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February 7, 2017 / jennrudsit

Special Issue Release at AWP

After the 2016 presidential election, we saw artists responding in many ways, along with the rest of America. One of art’s most valuable functions is to help us know who we are as a people, and we want Vox to function as a collection of voices that help us hear. We make no claims about its contents, other than the work we chose exists both as art and as a cultural reflection. Our goal is not to pass any judgement other than aesthetic. We are not interested in who is right or wrong, politically, but in capturing the voices in the discussion. We attempted to present as wide an array of voices as we could. Of course we are limited to publishing what we receive, though we made an effort to solicit voices from many perspectives. We have entered a time of strident opposition and activism, during which the American people will likely redefine our values, processes, and institutions. We hope this issue reflects the appreciation and care with which we and our staff received it. We hope to continue publishing Vox, collecting and sharing your experiences of witness to this time and place. Here is where we live and work and create—in pain, in love, and in God’s grace.

Vox is available at AWP for $5.

January 27, 2017 / jennrudsit

Make it New: Reading for Joy

by Ann Marie Bausch

2016 was a year of profound change for me even before November 8th.  My husband and I sold our house, quit our jobs, and moved to a new town to start fresh.  I exited the traditional workforce and began writing and house-wife-ing full time. Craziest of all, I looked in cookbooks for recipes.  And I started reading again.

Some of my earliest and happiest memories are of reading—my mother guiding me through Dr. Seuss and Little Golden Books over and over before bedtime until I could recite them myself; sitting on the front porch of our house racing wide-eyed through Anne of Green Gables for the sixth or seventh time (the fact that I knew the outcome already mattered not); hiding The Thornbirds behind a binder in algebra class.  Green Eggs and Ham.  Emily of New Moon.  Gone With the Wind. 

In college I majored in English.  In graduate school, Creative Writing.  That added up to seven years of literary study and analysis.  Before that, no one had ever put William Faulkner in front of my nose, much less Tim O’Brien, or George Garrett, or the incomparable Flannery O’Connor.  I will be indebted to those teachers forever.

But my full-time jobs had never left me with much brain space at the ends of the days.  Before long, People Magazine was as good as it got.  Maybe five real books in ten years.  My brain simply didn’t have the capacity to take the good stuff in.  And then Facebook came along to vacuum up any moment of consciousness that remained.

But when we moved, I had “time” again—I put the word in quotation marks because I had walked through it in an activity-induced zombie trance for so long that I no longer had any idea what it meant.  I began taking chances on new titles I found in book stores, things I’d heard others chat about in passing.  Suddenly, it was all about nonfiction.  Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth shattered my views of race and religion, my passions for reading and politics melding.  I looked rapturously ahead to the election of our first woman president with these writers at my side, and the fullest energy and optimism I’d felt in years.

And then.  Well, we all know the rest.

I wept, and then I went numb.  Nothing was the same.  I entered a massive creative blackout—what could I possibly write about when I didn’t know what world I was living in anymore?  I had been reading, with great interest, a book about the history and evolution of world religions.  I couldn’t go back to it.  I didn’t want to learn.  I didn’t want to become more informed.  I wanted to hide.  I wanted to escape.

Enter Harry Potter.

I am probably the last person on seven continents never to have read these books.  I believe there is an Antarctic penguin somewhere squawking about Lord Voldemort. Fantasy isn’t my thing, I’d say, as nearly everyone I knew became rapt over the years, waiting in line with pounding hearts the day the next book in the series was released.  Now—what the hell, I thought.  Nothing matters anymore.  I’ll give it a shot.

It didn’t take long.  Suddenly I was awake at night thinking about the characters, figuring out when in my day I could sit down with the next book, catching myself smiling delightedly as the next whimsical episode unfolded.  One day I bought a stuffed Hedwig (Harry’s owl) at Barnes & Noble—I had this sudden urge that I needed her.  And that, really, was what made me realize what was happening.  I wasn’t reading to learn anything.  I wasn’t reading for an assignment, or with a writer’s eye, or to be able to check a Nobel Prize winner off my list.

I was reading for joy.

