The haunting of David Bazan

The haunting of David Bazan

Hurtling through the sky at 30,000 feet can give you a chance to do things you don’t normally have time for – like listening to a long-forgotten album.

On a recent flight to Orlando, I gave a re-hearing to David Bazan’s anguished recording from 2009: “Curse your Branches.”

The whole thing is fantastic. And terrible.

bazan album cover

It was written, according to Bazan, as a breakup letter to God (since he now considers himself an atheist). Yet I learned in a recent interview that Bazan was astonished that Christianity Today named “Curse your Branches” one of their best albums of the year.

They weren’t wrong.

As Bazan admits, the manifesto that he had originally penned as a giant middle finger to God, turns out at key moments to sound almost like an early stanza from the Psalms or Lamentations (with, sadly, no resolution).

And the irony is that for someone who doesn’t believe in God, Bazan spends an awful lot of time talking to him.  In this way, he sounds somewhat like the honest atheist described by Francis Spufford, who says of God: “He doesn’t exist, the bastard.”

To use the imagery of the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, the album is “haunted” by Transcendence. This, says Taylor, is the true mark of a Secular Age. It is not that belief has been vanquished or that most people now sit neutral to the question; it is rather that faith seems so fraught for many tortured souls that they end up like the novelist Julian Barnes, when he writes: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”

That is precisely the attitude of “Curse Your Branches.”

Even Bazan’s (past) descent into alcoholism is linked to his God-haunted memory. As he puts it:

All this lethal drinking is to hopefully forget about You

And the last word trails into a plaintive wail that betrays a capital “Y.”

The most evocative stanza of the album follows:

I might as well admit it, as though I had a choice / The crew have killed the Captain but they still can hear his voice. A shadow on the water / A whisper on the wind / On long walks with my daughter who is lately full of questions about You… (“In Stitches“).

While Bazan is clear that he now rejects all forms of theism, one senses that it is certain kind of theology that seems especially untenable to him: a form of deterministic Calvinism in which God sovereignly causes everything and then blames us.  “Curse your branches” is itself a play on Paul’s metaphorical olive tree from Romans 11, in which some limbs (peoples) have been broken off and others grafted in.

Given this deterministic assumption (God causes everything), the conclusion follows naturally:

“All fallen leaves should curse their branches / For not letting them decide where they should fall / And not letting them refuse to fall at all”

If this were what Paul meant, then I would not disagree.  For in view of David Bentley Hart, determinism does seem to have the strange result of rendering the universe morally intelligible at the cost of a God who is rendered morally loathsome (see here for my most widely read post on that topic). Or as Bazan asks: “Did You push us when we fell?”

Despite his bitterness toward Christianity, Bazan is open about a recurring “temptation” to doubt his doubts and to recant from his “repentance”:

Though I have repented, I’m still tempted I admit / But that’s not what bearing witness is (“Bearing Witness”).

In other words: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”

SOME TAKEAWAYS

Why write about this album?

Aside from the fact that good art needs no utilitarian justification, I have three reasons:

  1. Christian leaders should listen to “God-haunted” deconversion stories.

For pastors and professors like myself, truly listening to voices like Bazan’s should be a requirement in an age where more and more people find themselves in the “haunted” position that Charles Taylor describes.

Listening well is a pre-requisite for pastoral sensitivity.  But sadly, a survey of our social media feeds shows that many so-called apologists are more known for their ability to “demolish” and “destroy” the opposition.

And to quote Bazan, “That’s not what bearing witness is.”

  1. Ask: “What kind of god don’t you believe in?”

Second, Bazan highlights, at some points, a kind of divinity (and Christianity) that thoughtful believers should be quick to disavow—and not just on the question of determinism.

On this subject, I recall the words of N.T. Wright as he met with UK college students during his time as a university chaplain.  Upon hearing that many did not believe in God, his next words were not a rebuttal but a question.

“What kind of God don’t you believe in?”

The question is important, since Christians sometimes assume that the word “God” has univocal meaning.  It doesn’t.  And upon listening to the student’s answer (See #1), Wright tells how he would often respond with “That’s very good; I don’t believe in that God either. The God I trust is the one embodied perfectly by Jesus Christ.”

  1. Preach to and for the “haunted.”

Lastly, I’ve been incorporating more quotes from folks like Bazan in my sermons (e.g., David Foster Wallace, last Sunday)—not as “strawman” foils to be quickly dispatched, but as opportunities to acknowledge questions, doubts, and fears that are present in the minds of “the faithful”–not just “out there” in the big, bad world.

“Maybe you’ve felt like that,” I try to say.

“Maybe you’ve wondered why an invisible God would even care if humans believed in him, rather than the competition.”

As Bazan asks:

Red and orange; or orange and yellow? / In which of these do you believe? / If you’re not sure right now; please take a moment / ‘Cause I need your signature, before you leave (“Curse your branches”).

In the view of Tim Keller, the ability to anticipate these unvoiced questions and fears is crucial to empathetic preaching (Though I don’t pretend to do it perfectly)–especially when coupled with the “haunting” of the Holy Ghost.

Toward this end, albums like “Curse Your Branches” can actually serve the church, like an Eloi, Eloi… wafting up to 30,000 feet, awaiting answer.

———————

If you’re interested in an accessible book for anyone feeling baffled by the Bible, check out my new book, Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple movements (here).


Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.

Why beetles mate with beer bottles: evolution and perception

Why beetles mate with beer bottles: evolution and perception

What if evolutionary science actually posed a problem for the confident atheism of men like Richard Dawkins?

That would odd: first, because Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist; and second, because believers (especially in America) do not normally see evolution as an ally.

