Struck by Russ Ramsey, Free for CAPC Members
Death’s party-crashing ways are detailed in a new book by Russ Ramsey, titled Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death.
There had been rumors. David Bazan suddenly began posting from the previously defunct Pedro the Lion Facebook page, and he changed the banner. People in the know, friends and bands that played with Bazan, began posting hints and suggestions. Like everything to do with Bazan, it had a tinge of cultish devotion: whatever was coming was stirring something in the hearts of the faithful.
This month, it finally came to the surface: four shows in two cities—later expanded to six as the first four sold out—all under the name Pedro the Lion.
David Bazan, by maintaining that aching liminal space between belief and unbelief, reminds us that there’s quite a bit of ground between opposing camps, and ignoring this makes us less aware, less able to understand our neighbor and our enemy alike.In the pantheon of Christian alternative music, Pedro the Lion holds a unique position. The indie rock/folk group played Christian music festivals and church youth rooms without ever quite being a Christian band. The frontman was David Bazan, the unassuming singer-songwriter with thinning hair and perennial beard, clad only ever in black t-shirts and jeans. The son of a Pentecostal worship pastor, Bazan dealt in lyrics pertaining to faith but never felt completely comfortable with the strictly devotional. Although Pedro the Lion’s ‘99 EP The Only Reason I Feel Secure included a version of the hymn “Be Thou My Vision,” the next album, Winners Never Quit (2000), opens with a song that mocks the arrogance of those who presume to know their rewards in heaven.
Bazan’s music as Pedro the Lion was primarily character work. He told the stories of desperate people doing desperate things—narratives of greed, power struggles, lust, infidelity, murder, and suicide. No fewer than three Pedro releases are fully formed concept albums. Control, for example, tells the impressionistic story of a businessman whose moral shortcomings unravel his career, his marriage, and ultimately his life.
Every story about a power hungry politician or an illicit tryst was part of a larger one about the depravity at the heart of American culture—the focus on profit margins and pleasure outcomes that come at someone else’s expense. He found many of these abuses in religion, and never missed an opportunity to take down the proselytes who cling to foregone conclusions rather than examine their own beliefs or behaviors. “You were too busy steering the conversation toward the Lord,” he sings, “To hear the voice of the spirit begging you to shut the f*ck up. / You thought it must be the devil trying to make you go astray / Besides, it could not have been the Lord / because you don’t believe He talks that way.”
Like Bazan, I attended a religious college. The school had relaxed its dress code and restrictions on secular movies and music, but many rules remained. Alcohol and tobacco use, even for those of age, was forbidden, and there was a curfew for those who lived on campus. The environment was one of overwhelming religious zeal, which was both electrifying and tiresome. We were on fire. But given no outlet, we turned on each other, seeking out the tiniest possible speck in every eye we met.
Bazan said the things about faith and American Evangelical culture that we disaffected Christian college kids wished we were brave enough to say. When he looked at the people in his own religious community, he found that their lip service to God rang hollow: “Their perfect fire annoyed me / I could not find You anywhere.” For my circle of friends, and many like us, he was a kind of prophet, like the biblical ones before him, rebuking the ways of a people gone astray and providing guidance and warning. We saw Bazan’s voice, too, as an element of God’s ongoing revelation, a corrective.
He may have been a bit of a black sheep in the Evangelical community, speaking truth in a way that wasn’t always well-received: directly and in his own idiom, flavored with the occasional expletive, tinged with disgust over years of watching the slow dissolution of religion into America’s consumable culture until there’s no separation. But like the prophets, Bazan’s goal was always bearing witness to the truth, even when that truth was ugly.
One of Bazan’s narrators intones, “I would never divorce you / without a good reason / and I may never have to / but it’s good to have options.” The most sacred of human bonds carries no weight for him, a 21st century Everyman whose flippancy seems, to himself, to be wisdom. Keep your options open. Play the field. In a song about an unwed mother who leaps from the roof of the hospital in her gown rather than face the guilt and condemnation she fears, Bazan turns the song’s lens on the bystanders who gather around the nearly naked corpse on the ground: “Skin and tragedy always attract a crowd.” The ones who create a culture of condemnation are the same ones eager to rubberneck at the consequences.
It seems inevitable in hindsight that Bazan’s incisive, unflinching vision for his characters’ shortcomings would turn inward, unearthing his own unresolved conflict.
In ‘06, Bazan parted ways with the Pedro the Lion moniker and began recording under his own name. He shed formal religion with the rebrand, something he describes as happening “coincidentally . . . but not consciously.” He released Curse Your Branches in 2009, and it was clear from the first track that he had come to the end of his ability to willfully suspend disbelief: “You expect me to believe that all this misbehaving came from one enchanted tree?” The idea that God’s goodness was incontrovertible, that humanity’s fall was inevitable, that God created man with the full knowledge that one man’s sin would condemn all men to die began to erode the foundation that Bazan had built his belief upon. A few tracks later, Bazan wonders aloud, “Did You push us when we fell?”
