Curse Your Branches (Just Not the One On Which You’re Standing)

Reading reviews [for example, here and here] of David Bazan’s latest disc, Curse Your Branches, it is easy to get the point: whereas Bazan used to write explicitly “Christian” songs (whatever it means for a song to be “Christian”), he has now entered a new stage of maturity where he doesn’t merely accept all the things he was once taught; now he uses his music to question his previous assumptions and explore what it means for him to still believe in God.

A few notes about the music itself: the full songs were interesting to hear after listening to Bazan sing them live with only a guitar (e.g., on the Live at the Grey Eagle set that he made available on his website).  The musical progression is as clear as his religious progression.  This is not Pedro the Lion, nor even Fewer Moving Parts.  The full instrumentation includes a lot of nuance that will take multiple listens to catch.  The background choral vocals on “Bless This Mess” seem sort of out of place on a David Bazan album, probably due to how strange they would be on a Pedro the Lion CD.  (For me, David Bazan was Pedro the Lion, so I don’t make a big distinction between his various lyrical incarnations.)  Nevertheless, the choral vocals fit well once the listener has had a chance to reconcile this sound with what Bazan has done before.  As in the past, the darker lyrical tone often conflicts with the upbeat and swiftly moving music, which has the effect of stopping the listener dead at times, especially when singing along!  His music is as easy to listen to and as catchy as always (if you don’t find yourself humming “Bless This Mess” or “Please, Baby, Please” incessantly, you should check your pulse).

Back to the reviewers: they are continuing the story that Bazan tells about his own development and faith.  In one interview from a few years ago (parts of which are quoted here), Bazan said that he would not call himself a Christian in any sense that would be accepted by most Christians.  He is still clearly uncomfortable with that or any other label on where he stands theologically and spiritually.  At the same time, he is now in a different place than he was when he gave the interview to the Daily Iowan.  [See also here and here for two more interviews.]  He speaks honestly and forthrightly about that progression in this interview from Relevant Magazine.  And the songs on Curse Your Branches reflect what he told Relevant.  He is struggling with what it means to believe in God, when the God in which he believes is not the “Jehovah of the Bible,” as he puts it.  But it is easy, if the narrator of the songs is Bazan himself, to see where he is in relation to God.  “Bless this Mess” is an appeal for humility from Christians when faced with sin and sinners (though I wonder if he thought about titling it “Bless Me and My Family”).  It seems that in Bazan’s view (and this theme runs through nearly every album he has released, as Pedro the Lion, Headphones, and under his own name) “Christians” are primarily to be known for their hypocrisy and self-righteousness, rather than for being followers of the one whose Name they bear.  Presumably, Bazan knows some Christians who don’t quite fit that picture (although those who are truly Christian will know better than him that they don’t deserve the name of Christ), but I wonder if it is possible for Bazan to see beyond the picture he has drawn to the fact that his targets surely face the same struggles and temptations that he upholds in “Bless this Mess.”  There is, in fact, a curious, inverted self-righteousness in holding oneself up as the Doubter, the Questioner, the Humble, the Struggling Believer over and against the Convinced, the Certain, the Arrogant, and the Holder of Answers.

From interviews and comments during shows, I gather that Bazan has experienced exactly the sort of “Christian” behavior he enjoys puncturing and satirizing.  And much of it is, I think, deserving of the holes and the satire.  More than that, I think songs such as “Criticism as Inspiration” held much more power when Bazan was throwing rocks from within the Christian glass house.  Now, he seems to be throwing rocks from the outside, trying to shatter other peoples’ houses, and it is hard to hear those older songs (e.g., “Letter From a Concerned Follower” on The Only Reason I Feel Secure—let alone “Be Thou My Vision”) without wondering if they were meant to be ironic, or simply cynical.  While Bazan pleads for grace from those who have, either really or apparently, rejected him and his music, does he offer the same grace?  Perhaps Arrogance is merely on the other end of the spectrum of sin from Doubt.  But for Bazan, as for his defenders, doubt is the primary virtue while arrogance is the ultimate vice.  So maybe, in his view, Bazan’s lyrical self-righteousness-covered-with-humility (I’ve never met him personally, so this is based solely on the songs) is completely justified.

