The Itinerant Priesthood of David Bazan: Ruminations On Believing And 'Blanco'

On June 21, 2016

I was reminded of a quote from the famous (to me at least) Christian doubter Carl Frederick Buechner a few weeks ago when I was first listening to Blanco, the latest bit of penmanship from Seattle’s leading defleecer David Bazan. I’ve included the entirety of the quote here for academic and not preachy reasons so bear with me:

“If you tell me Christian commitment is a kind of thing that has happened to you once and for all like some kind of spiritual plastic surgery, I say go to, go to, you're either pulling the wool over your own eyes or trying to pull it over mine. Every morning you should wake up in your bed and ask yourself: "Can I believe it all again today?" No, better still, don't ask it till after you've read the New York Times, till after you've studied that daily record of the world's brokenness and corruption, which should always stand side by side with your Bible. Then ask yourself if you can believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ again for that particular day. If your answer's always Yes, then you probably don't know what believing means. At least five times out of ten the answer should be No because the No is as important as the Yes, maybe more so. The No is what proves you're human in case you should ever doubt it. And then if some morning the answer happens to be really Yes, it should be a Yes that's choked with confession and tears and. . . great laughter.”

That quote came to mind because Bazan’s work has always been a comfort for me and many of my Recovering Conservative Christian friends when the waves of redemptive monotheism rise particularly high against the sides of the boat. All the self-aggrandizing stuff aside, faith can be a bitch and it’s nice to listen to someone who calls it what it is without looking over their shoulder.

The first time I heard Pedro the Lion, Bazan’s more or less noteworthy project from the late 90’s and early 2000’s, I was in middle school and my friend Christopher burned me a copy of It’s Hard To Find A Friend. “Bad Diary Days” explained every relationship problem I hadn’t had the chance to have yet but imagined for myself. “Secret of the Easy Yoke” was probably the single most important indictment of American Christianity at the time. “The Bells” is one of the most honest songs about the feeling of spiritual defeat ever written and would serve as a bit of a thematic springboard for his later solo career. The whole thing was something out of the pages of a diary I was too afraid to write myself.

Most people I knew at the time were up in arms about Bazan for his outspoken theological fence sitting, and over time the question became not so much what did Bazan think about God but what did God think about Bazan. Discernment and its requisite gymnastics were the typical fare for “culturally aware” parents, youth groups, and faith-based music stores alike. It’s Hard To Find A Friend and The Only Reason I Feel Secure were definitely “in” and Control and Winners Never Quit were definitely “out,” with Control being in a particularly frosty orbit given its more explicit content. Achilles Heel had a foot in each camp, canonically speaking.

Which was weird. Somehow it was fine to read about David in Israel having Uriah killed over his own affair but not David in Seattle sing about the messy regret of an affair on Control. Context  was king, I guess, but, under the auspices that affairs are categorically horrendous, Seattle Dave sounded like way less of an asshole about the whole thing and frankly had better things to say. Until I got a car, though, my CD collection was not my own so there I was mired in my own lack of control, as it were. The thing was, all Bazan was doing was patiently picking at the fact that the American church had never really found a way to accept Jesus of Nazareth for who he said he was. And it wasn’t really up for debate in the minds of anyone honest enough to look at themselves or their congregation closely enough. There was hardly any resemblance between the weathered, socialism-leaning wanderer from the Middle East and us bracelet-reminder-toting, private-property loving Republicans from the Southeast. Bazan knew it, and so did we, and he was the only one with the balls to say it. And we needed him to. Wrestling with the finer points of the He-loves-me-He-loves-me-nots that come with much of the past or present expository teachings on colloquialized Jesus was a hellish process and likely ruined a Vermont’s worth of potentially interesting people along the way. The whole thing was a mess.

When the continental shift inevitably continued and Bazan found himself solo and releasing records like Curse Your Branches which spoke more strongly against that system of belief, there was relief there too. Wherever you fell on the spectrum of accepting or not accepting the resurrection, it became hard to believe that what we had grown up under was what this was all supposed to be in the first place. The math just didn’t add up, and once again Bazan was there as a sort of whiskey priest a la Graham Greene with a stone in one hand and a cup of the deconstructed sacrament in the other. And the thing was, he knew he was never totally getting away from any of this and neither were we, no matter how much we kicked and screamed. It had just soaked in too deep, and he knew we needed company.

The older you get with this kind of thing, the more comfortable you are with the mornings you wake up and say “no”, and with those mornings becoming more frequent. You become more comfortable with the defeated solemnity that comes from wrestling with these things which, either real or imagined, are far too big for you to overcome on your own. And in the ocean of voices singing about being broken or beaten down, Bazan’s remains one of the only ones willing to show us, time after time, exactly how he (and we) fell apart. And that’s why it’s no surprise to me that his house shows have become a staple of his touring career over the years. So many of us have needed an itinerate priest willing to minister to our no’s rather than our yes’s. To write songs about who we actually are rather than who we should be. To understand the beauty in breaking down and teach us when to leave ourselves alone.

And Blanco, to me, is the soundtrack of learning to live under the darkening mystery of something we may never quite learn how to hold on to or let go of. It’s the resonant echoes of our ghosts and the roads we inevitably will travel over and over again in search of something to call home. It’s the sound of someone as afraid and blind as we are still whistling in the dark to let us know we aren’t alone, no matter how the rest of all of this goes. Maybe not everyone needs David Bazan’s work, it’s not for me to say, but I sure as hell do. There’s something sacred to learning how to carry something you’re unsure is even true.

Profile Picture of Tyler Barstow
Tyler Barstow

Tyler is the co-founder of Vinyl Me, Please. He lives in Denver and listens to The National a lot more than you do.

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