Since 1994, David Bazan has put sharp questions about faith, justice, and his Pentecostal-evangelical upbringing front and center in his songs. Like many doubters who came before, from Augustine to Mother Teresa, he wrestled with God while still counting himself as a believer. However, on his most recent solo album, Curse Your Branches, released last September, Bazan’s forceful, prodding lyrics find him still grappling with the big questions, but no longer counting himself as a Christian. With his trademark candor and thoughtfulness, Bazan, former front man of Pedro the Lion and Headphones, spoke with Sojourners assistant editor Jeannie Choi in the musty green room of The Black Cat, a music venue in Washington, D.C.
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Jeannie Choi: How did your faith journey move from a place of belief to disbelief?
When I was in eighth grade, my mom got this book called The Light and the Glory; it was one of the first in the wave of Christian revisionist histories of the United States. It claimed things like the founders were born-again Christians just like we are. It just dawned on me—I couldn’t really trust the leaders of this movement to be intellectually honest. They were just trying to stack the deck so that they could get a leg up in the cultural battle.
For the longest time, I was concerned with reform more than anything, because I felt like the ship of the church was way off course. The church’s desire for political power and its relationship with wealth and the wealthy seemed to me to be unbiblical. But when I really started looking at the foundations to try to get those things right, I realized there were all of these fundamental assumptions that I’d made—from the inerrancy and authority and inspiration of scripture, to just the mere existence of God—and I started to think, “Well, if you’re really going to make this your own, then you can’t begin with these assumptions. You have to go below them.” And I just don’t really see a lot down there.
How much of your agnosticism is a result of your disdain for the evangelical subculture rather than the tenets of Christianity?
There isn’t, at this point, anything I find unique to Christianity that isn’t a first principle or a core idea. I really think that within natural revelation—which is, of course, a Christian way of putting it—there is enough to know how to live in harmony with the people around you and with the land and our environment. For me, that’s just enough.
When I think about the tyranny of the afterlife, and how people live in such a way because the possibility of the afterlife distracts them from doing good to others and living at peace with one another, the less it’s even plausible to me that a being who created the genome or DNA or our bodies or the ecosystem—things so elegant and finely tuned—would use the blunt instrument of physical violence as a way of getting people to stay true to the system. It just doesn’t seem compatible to me. I think that living for the here and now, fully committed to one another with no “escape hatch” of Jesus coming back anytime soon, is more compelling to me.
Is there anything still attractive to you about Christianity?
On a song on the new record I talk about these “beautiful truths”—justice and honesty and the belief that who you are when you’re alone is who you truly are. These basic principles of fairness I feel I understood thorough my Christian upbringing. So one of the themes I still feel like I have in common with Christians is when Jesus is asked to sum up the law, and he says, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Now, ironically, these same principles have pulled me out of Christianity and caused me to reject it. Believing the right things and not doing any of the right things is the norm in evangelical Christianity, and it’s really perplexing. I’m flabbergasted every time I run into this, because basically there’s this whole movement of people who ostensibly believe the right thing, but are the pawns of the military-industrial complex, and that’s just too bad. It seems like high comedy, like a very twisted joke.
In a song on your new record, you wonder how your mom is going to react to your rejection of Christianity. What was her response?
She really liked the record, but it’s hard for her and my dad. I sent them that song—“When We Fell”—as soon as I wrote it and said, “I’m not necessarily asking for permission, but I just wanted you to hear this, and if it’s just not going to work for me to sing this tune, then I want to know.” They wrote back and said, “This is perplexing, of course, but this is your tune.”
My mom said something really sweet not too long ago. She said, “I just want to clarify that the only reason I taught you to follow your heart was because I thought Jesus was in your heart.” And, well, I thought that too. And I told her that I learned to follow my heart just from watching her. She’s where I learned compassion for the underdog, and my sense of justice comes from my mom and her impulse to lift every voice. So, I worry about my parents, and it makes me feel a little bit of sadness, but at the same time I hope that they can see that all of this is honest, not just messing around.
Many of your songs are declarations about what you see as wrong with this world. Are you writing those for yourself or do you hope they’ll cause your listeners to also question?
I always think of it like I’m back in school and in class. If the extrovert raises their hand and asks the question, the five or six introverts think, “I’m really glad that person asked that question because I really wanted to know that too.” For me, so many times a way of thinking is opened up just because somebody spoke truthfully about something.
You’ve described “introvert” Christians as unable to ask questions about faith. Why do you think that is?
Well, I can understand the impulse to have a cultural identity that is defined and that you can broadcast easily. I empathize with that impulse, but it strikes me as fundamentally misguided.
I have to go with my gut about these things and try to figure out what I think is right and true, and I’m really encouraged when I see other people doing that, even if we come to different conclusions.
Jeannie Choi is an assistant editor at Sojourners.