The Air We Breathe Is Holy: Exvangelical Indie Rock
By Matthew MullinsOctober 23, 2023
IT’S DECEMBER 2009, the week after Christmas. My friend Dan and I have driven from Greensboro to Philadelphia for an academic conference. After checking out of our hotel on the last day, we decide to hang around to catch one more presentation. As a result, we’re still wearing our sorry suits as we walk through the cold convention center parking garage at the end of the day. We throw our bags into the trunk of my 1995 Honda Civic coupe and drive out of the city looking for a place to change and eat. That place turns out to be a truck stop with a couple of fast food options, and so here we come: two cheap-suited grad students walking into an I-95 gas station somewhere around the Pennsylvania–Delaware line.
Dan finishes his sandwich first and heads off to change his clothes in the bathroom. Before I can even crumple the remains of my meal into a ball, he comes bursting back out with his head down, shaking. He doesn’t even stop at the table, just breaks for the car, the word “nope” lobbed back over his shoulder like salt from a shaker.
My curiosity is piqued. I toss my wrapper in the trash and amble over to the door marked Men. As soon as I push it open, I step into half an inch of water.
The sinks to my right are on full blast, the basins overflowing and pouring water onto the floor at Niagra velocities. Over the tiled floodplain between me and the nearest stalls, four teenagers move back and forth in ecstatic misdemeanor. They’ve stopped up the sinks with paper towels and are terrorizing the occupant of a stall by pelting him with these pulpy missiles. I can’t see him, but I can hear him cursing them fervently, helplessly. I bolt out of there and have the clutch on the floor with the key cranking the ignition before the automatic doors of the gas station snick closed behind me.
Back on I-95, we loosen our collars and laugh as we each tell our versions of what we saw. After the last repetition of “Unbelievable,” our conversation fades at the prospect of an all-night drive. I pull my CD wallet from between the seats and hand it to Dan. What’s the appropriate soundtrack for surviving the pandemonium of teenagers, I wonder, as he thumbs through the discs.
In the quiet, Dan asks about a musician he knows I like, one whose songs I had brought to our small circle of friends with guitars. There were five or six of us who got together randomly throughout those years, learning and playing each other’s favorite tunes. It was a kind of graduate school group therapy. I had introduced the group to David Bazan that fall, at the risk of exposing my religious anxiety through the doubt-plagued lyrics and sonorous melodies of one of the best Christian indie rockers of all time. In the weak dome light, I ask Dan to find Bazan’s recently released album, Curse Your Branches.
What should have taken a little over half an hour to listen to ends up taking a few hours. Between deep breaths, Bazan sings the story of Christianity and his painful experience of losing the plot. Dan, who is not a Christian, pauses tracks to ask questions. A lifelong Christian, I rewind key lines and play them again, as I attempt to answer Dan’s questions. A lyric about “ancient autographs” leads to an inquiry about the Bible, which sparks a discussion of literal versus allegorical interpretation. I am a tour guide pointing out naturally overlooked points of interest, peeling back the layers of phrases that mean nothing to Dan but everything to me.
Over the next hundred miles or so, the solidarity we felt as two schmucks in suits running out of a truck stop is replaced by a new kind of kinship. I become the local storyteller trying to give the tourist a sense of what it was like to grow up in this strange world of Sunday school, WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) bracelets, daily devotions, and worship services. I try to convey a sense of the world as I knew it, one in which truck stops were mere oases between church parking lots and various youth group destinations.
Like Bazan, I grew up in the world of American evangelical Christianity. Though I should note that there are multiple worlds, not a singular world, of American evangelicalism. After all, Bazan was raised mostly in a denomination called Assemblies of God and lived in the Southwest; I, on the other hand, grew up Southern Baptist in the Southeast. The kind of people who bring fast food to church potlucks probably brought In-N-Out Burger to his and Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ’n Biscuits to ours. There are not only cultural, linguistic, and demographic differences between our respective evangelical ecosystems but theological differences as well. Historically, however, some central concepts have been used to group various Protestant traditions under the label evangelical, argues historian Thomas S. Kidd. A denomination or church or individual might be evangelical, for instance, if they self-identify as “Bible-believing” or “born again.” But Bazan and I both came of age in a period during which, as Kidd and other experts have claimed, American evangelicalism also drew much of its social coherence from an association with political conservatism.
