Busted: David Bazan
The former Pedro the Lion leader talks about reactions to recent work and his current take on faith and his role as an artist
BH: I was reading that one turning point for you was the WTO meetings in 1999. Do you agree with that?
DB: Well, to the extent that my politics and my religious understanding reflect on one another, it certainly was a turning point politically for me. I think that those things, they certainly interact. It’s tough to know. I would like to think that objections that I have to the story of Christianity or whatever are based directly on those objections and that it’s not indirectly informed by something else like my politics, but I don’t know if I can make that claim. So, the answer is: Yes, it was a big turning point for me politically. And I’m sure that it has trickled down in many ways to how I view faith and things. It feels like the light of day now that there’s a more reasonable President and that this person even claims Christianity, but it was a very dark night, I feel, when “W” was President. There was a lot more to rail against that I think could have been really confusing for me and other people, when George W. Bush represented certain aspects of Christianity. I would like to say, even as a non-believer now, I think Christianity at its best can still be a really beautiful thing for people who don’t object fundamentally to the logic of the story and participate in the religion. I see a lot of good there, and there wasn’t a lot of representation of that during W’s administration — or there were a lot of people given voice who were saying things that were, ironically, the antithesis of Christianity at its finest. So, it is interesting to be on the other end of that. You still get the ultra-conservative cranks attempting to have their say, but now that they’re more and more marginalized, it seems even that much more ridiculous. But when those people are in charge, it’s really frightening.
BH: This album almost seems designed to alienate the audience that would understand it.
DB: Yeah! [Laughs.] That wasn’t the intention, certainly, but I saw that was happening, and I couldn’t do anything about it. The people who understand this language and these references are either ex-Christians or Christians, I think.
BH: Was it difficult to see that dichotomy? I don’t know the situation that you grew up in, but I assume that at certain points you began seeing those you grew up with differently than you do now?
DB: Well, it was troubling, and I definitely started seeing that dichotomy in junior high and high school. I think it first became clear to me when we were at a church that we had only been at briefly, and my dad was the music pastor there. They had had, historically, a 4th of July service, where there would be members of a color guard brandishing fake weapons — guns, no less — in church and singing all these patriotic songs. And I just remember thinking, those are not the same thing — church and country are not the same thing. This is not appropriate. And then around that same time, when I was in junior high, too, there emerged those supposed books of history. The first one that I remember seeing — it was called The Light and the Glory or something — and they were these Christian revisionist histories of the Founding Fathers and the arc of the birth of the nation. And I remember even at 12 and 13 that that seemed like a stinker to me. It didn’t seem true or right, and I had grown up going to Christian school, for heaven’s sake. I didn’t have a liberal alternative education, but even then it didn’t feel right to me. It felt manipulative and really wrong. And I remember that it was from that point on that you would feel uncomfortable with these expressions that you’d see at church, and then you’d read the Bible, and you’d see those disconnects there. So that was something that was a part of my experience from the time I was in 8th or 9th grade.
BH: So when you started to have questions, were there other people in the faith community that had those same questions, or did you have to look outside the community to find those people?
DB: Well… hmm, yeah, in regards to those issues that I was just talking about, it was a very comfortable place to be a voice of ostensible reform within church, that I didn’t feel the need to escape. It was enough to just want to reform church. It wasn’t until much later, maybe until I was 23 or 24, that I started having the sense that some of these deeper questions maybe challenged my faith fundamentally in some way. I’ve always known and been around people who I respect a lot and are pretty forward-thinking people, even if they still subscribe to a relatively orthodox Christian faith. I use them as sounding boards. See, we were always in discussion about these issues, and at some point, I started to veer a little bit further out in those discussions. So, yeah, there were plenty of people to talk to. It has been a favorite pastime of mine.
BH: Did your friends with more orthodox views try to dissuade you or debate you?
DB: Occasionally, but just in the natural flow of things. We were all just people grappling with ideas who were occasionally on the opposite side. I remember when my friend Maryanne interviewed me on a DVD that I put out with last summer [Bazan: Alone at the Microphone] and I brought up the notion that inerrancy seems like a bunch of baloney, basically — it seems like a really convenient and necessary part of really popular delusion — that Christianity would have to work outside of [Biblical] inerrancy if it had any fundamental validity. Her and her husband both were like, “Yeah, but when you throw out inerrancy, it’s such a slippery slope.” And I said, “Ah, slippery slope, schmippery slope. Give me a break.” Oddly, I don’t think that they’re right. For me, personally, I have more issues with the logic of the story than the literal truth of the Bible, but I still believe that. I’d really like to see inerrancy stop being such a big sticking point for evangelicals. I think the movement would do a lot better if inerrancy weren’t a prerequisite for membership or whatever. I remember getting pretty major objections, and us having drinks and hashing it out for a while.
David Bazan performs “Curse Your Branches” in 2007.
BH: Was the songwriting process therapeutic in getting those feelings and ideas out?