If Bazan is simply looking for space to ask questions, and if the church(es) in which he grew up discouraged questions and encouraged blind acceptance of abstract teachings, I would have no problem.  But there are two options when it comes to asking questions: either one asks in order to search out the answers; or one asks in order to revel in the questions, with no intention of reaching, or even looking for, the answers.  No doubt there are questions that Christians, let alone all humans, ask for which answers cannot be given.  But there are questions that have, as far as Christians are concerned, rather simple answers.  And perhaps the continual asking of questions is a way to avoid those answers, because they are distasteful.  Bazan asks one of those questions in “Hard To Be,” wondering if the fact that it’s hard to be decent human being should really be attributed to eating some “magic,” poisonous fruit a long time ago.  “Helpless to fight it/we should all be satisfied/with this magical explanation/for why the living die?”  Well, why do you ask?  If he is, as in so many of his songs, annoyed and frustrated with Christians who don’t live up to the Christ-like ideal, and if they excuse their sin by appealing to the Garden of Eden (“the devil made me do it”), his annoyance and frustration are justified.  But if he’s asking because Christians claim that they can never live up to God’s standards as a result of the sin has infected the entire creation (yes, on account of what happened in the Garden) and Bazan thinks it’s not so hard to do what’s right, that is indeed a problem.  But is it Pelagianism, so that Bazan thinks one can do what’s right, even in the sight of God, without God’s grace in Christ?  Or is it simply the fact that Bazan wants people to be outwardly righteous, regardless of what they are inside?  That would be true hypocrisy, which is nothing but pretending to be what you are not.  I contend that every person, even David Bazan, is a hypocrite.  Humans can’t not be hypocrites, because if we did everything according to what we are, the world would not be better, but worse.

Curse Your Branches is full of questions put to, and even accusations against, the God with whom Bazan grew up, and the God he sees in the Scriptures.  That is clear on “Hard To Be,” “When We Fell,” “Bearing Witness,” and “In Stitches.”  On “When We Fell,” which contains Cake-like rhythms set to a driving, joyfully rebellious beat, Bazan takes up the charge that God created people, knowing that they would fail and sin: “When You set the table/when You chose the scale/did You write a riddle/that You knew they would fail?  Did You make them tremble,/so they would tell the tale?/Did You push us when we fell?”  And: “You knew what would happen/and made us just the same/and You, my Lord, can take the blame.”  Behind that, the song is an objection to the Christianity that depends for its existence on a fear of hell and damnation.  While there are certainly strands of Christianity that rely on such fear, does Bazan really think that that is its primary basis, or is he simply reacting against the church of his youth?  No doubt a reliance on fear of hell has led many, perhaps including Bazan, to reject the idea of hell altogether; unfortunately, many Scriptures—even the words of Jesus—have to be ignored in order to hold that position.  (Of course, if the Scriptures are not the Word of God, that’s not hard to do.)

But why do I get the feeling that David Bazan has been reading a little too much Ditchkins and not searching to see if any intelligent Christian has an answer to his questions?  He sounds as if he thinks his questions have never been asked before, and now, suddenly, the Church (and God) have to sit up and take notice and presumably say, “Hm.  I never thought of that before.”  Seriously?  The only way out of the dilemma of why God created humans when He knew they would transgress His Law is to deny that God?  The only way to believe in the God who shows Himself in the Scriptures (but more precisely, in Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of the Scriptures) is to take the parts we like and trash the rest?  Who gets to decide?  And if we decide that there are some passages of Scripture that do not apply to Christians today, we had better have a better reason than “I don’t like that.”

In “In Stitches,” Bazan sings, “When Job asked You the question/You responded, ‘Who are you/to challenge Your Creator?’/Well, if that one part is true/it makes You sound defensive/like You had not thought it through/enough to have an answer/or You might have bit off more than You could chew.”  In these few lines, Bazan exposes the contradiction that runs through Curse Your Branches.  Earlier, in “Curse Your Branches,” he sang, “And why are some hell-bent upon there being an answer/while some are quite content to answer ‘I don’t know’?”  But Bazan wants it both ways: he wants a “good” answer from God to his questions, but he doesn’t like it when others seek answers that don’t fit with his theology.  The whole answer of the Book of Job to the question of suffering is a semi-content and very human “I don’t—and can’t—know,” but in that case, it’s David Bazan who is “hell-bent on there being an answer.”