To end the oddity, let’s begin with a picture of a beetle mating with a beer bottle.

Obviously.

beetleonbottlebig

EVOLUTION AND PERCEPTION

This past year, a TED talk by the cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman went viral with over two million views (here). Hoffman studies evolution and perception at UC Irvine, and gist of his research is this:

Evolution rewards “fitness.” And fitness is defined by how effectively an organism passes on its DNA to future generations. Those adapted to do this best survive, while others die out. Hence: “survival of the fittest.”

Now the kicker. As Hoffman states in a recent interview with NPR (here):

An organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but that is just tuned to fitness.

To simplify, Hoffman is saying that evolution doesn’t care whether your brain accurately perceives reality. Evolution only cares if you pass on your DNA by feeding, fleeing, fighting and reproducing. If this means distorting your perceptions, so be it.

(If this is confusing, see the TED talk linked above.)

As Hoffman argues, we do not perceive reality in itself. We only perceive what the neurons in our brain present to us. The brain constructs and reconfigures reality in this process. And while we might think that accurate perception equals “fitter perception,” that is not necessarily the case.

We once thought that the earth was flat, because it looks that way. But we were wrong.  Appearances can be deceiving.  On top of this, Hoffman claims that our brains add to the deception.

As evidence, we return to our besotted beetle.

WHY THE BEETLE LEFT HIS WIFE FOR THE BOTTLE

The Australian Jewel Beetle is shiny, brown, and dimpled. The males fly. The females don’t. And when a male beetle finds a shiny, brown, and dimpled female on the ground, he mates with her, favoring the bigger ones.

But there’s a problem.

The Outback is now populated with another species (humans). And this species also likes shiny, brown, and dimpled objects (bottled beer). Thus, as bottles began to litter roadways and campsites, a strange thing happened: the Jewel Beetle nearly went extinct.

Males ignored the females, and passionately embraced “the bottle.” Just like a Merle Haggard song.

As Hoffman notes: “Australia had to change their bottles to save their beetles.”

Similar cases of cognitive distortion (minus the bottles) can even be found in more complex species, including mammals.

As Hoffman, argues: Natural selection gave the beetle a “hack” to be successful in passing on its DNA: Good mates are dimpled, brown, and shiny—the bigger the better. And this worked for thousands of years. Until it didn’t.

So does evolution actually favor the accurate perception of reality? Hoffman, along with many other evolutionists, say “No.”

But what does this have to do with Richard Dawkins?

Enter Alvin Plantinga.

Alvin PlantingaPhoto by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame
Photo by Matt Cashore, University of Notre Dame

PLANTINGA’S ARGUMENT

The now 83-year-old Plantinga is an institution amongst Christian philosophers.

He now holds an Emeritus post at Notre Dame, and according to many, is largely responsible for a quiet revival of theistic philosophers in the American university.

Among his more famous arguments is his “evolutionary argument against naturalism” (EAAN). This can be found, most recently, in his 2011 book: Where the Conflict Really Lies.

While the details  are complex, the gist is similar to Hoffman’s argument. As Plantinga writes:

The probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable, given naturalism and evolution, is low (p. 314).

This is essentially Hoffman’s claim.

But then Plantinga continues:

If I believe both naturalism and evolution, I have a defeater for my intuitive assumption that my cognitive faculties are reliable. If I have a defeater for that belief, however, then I have a defeater for any belief I take to be produced by my cognitive faculties. That means that I have a defeater for my belief that naturalism and evolution are true (p. 314).

NATURALISM

For Plantinga, “naturalism” is the view that “there is no such person as God, or anything like God” (p. ix). Yet it is stronger than mere atheism in at least two ways: First, it rises to the level of a “quasi-religion” in claiming to answer life’s ultimate questions. And second, it proceeds with a religious zeal in confidently asserting that all religion is obviously irrational and silly.

In short, naturalists like Richard Dawkins place massive confidence in the power and reliability of their cognitive faculties. Yet—and this is key!—Dawkins’ very discipline (evolutionary science) is now calling into question the reliability of one’s cognitive perceptions.

Perhaps, say some evolutionists, we are more like the beetle on the bottle than we like to think.

The conclusion is this: You can claim with evolutionary naturalists that our cognitive faculties are deeply unreliable. But you cannot claim this while simultaneously placing a god-like confidence in your own cognitive faculties.

That move is self referentially incoherent.

A CALL TO HUMILITY

So what’s my take?

While Hoffman’s research is fascinating, I really doubt that we are essentially in the same position as the beetle on the beer bottle (Merle Haggard and George Jones songs not withstanding!).

Then again, part of my reasoning rests in a Creator who has ensured a general, though not perfect, correspondence between reality and our ability to perceive it.

As for Plantinga, I think he is quite right to challenge the confidence that Dawkins has in his own cognitive abilities. Yet I suspect that he paints too monochrome a picture of the current evolutionary science.

According to a friend of mine in the field, the claims of Hoffman and those like him are hardly universally accepted. And even if they were, it would not mean that our cognitive perceptions are flatly wrong (thus as even Hoffman notes, you shouldn’t try jumping off a cliff…).

Instead, these new findings only mean that we should be more humble in our cognitive assertions, especially about ultimate reality.

And perhaps that’s the problem with both Dawkins and many Christian apologists: a general lack of epistemic humility regarding what we can demonstrate by way of our own brilliance.

In the end, we may not be as deluded as the beetle on the bottle.  But we are limited in understanding.

So here’s to some humility to season boldness.

And as a “thank you” to the insect who helped illustrate this important truth, here’s a tribute to his unrequited love (here).

 

 


Thanks for reading! If you enjoy these posts, please click on the green “Follow” button on lower left side of the home page.