The college students who ran my youth group used to blare “A Boy Brushed Red… Living in Black and White” multiple times before the service began. They were part of a post-hardcore band themselves, and I fervently believe that the liturgy of post-hardcore music formed many of the wannabe skaters who dwelt in the corners of the crowded room.
My sister was one of these kids, and I was introduced to Underoath through her. Of course, being in seventh grade meant that Underoath was the coolest band in the world, since they were my first encounter with post-hardcore music. My eighth-grade band teacher also shared a love for Underoath. “You know what’s even cooler, though?” he asked. “Emery. They’re unbeatable.”
Doubt, addiction, despair—these afflictions are cancerous, but they are not new.Although the angsty-teenager-post-hardcore-listening phase passed by my sister in a year, surprisingly, I return to the two bands, every now and then, for a hit of nostalgia. Alas, it’s been 10 years since I first listened to them. They have both matured in their sound and lyrics, their own struggles with faith mirroring my own. Yet, Underoath and Emery’s differences emerge clearly, I believe, in their two newest albums, Erase Me and Eve, respectively.
Since 2017, if not before, Underoath has decided no longer to call themselves Christian. Thus, Erase Me is at once a story of an annihilation of the band’s past Christian self and a progression from faith to abandonment. This progress, however, is never easy; the album begins with the speaker begging God for forgiveness as he fails to live up the standards he has for himself:
You’ve got me wrong
How did we end up like this?
I’ve lost myself
Please God give me a chance
You’ve got me wrong
This is all so damn useless
I’m done with you
As the album moves onward, the melancholic tone turns into anger, as in “On My Teeth,” in which the speaker proclaims, “I’m fine without You / I’m not Your f*cking prey.”
A feeling of disassociation emerges as the speaker realizes that what he has believed in is simply a façade, a comfort for his insecurities. “Ihateit” juxtaposes addiction and religion, showing how religion itself can become an addiction. It is here that the speaker sings, “God erase me / I don’t deserve the life You give.”
The process of abandoning one’s faith is rarely linear, so rightly, the album moves back and forth between feelings of anger, frustration, and despair. It’s not until the last song that the speaker becomes resolute in his departure, ending the album with the song titled “I Gave Up.”
In the bonus track of the album, “A New Life,” the speaker reflects on his life after he has given up his faith:
You make me so unhappy
I just want to be free
I’ve been tryin’ to figure out
What’s wrong with me
It’s not me, it’s not me
You’re not gonna ruin my life
God You’re not gonna ruin mine
This new life is a reinvention of the self from the ground up; it is exiting completely from the band’s past self toward forging a new meaning, an erasure that is similar to annihilation.
Emery’s Eve deals also with addiction, doubt, and despair. The album begins as the speaker distances himself from his conservative community—whether it be for teaching a horrifying version of God who only condemns in “Fear Yourself,” for caring too much about cuss words in “People Always Ask Me if We’re Going to Cuss in an Emery Song,” or even for their lack of empathy for individuals who struggle with same-sex attraction in “2007 Clarksville High Volleyball State Champs Gay Is OK.”
Yet the picture of Eve on the album cover is not one of anger or disappointment, but one of vulnerability. Eve is the mother of the blamed, representing those vilified in Christian communities, the outcast who is skeptical when she shouldn’t be. The ousted are given a new perspective on faith, however, one that is free to question the validity of their own beliefs and relate to others through doubt. In “Name Your God,” for instance, the speaker discusses a dream that he had about hell and the terror that grips him, yet he is unsure of hell’s existence. In “Streets of Gold,” heaven seems to be an analogy for the innocence and the purity of life without doubts and how far the speaker has traveled from it.
Doubts and addictions cause us to feel like we are “the sons that were never free,” that we can’t “pray away the weakness.” But “Eve” still contains tiny snippets of hope; as bleak as it is, the speaker continues to sing “I still believe.” He is aware that his doubt will come, while also noting that “it will go . . . You only have to make it to the next show.”
But the song that brings the whole album together, I believe, is “See You on the Other Side,” a song about how the disciples must have felt after Jesus ascended. In the song, the speaker, one of the disciples, seems nihilistic, matching in tone with Underoath’s own speaker in Erase Me. “We will all be erased,” the disciple in Emery’s song sings, as they’re left to cope with Christ’s disappearance. And yet the stark difference between their understanding of erasure emerges in the last line of the song: “But all of your words will not be erased,” which echoes Jesus’ words in Matthew 4:35: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
Indeed, Christ’s words to the disciples are kept, stored, and passed down through His church, giving life and meaning to us and the cosmos. They have the power to reverse death and our destruction—in other words, our annihilation—by securing us in the promise of our future purification. “Your words” mentioned here include our future selves, untainted by sin, just as Eve was, yet better because of our perfect union with God, better because we are cleansed and glorified.
Doubt, addiction, despair—these afflictions are cancerous, but they are not new. Mother Teresa herself dealt with despair; her journals include lines like, “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me—of God not being God—of God not existing. . . . If I ever become a saint, I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’” Amidst her doubts, however, she continued to give herself freely to others, as her public self exemplifies.
C. S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, notes how feelings of abandonment can be used as a temptation to pull us out of our faith and tradition; nonetheless, doubt can also be God’s strongest weapon for forging our obedience. Screwtape tells Wormwood, his trainee, “Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
Similarly, while Shusaku Endo is most famous for his work in Silence, his last novel Deep River deals with a priest, Otsu, who carries the dead in the slums of India to the River Ganges to honor their deaths. At the crucial juncture in his life when he realizes he is a practicing Catholic who no longer believes, Otsu is asked by Mitsuko, a character who’s been tempting him to abandon his faith, why he continues to pray. Mournfully, Otsu replies, “[E]ven if I try to abandon God . . . God won’t abandon me.”
Underoath and Emery both reveal what doubt, addiction, and perhaps even abandonment could feel like. But their differences bring us to our choice: will we believe the lie that we can rid ourselves of Him, that we can be annihilated and start afresh? Will we remain obedient, like the saints before us, even when He seems absent?
I think Endo is on to something about the God who seems, at times, to abandon us. Rather than letting us be, our Lord is a God who haunts us into submission, a God who won’t leave us alone, a God whose words will never be erased.