I am not a music critic, though I listen to a lot of music in all genres.  (I have all the PtL discs, Bazan’s two solo discs, and I have seen PtL live a number of times.)  What I find most interesting is not Bazan’s spiritual progression (or regression, depending on the perspective), but the way that the reviewers treat it.  Often it is not explicit, but the undercurrent runs something like this: David Bazan has matured from his earlier “Christian” music, and now he is making much more honest and critical music that deserves to be taken seriously by people.  In other words, he has matured out of his unquestioning Christian infancy and into an honest and open faith closer to agnosticism.  He says he still believes in God, but doesn’t know exactly what that God might be like.  Bazan probably doesn’t play for church groups anymore, but I’m guessing he gets a lot more critical acclaim now (attested by the two songs from CYB I just heard on NPR’s World Café.)  The fans who were always nervous around the more explicitly “Christian” songs will no doubt be applauding this album.

The typical review template never runs in the opposite direction.  I don’t remember reading any reviews, but I wonder what the critics said when Jeremy Enigk of Sunny Day Real Estate became a Christian.  I would be willing to bet that the theme went much more along the lines of pity or horror, rather than acknowledge that someone might possibly mature out of an ignorant agnosticism into an intellectually robust faith (whether Enigk’s faith is, I don’t know).  Because that never happens, does it?  For the cultured despisers, maturity and intellectual development always move in one direction: toward atheism and modern liberalism.

And that’s the problem.  It is partly the problem of artists and reviewers, because they have no reference point for an intellectually serious faith (apparently, they’re not big on reading or actually seeking out significant Christian thought; asking questions to which they don’t want answers is more fun).  But it is partly the problem of Christians who espouse the sort of anti-intellectualism Bazan uses for his primary metaphor in “Hard To Be.”  It is silly to say that the sorts of questions Bazan asks are like “graduation” from the school of religious ignorance.  But it is equally silly for Christians to denounce “faith seeking understanding.”  The key is neither willful ignorance nor a challenge to God to tell us things that we likely could not handle (if we humans—that is to say, creatures—could handle it all, the God Christians worship would certainly not be a God worthy of the title).  The key is to recognize, as the people of Israel do in Deuteronomy, that we have been given clear revelation on certain things, but that there are also clearly limits on what we have been given and what we can know: “The secret things belong to Yahweh our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this instruction” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

This point will always be skewed when the starting point is not God-in-flesh, Jesus of Nazareth.  If someone starts with anyone or anything else, the Scriptures are a closed book, and nothing can be rightfully understood.  Don’t start with Genesis or Job or Isaiah; start with Luke 24 and John 5 and 2 Timothy 3:14-15.  Only then can we ask the “right” questions and get the “right” answers.  Only then will we know that the answer to Bazan’s charge that the Lord Himself should take the blame is, “He already has, on a piece of wood outside Jerusalem.”  In that light, other questions no longer have the ability to drain as much time and energy as David Bazan gives to them on Curse Your Branches.

For what it’s worth, I’d love to have a double IPA with David Bazan and talk this over.  Next time you’re in NW Minnesota, David…

Timotheos

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19 thoughts on “Curse Your Branches (Just Not the One On Which You’re Standing)

  1. Once again, we have here another example of an Evangelical who succeeds in dismissing, not only the honest questions coming from Bazan’s music, but the vast majority of Jesus’ teachings.

    And the way this trick is performed, is by insisting that every single word that made its way into the modern Bible is God’s Word. By insisting that their followers HAVE TO accept every passage as infallibly true, then all they have to do is find a handful of passages that allow for a God who is worse than the cruelest of human maniacs (which, of course, becomes the basis for Evangelicals justifying any of their cruelties toward their fellow humans). From there, it’s a simple matter of reinterpreting and setting aside all the rest of Jesus’ core message–that God is kind, forgiving, caring and anything but vindictive, punitive, cruel and hurtful.

    This is particularly the case with the doctrine of Hell, even though Jesus never believed in it.

