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From hell to atonement, musician Audrey Assad has been quietly evolving

Musician Audrey Assad. Photo by Kelsey Cherry

(RNS) — Four years have passed between spiritual songwriter Audrey Assad’s last studio album and her new, highly anticipated record, “Evergreen.” During that time, the evangelical-turned-Catholic says she began deconstructing her faith and battling anxiety. Though her fans did not know, her religious beliefs were “practically nonexistent” at one point.

Assad’s newest album chronicles something of a spiritual rebirth, a process from which she has emerged holding divergent viewpoints about God, faith and doctrine. Here, Assad talks about her quiet evolution, which many readers will doubtlessly recognize as similar to their own.

You were raised Protestant, but after studying Catholicism in your teens, you became a part of the Roman Catholic Church at 24. Was there anything about Protestantism that left you wanting, that perhaps drove you to look elsewhere for spiritual answers and fulfillment?  

I began to feel that I needed Sunday, supposedly the high point of religious practice for a Christian, to consist of more than just sermons (which I could download and listen to alone) and worship music (likewise). The sacraments seemed like the answer to my need. They were something I couldn’t get anywhere else except at church, unlike preaching and singing. They were both physical and spiritual, which was weirdly and intensely grounding. I found that they deepened my relationship to both God and myself, and they gave me a compelling reason to actually show up to church.

I have Catholic friends who are drawn by the rituals and liturgy and others who just looked at the history and theology and concluded that the facts indicate it is the true Christian church. Other than the sacraments, what about Catholicism drew you?

I think I ended up coming to Catholicism because, frankly, I wanted to go back as far as I could to the oldest church possible. Call me an idealist — because I do struggle with being perhaps too much of one — but my desire was to try to get as close as I could to the seed of the ancient tree that is the church. I am cognizant now of the perspective that that might in fact be the Orthodox church, but I wasn’t at the time, so I chose Catholicism. This was at least partially due to my desire to be as close to Christ as I could, but I also look back and see how much I needed to feel that I was right. It was a mixed bag of motivations.

In a 2013 interview, you said, “My evangelical upbringing made it difficult for me to see how a song that didn’t say ‘Jesus’ could be beneficial, good, or true.” It’s difficult to deny that evangelicals haven’t always produced high-quality art — Thomas Kinkade isn’t exactly Renoir — while Catholicism has a rich history of valuing art. Why do you think this is?

I’m not totally sure, but I suspect that it might have something to do with Catholicism’s long history and pattern of becoming part of the cultural fabric of a place, unlike fundamentalist evangelicalism’s tendency to practice separatism. When you steep yourself in a place, you learn to speak its language. My particular evangelical experience was intensely and purposefully isolated — not of the world, and barely in it. How could great art be made or appreciated in that sort of echo chamber?

Audrey Assad’s album “Evergreen” is out now.

You’ve been experiencing a bit of a theological transformation recently. What are some core doctrines that you used to accept that you now reject?

If only it were that simple. I am going through more than a theological transformation — I am going through a spiritual transformation, and one which requires me to at least tweak my whole relationship to theology. For most of my life, theology was ultimately a barometer of “right standing” with God, and what has been required of me in this season is to realize that I have been practicing a Christianity whose God amounts to an angry, sanctified Santa Claus making his list and checking it twice.

I have been lured into the desert either by my own heart or God’s or both, and it is unsurprisingly lonely and painful. I suppose if there is anything I could say I reject, it is the idea that God’s love and acceptance is dependent on our right belief. I no longer see how that could be possible.

“Atonement” is one of those loaded theological words that make some Christians squirm. How has your understanding of the atonement changed?

As my spiritual journey and transformation has unfolded, it has required me to examine the effects of certain things on both my psyche and my theology. Atonement theory is certainly one of those things, and it has been fascinating to uncover that it seems to have been one of the most formational elements of my Christian experience. How could it not be?

How God saves is, for most of us, formational and fundamental to our understanding of God’s nature. I was raised in an environment which primarily taught penal substitution, as well as several other types of atonement theory. At this point, I no longer see penal substitution as consistent with the God I have come to know in the broader context of history and church teaching. That said, do I know how atonement works? No, I most certainly don’t.

You’ve told me before that you think one’s view of atonement might play a significant role in their mental and emotional health. Explain what you mean. 

Growing up with penal substitution as the primary theological context in which I heard about God’s love, I managed to piece together an idea of God as the kind of dad that would kill his kid for a good enough reason. I know it’s supposed to be a story about the mercy of God, but I remember being horrified as a kid by the Old Testament tale of Abraham putting Isaac on the altar. I thought to myself that I wouldn’t trust God ever again when he told me something. And I felt a deep sadness at the trauma Isaac must have endured, being nearly killed by his father with a godly “gotcha” at the end. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know that for me, our atonement theory played a role in sowing a lot of distrust and fear.

Catholics don’t accept a strictly literal or inerrantist reading of the Bible like many evangelicals. Are there parts of the Bible that many Protestants consider to be inspired and read literally that you might interpret differently or even claim isn’t actually inspired?

The Bible is a collection of different types of literature, some of which are written in ancient mythological style. I do revere the Bible, so I believe in reading it as it was written. It is an ancient anthology of poetry and history meant to draw us further into the incarnate love of God, not a code or a textbook. So yes, I am very open to many parts of the Bible being mythological — not “untrue,” mind you, because that’s not at all what I mean by the word. I believe that all parts of the Bible contain objective truth, but that certainly doesn’t mean we have to read all parts of it literally.

