During my early teen years, we went to a church that was very damaging and destructive in my faith to the point that it's a surprise that I have any at all. The pastor and his wife would read their daughter's journal and then tell the youth pastor what he needed to teach by what they uncovered. To get an idea of this church, just picture a Pentecostal version of the one in Footloose. I already struggled since what they preached so seldom lined up with what I read (especially since their teaching and preaching centered on the prosperity gospel).
One of the areas that they decided to attack was that of rock music. Now anyone who knows me knows that after books, I love music. Sure, it may have been rebellious to wear my Joy Division Unknown Pleasures t-shirt to a youth group social, but like my friends there, we loved alternative and New Wave music (due in no small part to the films of John Hughes).
I had mistakenly given the pastor's daughter a tape, of Bryan Adams no less (how tame is that?) and this led to their having a service in the main church (not just youth group for this one) in which they railed against the dangers of worldly rock music. At the end of the service, they asked the teenagers to come down front and renounce the music we all listened to. When only their daughter did, the pastor then began to call out kids by name. My best friend and I sort of slouched down in our seats, hoping he wouldn't see or call us. When he called out my friend's name, I knew I was doomed. Sure enough, my name was next. Though we begrudgingly went down, the girls were crying (though not tears or repentance) and the boys were just angry inside at the abusive power being displayed here.
After the service was over, some of us gathered in the parking lot to ask, "Are you really giving your music up?" None of us would. Many of them, however, would give up any time of faith or church attendance of any kind.
So how did my faith survive (though badly damaged and broken for years)?
The very music they preached against.
One of the artists who had the biggest impact on me was Peter Gabriel.
Like many of the MTV generation, I was introduced to his music through videos like "Shock the Monkey" and, even more so, "Sledgehammer."
I remember places called record stores where I spent a lot of time and money in my youth. One of the first CDs I ever bought was Gabriel's So.
From the opening song "Red Rain" I was hooked. I had never heard anything like this before. Gabriel with his throaty, gravelly voice sang with such honesty, "I come to you with defenses down / with the trust of a child." Those lines struck somewhere deep within me. Coming from a Christian background, I found myself filtering them through the image of me coming before Christ in exactly this manner. And the red rain that was "pouring down all over me" was his redemptive blood.
"Don't Give Up" was his collaboration with Kate Bush (whose work I knew through songs like "Running Up That Hill" and "This Woman's Work"). This song was written during a time when England was going through rising unemployment. Yet it resonates with anyone who feels defeated and feels like giving up. As one who struggles with depression, this song has impacted me during times of need, especially when Kate Bush sings:
rest your head
you worry too much
it's going to be alright
when times get rough
you can fall back on us
don't give up
please don't give up
These delicate lines are those of a wife consoling her husband when he's down. Yet one can also hear Jesus gently reminding us that he is there to comfort us.
One of my favorite tracks off the album was "Mercy Street" inspired by the life and poetry of Anne Sexton. Full of religious imagery. Peter Gabriel's voice is shadowy and haunting as he calls us, "Mercy. Looking for mercy. Looking for mercy. Mercy, mercy." It's as if he's walking the streets begging for any kind of mercy. Then he adds, "Looking for mercy in your daddy's arms." And I was. Desperately. I need the merciful arms of God to wrap around me and let me know that He loved me during a time when I felt adrift. Anne Sexton wrote a poem in which she expressed how she felt she was rowing a boat to an island (God) that she could never quite reach. At the time, I felt the same, not knowing that it was God who was pulling me to him and all I needed to do was stop rowing on my own and drift into His love. The last lines remind me of this when it speaks of the father "out on the boat, riding the water, riding the waves on the sea." God the Father is always with us in that boat. He is also the boat and the water.
Thanks to the movie Say Anything, the biggest track off that album became "In Your Eyes." Though written as a love song, I have heard many Christian artists, including Nichole Nordeman, sing and record this. As the song opens, "Love, I get so lost sometimes," I knew this was me. I am prone to wonder and to wander. Yet I find no matter how often I try to run away, I find myself returning to Christ. Why? Like the lyrics of this song says:
In your eyes,
the light, the heat.
In your eyes,
I am complete.
In your eyes,
I see the doorway to a thousand churches,.
In your eyes,
all the fruitless searches . . .
All outside of Christ is fruitless. I discover again and again that I am only complete when I am in him. How many of our searches do we find meaningless and empty in life? We strive after a new job or a new car or a new house or a new relationship, only to find that does nothing to heal that struggle that's going on deep within us. As I tried to replace God and Christ with so many other things in my life and I searched through the world's philosophies in the hopes of escaping this God and this Jesus, I only found myself in a deeper and darker pit, feeling more lost, more alone, and more empty. Hearing that song reminds me that Jesus is standing there, with his arms open, telling me, "Love, I don't like to see so much pain.
What I did understand was his song "Big Time" with its condemning of consumerism and materialism, even within the church. It's all about big and what this person can get out of life for himself. His religion is the same, "I will pray to a big god as I kneel in the big church." It's not about man serving God but God serving man (a theme that is too prevalent in many of America's churches). He even boasts, "My heaven will be a big heaven and I will walk through the front door." It's a confidence in self and not grace. This was the attitude of those in the church we had left but had not left us without damaging so much of our souls.