    I’ve actually written an entire book on this topic–“Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There’s No Such Place As Hell,” (for anyone interested, you can get a free Ecopy of my book at my website: http://www.ricklannoye.com), but if I may, let me share one of the many points I make in it.

    If one is willing to look, there’s substantial evidence contained in the gospels to show that Jesus opposed the idea of Hell. For example, in Luke 9:51-56, is a story about his great disappointment with his disciples when they actually suggested imploring God to rain FIRE on a village just because they had rejected him. His response: “You don’t know what spirit is inspiring this kind of talk!” Presumably, it was NOT the Holy Spirit. He went on, trying to explain how he had come to save, heal and relieve suffering, not be the CAUSE of it.

    So it only stands to reason that this same Jesus, who was appalled at the very idea of burning a few people, for a few horrific minutes until they were dead, could never, ever burn BILLIONS of people for an ETERNITY!

    True, there are a few statements that made their way into the gospels which place Hell on Jesus lips, but these adulterations came along many decades after his death, most likely due to the Church filling up with Greeks who imported their belief in Hades with them when they converted.

  2. Rick, do you surf the internet, looking for people who say that Jesus talks about hell?

    You can’t have it both ways: you can’t justify your belief in the non-existence of hell by appealing to Jesus’ words in one passage, and deny His words in another place. Maybe it is your proof-text (which doesn’t even remotely address the question of hell) that was added later? How do you know?

    And, for the record, I’m not an American Evangelical.

    Tim

  3. Tim,

    Rick is doing what hom profs call “pre texting”. He could really care less about the topic. He just globs onto it in order to say what he wants to say. The text of the discussion is purely the precursor to his actual agenda.

    His understanding of Jesus is an old atheist argument I used to use. This man is pretty much an atheist, he may or may not know it. Regardless, postulating a “stands to reason” off such a bizarre matrix text is further proof of that he has only rudimentary view of Jesus and the Scriptures.

    PS
    Calling you an American Evangelical is like calling James Bond “a government employee”. Yeah… chew on that one! 🙂

    –B

  4. Good review.

    Bazan went deep. Songs like “Letter From A Concerned Follower,” “Diamond Ring,” and “Slow and Steady Wins the Race” prove it. He understood orthodox Christianity well, it even gave him joy. I daresay it surely appeared that he even believed it.

    But in his journey of questioning he ran into a wall, a mountain that none of us are able, nor allowed, to scale, the obstacle Paul addresses in Romans 9:14-24.

    It’s God’s right to set the table. He made the table. He made the plates. He made the dinner, he made the guests.

    In his pursuit of honest questions, honest answers, integrity, beauty and truth, Bazan made a mistake: he put God in the dock. Humility polluted by vanity.

  5. Timotheos,

    I’ve been listening to Pedro the Lion and Bazan a lot tonight and I was looking around for Christian responses to his “deconversion.” I loved your review and thought it provided what is probably the response Bazan is looking for.

    However, I find the following quote less than convincing:

    “If someone starts with anyone or anything else [besides Jesus], the Scriptures are a closed book, and nothing can be rightfully understood. Don’t start with Genesis or Job or Isaiah; start with Luke 24 and John 5 and 2 Timothy 3:14-15.”

    To suppose that the collection of texts we call “the Bible” exhibits some sort of christological unity completely begs the question– especially when you consider the culture that produced most of it disagrees with you (with gusto). I think you have some evidentiary groundwork to lay before you can make such a claim. I mean, I can only assume you already feel the groundwork has been lain, but laying out there like that you can see why some would that statement in unflatteringly imperialistic terms.

    Well, I think I may bookmark your blog. I’m always looking for thoughtful opinions contrary to my own.

    Vale

    • Thanks for stopping by. What I meant by that comment was that I believe Jesus makes the very claim that you are questioning: i.e., that the Scriptures are all about Him.

      I’m not sure what you mean about the culture(s) that produced the Bible disagreeing with me. Can you be more specific?

      Thanks,
      Tim

      • She might mean the writers/cultures of the Old Testament. They didn’t show that they had any idea that Jesus was coming or that the religion was going to completely flip into it’s opposite. I know there’s a few verses that “prophesy his coming,” but Jesus turned out to be a lot different than what the prophesies said, which attests more to the resourcefulness of the myth-making authors of the gospels than it does to the idea of a Jesus-centric Bible.

