Every Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies, while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.
It’s June again: The end of another academic year. We’ve come to Graduation Weekend, and I’m driving to a special ceremony, where this year’s crop of honors society students—the Seattle Pacific University Scholars (or “UScholars”)—will gather with families and friends to celebrate their achievement. And on the way, my car doors are pulsing to the beats of an album that has its hooks in me: Sprinter by Torres.
These songs keep playing in my head long after I’ve parked the car on Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill and descended into the sunny campus. Everywhere I look the lawns are alive with faculty in full regalia and seniors draped in graduation gowns and stoles, capped with tasseled mortarboards. I hurry through the crowd to the lobby of Otto Miller Hall, where UScholar seniors have set up informative honors project displays. There each student explains to visitors what they’ve been learning in these last days before their launch into the great unknown.
Despite the celebratory mood, I’m still humming these dark, dissonant songs. And that gets me thinking about the correlations between Mackenzie Scott—the 23-year-old singer and songwriter who performs as Torres—and these twenty-something honors students. As a matter of fact, the UScholars and the Nashville rock star have more in common than just their age.
First of all, they’re explorers and seekers. And they’re all brilliant. That will be obvious to anyone who pays attention to the fruits of their labor.
Just listen to the provocative lyrics on Sprinter, to Scott’s musicianship and passionate performance, and to the cohesiveness of this courageous set of songs.
Then browse the impressive titles of these honors projects: “Entrenched in Power: Path Dependence and UN Security Council Reform”; “Sweet Sacrament: Where Myth Meets Story in Ethiopian Christianity (A Collection of Short Stories)”; “Where Do They Go?: Three Studies of Christian Faith and Belonging in Gay Literature.” These students are deep thinkers wrestling with difficult questions in art, economics, science, and complicated social issues.
The UScholars are also ambitious readers: Here’s a project called “Language of the Social Conscience: Reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead as Puritan Confessional.” And another: “A Critical Analysis of Violence in the Works of Cormac McCarthy.” (That reminds me—in the Sprinter liner notes, Scott thanks an impressive library of “muses” that includes Margaret Atwood, Sylvia Plath, Ray Bradbury, J. D. Salinger, Joan Didion, and, yes, Cormac McCarthy.)
Perhaps the most interesting correlation for me is the frequent testimony from these students, and from Scott, that, throughout their struggle, they have sustained their faith in Jesus Christ.
Scott testifies that she remains a “Christ-follower,” even though the failures of her congregation have sent her into a season of alienation from the church. While she is careful not to sensationalize her work by turning it into a “tell-all” of dirty details, her lyrics point toward wounds she suffered in a Baptist church community. In the title song, she speaks of a pastor who “lost / his position / Went down / for pornography.” And she’s honest in interviews about the fact that she’s no longer a churchgoer—not now, anyway.
These Seattle Pacific students have made their investigations in a close-knit Christian community as a famous mega-church, just down the road from campus, collapsed as a result of the way its leaders abused power, avoided transparency, silenced challengers, and mistreated women. What’s more, these students bear a burden of grief, loss, and trauma due to the memories of what happened just one year ago on campus, the week of graduation, when a stranger walked into this very building—the very same lobby where I am browsing project displays—and started shooting, killing one of their classmates and wounding other friends of theirs.
How does faith survive such things? How does it change in the process? Do the scriptures that Mackenzie Scott and these students have studied offer substantial comfort, hope, and perspective?
In the song “New Skin,” Scott sings about turning a corner and bravely beginning a new life. And she’s not going to take any abuse from anyone who thinks she’s lost her mind when, in fact, she’s doing her very best to use it.
Lay off me would ya, I’m just trying
To take this new skin for a spin
Pray for me would ya, I’m just nervous
‘bout my family filing in
Ready to wrap me up, ready to love me
In this new skin . . .