Harry Potter had given me back the way I’d read in childhood—for no other reason than to be swept away by a great story.  It was about the smell of the paper, the swish and crackle of a turning page, zooming through paragraph after paragraph to find out what happens next.

In 2017, I want to carry this exuberance of the washed-clean into as many parts of life as I can.  Fresh eyes for reading, for other people, for my community, for ways I can help.  I have no idea where it will go, how it will all turn out.  In the embrace of uncertainty, of being less sure, I believe a tiny seed will begin to sprout and grow, a seed of something all of us have known, maybe not since we were children, maybe in a way completely unfamiliar to us before now:  hope.  And when things get bad from time to time, you’ll find me at the Owl Emporium.

Ann Marie Bausch is a writer from Virginia Beach, VA.  Connect with her at seekingandspeaking.wordpress.com or on Twitter at @seekandspeakVA.

January 23, 2017 / jennrudsit

Make it New: Libraries

by Amanda C.R. Clark

In that grisly but summoning 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, a bloody, nearly broken, nearly dead Christ faces his mother, saying, “See, mother, I make all things new.”  This is the audacious promise of Christianity: that we are broken, fallen, and completely a mess, and yet, there is the promise of all things being made new, in fact, are made new, now, in this moment, in this expanding present that is always before us and always supersedes and triumphs over our own checkered pasts.

How do I keep things new for those who work with me? There is a freshness of spring that we all crave, that is needed to sustain us through life, as our personal seasons elongate over time, late summers that move toward longer autumns and transition into extended winters. What haunts my waking dreams is the library; a sacred space, richly textured with human spines and book spines, crinkly papers, and dusty tomes. How do I make these perennial objects of desire—those recorded and those we wish to find—new to those who do not see the library as I see it?

I feel it slipping away. The bastion of books is revered only by a few. I encounter many persons, librarians among them, who see no future in the library as a unique place steeped in history and worthy of preserving. If you are a person who prays, I entreat you to say a little prayer for the library as a beautiful sanctuary of exploration. Pray that it will not be re-made in a new way, but that it may be new now, as it was, and as I hope it always will be.

Dwight D. Eisenhower once entreated all who understand the value of reading and books: “Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you’re going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book…”

Amanda C. R. Clark received her Doctor of Philosophy from The University of Alabama, completing her doctoral work on the study of contemporary artists’ books. She holds a Master of Library and Information Studies degree, and, additionally, Master and Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Oregon in the fields of Western architectural history and Asian art. She is currently the director of the library at Whitworth University.

January 17, 2017 / jennrudsit

Make it New: New Every Morning

by Michael Wright

In the Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot famously described an experience of time he called the “still point of the turning world,” an experience “where past and future are gathered” together, saturated by “a grace of sense, a white light still and moving.” Decades later, the Buddhist poet Jane Hirshfield said, “In every instant, two gates. / One opens to fragrant paradise, one to hell. / Mostly we go through neither.” Both poets are looking for language for the spiritual substance of the present, the only space of time where we live and move and have our being.

After two years of doing social media for a seminary, I’ve had a hard time distinguishing this “spirituality of the present” with historical amnesia and aimlessness. Later in the poem, T.S. Eliot looks around the streets of London and sees men and women “distracted from distraction by distraction / Filled with fancies and empty of meaning.” On the surface, it may look like living in the moment, but rather than entering it, they are pulled apart, skimming on time’s surface. Of course, it’s much easier to be distracted than to open gates to spiritual insight, it’s much easier to react to the latest viral fancies than commit to longer writing projects, much easier to forget than to remember. It’s a struggle I’m haunted by as we enter the new year. How can I find this still point if I’m unaware of the past and future that gathers it?

If I start thinking, “I have to restore my historical consciousness!” or “My life depends on reknitting the past and future into my experience of the present!” I will feel overwhelmed and probably implode into depression. But maybe changing my experience of time can start with more simple decisions. What if I kept a calendar? What if I wrote in saints’ days and birthdays and monthly goals instead of only knowing the release days of the latest movie? What if I started each morning sidestepping the day’s outrages streaming from the dim light of my phone and wrote for an hour? What if I engaged traditions older than the latest viral post? Filled in the gaps with books I still haven’t read and hymns from my Southern upbringing? And what if I practiced meditation to start dipping below the surface of my distracted mind to the still point within my own heart?

