David Bazan is a man who needs little introduction in ex-Evangelical circles. In his career as frontman for indie group Pedro the Lion and as a solo artist, Bazan has consistently set strikingly intimate lyrics to haunting melodies, not eschewing doubt and darkness even when he was a Christian artist. Bazan’s authenticity was and is rare in contemporary Christian music. It seems that many of the most authentic contemporary Christian artists (Jennifer Knapp is another who comes to mind) ultimately cannot be contained within the narrow confines of Evangelicalism. Of course, for those of us who grew up Evangelical, while this may be a sad thing, it is hardly surprising.
Here, with his characteristic truth-telling style, Bazan relates not only how he lost his Christian faith, but also how, through the 2016 election and its aftermath, he lost his faith in the possibility of redemption for white American Evangelicalism. Regular readers of Not Your Mission Field will know that I share this view.
If you are unfamiliar with Bazan’s music, I highly recommend giving it a listen. You can start by clicking on some of the links in the interview below.
Christopher Stroop: Could you tell us a little about your background and upbringing?
David Bazan: I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona until I was 12. After that my family moved around, mostly in northern California, until I was a sophomore in high school, when we moved to the Seattle area (where I still live). Our parents met at Bible college in the early 70s. Dad became a music pastor in the Assemblies of God (a Pentecostal denomination) and remained in that basic job, in various different churches, until after both my younger sister and I graduated high school. Mom stayed home with us kids, cooked and cleaned and all of that. She also taught pre-school at certain points and had various responsibilities as a pastor’s wife. We had good, fun relationships with our extended families on both sides, though because our mom’s side of the family lived in the Phoenix area too, we saw them way more.
Up through my sixth-grade year my sister and I went to the Christian school that was affiliated with our church. The small campus that contained both the church and school buildings (plus a ball field, a couple of playgrounds, and a parsonage) was just a quarter of a mile down the road from our house. So my sister and I were there all the time. We loved it. After that, once we started moving, we attended public school (my sister went back to a private Christian high school for junior and senior years, but I stayed in public school through my graduation).
CS: How did you first get into music?
DB: Because our dad was a music pastor and our mom sang in choir and sometimes solos on Sunday morning, we were surrounded by music, church music especially. My dad started giving my sister and me piano lessons when we were three and five years old. Then as we grew they found another piano teacher who taught older and more advanced students (my sister was and is very good).
Later I got interested in the saxophone, but when I asked to play sax in the seventh-grade band, the band director said “Sorry, we already have too many saxophones.” So when my dad asked him what instruments he did need people on, he said “I could use a drummer.” I looked up at my dad, floored that this was an option, and he said “Well…do you want to play the drums?” I did want to play the drums. I played in school band and at church for a couple of years, then in a post-punk/hardcore band once I moved to Seattle.
I started messing around on the guitar in ninth grade, wrote a song in tenth grade, and then I kept wanting to do more of that. Both parents were encouraging to a noteworthy degree when I later decided I wanted to write songs and play music for a living. For instance, when a heavy schedule of Pedro the Lion shows and rehearsals distracted me from my college studies, my dad sat me down and amazingly suggested I take a semester off of school to see what happened if I only had to balance work and the band. I never went back to school. At thanksgiving couple of years later, after having recently quit my job as a barista to pursue the band full time with no day job, some relatives were asking me what I was up to. Ashamed of the flimsiness of saying, in essence, “Yeah, hi, I quit both school and my day job to do the band full time,” I told them i was giving music lessons (I was giving one guitar lesson a month to a pal). When my mom overheard this she pulled me aside and said, “Why are you telling them that? You should tell ’em what you’re really doing. You’re working on the band full time. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
CS: How have your relationships with your parents and relatives changed over the years? This question is a personal one for me, because I want to live authentically, which means criticizing the toxic religion I grew up with, and that always comes with heavy social costs and ethical questions. For example, I don’t want people to conclude, when I write things like a personal essay about how damaging the Evangelical ideology of my upbringing was to me, that I think my parents are bad people. In fact they’re very good, caring, supportive people–good people who raised me in bad religion. I want to remain close to them, but that can only come through facing square on and talking through these realities for what they are.
