly positive: life is a gift, live it as well as you are able but remember the giver of that life. Ecclesiastes 6:13 exposes the futility of life apart from God, a futility well represented in Gabriel’s representation of Anne Sexton’s work.

[8] Anne Sexton, The Awful Rowing Toward God (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,1975)

[9] “Rowing” in Sexton, The Awful Rowing Toward God, 1. “Rowing” is the name of the first poem in the above collection by Sexton.

[10] “The Rowing Endeth” in Sexton, The Awful Rowing Toward God, 85. Anne’s language appears to allude to Christian belief: “God,” “the shape of a fish,” “being in such a state of awe,” a “Rejoice-Chorus,” and “untamable, eternal, gut driven ha ha.” Her poetic tumble of words, however, makes precise meanings more difficult to discern. “The Rowing Endeth” is the last poem in the above collection by Sexton. Together they form bookends to the collection which dwells on death and dying.

[11] Richard Rohr. The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2015), 77.

[12] Bruce A. Demarest. The Cross and Salvation: The Doctrine of Salvation. Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1997), 64. Demarest describes several perspectives on salvation emerging from the Church’s history. The roles of human will and divine grace require deep consideration as opposed to snap decisions.

[13] “Rowing” in Sexton, The Awful Rowing Toward God, 1.

[14] Ibid. Sexton’s poetic allusion to sin and salvation demonstrate the insight that God possesses the ultimate answer to human sinfulness.

[15] Quoted in “June 21” by Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller, The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms, (New York: Viking, 2015), 172. See note 70: the he origin of the phrase, Elisabeth Elliot, “Epilogue II,” in Through the Gates of Splendor, 40th ann. Ed. (Tyndale, 1996), 267.

[16] Ben Fielding / Matt Crocker Capitol Christian Music Group, This I Believe (The Creed) at

The phrasing quoted neatly encapsulates the meting out of justice and the restoration of wellbeing in the context of mercy and forgiveness through the cross of Jesus Christ.

[17] R. L. Harris et al., “ḥě·sěḏ ” [698] in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament Vol I (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 305-7. “‘Faithful love’ or ‘true kindness’ or the like” and usually expressed in the context of covenantal relationship.

[18] Harris et al., “rǎ·ḥûmTheological Wordbook, 841. This word is used for the deep inward feeling we know variously as compassion, pity, mercy. “The depth of this love is shown by the connection of this word with rehem/raham” [2146a] womb,” that is, the mother’s love toward her nursing baby (Isa 49:15) or a father’s love (Ps 103:13) especially insofar as he remembers that “that we are dust.” The occurrence of these two words together intensifies each and confers God with the character combining covenantal faithfulness with unmerited pity and love. It is not clear whether Anne Sexton experienced this, but she certainly hoped for it.

[19] See statistics from the New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse website:

[20] From a limited and private publication: James K. Baxter, Thoughts About the Holy Spirit (Karori, NZ: Futuna Press, 1973). Baxter’s final expression, as one having received healing, prefaces a series of poems which reveal deep faith and thankfulness.

[21] See Shock over the publication of letters written by the late, J. K. Baxter surfaces the feelings that some have expressed regarding Baxter’s confession of healing. Incredulity as to the sincerity of that “healing” occurs where the terrible legacy of his actions remains apparently unaddressed. Mercy does not sidestep this issue but discussing it at any length would require a much longer article.

[22] For example: Amy Grant, How Mercy Looks from Here, and Michael W. Smith (with Amy Grant), Lord Have Mercy, Christ Have Mercy. See Smith’s own testimony of redemption at

Brooke Fraser’s The C.S. Lewis Song, especially, articulates the Christian hope in what would make a magnificent response to Peter Gabriel – and possibly a whole article in itself.

[23] The Greek word katalambanō in John 1:5 “can mean ‘grasp’ in the sense of makes one’s own (cf. Phil 3:12), understand (Eph 3:18), overcome or overtake (12:35, cf. 1 Thess 5:4).” I consider that the context (cf. vv. 10–12) suggests that acknowledging and receiving the truth of the revelation is primarily in view here.” See George R. Beasley-Murray, John. WBC 36 (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1999), 11.