catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 8 :: 2003.04.11 — 2003.04.24


The role of redemption in the creative process

What follows is a transcript of a workshop done by David Bazan of Pedro the Lion at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Music, March 28-29, 2003, followed by some questions asked by workshop participants.


I want to start with what I've labeled as the disclaimer/admission of fear. These things are just real weird when you have to be the one talking—when it's not you, it's really fun. That's not to say I don't enjoy talking or hearing myself talk because I do—and that's that self-doubt/ego, which I've been vacillating between all day. Hearing other people speak about books that they've read—books I'd really like to read, books about Christianity and art and faith—makes me think, "Wow, I should let them speak during my thing because they know quite a lot." And then the ego. You kind of have an affinity to your own ideas, you think they're right. You like them and it gives you a good feeling to feel like you're right.

I've been realizing that part of that vacillation is a product of [the fact] that usually when I hang out with Christians for too long, I get really irritated and I don't really enjoy it all the time, especially when I've encountered them recently. The band that I do, Pedro the Lion, put out a record called Control and there was a lot of scrutiny with certain Christians. And so I feel like every time I talk about Christianity and art since that record, I'm almost doing an apologetic for my own process because on the record I say the word "shit" and I say the word "cum" and, even more than that, there's some other content that's objectionable to some people, which is kind of an unhealthy way to approach it and to live.

I'm very well aware that this is my best 27-year-old guess at this subject. If I live to be 80, I hope to know quite a lot more about these things by then. I imagine that, at the rate of learning that's happened over the last four or five years, if it's anything like that, we all should know quite a lot more. It makes me feel vulnerable as well because it's so incomplete. This being my best guess, this should just be taken for what it's worth.

People like Dan [Smith], Dave [Eugene Edwards] and me are in strange positions where people are curious about our opinions in a way that's not necessarily validated by the reasonableness of our opinions, the validity of them in and of themselves. There's a celebrity aspect and a curiosity that comes along with that. I'll just say whatever I think; just know that it could be total horseshit. But you should try to figure that out for yourself. That's an important responsibility you have. I don't have a burden of proof. I don't have to prove that my ideas here are true because I'm not even totally sure. I imagine many of them are quite flawed simply because I am young. The more you read about stuff, the more you realize there are things you haven't considered and you don't even begin to have the capacity to consider them at this point. Seeing Christianity just kind of fail all around you and not knowing why—the answers are few and far between to the great many questions that arise when you try to be honest with yourself.

The starting point for my opinions and the apologetic for my process of writing music and lyrics, primarily—I think that whatever it is that is compelling about my music would be centered around a lyrical style because the music itself isn't really artistically very exciting—would begin with the Gospel. This communication of the Gospel is particularly ordered in a way that is geared toward me attempting to do a logical approach to explaining the creative process and how I think the gospel interacts with it. In my opinion, based on what I believe what the Bible says and other traditions, primarily the Reformed tradition, originally all human beings exist in a state of common grace. And what that means—I'm sure we all kind of have an idea—is that, even in spite of the Fall, there are things that are built into our beings as humans and the world that we live in that have great advantages to them, that we are a part of God's grace to everybody. Though tainted by the fall, we weren't totally reversed by the fall.

Those things include our ability to reason, which is God's image in us (it separates us from animals, gives a lot of capacity for learning and self-awareness); our ability to love and to be loved, though imperfect (it still exists and it also is different from animals and is God's likeness in us); the ability to appreciate and attribute value to abstract beauty (that is a higher function of the human brain that again is specifically God's image in us, he being the creator, creating all of these beautiful things, many of which were done for aesthetic purposes alone with very little function—the beauty of the functional natural world is just astounding); and also an ability to be aware of a vocational calling, a sense of a temporal purpose (we were all created chemically with a predisposition towards certain tasks and we were put into situations, our families, socio-economic situations, situations in history where we would have access to certain tasks). Basically, we all have built into us a sense of calling that isn't based on salvation or knowing God, it is simply based on what we're talented at doing, what we enjoy doing and what we have the opportunity to do. Along with the ability to sense that temporal calling, we also have the ability to fulfill that temporal calling.

I run into guys all the time … This guy I just bought a van from, he was a chemical engineer. He enjoyed his job; he loved doing it. When he retired—he was kind of forced into retirement—he was bummed. It was difficult for him to deal with it and he just wanted to go back to his job everyday. He loved doing his work. And I think that, as a part of God's likeness in us, we all have, usually a great many things that we're capable of and have the opportunity to do, but something that we can have some sense of temporal fulfillment.