These are the kinds of practices I’ve been dreaming about for the new year. I think I’ll start with the empty calendar, be kind to myself in the process, and hope that, in time, I can cultivate a fuller experience of my life and the grace that sustains it, new every morning.

Michael Wright (MA, Theology and the Arts) is the associate editor for FULLER studio and magazine at Fuller Seminary, and he writes and lectures on poetry, popular culture, and spirituality. Connect with him on Twitter at @mjeffreywright.

January 13, 2017 / jennrudsit

Make it New: Turning 40

by Kathryn Smith

I’m entering a new decade in 2017. Like Star Wars, the Seattle Mariners, and the death of Elvis, I’m turning 40, and so far, when I think about this looming milestone, I don’t have strong feelings about it. When my partner turned 40, she felt a sense of relief, as though she’d been waiting to turn 40 her whole life. That 4 in the tens column of her age gave her permission to do all the things she did already: go to bed early with a whiskey and a bad crime novel, shake her fist at neighbors who don’t shovel the snow from their sidewalks, complain about rock and roll music (She’s going to make a fantastic curmudgeon one day.). I don’t think I have the enthusiasm for 40 that she had, but nor am I dreading it the way some people do.

In a way, this approach to 40 reflects a new approach I hope to take toward myself: Let what comes come. I have a tendency to be too hard on myself when I don’t accomplish items on the arbitrary checklists that exist only in my brain, to feel bad about myself when I learn of friends’ successes and achievements, regardless of whether I have any desire to do the things that they have done. My hope for year 40 is that I learn to give myself a break.

Of course I have some hopes and plans. I plan to read a lot of books this year, more than I usually average. I want to keep working on my art-making skills and make more interesting collages and other art pieces out of books. I hope to engage more in my community, particularly when it comes to supporting those who are marginalized. I want to grow a new crop or two in my garden and be more deliberate about preserving the harvest to last through the winter. But I’m going to take baby steps. And I’m not going to keep score, because when I do, it’s just me vs. Team Impossibly Perfect, and there’s no winning that game.

I’m not going to run a marathon, travel the world, or learn to speak French or play the guitar. For me, non-resolutions are the new resolutions. So for 2017, a new decade, a new kindness toward myself, and a knowledge that by freeing myself from my own expectations to do more or be better, I can let kindness and gentleness toward others reverberate into the world around me.

A mini chapbook of Kathryn Smith’s poems was published in issue 11.1 of Rock & Sling. Find more at kathrynsmithpoetry.com. She has no plans to join Twitter.

January 5, 2017 / nicolespokane

Awareness First, Action Next: My Top Four Books of 2016

by Kristine Langley Mahler

2016 was filled with surprises that have challenged my resilience—an experience to which I’m sure many others can relate. As I reflect on the books I read last year, I’m startled to realize how much I connected with the messages of my top four recommendations: I was riveted by my ancestral past while afraid of the implications for the future (Barkskins), worried that naming my fears would not help combat them (This Is Only a Test), aware, more than ever, of the rural population whose discontent has come from being ignored (Throwed Away), and scrutinous as I examined the implications of restriction on my eating practices (Bread). Books, at their best, provide templates for comprehension and coping, and I recommend these four books (three are nonfiction and the fourth is grounded in nonfiction) with my whole heart. May 2017 bring, for us all, more insight and empathy to guide our actions.

 

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

This is the culmination of the best of Annie Proulx; it is the book I didn’t even know I was waiting for. I have been researching my ancestors who arrived in Quebec around 1660, so the fact that Barkskins is, essentially, a genealogical tracing of the lines of two Frenchmen who arrived in Quebec in the late 1600s was providence.

Rene Sel and Charles Duquet’s paths take dramatically different turns as Sel marries a Mi’kmaw woman (and Proulx traces the fate of the indigenous Canadians through his line) and Duquet sneaks out of his indentured servitude to start a logging empire (and Proulx presents an extensive account of logging throughout the world through his). People die, people are born, people succeed and people fail, and the two lines reconnect at the close of the book as we, as readers, see where the choices made by Sel & Duquet’s generations have led the world. Do not be daunted by its length or a fear of genealogical confusion. There is a family tree that you can reference throughout. The last line of the book gave me a long, cold shiver up the base of my spine, so please, please, when you read this book, do not skip to the end. The end has to be earned. And you will likely feel the same exhaustion and fear I did, because it is what has been wrought; it is what we have brought.

