Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Satanic Panic to my #AtheistEar

I really wanted to show you something that would convey to you just how bad we evangelical Christians thought things were in the 1980s when it came to the occult. I remember the figures on our local Family Life Radio station excoriating the popular trends of horror films and heavy metal music, and I remember hearing parodies and take-downs that I thought (at the time) were really sticking it to those heathens.

But for today's post, this is the best I could find:

(Lyrics are... probably available somewhere. I'll let you Google this one if you really want to.)

I'm truly sorry for that, but it was honestly the best video I could find to represent what I wanted to talk about today. And by "best," I mean that it's almost listenable.

That was Carman, one of those artists I thought was pretty cool and entertaining in the mid-1980s. He apparently went on to re-imagine Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a wild west showdown. He made several videos like this in the early 1990s, and they tend to be longer and less entertaining. I guess a career is a career.

But I remember there were a lot of smaller-time artists out there doing similar things at the time. I can't remember their names, and clearly, they aren't easy to find on YouTube. But what I wanted to talk about was the way they went so over the top in portraying their Enemy.

There is no denying that a lot of the things that rural Christian communities like mine saw coming out of pop culture in the late-1970s and early-1980s were terrifying. John Carpenter's Halloween, the Exorcist, and the slasher movies they inspired; Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and the increasingly cacophonous and increasingly depraved bands they inspired seemed to confirm that demons and Dark Powers had taken over our land, and were intent on convincing kids (like me!) to ignore their upbringing and sin, sin, sin.

Unfortunately for their message, the people behind the Satanic Panic went too far in building up the Enemy. What do I mean by that?

First, a lot of the panic was based on lies. A man named Mike Warnke was one of the more famous, but there were several people who made a living touring the country and telling stories of their lives as "high priests" in Satanic cults. They described awful rituals, murders, baby-killing, and rapes occurring, and then spoke about how Jesus had saved them, and told them to spread the word. Spoiler alert, Mike Warnke, and those like him, turned out to be frauds.

But not only were these people lying about things that Christians find scary, the truth is that those scary things - like demons and the Devil, and Hell - don't actually exist. I don't just say that as an atheist who does not believe in the supernatural - I also say that as a former Christian who is quite familiar with the Bible. The very concept of Hell, as these people teach it, is not Biblical.

As the Slacktivist said a few years ago, after controversy flared up over a book by Rob Bell:
"Dante teaches this. Jack Chick teaches this. Iron Maiden and countless B movies teach this. But the Bible does not. The doctrine of Hell can be, with only partial success, taken from Dante and Chick and Iron Maiden and grafted onto the Bible. But it cannot be derived from the Bible...
"The Hebrew scriptures offer no support for Team Hell. None. The pages of the Old Testament mention “sheol,” or “the grave,” but not Hell...The gospel as Paul preached it, as he described it in his epistles, does not include the doctrine of Hell."  (from Team Hell gets loud)
The point is that none of these supernatural beings exist, either in reality, or in the scriptures that those perpetuating the Satanic Panic claim to follow.

So why were evangelical Christians like me motivated to buy into the lurid stories we were being told? Why did we want to believe those stories were true? For the answer to that, I'll refer you to another incredible Slacktivist essay, this one about the Anti-Kitten-Burning Coalition. (Spoiler: it comes from a deep need to feel superior to others that becomes more important that combating actual evil.)

At the end of the day, it's important to remember that the vast majority of Christians want to help make the world better. They see the problems that come from drug use, alcoholism, poverty, and crime, and they want to share what they think is a simple solution. If only solving real problems were as easy as shooting a demon with a magic pistol.

But, since you put up with that Carman video, I thought I'd share this gem: it's Steve Taylor's  live performance from 1984 of his song criticizing Bob Jones University and its racist policies. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" to my #AtheistEar

Back when I was an evangelical kid growing up in the 1980s, there was a general reaction among evangelicals against modern rock music - in particular "heavy metal," and bands that played up their anti-establishment, anti-Christian identities. After the drug- and sex-fueled hedonism of the 1970s, and bitter losses in the culture wars, our evangelical communities considered the descent into chaos to be self-evident.