During the last half century, the alliance between American evangelical Christianity and conservative politics has driven a backlash identified variously as Ex-evangelicalism, Xvangelicalism, and Exvangelicalism. Bazan became something of a prophet to this movement, eventually leaving evangelicalism behind himself. Leaving is never easy. And while there is much to be said about how and why the politics of evangelicalism shapes the Exvangelical exodus, I want to focus here on the personal crisis of faith captured so honestly and vulnerably in Bazan’s music. He has left the faith, and I have stayed. But we have lived through the same cultural turmoil and voiced similar critiques of our people. I want to examine the crux of what it means to stay or leave—which, from the vantage point of faith, can be traced to how we think about the very air we breathe. To understand why, we must go back to the beginning.
In the beginning—and by beginning, I mean the very beginning—the Hebrew Scriptures say God created the cosmos by the power of speech. When everything is formless and empty and the Spirit of God hovers like a wind over the waters, God speaks, and light comes into being. God speaks again, and the water is separated from the sky. God speaks, and the oceans are gathered; dry land appears. God speaks and plants, stars, animals exist. But when God speaks for the first time about man, the act of creation is different. God says, “Let us make humanity in our image, in our likeness.” This divine quorum then creates humans in God’s image. In the second version of the story, we are told that God “formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” This holy air, reminiscent of the wind hovering over the waters, forms a special bond between God and the man. With a different origin from the rest of creation, and with the breath of God in their lungs, our first parents are set apart in the story of God’s world.
The Christian tradition builds on the Hebrew account to craft its own story about who God is, who we are, why the world is the way it is, and how we should live in it. In the Christian story, humans squander the holy breath. God then decides to become human, to breathe our desecrated air in the incarnate form of the virgin-born Jesus Christ, who sacrifices himself to save us from our own destruction. Christian hope lies in the fact that, unlike every other person who has ever drawn a breath, Jesus Christ conquered death. Three days after breathing his last, he inhales again, his asphyxiated chest cavity expanding. His lungs revive with the holy breath. He walks out of the grave. To be a Christian is to live rightly in the created world, loving God and loving your neighbor under the promise that the very air we breathe will be made holy once again, as it was when the Spirit hovered over the waters in the beginning.
But what if the story isn’t true? I had to tell the story for Dan so that Bazan’s relentless cross-examination would make sense, and in the process, I put myself across the docket from my own doubts and passions. What if philosophers and naturalists from the ancient Epicureans to the New Atheists are right and the air has never been desecrated because it was never holy in the first place? The question of whether humans are animated by divine breath is a continental divide. You can’t answer, “Well, kinda.” For most Christians, at least, we’re either God-breathed or we’re not, and if not, then everything is different from what was imaginable before, and worse. In “Heavy Breath,” the penultimate track on Curse Your Branches, Bazan has questioned his way to this most fundamental of Christian assumptions and pushed through with a pragmatic resolve:
If no heavy breath
Blew up these lungs
While dirt and wet spit
Hung a ghost in the air
Well, we’re still here
Many evangelical Christians would say that “if no heavy breath / blew up these lungs,” then nothing is at it seems: there is no true north, no cosmic order, no reason for love or hate, good or bad, right or wrong. Humans would be no different from the other animals that occupy this planet. If the air is not holy because God made it holy, then there is no adequate meaning for the human condition. Somehow, some way, the story must be true. In this song, Bazan has crossed the continental divide and become someone for whom the story does not have to be true.
His trek to this point of no return began years before. What first drew me to Bazan’s music in the late 1990s was the shocking honesty with which he addressed the kinds of doubts I suspect many young Christians believe are unique to them. I’ll never forget the first time I saw him live at Carrboro’s famous Cat’s Cradle in North Carolina. Like most musicians, he thanked the crowd after almost every song, but unlike anyone else, he would occasionally ask the crowd if we had any questions, and proceed to dialogue with us about anything from books to sex to the Holy Spirit.
