I was just speaking at SoulFest (August 7-9). It’s a music festival with evangelical roots. The band Switchfoot played. I’m several things but not evangelical. Could you imagine a more uncomfortable fit for me? I was expecting the worst. What I got was two gifts: One of pure art and the other pure grace. I also got a good and necessary humbling.
FIRST GIFT: Switchfoot’s new album that they played from at the festival — “Fading West” — is the best rock and roll I’ve heard in years. I haven’t been so excited by a rock album since the day in 1967 when I was fifteen and I put “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” on a turntable for the first time. This was just before running away from a boarding school in the UK.
“Sgt. Pepper’s” became my personal sound track of liberation back then as “Fading West” is now.
Last night my wife Genie and I sat and listened to the album four times in a row. Then we watched the movie of the same title. We are sixty-two and sixty-three years old. We are also both old rockers who felt like we were sixteen again, only maybe a little wiser and nicer!
Genie, my wife of 44 years, was as moved as I was by the terrific music and lyrics. She grew up in the Bay Area and as a teen had the distinction of seeing the Beatles three times (!) live and the Rolling Stones four times (!) live.
Meanwhile, I was growing up in Switzerland in a mission (L’Abri Fellowship), and my “almost famous” rock-n-roll high point came when I got a job helping with the Led Zeppelin’s light show at the Montreux Jazz/rock festival. I met Jimmy Page and noticed he was reading one of my dad’s first books, Escape from Reason. (No kidding.)
This was back in the days when Dad was a sort of hippie guru for Jesus catering to Beats, hippies and dropouts hitching across Europe. Eric Clapton had given Page the book as it turned out. (Don’t write me, neither “got saved,” and I have no idea how this story ends!)
I was trying to be “cool” that day on the light show crew… and I wasn’t too pleased to find my brief escape into the rock world from the world of my Dad’s evangelical mission was no escape from my God-world at all. He’d been giving lectures on Bob Dylan, and drug guru Timothy Leary had been a guest at L’Abri. And now I got to briefly “hang out with the band” and Dad got there first, or at least one of his books did! Sheesh! It’s hard to be cool!
Years later it makes me laugh when I hear that Dad is only thought of by most evangelicals as a founder of the religious right. He was but the right-wing Tea Party nuts embracing him these days don’t know how very un–religious right his tastes were. Nor were mine before I became Dad’s nepotistic side kick. Then I escaped the evangelical world and my place in it as a budding young right wing leader who traded his soul for a while for access to power…
Anyway… Just before coming to my parent’s mission in 1969 — Genie was visiting a friend and knew nothing about the place — she was hanging out with the Santana drummer in California. My then teen bride-to-be Genie might as well have gone to another planet when she stumbled into Dad and Mom’s ministry. The only Billy Graham she’d ever heard of was the Fillmore West manager!
I wonder if my wife-to-be was in the Fillmore West rock palace when Dad and I were there one night in 1968 listening to the Jefferson Airplane together and some hippie handed Dad a joint? Dad passed it on down the row, not taking any himself but totally un-shocked and loving Grace Slick as much as I did… if only Jerry Falwell could have seen us then…
Ten or so years later we were flying around the country in Jerry Falwell’s jet founding the evangelical anti-abortion movement. Weird huh?
Then Dad died in 1984; I left the evangelical fold entirely and many years later explained my departure and spiritual journey in Crazy for God. Out of the reaction to that book (over 5,000 emails…) came WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace.
I wrote “Why I…” because I got tired of writing the same emails to atheists and evangelicals. The atheists (including author and “New Atheist” leader Christopher Hitchens, who emailed me because he liked the book) said they liked my books but were disappointed I wasn’t one of them now that I’d quit the evangelical fold.
The evangelicals wrote to say they were disappointed too: I was so secular now. “Frank you have fallen away!” went the usual refrain.
I tried to explain what I say in my new book: you can embrace doubt along with faith. Paradox is good, not bad. Salvation isn’t about “correct belief” but about who you are…
But that story, along with my career as a New York Times bestselling author of books on everything from the Marine Corps to humor novels, has been told. What’s new for me now is my addiction to Switchfoot’s latest album!
“Christian rock?” You have to be kidding me! I’m not kidding. Deal with it!
“Fading West” is not a “Christian” or any other “kind” of rock album. It is simply one of the greatest pieces of rock music it’s been my privilege to be moved, devastated, changed and healed by. This is the most buoyant, optimistic “de-depressor” I’ve heard.