But they believed they did have ample evidence.

Ozzy Osbourne's 1980 solo record, The Blizzard of Ozz, was an easy target for those looking to find evil in the culture of rock. Give a listen to his hit Crazy Train, and see how many elements of evil you can spot in it:

(Lyrics are available here.)

Since we didn't have music video culture quite yet, the only visual we would have had to go by would have been the album cover, seen above. Ozzy, holding a crucifix, and surrounded by smoke, a skull, and crawling towards the camera. We had all heard about his antics as a member of Black Sabbath - an evil sounding band if ever there was one - and about his gruesome adventures on stage. (Like much of the stuff we were told during the "Satanic Panic" of the 1980s, we would have done well to have had Snopes to clear up those rumors!)

And since Ozzy is notorious for being incomprehensible, we can probably forgive the upright fathers of the elder councils for not looking too deeply into the words of his songs - just listen to the evil on display in the music. The menacing bass; the creepy guitar glissando at the beginning; and the wailing vocals - those can't be wholesome!

Then there is the prominent bit of understandable vocal from the second verse:

I've listened to preachers
I've listened to fools
I've watched all the dropouts
Who make their own rules

That first couplet sounds insulting enough, perhaps we can render a verdict. Of course, if one approached the lyrics without the baggage of Ozzy and the motivated reasoning required to interpret this song as "evil," one could quite reasonably arrive at a different conclusion.

But that's how it goes
Millions of people
Living as foes
It's not too late
To learn how to love
And forget how to hate

A deep analysis is not required to see that this song has little or nothing to do with the supernatural, or with Satan, or any of the things typically associated with heavy metal tropes. It's really an anti-war song inspired by the growing realization that human being were pointing enough atomic weaponry at each other to destroy the planet several times over.

And while I know better - having lived through this period - it should be easy to connect the plea for sanity and peace in Crazy Train to the same sentiment that many of us who were being told to fear this music felt. Instead, we chose to pretend that Ozzy was celebrating insanity and exhorting us to go off the rails.

We have seen that same cycle play out several times, now. The shock rock of the 1980s gave way to punk, and saw a resurgence in the 1990s with bands like Marilyn Manson. There is always someone out there hoping to provoke a backlash, and ride to success on the Streisand Effect. And there is always someone out there looking for a reason to be afraid of them.

It usually pays to look at what they're saying before you judge them, rather than how they are saying it.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

"There Is Power In the Blood" to my #AtheistEar

Like "I'll Fly Away," this is one of those rollicking favorites I remember from revivals in my youth.

I settled on this version by Dolly Parton, because I've always liked her as a performer, and she really captures the spirited delivery of this song.

(Lyrics are available here.)

When I went looking for an example of this song, I listened to a few other versions, but couldn't find one where the bass crams the word "power" into the chorus in a hyperactive flourish. Just imagine someone under the mix singing "There is power-power-power-power-power-power-power-power wonder working power..." and you'll see what I mean. It was that kind of boisterous interpretation that fueled my enjoyment of revivals.

But when we talk about songs that have lost their appeal since losing my religion, there are few that can rival this one for sheer tone-deafness and creepiness in its disregard for anyone who is not a lifelong evangelical Christian.

Even when you are raised from early childhood with stories that rely on the idea of a blood sacrifice being the way to set right one's moral and ethical failings, a song which revels in blood ought to be at least mildly disturbing. I'll be honest; as a kid, I found these lyrics to be downright gross. Even if you are completely comfortable with that concept of sacrifice, and you believe that a man (actually, an incarnate deity) was actually brutally tortured and murdered so that you could be allowed to "Fly Away" someday, you ought to recognize that singing about it is going to seem really bizarre to those who don't believe that and aren't comfortable with it. After all, "Blood" is in the title, and it sloshes through every verse.

