How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
In some ways, you could look at what I’m about to say as an extension to the article on death metal from a few weeks back as well as last year’s article on As I Lay Dying’s Tim Lambesis. In the former, I encouraged using wisdom to evaluate music. In the latter, I warned against making too many assumptions about the spiritual commitments of that band you love. At the intersection of those two concerns lies mewithoutYou, a band that defies strict religious categorization but explores spiritual themes and biblical imagery nevertheless. Though they may come out at a different place than evangelical Christians would, that shouldn’t mean you can’t listen to their albums.
At the turn of the millennium, it was fairly common to assume that a Christian-run record label like Tooth and Nail was primarily an outlet for Christian bands. Many of their artists were very clearly Christian. Others were vaguely spiritual, and a small minority were not discernibly Christian in any real sense. You can have a group of Christians in a band that don’t necessarily wear their faith on their sleeves (tattooed or otherwise).
mewithoutYou was not one of those bands. They clearly sounded like a Christian band. A glass can only spill what it contains and Aaron Weiss’ voice contained a lot of biblical imagery. The lyrics weren’t conventional praise and worship by any stretch. But they often addressed Jesus or God, and worked through themes found in Scripture. As a result, songs on 2004’s Catch For Us The Foxes and 2006’s Brother, Sister feel like Psalms at times.Even as Weiss seems to have lost his vision of God’s beauty, his lyrics reflect imagery and symmetry that are still grounded in the beauty of God.
However, they have continually evolved musically and lyrically. The latter is a result of Weiss’ own spiritual journey, with a noticeable shift happening between Brother, Sister and 2009’s It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All A Dream! It’s Alright. The latter album featured a more accented blurring of Abrahamic spiritualities which makes sense once you know a little background.
Weiss and his brother Mike (the main guitarist) are both ethnically Jewish. However, they were raised in a Sufi household after both parents had converted to that more mystical wing of Islam. Aaron was free to explore his spirituality, and as a teenager, he began attending a fundamentalist Christian church. This then moved in a leftward direction, and eventually to living with Shane Claiborne’s The Simple Way for a spell.
This was around the time of Catch For Us The Foxes and Brother, Sister. While Islamic influences are present on both of those albums, they’re more prominent on It’s All Crazy!, particularly the final track. And if you read the liner notes, you can see the Sufi poet Rumi and teacher M. R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen inspired other tracks. Musically, the band evolved from a post-hardcore sound to a stripped-down folk version that feature more storytelling lyrics and personifications of the natural world. This continued on Ten Stories (2012), but with the amps turned back on.
The band’s most recent album, Pale Horses, continues the evolution. In some ways, Pale Horses represents mewithoutYou come full circle, which is fitting for band that once sang “all circles begin with an end, they come back around, they come back around again.” Lyrically, this is their most biblical album, as far as imagery goes. Musically, it’s a nice blend of all previous mewithoutYou incarnations. Spiritually, it draws from Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, but without a commitment to any one of them. Instead, the commitment is to a worldview of a different sort. To see this, read what Aaron said in a 2007 Busted Halo interview:
In general, what would you like your listener to take away from your music?
One point. There’s just one reality that we’re created for. We’re created to learn to love each other and grow in our love for our Maker. [We’re created] to learn to worship and to praise and be grateful and be humble and be broken and not trust in ourselves but to learn to work together and learn to trust in God. Just loving God. It’s love — that’s the only thing that I want people to take away from it.
Compare that with what he said in an interview earlier this month:
As you’ve alluded to earlier, you have a love/hate relationship with religion. Where do you fall on the spectrum currently?
I can tell you this, I’ve come to put less stock in what I say I believe. I feel like my affinity for whatever religious group or set of ideas is more provisional or relatively superficial than I might have previously thought…
This is all to say nothing of the fact that Christianity as a religion, much less the concept of religion in general — these concepts are so hard to pin down, so broad and so abstract. For me, they’re so difficult to define there’s no way I can even address what it is I have a love/hate relationship with. There’s not any one thing called religion or any one thing called Christianity, or even any one thing called Quakerism or Sufism. No matter how specific you get in a worldview, there’s still these abstractions that are going to take on totally different meanings for the people that approach them.
