Thursday, May 24, 2007

This is the Healing

This is a post I've been meaning to write for a long time...

Mike Knott saved my life. Of course, he did so indirectly. But he saved it nonetheless, and a few years ago I finally got to tell him.

I was a desperate, depressed teenager. I wore all black, had at best limited social skills and a crippling anxiety disorder that I didn't understand. The mullet that clung to my head long after it stopped being anywhere near fashionable was symbolic of... well... something I reserve the right to figure out later.

Just before my fourteenth birthday I was "saved." But, while that salvific experience - a mystical encounter with the sacred understood through an evangelical and quasi-fundamentalist Christian theology - changed the course of my life, to be honest it didn't help that much. It just replaced old anxieties with new ones.

Unable to understand myself in a secular context, I began voraciously reading C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and other important figures in popular evangelical theology. I also started listening to "Christian" music, blind to the religious and spiritual implications of the music that I cavalierly dismissed as "secular" (read "evil"). I created a new world for myself, safe from the pressures of a social order that rejected me as surely as I rejected it.

This almost anti-social religiosity, coupled as it was with emotional/psychological issues and a near fundamentalist belief system, created some serious problems. I didn't understand the messages my body - gripped, as it was, by fits of anxiety induced panic that felt almost like heart attacks - was sending me. I grew, like many other teenagers, increasingly disaffected. And, to top it all off, my religion told me that life in the here and now had no meaning.

Of course, it didn't always mean to tell me that. But in focusing on salvation as purely access to a heavenly realm that awaits us in death, with the focus of the religious life being to take as many people with you to heaven as you possibly could, the message that I got from my religion was that this life was a sinking ship, and that the sooner I got off it the happier I would be.

That I found many life-long friends in the same church that had me convinced that the meaning of life is to die and go to heaven is a credit to the decency of many evangelical Christians. The brutal social structure of my school had no use for someone like me. But these evangelical Christians saw in me gifts and abilities that I couldn't even see in myself. They helped develop my strengths, in part my loving me despite my flaws, and providing an emotionally safe environment for me, so that I could flourish. But with each and every panic attack, each anxious fit, my desire to rip off this veil of sorrows only grew. Like the little girl in the movie Saved who darts into traffic so that she can go meet Jesus, I longed to escape the pain of this existence and meet my Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer.

So, where does Mike Knott fit into all of this, and how the hell did he save my life?

I first heard his music on his first mainstream(ish) solo album, 1994's "Rocket and a Bomb." It came out on Brainstorm (BAI), a division of the Christian mega-label Word. It was a big step for Word, embracing a controversial Indie figure who was most known for the performance art of his band, Lifesavers Underground. The content of the album made its distribution by Word even more of a shock. While it was sold in Christian bookstores and promoted within the evangelical Christian community, there was nothing overtly religious about any of the songs. They were all stories of colorful characters on the margins of society.

"Jail" powerfully exposed the criminal injustice of a legal system that creates many more criminals than it reforms. "Bubbles" was the story of a clown who was kidnapped on his way to rehab. "Kitty" was the (to say the least) colorful story of an older woman cooking a mysterious (possible cannibalistic) dish in her apartment. While one could certainly argue that the grace that runs through the telling of each of these and other tales is evidence of a deep and abiding faith in God, this album may have been better suited for Sub Pop records than for a division of Word. But because it came out on the Brainstorm label, it was marketed to kids like me, kids who locked themselves into a ghettoized sub-culture, waiting to be kept safe from the morally corrupting influence of "secular" music.

"Rocket and a Bomb" was more honest than any "Christian" album I had ever heard. It gave voice to doubts that I had long denied. But it also allowed me to voice and embrace those doubts. Whereas much of "Christian" rock sought to create a perfect world, this album told the stories that emerged from a broken world. And, despite my claim to salvation, I was nothing if not broken.

I fell immediately in love with Knott's music, and chased down any project of his that I could find. I went back in time (metaphorically, if course) to find old LSU albums that came out long before I'd ever heard of Mike Knott. I also followed him into the future, both through his subsequent solo albums and through his failed mainstream band, the Aunt Bettys. Everywhere I followed Knott's music, I found a stark honesty that reflected my spiritually broken reality, along with the grace needed to find God not in some idealized state of perfection, but instead in my present brokenness.

For me the most problematic Christian teaching concerns salvation. While salvation at its best offers the grace to be transformed, too often in my evangelical culture it is a mere fire insurance policy, whose value can be found only in death. In Mike Knott's music I found a powerful antidote to this model of salvation. Consider this lyric from 1991's "This is the Healing," by Knott's Lifesavers Underground:

You've bee seen with a stiff lip
It's happening to the best when the pain grips
You've been beaten by the bell
in all that you do
You thought hell was a place one goes to
But your hell on Earth is true

This is the healing
Give me the tears from all your bitter years
This is the healing
Salt the wounds, the healing will come soon

You've tried to philosophize your pain
But it hurts in your heart
and not in your brain
You could be hit by the Spirit
and be made new
You thought heaven was a place one goes to
But this heaven on Earth is true

This is the healing
Give me the tears of all your bitter years
This is the healing
Salt the wounds, the healing will come soon

While this is neither award winning poetry nor Earth-shaking theology, it was the first time I ever encountered the notion that heaven and hell can be used metaphorically, to refer not to metaphysical places, but to emotional and spiritual conditions. My anxiety, my depression, was hell. My salvation, my transformation and redemption in the here and now, was heaven. Heaven and hell may not be limited to these present conditions, but they can at the very least be found within them. In fact, I would argue, for any teaching concerning heaven or hell to have any meaning at all, they must be found within present conditions.

Mike Knott's willingness to tell brutally honest stories, coupled with his musical expression of an existentially meaningful concept of salvation, saved my life no less than if he'd pushed me out of the way of a train. And, as I noted at the top of this post, about four years ago I finally got to tell him.

Sami and I went to a Christian music festival - our last such trip - in part because two artists on the fringes of evangelical Christian music, Mike Knott (go ahead and use the link already!) and The Violet Burning were going to be there. He saw Knott play in a crowded tent. It was so informal - he said they didn't pay him enough to bring a band - that halfway through his show he asked if anyone could play drums. A sixteen or seventeen-year-old boy darted up to the stage, sat behind a kit that was set up for the following act, and started banging along to Knott's semi-distorted acoustic guitar. Folk-punk style.

After the show we hung around and introduced ourselves to Mike Knott. We then spent the next two hours talking about almost everything in the world. And, yes, he blushed when I told him - in all honesty, and with none of the sentimentality of a gushing fan - that he had saved my life. That conversation is one of my most treasured memories.

Those of us who wrestle to strike some kind of stable balance between faith and doubt should keep in mind the saving power of Mike Knott's honest witness to me. There is more redemptive power in embracing a struggle and making it public than there is in pretending that everything is all right while our life descends into hell.

1 comment:

PamBG said...

There is more redemptive power in embracing a struggle and making it public than there is in pretending that everything is all right while our life descends into hell.


Thank you for sharing your story with us.