The Lost Witness of Mark Heard

The Lost Witness of Mark Heard August 16, 2018

Today marks twenty-six years since the passing of an artist very few people would recognize by name. At the time of his death from a heart attack, he was forty years old. The world didn’t know what they had lost. The real tragedy is that the church didn’t know what they had lost either. Perhaps this is because Mark Heard resided in that most thankless of artistic spaces: the space where Christians try to make good art. When we lost him, we lost a true artist, and more than an artist. We lost a witness.

Despite the uphill battle that was his artistic career, Heard’s music, writings and life manifested a kind of faith the church needs then, and still needs today: the faith of an integrated mind. A mind that could understand the skeptic and the seeker while also understanding exactly what they needed. A mind that understood prose and understood passion, and understood how the twain might meet. A faith that did not shun reason, but shook glad hands with it, and so grew strong.

While not all of Heard’s early efforts have aged equally well, his prime work ranks among the finest of folk/rock songwriting—in particular, the self-produced 1-2-3 punch of Second Hand, Dry Bones Dance, and Satellite Sky that ended his too-short career with a bang. The Christian Humanist has provided an excellent overview of his discography for newcomers (with which I largely agree, although I rate the acoustic project Eye of the Storm much higher, particularly the sparsely haunting gem “He Will Listen to You”).

Sadly, Heard was blessed and cursed to be a man ahead of his time. Even as he garnered critical acclaim from his peers, commercially he fell between two stools, unable to market himself to mainstream audiences and unwilling to market himself to CCM audiences. Today, fans speculate that he could have found his niche in the independent singer/songwriter circuit with folk artists like Amos Lee or Josh Ritter. We get a taste of the company he might have kept on Treasure of the Broken Land, a 25th anniversary tribute album featuring the likes of Sierra Hull, Buddy Miller, and Over the Rhine.

The man behind the music could be withdrawn and abrasive in person, yet was known to his close friends for his generosity and keen sense of humor. He had no patience for insincerity or jargon, which led to frequent clashes with his fellow Christians. He set high standards for the artists whose music he produced, including his own. When younger writers asked him for advice, he urged them to concentrate on writing good songs rather than good “Christian” songs, per se. Because while Christian music may have billed itself as an evangelistic tool, it was plainly apparent to Heard that non-Christian consumers made up a vanishingly thin slice of the CCM sales pie. He didn’t blame them. He used to be one of them himself.

Graduating in 1974 with a bachelor of arts in TV journalism, Heard had realized that he could no longer claim the Christian faith of his youth with confidence. Determined not to become just another “cultural Christian,” he had sought answers for his intellectual doubts in his church community. He came up empty-handed. Fellow Christians told him he should repress his doubts and persevere in faith. Worse, they questioned his motives for asking in the first place. In their minds, rational doubt could never be the “real reason” someone’s faith was wavering. But as Heard later wrote, “I knew my questions were real and important. I knew Jesus wouldn’t have put me off. Look at Thomas. Look at Peter.” (Sadly, even after recovering his faith, Heard never resumed regular church attendance again. No doubt these painful early memories were a contributing factor.)

Heard’s growing skepticism led him and his wife to L’Abri, the Swiss alpine inn for intellectual wanderers founded by Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer. This was a different kind of Christian community from anything Heard had experienced. His questions were welcomed, but his thought did not go unchallenged. Vigorous exchange of ideas kept him on his toes. In every way, Schaeffer and the rest of the L’Abri community gave him precisely what he needed, precisely when he needed it.

When Mark left L’Abri, he left emboldened and impassioned to share what he had learned with the world. But he recognized that it would be an uphill battle, as the erosion of society’s Judeo-Christian foundations had eroded the foundations of truth itself. He also saw how it had removed all logical grounding for the dignity of the human person, sending Western civilization down a slippery slope of gruesome utilitarian calculus. Schaeffer’s influence is clearly apparent here. In particular, Schaeffer drew a clear line from the decay of humanism to the legalization of abortion, at a time when other evangelicals were maddeningly slow on the uptake. Mark used the liner notes of his records to distill the best of what he had learned under Schaeffer’s tutelage. This passage from Stop the Dominoes (1981) is especially striking:

Today, whether something is considered right or wrong by society is not inherent in the act, but is determined by the consequences of it. On the popular level that translates to “I’ll do whatever I want as long as I don’t hurt anybody.” On the intellectual, academic, legislative or judicial level it translates, “It is legal (and therefore right) to perform this abortion, because due to Down’s syndrome, this child would have been a misfit in society anyway.”