        Or she might be talking about the Jews.

        jamie

  6. Thanks for the response. Jesus may very well make the claim that he is the center of the bible (which is arguable) but even so that only makes sense if he is indeed the center of the bible (specifically, the completion or culmination of the Hebrew Bible). That is, it begs the question.

    And the culture that objects to the bible being reduced to those terms is not so hard to find: Judaism, of course. Hebrew culture produced what Christians call (erroneously) the Old Testament, and with reason they have major objections to Jesus being the culmination of their tradition. You may want to read some Robert Alter, a Jewish literary scholar who has written a lot on the Hebrew Bible as a work of literature. His position isn’t theological but it is very enlightening.

    May you and yours have a happy New Year

    • Jesus may very well make the claim that he is the center of the bible (which is arguable) but even so that only makes sense if he is indeed the center of the bible (specifically, the completion or culmination of the Hebrew Bible). That is, it begs the question.

      I don’t see how it follows that a particular claim only makes sense if it’s true. The claim can be false or true; the fact that I am asserting is the claim, which you can find for yourself in Luke 24. I am taking that claim as true; hence, it is how I interpret the rest of the Scriptures. If you take it as false, obviously you will interpret differently. Different views of Jesus are at the heart of every serious disagreement in interpretation.

      As far as Christianity and Judaism being opposed, that’s true. But almost everything about Christianity, as the NT describes it, flows naturally from its Jewish origins. Jesus and the original Apostles were all Jews; early Christian worship was essentially Jewish worship reorganized around Jesus as the Messiah. Even today, you can still see the basic form of Jewish Word/Meal worship in Christian worship. Obviously, Jews who see the Torah as full revelation, or who are Jewish in culture, are not going to be happy with the thought that Jesus is the Messiah promised by their own Scriptures, but, again, that’s Jesus’ claim. It can be believed or not, but that’s His claim.

      Tim

  7. Estragon, you’re making what I call the sociological mistake regarding the Holy Scriptures. The Bible is not the product of ancient Hebrew culture. The Bible is a Word from “the outside,” from God to the people with whom he made covenant.

    Others have said it, but I’ll repeat the argument: for a book supposedly “from” the ancient Jews, the “Old Testament” is surprisingly critical, even condemning, of their culture. It’s message is much more like a message from somewhere else — from outside their culture — sent to those ancient Hebrews.

    I add, since it’s on my brain for other reasons: the Roman Catholic church makes the same mistake. The Bible, they say, is “the Church’s book.” If only they would make it their book! But of course, they mean that they have made the book. A treacherous equivocation, leading millions through the ages into error and sin.

    A happy New Year to you as well.

    Joe

  8. Jamie, I’m a guy. But aside from that you’re right. That’s what I was talking about.

    Pilgrim, since I’m very interested in this topic I’ll respond. Hopefully Timothy doesn’t mind me mucking up his thread that was originally about music (if he does I’ll stop. Promise). As to my making the “sociological mistake” I can’t really agree with you there. You’re coming at specific works with extra-textual expectations. That is, why should we expect a culture’s literary and political production to be uncritical? It isn’t anywhere else. I can name two dozen writers off the top of my head who were violently opposed to their cultures. What do you find different about the Hebrew Bible in that regard that you don’t find in Emerson, Goethe, Euripides, Gogol, Lucien, Nietzsche, etc.? I suspect the difference may lie in two areas. One is the lack of other literary texts to reflect the cultural diversity of ancient Israel. The other is the political support given to such critical apothegms.

    As to the first, I’ll just say that Alter (whom I mentioned above) has made the argument that up to the time of the Diaspora the Tanakh judged the Israelis in terms pretty familiar to ancient literature: Israeli society had fallen from a political golden age exemplified by King David. After being conquered, naturally, the game changed from trying to reform society to appeasing God.

    For the second, I would argue that a gathering of such texts represent the political aims of the ruling class. The texts were first compiled into the form familiar to Jesus by scribes in the tradition on Ezra. Their goal was to bind the Jewish people together in a lasting political community. The best way to do that was to inculcate fear, guilt, and contrition. By representing their own people as being stubborn idolators they achieved remarkable stability (that arguably still holds).

