As you’ll see throughout this blog, different aspects of my past creep up in different ways and heavily inform what I write about. One of the things that most defined me growing up was my faith. I thought I found God at summer camps and overnight retreats; the hype of hormones and loud music, and the general lack of self-consciousness that most people have in Christian camping situations makes for powerful psychological conditions. Normal Sunday evening church seemed tedious in comparison, like the dorky younger brother who you can’t get rid of, when all you really wanted was some time alone with your gorgeous older cousin who was SO much cooler, but only came every Christmas. Throughout the rhythm of those years in church, as I matured into a teenager I found acceptance, friendship, a space to grow, and a lot of great young people to look up to.
My faith was comfortable, simplistic and kept me safe. Then I went to University and met JCB. He’d had a very different upbringing from me, and this became apparent in the kinds of questions he asked me whenever we started talking about God or religion. Here’s an example of what could pop up when we were chatting:
- Why is there so much poverty and suffering in the world? If we believe God can do literally anything, why would he continue to let people he supposedly created suffer?
- Why would God say he loves his creation so much, and then make a “hell” for them to burn in torment forever if they don’t do what he says, when he’s not exactly particualrly clear about what he wants?
- What about other religions? Is there only one right way? What if someone else is right? What is it that makes Christians think we’ve got it sorted?
- What the hell is the church’s issue with gay people anyway? What about child molesters, corrupt world leaders and rich people committing tax fraud so we don’t have enough space in hospital for everyone who needs it?
I had no answers for any of these questions. More than that, I was concerned about myself, that I hadn’t thought about these things before now. As we tried to explore the answers together, we grew frustrated, ending up on confusing websites, saddled with books that were too dense and boring, or arguing with one another about opinions instead of facts or research. We started attending a church together, and when someone asked us if we were new ten months in, we didn’t go back.
Two months after that, we found ourselves back in our home town for the Easter holidays. A friend gave me a CD to borrow. He said he thought I’d really enjoy it. I didn’t stop to look at the cover, but I should have.
I put it on with JCB one afternoon driving north to see his family. We didn’t even know the genre. Now, I must drop this quote here before I go on, so that you understand the general dissatisfaction JCB had (and I was beginning to find as well) with Christian music. Science Mike nails it in one take right here:
Part of what defines the Christian Music genre is a sort of saccharine sweetness. It’s pleasant at first, but in large doses the feelings evoked can seem false. Very little Christian music reflects the real messiness of life and relationships, or our attempts to follow after a God we believe in. Inevitably, verse 3 or 4 generally rights all wrongs and restores everything that is broken in our musical stories. I get why this happens. Our faith is all about reconciliation, and it’s something we long for.
But we don’t always get to see that, do we? Sometimes relationships don’t heal. Sometimes the friend dies even though we’re all praying for them. We have faith that it all this works out in the end, but today that cheque is uncashed.
What we found on this CD was piercing, uncompromisingly truth-filled music that was complex without being convoluted. The pick of the guitar that starts Gungor’s first album Beautiful Things had us mesmerised. I could feel a chill down my spine as I recalled reading the scene in Ezekiel the first song sings about:
These bones cry out
These dry bones cry for you
To live and move
‘Cause only You can raise the dead
Can lift my head up
Jesus, You’re the one who saves us
Constantly creates us into something new
Jesus, surely you will find us
Surely our Messiah will make all things new
This was music that spoke to us individually and together. This was music about Jesus, hope, creation, love, and doubt like I’d never heard it. It was raw and courageous and stunning and beautiful. Michael and Lisa Gungor, whom the collective is named after, sing with passion because they have lived through the pain and questions and doubt.
Like water on the sand
Or grasping at the wind
I keep on falling short
So, please be my strength
Throughout the album, and on the many subsequent relistens, what became clear was what the Gungors were singing about didn’t offer us answers – they helped us know that it was OK to sit with the questions and keep asking them. They helped us know that maybe there wasn’t an answer, or maybe there wasn’t one right one. That we were in the right place asking these things, and we didn’t have to know in order to keep talking about it.
Listening to this CD was a significant pivot point for me. The things that Michael and Lisa wrote about and could communicate through music was unlike anything I’d ever heard. I started to follow Gungor’s music and blog. They sometimes shared posts about who they were working with, and that helped me to find the others, who were talking about similar kinds of things that JCB and I were wrestling with. They just had the courage to articulate their thoughts publicly, and it really helped us. Michael Gungor paired up with Science Mike to release The Liturgists podcast and their first episode came out in July 2014. After listening to their music, the podcast was a catalyst for both of us to start thinking seriously about what Jesus, God, church and religion meant to us, and how we could live justly and fairly as people of faith in a broken world.
A lot changed for us since the day we put the CD on in the car. Gungor has released six albums since then and their music continues to astonish and captivate us. We still don’t have nearly as many answers as we do questions, but the weight of knowing has been replaced with more of a satisfaction of being, listening and learning, while surrounded by the doubt.
I am so grateful to Michael and Lisa, and if I were to see them today, this is what I’d say:
You are brave. You are creative. You are using your gifts so generously for us. Thank you for honing your musical skills for so many years. Thank you for not minimising what you’re good at, but working to make yourselves even better. Thank you for dedicating yourself to the art, and thank you for filling it with meaning. Thank you for asking such great questions. Thank you for sharing your doubts. Thank you for chronicling the journey for us who are also familiar with parts of it, so that we feel less alone.
You have helped me detach the dogma and pointless traditions from the foundational truths. You’ve shown me that I can take what’s helpful and leave what’s harmful.
You are true artists, who share so elegantly and graciously your journey, your thoughts, your fears, and your opinions. You are OK with being wrong. Your urge to create and share is inspirational. I am so thankful you landed in my lap as you have truly changed my faith and my life.
Listen to Gungor on Spotify here.
If you’re wondering where to start, my top Gungor sons are Finally, Kiss the Night, To Live in Love and Land of the Living.
JCB’s are Am I, The Best Part and Let There Be.
If you’ve grown up with worship music or want to hear some of their faith-based songs, I’d recommend starting with Dry Bones, Vapour or Beautiful Things.
If you just want some bloody good music, I’d recommend getting lost in the myth of Beat of Her Heart, the “brutiful” truth of Tree, the very cever Ego, or the hope of This is Not The End.