All of that is in spite of the Fall. I believe that all of those things we retain as our God likeness—the things that separate us from the animals, all of those things are exercised in a state of rebellion against God and in sin because of [the fall]—along with those things that are our God likeness, we were also imprinted with that very God likeness to long for our Creator, to want to be reconciled with God. And that causes us to pursue all of those things—our ability to reason, our ability to love and be loved, our ability to create and appreciate abstract beauty and our ability to fulfill our temporal calling—become done in sin and in rebellion to God because, since we have no access to God, we function completely out of self-preservation. If you look at every possible thing that you could do, any decision that you make, ultimately it's out of a desire to preserve yourself and your life. Now, there's wise self-preservation, which is exemplified in a kind of a karmic idea. Basically, if you take care of everybody else and try to live at peace with everybody else, then you'll be taken care, it will provide for your children and whatnot. And then there's self-preservation that's a little bit less smart, a little bit more temporal. Basically, it's a "me, me, me" needy attitude, exemplified in self-destruction, which is kind of ironic.

Sorry this is so heady … It didn't write down like that; it was just going to be so quick.

Part of common grace, not having specifically to do with us, is the law of reaping and sowing. That was communicated more succinctly when the law was given, but, nonetheless, was put into place almost as a part of the Fall. "What you reap, you will sow." At that point, that law of reaping and sowing is our only means of self-preservation. The problem is, I think we're subconsciously aware, that it is a very ineffective means of self-preservation. Ultimately, and what Paul says is, "the law was given to bring death so that we might see our need for Christ." That very thing that was kind of wired into the way things work, is what ultimately would cause our death. And yet, we cling to reaping and sowing as our means of preserving ourselves because it's something we can have control over and it's something we can take credit for when we're successful, temporarily, with it.

You have people who are concerned with their rights. There is a phenomenon that we're all pretty aware of in this country, [which] is considered entitlement. You feel entitled to certain things, you feel like you've earned certain things, that you deserve certain things. And that's all based on the law of reaping and sowing. We perceive that, because we've done this and this and this, we're entitled to this and this and this. Again, reaping and sowing becomes our only means of self-preservation and all of that is done in rebellion to God because God's message to us is that he created us and created us to be taken care of by him, that he would be our self-preservation. So, here we are at this state, at different levels of awareness of our need for God and at different levels of our ability to be honest with ourselves about that need.

There's these "No Jesus, no peace; know Jesus, know peace" bumper stickers that you see around. I've thought a lot about it and I've talked with a lot of people—not that that's any sort of legitimate research—and I've come to the conclusion that, maybe with more definition of the word "peace," that could possibly be true. But I honestly would have to say that I know more people who are well adjusted and at peace with the people around them and their surroundings who don't believe in Jesus and don't care about Jesus at all than I do so-called Christian people who [are]. I think it's propaganda of a church that attempts to control people. Now, if you want to say, "No Jesus, no peace with God," I think that that would be true. There are things that are built into the earth that can offer some sense of temporal peace. Now, what that amounts to, because we all know that this life is 20 seconds compared to eternity, is of no ultimate value. But it causes us to devalue the very things that God put into place as a part of his creation, to view things in that way because there is value there. It just needs to be redeemed, those things that are a part of common grace.

Then comes in God's pursuit of us, his plan to redeem us, and his love for us. The basic tenet is, somewhere along the line our failure [at reaching God through] reaping and sowing causes us to realize that we have been imprinted in that way, we do need God and yet he's unattainable. So comes God approaching us on his terms, saying: "Here's the story. I'm willing to substitute Jesus—perfect success in reaping and sowing for your failure in reaping and sowing so that we can hang out, so that I can pour out my love to you and so that you can be full. All of these things that I meant for your good originally—which are still good, yet are ultimately torment to you because they're only shadows of me and they only remind you of me and how much you need me—now these things will be redeemed to you." The ability to reason, the ability to love, the ability to understand abstract beauty, the ability to pursue and accomplish some sense of temporal calling—all of these things previously were shadows of and reminders of God's likeness in us and the very things that ultimately torment us and draw us to him. He then redeemed all of these things back to us. It's in the context of a secure relationship with him, our Creator, and is not based on anything but his pursuit of us and our acceptance of this gift of Jesus—success as a reaper and sower. In the Sermon on the Mount, [Jesus] said, "I haven't come to do away with the law and the prophets, I've come to fulfill them," and the implication is, "because you're incapable of fulfilling them." In the end, we have this undeserved access to the very thing that we longed for.

