Wrestling God with Music
Are Derek Webb and David Bazan like Judas or Jacob?
Up until “Curse Your Branches,” the title track of David Bazan’s first solo album, Bazan was best known for orbiting the world of Christian rock as the leader of Pedro the Lion. For a generation that didn’t hear its experience in the shiny, happy sounds of Christian radio, Bazan was a different kind of prophet. He didn’t preach so much as offer a few crumbs for the road.
His music assured us it was okay to have faith but still squirm within the grip of religion. It’s possible to be animated by the work of Jesus without dropping his name to feel secure. Or maybe it was okay not to feel secure.
Paradoxically, it was Bazan’s discomfort with his faith that made his defection feel like a blindside hit. It sounded like he had already tussled with his faith and found a way to stay.
“In Stitches” is the sound of Bazan, booze on his breath, his faith pulled apart and piled in pieces around him. His words still paralyze me eight years later.
I might as well admit it, like I even have a choice / The crew have killed the captain, but they still can hear his voice / A shadow on the water, a whisper in the wind / On long walks with my daughter, who’s lately full of questions about you.
That last syllable rises like a prayer that won’t get answered, a balloon that will just keep floating until it pierces the atmosphere.
Bazan and Webb are looking for spiritual sparring partners.
Two of 2017’s finest albums are by songwriters who have clawed at the confines of Christian music. One is Bazan’s Care, as naked and lovely a work as he’s ever made. The other is Derek Webb’s Fingers Crossed, a song cycle that cries “gimme shelter” amid the ruins of a marriage and, subsequently, a changed relationship to everything and everyone around him.
Some hear the doubt or disbelief in these records and respond like the crowd jeering Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Only this time, the cries of “Judas” aren’t about plugging in a guitar, but unplugging from orthodox expressions of faith.
Care is a culmination of Bazan’s recent output, the sound of him surrendering all to the power of electro-pop. It is as minimalist as Pedro the Lion, but different in tone and timbre.
Sonically, Fingers Crossed is Webb’s masterpiece. Every emotional note he strikes—and he uses the entire twelve-tone scale—meets its match in buzzy synths, classical guitars, tenacious beats, and unreliably warm string beds.
Here Webb writes worship anthems with Shyamalan-like plot twists, unwraps a box of questions about God’s glory in a bleary-eyed Christmas song, prays to travel back in time to make promises he can’t keep in the present tense. He stumbles through the church’s calendar mumbling liturgy, each sacred day a reminder of what slipped through his fingers and what he set on fire.
Bazan’s condition is clear, but Webb’s is harder to pin down. Rather than scrawl out definitions, he sings between the bar lines of certainty and despair. He leaves space both for the whispers of God that Bazan identified and his deafening silence. Webb doesn’t speak in catechisms; rather he sounds out every ounce of his fractured humanity.
While Webb turns phrases on brothers who would compare themselves to clear their own names, he sings with knowing sympathy for his audience.
Opener “Stop Listening” is his attempt to sound a warning, to let his listeners walk away with their ideas of him intact before they feel confused—or responsible.
So if you stop listening now, we can still be friends / If your eyes can see what’s killing me, I’ll need you by the end / But I’ll understand if you stop listening.
In the closing “Goodbye, For Now,” Webb tries to raise an Ebenezer but winds up with a pile of rocks. He can’t seem to reconcile the separation he senses with the notion of a God who draws close to the hurting.
“I still believe in love, like I believe in just war,” he sings. “I think it’s possible, but maybe not just anymore. So either you aren’t real or I am just not chosen. Maybe I’ll never know. Either way, my heart is broken.”
In Care, Bazan staggers me. “Permanent Record” dips its toes in the River Jordan, calling back to early, ecstatic experience.
I was trembling with gooseflesh / The first time I prayed to speak in tongues / I saw it coming, but man, I tried to run / But now I make it up as I go along.
From there, he opens the conversation up for a candid look at creativity.
I store my thoughts in other people’s heads / Then I question what they know.
Borrowing language from “Rock of Ages,” Bazan casts himself as a cartographer of emotion and experience. Yet he doesn’t quite know what he’s taking notes on; he isn’t sure what it means to create if there isn’t a Creator.
The truth in Bazan’s statements still qualifies as God’s truth, even if he isn’t sure where it originates.
Bazan and Webb are bold, not brash.
If I were Bazan’s neighbor or Webb’s pastor, I might demand a little more clarity. But I’m not and I won’t.
That’s not why we go to art, for answers. We come to learn the right questions, to soften our hearts so we can respond with tenderness to the turmoil inside and around us.
We treat Christian artists like child stars. They have matured before our eyes, so we think we know them. It’s like realizing our favorite sitcom daughter is all grown up by stumbling upon her nude photoshoot.
When these artists expose the true state of their insides, we fumble around with their hesitations because we never have put a proper value on authentic expressions of doubt and struggle. Either they are cursed heirlooms to be locked away in the attic or a virtue unto themselves. Good church folks cast aside such artists as chief sinners. Broken and bruised ex-church kids consecrate them as saints.
The hardest truth for us to face is that they’re neither. There is little to fear in these records and, if we truly understand the hearts behind them, little to cheer.
Bazan and Webb are not brave for doubting; they are brave for doubting out loud. They aren’t trying to convert you or feed you answers; they just want you to sit with them in their questions. They aren’t trying to be role models; they’re just trying to draw maps home.
But maybe Bazan and Webb aren’t Judases as much as Jacobs. Faith will always be a wrestling match. It’s not Bazan or Webb’s very public questioning that threatens our certainty. It’s when we keep the wrestling to ourselves.
Bazan and Webb can’t do it anymore and, as they spar with the Almighty, they ask us to stick around and watch. Maybe we can hold cold compresses to their black eyes. Maybe we’ll be tapping in soon and need to see what we’re up against. In their songs, they wrestle God, and just maybe they’ll leave with a limp and take on different names. Or maybe we will.
Cover image by Dark Rider.