Dec 10, 2013

Songs of the silence of God

Taylor Muse decided he'd lost his faith on the way home from work.

A Southern Baptist from East Texas, Muse had been struggling with his Christianity. Since college, at least, when he moved out of home and read Kurt Vonnegut and just got away from the all-encompassing context of praise teams, choir practice, youth group, church-all-the-time, he'd felt an increasing distance from faith.

Had he ever even believed?

Maybe once it had seemed like God spoke to him, in his heart, while the band played four chords and the preacher asked everyone to bow their heads. But now he wondered. That didn't really seem like what it would be like if God spoke. Or even like it should count as "speaking," really. When he had really needed God to say something in his life, there had only been silences.

Then Muse had a daughter. He thought about what he wanted for her and the question of belief became more acute. The Bible and his Baptist beliefs, he felt, had been a source of anxiety, depression and shame -- especially shame -- in his own life. He didn't want that for his daughter.

"I don't want her to be ashamed," he said, "based on a 2,000-year-old book that has no relevance in our lives."

So he came home from his day job as an insurance adjustor and, as he recounted recently on NPR, he told his wife, "I think I'm having a little bit of a crisis of faith. I just realized today that I can't make a case for Christianity that would convince myself."

Then he wrote some songs about that crisis.

Then Muse and his band, Quiet Company, made that into an album:

On Bandcamp, where We Are All Where We Belong is for sale, the 31-year-old front man calls the 2011 record a break-up album with God. That's a good characterization. The very first song, The Confessor, opens with an organ humming, as if for a prayer. Muse sings the words of a folk hymn, altered slightly "the river's wide, that I could not swim across it."

Traditionally, the other side is a metaphor for heaven. Here, however, it's the evangelical Christian faith Muse wanted but couldn't ever get to:
I wanted to feel as saved as they do.
But the more I live, the harder to believe
that their God above knows the first thing about love
or goes along with every rule they make up. 
There's some debate about whether or not the group Quiet Company was ever an evangelical band proper. Muse didn't want to be pigeonholed, artistically, and didn't regularly mention Jesus in his lyrics. Quiet Company was on an indie Christian label, though, had played at the emergent Christian festival Cornerstone, and had a fan base of religious listeners. When music critics took note of their albums, they mentioned the "spiritual convictions" of the music, and how those convictions "heighten the emotional intensity" of "deeply personal lyricism."

Muse's loss of faith doesn't seem to have damaged his lyricism. And it doesn't seem his break-up album is alienating faithful fans, either, though that was definitely a concern while the band was making the album. Muse told the Austin Chronicle that he gets e-mails about his loss of faith, but there's no anger. "They're just concerned about me," he said.

Now, there's some chance Quiet Company could be cast as an indie atheist band.

The NPR profile of Quiet Company last week frames the group that way, despite Muse's protests. John Burnett writes that Muse "now reluctantly carries the banner of 'that atheist rocker from Austin.'" The story is told as if success followed his announcement of atheism. Which it did, at least chronologically. Since those songs were written and produced, Quiet Company has reached a new level. The album won 10 trophies at the Austin Music Awards last year. The group was named a group to watch. Quiet Company has gathered a following and some of the fans are fans because of themes of the loss of faith. They were asked to play at the American Atheist convention, for example.

At the Friendly Atheist, blogger Camille Beredjick writes that "their music, ideals, and general awesomeness seem like things I could easily get behind."

There is, it appears, a niche for atheist indie music, just like there's a niche for indie Christian music. In the marketing landscape of Grooveshark and BandCamp, YouTube and SXSW, these things can matter. Though also, always, there's a chance the niche can become a cage. Muse, at least, seems anxious to resist the limitations of a label like "atheist rocker."

The album, We Are Where We Belong, is interesting in this context. Atheism, at least of a certain sort, in certain contexts, can be an artistic statement that pays off. That wasn't obvious, especially as it could have offended all the people who cared about this group without winning over any new listeners. Perhaps it seems like atheism should obviously be marketable, but while there are a number of out atheists in pop music, and more than a few atheist songs, atheism can still seem curious in the music industry in 2013. It can seem like a risk for a band and yet, at least in this case, it's now a niche that'll serve as a hook, a reason to listen.

