Thursday, January 15, 2015

My Sandcastle Faith

Source: Wikipedia
Neil Carter has a post over at the Recovering from Religion blog wherein he shares a snapshot of his personal journey from an old journal entry.* I think I kept a journal for about a minute when I was fourteen or fifteen and gave it up about the time I got my first job. I haven't looked at it in forever, but I'm sure it's filled with mostly angsty adolescent nonsense about girls I liked who didn't seem to like me back. Neil's journal entry reflects the thoughts of a contemplative twenty-nine-year-old father of three reflecting on the very nature of reality. Probably a bit more weighty by comparison.

At the conclusion of those very honest reflections on his doubts, Neil gives a desperate-sounding plea to God:
Can I please have something that I can hold on to?  Something concrete to remind me that You’re here? A fleece? A rock? A floating ax head? A resurrection? Something. I’ll keep it as long as I can.
That sentiment seemed really familiar to me. It wasn't just because I had experienced similar thoughts at various points in my own journey, but rather it was the specific allusions to biblical examples of faith-confirming miracles. It was reminiscent of the lyrics from a song by one of my favorite CCM artists, Caedmon's Call. Specifically it was from the Aaron Tate composition "Shifting Sand."
I've begged you for some proof
For my Thomas eyes to see
Slithering staff, a leprous hand
And lions resting lazily
A glimpse of your back-side glory
And this soaked altar going ablaze
But you know I've seen so much
I explained it away.
I discovered Caedmon's Call in earnest about the time I became a Calvinist. I had been a CCM fan for years, but Caedmon's Call had remained largely off my radar, probably because I was much more enamored with more popular rock and pop acts like Petra, Newsboys, Whiteheart, DC Talk, Michael W Smith, 4Him, Steven Curtis Chapman, etc. Caedmon's Call's folk-rock sound really didn't lend itself to CCM radio play until about 2001 when they jumped into the Praise & Worship genre with In the Company of Angels and followed it up with the more pop-driven Back Home. At the same time they began turning away compositions from songwriters Aaron Tate and Derek Webb.

Eventually Tate and later Webb parted ways with CC. Tate moved out of songwriting to work for interfaith non-profits helping in disaster relief and refugee assistance. Webb went on to a solo career and released an album that, as a budding Calvinist growing steadily discontented with the increasingly anemic direction CCM was taking, really spoke to me. She Must and Shall Go Free was bold, theologically rich, experientially challenging, and downright daring. It challenged mainstream evangelicalism in a direct way I had not seen since Keith Green. It was so honest and refreshing. I began working backwards into Webb's prior work with Caedmon's Call. There I discovered other great nuggets from Tate in some of their earlier stuff. I think within a couple of years I had acquired all of Caedmon's Call's studio albums, which remained in heavy rotation on my iPod. I had an iTunes playlist with just CC and Derek Webb songs exclusively.

While I found much of Webb's solo writing and his contributions to CC both challenging and motivating, I discovered that some of Aaron Tate's contributions displayed honest reflections on things I had experienced, specifically doubt. Two songs in particular stood out. There was the aforementioned "Shifting Sand" and a song that served as my own prayer on several occasions: "Prove Me Wrong." In addition to making overtly Calvinistic references to things like the predestined damnation of Pharaoh and Esau, Tate's lyrics had stark admissions like this one:
I fear maybe this is all just a game
Our friends and our families all play too
Harness the young and give some comfort to the old
Yeah, it's probably not a coincidence that CC grew in popularity when they parted ways with Tate's songwriting. Kicking off the first verse of a song with a theme like the deliberate hardening of Pharaoh's heart and the predetermined hatred of Esau from Romans 9, a topic that can make even the most capable non-Calvinist exegetes squirm, and then following that up with the suggestion that "maybe this is all just a game" is probably a little too much blunt force theological trauma for your average evangelical CCM radio consumer looking for something that's "safe and fun for the whole family." There's nothing safe or fun about this song. But there is a whole mess of refreshingly brutal honesty.

The chorus serves as an almost desperate prayer, begging God to quell the unwelcome insurgence of doubt:
Cast out my doubts, please prove me wrong
'Cause these demons can be so headstrong
Make my walls fall, please prove me wrong
'Cause this resentment's been building
And burn them up with your fire so strong
If you can before I bail, please prove me wrong
They weren't the only artists either. I could say similar things about Jon Foreman's lyrics in Switchfoot songs like "Let That Be Enough" or Keith Green's "My Eyes Are Dry." For me, songs like these were both terrifying and reassuring. They demonstrated that, yes, other believers had the same kinds of struggles that I did. So much so that they were willing to write songs about it. I was not alone. This showed me that it was possible to have these doubts and still go on living the Christian life and believing the things I did. If believers like Aaron Tate and Jon Foreman and Keith Green can experience these things and still come out the other side, so can I. I could make these prayers my own and expect them to be answered. This was not without biblical precedent either. There are numerous Psalms that contain pleas to God in the midst of doubt. A handful of those psalms are like these lyrics in that they contain no resolution of the doubt.

This kind of acknowledgement of the elephant in the room helped quell nagging doubt. At least, it did for me for awhile. When none of the believers around me seemed to want to at least admit that it certainly does look like the emperor has no clothes while I was seeing it that way, it was quite disconcerting. However, when people within the believing community boldly admitted that, "Yes, it also appears to me as though the emperor might be naked." Well, that can be reassuring because ultimately it's a big "So what?" This is precisely the kind of thing that helped me somewhat reluctantly embrace Calvinism. It was authors that admitted that, yes, God does come across in this view as a giant prick. But this is according to our finite, fallen human understanding. So what? That's the way things are. What other option do we have? Just make peace with it.

