• Aarik Danielsen

Losing My Religion

Consider this: One of the more quietly stunning pop-culture moments of the past two years involves a rock star hearing himself sing.


Based on the hit podcast, Netflix’s Song Exploder dissects new pop standards, probing their layers of art, science, and good luck. One episode covers R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” from Peter Buck’s mandolin—which still dances on the head of a pin—to Mike Mills’ melodic bassline and drummer Bill Berry’s deceptively simple groove.


 
The prospect of being laid so bare, of being fully known—if for just a moment, even to yourself—ranks among the great glories lost in Eden’s garden.
 

Amid their conversation about lyrics and melody, the host asks frontman Michael Stipe if he wants to hear his isolated vocal track. Michael Stipe, a man with paintings behind his eyes and an entire French horn section on his tongue. Michael Stipe, who sings as if hypnotized yet dances like a defrocked monk charging toward the mystic.


Stipe hesitates, then consents. Almost 30 years later.


Sticking out his tongue at the first note, he screws his eyes tight and keeps listening. Stripped down, his cry sounds evermore like a prayer. An appeal, at least. This is the timbre the word “beseech” was created to fulfill.


Lips pursed, head cocked, Stipe practically wills his tones to bend into shape, toward some source of light. Strains end and his eyes open as if waking under cold water. He confesses just how wrenching those few seconds were.


“It’s just so naked. It’s so raw. It’s so unsupported,” he says.


The prospect of being laid so bare, of being fully known—if for just a moment, even to yourself—ranks among the great glories lost in Eden’s garden. Like Stipe, we catch a glimpse of our naked torsos, hear our own leaf-rustled sound, and flinch.


But to be known as I am, I need to sit in the room with Stipe and sing along.


This isn’t an essay about deconstruction. Or maybe it is. The more people pronounce the word, the more meaning we waste. I know I’m not losing my religion in any conventional sense. Simple religious gestures save my life each Sunday.


I cling to a liturgy of my own making. A reader delivers the week’s verses, and I mutter thanks to God. Communion in hand, I sit and stare holes in the elements, then swallow a whisper. My only hope in life and death. The words like a meal, the bread like a sermon.


 
After years of breathing out the same melody, I know which people won’t turn to face the music. So the song changes—or the heart behind it does, as I sing without expecting a response, just to remind myself the song is good.
 

And yet, for much of the last decade, my body acts as if it knows just one song. My reflexes keep the rhythm of a lilting mandolin. My arms limber and fling toward heaven. Creation’s groan expresses itself in radio words rising to escape my lips.


R.E.M.’s song wants little to do with organized faith. The term, Stipe explains, lives in the Southern lexicon; losing your religion means knowing acute frustration. Working from this definition, I lose my religion nearly every day. Sometimes silently, sometimes in swear words.


Losing my religion when supposed spiritual elders become bullies—and then the bullies win. Losing my religion over a lack of neighbor-love in common places. Losing my religion wherever the image of God is denied in someone. Losing my religion the longer the pandemic drags on.


I lose my religion at another testimony of spiritual or sexual abuse; when someone boasts of voting against what’s good for the people on their block. On Twitter, at the grocery store, in the presence of strangers and friends, all my fantasies of something more “come flailing around,” as me and Stipe sing.


More than some hymn of grievance, Stipe describes “Losing My Religion” as an “unrequited love song.” The spotlight he sings of represents true vulnerability. The kind you prick yourself with while stitching a heart-shaped patch on your sleeve; the kind which follows filling your lungs to say anything at all.


 
These past few years come with a lesson: You’re free to love institutions and the people within them. But, brother, institutions don’t have to love you back.
 

I write whole albums of heartache ballads. They traverse the distance like late-night dedications. Unrequited love songs to friends I thought would stay. Unrequited love songs to former versions of myself—the ones who needed to be right, who tried to remake other people’s religion in their own image. Unrequited love songs to my certainty.


These past few years come with a lesson: You’re free to love institutions and the people within them. But, brother, institutions don’t have to love you back. So I sing to busted-up visions of community; to fruit dead on the vine and cracked city sidewalks; to denominations and their leaders; to ways of life I was sure would lead anywhere but here.


Stipe wrote “Losing My Religion” as the cry of someone who might not even exist in the ears of the person they cry out to. And so it goes. Some of my songs require no answer.


I used to gather spiritual evidence, arms-full like a child who carries their every toy from room to room. Now my hands are open to mystery and wonder. I don’t need my certainty to sing back.


After years of breathing out the same melody, I know which people won’t turn to face the music. So the song changes—or the heart behind it does, as I sing without expecting a response, just to remind myself the song is good.


And when I turn toward the church, set to open my mouth, don’t call it a siren song. I don’t want to steal your religion. My like-minded friend KJ Ramsey writes of those asking what to keep and what to leave: “People say we’re tearing down the church. I think we’re tearing down the stages.”


I sing to tear down the high places in myself, and in the physical and spiritual neighborhoods that matter to me. I sing so I might stop losing my religion to the wrong things, and start losing my religion at the right things.


So you’ll hear me singing from the corner, from whatever share of the spotlight I own. Most words I write feel so naked, so raw, so unsupported. They sound too gentle, too hopeful still in my ears and, like Michael Stipe, I shut my eyes, send them to my editor and pray to disappear back into the mix. But I don’t know what else to sing; so with “every whisper, of every waking hour, I’m choosing my confessions. Trying to keep an eye on you.” And me.




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