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…