Now, I'm not saying that if you are a believer, you don't have a right to enjoy a song like this. I'm just saying that it is jarring to realize that the same adults who freaked out over the on-stage antics of people like Ozzy Osbourne and Alice Cooper during the great Satanist Panic of the 1980s were perfectly happy to teach this song of washing in blood to their children.

Being outside of the bubble makes the cognitive dissonance a lot easier to spot.

Also, since I was a Southern Baptist kid, I feel a particular discomfort with verses like this one, now that I know the history of my childhood faith:

Would you be whiter much whiter than snow
There's power in the blood power in the blood
Sin's stains are lost in its life giving flow
There's wonderful power in the blood

The Southern Baptist convention, as is distinct from the main body of Baptist churches, was formed in 1845 after a split over the issue of whether slave owners could serve as missionaries. As a rule, Baptists don't believe in orthodoxy - meaning that there is no central "authority" in a Baptist church. The conscience of the individual is considered to be paramount, and personal revelation is given more weight than in traditions where a leader or council of leaders decides for the followers how to interpret the Will of God. So, for there to have been a "split," there had to have been enough individuals involved whose consciences did not bother them when it came to the question of whether slavery was moral or not.

Throughout the post-Civil War era, and through the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, the churches in this Convention tried to thread a needle between avoiding overt racism and avoiding the appearance of siding with progressives in the culture wars. The argument could be made - and I have heard it made - that a verse like this one, equating whiteness with purity and redemption, is not a comment on race. This is not talking about race, but about sin; and yet, every kid I knew who noticed that verse thought the same thing I did. They thought the same thing you probably did - and the thing that you have been bracing yourself for since you read the verse two paragraphs ago.

But I'm not going to accuse fans of this song of racism. I don't believe that was the intent of the hymn's writer, or of the thousands of people who have loved the song over the past 117 years. I'm just going to point out that the discomfort you feel when a song you love is attacked for its subtext and associations with things that you don't even believe is something we have in common.

Because there are a number of songs which evangelicals frequently attack because of the way they interpret them. Songs which they consider to have evil messages, and which contain disturbing themes and imagery, have been a target for moralizing and for "non-believer shaming" if you will.

Since it's October, I'm going to talk about a few songs like that this month and explore their reputation, their imagery, and their messaging. As I talk about how I interpret them through my #AtheistEar, I want you to remember the outsiders' view of songs like "There Is Power In the Blood" and "I'll Fly Away." Think about them and about other songs that you think have a "good message," but which those outside your shared faith tradition might think are shocking, if not outright wrong. Or gross.

The important thing to keep in mind here is that we all find inspiration in different places. Sometimes, you have to accept that something you love will be horrible to someone else. Perhaps if you take the time to examine why, you might find that your core beliefs are closer than you think.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Nickel Creek's "Twenty-first of May" to my #AtheistEar

If last week was an example of a great song with disturbing overtones, this week's song takes a tongue in cheek look at those overtones.

Nickel Creek included this song poking a bit of fun at the followers Harold Camping, who believed that Jesus would return on May 21, 2011, on their 2014 album, A Dotted Line:

While it may seem a bit cruel - not to mention shooting fish in a barrel easy - to poke fun at people like the late Mr. Camping, it's worth remembering that there is such a thing as Being Wrong. 

Too many people throw dumb ideas around that are painfully, obviously, and predictably wrong; and yet, they somehow defend themselves from criticism by claiming that you can't prove them wrong. Their sincerely held beliefs trump all of the facts, evidence, and rational reasoning you might bring to bear. Sometimes they wrap themselves in "different ways of knowing" or cast doubt on your credibility, ignoring everything - even previous errors of their own - for the sake of insisting that they have some mystical foreknowledge that you don't have.

