The year was 2001. A traveling worship band took the stage and began singing to the Christians gathered in the large sanctuary of First Baptist Church in Nashville. I was there with my girlfriend, a country singer, and when the band's song became familiar enough she raised her hands, closed her eyes, and started singing along. Everyone else did too, so there were nearly 1,000 hands raised, 500 voices singing, 1,000 eyes closed.
I used to admire this unselfconscious abandon in my Christian brothers and sisters. I even found it beautiful. I was accustomed to the subdued, scripted and ritualistic worship of the Catholic Church I was raised in, and this display of emotion and affection toward God didn't come naturally to me (insofar as the things that we are taught to do when we are young seem "natural" to us when we're older). And even though my first encounter with this type of worship — which sometimes escalated to jumping up and down, even crying — was through the window of a church, making me wonder what sort of cult was inside, eventually the approach felt fresh and freeing to me; like it was a much more appropriate way to worship the creator of everything. So I followed along as best I could, though I could never do it without feeling extremely self-conscious, or like I was doing it wrong.
It so happened that as I stood in First Baptist beside the country singer, I was severely depressed, and had been for years. Everything back then, in my very early 20s, was an exercise in tortured acting and painful perseverance. Going to church and singing the songs were no exception. But the voice of my guilty Catholic conscience — which I suspect was partly responsible for my depression in the first place — was louder than ever, and it urged me to keep going, to keep raising my hands and singing. It had convinced me long before I was conscious that there could be no other life but for God, and it seemed to say now that maybe, just maybe, if my soul were pure enough, if I closed my eyes hard enough, if I sang truly enough, maybe I might meet God and find some relief in Him from my sadness. So heavy as my heart and hands were that day, I raised them up to God and sang along with the crowd.
Before I speak of the epiphany that came moments later, I feel compelled to explain just how uniquely qualified I was to receive it. First, my depression. One effect of the illness was that it had long cleaved a separation between Everyone Else and myself. This was mostly terrible and painful, but at the same time it allowed me to look at people around me as others, the way a traveler might look at the natives in a foreign country. (How come they all know the language of happiness and I don't?) Such a feeling of separation, which morphs into opposition when it's at its worst, was necessary for the type of epiphany I was about to experience.
Secondly, I had been a songwriter for seven years. In my early teens, songwriting was the way I coped with my depression; it was the only way I knew to keep in touch with the self (if there is one) that lay beneath the sadness. My dependence on songwriting only grew greater as years passed and I signed a staff songwriting deal with one of the biggest publishing companies on Music Row. On the day of the worship service, songwriting was my sole coping mechanism, my sole source of income, and perhaps my sole source of confidence. Depression had clouded most of my identity, but I was still a songwriter, goddamnit! And seeing as how songwriting had seen me through some tough years, I figured I must not be all that bad of one either. Or at the very least, I was equipped to recognize a bad song when I heard one.
A few songs into the service, the singer stopped and told the gathering that the band had written a new song out on the road. He said they felt the song was pretty special, anointed even (!) — which I thought was a pretty cocky thing to say, even if I did admire his confidence, even if I did think it was pretty cool that Jesus Himself had blessed the song. He said they'd like to play it for us, and he went into the chord progression.
It seemed like a typical worship song to me, and after multiple repetitions of the chorus, everyone was back to the routine of singing along with hands raised and eyes closed, as if they'd been taught the song at birth. For a chorus or two, so was I. I was hanging in there, trying to worship my Creator as best I could, sad creation as I was. ("But that isn't the Creator's fault!" said the Catholic voice. "If you're unhappy you're just not trying hard enough!") I sang like I'd sung to Him hundreds of times before. I sang to get closer and I sang for some relief and I sang to praise.
But then I stopped. I had to stop. There was something about the lyric that bugged me. I opened my eyes.
Let our song be like sweet incense to your heart, Oh God
This seemed an awful lyric. And the songwriter that I am, I had to take it apart while everyone else kept singing:
Let our song,
...which is a sound,
be like sweet incense,
...which is a smell, or something that produces smell,
to your heart,
...which is an organ that can neither hear nor smell!!!!!
Good Lord, are you hearing this?
I knew I was being a bit harsh on the writer. But come on, it was garbage. It was throwaway stuff. I looked around to see if I could spot anyone else who might feel the same way. We were in the songwriting capital of the world, after all. Maybe I'd see someone with her mouth agape, or someone holding his ears and crying. But what I saw were hundreds of my peers with closed eyes and raised hands singing those absolutely nonsensical words.
It was then that I felt the opening of my first true and conscious schism with religion, and with my religious self. The sight scared me. "This is not good. This is dangerous. This is really weird. These people are singing words that literally make no sense; which would be fine if they were singing along to some dumb song on the radio, but they're not just singing along to some dumb song on the radio, they're offering this nonsense directly to God. Giving it as a gift! How can they do this? How could they not think before they sing? Doesn't God deserve better? Something that makes logical sense at least? Sweet as the singers are, might God be holding His ears and weeping right now?"
When I got done looking at the crowd I thought of myself, and I saw myself as one of those people and it frightened me. I had sung a million songs like this without thinking. Maybe not as horrendously nonsensical as this one, but close enough. And if I had sung songs like this without thinking, what else had I done without thinking? What else had I been taught to do that I had never questioned? What did I believe, what had I professed, that I didn't actually understand? How come I am singing nonsense with all these other people? Such profane questions got my good heart to racing, and for the first time in my life my Catholic voice had no good answers.
On the way home I told my girlfriend what I had experienced. She told me that I was missing the point; told me I was being a dick. The point, she said, isn't really the lyric of the song, but how you feel when you sing it. If you feel good; if you feel like the song brings you closer to God; if you are praising God with the song, then it isn't really important if the lyrics make sense or not. God sees your intentions and blesses you. Amen.
I could see her point. And I didn't judge her. If she'd thought the whole thing through and found no trouble with it, then good for her. May she go in peace and may God forgive her for singing shitty lyrics. I was not at peace, but I could tell the conversation felt dangerous, even sinful, to her, so I dropped it. Relieved, she turned on the radio and started singing along to some country song, while I stared out the window knowing I could never just sing along again. The thought frightened me. A lot. From then on I'd need to know what I was singing and why.
The Catholic voice got me to go to church and sing a few more songs. But its power faded. The questions the horrible lyric provoked were seismic enough to shake my religion, and when those led to bigger and tougher questions, my religion crumbled. Within a year after hearing the song, I stopped singing worship songs, and I stopped calling myself a Christian altogether.
In the aftermath of my apostasy, I read book after book after book. Had anyone cared to ask, I would've openly admitted I was using the books to help me figure out how best to live my life without a god. I still use books this way. One of the books that hit me hard and true was Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which Kundera writes that "metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love." When I think back on that poor songwriter and his god-awful song, I wish I could tell him the same kind of thing, but about similes. Because similes are dangerous. Similes are not to be trifled with. A single simile can lead a man right out of church.