The piano skews sharp and the organ bleats, its tremolo loud enough to spook a seismograph. Somehow they meet near the middle of our modest Baptist church, sounding out Fanny Crosby’s “Blessed Assurance.” The title phrase passes my teenage lips, then dies in the air.
Mellow acoustic guitar and djembe play tag inside my college chapel, replicating moments from Passion conferences. Glancing around the great room, I spy faces given to devotion. Serenity—and twentysomething skin—stave off the creases which usually come with closing your eyes so tight. Like mine are supposed to be.
Years later, the members of Vampire Weekend strike up the band, filling my cheap computer speakers. A different sort of organ whirs to life and jittery rhythms—like a heart beating too hard against the breastbone—drive the arrangement. Singer Ezra Koenig admits his apostasy as he alternates word pictures. Whether trapped between hellfire flames or “bound to the tracks” of an oncoming train, he lifts his head to recognize “the fate that half of the world has planned for me.”
I finally settle into my seat.
From just outside the cozy confines of faith, I resemble an insider. The boxes practically check themselves. A pastor’s son, a devout disciple climbing the ladder set before me. A boy—and then a man—who produces the right answers. But my life seems to run in reverse.
Hymns ending in confident cadences betray their intent, chipping away at whatever’s solid inside me. Trying to manifest the ecstasy of my peers makes me think God is going back on somebody’s word, giving me more than I can handle.
The songs of unbelievers ring truer; I hear myself in the skeptic’s chord progressions.
The songs of unbelievers ring truer; I hear myself in the skeptic’s chord progressions. I reserve my “amen” until their final measures.
Coming of age, I recited the softer creeds of evangelicalism. My speech, my service, my free time all bent godward. Genuine faith grew from my mustard seed heart, I’m now convinced. An invisible rope tethered me to the story of Jesus; and what drew me close never untied itself.
But I never lived with the starched-suit security of a capital-B believer. Early on, I learned to stare through patterns in the church carpet and envision the trap doors beneath.
After walking the aisle and washing in cold baptismal waters, I understood just enough to know the whole deal hinged on forgiveness. Kneeling before my bed at play, action figures marching in formation across the mattress, my sins found me out and I whispered the right words with hot breath. I joined the please and the question mark.
The resulting silence scared the hell into me and, losing whatever nerve a boy possesses, I imitated the voice of God as I imagined it. Hitting all the right beats, affecting a deep and fatherly tone, I pardoned myself for the sake of hearing something.
Later I spent my growing pains on the people, places and things that could kill my faith. Teenage temptresses and countless slippery slopes occupied more time and thought than one person and his covenant promise to keep me.
Nobody acknowledged what faith might feel like insider-out. No one asked me to describe where I fit into God’s economy, so I avoided the thought. Had they posed the question, I might have called myself his little beast of burden, his weekend thrift-store find. Not accepted or approved. Certainly not assured of anything.
And so Vampire Weekend’s “Unbelievers”—and songs with less obvious titles—still rattle around inside, coming home where elevator anthems can’t. Pocket symphonies of doubt and disbelief activate my sympathies.
Perhaps it’s because certainty rarely makes compelling art—especially when we violate the great creative command, telling not showing. Or maybe it’s because it took more than 30 years to realize the faithful spend most of their lives traveling the valleys, toeing thinner and thinner lines within God’s boundless country.
God expresses his love by letting me unlearn so much. Now, the hymns of unbelief sound like strange redemption songs.
God expresses his love by letting me unlearn so much. Now, the hymns of unbelief sound like strange redemption songs. They jog my memory, freeing me to recall that faith most often expresses itself in grasping and groping, in a genuine desire for warmth, grace and a few drops of holy water—the same divine items Koenig asks for in “Unbelievers.”
Experience teaches me leaning on the “Everlasting Arms” feels more like the Vampire Weekend song of that name—“full of fear, trapped beneath a chandelier that’s going down”—than “safe and secure from all alarms.” That’s why we lean.
Some Christians worry we make spaces too safe for doubt. Make them safer still. Too often, the disbelieving and disinterested listen in and hear us worshipping a God with a “red right hand,” as Koenig sings elsewhere.
They don’t find people gathered around the realities voiced by another band that stops me in my tracks, Frightened Rabbit. In “Holy,” their no-thanks offering to the self-righteous, the late singer Scott Hutchison describes himself as a man with “the stomach of a sinner, face like an unholy ghost.” This is our common confession.
Christians should recite these very words, not for the sake of turning tables or as a means to the end of conversion. Koenig might not claim me the way I claim Christ. And that means something. But I long to harmonize with him, to sing the third above or below—wherever he’ll have me.
We sing as a way of touching palms in a world that actively conspires to make us feel more alone and less human. If we prize the feeling of certainty, these songs just make noise. If the object of faith matters more, they leave us transparent, nothing to fear or hide. They sound about right.