DB: My feelings are similar to yours about how I view my parents and how I want our relationship to be. I’ve always been moved my parents’ compassion for the people in their “care” as pastors, the way they seemed to deliberately express their faith through serving the people in whatever church my dad was working at, in whatever capacity was needed. They are both quite intelligent; Dad is about the brightest person I’ve ever known. Mom always gave me memorable, helpful advice.
For instance, just after my wife and I got engaged, my mom shared this warning: be careful to consciously make space for her to have her own opinions about everything, because the opposite was too often the norm and an awful way to live. And while things can seem fine on the surface for a long time in that situation, one morning in her late thirties she’s gonna wake up and say “Screw this, I’m out of here,” and you won’t know what hit you (rough paraphrase). I continued to ask her for practical advice long after my “deconversion.” My dad and I (sometimes my mom and sister, too) tended to discuss theology, philosophy, and (to a lesser degree) politics openly, or maybe at least whenever I brought it up. Because of that I’m pretty sure he saw my doubts coming before my mom did. I feel deep sadness that this outcome that means so much to them–my continued faith in Christ–ended up going another way. I know it’s still not easy for them.
CS: With that context in mind, to get back to your own story, your Pedro the Lion music and lyric writing was far from the typical upbeat, kitschy, neat and tidy contemporary Christian norm. Most Christian artists wouldn’t come within a mile of singing to God, “I still have never seen you, and some days I don’t love you at all,” as you did in “Secret of the Easy Yoke,” a cut from Pedro the Lion’s 1998 album It’s Hard to Find a Friend. How did your family react to your early engagement with the realities of spiritual doubt, darkness, and struggle?
DB: Because we had a fairly open dialogue about faith, etc., I think my parents had a context for most of the theological implications of the lyrics on that first record. I might have misunderstood then or be misremembering now, but I think they even “got” and appreciated that particular song, which didn’t really surprise me. I understood them to be intellectually honest people. I have never felt pressure from them to keep honest doubt to myself.
On the other hand, I could tell that they were actually pretty worried about how melancholy the record felt to them. It made them wonder if I was depressed. And though I’ve struggled with depression since, I wasn’t experiencing any symptoms at the time. The bummer tone of the music and lyrics is just what I like, apparently.
CS: Sad songs are very much my aesthetic too–well, not exclusively, but they often resonate with me deeply. So, how did your parents respond when you released your solo album Curse Your Branches in 2009, a record that is often described as you “breaking up with God”?
DB: In their different ways they were unexpectedly supportive of the making of Branches. While visiting for thanksgiving in 2008 my dad played piano on the last track on the record (“In Stitches”) with full knowledge of the lyrics from the entire record, as we had previously discussed them and their implications in some detail. My mom also seemed excited about certain aspects of the music and the process of the record getting made and released, though I could feel the realization that I really wasn’t “a Christian” anymore dawning on her during this time as well. After it came out she really struggled with whether or not she could continue to directly “support” my music by coming out to the shows. At the time she joked that it would be a lot easier if I just sang about girls like everyone else. As it was, according to her conscience, I was probably influencing people toward an eternity in hell. Even though it has continued to be a concern for her, at the time, she chose to come to the show in question despite her reservations.
CS: How do things stand now?
DB: A few years ago my folks moved back up to Seattle after having lived in Arizona and California since 1993. That began a wonderful era of monthly family dinners, plus many other get-togethers, so that we see each other all the time now, my sister and her husband and daughters too. My folks live a half a mile away from us. I’m very grateful for all of that.
CS: Could you tell readers of Not Your Mission Field a little bit about your deconstruction and its relationship to Curse Your Branches?