 

This Is Only a Test by B.J. Hollars

I love B.J. Hollars’ voice and I love his relentlessly inquisitive approach to writing through discovery, and so I love this essay collection about fear. We begin in a bathtub in Alabama, where Hollars and his wife wait out the tornado that devastates Tuscaloosa, and we walk into the wreckage afterwards, following that Minotaurian thread through the maze of fears against which we cannot protect ourselves enough: natural disasters, drownings, nuclear fallout, and the little frightening moments that happen when you become a parent. I still think about the story Hollars writes about Buckethead, the mythical kid at his summer camp who supposedly hid in a refrigerator during a game of hide-and-seek and a maintenance guy shoved the fridge into the lake as an anchor and the kid drowned; for several days it was all I could think about, especially since Hollars’ subsequent essay examines the apparent frequency of refrigerator deaths in the 1950s. Hollars researches well, Hollars writes well, and Hollars knows that confronting these fears is all just a test of our resilience, but it’s a pop quiz we can’t prepare for.

 

Throwed Away: Failures of Progress in Eastern North Carolina by Linda Flowers

“Throwed away,” as Linda Flowers wrote, is an expression peculiar to eastern North Carolina. If a piece of land or a person or a stretch along the highway looks ‘throwed away,’ it can be in no worse shape. The expression is pejorative, though often but mildly—sadly—so.

Flowers, who came from Duplin County (just south of Pitt County, NC, where I lived) published this incredibly important memoir/nonfiction research book in 1990. It follows the demise of tenant farming and the rise of manufacturing plants in the coastal plains region of North Carolina while also considering the lack of proper education and the frustrating results of industrialization on a population who weren’t considered important. The strengths were the memoir sections—Flowers had a beautiful grasp on her subjects and her home. Flowers passed away in 2000; a shame, because her work on the collective ignoring of rural people who felt “throwed away” is particularly relevant today.

 

Bread: A Memoir of Hunger by Lisa Knopp

Lisa Knopp’s memoir of her disordered eating—not “eating disorder,” because there are such strange, stringent criteria one must meet to be “officially” diagnosed—Knopp refers to it as her “malady”—traces the connections between experiences and anxiety, between hunger and craving, and between the awful shifting attitudes of society towards eating behaviors. Knopp restricted her eating, in different ways, during three separate periods: as a 15-year-old high school student, after college at 25, and as a 54-year-old woman, and she writes with a precision and poignancy that took my breath away. Knopp began restricting as a response to her hunger for her mother’s presence; she began restricting again as a response to a lack of control and fear for the safety of the things she consumed, and finally, as she grieved for the changes in her life as well as a response to her health concerns.

Disordered eating is manifest, it’s everywhere, and no one is talking about it because it’s not a “real” disorder. But Lisa Knopp is talking about it, and she’s also talking about the other shunted-aside population—older women, who’ve learned how to hide their behaviors. This book is vitally important, and the vulnerability it takes to write about a disorder-no-one-calls-a-disorder is immensely moving.

Kristine Langley Mahler has essays published or forthcoming in Sweet: A Literary Confection, Tahoma Literary Review, Rock & Sling, and the Brevity blog, among other journals. Her work was awarded the 2016 Rafael Torch Literary Nonfiction Award from Crab Orchard Review, and she recently received a university grant to complete a creative nonfiction research project about her Quebecois great-great-grandfather and immigration/inhabitation on native land. She is an associate nonfiction editor at Pithead Chapel and a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Her work can be followed at www.kristinelangleymahler.com

December 1, 2016 / nicolespokane

Remembered Sounds: Coming to Life

 

by Michael Wright

In a discussion on kairos and chronos time in A Secular Age, Charles Taylor invents the phrase “kairotic knot,” an image for graced moments that gather our daily lives into deep significance and mystery—an experience of the presence of God. The arts can facilitate this kind of gathering, each form offering its own interwoven experiences of time—helping to envision the future, lift the gauzy veil of the present, or in the case of The Normals’ Coming To Life, reanimate my past.

