The chasm separating communion and cannibalism was wide, or so I assumed. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt something like a fist balling up in my belly.
It was 1994, and I was 16, the son of a Baptist minister. Each item in my brain-box was neatly nestled in its proper pigeonhole. According to my organizational system, Christian artists sang about Christ—not cannibalism. Audio Adrenaline could sing about a “big house,” but that house could not be owned by a cannibal.
Michael Knott apparently disagreed.
I bought Knott’s Rocket and a Bomb record at a Christian bookstore after sampling it in the “demo booth,” which was essentially a repurposed refrigerator with a car stereo installed inside. Had “Kitty,” the song about the suspected cannibal, been among the songs I sampled, I might have coughed up something other than cash at the checkout counter.
In the privacy of my room, I discovered my purchase had come with a free moral dilemma. Distressed, I showed Dad a few excerpts from the album. He said it sounded like music one might expect to hear in a smoke-filled bar.
I had never been to a bar, but I understood. It was folk-rock for stumblebums, with understated Fender Rhodes oozing booze, and cellos offering an optional sobriety to the proceedings.
Dad says I spun “Kitty” repeatedly for him, attempting to unravel its mysteries. Unlike me, he felt no fist balling up in his belly. He was more concerned about my scrupulosity than he was about the song itself. My introspection was actually the tip of an iceberg that would later surface in the form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). At that time, I only knew this song was neither fish nor fowl.
“Kitty” was one of several character sketches on Rocket and a Bomb. Throughout the record, Knott’s narration functions like sunlight shining all weird and woozy through a glass of beer, illuminating darkly comedic, cartoonish caricatures of people. I read somewhere that the seedy subjects of the album resided in Knott’s apartment complex.
When the odious odor of Kitty’s cooking reaches the narrator’s nostrils, he sings:
I’m getting dry heaves
It’s coming down the hall
It’s seeping through my wall
Stop that cookin,’ please!
What’s cookin’ Kitty?
Smells kinda’ human
Ooh, I’m about to vomit!
Please tell me that it’s not.
As a fan of Knott’s Christian gothic outfit, Lifesavers Underground (L. S. U.), I expected the man to engage in feats of artistic daring. L. S. U.’s Shaded Pain album had sounded like a musical exorcism, but lyrically it had offered compelling visions of man wrestling with his sinful nature.
These visions did not include cannibalism.
“Kitty” continued to gnaw at my conscience as only a song about a cannibal can. Dad said I could attempt to return the offending album to the bookstore. I tried, but the clerk said no.
Left with an album I could not return, I did the unthinkable: I embraced the cannibal. I faced my discomfort and lived with Rocket and a Bomb. After Kitty had cooked in my kitchen for awhile, the album became a favorite of mine. Even more, I joined the ranks of those who saw Michael Knott as a superhero from the Christian underground who could leap small minds in a single bound.
Looking back at this story, another incident comes to mind. In a bible study I attended as a child, Dad asked the group to list sins we are eager to identify in the lives of others.
I raised my hand and said, “Smoking!” Christians, as I knew good and well, only smoked when the Roman Emperor Nero used them as human torches.
My moral compass, at least as far as I knew, was a reliable instrument. But my judgment about smoking came back to wallop me in the gut in 2001 when Michael Knott performed at Dad’s church. He performed one of his signature songs—“Rockstars on H”—and no one seemed to find it odd that a man in combat boots was being paid to sing about heroin in the church multipurpose building.
I shook hands with my hero after his performance, and he said something I have never forgotten: “I drink and I smoke, and God loves me.”
But smoking is a sin, I thought. Probably a cardinal one, whatever that means.
I wrestled with Knott’s statement much as I wrestled with “Kitty.” That the Kingdom of God could belong to people the Pharisees condemned probably planted similar seeds of discomfort in the hearts of those who heard Jesus speak.
The seed was a metaphor Jesus seemed to enjoy employing. I cannot help but think he planted fist-shaped seeds in the guts of those who could not stomach His love for the unlovable. In His opponents, those fists remained clenched.
But in the bellies of those who would believe in Him, those fists opened like flowers and filled their lives with the fragrance of grace. In this sense, “Kitty” challenged me to see even the cannibal as a potential recipient of God’s grace. Jesus had a way of seeing invisible people, and “Kitty” helped me see a woman I would have otherwise blindly dismissed.
Jesus taught His followers to minister to outcasts and see them as embodiments of Himself. Perhaps we participate in communion alongside Kitty when we eat Christ’s body. Perhaps we, too, are cannibals.
Perhaps on the cross, Christ likewise took something of us into Himself when He ate our sins.
Author’s Note: Three of Michael Knott’s most beloved records—a solo album titled Screaming Brittle Siren, and L. S. U. albums Shaded Pain and The Grape Prophet—were recently rereleased at Bandcamp. Rocket and a Bomb is out of print.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Chad Thomas Johnston
Chad Thomas Johnston is a slayer of word dragons who resides in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife Rebekah, their daughter Evangeline, and five felines. He has written for Image Journal’s Good Letters blog, In Touch magazine, The Baylor Lariat, and CollapseBoard.com.Johnston’s first book, the whimsical memoir Nightmarriage, was a finalist for a 2013 Shirley You Jest! Book Award in nonfiction writing.