Well, I've never been so sure
And I've never led no one astray
'Cept in the fall of '94
But Hallelujah, the 21st of May

They laughed while Noah built his boat
Then cried when came the rain
They mock me now but I will float on the 21st of May
They mock me now but I will float on the 21st of May

It's all harmless enough when they are just selling pamphlets and putting up billboards, but there are deeper, more insidious ways that people are wrong. They ignore evidence to cast doubt on the safety of vaccines, they ignore the body of science on global warming, and insist that economic austerity is necessary to "fix" our economy - all subjects on which the vast, overwhelming body of study contradicts them.

Still, people like me have a responsibility to remain civil. We can't force people to see reason; we can only explain it, sometimes repeatedly, and hope it sinks in. And yes, sometimes, we poke a bit too much fun at them, making them hunker down in their miserable wrongness and ignore us even harder.

Still, there remains the undeniable fact that the only appropriate response to ridiculous ideas is to ridicule them.

(If you haven't seen this, by the way, you owe yourself 20 minutes to see them perform four songs on their NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert - 21st of May is the 3rd song.)

Sunday, September 18, 2016

"I'll Fly Away" to an #AtheistEar

I loved this song when I was a kid, mainly because the congregation was familiar enough with it that I could rip out whatever harmonies I wanted without worrying that I'd throw anyone off.

Here's a more "traditional" version featured in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

 And since I couldn't choose, here's the version by Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch from the official soundtrack:

(Lyrics for the Kossoy Sisters version)

(Lyrics for the Krauss & Welch version)

Even when I was a Bible-believing kid, I noticed the problem with these words, and asked about them. "Some glad morning, when this life is o'er... so, I should be looking forward to death? That seems creepy!"

But as you grow up, and look around, you can see that same tension in every faith. It seems to go along with the notion of an afterlife that is better than this world. Certain groups - I'm thinking of Calvinists, but I'm sure there are others - don't believe the afterlife holds anything but punishment, but most seem to hold out hope of something heavenly.

It's actually very interesting to me to find out what people think would be eternally rewarding. In my younger, more obnoxious days, I used to joke that if heaven didn't involve eternal beers & blowjobs, I wasn't interested. That was a useful shield for deflecting well-intended attempts to save my soul, but these days, I'm more inclined to let people describe their vision of heaven for me. You can learn a lot about their psychology that way.

And I am not saying that to be snarky. It's very important to watch for danger signs, when someone might be considering harming themselves. An obsession with the afterlife, combined with a loathing for the world we live in could be a sign that someone needs help.

One thing I do sometimes get snarky about is the assumption believers make, saying that because I don't believe in "anything" I don't have anything to live for. I find that offensive, because of course I have a lot to live for! Rather than not believing in ANYTHING, I simply don't believe in the supernatural. That means that the world and everything in it is all I get. I don't have an escapist fantasy to look forward to, so I seek to enjoy my life here.

As a matter of fact, that's what I'm doing this weekend: enjoying my son, and our scout friends on a camping/bike-hike! (That's why this post is a bit less analytic than the others.)

I still fondly treasure this song, but for me, it's the harmony, and the memories associated with it that I love. The words are just plain creepy.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry Be Happy" to my #AtheistEar

I know what today is, and that's why I picked this song.

In 1989, I was just stepping out of my sheltered Southern Baptist upbringing and beginning to explore pop culture and pop radio. My girl friends were still listening almost exclusively to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack; the Beach Boys "Kokomo" was everywhere; and a song called "Veronica" by some odd Englishman named Elvis made such an impression on me that I was willing to leave my radio tuned to our local Top 40 station, which insisted on playing such awful fare as "Pour Some Sugar On Me" and "Sweet Child o' Mine," in hopes that I could hear it again.

Then out of nowhere, a relatively unknown a cappella genius released a joyful, silly ditty that conquered the world for a few weeks.

A video featuring Robin Williams and the brilliant Bill Irwin didn't hurt, either:

(Lyrics are here - but you probably know them note for note.)

By itself, this song probably wouldn't count as being religious in nature, but Bobby McFerrin has always been associated in my mind with faith. He made a few casual references to "the Good Book," in his music and in interviews; he composed and performed Psalm 23 on his 1990 album Medicine Music; and his most recent album, 2013's Spirityouall consisted of arrangements of spirituals and traditional Americana, as well as "original songs which explore Bobby’s everyday search for grace, wisdom, and freedom."