DB: It was. Absolutely. It wasn’t at the epicenter of it, but the song “When We Fell,” that was an emotional process, writing that tune. And also “Give Me Some Comfort” — while it is a pretty juvenile expression of ideas, it’s still an expression of ideas that I haven’t really had any really satisfying rebuttals to from anybody that I’ve run into. It certainly has been comforting. Part of my upbringing was that you’re always trying to have a reason or give a reason for your beliefs — apologetics, or whatever. So that’s not all it is, and it’s not the most effective apologetic, but it is on some level an apologetic for my current sort of status. There was the Chicago Reader piece that came out, and then I read a bunch of people writing about this or that and maybe misunderstanding — maybe based on the Reader piece or misinterpreting that or misunderstanding a specific posture of my own. I took comfort in knowing that it doesn’t totally matter, but if they do listen to the record, they’ll be set straight about this or that. Because as incomplete as it is, it’s as complete a picture as I could hope to present of a certain way of thinking of mine.
BH: As you were writing the record, who did you see as the audience, seeing that there are so many people who have been following your changes in thinking over the years?
DB: Well, at a certain point, early on when I first began to consider what it was that I even was doing, I had to admit to myself that probably the audience was just going to be me. It seemed at the time, even more so than it does now, so specific and so narrow in its interests and subject matter that I just thought, well, this is going to be a pretty potent expression. For me, it was clear that the songs really resonated with me but that it was probably going to be pretty marginal, because, who cares about this stuff? Who is obsessed enough to write about this stuff in the way that I’m writing and yet find themselves on the outside of this whole world of ideas?
BH: It’s interesting, because this album almost seems designed to alienate the audience that would understand it.
DB: Yeah! [Laughs.] That wasn’t the intention, certainly, but I saw that was happening, and I couldn’t do anything about it. The people who understand this language and these references are either ex-Christians or Christians, I think. But shortly after I finished the record, there were all these statistics that started coming out about the mass exodus from the evangelical church and all this stuff, so I thought, well, maybe there will be another dozen or so folks who this will resonate with and can take comfort in this expression. That gave me some comfort.
BH: Does it surprise you that there are so many people who consider themselves evangelicals that are still following you very closely?
DB: Well… it’s not surprising. I would say it’s curious. Even as you were saying that, I thought, OK, I can picture someone like that, and what is their interest here? Are they playing a very dangerous game? Are they seeing something that I’m not seeing and saying, “There, there, those are some potent objections, but here are the answers”? I don’t know. It is curious to me. I don’t wish anybody tension or unhappiness, and so, on one hand, I feel like these objections are key, so if you want to maintain your faith, just run away. But on another level, that’s condescending and assumes that I have a real handle on this, and I’m sure that I don’t. But, yeah, it’s interesting to me. That thing about John Herrin in that Chicago Readerpiece [allowing Bazan to perform at the Cornerstone Festival despite his beliefs] — I think, on one hand, that is really forward thinking and noble. And on the other, I think, that’s just really irresponsible. That’s a real threat that I’m posing here. You can’t think what I think and stay a Christian. It doesn’t work that way. So, I’m really ambivalent about it. [Laughs.] I don’t know. I don’t mean to be divisive or a threat in any way, but at the same time, what do you do with some of these ideas? That said, I think that it’s not even a cognitive dissonance that a lot of people in their maturity see their own fallibility and see that there are apparent contradictions that they have to reserve judgment about and that that doesn’t mean that they can’t participate in meaningful religious expression or activity. I respect that a lot. That’s not exactly where I’m at, but when I see it, I think if you’re willing to see yourself on the same team as me, I feel like we’re on the same team. But, yeah, it is curious to me that people who consider themselves evangelical would subject themselves to this.
BH: It’s strange, because whether people admit it or not, it seems that everyone has the seed of doubt. And it’s almost reassuring to see someone throw all of this out there so you can see where you stand.
DB: That makes sense to me, and there’s actually a Biblical precedent for that, as well, that I’ve heard discussed, both generally and in relation to this record. In that sense, I do see that it could relieve tension for people — that they would have this hidden doubt and it could be outed in a way that doesn’t cause the rest of their faith system to crumble but is a positive thing.
BH: I think so. For some people, it seems like it’s cathartic to see someone say the things that they’ve thought but never dared to say.
DB: Yeah. To have your experience normalized, part of your experience that you feel is so scandalous that you need to keep it hidden, to have that normalized by some quasi-famous person, it’s like the person that raises their hand in class and asks the question you thought was too silly to ask. I remember being in church as a kid, and maybe I was 8 years old, and I pictured Jesus’ genitals or something — just the notion that he had genitals and the implications of that. And I was like, “Ahh! Get that out of your head! Stop thinking about that!” And if there had been someone who had said, “No, I’ve done that. You’re not going to go to hell for all eternity for thinking that,” I would have been like, “Oh… good.” That just seemed like it was too wrong.