Christopher Owens is a former member of Children of God, a religious sect most people consider to be a cult. Owens is now the lead singer and main songwriter for the critically acclaimed band Girls, who recently released a new album, Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Listening to other tracks off of their new album, like the happy-go-lucky, Beach Boy-influenced tune “Honey Bunny,” I’d never have guessed at Owens’s dark past. But as I listened further, I realized that the band’s exploration of such a wide spectrum of genres, song structures, and emotions felt more and more like something of an explosion of freedom and creativity that could have only been the result of being liberated from some sort of heavy-handed oppression. In what is now considered indie rock lore, Owens was born and raised in the Children of God which was formed in 1968 amidst the blossoming Jesus people and charismatic spiritual movements. While I’m hesitating to call the group a cult, the truth is that Children of God (or Family International as it is known today) was one of the primary groups that sparked much of the contemporary anti-cult debate now present in the Church.
The group had become infamous for its extreme missionary tactics that included a strategy devised in 1974 known as “Flirty Fishing.” This practice encouraged female missionaries to be “bait” or “fisherwomen” who used sex appeal to proselytize men to the group. Women who engaged in sexual acts resulting from the “fishing” were rewarded for what they called “deep witness” to the point that many consider the practice prostitution. Among these women was Christopher Owens’s mother, who is said to have prostituted herself in front of him on multiple occasions in his childhood. Furthermore, because of Children of God’s anti-medicine stance, it is said that Owens’s mother (who has since left the Children of God) had let another son of hers die of pneumonia. For the first time, in Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Owens dives deep into his complicated relationship with his mother and addresses the issues in surprisingly honest and graceful ways.
Girls has been known for making music that feels dosed in an ironic sincerity, making it hard for them to be taken seriously. Upon my first listen of Father, Son, Holy Ghost, the guys seemed to be up to their same antics. In songs like “My Ma,” frontman Christopher Owens sings, “Oh God I’m tired/And my heart is broken/It’s so hard to feel so alone/And so far, so far from home” and “I want to see the light of love/I’m looking for meaning in my life/And you my Ma.” And while those lyrics might seem like they’re sung clearly with tongue firmly planted in cheek, the more I learn about Owens, the more his longing for the healing of his relationship with his mother and for his concept of home seem like painstakingly sincere statements.
In an action of both rebellion and redemption, he fled the group from where he was living with his mother in Slovenia after turning 16 and moved back to America all on his own. But Owens is far from the kind of ex-cult poster child Christians would normally look up to. In fact, in some ways, it seems that with his liberation from one set of chains, he has inherited a host of new ones. Indeed, he has given incredibly open in interviews where he regularly professes to be addicted to highly potent opiates and details his sobering-up process before going on tour. In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Owens said, “My whole approach from day one has been to be honest. It’s been disastrous to talk about my past and drugs in interviews, but it’s honest. It’s also been a good strategy for me, because it means I’m never at a loss for words.” In that same interview, Owens even finds time to make some interesting claims about the Bible and faith that includes everything from calling Jesus the first rock star to calling Luke 12:27 a “Zen” idea. While these anecdotes are entertaining, the thing that popped out most to me was the astounding forgiveness and acceptance he projected toward his oppressive religious past.
It’s not that. In churches, you repeat these phrases, and they become very key. But that wasn’t the kind of lingo we used in the Children of God. We said, “I love you, brother; I love you, sister.” We just read the Bible, and then talked very normally to each other. It was very anti-church, very much just people living together and being good to each other, essentially. Things got out of control, I guess.
Earlier in the interview, Owens admits that if he hadn’t adopted this positive way of viewing his past, he would have probably ended up committing suicide in his depression. While I have no idea what it would have been like to grow up in that kind of oppression, the fact that Owens doesn’t walk around bashing the Church and God is simply beyond me. But Owens’s God-given understanding of his past is just the kind of work-in-progress redemption that I as a Christian love celebrating and encouraging, knowing that the Spirit is always at work in the “reconciliation of all things.”
In the song “Vomit,” Owens sings, “I’m lookin’ for love” with all the sincerity of a lonely high schooler, indicating his search for love and meaning is still very much in progress. And while Owens might be far from converting back to Christianity, we can all be encouraged by his story and music to view our pasts with a little more grace and also view our futures with a little more miraculous potential. If Christopher Owens can reconcile his relationship his mother and look back on Children of God as people who had good intentions, how much more should we be loving our families and churches that nurture and love us in the Spirit of God? How much more should we, as followers of Jesus who have been forgiven, have forgiveness for those who have hurts us most?