DB: Though it probably began much earlier, I started to see the cracks around 2003, when white American Christians’ support of George W. Bush and his regressive policies motivated me to finally do a deep dive into the foundations of my own Christian faith, in which I hoped to connect my gut level political reactions to the specific theological concepts that I vaguely felt supported them and to develop solid Bible-based reasoning for my political views, and/or change my views to fit scripture if necessary. As I began that process, I realized I might need to go even deeper than that, as all of the basic premises of my faith–the existence of God, the inerrancy and divine authority of the Bible, the reality of Hell, original sin, and all of the basic truth claims of christianity–were all things I had accepted as bedrock before I was old enough to need any more evidence than my parents’ belief and the encouragement of every single person I knew
Even as I merely started to look directly at the idea of Biblical Inerrancy for the first time, things started to shift. I couldn’t find a logical path to it that felt intellectually honest. Around the time our daughter was born, my brief interaction with fatherhood made the creator God in the Garden of Eden account feel like the end of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive; characters that I thought I knew were revealed as murky, dubious, and decidedly self-interested. All at once I understood I couldn’t respect or love a God who could cast his children out of his presence for an uncertain amount of time, because they in their utter innocence made one error (because how else could you characterize someone who doesn’t, by definition, know the difference between good and evil?). Oh yeah, and all of their offspring? Also cursed to have existential abandonment issues for all of history. This line was the kicker for me then: “And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’ So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden…After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” [Genesis 3:22-24 – C.S.]
CS: Are there any songs you didn’t write that have played a significant role in your deconstruction? Perhaps Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which I know you played at Cornerstone, (for readers who may not know, a major Christian music festival), in 2009. Is that a song you cover often?
DB: I have indeed covered Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” many times over the years. There aren’t that many songs that wrestle with existential crisis so directly and so disarmingly. To really commit to singing the version that I prefer (the Various Positions lyrics) is to face the impossible–to-know existential void and then to surrender to whatever ever actually exists out/in there. No other song like it.
CS: According to your former publicist Jessica Hopper, at Cornerstone in 2009, she asked if you were there to “save” Christians, and you answered “I am. I am really invested, because I came up in it and I love a lot of evangelical Christians—I care what happens with the movement,” adding: “The last 30 years of it have been hijacked; the boomer evangelicals, they were seduced in the most embarrassing and scandalous way into a social, political, and economical posture that is the antithesis of Jesus’s teaching.” Do you still agree with this statement?
DB: Because of the book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America by Kevin Kruse I understand more about the history and timeline [of Evangelical history] than I did then, but (very) roughly speaking, yes. And to be clear, I’m citing Jesus’ teachings here, because these Christians claim to hold them as authoritative, not because I do.
CS: And are you still trying to “save” Evangelicals?
DB: I maybe wanted to help more than “save” them at the time, but no, not in the sense that I was then. I still have the strong desire for all people to be whole and free from negative patterns and not all tangled up in bad religion, etc., but for this to be the outcome, after thoroughly exploring these themes for 20 years straight in front of most of these same people (at no small cost to myself and my family), my body seems to be telling me not to cast my pearls before swine at the moment.
CS: Who are “your people” now (with apologies for the reference to “People,” a cut from your 2011 record Strange Negotiations)?
DB: In the song I’m generally referring to the community of grownups who raised me: mainly family and church communities from my childhood and the demographic those communities of grownups represent in the wider American population.
CS: Are your listeners and fans, the people who come out for your living room concerts, mostly Christians? Former Christians? A mix?
DB: It’s hard to say with any certainty because it’s just my limited, anecdotal perception, but it seems like an even mix of former Christians, Christians, and also generally “non-religious” music fans. Also, It seems to have shifted over the years. In the late 90s and early 2000s Pedro the Lion steadily grew in popularity even as we shed a big chunk of conservative Christian fans due to certain thematic content. Again this is based on my perception and the perception of other band members and crew who where at those shows playing and selling merch. I’ve also received letters and e-communications over the years from Christians explaining why they wouldn’t be listening to my records anymore, etc.