Released in 2000, The Normals’ second album is squarely in the CCM folk soundscape of the time (bongos and strummy guitars, harmonicas, upright piano), and Andrew Osenga, the lead singer and songwriter who would later join Caedmon’s Call, carries each song with an earnest and reedy voice. Taken as a whole, the songs explore faith within the quotidian—there’s bad weather and prayer, confessions of faith and road trips, couches and doorways and the longing for restoration. Like the psalms, Coming to Life is a daybook for frayed emotions and the daily struggle to cultivate an authentic faith.

Listening to these old songs, my past and present shift and gather together, not into specific memories of the music (although it was one of my favorite albums at the time) but into a kind of sympathetic vibration between memories and music.

As the first song “Every Moment” begins, I am walking down the empty hallways of my high school into my biology teacher’s classroom, a lunch-hour haven for awkward teenagers. I watch him laugh and hug the custodial staff—one of the few teachers to call them by name. I place my lunch on the lab table, swivel toward the other students who crave that same loving attention, and we sing lovers and loners and vagrants and kings we’re finally home.

Now I’m skipping mandatory chapel to argue with my Bible professor, a debate that blurs into multiple meetings during my senior year where he gives me permission to ask questions that scare the both of us, and in our prayerful confusion, we bow our heads and sing, When we’re both lost, God is found.

I’m crying into my hands on a couch in my youth minister’s office. I’m confessing to him that God feels far away, that I feel numb during the very worship services I’m supposed to be leading, that I feel confused and alone. He shares some theological advice, but neither of us knows that I’m beginning my first year of a decade-long struggle with undiagnosed depression. This time, Andrew Osenga is in the office too, singing on my behalf, I know peace lies in silence / And prayer is its heartbeat but / I don’t feel it beating in me.

And when I hear the chorus of the title track, more memories braid together into a single knot, each thread essential: a conversation with my mother in an idle car, unexpected tears at a film, reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking On Water, a preacher shocking me into insight, discovering hymns hidden in poetry, all of it gathering together into a crowned knot of fire—

I am coming to life.

 

Michael Wright (MA, Theology and the Arts) is the associate editor for FULLER studio and magazine at Fuller Seminary, and he writes and lectures on religious poetry, popular culture, and spirituality. Connect with him on Twitter at @mjeffreywright.

November 19, 2016 / thomcaraway

Special issue: Call for Submissions

As we move toward the reality of Donald Trump’s pending presidency, artists are responding. Rock & Sling wants to produce a cross-section of that work, to be released at AWP in DC, two weeks after the Inauguration.

We are looking for any kind of artistic reaction to the election and the weeks that have followed. Photo-documentary, essay, allegory, graphic shorts, fiction, satire, poems, visual art: we want it. What are your fears or frustrations? Your hopes or hesitations? We want to hear from the whole spectrum, all of the kinds of reactions we see. We want to hear from undocumented artists and from Christians, from Muslims and artists of color, and from conscientious conservatives.

Rock & Sling is a journal of witness. We believe that the power of witness, of truth-telling, is a good human act and a good human outcome, enabling the reader to enter the life of another self and thus to grow in empathy, compassion, and understanding.

Submissions guidelines

Prose: 1500 words or less (includes, fiction, all cnf, satire, allegory, commentary)

Poetry: No more than 3 poems

Art: No more than two pieces, or query

Submit work at https://rockandsling.submittable.com/submit

Contributors will receive a copy of the publication as payment for their work.

During this time, we will be closed to regular submissions, which will reopen in the spring.

Submission deadline, Dec. 18 at midnight (Sunday night).

October 28, 2016 / nicolespokane

Imagine Yourself Better: Lessons of The Fall

by Kate Reed

In the most selfless act of love I have ever committed, I told my husband that once a year on Halloween, I would watch a horror film with him— his pick.

