Bless This Mess

I have a complicated relationship with David Bazan’s music. I’ve probably seen Pedro the Lion/David Bazan in concert more than I’ve seen any other musician and I have nearly all his band and solo albums. I’ve followed his very public trajectory from conflicted “Christian” artist to denial of what he sees as the message of the Bible and of Christianity. In a very real way, I’ve grown up with his music (he’s about three years older than I am).

All of that means only that I fit a certain demographic of the Pacific Northwest who listened to a certain branch of the Christian Music Industry, Inc. tree, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s. I never made it to Cornerstone, but we had our own festivals called TOM Fest (and TOM’s little brother, TIM Fest), where the cool kids gathered by the thousands to see hundreds of bands on the fringes of Christian rock. At many of those places, and in churches and community centers up and down Interstate 5, I saw Pedro the Lion and most of the names that any teenager of that age and musical taste (my dad would quibble with the “taste” part) could reference.

And all of that means that, in David Bazan’s eyes, I probably fit the white, American, Evangelical segment of Christianity, many of whom listened to Pedro the Lion, and at least some of whom stopped listening to Pedro during or after Control and especially Achilles’ Heel. No doubt Bazan has had experiences with Christians rejecting him or his music. At least one famous encounter made it on to Achilles’ Heel, where Bazan’s response is to put an expletive in the mouth of the Holy Spirit.

But watching Strange Negotiations (for rent on iTunes and various other platforms), the excellent documentary by Brandon Vedder, I actually got the impression (without any direct knowledge, obviously) that that segment of Bazan’s audience is relatively tiny. Even during the first iteration of Pedro, people applauded him at Cornerstone when he talked about getting out of the ghetto of the Christian artistic sub-culture and making real art (just as they did at TOM Fest when Matt Wignall of Havalina Rail Co. said that Christians shouldn’t be aping popular art; they ought to be making the best, most creative art in the world).

Even if many of Bazan’s Evangelical listeners stopped listening, the documentary shows that many of them also stopped being Evangelical. That divide is at the heart of the film: Bazan and a subset of his fanbase on one side (former Evangelicals; “exvangelicals”) and the rest of American, pro-Trump, Evangelicalism on the other.

Bazan is (I think?) aware enough to know that those aren’t the only two categories of Christian. But most of his conversation in the documentary and what I’ve read elsewhere indicates the opposite. His experience growing up in Assemblies of God, pentecostal-ish churches and his later separation from those assumptions is not a unique one. It seems to be a common story, at least from what I can tell on social media.

But there’s a huge empty place between exvangelicals and Evangelicalism that goes unrecognized. Perhaps it is even unrecognizable for most people, because it doesn’t fit the Left-Right, liberal-conservative, Democrat-Republican dichotomy of religiously active politics. (For one analysis of that gap, between what he calls “pietists” and “confessionalists,” see D.G. Hart’s The Lost Soul of American Protestantism.) This is why polls and journalists don’t know what to do with Christians who don’t fit that Left-Right polarization. The only place their convictions can possibly fit are in the religiously conservative, Moral Majority, Religious Right form of activism, or in the religiously progressive/liberal Religious Left form of activism.

And that politically activistic dichotomy appears in ironic forms in Strange Negotiations. Bazan hates (and rightly so) the “Christian America” form of political power-grabbing, based in compromise and winning elections. Along with that goes the legalistic moralizing on, primarily, issues of sex. It’s the (very) slightly more complex version of the slogan “don’t impose your morality on me.” I hate the mixing of Christianity with Americanism, where Christian becomes the adjective, rather than the noun. I agree with Bazan that national flags and patriotic songs don’t have any place in the Church.

But Bazan seems caught in that very same dichotomy when he talks about helping Christianity be the best version of itself, or that he wants to see Christianity carry through in action its convictions of what the Bible says. He says, in reference to Evangelicals voting for Trump, “The people who taught me how to be a decent person are losing their minds.” And he wants to help them be sane again.

strange neg.

But the fact that his is a different kind of moralizing, more in line with what seems good and just and right to Bazan from his reading of the Scriptures, doesn’t make it any less a form of moralizing. It’s not the Fundamentalist, True-Love-Waits, Left-Behind-type moralizing. Instead, it’s a Progressive, Exvangelical, Inclusive moralizing. (In my experience, the open-minded, progressive Christian is at least, if not more, “fundamentalistic” and scolding than an actual Fundamentalist.)