McFerrin's spiritual character would have been important to me in 1989, because I was in the process of figuring out which secular pop culture phenomena were "acceptable" and which were not. I couldn't find anything particularly objectionable about Don't Worry Be Happy, even using the hyper-critical standards for judging pop culture I learned from my pastors and grandfather. I ended up buying Simple Pleasures and carried it around for years, playing it in my car or putting it on when I went to sleep.

Like most absurdly popular one-hit acts, Don't Worry Be Happy hit a saturation point, and became a joke for the hipper members of the cognoscenti. It became an easy punchline for late night hosts, and a cultural reference which, with an eyeroll, could show how sophisticated the speaker was. A lot of people "got over it" and McFerrin's career might have been declared "over" as well. Except that it wasn't. He kept making music, taking on interesting projects with jazz and classical greats, and he built a reputation among musicians as a true genius with a childlike sense of wonder to match his impressive vocal range and control.

As an adult, and as a young parent, I sometimes found it difficult to share music and stories from my childhood with my little children. Like I discussed last week, the hymns I grew up with seemed too wrapped up with ideas that I had not only rejected, but which seemed loaded with awful baggage. I didn't want my children to have their earliest memories tied to ideas that I felt I had outgrown and regretted.

I also had difficulty relating to the new choices welling up from the children's entertainment industry - I loathed Barney and the Wiggles, I was uneasy with the acid trip that was Teletubbies, and I struggled to find much depth in the songs that they were learning in school. I made my own "mixed tape" CDs for the car, and combined songs the kids liked with some of my own favorites - songs like Don't Worry Be Happy - which seemed to go over pretty well. We all survived our long car trips to and from our home base when we were stationed in the UK, at least.

The September 11 attacks on America affected my family deeply, though thankfully, indirectly (described in The Impact on My Faith). It was that period of my life, in the years after 9/11, that I really started thinking about the songs and tradition I had grown up in, and applying some critical thought to what I had been taught to believe from birth. As I did, many of the old hymns and songs I had loved growing up became problematic for me, because the things they say have been exposed as ugly and corrosive. But one of the earliest songs in my memory that had no baggage and still held up as an unabashed statement of joy in the face of adversity was... Don't Worry Be Happy.

I was somewhat embarrassed by this. I didn't want to be the guy telling 9/11 victims, "Hey, in every life we have some trouble... but when you worry, you make it double!" I didn't want to admit that my philosophical answer to It Is Well With My Soul has a music video featuring three clowns hopping around acting silly. But when things get dark, I have to admit that humming to-koo-koo, to-koo-koo and tapping out a rhythm on my sternum brings in a welcome bit of light.

When my son began to struggle in school, and we began to suspect that he was on the autism spectrum, we looked for ways to reach him and help him deal with the frustration and anger that was building up. He was too young to have a logical, rational discussion. We couldn't just talk him through his troubles. This was doubly difficult for me, because I try to confront problems rationally and head on, and because he had already formed a barrier against me - for some reason, he had decided to focus his rage on me, so I couldn't even get near him when he was in trouble.

We needed to draw him out of himself and make him care about something, so we got him a hermit crab. We knew he loved animals, and that he found it easier to relate to them than to people. Our hope was that if something depended on him, he would take care of it, and this would help him see his own worth and teach him to be responsible for something outside of himself.

He loved that crab. He named it Dedrick, and he kept Dedrick's terrarium spotlessly clean and well stocked with water and food. It wasn't a magic wand that suddenly made everything better, but he did start to make progress and he came out of the dark place he had been making for himself. He even grudgingly started sharing more time with me, proudly showing off the new shell he had picked out for his crab or talking about research he had done online.