I also like to joke that as a fundamentalist evangelical Christian I was taught to read all parts of the Bible literally, including all of Revelation, except for anything Jesus actually said. Think about it. We’re all inconsistent to a point with how literally we read Scripture — the best I can do is learn how each book was meant to be read and try to read it that way. So if that means Genesis 1 didn’t happen exactly as it is recorded, but that it has something more important to offer than scientific facts to communicate about God’s mercy and love, I’m certainly open to that.

Your 2013 album was heavily influenced by St. Augustine. Who are some of the more progressive thinkers that inspire your music today?

A lot of voices that have been consolations to me in this process are ones I might have discounted years ago as “too fringe” for comfort. Richard Rohr is one. I can just hear a bunch of my faithful Catholic friends cringing as they read that. But I would respond with this: Richard Rohr probably could be at least partially credited with saving my faith when my belief died. The same goes for Thomas Merton, and Madeleine L’Engle, both of whom are often dismissed by believers as being too liberal or even dangerously universalist.

Let’s talk about the afterlife. Many Catholics have less dogmatic views about hell than do some conservative Protestants. Do you believe in a literal hell or is your view more inclusive and universalistic than that?

I have tormented myself over this one. At one point, I got so obsessed with figuring out if I could definitively say there was no hell that it was probably more of the same need to be right I had displayed when I did believe in hell. I don’t know what lies beyond, exactly. I hope it is mercy, and if there is a literal hell I hope and pray it will be empty.

I will say I no longer believe eternal conscious torment is consistent with the God I think I know. And I also believe that some of our certitude about the afterlife can serve as a psychological escape from the heaven and hell that already exist on this earth. At this point I am steering clear of any belief that might distract me from staying present to the beauty and/or suffering of humanity now.

Are their any notable Catholic doctrines that you flat-out reject, and if so, which ones?

No. I do not know enough to flat-out reject anything. I have deep doubts about some of them, but my spiritual journey is moving me past the need to know everything.

Photo courtesy of Audrey Assad

Do you believe that contraception is sinful?

I would say that I believe the contraceptive industry is disturbingly patriarchal and maybe even anti-feminist in both its origins and in its current state — it’s mind-boggling to me that women are the ones who are expected to drug themselves in order to space pregnancies. I don’t personally use it, because I personally find it dehumanizing. But I don’t pass judgment on those who disagree with me.

That said, I also think the Christian conversation around contraception is problematically patriarchal. I believe women ought to be at the forefront of it, and they are not. Until they are, I see the conversation as incomplete.

Do you consider yourself pro-life? If you could snap your fingers and overturn Roe v. Wade, would you? 

I consider myself pro-life, yes. They say Christ came to defeat death, so anything that promotes resurrection and redemption on this earth — and not death — seems beautiful to me. I want to work for a world where death happens less, including abortion. But I see a lot of issues as being tied into that, including our society’s prevalence of guns and the death penalty.

With abortion, though, I think Christianity in America has gotten in its own way by ignoring women too much and by adopting certain dismissive attitudes toward the poor. We seem to have adopted the idea somewhere that rich people deserve to be rich and poor people deserve to be poor. So we don’t work very hard to systemically lift people out of poverty. And that seems to impact abortion rates.

Would I overturn Roe v. Wade if I could snap my fingers and make it happen? Not if I thought abortions would go up. And I’m not honestly sure if they would. So rather than hyper-focusing on one issue like abortion, which is honestly very important to me, I have adopted a  broader social approach in hopes that it will generally promote life and not death.

The thesis of your newest album is that the tree of life is “evergreen.” What does this mean, and why do you think people need that message now?

I read somewhere that the tree of life was probably a sycamore fig tree — the same tree that Zacchaeus climbed to see Jesus. I have a special relationship to the Zacchaeus story. I so deeply relate to him. A sycamore fig tree is both evergreen and fruit-bearing, which seemed to carry a deeply poetic truth about the divine life. Well, I needed a tree of my own to climb. So I made the album to serve as that tree. If people need that message now I think it might be because a lot of people are needing trees to climb, to see above the religious and political noise of their upbringings, to lay eyes on Christ.

You’ve been fairly outspoken with your political views. What do you make of the Christian support of Donald Trump? 

I think we all make gods of things. And I think a lot of us have made gods of our economy, our social standing and “the way things used to be.” I also think that since church is one of the most segregated venues in the United States, segregationist views surely still exist in an uncomfortably large number of white American Christian individuals.

I also see a tide of nationalism sweeping over Europe and the West in general, including America. All of that combined seems to have made Donald Trump’s ascent not only possible but easy, and polls will show you that white Christians are the very opposite of absent from his fan base. I don’t honestly know what to make of it beyond that. I guess American Christianity is largely American first and Christian second. I don’t know what other conclusion to draw.

Can you be a true Christian and support Donald Trump, in your view?

Seeing as my working definition of “true Christian” is “someone who was baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” then of course a Christian can support Donald Trump. I think to claim otherwise is to minimize the culpability and participation of the American church in this situation.

Years ago, you would often say that you “don’t make Christian music,” but the Christian themes in your music have persisted, even intensified. It seems pretty Christian to many of your fans, I’d imagine. How do you describe your music now?

What I meant by that was that, in my opinion, “Christian” is not a qualifier that should be applied to anything but a person. It does nothing to describe what the music sounds like, and it waters down the word “Christian” to simply mean “anything made by a person who calls themselves a Christian.” You can’t have a Christian painting. Why can you have a Christian pop song?

I used to say “I make church music” because that felt more accurate than “Christian music,” but now I tend to call what I make “soundtracks for prayer,” because I think that’s how my music is most often used—sometimes people sing my songs at their churches, but more often than not it seems like people put my music on to grieve to, to give birth to, to pray to. And I think that’s really beautiful.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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