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).


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Is beauty a guide to God?

Is beauty a guide to God?

“I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.”

Thus begins the poignant novel by Julian Barnes (Nothing to Be Frightened Of).

The story represents a wrestling match with mortality in a post-Christian age. Yet my interest in it pertains to a much narrower topic: what one might call the Aesthetic Argument for faith; that is, the argument from beauty.

The question runs as follows:

Can the experience of beauty be a guide to God?

The possibility is raised by James K. A. Smith in his recent book, How (Not) to Be Secular. In his words:

[Barnes] seems, if not tempted, at least intrigued by an aesthetic argument […] : that religion might just be true simply because it is beautiful. “The Christian religion didn’t last so long merely because everyone believed it,” […] It lasted because it makes for a helluva novel.  

“A helluva novel.”

While there are several classical arguments for God’s existence (see Aquinas’ Five Ways), it should not surprise you that this isn’t one of them.

Yet consider also the words of a very different source, the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). As he writes:

The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced, and the art which has grown in her womb.

For the former Pope: sainthood speaks to “goodness,” while artwork points to “beauty.”

Yet as Rod Dreher notes (here), neither goodness nor beauty are, strictly speaking, arguments at all.  But they can be gateways to truth—like what Francis Schaefer called “pre-evangelism.”

They are, to use the phrase of N.T. Wright, “the echo of a voice.”

The idea, for both Barnes and Benedict, is that even atheists and agnostics have moments in which they are—for lack of a better word—ambushed by an aching beauty.

And more specifically, a beauty that bespeaks Transcendence.

Amidst doubt and skepticism, there comes a haunting sense that the world is “charged with the grandeur of God” (Hopkins).  And at certain moments: “it will flame out like shining from shook foil.”

Behold the (non-)argument for God from beauty.

EVOLUTIONARY ART 

But surely there is a natural explanation for this feeling. Right?

Indeed, several thoughtful ones have been proposed.

The most popular evolutionary argument (see here) for how art emerged has to do with its benefits in attracting mates. We have art, so to speak, because the artist got the girl and produced offspring

(That’s true actually.  Just ask my wife.  Incredibly, my youthful musical skills managed to mask both my acne and my near total lack of long-term earning potential. We have four kids.)

Still, there is a problem with the purely evolutionary argument.

In short, it tells us why artists might a procreative advantage now, but it fails to show why anyone should have found such art beautiful or moving in the first place.

As should be obvious, the meaning must precede the mating, or there is no evolutionary advantage to such artistry.

And to all appearances, this beauty-conciousness is hard-wired into us.

To be human is to be unique as homo artifex.

And there are few analogues within the animal kingdom. My dog leaves the room when I pull out the guitar, and she was mostly “meh” on last year’s Oscar nominees.

We alone seemed awed by beauty. Perhaps, then, the former Pope and the agnostic author (Barnes) were on to something.

Life itself is, to quote Barnes, “a helluva novel.”

But do not all novels have an Author?

NOT PROOFS, PERSISTENT WHISPERS

In the end, my own view is that there are no ironclad “proofs” of God’s existence—much less of the more specific question of “Which god?”

Metaphysics doesn’t work that way.

And perhaps it’s for the best.

Because in the worst cases, such “proofs” come into conversations like Elijah’s earthquake on the mountaintop. They thunder through the internet and through theology textbooks.

But as with Elijah:

“the LORD was not in the earthquake” (1 Kings 19).

If you want proofs, take math.

The Christian God desires trust sans certitude.

Hence, as with Elijah: He comes (often) in the “whisper” (1 Kings 19.12).

Thankfully, however, in moments of transcendent beauty, such whispers can be annoyingly persistent.