I spent Saturday this weekend at the Gorge Amphitheater for the Sasquatch music festival. I got to see Modest Mouse, the National, Beirut, and a number of other very awesome bands play. (Check out the Fleet Foxes.) Probably the most interesting part of the day for me was that I met (ex Pedro the Lion frontman) David Bazan while he was signing CDs at a booth. There wasn't really a line, so I had about a 10 minute conversation with him sparked by a question Adam Neder came up with after he played at Whitworth. The very carefully formulated question was: "Do you believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and if so why is there so little hope in your songs?" If you've never seen Bazan play, he allows time between his songs for the audience to ask questions, about basically anything. So I asked if he took questions at merch-signings too, and he chuckled and told me to shoot. So I asked him about Jesus.
I told him before I asked that I wasn't trying to be judgmental (because it sure sounded like it to me...), and told him that I was genuinely curious. I was, too: when I saw him in Spokane this past December, he followed up a pretty recent song ("Selling Advertising") where he more or less identifies himself as a Christian, with his own rendition of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," which ended,
"I sip my Christmas whiskey,
wondering if I still believe
in tidings of comfort and joy..."
And he doesn't play the song "Promise" anymore (basically an anthem of hope that comes at the end of an album about doubt) on the grounds that it's a naive picture of life.
He wasn't really taken aback or offended when I asked him my question, which was a relief; he had exactly the kind of unassuming self-confidence he has when he plays; I don't think he really has a stage-persona; he IS that personal. But I could tell from his answer that it had been a long time since anyone had asked him so specifically about Jesus.
The Question, again, was: "Do you believe Jesus rose from the dead?"
He sort of floundered for a while, and then told me, "Well, I don't know," admitting right away how unsatisfactory his answer was: "I guess, logically, that's really the same as saying no." I told him I didn't think it was exactly, because of course I don't know either, and I still believe in the resurrection. But he settled on No, and what he said next was absolutely fascinating.
He guessed, rightly, that I knew from listening to his early music that he had been a Christian as recently as 5 or 10 years ago, and basically told me, "that whole belief system sort of fell apart for me." The really interesting thing for me wasn't so much his journey to doubt (really, it's pretty typical and unoriginal,) but was that he kept referring to Christianity as "the system" or the "belief system," like he had forgotten how intentionally the question I'd asked him had been framed without such frills--"Do you believe Jesus rose from the dead?" I don't know if that was maybe just because Christian terminology is distasteful to him, but it looked to me like he wasn't really able to settle on No as his answer until he had made the transition in his mind from thinking about Jesus to thinking about the 'Christian system' as he perceived it, because I think that is what he had made up his mind to reject.
He told me that he didn't really think the Church ("the manifestations of that system," he called it) was "getting the point of what it was all about," that it had largely centered around efforts to dominate others (I agreed with him). But that wasn't why he had lost his faith, he said, because it had always bothered him even when he had accepted that system. I asked him what he thought the point of Jesus' message was, and he told me blankly that he didn't know, because he didn't believe in it, and his tone was the same as when I asked about the resurrection. I thought that was very honest.
It was really fascinating to have a conversation about faith with an agnostic who was almost as sincere, honest, and articulate in answering the question as Ivan Karamazov. But even more, it was a scary reminder of what happens if the person of Jesus is taken out of the Christian system. I think it's probably just because he was very honest and thoughtful that Christianity fell apart for him, because it sounds like Jesus wasn't (or at least, he certainly isn't anymore) a real part of "the system" he rejected. And in the end, Christianity can't help but break down if the person of Christ is anywhere but at its center.
I thought of recommending he read "The Sickness unto Death," but I realized that would feel even to me like I was trying to medicate his doubt, so I just thanked him for answering my question and for writing thoughtful songs. He told me to have a good day, and he didn't even hold it against me that I watched the New Pornographers' set instead of his. He remembered my name too, which was neat.
I came away from the experience with a great respect for Bazan as an agnostic--he takes his doubt more seriously than most Christians seem to take our faith. Reflecting on the conversation later, I struggled with whether that was right. Doubt is not ultimately a virtue; even if it is exciting or otherwise alluring, it is not better in any way than faith, and the idea that we should seek it is evil. But does that mean it is wrong to be skeptical of misleading or otherwise dubious evangelistic techniques? (No, it doesn't; that kind of skepticism is intellectually and spiritually healthy.) So how am I supposed to take seriously Christ's formidable command to make disciples with the equal task of taking people seriously as reflecting God's image, as being far more than 'potential converts?' I did a bit of self-examination when DB mentioned the Church's tendency to domineer, and had to put my foot in my mouth a few times to stop myself from dismissing his whole story of losing faith and dropping a Bible in his lap. Also, I realized how cool I thought it would be if I converted Dave Bazan back to Christianity, and I had to repent of that because even though that would be cool, it would be wrong also.
I can't imagine anything that I could possibly do for him beyond presenting the truth of the Gospel as nakedly as I am able, respecting him enough to recognize that he will not react to that truth exactly how I might like him to, praying on his behalf, and expecting God to do greater things than I could have planned for Him to do, and probably without telling me about them.
So I prayed for David Bazan's soul, and for my own. That Jesus would have mercy on us both and transform our lives. And though I'm not really a universalist, I actually have a lot of hope for DB. He's exactly the kind of person who, when the lies of intellectualism and despair finally fall apart, really could accept the truth of the Gospel. And I do believe that Christ died once for all, "and a promise is a promise, I know."