Minstrels of Infirmity: Ex-Christian American Singer-Songwriter Dudes and Whether or Not They Help the Church

On the American indie music scene, the past ten or fifteen years have seen a rash of singer-songwriters—male, white, thirty-something—making dark, lovely, lyrical, disturbing, disaffected, and heartbreaking albums. Nothing new so far? Right. Cue Elliott Smith. But the repeated, shared themes in their music—21st century boredom, spiritual PTSD, the pills we take for our brains, sterilized desire, and so-called “Christian culture”—is definitely new, and as a trend, exciting. Isn’t it exciting when the truth gets told, or at least part of it? But what’s interesting is that this music is emerging from artists with Christian backgrounds, and that they’re being explicit about the biblical and ecclesial influences on their music. What does this mean? And what does the Church do with this?

Of those I have noticed, all have since left Christianity—in its institutional form in any case—after what appears to have been a more or less rocky run. Some of these names include: Josh Tillman (aka J. Tillman or Father John Misty), formerly of the Fleet Foxes; Jeff Tweedy of Wilco; Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes; Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel; David Bazan, formerly of Pedro the Lion; and Ari Picker of the Durham, North Carolina-based band, Lost in the Trees. (Win Butler, Canadian rock musician and lead singer of Arcade Fire, though not American, could also fit well here.) Some of these artists’ albums and songs include titles like A Church That Fits Our Needs,[1] “Funtimes in Babylon,”[2] “When We Fell,”[3] Neon Bible,[4] “Jesus, Etc.,”[5] “Earthly Bodies,”[6]  “Lion and the Lamb,”[7] and, ah yes, Neutral Milk Hotel’s “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2-3,” which begins with Jeff Mangum just wailing, “I love you, Jesus Christ.”[8] In local, national, and international music, these ex-Christians and their Christian references are headliners.

This makes me wonder: what’s at the bottom of this current cultural trend? And why does it seem to me so good, so healthy, like a confession? I also wonder: are there things about the Christian narrative, mythology, and worship, about the gospel and certain particularly Christian ways of relating with God, that form a person to be not only severely disappointed in the world as it is, but on top of that, may prepare that person to be devastated, and permanently marked, by an ineffective Christianity in that world? And does this give their “witness” (not the same as a Christian witness, but witness still) a certain amount of power and claim over Christian ears?

Josh Tillman, for example, after moving through his intensely intimate, biblically-soaked Year in the Kingdom, seems to now be aware of a claim to having a larger part in speaking to America, to its illness, and to American Christianity’s complicity in that illness. For a great example of this, take note of his song “Bored in the U.S.A.” It comes from his new album, I Love You, Honeybear [Sub Pop, 2015], and he performs it with increasingly detached, pitch-perfect aplomb on, of all places, The Late Show with David Letterman. Watch how he crafts his performance (and listen for the delayed audience applause at the end).

As a Christian, I see this performance and think, this is interesting. For one thing, it seems to say that we can trust the Holy Spirit to move things that need to be shown and said into the light, into imaginations not the Church’s, even into popular musical tastes. And it tells me that to some extent, these artists’ childhood catechesis, as funky as it may or may not have been, worked. No, the world is not supposed to be like this (sin, devil, flesh). Yes, there is a deep goodness and rightness to be desired (Eden, creation, redemption, resurrection); or, desire is part of loving God (Imago Dei); it is good to desire (heaven). Yes, God is strange and His people have done and continue to do wicked things, but there is something about the story of Jesus and God’s people which is still so compelling that it can’t yet simply be chucked. In fact, for all the guff about the inherent oppression of structure (institution) and religious teaching (dogma), it apparently still empowers. And its language blazes in the mind, the heart.

Flannery O’Connor talks about the “Christ-haunted South.” These artists show that the lingering presence of American Christianity, with all its baggage, is not limited to U.S. states under the Mason-Dixon line. It just happens that in the approaching-post-Christian 21st century America, a certain white, male, thirty-something cadre of music-makers are creating the top work in their fields, haunted by, but also filled with and emerging from, powerful stories and symbols of a Christian upbringing. Even if somewhere along the way, something went wrong (as things often do—and when the “thing” is Christianity, perhaps most devastatingly), these men offer a sense of anguish and anger and persistent search, rather than resignation. And if their music is ever tinged (or loaded) with despair, I can’t help feeling it to be like the despair of a lover after a breakup.

If a few of America’s best psalmists at present are secular ones, and if our minstrels of infirmity are furthermore a bunch of white guys—the group of most cultural power, most apparently set up for success—singing about the side effects of Adderall and bad Sunday School lessons, well, so much the better for any Christian who pays attention. May this interesting situation lead to healthy ecclesial puzzlement, enlightenment, and repentance. And may it move us toward healing, too; that is, somehow toward Christ, who sees and suffers with His Church and with all men, and is the great Healer.

For more: here is an interview with Jeff Mangum and Pitchfork magazine in which, toward the end, the interviewer very nervously brings up the topic of Christianity and Mangum’s upbringing. Mangum unhesitatingly dives in.

[1] Lost in the Trees, ANTI-Records, 2012.

[2] J. Tillman, Fear Fun, Sub Pop, 2012.

[3] David Bazan, Curse Your Branches, Barksuk, 2009.

[4] Arcade Fire, Merge, 2007.

[5] Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Nonesuch, 2002.

[6] J. Tillman, Year in the Kingdom, Western Vinyl, 2009.

[7] Ari Picker, commissioned piece, Duke Performances, 2015.

[8] In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Merge, 1998.

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