Well, we have reached the end of this series. This has been such a rich topic for me that, of course, there are many things I’d hoped to cover but didn’t. For this last post, I thought I’d briefly discuss a woman whose music about the loss—or absence—of god has resonated with me personally over the past couple of months as I’ve thought and written on this subject.
On her 2010 release, A Heart of My Own, Canadian singer-songwriter Basia Bulat ruminates on the loss of god. Here she is singing the popular track, “The Shore”:
Bulat’s approach to spirituality is interesting, in part, because she has a very recent Christian background. Her 2008 EP, Touch the Hem of His Garment, suggested that she would go on to become one of those bland Christian Contemporary artists I’ve so roundly mocked here. But her real debut, the 2008 LP, Oh My Darling, was much more promising.
Released for a mainstream audience, it didn’t contain any of the EP’s piety. As a bonus, it set Bulat apart from the clichés of her genre. Her penchant for lush instrumentation and the autoharp (of all things) made her interesting and quirky, a welcome addition to a folk genre filled with Dar Williams copies. “The Shore” is a contemplative meditation on the persistence of love even once you “take the divine away.” The solemn sound evokes something sacred that doesn’t necessarily include god.
Back in my evangelical days, I remember hearing lectures against romantic involvement with non-Christians, often paired with a statement like, “They can be good people, but they don’t really have the capacity to love others.” I found that statement tremendously stupid then, and as I navigated my own loss of god, I realized that such pretense is also harmful. Who wants to lose god if it impedes your ability to love others? For me, “The Shore” intervenes by simply situating love—romantic or otherwise—outside the divine, in the material world.
Perhaps my favorite song on the album, though, is “Heart of My Own,” which may be about a couple of different things, but the loss of faith is certainly one of them:
The statements, “I’ve been uncrossed, and I’ve been untrue/I’ve been the thorn, and I’ve been the heart” play on Biblical imagery. To be “uncrossed” is potentially to be apart from god. To be the “thorn” is to tempt others—and probably the self, in this case—to move away from god. The imagery comes from a verse in 2nd Corinthians, and suggests that the “heart” and emotions have unapologetically facilitated this change.
It’s the next few lines that speak to me the most: “But the heart of my own—burn it down low/The light in your verse and the shadow between/The way that I was when I used to know/If I go, what do I hold?” When I try to explain my faith to anyone, it becomes jumbled and incoherent. But I think these words capture where I am beautifully. I invested quite a lot in Christianity in my past, but that was before I got into the habit of (figuratively) burning things down and blowing things up. I am not quite an atheist, and because I still resonate with Biblical imagery, I am not quite an agnostic either.
I’d describe my faith as something having to do with “The light in your verse and the shadow between/The way that I was when I used to know.” That is to say, I still find images and stories in the Bible that hold meaning, or even light, for me, but I have certainly become “uncrossed,” and now I persist in that shadow between the words that resonate and the spiritual practice I’ve left behind. And I am better off in that place. I am not sure that I can name exactly what I have left—what I “hold”—but I know I can never go back to a place of putting spiritual pressure on myself. Left to that “heart of my own,” I rather have to make my own way, “culturally Christian” or not. It’s not fruitful to keep pushing for something that isn’t there. “There are roses that come without seeking,” Bulat sings, “There are the ones that I have to sow.”
Another couple of lines, as I read them, speak to the tedium of forced spirituality: “It is work to be dancing out here/If tomorrow I’m mending the empty bones.” I think this is a reference to Psalm 51, in which David is said to repent of adultery. One translation of verse 8 reads: “Let me hear [sounds of] joy and gladness. Let the bones that you have broken dance.” When the metaphorical “bones” are empty, though, it takes work and showmanship to “be dancing out here.” Repeated mending is, in my reading, a sisyphean task. Better to embrace the “roses that come without seeking” than to keep looking for something I lost when “I stood in the room of a house divided/And it washed away from me.” There’s a point, I think, at which those of us who have believed in something simplistic start to realize that we’ve placed all our eggs in “a simple charm to keep the wolves at bay” that just doesn’t work anymore. We grow up. We learn to get on with life anyway.
You all have been lovely to me in comments, and I hope to continue seeing you around! Feel free to follow me on Twitter if interested in receiving future updates about where to find my writing or chat about the kinds of questions I’ve raised here. Thanks to Kelsey for being a great editor, and thanks to all of you for your comments and lively discussions. I’ve certainly enjoyed writing the series, and I invite you to continue the conversations in comments, as well as comment on topics that you wish I’d had a chance to cover as well. Thanks again, and be well!
Let me sign out with Bulat’s “If it Rains,” which talks about holding one’s friends “where the sun won’t dry them out.” I haven’t mentioned here that I suffer from lupus, so I live with all of the flares and sun rashes that come with that disease. That’s why this is a comforting image and one that speaks to me. At the end of the day, I think this is all I need in terms of “spirituality”—a community of earthbound people in which everyone can deal with rain—and keep each other close so the sun can’t dry them out and burn them afterwards. I find this image hopeful and refreshingly unsentimental after a lifetime of being told that I was being pursued by a god who wanted me to love “him” passionately even though I never felt anything in return: