I’m a little behind in my indie-rock listening. In the late 90s and early 2000s, I was a big fan of indie band, Pedro the Lion. My indie/emo-dude roommate in college took me to a show in a little club in LA (called Chain Reaction at the time) where I witnessed the mesmerizing performance that cut against the grain of any other rock show I’d ever been to. David Bazan, the front man, was (and is) a prophet. His lazy, half-drunk vocals are refreshing against American Idol-style pop singing. (People ask me why I love hymns artist Christopher Miner’s recordings, and I just tell them, “Pedro the Lion.”) RELEVANT Magazine, along with a few online indie periodicals, have chronicled Bazan’s trip through married life, having a child, and the alcoholism that has plagued him in recent years. Bazan has moved from some kind of faith in Jesus to a general agnosticism about God. This has bewildered many young Christians who hailed Bazan as their generation’s voice. I would probably count myself as part of that bewildered generation.
I remember hearing a live bootlegged recording of Bazan singing Wesley’s hymn “And Can it Be,” believing it to be one of the best, most authentic renditions of any hymn or worship song I had ever heard. In fact, hearing that recording still moves me.
As some reporters have noted, and based on my admittedly limited view of Bazan’s life and circumstances, it appears that what drove Bazan over the edge into agnosticism was a Calvinism gone wrong. This seems confirmed for me in Bazan’s bitter song, “When We Fell.” The song breaks my heart, because it lays out what opponents of Calvinism often consider to be the logical conclusion of a robust view of God’s sovereignty. I’ll let the lyrics speak for themselves:
with the threat of hell hanging over my head like a halo
i was made to believe in a couple of beautiful truths
that eventually had the effect of completely unraveling
the powerful curse put on me by you
when you set the table
and when you chose the scale
did you write a riddle
that you knew they would fail
did you make them tremble
so they would tell the tale
did you push us when when we fell
if my mother cries when i tell her what i have discovered
then i hope she remembers she taught me to follow my heart
and if you bully her like you’ve done me with fear of damnation
then i hope she can see you for what you are
what am i afraid of
whom did i betray
in what medieval kingdom does justice work this way
if you knew what would happen and made us just the same
then you , my lord, can take the blame
This makes me shudder. The opening chapter of John Sanders’ The God Who Risks (Sanders, along with Clark Pinnock and Greg Boyd, is one of the chief proponents of a radical view of divine sovereignty known as “open theism”) lays out a similar reaction to a Calvinistic view of God’s sovereignty. Philosophically, opponents of Calvinism would say that determinism collapses into fatalism. This is what Bazan is saying in his song, with its blasphemous closing line.
I don’t have space to lay out why determinism does not collapse into fatalism. Philosopher-theologians like John Feinberg, John Frame, and Douglas Groothuis* have done a far better job than I ever could. I’d only like to point out that there are views of determinism which hold in tension (not contradiction) God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, which help put Calvinism at philosophical rest…without letting go of the affirmations of Scripture, and without affirming a contradiction. The view I hold to is most often called “compatibilism” or “soft determinism.” Another view I highly respect, but do not personally hold to, is often called “Calvinistic Molinism.” I’m not throwing out terms to name-drop but to provide tools for further research if this is an area that interests you. Googling goes a long way these days.
What concerns me about Bazan’s take is that it begins existentially rather than Scripturally (the same criticism is often given to Sanders’ work, the opening chapter of which is a testimonial of a tragic event which drove him to question a high view of God’s sovereignty). Bazan observes his life and circumstances and concludes that what Scripture says about God must not be true. However, if God exists and has revealed Himself in the Scriptures, then the proper modus operandi is to let Scripture inform and define our reality, not the other way around. I don’t think that such an observation would be at all persuasive to Bazan, and my goal is not to “re-convert” him. Only the Spirit can do that work. I simply want to re-affirm some solid truths of Christian faith in the face of some real and challenging problems.
The hard reality for Bazan is that he’s lost the type of influence he once had. Pedro the Lion’s album Control remains one of the most prophetic albums I have ever heard (next to their other album Winners Never Quit). By moving to agnosticism, Bazan has lost the foundation that makes his prophetic voice valid—external revelation from a higher source. When you listen to Control, you are arrested by the penetrating cultural analysis Bazan makes, set against the backdrop of the ethics of God. He cannot make those analyses anymore. And it’s obvious that he doesn’t want to. So, while Bazan continues to exert influence, it is one of a lone voice crying out in the wilderness. Yahweh is not supplying the foundation for his words.
The only thing I’m holding out for is that perhaps Bazan, with his songwriting in the last few years, is taking the concept of persona to new depths. Could he be putting on a different self, so real, that even he is convinced he is who he says he is? I think I may be scraping for that one…
*The works that have influenced me most:
John Frame, The Doctrine of God: A Theology of Lordship. Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002.
John S. Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil. Wheaton: Crossway, 2004.
Douglas Groothuis (see his forthcoming apologetics text from IVP)
R. K. McGregor Wright, No Place for Sovereignty: What’s Wrong with Freewill Theism. Downers Grove: IVP, 1996.