There's another aspect of God's pursuit of us that really appeals to another aspect of his likeness in us, which is this sense of romance and a sense of wanting to be loved and accepted. All the while, he's the one who's pursuing us. We didn't just realize one day, "You know, I think I do need God. I'm going to go to him and try to figure this whole thing out." We're aware of God for no other reason than that he approaches us and he says, "Look at me, I'm what you want."

Have you ever seen the move, Sense and Sensibility? It's kind of a chick-flick on the surface, not that that's necessarily bad … shoot, that sucked … But there's this scene in it where Emma Thompson's character is resigned to be tormented for the rest of her life by a desire for this man, her true love. It's established pretty convincingly that they were going to work out pretty well and that they were deeply in love with one another. And yet, he was betrothed, blah, blah, blah. There's this moment at the end of the movie where he comes over and she assumes that he's already been married and that she'll be tormented just that much more by being around him, knowing him, but having no access to him. So he comes in the room and she says, "How's Mrs. whatever his last name was?"

He says, "my mom? Oh, she's doing really good."

And she's like, "What? What do you mean? I mean this person."

"Oh yeah, she married my brother and they're living happily."

And at that moment she realizes, "Oh my God, this thing that I've longed for, this thing that I want more than anything is actually available to me." Her response is pretty moving. She acts the part extremely well—she just sort of convulses and cries or whatever.

It resonated with me in a way, because it was the same feeling—just like reading about Martin Luther when he's reading in Romans 1:17, I believe, and he realized that he doesn't have to make penance for his sins anymore, that God has pursued him and that God loves him—[of] the rapture that is felt at that moment. The key element in your life that you were pretty sure wasn't going to go the way you really, really needed it to go, is actually going to work in your favor—it's not possible for me to be satisfied that I'm communicating it in the way I feel it.

Then we're in this situation where we're now reconciled with God and we have to live. That's kind of the real trick, I think. And this is where it gets a little bit hazy, as if it weren't hazy before, by my telling of it. I believe that everything in this new state, in this new relationship, everything that we do is either sin or worship. Everything that isn't deliberate sin, like … well, you can figure that part out, what deliberate sin is. For instance, we call singing songs in church worship, as well as a great many other things, but I believe that it isn't necessarily worship. The action of singing a song in church is either sin or it's worship, and the difference between the two is faith. There's this notion, and it's based on the idea of reaping and sowing again, that now that I have a relationship with God, I'm doing these things for him and they're pleasing to him. In and of themselves, it's not really possible for them to be pleasing to him because we still are not capable of obeying and fulfilling the law and the prophets the way that is necessary. The same way that at that first moment we were relying on Jesus— success in that arena, at every moment continually we are.

For instance, I could sing a song. And in my mind I'm thinking, "man, this is awesome because I'm being obedient to God and he's taking this obedience. It's winning me favor with him, it's cultivating a relationship with him." That would be a misunderstanding of the way that it works. The way that I believe it actually is working is, I'm singing a song, knowing the whole time—being honest with myself—that I'm insincere, I have false motives and there's all these things going on, but believing, in spite of the fact that even then it's this imperfect act, that God the Father is seeing it and seeing it through Jesus' perfection. From then on, rather than, "Now that I'm saved by grace, I can go try to work for certain aspects of it," now we're free to struggle with all of these laws that we're still unable to keep and yet we're able to throw ourselves toward them, knowing that as we fall flat on our faces way shy of the mark, believing that God sees that and he's so pleased, because he's substituting Jesus' success in that arena for our failure.

And really, that's the freedom that makes the creative process work the way that it really can and should because in that context, the fear of failure is kind of irrelevant. Failure on the temporal level and on the physical level is guaranteed, it's absolutely certain. But, in the realm that really matters, in that thing we long for—our relationship with God remaining secure—failure in that arena, if we approach God on the basis of faith, is impossible. Our failure is hidden behind Jesus' success. So there is no fear of failure anymore. Why be afraid of the inevitable when it's been taken care of? It's as though your failure doesn't exist. So we're able to move forward in a way that is totally free and liberated. And not alone, either, [because] God is constantly pursuing us and communicating his love to us in a way that is just thoroughly inspiring to love him in return.

I used to think when I was a little kid, I remember reading about Enoch—it was just a lineage, in the midst of the lineage it broke in and told the story of one of the generations of dudes—[who] walked with God so closely that he went to heaven without dying. I was like five or six, and I remember reading that story and thinking to myself—even at five or six years old—that, "man, that would be so great?" I realized a longing for it to be that way and then, in the same instance, I knew—it's so weird—but I knew … I just kind of gave up and I thought, "Though that would be really cool, I already know that that's not really possible for me." At five, I already knew what a fuckup I was. It was already so clear to me.

Shoot, I forgot where I was going with that … what was I saying right before that? Oh, right, I did say, "fuck" … This has gone extremely poorly. What I'd like to do now is to take some questions because I'd like to try to redeem this time. I actually worked really hard. Usually, I come to situations like this and I bullshit my way through it. And people generally are like, "That was awesome!" But I know inside, "Well, I didn't even really prepare or work at it." This particular time, I really did prepare quite a lot, but it's so stale. It's just ridiculous?

How do you reconcile the two sides of your faith—the feeling side and the intellectual side—both in your life and in your music?

I was actually talking to Ken [Heffner, Director of Student Activities at Calvin] about this the other day. I grew up Pentecostal, so for the first seventeen years of my life, there wasn't such a thing as an intellectual side to my faith. I learned in college—if anybody is a committed Pentecostal, I hope this isn't offensive—that the distinction between Pentecostal theology and other Evangelical theology is pre-millennialism, which is obviously an end-times theological tenet, and that the initial physical evidence of being filled with the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues. [Both of] which I care nothing about, end-times theology, except that it's kind of interesting, and the other one, all of my Pentecostal professors who were still a part of the church admitted that there's no possible biblical basis for that. What was on the books for the [Assembly of God] as far as that doctrinal situation, had been disproved by A.G. scholars and they were trying to scramble to come up with a different version of it so that it would kind of fly. So that was the church I grew up in.

But what had developed over those years was that there had been occasional emotional connections with God that I couldn't deny as a younger adult. At the point where somebody else might chuck the whole thing and say, "Christianity is bologna and it doesn't resonate with me." I couldn't deny that there was something that had resonated with me as a child. At that point, it was a pursuit of the intellectual that would corroborate with the emotional experiences that I'd had with Christianity. And now, there's no conflict that I see between them because the only things that I know—and I tend to have a lot of questions about faith and Christianity, in general—are really reinforced by the subjective, emotional experiences that I have.

There's this thing that happens where we're approached by God and we're drawn to respond. Traditionally, I would be drawn to respond and I would realize what an utter fraud I was, and I'd run the other way because I would realize, not only am I totally unworthy, but I would start out by saying, "I love you, God." And I would realize what a total lie that was; I didn't love God. If I did, why had it been three weeks since I had last prayed, or why had I masturbated that day when I really didn't want to do that, or why couldn't I stop swearing, or whatever it was that was my particular thing. Now, because I believe what the Gospel says is true, I can accept intellectually, on faith, that whenever I approach God, if I do so by faith, that there's no issue. I know for a fact that I'm a fraud, I know for a fact that my going to him is self-serving in and of itself. And yet, I believe that because I do so in faith, clinging to Jesus' righteousness, that he sees me as Christ and he welcomes me with open arms. And so that elicits and emotional response that is extremely satisfying. It satisfies my most basic need as a human being and that is to be loved by the Being that I was imprinted upon from the beginning. So there's very little conflict in the basis of my understanding of faith and yet in the outworking of it, there's a lot of conflict because I feel a lot of anger and eve—ironically enough—self-righteousness about the way that Christianity goes and has gone. In that case there is some conflict, but in those particular cases there's nothing that I can really settle on intellectually that is conflicting with it. It's just a lot of ambiguities both emotionally and intellectually. I'd like to find some things out, but ultimately, if I didn't know another thing for the rest of my life I think it would be kind of all right because that one thing does work and it is true and I can?t escape it. I don't even know if I would want to, but I can't and that's the thing that's so beautiful about it.

What made you first want to start doing concept albums?

What made me first want to start doing concept records … I had it in my head in high school that one of the fundamental flaws of Christian music is that Christians assumed that people who didn't believe in Jesus knew that they needed God. So they didn't even address that part of the thing. They just said, "Here's God. Jesus died on the cross for your sins." [And the response is typically,] "Well, that's cool. It's totally irrelevant because I'm doing pretty all right."

It's kind of funny to me now, but my initial idea was that I would spend several songs pointing out the really depressing truth about being a human being and all the things that are so difficult about it and the despair and I would end having communicated that aspect of it with offering hope at the end of it. So in high school I made this seven-song tape that I sold to kids at my high school and that was kind of the idea behind it. And then with The Whole E.P., I kind of continued in that way. Since then, my ideas about the creative process have changed a little bit. For instance, when I wrote The Whole E.P. and that other thing, it wasn't until after It's Hard to Find a Friend that I even understood the Gospel. So it's funny to me now that my most Christian work, supposedly, came at a time when Christianity wasn't really working for me. I didn't understand it. I was extremely frustrated and didn't know what to do. But I was surrounded by Christian culture in a way that I was basically writing what all these other people thought but filtered through this supposedly genuine and honest voice which is kind of laughable in and of itself.

But since then, there have been some realizations and I'm just really honestly trying to go through the process in a way that I think has some integrity to it, which is not to control the final product quite as much, but to ensure that the creative process itself is something I can be proud of—well, not proud of, but just that I feel solid about, that I think is honest.

Do you write with an audience in mind? Do you think more in terms of your listener or more in terms of what you're thinking when you write?

Initially—and this is a product of evangelical Christianity, I think—I always considered an audience, because it's pretty inbred in the evangelical circles that I grew up in that music has a purpose. Like everything, the purpose of every communicative medium is evangelism and that it should be clear. Countless times I'd bring home these records—like I remember being really nervous about this one record because there was the first song on it—I didn't understand what he was saying, so when my dad grilled me about it later, I wouldn't be able to explain. And it was kind of edgy, and I was just like, "I don't know what to do." I pity the kids who are trying to explain Pedro the Lion records to their parents.

I listened to Carmen and Petra—kind of the worst shit, literally. But even then, there was this thing where I would show my uncle this Petra record and I was like, "Isn't this awesome? It's like rock and roll." And he just said, "Well, it sounds like the message is getting lost in the music to me." And it was just kind of like … deflation.

It was pretty ingrained in me that music was for a purpose, it was a tool to communicate the Gospel directly in a way that made sense the first time through. Even when I was trying to divorce myself from that, it was pretty built into my ideas about music. And that's something that in my own personal process I'm trying to decide. It seems to me like it would be a stronger ideal to work from to not consider an audience, but to write for the sake of self-discovery and self-expression. And that's what I'm kind of leaning towards now, but like I said, after doing that for a while, I might see flaws in it and see a possible balance. Logically, I can't see why I would want to do the other. It seems like stronger work would come from attempting to be true to your own tastes. And that sounds extremely like situation ethics, but art is subjective and ultimately the artist is the one doing the work so I think it should be extremely subjective.

Do you think that functionality is the reason why so much of CCM is kind of emotionally tepid?

Yeah, because it's not vital, it's not honest. That's a good reason, because the more you do creative things out of a drive for self-discovery and self-expression, the more genuine the thing will be and ultimately the more affecting. That goes for everything, too. I think we're thinking of lyrics primarily, but there's so much more to it—the more abstract aspects of it, just the way that the music sounds, just trying to make something that when you play it back, when you play the song, it's exciting to you and it makes you feel a certain way—not so much hoping that it makes your fans feel a certain way because that's kind of dishonest.

I think the later stuff that I've written has been more the second way, more geared away from trying to consider an audience. Like when I finished Control, I did it in kind of a vacuum in a way. Although I realized that I was taking some risks when I was writing certain things, I forgot. When it came out and people really reacted against it, it actually came as a little bit of a surprise. Whenever I though, "Oh, I'm going to send this to my parents?" and then I was like, "Oh, right, my parents. I wonder what they're going to say about it?" There's a song on that record called "Rapture" that's a little bit tawdry, kind of racy, and my parents were sitting there listening to it and my dad looked at my mom and said, "Vicki! I think they're having sex in the song!" And then my mom was kind of listening and my dad just started apparently rolling on the floor. Somehow or another, it just struck him as extremely funny. I'm pretty confident they're honest with me, but I'm sure they can't be honest with me about everything. In the end, I'm don't think it's where they would have preferred the work to go, but the more that I write recently, the less I'm considering an audience. I feel a little vulnerable about that because there's an audience that really is kind of vocal about whether they think the work is appropriate and so there's a lot of scrutiny that comes from it, but it feels like it would be a compromise that would be selling everybody short if I did it a different way, but there's a lot of thinking left to be done about that.

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