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Anna Gazmarian | Longreads | October 2019 | 13 minutes (3,334 words)
I was raised in nondenominational churches filled with congregants who called themselves progressive for wearing denim on Sunday mornings. Even though we used electric guitars and fog machines, our congregation was made up of just under 20 families. We scoffed at televangelists, believing that our theology contained the real gospel. My life centered around Sunday morning services, memorizing scripture, and trying to understand the meaning of prayer. Before mental illness entered my life — before I became overcome with thoughts of death, and experienced what felt like God’s silence — faith equalled certainty.
When I was growing up, the popular boys in my high school youth group played in hardcore bands. The most dedicated musicians wore lip rings and gauges. They sat together in church and wore skinny jeans in sizes smaller than any I owned.
Davin, the most talented guitarist at my youth group, performed on Sunday mornings during worship services. He played electric guitar on the center of the stage and kept tabs on the church members who raised their hands as signs of praising God during services. He told me later on that the songs played during services were organized to elicit emotional responses for church members. Davin’s crooked teeth were covered with tobacco stains. He claimed that smoking with the baseball team was his way of ministering to his teammates about Jesus.
On Sunday mornings, he wore oversized hats over his straightened hair. The popular worship songs by Hillsong United featured lyrics about victory and following Jesus without doubt: When oceans rise, my soul will rest in Your embrace/For I am Yours and You are mine. Their level of certainty represented the type of faith that I wanted to achieve.
Davin and I bonded over music. He kept his CD collection underneath his bed to prevent his brother from stealing the albums. He insisted on holding every disk with a piece of cloth to prevent scratches. Throughout high school, he burned me copies of his favorite albums and placed them in my locker after his AP Chemistry class. I kept them in the glove compartment of my car.
Davin was into “screamo,” also known as “Christian metal core.” At first listen, that genre of music from the 2000s — from bands with names like As I Lay Dying, The Devil Wears Prada, Severed, Prayer Cleansing, and Impending Doom — sounds like a combination of mainstream metal and punk. The persistent screaming and drum solos disguise the allusions to the Holy Spirit. The music was new to me, but once I listened, I was hooked. Davin introduced me to one of my favorite bands, As Cities Burn. The name “As Cities Burn” alludes to the numerous cities that burned throughout the New Testament of the Bible: For Israel has forgotten his Maker, and builds temples. And Judah has multiplied cities. But I will send a fire on his cities and shall burn up her palaces. (Joshua 11:13). Our pastor never preached about these verses. My favorite of their songs, “Incomplete Is A Leech” begins: Unless you can part my ribs like the sea/and make stone beat, then there’s no hope for me. (I had to look up the lyrics online because the screeching vocals make the lyrics indecipherable.) Back then, I bought the albums because they were what the popular kids listened to.The lyrics expressed an inner turmoil that I hadn’t yet experienced. But later, in college, when my own depression emerged, I would find myself returning to that music.
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Davin didn’t just listen to this music. He was in a screamo band, too. When I attended one of his band’s concerts for the first time, I noticed the audience members wearing t-shirts with advertisements for pro-life marches and sober lifestyles. The concert took place in a Pentecostal church. Gig posters had been stapled onto lampposts and bulletin boards around town. The guitarist closed his eyes and sang about doubting God and failing to stay abstinent. The encore involved him chanting the words of Jesus on the cross: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? At the time, I could not identify with their guilt and agony. Their relationships with God countered my own understanding of faith. Looking back, I find comfort in how they chose to confront their doubts. This became a guide, helping me deal with my own. At church, there was rarely any mention of Christ’s suffering; we glossed over the agony to focus on the power of the resurrection. The musicians’ parents stood in the back of the room and wore wax earplugs to drown out the dischord created by out-of-tune instruments.
Davin’s band eventually toured around North Carolina. I worked the merchandise table one weekend. Girls from public schools stood by the table, holding the shirts up against their chests to find the perfect size. Although only 10 people stood in the audience, they still managed to form a mosh pit, eventually leading to the crowd carrying body-surfers. Some in the crowd moved their arms like helicopter propellers. The dancing reminded me of speaking in tongues. My attempt at head-banging gave me a migraine. When the lead singer screamed words I could not understand, the band’s angst reminded me of a spiritual battle. The music acted as a confession to the sin and doubt that our evangelical church services condemned. During some shows, they covered songs by other screamo bands like Underoath, with lyrics like this, from their song, “Act of Depression”: For now I live in a real hell/I wish I had another chance/Then I would live my life with love.
As we grew up, the musicians stopped attending church and spent their weekends at house parties. Rumors had them chugging beer, smoking pot, and going into rehab. I kept track of photos of them social media sites and watched them drift apart, not unlike the way I’d distanced myself from friends in youth group. Over the years, many of the mainstream Christian bands also renounced their faith. The lead singer of the band As I Lay Dying came out as an atheist after being convicted for attempted murder. Allegedly he hired an undercover police officer to murder his wife. The vocalist in The Order of Elijah renounced his faith after reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Watching their loss of faith led me to throw out their CDs from my window as I passed the Waffle House on Jonestown Road. Watching them walk away from Christianity confirmed my belief at the time that struggling with doubt is a prelude to abandoning belief in God.