I didn’t work up the nerve to ask a question, but if I had, I would have asked about these lines from his early song with Pedro the Lion called “The Secret of the Easy Yoke”:
The devoted were wearing bracelets
To remind them why they came
Some concrete motivation
When the abstract could not do the same
I myself had once donned a WWJD bracelet—a fad of the late 1990s and early 2000s. They were small cloth bracelets that came in various colors, with the letters “WWJD” embroidered in white, all-capital letters. I took it off when my earnest teenage radar began sounding the alarm that they were more of a trend than a genuine expression of faith. But to hear them mocked in this way unsettled and intrigued me. Even if I was tempted to sneer at the sellouts who still wore them, I was humbled by the song’s final lines, which could have been cribbed directly from my journal:
If this is only a test
I hope that I’m passing
’Cause I’m losing steam
And I still want to trust you
Nothing had ever been truer than these four lines. If all my doubts about this story—instigated mainly by its politicized appropriations in the world around me—are just a trial God is putting me through, then I hope I’m doing well enough so far because I can’t hold on much longer, and I don’t want to let go. I had wrestled with the meaning of those bracelets under a cloud of suspicion that I was making too much out of them. I couldn’t imagine that any real Christian would struggle with such a thing or that any non-Christian could care. Bazan sang these silent struggles into a microphone night after night for anyone to hear. I was not alone.
The doubts get darker on Pedro the Lion’s 2002 concept album Control, where Bazan sings through the voices of various characters in an interconnected narrative of desire, deceit, and adultery. Although he was still a Christian at the time and the voice in the song is that of a character, I am gutted to this day by these lines from “Magazine”:
I feel the darkness growing stronger
As you cram light down my throat
How does that work out for you
In your holy quest to be above reproach?
There’s a defiance here, a sense that the character is speaking to some nebulous class of Christian figureheads whose attempts to be perfect and to impress perfection on their followers are doing more harm than good. It’s a good example of what I mean when I say that Bazan is a prophet. This skepticism becomes the dominant tone on the later albums, in which he turns his critical gaze on the political alliances of American evangelicalism. But Control, like all the earlier work, balances its darkness and doubt with a relentless, if beleaguered, hope. The final track contains only 21 words, 20 of them sardonic, but the last word is all the more hopeful and powerful for its loneliness:
Wouldn’t it be so wonderful
If everything were meaningless
But everything is so meaningful
And most everything turns to shit
In hindsight, these songs enabled me to accept a tension I couldn’t countenance before. They helped me see that doubt wasn’t something I was ever going to get over. It wasn’t a sign that my faith was fake. I could doubt and struggle and still say, “Rejoice.” And Bazan helped me to see that these very experiences were there in the Bible as well. Perhaps “Rejoice” was Bazan’s rendition of Job’s famous faithfulness in the face of unwarranted trials: “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.”
It was during the period from 2004 to 2009, when Bazan’s band Pedro the Lion released its last record for more than a decade (Achilles Heel, 2004) and Bazan released his first solo record (Fewer Moving Parts, 2007), that his doubts stopped leading him back invariably to faith. In a compelling review of Curse Your Branches, music critic Jessica Hopper wrote in the Chicago Reader: “It’s a harrowing breakup record—except he’s dumping God, Jesus, and the evangelical life.” Point by point, the album works its way through the story of Christianity, sliding the scale inexorably away from faith. He opens in the Garden of Eden sometime after God breathes his human creation to life:
You’ve heard the story
And you know how it goes
Once upon a garden
We were lovers with no clothes
He recounts how we were done in by poison fruit, and how now, as a result, it’s “hard to be / a decent human being.” This is the story of how sin entered the world, how humans desecrated what God had breathed into being as holy. But after the first chorus, the instruments pause, and with reverb hanging in our ears, Bazan sings: “Wait just a minute”; the drums kick in as he continues, “You expect me to believe / that all this misbehaving / grew from one enchanted tree?” Each succeeding track interrogates some element of Christianity—its theology, history, philosophy, scripture, culture, church, politics.
The final three songs on the album are arranged like a deep breath. “Bearing Witness” is the inhale. It’s a fast-paced rundown of the various parts of Christian life—like prophecies about the end of days and fear of hell—that Bazan must remind himself to let go of on a regular basis. “Heavy Breath” is the moment of full oxygenation between inhale and exhale in its proclamation that there is meaning apart from Christianity. “In Stitches” is the long exhale that leaves the body gasping as Bazan admits that “the crew have killed the captain / but they still can hear his voice.” For me, though, the inflection point, the break-up itself, has never been the bracing lines of “Hard to Be” or the doctrinal critiques found throughout the record’s 10 tracks. It’s always been the four final words of the refrain in “Heavy Breath” when Bazan says that, even if God did not breathe life into us, “well, we’re still here.” He sings it flatly, as if to suggest that, where so much once depended upon the story of our God-breathed lives, nothing much depends on it now.