And even more interestingly, Bazan’s understanding of especially the biblical prophetic tradition and Jesus’ message is exactly the same kind of reading of the Scriptures that he hates. The fact that it comes to different and opposite conclusions from his Evangelical upbringing doesn’t change that fact. Both those who come to what are considered “conservative” positions and those who align with “liberal” positions (often, Republican or Democrat, respectively) view the Bible in exactly the same way: as a book that contains an ethical program for making the world better. Whether that ethical vision is “Left” or “Right” is irrelevant; they’re both activistic, pietistic, bring-the-Kingdom-of-heaven-on-earth visions. You can see it easily when the argument runs between whether the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount is to be the standard for government action. They are, in fact, both theocracies. The only difference is in what kind of God will be ruling.

And though both will give lip-service to Jesus, it is only to a Jesus who is a law-giver, who tells me how to better myself and the world around me. Again, the only difference is in what kind of Jesus: the Jesus who is my personal savior, so I can escape this evil world; or the Jesus who teaches me, in the same way as any other religion, an ethic of behavior for making this world better. Neither of them is actually the Jesus who has come to redeem and restore the entire creation, which was spoken into existence through Him. Neither of them is the Jesus whose way of redemption has nothing to do with power, Left or Right or Independent, but whose victory over evil and death is seen in this world only in the cross.

Bazan has always been a fierce and true critic of a particular strain of American Christianity. The entirety of Winners Never Quit is focused on the sort of power-hungry “Christian” who hides his lust for power under a veneer of religion, not to mention the one who is only concerned with personal salvation and not charity.

“When I get to heaven/I’ll be greeted warmly/surrounded by the angels/as Jesus takes my hand./And I’ll receive a mansion on the river Jordan/and a crown of diamonds/for a race well run./And I won’t ever lock my doors/I’ll will trust my neighbors/confident that they deserve/to be there in heaven too” (“Slow and Steady Wins the Race”).

On Control, “Indian Summer” satirizes the idolization of politics: “It’s my pleasure to announce/In conjunction with the Fed/And my recent popularity/Thanks in part to mother nature/It will never rain again/It should do wonders for the GNP/If you’re just joining us now/You’ve missed a brilliant speech/
We go now live to the streets/To find out what the voters think/He’s worked a miracle/I just now bought a brand new car.”

But when it comes to Christianity as a whole, it seems as if Bazan is the “bundle of contradictions” that he calls himself in Strange Negotiations. He can, in one song, criticize the God of the Book of Job for refusing to give Job answers: “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 Stitches”).

On the same album, he sings on “Curse Your Branches,” “And why are some hell-bent on there being an answer/while some are content to answer, ‘I don’t know’?” Bazan seems to demand an answer from the God He doesn’t believe in (not content to hear “I don’t know”), while holding up in a different context “I don’t know” as the proper doubt of the holy. Do we require answers that we haven’t been given, or do we not?

So what used to sound like satire of progressive critics of Christianity—“I’m just a little bit worried/Do you have some sort of plan?/Have you been finally defeated/By the cunning of these fully evolved men?/And I hear that you don’t change/How do you expect to keep up with the trends?/You won’t survive the information age/Unless you plan to change the truth/To accommodate the brilliance of men, the brilliance of men” (“Letter From a Concerned Follower”)—now just sounds like an unironic description of Bazan’s state of mind.

Further, his negative view of American Evangelicals is balanced by what seems to me to be an entirely unwarranted optimism about human nature in general. He says something along the lines of, “We have the resources to end human suffering, but we won’t do it.” That sort of Enlightenment optimism has been proven false again and again, but still it persists.

If Curse Your Branches seems to be sort of the teenage-rebellion stage of breaking from Christianity, free to use all the words that he couldn’t when he was in church, Strange Negotiations (from which the film takes its name) and the albums that follow appear more as the mature Bazan that we see in the documentary. He’s struggling with how to do what he loves and make music, while holding on to his family, from whom touring separates him for weeks and months at a time. His self-examination in the eye of the camera, particularly when considering his relationships with his wife and children, is the most moving part of the film, and it’s Bazan at his most vulnerable.

That vulnerability and intimacy is, I think, the great strength of Strange Negotiations as a documentary At the same time, it might be one of its weaknesses as well. Because this is an essentially insular and interior film. We see and hear everything, even what Bazan’s wife and band-mates and family think, through his eyes and words. That’s not a negative criticism, simply a recognition of the fact that the viewer is engaging with this one person only. For this film, that is as it should be.

While it would be interesting to hear from his wife and parents, that would be a different film. Strange Negotiations, in the way it tells the story, reflects how Bazan’s music has become a point of conflict in the wider argument about what American Christianity is and is for. Besides how great this film looks (especially the aerial shots and the shots of the small church in a picture-perfect setting), it fills up the frame with Bazan and by doing so, represents the one-on-one dialogue that, for better or worse, seems interminable in the United States. And on the boundaries of that dialogue, Lutherans, in particular, have an opportunity to show both the Evangelicals and the Exvangelicals a lonelier, but better, third way.