If you’re read this blog before, you might have noticed that I’ve commented on things Bazan before. (Here and here, and in another place which I’ve made private, because I think I did not represent what I was saying well enough to have people understand.) I don’t know if I can explain my fascination, but it certainly has something to do with how hard it is to get his songs out of my head. The combination of serious, even terrifying, lyrics with the upbeat, cheerful melodies makes it dangerous to sing along, because you almost forget what you’re saying. (Exhibit #1: “Rapture” from Control–which I would love to hear live.)
I had the chance to see Bazan in one of his living room shows this past week, and he was good as usual. A small show in an apartment is a unique experience, and he essentially had open conversations with the people: “Any questions at this point in the show?” He is clear that he does not believe in the God he thinks is revealed in the Bible, but nearly all the songs on Curse Your Branches are responses to his upbringing and early work as Pedro the Lion. Strange Negotiations (which I think is better and more mature, both musically and lyrically) returns to other topics, but underneath runs almost continually the theme of God and those who believe in Him.
But what kind of God is it that Bazan is singing about? (I have never had this conversation with him–although it would be great over a beer–and I don’t know the specifics of his church growing up, so I am using only the data of his songs.) What kind of God has he rejected? It may well be the God of the Bible, along with everything else that Christians believe–although defining “what Christians believe” based on the panoply of American religion is a murky proposition at best.
I think the answer to that question, whether Bazan would agree with this characterization or not, is that he has rejected a God who has not revealed Himself, instead of the God who has. In other words, Bazan is questioning, doubting, disbelieving God as He is, off in some concealed heaven, and not God as He has revealed Himself. Lutherans call this “the hidden God” and “the revealed God,” but what the distinction is called is not important. What is important is that we are bound to reject the hidden God. The hidden God is the God of Job, to whom Bazan directs the lines in “In Stitches”: “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.” I suppose that’s one way to take the book of Job, although it’s rather simplistic and superficial. Or, could it be that, if that one part is true, that it’s Job who’s bitten off more than he can chew? That certainly seems to be Job’s take on it in the end.
Talking about God as Creator in Genesis, Bazan also criticizes this hidden God: “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.” Notice that the questions are not answered by the text, and God apparently wanted it that way. But Bazan has hit on the most terrifying thing about God when He comes into contact with humans: His absoluteness. His uncontrollableness. The fact that He may have set things up a certain way–and what if we even grant the premise according to Bazan’s reading of Genesis, that He pushed us when we fell?–and that we have absolutely no control over it at all. As Gerhard Forde put it,
God is absolute, free. That is the systematic problem. We cannot get on with such a God, with an absolute who is “absolved” from all charge, free, disengaged, independent, and all such. An absolute God is the “end” of us. Such a God leaves us no room, no freedom, destroys us. We see this particularly, I suppose, when we come up against the concepts of divine, that is, absolute, predestination and election. If the absolutely free, disengaged, unlimited one predestines and elects, what room, what freedom does that leave us? As long as we try to tangle with the absolute directly, to wrestle with God in the abstract, or, as Luther put it, try to peer into the things of the deus absconditus [God hidden], it leaves us with absolutely nothing, no freedom, apparently, nowhere to move. If God is absolute, that is, determined in himself, then we are, it would seem, likewise simply determined. To the degree that God is free, we are unfree. So we tell ourselves. And so we must turn against the absolute God. We simply cannot take such a God. We will not take such a God. … We are bound to say no to the absolute. We can and will do no other. That is to say, we are bound to say no to the hidden God, the abstract God, who is, of course, the only God we know apart from Christ. [“Absolution: Systematic Considerations,”Justification Is For Preaching (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 177, 178]
The sort of God preached in many parts of Christianity is exactly this hidden God: God loves you, God accepts you just as you are; God would never want that to happen; He certainly didn’t cause it; God lets us choose for ourselves; we have free will toward God. Most of that is exactly opposite to the witness of the Scriptures, as the atheists enjoy pointing out. And that’s the problem Bazan seems to have: his church taught (I am generalizing based on stereotypes) a God that mostly wanted you to believe that the Flood happened, and that Genesis was a true record, and that Adam and Eve were real people. And those things could be proven with evidence, using the scientific method. He was taught a God who wanted you to believe that all of that was true, simply because the Bible was God’s Word (if you can’t see it, just believe it). And, oh yeah, Jesus died for your sins so that you will go to heaven. But how much of the preaching that Bazan heard, or that we hear, for that matter, was about God, minus Jesus? And if it’s about Jesus, how much of it is “be like Jesus” or “this is what Jesus wants you to do”?
This hidden God will damn you and kill you. And there’s nothing you can do about it. It is an endless cycle that will end either in hypocrisy or, as seems to be in Bazan’s case, unbelief, and along with it, a sense of freedom. But it is only a sense of freedom. The unavoidable, the undeniable, the swift, horrible, and uncontrollable fact is that we are not in control, and death proves it. The only refuge from the dark and hidden terror of the unknown and hidden God, who might do anything to anyone at any time, is the bright and revealed God who chooses sinners for Himself in Jesus. This Man is the only God we can know; and if we reject Him we are left only with a god of our own making, usually “my self,” and that god is just as demanding and unrelenting as any we meet in the Old Testament. The god within will drive you to your death as surely as the God without. Neither will save you; you cannot save yourself.
Because Bazan has rejected Christ (however badly preached) in the Scriptures, he is only left with a lot of ultimately hollow moralizing about how to be “a decent human being.” Those lyrics only work on people who already know that they ought to be good and nice. But why should I be nice and decent if I am not held accountable in some way, by something or someone higher than myself? All we’re left with is, well, because it’s nice to be nice, and everyone knows religious people ought to be nice. That way is not really any different from most preaching in most churches in America: be good, and here are ten steps or principles to help you do so. Bazan may not have liked the rules in his church, but he has only replaced those rules with others he thinks are more important. They’re all rules, and they all make hypocrites or suicides.
God does not want to be known in the way Job or his friends want Him to be known. He wants to be known only in Jesus, only on the cross, only for you in foolish words and water and bread and wine. Otherwise, the only thing to do is to say no to God. As Bazan and others have proven, we simply are not able to have Him stay hidden; the weight of the present Absence is too much for us.