If the whole story is untrue, well, here we still are. The air’s not holy, or at least not for the reasons we thought it was, and it’s really no big deal. Never have I heard something so paradoxically profound and mundane. There is no plot twist or surprise ending. Instead, after singing the chorus for a final time, Bazan repeats the line with a subtle melodic resolve in the last word: “Well, we’re still he-re.”
When I first heard Curse Your Branches, I knew Bazan would no longer call himself a Christian. The lyrics to old songs had been changing in live performances for a while, as Bazan apparently became uncomfortable with lines such as, “I could tell you all about it […] and why I still believe it” near the end of “The Fleecing.” My friends and I would speculate about what these changes meant as we sat in grimy diner booths after late-night shows. Curse Your Branches removed the need for such speculations. Bazan was singing outright that the God who had plagued Job with trials “might have bit off / More than [he] could chew.” I cringe at these lines, and yet they articulate the very kind of doubt and anger voiced throughout the biblical psalms. I understand (better than most) why Bazan needed to walk away from Christianity and find another path, but even in my most trying moments, I can’t seem to follow him.
In Brandon Vedder’s phenomenal documentary Strange Negotiations (2019), Bazan maintains that he didn’t set out to write Curse Your Branches as some kind of challenge to God. In fact, he says, it wasn’t until he started hearing from others about how the record resonated with them that he began to realize the widespread nature of his seemingly peculiar struggles: “There were a lot more people in that gray area than I thought were there. It was one of the 10 best records in Christianity Today, and I just, it blew my mind.”
During his solo years, and sometimes for small tours since, Bazan mostly played house shows. He would post a call for volunteers to host shows in their homes, and then show up with a guitar and an amplifier and play for however many people could legally fit in your living room without causing a fire hazard. I attended one in Charlotte, North Carolina, with my friend Charles, and rarely have I ever felt that a group of total strangers were so in church together. At one house show in Vedder’s documentary, a woman tells Bazan that “there is a large generation for which you spoke to that kind of spiritual space that was hard for many of us to express really clearly and succinctly.” I belong to that generation. Bazan’s willingness to vocalize doubt, even disbelief, speaks to me. He has helped me see problems with the expression of Christianity in which I grew up, the one in which I continue to live and work. I wish more people, and more churchgoing people, would discover his catalog.
As I trace Bazan’s journey alongside my own, I can see definitive moments when, like him, my politics changed and shifted away from many of my fellow evangelical Christians—in the face of their rhetoric during the Obama campaigns and especially in the run-up to the 2016 election. It took me a while to figure what faith could be apart from that very distinct American evangelical religiopolitical way of being; the two had been so deeply entangled throughout my entire life. But my faith remains very important to me. I still talk to God. I teach my kids to pray, and I pray with them. Church is important to our family. I read the Bible more now and with more pleasure than I did when my faith was seemingly less complicated. I try to sit still and listen every morning, even if, most days, I don’t expect to hear anything.
But when I’m lying awake unable to sleep through a dark night of the soul, the shallow breaths I draw to keep from waking my wife still seem charged with the divine. The Spirit that hovered over the formless and empty world, the holy air that blew up the lungs of Jesus Christ, keeps me alive. I don’t have a foolproof answer as to why. I can’t offer an unassailable argument. Faith doesn’t work that way. It’s more like the resonance of lyrics and melody. The best I can offer are these lines from “The Fleecing,” first released on Pedro the Lion’s Achilles Heel. Bazan has changed the lyrics since leaving the faith. But when I listen to the song, I still take a deep breath and sing them this way:
Who shall I blame for this sweet and heavy trouble
For every stupid struggle
I don’t know
I could buy you a drink
I could tell you all about it
I could tell you why I doubt it
And why I still believe it
Matthew Mullins is the author of Postmodernism in Pieces: Materializing the Social in U.S. Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2016) and Enjoying the Bible: Literary Approaches to Loving the Scriptures (Baker Academic, 2021).
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