As I said, this worked for me...for a time. See, the problem became that I grew so confident that a True Christian could withstand any potential onslaught of doubt that I grew completely unafraid that doubt might lead to apostasy. I let my guard down. That other song, "Shifting Sand" illustrates how I was able to do this:
Waters rose as my doubts reigned
My sandcastle faith, it slipped away
Found myself standing on your grace
It'd been there all the time
My faith is like shifting sand
Changed by every wave
My faith is like shifting sand
So I stand on grace
The point of the song is that evangelicals often make an idol of out of faith. The object of their faith becomes faith itself. Thereby they trust their own faith to save them (which, incidentally, is kind of hypocritical since they give Catholics so much crap about this same thing when it comes to works). They forget that faith is merely supposed to be a vehicle. Ephesians says, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not of your own doing." In other words, it's solely God's grace. Even the vehicle of faith is "not of yourselves," but rather a "gift of God." It's the foundation of the Reformer's cry of Sola Gratia.

Given this understanding, I came to believe I really had nothing to fear in doubt or the intellectual investigation of it. I could seriously consider alternative viewpoints. If God's grace was what was to sustain me, it would be there all the time. I needn't worry about the strength of my faith. It was, after all, like shifting sand, changed by every wave. I would stand on grace and trust that God would always ensure his elect would persevere no matter what. I could push as far as I wanted. There was nothing to fear. So I pushed and...

...well, sonofabitch. Here I am.

While I have no journal entries to look at, I do have the distinct memory of a time toward the tail end of of my departure from Christianity. I recall driving home from work while considering the very real consequences that I would surely endure when my world came crashing in, were I to let go of the faith. I was thinking how much easier things would be if I could just cut a deal with Agent Smith and have him plug me back into the Matrix while wiping my memory clean (something I would certainly not wish for now). I pulled out my iPod and found "Prove Me Wrong" on my old CC playlist. Once again, I begged God to do just that. But I had already bailed. My sandcastle faith slipped away alright, only I didn't find myself standing on his grace this time. Turns out it had been me all along.

"And so castles made of sand, melts into the sea...eventually"
[with apologies, as Jimi's version was taken down]

*I realize I'm probably starting to sound like a Neil-ist fanboy with all these repeated references. This is likely because he's been republishing my stuff on his blog and driving traffic to mine. Given that, you'd think I'd grant Captain Cassidy a bit more recognition on here, what with all the link love she consistently throws my way. I suppose, for whatever reason, the themes she pursues just haven't intersected with my own enough. Plus, I tend to think of her like the encouraging and protective big sister I never had. Consequently I'm somewhat immaturely embarrassed by her praise and spurned on by her prodding. At the same time I know she's in my corner and the first time someone attempts to personally attack me, she's going to come out ready to mercilessly excoriate the poor, unwitting chump. I'm talking Jules Winnfield style. She has the wallet in her purse to prove it.


  1. Hon, I'm totally on your side. I understand totally, and I'm not worried :) What we do is different in a lot of ways and we're different in a lot of ways, but we're all working to accomplish the same thing.

    And yeah, anybody fucks with you, I won't let that stand. Nobody as civil and genuinely decent as you deserves abuse from anybody. I've always made a damn fine tank.

    -- Cas

  2. All have doubts, few voice them and fewer face them. Kudos on a job well-done.


  3. There's no shame in being a Neil fanboy... He's a great writer with some great things to say... Plus, I wouldn't have just read 10 of your Genesis posts in the space of 24 hours if Neil hadn't directed us your way. You're a great writer and should be proud of what you do... Its great stuff... Pete

  4. I got here through the Captain, and to her thanks to a long series of links through tv tropes. Thanks for another brilliant post!
    I've always found religion's relationship with music to be incredibly fascinating. Throughout history, control of music is one of the main ways the Church kept control of what people believe. After all, music does heighten the sentiments words express and make them more memorable. It think that's part of the reason why song lyrics come up a fair amount on your blog and Cassidy's blog.
    Back during the conquest of the New World, the Church actually would devise gorgeous polyphonic settings of native melodies, and then make all the lyrics Christian so that the Native Americans would have to be praising the Christian God if they wanted to sing these beautiful pieces of music. Like the music here, it likely caused cognitive dissonance with the Native Americans. Except that those pieces were explicitly missionary attempts at converting people, whereas these songs caused cognitive dissonance on accident.
    One of the most insidious ways Christianity gets a favored place in schools is through music. There is so much good Christian music out there that's easy for music program directors to get that it often becomes the only religion represented at public school concerts. It takes a conscious effort for music directors to not only represent music of the Christian religion. But I think that it's an important effort to make, since representation of only the Christian viewpoint is part of what negates non-believers in that religion. I had an atheist classmate who mentioned that kids in his high school told him they weren't okay with him playing some pieces of music, because it was a Christian piece of music and he wasn't Christian.
    I'm sorry that I probably got off topic, here. Great post!
    Anonymous from last time

  5. "Given this understanding, I came to believe I really had nothing to fear in doubt or the intellectual investigation of it. I could seriously consider alternative viewpoints. If God's grace was what was to sustain me, it would be there all the time. I needn't worry about the strength of my faith. It was, after all, like shifting sand, changed by every wave. I would stand on grace and trust that God would always ensure his elect would persevere no matter what. I could push as far as I wanted. There was nothing to fear."

    Exactly my own process. Your story is so similar to mine that ... *shivers*

  6. I'm about two years late, but I'm glad this was once again linked from Neil's blog. These exact same songs were part of my loss of faith, too. Especially "Shifting Sand."