So I get more reluctant to talk about these things in any kind of universal way, like, “Well, this is what I think about religion.” It’s the opiate of the masses, like Marx said. Is Christianity the true account of humanity’s relationship with the divine? Is it? I just don’t know what these words are even referring to, necessarily. Believe it or not, I’m reluctant to speak about it, even though I’ve been rambling for the past 10 minutes about it. That’s only from me trying to say I don’t have anything very solid to say because they seem like very slippery concepts. You know that I mean?
In some ways, this is consonant with suggesting that God is — as Weiss sang on “The Dryness and the Rain” — “what the writing of a thousand lifetimes could not explain if all the forest trees were pens and all the oceans were ink.” But it is noticeably different. Weiss sang on “Carousels,” “But if I didn’t have You as my guide, I’d still wander lost in Sinai,” and that’s what this sounds like.
Consider this from earlier in the same interview:
You’ve described this record as you being at your most unguarded and unfiltered, which I thought was interesting because I’ve always thought you to be very open and unafraid to say whatever was on your mind on past records. What about this one made it different for you then?
Well, I think there are more critical aspects of my relationship with religion and my sense of trying to incorporate the full spectrum of what I feel, that is the extremity of my emotions and my mental state, which in some respects in the past might have been a little bit embarrassing to reveal the depths of. I had a hesitation to be either too overtly religious or to criticize religion too overtly, or some kind of a feeling that I needed to present some kind of an internally consistent worldview that I’m then giving to people.
Basically, I abandoned that with the last album, Ten Stories, but I also made the different worldviews different characters. This time around, I tried to own up to the depths of my dissatisfaction with religion, but also the depths of my love for religion. It’s kind of inconsistent internally, just in that one respect at least, but also I didn’t need to make different animals voicing these different perspectives. I could just say, “Yeah, that’s all how I feel.” It’s not clear and it’s not coherent, but it’s all in there.
Earlier in this interview, Weiss mentions he has been reading a lot of James Joyce lately and that reduces his inhibitions. In The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce’s character Stephen Daedalus repeats the mantra, “the Absolute is dead.” Pale Horses appears to be offering a kaleidoscopic view of the end of the world. On the third track, Weiss sings that “This is not the first time, this is not the first time God has died.” The line that follows suggests that God is perhaps just a three-letter capitalized sound. This is a noticeable shift from “Messes of Men,” where Weiss sang “Lord, I could never show you anything as beautiful as You,” and the final refrain in “Timothy Hay”: “What a beautiful God, what a beautiful God, what a beautiful God there must be!” Weiss used to soar and see the Son’s beauty. That vision of beauty is now noticeably absent in Pale Horses.
With that loss of beauty comes the loss of absolutes and sense of good. Religion seems to be gradually becoming a life best left half-behind. The result is a kind of postmodern relativism with Judeo-Christian imagery and the mysticism of Sufi Islam. In that sense, it is still very much a religion, just of the disorganized sort. In other words, he may have torn out single pages but he didn’t throw away the Book. Weiss also may not feel like he has something very solid to say, but he’s still saying it. The lyrics are not often straightforward, but demonstrate an intentionality that invites wrestling with his meaning. I still think he means every word he says, and I can analyze it without necessarily agreeing with it.
Even as Weiss seems to have lost his vision of God’s beauty, his lyrics reflect imagery and symmetry that are still grounded in the beauty of God. Because of that, I don’t see a need to abandon listening to mewithoutYou just because Weiss might be more post-modern mystical Muslim than conservative evangelical Christian. Because I can recognize that in his perspective through his lyrics and interviews, I can engage the content of his songs and try to understand them. It’s part of applying wisdom to know what you’re consuming in culture. And more often than not, that means realizing the cultural artifact isn’t coming from a traditional Christian perspective… but the echoes still remain.
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