    Vale,

    Eric

  9. “I can name two dozen writers off the top of my head who were violently opposed to their cultures.”

    And where did these 24 ever get their notions that their cultures should behave in certain ways and not others?

  10. Timothy, let me say first that it’s not my intent to be pedantic here or to pick a fight. I’m just interested in the subject (and have my own opinions of course). When I said “makes sense” I should have written something like “rationally binding.” My point was that you can’t say Jesus completes the scriptures without already assuming that he in fact does complete them. Thus, the argument that he does is not binding in a rational or evidentiary sense. That’s all, and I think we agree given your last post. Since I’m not trying to argue you out of Christianity I think we can just agree to disagree can we not? I’ll still read your blog and leave a comment now and again if that’s ok.

    J Pilgrim, I wondered how long it would take for someone to ask the whole “where did morals come from if not God?” question. I’ll not say my answer is definitive or unproblematic but I do have one that is reasonably satisfying (to me anyway). However, it’s sort of involved so if we want to get into it we should ask our host’s permission. (part of it involves arguing that the claim “god gave us morals” is more complicated than it sounds and, in the end, unhelpful to the theist).

    • When I said “makes sense” I should have written something like “rationally binding.”

      No, you’re right about that. I am not the sort of Christian who believes that simply because the Bible says something, it will automatically be rationally convincing. If everyone could (as you and I apparently do) recognize this fact, the discussion would be much less freighted with unnecessary weight. Assumptions (as I argued in the other post re: Bazan) are always present, and they determine what one will accept as truth, but they also, and more fundamentally, determine what one will accept as evidence for the truth.

      As for the overall conversation, feel free to take it anywhere it goes.

      Thanks,
      Tim

  11. Estragon, I am so sorry. I believe your screenname must’ve had a subconscious “estrogen” flavor. I’ll chalk it up to childhood christian programming, haha. And great info on Alter. I’ll have to check that out.

    “And where did these 24 ever get their notions that their cultures should behave in certain ways and not others?” – probably from critical observation. There has always been people who have awoken from their culture’s trance and criticize and try to provide solutions to their culture’s problems.

    I’m not sure how Estragon is committing a “sociological mistake.” Looking at all this from a sociological or anthropological vantage point would definitely favor his statements.

  12. Tim, to inject some music really quick have you heard Star Flyer 59? To my mind they’re the best Christian rock act out there. Their album “Leave Here a Stranger” is my pick for number one “Christian” album of all time. I like Pedro the Lion a lot but I’ll always prefer Starflyer when the cards are down.

    Jamie, no big deal. In fact, it was hilarious. I think Samuel Beckett would have appreciated it (he did, you know, name one of his characters “Krapp”). Alter is a great read. Again, he avoids theological pronouncements scrupulously (though his secular sympathies do make it through), but he brings so much to the subject that it makes you want to re-read all these stories like they were Dickens or Shakespeare.

    And as far as answering J Pilgrim’s question: you’re right, the easy answer is that I don’t have to show where their attitudes came from, just that they were there. But the far more interesting question is the very one J Pilgrim proposed. I look forward to hashing out some possible answers.

  13. Interesting review. I cannot agree with your argument, though. It seems as though you are dismissing his doubts of Christianity (or particular type of Christianity) based on your own worldview that does not allow for the possibility of God’s non-existence. Therefore, to your mind, Bazan must be contradicting himself somewhere, being irrational, confused about the ‘true’ Christianity, or have the wrong attitude or something towards God.

    I find Curse Your Branches fascinating because Bazan’s lyrics are directed towards someone (God) who may or may not exist. Bazan is dealing with a very real possibility that the God whom he has known for so many years may be just an idea. A compelling hypothesis to his mind because of certain logical inconsistencies. Yet, even it is an idea, the strength of the idea does not whittle away immediately after drawing certain intellectual conclusions on the matter.

    (I haven’t read any of the comments here, so apologies if I’ve gone over old ground)

  14. Pingback: David Bazan and the Hidden God « Balaam’s Ass

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