The best way to get into David Bazan’s music is to sing one of his songs yourself out loud maybe while you’re driving alone and to hear the way what sounds so nonchalantly natural, nigh unplanned, when he sings it turns difficult and discordant coming out of your mouth. It’s hard for you, because it is not of you, even if you resonate with the music. It is of Bazan through and through, a harmonic universe born of his own will, vibrating true to the frequency of his spirit hovering over his deep waters. Bazan is always only true, both in what he sings and how he sings it, to what he believes or, if he’s unsure of what to believe, he’s true to his doubts, because for Bazan truth is a way to be, a way to exist and act in the world, that vibration, more than it is a system of precepts and laws. Yes, he does believe you should be true to yourself and the world in the same manner, and though your song may not sound the same as his, it will ring as true. I think he trusts there’s a persistent harmonic in accord with all truth.
If you are unfamiliar with David Bazan and his music, the new documentary from Brandon Vedder, Strange Negotiations, is a great place to start. The film tracks Bazan over the recent ten year period of his life as he faced up to a faith crisis and struggled to reconcile it with his career as an independent musician with a fan base made up primarily of Christians. He breaks up his successful band, Pedro the Lion, and takes to playing in people’s living rooms, largely by himself, spending half the year in his car crisis-crossing the country while his wife and kids remain home in Washington state. It’s a lonely life made more lonesome by his necessary disassociation with the Christian community he’d known since birth. He drives and thinks about the inconsistencies he sees in the faith he knows and drinks and plays his music and talks to those fans who are trying to get their heads around Bazan’s de-conversion.
Not all of his fans are bothered by his change of conviction. They are feeling it too. Bazan with Pedro the Lion was always an icon of alternative yet confessing Christians. Bazan solo becomes an icon for what those people popularly called “nones” or “exvangelical” – people, mostly Bazan’s age (mid 40s) and skewing twenty years younger, you know, “millennials,” similarly disaffected with the form of faith offered to them by their communities and the culture at large. They have the same doubts Bazan has, and they also want so badly to reconcile them with all that they love about the Christian faith. There are not many models for them to follow. So, like Bazan, they wander in a wilderness they did not seek, happy to find someone who used to get it like they got it when they were young who also gets it now.
Strange Negotiations spends most of its time in that wilderness with Bazan. It’s not a sandy wilderness like those out of which Moses and John the Baptist and Jesus came. It’s covered in asphalt, and it veins all through the United States. The film frequently raises high overhead of the highways Bazan drives emphasizing his loneliness, his disconnection, his journey but also suggesting the hope of a destination maybe just beyond a horizon currently obscured by hills yet to be climbed and clouds to push through. You feel Bazan’s loneliness, as you should, because a loss of faith is a loss of community. The two are always intertwined. Youth convention and summer camp faith likes to laud the iconoclasts, to praise the kind of conviction that sets you apart from the world, but when you actually follow the truth into the wilds, you find it’s a lonely place. No one prepares you for that.
If you know Bazan’s music, you know where the story leads. If you don’t, I won’t spoil it for you here. I encourage you to watch Strange Negotiations. There are likely many people like Bazan and his fans in your life, though it’s very likely you don’t know it. It’s easier to pretend to still believe the things your community believes than it is to openly question them like Bazan does. Most of us are not that brave. Our “faith” communities should be exactly that, communities of faith, which means there should be room to question and doubt and yet still remain in communion, practicing the love that we say undergirds and guarantees it all. The kind of Christian faith David Bazan yearns for is generous and open and gracious and comfortable with ambiguity, as it should be, since we profess belief in a God who is abundant and all-mighty (and therefore unafraid) and gracious and bigger than we can comprehend. I hope we all find it. We need it now as much as ever.