BM: It sometimes feels as though we’ve waded into a very one-dimensional world as far as discussion and dialogue about faith. What gives you hope that that’s changing?
CN: Partly it’s because that’s what I’m putting out there—an art form that’s an authentic spiritual relationship that’s pressing in. I see it everywhere, I sense it everywhere, people will talk to me about it and email me. I think folks are ready for the conversation.
BM: ‘Geodes’ is clearly the track that you emphasize a lot. It seems to be a metaphor for what you feel, spiritually. What are people resonating with for that most part?
CN: The first song ‘There is a Tree’—I’ve kind of spent a lifetime trying to describe in language those things we experience that have no words. You do that as a songwriter. It’s an odd job description. Talking about that experience—what is it at the heart of things, right at the center of things. And what is this journey of trying to put into language these things we know, but we have no language for. Folks seem to be resonating with that. There’s a song on it called ‘Where You Been’ that folks have found kind of tongue-in-cheek, but it’s this idea of if a great prophet showed up today, maybe he wouldn’t be riding a donkey into Jerusalem but more like driving into Chicago in an El Camino during the Gay Pride Parade. And, you know, that whole song is kind of taking things and bringing it—the Beatitudes in a parking lot, in a vacant lot. And that idea of ‘what is a prophet?’ What is a prophet but somebody who speaks the truth as well as they know how, even when it’s not popular.
BM: Jim Wallis (editor of Sojourners) is somebody I know you’re connected with; what other people in that same zone do you look to for guidance as far as people bridging social activism and spirituality? People whose social activism emanates from a sense of spiritual commitment…
CN: It’s a powerful thing. There’s a Quaker adage that I really like, it’s “Let your life speak.” I love that, that what you believe and who you are should be evident in just how you walk around in the world. Which is really easy to say, but it’s really quite difficult to do on a daily basis. But I love that. It’s a worthy goal, to let my life speak. I shouldn’t have to say…
BM: Preach the gospel, always use words if necessary …
CN: Use words if necessary. And I really do love that idea and I do try to aspire to it. I don’t always get there. But I do aspire to it, the whole idea of social justice being an integral component of that. Living a life in the Spirit, for me, includes trying to make the world just a little better place in my own small ways. I do think that, in terms of activism, our best activism precedes from what we love the most. I mean, sometimes they just need bodies helping at the soup kitchen and that’s very important. But I think our most potent activism generally comes out of what we love. You don’t burn out as fast, there’s a passion for it. I have a friend who’s an accountant and she actually tells me that when she lines up all the numbers and it comes out even—right, she gets giddy. She gets happy! Then she volunteers for non-profit organizations and she is giving out of what she loves, she doesn’t burn out. She does a fabulous job for them. If I was trying to do that, they’d lose their non-profit status tomorrow [laughs]. I love this idea of giving out of the best of who we are, it’s a very powerful gift then.
BM: We talk to a lot of people who are struggling with, or were never raised with a spiritual tradition, or maybe they were raised in a spiritual tradition but they’ve sort of lapsed or rejected it. They often find a certain level of hypocrisy, perhaps, in institutional faith. What would you say to somebody like that in their twenties or thirties who are struggling?
CN: I do a lot of work in colleges, actually. Sometimes I’ll go into these programs that are about vocational reflection, vocation being more in the Frederick Beakner sense. I’m paraphrasing, but when the soul’s deep gladness meets the world’s deep need, that’s vocation. Sometimes I’m surprised that I’m talking to a junior in college and people have asked them ‘what’s smart,’ ‘what’s safe, what’s secure,’ ‘what do your parents want you to do’—they’ve been asked those kinds of questions. And no one has ever said ‘but what do you love,’ ‘who are you’—I mean, really, ‘who are you?’ and ‘what do you love?’ And I think that’s what they bring me in to do and to say, ‘what do you love?’ and ‘it’s alright to ask questions that you’re not supposed to ask.’
BM: How do they react to that? Does it scare them?
CN: I think it’s scary, and I think at the same time it’s a relief. You know, to talk about ‘what do I love’ and ‘who am I’. You know, ‘what is this thing that calls me back to wholeness when I get lost.’ I think there’s a relief in that, too—to have someone say it out loud. Because the conservative religious right has been so loud, I think there’s sometimes a problem with affiliation for folks. You know, ‘I kind of grew up in this religious tradition; there are things about it: the social gospels absolutely move me, the Beatitudes are a wondrous thing. But I see this thing that’s been done with it and I’m not sure what to do.’ And I hear that a lot—people struggling with this huge shift that’s happening. I think, in Christianity but also in other traditions, we’re at a time of change and shifting in how people are thinking about the ‘God’ question.
BM: What causes are you currently involved with?
CN: Every album tour I try to partner with a particular social service or justice organization, and I try to choose something that kind of goes along with the themes of that particular album. I’ll be working with the American Friends Service Committee—they’re very dedicated to peace work, which I think is very important right now. We’re living in such a violent time and I think their work is very important in terms of finding another way to operate in the world. I work with a lot of different organizations—I’m a folk singer for goodness sake! [laughing] There should be a beacon on my head, like, ‘Good cause? Talk to me.’
BM: ‘Have cause, will travel?’ [laughs]
CN: Though it was interesting; this year I went to the protest of the [US Army] School of the Americas. It was my first year there and I was one of the singers. There’s a choir that sings the names of people who have disappeared or died in Central America and South America, mostly—two hours of singing names. It’s like a litany. You sing a name and twenty-five thousand people sing “Presente”—they are here. It was amazing because they were all kinds of people there, a lot of young folks there. It was very exciting that I think that half the crowd of the twenty-five thousand were under thirty. And it was like, man, they’re showing up and they’re pretty glorious. And then I was amazed because there were a lot of church organizations and different faiths as well, and I though to myself, you know, the civil rights movement when the churches finally stepped up to the plate –they didn’t for a long time—and when they finally did, this is what it must of looked like. I wasn’t there for that, you know, but this it what it must have looked like. It was a powerful voice for justice. It was just an amazing event and humbling in so many ways—a big part of this choir singing names. But yeah, it was encouraging. A lot of young folks, a lot of people of different spiritual traditions and faiths, but saying, ‘you know, it’s about social justice here, you guys; it’s pretty basic’.
BM: It sounds like you have hope for the future.
CN: I do. And one of the goods things about connecting up with a particular organization—it sounds altruistic, but it’s not—it keeps my hope alive. Because what happens is I get to meet people in every community I go to who are, you know –you don’t always see them on the front page. The bad news is on the front page and they don’t even get the back page, often, but they’re there in every single community I go to. Not like some or most, but really every single community, and so it keeps my hope alive. There’s a lot of sorrows out there and I think it’s easy to get overwhelmed. It always amazes me that the world is full of so many good-hearted people trying to make a difference.