So you see, the criteria can slowly change. Today it may be okay to kill because of fetal-genetic imperfection, tomorrow it may graduate, if you can call it that, to be okay to kill (or terminate) because of genetic imperfection at age ten, or sociological imperfection at age forty. So you see, we’ve left the mandate “Thou shall not kill.”

The new rules are made by society, and whatever society decides is best for society is the ethical basis. It’s a horrible thing when you realize what that means. We who are Christians should certainly recognize that, and should not allow the dominoes to sweep us over in their flow; rather we should seek to try to stop the chain reaction, and even reverse it.

But it will be a long hard process. Society doesn’t accept the Bible as the ethical basis anymore, and any appeals we make on Its behalf will not do much good. We must first help establish that the Bible is indeed credible, the only certain final moral authority, being revealed by God Himself as our guideline for ascertaining right and wrong. How to patiently do this in the face of an overwhelmingly non-Theist society will perhaps be our biggest problem to deal with as Christians in the coming years, but we must try. We must affirm the true value of each and every human being in the eyes of God.

Unfortunately, Heard’s climb within the Christian subculture was just as steep, as he tried to reason with people whose solution to the godlessness of the outside world was to disengage from it entirely. He was concerned not only with how this mentality had hindered their witness to unbelievers, but with how it pushed away those within its own walls who struggled with honest doubts. He understood what seems trivially true on paper, yet still eludes too many in the church: that for people who were questioning the Bible, merely pointing them back to the Bible is ineffective at best. At worst, it might even push them further away. But this was of a piece with a general evangelical suspicion of logic, reason, or any kind of philosophical discussion. Heard earnestly laments this trend in a letter to a fan, writing:

If reason is not valid and important as an aspect of our created-ness, we may as well forget all thought, including thought about spiritual things, for they flow from the same well. To deny reason is to deny part of the image of God in us, part of that which separates us from animals both physically and soteriologically. It is part of our duty as Christians to apply our reason to our environment for our own comprehension of it, as well as for our godly influence upon it.

Taking a leaf from Schaeffer once again, Heard diagnosed this suspicion of human reasoning as a symptom of gnostic influence in the church. He feared that the evangelical mind had closed itself off from appreciating humanity for humanity’s sake, beauty for beauty’s sake, art for art’s sake. “We live in a fallen world,” he wrote, “but one in which the original face of the creation and its intended purpose may still be seen, and we must not let either fact obscure the other.” It is this which allows us both to love life well while we have it and to grieve it well when it is lost. We comfort the mourner not by telling him his tears are unreasonable now that his brother is in a better place, but by encouraging him, as Mark suggests, to “Cry and grieve that death has taken your brother. Cry that it exists, that it has broken unwelcome into God’s creation. But know that God cries too, and hang on, if you can, to the hope He has revealed to us that He has defeated death ultimately.”

With his art, Mark sought to show how even without mentioning God’s name, a song could glorify God just by showing you some part of creation that allows us to glimpse His worth, be it the ocean, romantic love, or “absurdly simple things.” If God is the Creator, he reasoned, then we as God’s image-bearers have been entrusted with the task of sub-creation, the task of carving out beauty wherever we can make a space for it. In addition to his music, carving out beauty took literal shape for Heard when he worked with his hands to design furniture. He writes tongue in cheek in some more liner notes that when he finishes creating something, “I step back, look, and in a sense say, ‘It is good.’ Of course I can’t always do that, because sometimes things don’t turn out too good. In that case, I say, ‘It is bad,’ or ‘It is lousy.’”

In another typical letter to a fan, Heard touches on history of ideas, artistic craft, how to witness well, and how to deal honestly with discouragement as a Christian. He enclosed a long list of recommended reading for further study which has unfortunately been misplaced some time in the last 30-some years, though that fan has generously shared the letter for posterity here.

This was the nature of Mark Heard’s witness: quiet, unsung, and mostly unnoticed, except by the people who needed what he had to give.

The first heart attack came during a concert. He finished the set and slumped into a chair backstage. He was sharing the stage that night with underrated singer/songwriter Pierce Pettis. “They want an encore!” Pierce came to tell him. Heard stayed slumped, looking pale. “You do it,” he said. He was taken to the hospital, stabilized and discharged.

The second came two weeks later, sending him into a coma from which he would never wake up. His daughter was four years old.

After his death, a memorial service was held in LA. Various dignitaries in the music world attended and gave short speeches about his talent, lamenting the void he left behind. When the luminaries had said their piece, a very different group of people stood up to take their place. People like the mailman, and the butcher, and the girl at the corner drugstore. They didn’t know much about the songwriter, Mark Heard. But they could tell you about the man, Mark Heard.

Mark Heard is dead. But he being dead yet speaks. Let us answer his challenge. Let us sing and make music. Let us work with our hands. Let us also bear witness.

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