On year one of this new agreement, he chose The Conjuring. Have you seen The Conjuring? In case you haven’t, I’ll tell you a story to illustrate how thoroughly petrifying it is: after we finished it, I could not sleep for more than an hour at a time— basically as long as it took for me to enter a dream state. Once I started to dream, I jerked awake, literally choking on my fear— breath stopped, body rigid with adrenaline, cold sweat. When the night was over, I’d somehow pulled a muscle in my neck and pinched a nerve in my back. I could not turn my head for three days.

My husband was kind enough to rub my neck while hiding giggles; he thought it was hilarious, in a very empathetic yet condescending, you-poor-puppy way. At moments, I got it— I mean, really? Come on? How scary can a movie be? At other moments, I had to fight urges to punch him in his neck, which enjoyed a smooth and full range of movement.

Needless to say, we don’t watch horror films anymore unless I approve the pick first. This limits us to the occasional mumblegore flick and any horror film Joss Whedon happens to make. And it also allows for a few TV shows, which leads us to the subject of this blog post: The Fall.

Recently, I was chatting with someone about how excited I am about the second season of this show, in which Gillian Anderson plays a gorgeous, obsessive, and detached detective pursuing a gorgeous, obsessive, and detached serial killer, played by Jamie Dornan. My friend was all like, “What?! Doesn’t it scare the shit out of you?” Followed quickly by, “How can you handle that but not supernatural scary stuff,” specifically the supernatural scary stuff in The Conjuring.

And I don’t know what it is about The Fall–which, yes, does terrify me in a way–that somehow makes it palatable. Shouldn’t real life be scarier? I mean, all kidding aside, I don’t think a month goes by without my being afraid of some sort of assault, even if it’s just a wisp of fear as I walk down the street, and this is number is down considerably from when I was younger and in possession of traits that made me more culturally desirable, like a flat stomach and a penchant for putting myself in dangerous and dumb situations. And I’m not alone in this fear of assault, especially among women. So it would make sense that I would be afraid of the violence committed by the serial killer in The Fall, who stalks his victims, murders them, then dresses them up nicely and paints their nails. (Not joking. It’s much more unsettling acted out than it sounds here).

On the other side of the horror coin, I should not be scared of an old haunted house, because exactly no times in ever do I think about ghosts torturing me so intensely that I hang myself in my basement.

I’ve been trying to bring some order to this dissonance. Someone suggested that The Fall is less disturbing because Jamie Dornan is that beautiful. Which I think infers that we don’t mind imagining him murdering and defiling us. And although obviously no one is that beautiful, I have to think his looks play into what people find so compelling about the show. Despite the fact that he is clearly a sociopath, you find yourself sort of liking him. And there is absolutely nothing besides the fact that he is achingly pretty to make you like him.

Recently I heard and took at face value immediately without researching it at all that our brains can’t differentiate between what is happening to us and what is happening to the people we’re watching on the screen. In fact, our brains can’t even differentiate between what we’re thinking about what’s happening and what is really happening, which is why visualization is supposed to be so powerful.

I started wondering, maybe it’s the fact that I do fear stalking, sexual assault, and murder— that they are tangible things that happen to people, that could happen to me— that makes me like The Fall. Which: ugghhh. I feel weird admitting that, even though I’m separated from you, reader, by space, time, and a lot of wires. Why would I want to expose myself to these terrible things? That are happening to real people?

I don’t think the super-true scientific fact that we think we are in whatever TV show or movie we are watching is something we do consciously. But I’m trying to observe myself when I’m in front of the boob tube. And as far as I can tell, I put myself in their shoes. And by their, I mean pretty much whoever is on the screen at a certain moment. But once I’m in their shoes, I find myself doing something else: I imagine myself even better.

And with The Fall, you get it all. The characters are so grossly flawed that there are endless places to imagine yourself better. You get to be the hero, but also know when to pat yourself on the back and step away. You get to be the guy pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes, but you don’t kill anyone in the process. You get to be the victim, but you somehow become clever or strong enough in the last moment to get away. And all the while, you get to be gorgeous, obsessed, and detached, which in my darkest of hearts, is the answer to why I ever turn on the Big Screen at all.

In addition to serving as the fiction editor for Rock & Sling, Kate Reed works at Spark Central (a non-profit creative learning center in West Central) and at her desk (shhh! it’s actually a couch) writing fiction and the occasional blog post.

