I recently finished Daniel Radosh’s Rapture Ready!, a book exploring Christian pop culture and some of its stranger manifestations, from theme parks like Florida’s Holy Land Experience to the Ultimate Christian Wrestling pro circuit (no joke). But one event that he paid special attention to was Cornerstone, a Woodstock-like Christian music festival held each year in Illinois that routinely draws hundreds of acts and tens of thousands of people. According to Radosh, Cornerstone had a more open, authentic feeling than most of the events and festivals he attended, and was more welcoming of different perspectives than other Christian gatherings where all attendees are expected to march in lockstep with the religious right’s political platform.
Radosh had this to say about the person whom he felt best summed up the Cornerstone ethic:
If there is a quintessential Cornerstone artist, it is probably David Bazan, who played the festival for the better part of a decade with the band Pedro the Lion. Among the qualities that made Bazan such an important figure here was not only the depth of his talent, but the fact that he actually had more credibility in the secular world than the Christian one. Bazan had been raised in a strict Pentecostal household, but had grown into the kind of Christian who treasures the Jesus who freed his followers from religious rules. In the book Body Piercing Saved My Life [get it? —Ebonmuse], Bazan describes his Cornerstone gigs – one of his last remaining attachments to the Christian culture industry – as missionary work… [p.175]
However, he did note that Bazan wasn’t at the festival the year he attended (the book was published in 2008), and speculation was running rampant as to why. Some people guessed that he had been kicked off the grounds due to his habit of drinking during his sets (Cornerstone is officially a dry festival), or that he had gotten fed up with festival organizers hassling him about it, or that he had been disinvited because of the occasional cursing in his songs.
Well, as it turns out, the truth is rather different:
I worked as Bazan’s publicist from 2000 till 2004. When I ran into him in April — we were on a panel together at the Calvin College Festival of Faith & Music in Grand Rapids — I hadn’t seen him or talked to him in five and a half years. The first thing he said to me was “I’m not sure if you know this, but my relationship with Christ has changed pretty dramatically in the last few years.”
He went on to explain that since 2004 he’s been flitting between atheist, skeptic, and agnostic, and that lately he’s hovering around agnostic…
Bazan’s latest album, Curse Your Branches, is a confessional chronicle of his deconversion and the personal turmoil he went through as a result. Somewhat surprisingly, he returned to Cornerstone in 2009 to play some songs from it. According to the article, it met with a cautious reception – Bazan’s fans from his evangelical days were still drawn to his music, but most of them didn’t want to admit he had changed his mind and invented elaborate rationalizations for how his lyrics could be fitted into a Christian worldview. Nevertheless, the fact of his deconversion was widely known, even if not widely acknowledged.
Bazan himself, however, appears to have come to terms with the change in his beliefs and is far more at peace than he ever was:
After a long few years in the wilderness, Bazan seems happy — though he’s still parsing out his beliefs, he’s visibly relieved to be out and open about where he’s not at. “It’s more comfortable for me to be agnostic,” he says. “There’s less internal tension by far — that’s even with me duking it out with my perception of who God is on a pretty regular basis, and having a lot of uncertainty on that level. For now, just being is enough. Whether things happen naturally, completely outside an author, or whether the dynamics of earth and people are that way because God created them — or however you want to credit it — if you look around and pay attention and observe, there is enough right here to know how to act, to know how to live, to be at peace with one another.”
And David Bazan isn’t the only Christian entertainer who’s recently walked away from religion. Another interesting example is from the Coexist Comedy Tour, featuring stand-up comedians from a variety of different faiths. Except as it turns out, John Ross, who was the Christian member of the troupe, isn’t a Christian anymore either.
Ross embraced Christianity enthusiastically. He taught youth groups, toured the nation with Christian punk rockers Anguish Unsaid and even got religious tattoos. (The dove on his calf and the “Jesus” in Japanese kanji on his neck now act as sight gags onstage.)
“From the beginning I had questions,” Ross said, “but I would just write them off with ‘Our understanding is not God’s understanding.’ Until the last few years. It’s hard to keep doing that.”
By Ross’ account, he converted to Christianity as a means of escape from a broken and chaotic family, gravitating towards the stability that the evangelical church offered. But eventually, he realized that faith had only provided a way to sweep his problems and doubts under the carpet; it hadn’t actually gotten rid of them. With that realization in hand, he had the key to freedom, and like David Bazan, he’s found a new sense of peace and tolerance for himself:
Having left Christianity, Ross is surprised by how little has changed. “I’m still just as compassionate towards people,” he explained. “I’m not going out and living in sin.” The only difference “is that I don’t feel guilty anymore,” he says. “There’s no war in my head.”
It’s worth wondering if the use of irony, which plays a vital role in both good music and good comedy, may have been a factor in both these deconversions. Evangelicalism is a creed built on certainty and on having all the answers, and many evangelical believers insist, or fear, that to doubt or to question any tenet of their faith could bring the whole thing crashing down (something we’ve seen demonstrated recently). But the nature of music (at least, music more sophisticated than bland, one-note Christian pop), and certainly the nature of comedy, requires self-doubt, introspection, and self-questioning. When these collide with the brittle certainties of fundamentalism, stories like these may be the inevitable result.