Yet it was Peter Gabriel's next album Us that would have even a greater influence on my life and faith. This album came out during my first year of graduate school. I went to an ultra-Conservative Christian graduate school and found myself adrift again. Plagued by religious and self-doubt, I struggled less with the transcendence of art than I did in any church. I was studying film and theater. Filmmakers like Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrei Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen became a filter for theology and my own questioning of God and what did I really believe. The controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ was a lightning rod in the Christian community. Yet I met so many students in graduate school whose faith was renewed by that films portrayal of Christ's struggle with the humanity side of himself and how he ultimately renounced the daily life of a man who marries and has kids; choosing instead the cross of our salvation. A close friend of mine showed me his VHS copy of the film. Underlying the film was the music of Peter Gabriel.
Yet it was after graduation and after I was married that the album Us had its greatest impact. Us is Peter Gabriel at his most vulnerable and most unguarded. It was written after the demise of his marriage, when his relationship with his eldest daughter was strained, and he was in therapy. It's an openly honest and confessional album and one hears it in Gabriel's voice which cracks and is often heartbreaking.
A year after we got married was the darkest and hardest for me. It became a time of utter disillusionment. I found myself rejecting God and I told Him, "I'm done. I've had enough." I turned my back on Him. Unfortunately, it was also a time where I rejected my wife. Unable to love myself, I wanted neither hers nor God's love. I couldn't believe in either and it became one of the darkest spirals my life has taken. Yet even as I was pushing her away, Danelle kept coming back to me, telling me, "I love you." In her statements of love I heard God's. He was there, behind her words. Trying to escape, I found myself being confronted by this hard reality in Peter Gabriel's album. The opening track of Us is "Come Talk to Me." In it, he plaintively begs, Ah please talk to me. Won't you please talk to me? We can unlock this misery. Come on, come talk to me." His wounded voice was the voice of Danelle, was the voice of God the prodigal's Father who was calling out to his wayward son to return home.
The track that most mirrored our marriage was "Blood of Eden" with its images of a fractured relationship and a longing to return to the Garden, to wholeness, where man and woman were complete. Gabriel recorded this song with Sinead O'Connor and both of their voices are powerful and vulnerable all that same time. Certainly I found myself in the opening lines:
I caught sight of my reflection
I caught it in the window
I saw the darkness in my heart
I saw the signs of my undoing
They had been there from the start
The song is a longing for union. It presents that the strength of any relationship is the willing sacrifice given by both involved so that it goes from being "you" and "I" to "us." Like the relationship of the song, I longed "for the union of the woman, the woman and the man."
Gabriel's song "Only Us" began to reconnect the dots for me. Earlier I mentioned the prodigal son's father calling and I heard that in this song's lines:
I hear you calling me
Yes, I hear you calling me
Home from the great escape
This is the prodigal hearing his father's plea and returning, if only to escape his own misery. It is a selfish return, but the father doesn't care. He longs only for his son to be home.
Yet the most healing song on this album for me was "Washing of the Water." Almost like a hymn it begins:
River, river carry me on
Living river carry me on
Did I hear that line correctly?
I checked the lyrics. That was indeed what he sang. I couldn't avoid the obvious: the living water that will never run dry and that once one has tasted it, will never thirst again.
He continued with a song that sounded more like a prayer. Even more it sounded like exactly where I was in my life at that moment:
River, show me how to float
I feel like I'm sinking down
Thought that I could get along
But here in this water
My feet won't touch the ground
I need something to turn myself around
I found myself broken by these words and tears streamed down my face. Like Gabriel I desired to have "this love untied" but to do so means I have to "face what I denied."
"God," I desperately called our, "I need You to be real. I need you to be real right now. If you're not, I can't go on any longer."
The prayer and the words of this song co-mingled as he sang, "In the washing of the water will you take it all away. Bring me something to take this pain away."
And the living river said, "Yes, I will wash you clean. I will heal your hurts and your shame."
When I didn't pray, didn't read my Bible, and ignored all that was God, He reached me anyway through a language that breaks down all barriers: music. In his Confessions, Saint Augustine writes of a time when he was in utter despair. Unsure of whether or not he could continue on, he heard the voice of a child. It sounded like the child was singing, but he wasn't sure if the voice was even real. Yet he heard the voice saying, "Take it and read it. Take it and read it." Take what? Read what? Then he noticed his Bible lying open. Going over, he took it up and read. God will speak by whatever means necessary to reach us. I heard Him in the music of Peter Gabriel.
I found myself saying words much like those in "I Love To Be Loved":
From the deepest place I grieve
This time I believe
And I let go . . .
And I let go . . .
The very music that pastor condemned years ago was the very tool that God used to bring me to what T.S. Eliot called the "still point." His lyrics, his honest grappling with love and mortality, helped me to negotiate and navigate the reconciliation of my hear to God. I craved authenticity and found it in the unguarded, vulnerable, honest and poetic work of Peter Gabriel. God can use the secular to bring forth the sacred. He continues to speak to me through the paintings of Van Gogh, the poetry of Rilke, the plays of Shakespeare, the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, and the tender and beautiful music of Peter Gabriel. He is an artist whose work has had and continues to have a profound and lasting impact on my life and faith. Indeed like he sang, "Once the flames begin to catch the wind will blow it higher." For that, I am grateful.