September 27, 2016 / nicolespokane

Remembered Sounds: Go West Young Man

by Andy Zell

I forget how I won the gift certificate to the local Christian bookstore. Perhaps it was good grades or perfect attendance in 8th grade at my private Christian school. What I do remember is looking over the wall displays of cassette tapes filled with Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) and selecting Michael W. Smith’s Go West Young Man for my very first music tape. Smith was one of the biggest names in CCM. My older sister had his second self-titled album and I really liked some of those songs. I took the cassette home and eagerly put it in the deck, listening to it many times over the next few years. Later I moved on to more alternative Christian music, and some years after that I stopped caring whether an artist was a Christian or not.

It’s hard to for me to go back and listen to this album. It’s not merely the drum machines, synthesizers, and guitar solos that sound dated. It’s the poorly worded messages that typified my faith at the time (In a song about loving others, he raps the words “Light a fuse—make a spark. Try to penetrate a heart. There’s a burning need to fill the world with love.”) I never burned my secular albums on a bonfire, but I did erase my dubbed copies of “Weird Al” Yankovic albums because they weren’t bringing me closer to the Lord. I didn’t know how to interact with culture, believing that its influence would sully my conscience, so in the spirit of the album, I fled west to the Christian subculture of Christian music and books.

The first two tracks each employ troubling and problematic metaphors. Go West Young Man invokes American Manifest Destiny in a song about the importance of avoiding temptation (“Go west young man when the evil go east”). The original exhortation is attributed to Horace Greeley in the effort to encourage Civil War veterans to take advantage of the Homestead Act and settle on the frontier. The pioneer life sounds romantic and idyllic: staking a claim on the land and making a life where there was open prairie before. But the encroachment of settlers led to conflict and displacement of the Native tribes and often to their slaughter.

The next song “Love Crusade” references the centuries long conflicts from the Middle Ages in its title (and features a chorus of “na na na” and a truly unfortunate rap section that I’m sure Smith himself regrets), but uses the call to arms for the purpose of loving everyone. A year ago there was a lot of talk about the Crusades because of the President’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. The President pointed out that Christians have used violence in the past so it’s no use casting stones at other religions. In response, many Christians pointed out that the Crusades are complicated or that they were in response to centuries of Islamic conquest. No doubt there is truth to these assertions, but there are also the horrors of the Crusades such as the slaughter of Jews in the Rhineland or the sack of Constantinople.

Granted, the metaphors in these first two songs are in the service of good messages—fleeing temptation and loving one’s neighbor— but their casual use is troubling. I now see that even when I started listening to more alternative Christian music, troubling metaphors didn’t cease. Two examples should suffice: A Violet Burning song called “Love Is the Loaded Gun” has the same trouble conveying loving others with violent imagery as “Love Crusade”; The Dimestore Prophets had a song comparing apathy at the suffering of others to Eva Braun, aka “Hitler’s Girlfriend.” Metaphor can be tricky to get right.

When I first listened to Michael W. Smith’s songs, I didn’t know anything about history (or about music), so I didn’t see anything amiss. Mostly I was drawn in to his crossover hits “Place in this World” and “For You,” anodyne songs about figuring out meaning and purpose in life and the importance of friendship, respectively. They’re pleasant, and I can appreciate why they had broad appeal, but they’re bland and universal the way pop songs usually are. They’re not the type of songs I go for now.

Now I want higher quality music with specificity and complications, something that speaks to my doubts and questions. I don’t want simple answers, and often I don’t want answers at all. I want to understand a small part of someone else, or perhaps even myself, and, every once in great while, some ineffable glimpse of the divine.

5 Spiritual Songs I Listen to Now

“Take Me to Church” (Sinead O’Connor)

“Ya Hey” (Vampire Weekend)

“Say” (Cat Power)

“Where Are We Now” (David Bowie)

“Song for Zula” (Phosphorescent)

Andy Zell still loves to listen to music. Now that he has four kids ages six and under, a lot of it tends to be They Might Be Giants and Wiggleworms. He writes about books, music, faith, and life on his personal blog and occasionally uses Twitter @strangerextant.