CS: When you performed “Hard to Be”–my personal favorite of your repertoire, from Curse Your Branches, an album with which I deeply identify–at Cornerstone in 2009, people in the audience reportedly cried. Your music explores deconstruction from conservative Christianity in a way that is remarkably powerful and intimate. Do you often see such strong emotional reactions at your performances? How do you respond?
DB: Thank you. I’m moved that it resonates with you.
I have certainly witnessed some strong emotional responses at shows from time to time, especially house shows because they’re so much more intimate, and it can be harder to hide an intense reaction in that setting than it would be at a loud, dark rock club. Mostly those reactions don’t require me to do anything expect to keep playing the song without messing up. I want people to feel like they can have whatever emotional response they need to as long as doesn’t ruin someone else’s show.
I sometimes address certain instances during a Q&A time between songs, but hanging out in the kitchen or backyard after a house show is often a better time to check in with people who are still hanging around and want to process any of that out loud.
CS: How have you responded to massive white Evangelical support for Donald Trump during and after the 2016 presidential election?
DB: Until this election I personally had quite a bit of hope that the white American church was not a “lost cause.” I saw it as being capable of maturing and evolving while still retaining its basic form and identity. And even if I couldn’t participate as a “believer,” as I’ve said, I wanted to be a helper in that process if I could. But the fruit that appeared on the tree last November was, for me, the “cut the damned thing down and throw it in the fire” kind of fruit.
So clouded by magical considerations that the vast majority couldn’t see the absurdity of what they were doing (forgive them…). For all the things they claim to believe, the election laid bare the actual, actionable loyalties of most white Christians in a way that one can’t unsee. Far too many of them still don’t even recognize it. They cannot be trusted. They can’t be taken seriously. As a group the correlation between their stated values and their real behavior is worse than random, they reliably champion evil and work against the best virtues of their own faith traditions.
There is simply no way around it at this point; the racism, misogyny, and disdain for the poor are out in the open now. Whatever good Christians are capable of promoting in the larger society is far outweighed by the sea of problems they create with their political gullibility. It’s crushing. It feels like another deconversion experience, to be honest. Coincidentally I’m seeing some of the underlying abusive aspects of the larger belief system for the first time. I always perceived the toxic, creeping authoritarian streak that I saw threaded though white American christianity as a fundamental distortion of the Christianity that I used to try to practice. But now I see it… right there in the text, in the very character of the “Biblical God,” and right here in my own body after devoting myself to it from ages five through 28. I suppose that’s a part of it too. So much grieving.
CS: Has this had any impact on relationships that are important to you?
DB: My wife and I are basically (luckily) on the same page with regard to this stuff, but beyond that family has been tricky. I’m reeling a little as I attempt to figure out how to interact with some of my own people on an ongoing basis. Do I engage with them about these very consequential issues or avoid them? Whenever I do engage, it’s always awful and I just end up hoping to find other things to connect about, thus avoiding. Most continue to refuse to be accountable for any of it. Losing this much respect for some of the people who taught me how to be a person has been one of the most difficult experiences of my life. I still don’t totally know how to proceed.
CS: Finally, what are your thoughts on the emerging ex-Evangelical community and movement? What are some ways that we might build community and foster healing? What roles might we play in wider U.S. society, and how? Is there anything else you’d like to say to readers of Not Your Mission Field?
DB: I’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s out there, but I’m glad for the resources that seem to be available through the ex-Evangelical movement. Hearing even just a couple other people’s experiences has helped me in my own ongoing detangling process. Though I’ve been expressing aspects of my deconversion experience in public for a while, this last year or two is the first time I’ve been aware of any sphere where I can reliably have access to hearing about other people’s struggles and successes in this department. I’m so very grateful for that.