This could almost be the plea of any of these graduates—eager to step out and apply what they’ve learned in a complicated and difficult world, hoping for the support of their families. Some have seen fundamental assumptions fall away through scrutiny, study, and experience. Some won’t settle for simplistic sentiments or pat answers anymore. “Who’s that trying to speak for me?” Scott sings. “What is it that they claim to be? / A child of God much like yourself. . . .” These young believers don’t need a church that tells them what they’re required to think; they need companions on this journey of testing all things and holding fast to what is good. That is the exercise of faith as Christ makes all things new.
Last year, I asked Jessica Robertson, a graduating Seattle Pacific UScholar, to share her reflections on the program. She talked about how, when she was a freshman, she heard this “daunting” promise from the faculty: “In the University Scholars program, we will take the house of beliefs that you have been given, and we will pull it apart brick by brick. Some of those bricks you’ll keep, some you’ll set aside, and you’ll add some new ones. And then, little by little, you’ll start to rebuild that house—but this time, it will be your own.”
This promise, she said, “struck a tiny chord of fear” in the hearts of Robertson and her family. What would happen to her if she was drawn beyond the comforts of certainty into the darkness of doubts and questions?
Listen to “New Skin” again and pay attention to the subtle shift that occurs during the last two choruses. The first time through, Scott sings:
The darkness fears what darkness knows
But if you’ve never known the darkness
Then you’re the one who fears the most.
She sings it with fury. We get the sense that she’s learned both sides of this experience: She fears what she has come to know in “the darkness”—which might be an experience of doubt or sin or suffering. But she also remembers a time when she was ignorant—or, perhaps, in denial—of such things. And she was more fearful then.
Then notice how things change in the very last repetition of this chorus:
But if you do not know the darkness
Then you’re the one I fear the most.
Now, the most fearsome thing is not on the outside looking in. . . but on the inside, becoming a monster whose words and actions are driven by fear.
Similarly, Jessica Robertson testified, on the other side of the UScholars program, that “a little dismantling and rebuilding was exactly what I needed.”
And much of that had to do with relationships—with the fact that Robertson’s professors and peers wrestled with questions together, face-to-face, without endeavoring to force change in one another. What’s the difference between the “house of beliefs” where she started and the place she lives now? “My house is rearranged a bit, redecorated in a way that makes it more my own. It has a few new bricks, and it’s missing a few old ones. But those renovations happened by my own volition. UScholars classes challenged me to think deeply and to question boldly, and my faith is the stronger for it.”
When you listen to Mackenzie Scott sing about her own personal crises, and admit in interviews that her songs are probably disturbing to her family, it’s also worth mentioning that she expresses gratitude for the way they have supported her in her music. (Her family is mentioned first in the liner-note acknowledgments.)
If we are to exercise faith in our studies, in our relationships, and in art, we need that kind of trust from our families, our communities, and—yes—our churches. We need people who will allow us to wrestle, to go to dark places, and who will remain faithful through those times of testing. A faith that doesn’t grow and change is dead; faith is a living thing. Jesus insists that his service in our lives is to “make all things new.”
There is plenty on Sprinter that is difficult, too personal perhaps, to interpret. It’s as if the singer is still searching for the vocabulary that will best express what she’s endured. But there’s no mistaking her desire for hope and healing. As she writes, in the album’s title song “Sprinter,”
Well, what I did is what is done —
The Baptist in me chose to run.
But if there’s still time to choose the sun,
I’ll choose the sun, I’ll choose the sun.
I’ll run it back to everyone.
Despite everything, Scott is inclined to move into that harsh, revealing light of truth. I don’t think it’s lost on her that “choosing the sun” can be, from a certain point of view, synonymous with “choosing the Son.” (You roll your eyes, but hey, even Bob Dylan plays with that teaser from time to time.) Even as she moves through the wilderness, she’s on the trail of truth. And when she finds it, she wants to share that light with us.
Those are the lines that are on my mind as the UScholars embrace one another and receive inspiring words of challenge—and words of love—from their beloved instructors. They are wearing new skin, headed out into new challenges, equipped to explore difficult questions. But there is a glow in their faces as they go. They may wear the scars of things they’ve lost, but as they leave this building, and as they leave this experience, they are moving into the sun. I salute them. I look forward to seeing what they bring back for everyone.