The easy joy-filled ambiance (not style!) of the Beach Boys combines with the virtuosity of Clapton, the raw consuming power of Ginger Baker, the lyricism of McCartney and the forgiving theology of Thomas Merton. It just so happens that one of the best rock albums in the world just got made by rock-n-roll surfers trying to follow Jesus. Yes, San Diego surfers will show us the way.
Some of that impact on me may be because I watched the “Fading West” film on Netflix after immersing myself in the album. So there is a double whammy. Part of that impact may also be that I very briefly met the band at SoulFest and have never met kinder, or dare I say good people.
SECOND GIFT: I also had a chance to confess my sins partly because Switchfoot’s music moved me as did the experience of seeing the enthralled crowd of 12,000 fall deeply under their spell. In falling under the Switchfoot “spell” myself I think I helped someone, which is very much in keeping with the album and with the generous uplifting spirit of SoulFest.
Call this grace in action, hope crystallized, damnation canceled in favor of love…
See, I apologized to a stranger for the fact her father had brutalized her. This isn’t what usually happens at my book signings after I talk!
I spoke at the festival in a hot, crowded room. I spoke about slapping my daughter and screaming at her back when I was a Calvinist teen asshole father 40-plus years ago. Back then I thought God liked bullies who kept kids and women in their “place.”
I spoke to a small audience of about 100 people about loving my grandchildren today as a person who — these days — embraces paradox instead of the mental illness of theological certainty. I talked about how I’d changed and now believe that if you see fear in another person’s eyes when they look at you, that you should trust that “mirror” and change… I trust that mirror to tell me who I really am more than any book…
See, in my book-signing line after my talk, a lovely woman that I’d guess was in her mid-forties, was waiting. “My father was like that to me but worse,” she said. “I was so beaten up. He’s gone. We never reconciled. He never did what you did and begged forgiveness from your daughter. He never said he was sorry.”
Tears filled her eyes. Tears filled mine too.
Then I said, “Maybe your father knows the truth now of the evil he did in hitting you. If he does, may I speak for him?” She nodded. I held her face cradled in my hands and said, “I apologize. I am so, so very sorry. Forgive me.”
She burst into tears. I cried with her. We hugged.
Where could that happen outside of the context of a forgiving spirituality of unconditional co-suffering love?
Thank you, SoulFest. Thank you Dan and Ali Russell for inviting Genie and me.
The tone SoulFest set is epitomized by Switchfoot and their music played a big part in bringing a stranger and me together. Thank you, SoulFest, for allowing me to stand in the moonlight the night before I met this stranger as the songs from Switchfoot’s “Fading West” swept over me.
The music prepared me to meet need with love. Thank you, Switchfoot, for your film and your music, both of which open a door to a place where children are loved, not battered in the name of God. As your song says: “How you love is your religion. Every breath is your religion…”
“Fading West” is my sound track to reconciliation. Switchfoot lives the lost art of actual rock (remember when musicians could play, sing and compose?) and restores rock to relevance and social change through their mission of reconciling fans to our endangered earth and to each other. The band conveys its message through rock virtuosity that sounds as good live as on the album, especially under a rising full moon!
Switchfoot is a band of surfing buddies, brothers, rock artists, who carry a message of love and art to us on clear blue waves of killer sound. (They are Jon Foreman on lead vocals and guitar, Tim Foreman on bass and vocals, Chad Butler on percussion, Jerome Fontamillas on guitar, keyboards and vocals, and Drew Shirley on guitar and vocals.)
Let the clean bright salt water of “Fading West’s” cleansing joy run free in your veins! Listen and then watch the movie! It offers a simple encounter with nature, music, love and family that the album celebrates so well. And it’s not all about glam concerts. This is the most buoyant, optimistic “de-depressor” I’ve heard for years. Yes, San Diego surfers will show us the way.
I don’t surf, but I do ski fast and well and always have, since I was three. So I connect kinetically to the band’s beloved relationship with sliding down walls of water, living in and on nature with no power but nature herself propelling them…
I get it. Stand on a wave or a mountain, and you are God’s creature, not your own. “From the day we were born, we were scared to sing out loud,” sings this wise, kind brilliant band.
Now you have your sound track sing along with it… let the salt water of your tears cleanse you like a clean ocean wave… As the song says “Love alone is worth the fight.”
Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His latest book —WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace