At first glance, David Bazan might seem as unlikely an artist to release a Christmas album as Neil Diamond, not least of all because neither are Christian. Religion seems to have played a very small role—if at all—in Diamond’s career, whereas Christianity has been a central theme in Bazan’s discography from his Pedro the Lion days to his present solo work. But Bazan “broke up” with Christianity in 2009 when he released his album “Curse Your Branches.” Why a holiday album now?
Between 2002 and 2011 Bazan released annual 7″ records featuring two Christmas songs, Bazanified. I knew Bazan had positioned himself as a “prophetic” figure within Christianity—prophetic in the sense of offering a critique of Christian shortfalls from the inside. But when he released his version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” I realized he was dealing with more than discouragement due to fellow Christians falling short in their emulation of Jesus. He added his own final verse, and while it seems a bit heavy-handed when you read the dead words, hearing him sing it had a powerful effect on me:
And now my wife and children dream
Of gifts beneath the tree
While I place in the manger
Baby Jesus figurine
Sipping Christmas whiskey
Wondering if I still believe
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy
For the first time in my life I viscerally felt the pain of a grieving doubter. Bazan’s rendition didn’t make me doubt God more, but it blasted my long-held beliefs about people who lose their faith—why they do it (perhaps they just want to sin, maybe they don’t like to follow Christian values), and what they must feel like (they must feel falsely free, perhaps some sort of warped happiness and freedom). No. Some people who desperately want to believe find themselves unable to do it. Some people experience a tremendous sense of loss, grieving, as with a death. His plaintive inversion of “tidings of comfort and joy” haunts me still, reminding me of all the pain in the world that remains unaddressed. Singing along with Bazan offered me a vicarious and clarifying moment of empathy.*
My own faith in God remains intact, if changed in interesting ways, over the past decade. But one reason I’ve been able to digest Bazan’s post-Christian music is because it offers an ongoing sense of fellowship and love with people who no longer share my faith commitments. To be more clear, I think his music is only “post-Christian” in the sense that it doesn’t openly advocate belief in traditional Christian claims, but it’s still quite Christian in the way it engages with the faith tradition. I confess that his critiques went down more smooth for me when he still considered himself a believer. Moments of heavy-handedness aside, I still find myself enjoying the engagement.
So “Dark Sacred Night” (a phrase from Louie Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”) isn’t a cynical cash-grab, and it’s not an announcement of Bazan’s desire to return to the fold. For former Christians, the album performs a cathartic rescue of a few cherished holiday songs. And it offers Christians (in our case, Mormons in particular**) an opportunity to reflect on our shortcoming, as well as the differences and doubts within the fold, and I hope therefore to prod us to greater understanding, empathy, and love.
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*You can see a really poor recording of the actual Salt Lake City show where I saw Bazan sing his rendition in 2007 here.
**Speaking of Mormons, his cover of Low’s “Long Way Around the Sea,” relating a tale of the wise men being warned by an angel to avoid King Herod, is better than the original, in my opinion, and one of my favorite Christmas songs. And yes, David Bazan may be the only musician who could, without irony, make “Jingle Bells” sound depressing.