It’s a familiar complaint, but what made Bazan’s critique unique, and so unsettling, was that he spoke from within our ranks: he came from the same place we came from, he attended the same Sunday morning services and Wednesday night services and all the services in between. He had the same trembling, ecstatic conversations about faith and life and God and the universe around the embers of youth group campfires.
It wasn’t that he just didn’t understand our faith—it’s that he did, and he found it lacking.
Bazan’s catalog is divided pretty neatly now into halves: the Pedro material and the David material, the pre- and post- fall. The initial round of reviews for Curse Your Branches collectively settled on a conception of the record as Bazan’s breakup record with God. It felt like a natural demarcation: he left his band that had been for years signed to Tooth and Nail, the notoriously Christian record label, disappeared into the wilderness, and returned deeper-voiced, wearier, and firmly Not A Christian. Bazan’s Evangelical fans heaved a sigh, resigned to the fact that their favorite musician used to like God, but now he hates Him.
What all of this—all the reviews that noted Bazan’s “fall” from religion, his departure from Christianity, his split with the church—what it all misses is, first, that Bazan has always been voicing the same concerns. The first song on Pedro’s first label release included the words of a junkie who spoke more truth than he knew: “No matter what you say / It’s just not true that there’s only one way.” Bazan has been on this journey since the beginning; he’s just tacking into the wind differently now.
To begin to doubt, to cut the anchor and let the boat surge out into the sea, is to risk never coming back to familiar waters. The absence of doubt is often a lack of faith, rather than a surfeit of it, because it clings too tightly to the simple and the familiar. On “Secret of the Easy Yoke,” Bazan describes a room in which, “The devoted were wearing bracelets / To remind them why they came / Some concrete motivation / When the abstract could not do the same.” As he says elsewhere: “That’s not what bearing witness is.”
On Michael Gungor’s podcast The Liturgist, Bazan explained how he tries to live a life honoring to God, even if he doesn’t necessarily believe in that God: “But really: I will be so overjoyed if there is a God. It will be, most likely, such good news. Now he—or she—could be a real bastard, but I will be overjoyed if there is one. . . while I can’t imagine a being like that existing at the moment, I do try to live my life in a way that honors the possibility.”
One of the problems with sorting people in Christian and Not-Christian is the idea that a change in the way you understand faith somehow fundamentally changes you, makes you a different kind of person altogether. You pray a prayer, and then you are forever changed. David Bazan, by maintaining that aching liminal space between belief and unbelief, reminds us that there’s quite a bit of ground between opposing camps, and ignoring this makes us less aware, less able to understand our neighbor and our enemy alike. It short-sights us. It prevents us from seeing that faith isn’t a destination with boundaries like a city that can be walked in and out of, where you are either citizen or an unwelcome alien. Religion as it’s experienced in daily life is often referred to as “a journey of faith,” and Bazan is one of the few songwriters who treats it as such.
In an interview with VICE, Bazan ended with a hallmark mixture of fatigue and hope: “I love these people. I love Christianity, and I see it going awry. I’m delusional enough to think it could change in my lifetime.” The years of incisive criticisms of American Christianity did not come from a bitter person, burned by religion and lashing out in kind. Bazan has said that, in his music, “there’s a sense that I’m trying to talk to my own family.” His song “People” makes it clear that “[t]hese are my people / We’re the same in so many ways.” Love is what animates his response. However, in that same interview, Bazan makes it clear that it would be impossible for him to return to his faith the way he once practiced it. By dusting off the Pedro the Lion name, it seems that he isn’t taking back anything he has said. He merely adds another layer of nuance and understanding to his journey.
Growing up, my generation received math tests that told us to Show Your Work. My more advanced classmates expressed frustration at knowing the correct answer and having to work backward to prove they really understood it. But the reason we were forced to go through all the steps is because it’s very possible to arrive at the right answer the wrong way. You may be correct today and tomorrow and next week using your method, but the time will come when the flaw in your understanding, the crack at the foundation gives way. The path you take to get there is, in many ways, as important as the destination.
David Bazan has remained firm in his dedication to questioning the path, refusing to justify the means with the ends, reminding us that redemption isn’t just a one time event that is coming with trumpets and four guys on horses. It’s not a destination; it’s continual, daily action. It’s seeking to do no harm to others, and coming to terms with how our pride corrupts this goal. It’s staring down our own doubts and being terrified and pushing into them anyways, knowing that the pursuit itself is sanctified.
And that’s what bearing witness is.
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