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Although I never abandoned my faith, I found myself facing a similar spiritual crisis in college. Days after my 19th birthday, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I had been involved in an emotionally abusive relationship and the fallout led to my being asked to leave the church by my college pastor. He worried that my sadness might distract my ex from his relationship with God. My grief over the breakup and the loss of a church community spiraled into severe depression and what my psychiatrist would eventually call an occasional mix of hypomania. Now, even on my best days, darkness still hovers.
I had been taught not to weep or cry, to show God unflinching joyful acceptance of his will. Those who showed doubt or weakness, I was told, needed to pray more. As I waited at the pharmacy for mood stabilizers for the first time, I tried to recall different sermons about the purpose of suffering, but this did not help me solve or understand my emotions or experiences. Any discussion of suffering or pain centered around the idea that everything happens for a reason. I dug through the box of sermon notes that I kept in my closet, hoping to find some fragment of truth that would help me reason through how to follow Jesus in the midst of an insurmountable amount of despair that is expected to plague me for the rest of my life.
That summer, I tried attending a bible study that met near campus to receive encouragement. Upon my arrival, I found several girls already sitting in a semicircle on the living room floor. They held bibles and plates filled with baked goods. The girl next to me announced that the topic for the evening was the meaning of suffering. She spoke with animated hand gestures about finding joy in pain. She reminded me of how I used to respond to suffering, before I actually was suffering, which made her intolerable. Before the group even began discussing the topic, I started crying and admitted to having bipolar.
In response, the girl next to me quoted a verse about heaven from the Book of Revelation: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (21:4). Growing up, I sang verses inspired by this verse. It was used to comfort the grieving. But as someone who now fights for reasons to stay alive, this sentiment no longer comforts me. At my lowest point, the verse made me wonder: why should I fight against this present sorrow when death could end all of this? What hope do I have in the present?
Many of my Christian friends saw my illness as either indicative of satanic work or a lack of faith. Members of my college church group told me to pray more often and read scripture. During discussions about suffering, no one ever mentioned how Elijah, Job, Jeremiah, and Jonah begged God to take their lives. I wish someone had told me that my own impulses are not foreign to followers of faith.
That night in bible study, I did not understand why using this scripture for consolation bothered me. Then, years later, I took a religion class the helped me find clarity. On the first day of class, the professor stood in front of the chalkboard and read messages from Christian condolence cards, such as: “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.” One by one, he threw them in the trash can. He gave us the term “spiritual bypassing” which means using religious practices as a defense mechanism against painful emotions. Bypassing ignores the reality of Christ’s incarnation, the way that Jesus chose to enter into suffering when he could have avoided the pain of the world. The response of the girl at bible study represents how scripture can be used to avoid the reality of present suffering, including how mental illness impacts every aspect of life. But that night, I had not yet learned any of this. While the girls placed their hands on my shoulders and prayed, I tuned them out until their requests to God sounded like background noise. This was the last time I attended a bible study or church service during college. There seemed to be a lack of space for the extent of my sorrow.
In order to continue following Jesus as a believer with bipolar disorder, I needed to abandon the doctrines of my upbringing, the belief that my suffering was an affliction given to me by God. I began working with a Christian therapist who had a different theological background than me.
My former therapists had tried to combat my depression by pointing out the lessons that Jesus was teaching me within my depression. But my new therapist was more interested in teaching me to combat the beliefs that were ingrained in me. She used terms like religious trauma to make sense of why I have anxiety attacks over specific worship songs and prayers. She taught me how my upbringing took away my ability to read every part of scripture as forms of comfort. To make things even more complicated, hypospirituality is a symptom of bipolar disorder. I could not grasp what parts of my belief were illness and what parts were authentic faith. For months, the Bible stayed unopened on my bookshelf. Whenever I read through the marginal notes and highlighted verses, I condemned myself for not being joyful.
But my aversion to scripture changed as I began discovering the passages my former pastors had overlooked, specifically the Book of Lamentations. One morning I skipped my archeology class and visited the museum park nearby campus. As I sat on a beach towel, a group of speed walkers passed me on the gravel trail. Their metallic hand weights and sweatbands made them look like cast members of an ’80s aerobics video. They marched in unison, raising their arms in exaggerated movements. I removed the Bible from my oversized tote bag. Sitting there, I returned to the spiritual practice of my youth. Closing my eyes, I flipped to a random page, believing that wherever I landed contained a cryptic message from God. I would sometimes find confusing rules from Leviticus or risqué poetry from the Song of Solomon. Once, I stumbled upon the word “orgies” and asked my mom what it meant.