I still couldn't relate to him the way I could to my other kids. He wasn't openly hostile any more, but he was still guarded. I sometimes felt like he would never let me in, and I would never be able to repair whatever was wrong. I felt like I had nothing to offer him. But one day, my wife came and got me. She excitedly took my hand, and indicated I should be quiet. She took me to where the boy and his crab were sitting in a sunny corner of the living room. Dedrick was exploring a freshly cleaned cage, and my son - the boy who didn't even like to talk around me - was singing.

He was singing Don't Worry Be Happy.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Horatio Spafford's "It Is Well With My Soul" to an #AtheistEar

For long time readers of this blog, or fans of the book, you might recognize this song from my post, Going to Pet the Rabbits. (A much better, edited version appears in my book, which you can find on Amazon.)

To quote myself:

Being a memorial service...Amazing Grace and It Is Well With My Soul were featured. The first verse of the latter one is particularly appropriate, and I was struck today by how Zen it is: 
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
- by Horatio Spafford

That part, at least, is a universal comfort; attaining peace in the tempest is a skill that everyone should learn - and the elemental imagery of the water here is striking. As I listened, I thought about how important that Idea was to me growing up, and how I've held onto it. That, at least, was something good and honest that could help my friend grieve, I thought.
But there is a lot more going on in this song than the first verse. Here's a modern version of the full song you might enjoy (with some historical background included):

(Full lyrics are available here.)

As a kid, I thought this song was beautiful, and because I was a music nerd who spent most of his time by himself, the chorus is one that I would hum to myself on a continuous loop, putting a swell into the harmony parts, or improvising alternate melodies to complement the one composed by Philip Bliss. The music captured my mind, and the words of the chorus made it a song that I could still treasure after I stopped being a Christian, because they were and are comforting:

It is well, (it is well)
With my soul, (with my soul)
It is well, it is well, with my soul

Psychologically, the first verse and chorus use a combination of stirring imagery and call-and-response repetition to create a calming effect. And if, like me, you don't believe in the mystical idea of a soul, you can certainly appreciate the poetic sense of self here. The sentiment is a common one in human tradition; the ladies in my church would often say, "Let go, and let God," and as I noted in my introduction, there is resonance here with the Zen tradition of letting go of concerns about the physical world.

Of course, the other verses of this song are very clearly rooted in Christian theology - and those roots are more disturbing to me now that I am an adult. They say, "Though Satan should buffet..." you'll be okay because "Christ has regarded my helpless estate/And hath shed His own blood for my soul" - a common theme based in the ancient concept of ritual sacrifice. In the same vein (pun intended), "My sin, not in part but the whole/Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more" - again, building on the idea that because Jesus was tortured to death to "pay for" your sins, you won't have to suffer a worse fate later.

There is a lot to unpack in there.

Being a kid raised in a Christian tradition, most of these concepts were taught to me from the earliest moments of my life. Songs, including this one, are tied into my first memories, so that even though as a toddler I certainly had no grasp of what "sin" was supposed to mean, I remember the hearing the songs and the music drags what I know now about the words into the memories and impressions I have of my earliest days. This has the effect of making things I was taught feel like they were always part of my make-up.

This is not magic; neurologists are continually adding to what we know about how the brain works, and studying the way our memories are constantly recreated and overwritten. (This RadioLab episode on Memory and Forgetting talks a lot about the science behind that.) Using that mechanism of re-writing memories, music acts as a vehicle for carrying ideas "back in time" so to speak, so that even ideas that I learned about later (probably as I approached double digits, and became self-aware and self-conscious) my brain naturally recalled the music and retroactively tied the words to that memory.

Knowing this about how the mind works means that things placed into my earliest memories are things that I find disturbing now. Take sin just as a general concept. The Christian ideas about sin are not uniform. No matter how I define the term here in this tiny blog post, I won't be using "the" definition of it that all Christians use. In fact, one of the main reasons that there are so many different kinds of Christian is that they each have a unique set of ideas about what sin is, and what one must do about their sins.