This album, We Are Where We Belong, is also interesting as a chronicle of deconversion.

Muse talked to the alternative Austin paper about his loss of faith and told NPR his story too. The arc of the story is he moved away from home, read things in college, had a child and then made that decision going home from work that day, and told his wife.

The music doesn't contradict that, but it deepens it. Deconversions don't move so simply, in clear progressions, but often involve conflicting emotions and clashing, crashing hopes and longings. Music can get at that, and here it does.

In the song Preaching to the Choir Invisible, II, Muse sings:
I'll make a deal with Jesus Christ,
speak just one word I can hear,
prove you're alive,
and I'll believe you're there.
But, I may as well just admit the truth.
I have rejected
holier spirits than you.
It's no big deal, hallelujah.
This references, of course, a standard evangelical invitation to belief. Just pray and ask God to speak to you, it is said, and he will. Muse, whose Baptist past included lots of this talk, is here making a standing offer to convert if Jesus speaks. He is willing to believe. If only Jesus will come into his heart in a way so he knows, truly, that Jesus is there. This is an evangelical crisis, an evangelical promise of a presence of God that's gone unfulfilled, and is here being demanded.

Muse notes that he's asked for this before. The image of a boy pleading for a word from God is reoccurring in this album. Muse was an evangelical, and his atheist approach to God is evangelical too: he asks, but doesn't receive. He asked, but didn't receive.

Publicly, he pretended to hear God speak to his heart, as a small child. Privately, he screamed and groaned and wondered what was wrong with him.

He's pretty ambivalent about an answer now, singing on The Black Sheep and the Shepherd that "Maybe there is something wrong with me, but I've been feeling fine." He hasn't always been so calm about the question of hearing God, however. In the same song, he sings:
The only times I ever thought of suicide,
I was waiting on the Lord to direct my life,
saying 'give me one word and I'll put down the knife
and I'll never pick it up again.'
But luckily I held out long enough to see
everybody really makes their own destiny.
It's a beautiful thing. It's just you and me,
exactly where we belong,
and there's nothing inherently wrong with us.
The question of inherent wrongness -- of sin, of the fall, in theological language -- is the second persistent problem Muse finds with his former faith. "Come on friends," he sings in The Easy Confidence, "count up your sins. One for being human. Two for being born like this."

There is reason, according to Muse's lyrics, to fear and be anxious. There's cause to feel uneasy in the world. That reason is death. But there's nothing to be done about death. "I know my time is coming" is the chorus of one song, sung by a choir. "I can't keep my time from coming." Fear of sin, and its attendant self-loathing, attempts to replace the problem of death with a smaller, more solvable problem. But it doesn't solve the problem, for Muse, both because God does not appear to him to wash him of his sins, and because death is still there, looming.

"I don't ever want to die," he sings in Everything Louder Than Everything Else. "I really like it here ... Wouldn't it be grand to take some comfort in those same ancient texts that pacify my friends? Well, it wouldn't change the fact that all we know is we come and we go."

There is some anxiety around this new, staring-into-the-abyss-of-mortality realism. Both the meditations on death and the surrender of what he sees as false promises are, at times, experienced as frightening. At other times, though, Muse is overcome by exhilaration. There is a freedom he finds in worrying only about this life, this moment, this world and not the one to come.

"We all belong to the earth and the sea," he sings in Preaching to the Choir Invisible, I. "You say the truth sets us free? Sounds good to me?"

But it may not be his own freedom motivating Muse. The anxiety and the exhilaration seem, most importantly for him, to focus on his daughter. He wants something for her that's different than what he had. Different fears. Different hopes. He hopes she can be free: free to make something beautiful of her life.

Free from the belief there is something inherently wrong with her.

Free from the task of trying to get the silence to speak her name.

"This is the part when my exist starts, because I caught a glimpse of the father's heart," according to The Easy Confidence. Muse may not have confidence anymore in the goodness of the heart of a God who is a father. But he is himself a father, and his heart, for his child, wants something different.

This is what Taylor Muse decided that day, driving home from his insurance-adjustor job. He was having a crisis, he told his wife, and he started writing these songs.