But that morning at the museum, I stumbled upon Lamentations 3: “He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light; indeed, he has turned his hand against me again and again, all day long” (2-3). The darkness of the verses reminded me of the hardcore music I listened to in high school. I realized, many modern churches ignore the sentiments of lamentation. Worship music centers on celebration with songs like: Friend of God and I Could Sing of Your Love Forever. What gives me comfort sometimes turns others away. In Hebrew, the word lament translates to hikya, meaning, How or Alas!. I learned that Jeremiah wrote Lamentations after the destruction of Jerusalem, during the Babylonian invasion of 586 BC. He describes children begging for food, women being cut by swords. Jeremiah does not overlook the abject state of the city. Christian metal core rarely mentions the loss of a city, but the lyrics lament the destruction of sin and moral decay. The music seemed like a modern form of the lament, the only part of the Bible that I relate to. I began listening to the music whenever I drove to therapy or went running around campus. I sang along with those words that had first spoken to me so long ago: Unless you can part my ribs like the sea/ And my stone beat, then there’s no hope for me.
Before returning home for Christmas that year, I drove to Detroit to see As Cities Burn and Underoath perform at Detroit’s Fox Theatre. Inside, two plastered lions with jeweled eyes guard the base of the grand staircase. Like the Biblical downfall of Jerusalem, Detroit had transitioned from prosperity to decay while now facing the ongoing process of rebuilding and redemption. Fans in their mid-20s filled the venue. Many of them had stretched earlobes from removing their gauges. Everything seemed like high school, except the venue smelled like marijuana. We were older. The audience no longer embraced Straight Edge culture or banned alcohol. Many people held solo cups filled with cheap beer. A man with a crucifix tattoo offered to buy me PBR. Instead, I asked him to buy me a hotdog covered in chili; I refrained from drinking because I feared how it would impact my medications.
When As Cities Burn took the stage, apocalyptic images of thunderstorms and fire were projected behind the band on stage. They began by launching into the song Thus From My Lips, By Yours, My Sin Is Purged from their 2005 album, Son I Loved You At Your Darkest. The lead singer, Cody Bonnette, screamed the chorus,
And oh how sweet the sound
I know it saved but is it changing a wretch like me?
And oh my God how sweet is the sound
I was blind but now I just look away
When I listened to the song while driving to a high school retreat years ago, the lyrics seemed like blasphemy. Alone as my friends bodysurfed through the crowd, I thought of how Christian metal core rarely mentions the loss of a city, but the lyrics lament the destruction of sin and decay. The music became a way of mourning the loss of my childhood faith while learning to accept the reality of an illness that made God seem distant.
As Underoath took the stage, the screen went dark, and the echoes of crowd screaming mirrored the weeping described in Lamentations: My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within; my heart is poured out on the ground…(2:11). I watched boys dance underneath the strobe lights. I locked eyes with someone who reminded me of a drummer who my friend went on a date with. Days after he chipped his tooth in a mosh pit, they’d gone to a coffee shop, where he cried about losing his virginity. The incoherent lyrics and reckless drum solos reminded me of the gnashing of teeth, which the New Testament deploys as a statement of grief. This was the closest I came to worshipping God in years. The mosh pit moved me closer to an auditorium wall. Together, we chanted lyrics like I had in church, but these words acknowledged our own fears and doubts. Standing there, I began to believe that uncertainty can exist within faith. Eventually we will sink or swim, sink or swim, sink into the great abyss. There are times when I fall in love with doubt more than adoration. The idea of a God who allows questions and doubt is a God full of grace. I am learning to resist a God who only values happiness and unflinching faith.
Years later, I began attending church after finding a congregation that offered an entire sermon series on the Book of Lamentations. When I consider why I’ve chosen to hold onto faith, I still lack answers. But I know that rediscovering the music of my youth, which was filled with words echoing my own doubt, helped to reshape my faith. Following Jesus has never seemed like a choice, but more of a longing that follows me regardless of how far I try to run away from God. My Atheist friends say that my faith gives me a false sense of comfort. But there is nothing comfortable about choosing a faith that embraces the unanswerable questions of suffering and doubt. I cannot explain why, but this does not denote the weight of what I’ve committed myself to.
The small services never seem like grand productions with thrashing drums or strobe lights. Sometimes the instruments are out of tune, sometimes typos appear in the slideshow. Every month, I stand at the front of the congregation and hand out communion. Growing up, I found the sacrament to be a chore. Pastors would begin with a forewarning that the meal is reserved for the saved. But now I have a pastor who selects different words of Jesus: “Come you who are broken and weary.”
I watch as people lower their hands into the clay goblet that I hold with both of my hands. The congregation rises from the pews and gathers into a single file line in the center of the church. “Blood of Christ shed for you,” I say to everyone who passes by. These words are repeated like a poetic refrain. Some of the congregants cross their hands, others mutter prayers. I wonder if anyone notices my bitten-down fingernails, and the stains on my jeans that I have worn three times in a week. I wonder if anyone can tell how I have entered into another depressive episode for the fifth time this year. For a moment, I am given space to focus on the extent of Christ’s suffering as I listen to the church band sing a line that mirrors the only prayer that I can bring myself to say: “How Long, O Lord?”
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Anna Gazmarian is working on a memoir in-progress about faith and spiritual trauma. She is an MFA candidate at Bennington College.
Editor: Sari Botton