The simplified version of the concept that I was raised to believe was that sin is what occurs when you "miss the mark" - you, as an individual, must make moral decisions all the time, and when you make the wrong decision, that is a sin. Building off of that idea, you, as an individual, will make a lot of poor choices in your life. Every poor choice you make adds to your suffering and the suffering of others. (Don't call that karma, though, because we don't go for that mystical Eastern stuff!) So, once you reach an age where you become aware of all of the countless mistakes you've made, how do you fix them?

That's where the idea of Christ's sacrifice enters the picture. Building on those ancient traditions of ritual sacrifice, and playing to the very common human desire to restore "balance" to things, the story about Jesus being crucified is meant to give everyone a way to restore that balance. Again, every different kind of Christian will have a different explanation for how that is supposed to work. But thanks to the magic of poetry, every one of them can project their explanation onto a song.

If you watched the video, you have already read the story behind the writing of "It Is Well With My Soul," but if you skipped the video, here is the gist: Horatio Spafford was a prominent Chicago lawyer with a large family. He and his wife were close friends of the evangelist Dwight L. Moody. The Spaffords lost most of their wealth in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, lost their son to scarlet fever, and then in 1873, lost their four daughters at sea when the ship they were on collided with another ship.

Spafford wrote this song as his own ship passed the spot in the ocean where his daughters died, on his way to England to retrieve his wife.

His story reminds me of another story. The Story of Job, in which Satan wagers that a man named Job will stay loyal to God even if God allows Satan to kill his family, destroy his wealth, and ruin his health. (Spoiler Alert: Job fails, because he yells at God. This is his only sin, at least in the version of the story I was taught.)

Spafford would have been well familiar with the story of Job. There's a pretty good chance that he was thinking about that story when he decided to pen this song. I don't know what Spafford's sins might have been - he was a lawyer, so that's one, amirite? - but the beauty of a concept as loosely defined as sin is that it applies to any mistake you make. So he was certainly contemplating all of the reasons why God might have decided to take away everything he had while he was on that ship and in that place. If I had been in his place, the song I might have been composing might have been a bit angrier, especially if I thought that the only reason I was suffering was because a sadistic God had placed a wager on me, to see how I would hold up.

But Spafford penned a song of praise, instead.

If you're a believer, and you want to be inspired by that, then by all means, please stop reading and go about your day. But if you are like me, you may recognize something else in Spafford's decision, and you won't find this inspiring at all.

Because Spafford's reaction strikes me as being identical to the reaction of an abuse victim. When an abuser victimizes a spouse or a child, they do a number of things. They convince the victim that they deserve the punishment they are receiving. They convince the victim that the only way to prevent further abuse is to appease the abuser. They convince the victim that only the abuser can make them better. And even if an outside observer can get to the victim and try to convince them to leave, they rarely do, because they've bought into that narrative built by the abuser.

I went forward in my church at age 11, and followed the Southern Baptist pathway to salvation. I was convinced that all of my sins were piling up already, and I had been told from birth that they were all my fault. I deserved to suffer for them; and the only way to escape my punishment would be to be Saved.

My Christian friends and family not only believe this, but they find it beautiful. They don't see the abusive nature of the relationship they imagine they have with their god, and they are convinced that without him, they are worthless (at best), and capable of the most hideous sins imaginable.

For the five or six years after I was saved, I lived that life. But at some point, something broke the cycle of abuse, and I started on my path to where I am now. Along the way, I had to learn to let go of a lot of baggage, and at some points along my journey, this song soothed me, with its apparent message that it's okay to let go. If there were a God, and I was given a brain and a conscience, I would have those things even if I walked away from the abuser and the threats. And as it turned out, I was okay.

Now, to my Atheist Ear, this song sounds very different than it did when I was younger. It's a dark reminder that life is hard enough without punishing ourselves for the sake of an imaginary abuser. Sometimes, we have to ride out rough times. Sometimes, we suffer consequences for things we weren't responsible for. We certainly miss the mark when it comes to making choices - and we should own our mistakes - but we make good decisions, too, and most of us don't deserve to be punished.