Since 1991, Bill Mallonee has been on the road and in the hearts of many music fans. Mallonee fronted the band Vigilantes of Love until 2001 before going solo. At one point he played up to 180 shows a year across the country and internationally. He has released 25 albums which have consistently received 4 and 5 stars reviews from a variety of publications. Buddy Miller has called Mallonee one of his all-time favorite artists, and he ranked at #65 in Paste‘s list of the 100 Greatest Living Songwriters. But critical acclaim does not always equal commercial success and great reviews do not always sell albums as the demise of Vigilantes of Love reminded us.
I recently called Bill at his Georgia home to get his thoughts on faith, art, “Christian” music, Jack Kerouac and just about everything in between. The interview appears in two installments beginning today. Enjoy.
- Where you raised in a musical home?
Yes, my Dad was a jazz drummer so there was great music going on almost all the time.
- How has your upbringing impacted your art?
My family upbringing was driven by alcohol and it was extremely abusive so on the negative side of the equation it’s affected it a lot. If it’s affected my life in a warm fuzzy way, the answer would be no. There was just a great deal of turmoil and tension that even up until this very minute has reaped a huge negative influence in my life so it’s tough to really know how to answer that question.
- When did you first become interested in music?
Music was a means of escape from the insanity of the household. I was a drummer at an early age, my Dad was a bit of a jazz drummer and I grew up on the British Invasion stuff and had drums which was probably a bit of salvation, to be able to get really good at something and learn how it works. I got inside all of that and loved the records that were coming over. Some American bands but a lot of British groups. It was that world that kids get into where one band kind of becomes the beacon or the icon that an individual sort of rallies hopes, dreams and aspirations around.
The bands that I listened to at that time I guess; I was a big fan of the Hendrix Experience, Eric Clapton and Cream. I was also a big fan of the folk-rock psychedelic stuff that was out on the West Coast, kind of no-name bands that people wouldn’t have heard of necessarily. I was a big fan of The Byrds, but what I do know is sort of an Americana sound. My sound has drifted over the years to be able to incorporate both of those influences. When I’m playing in a band format I tend to go towards stuff that’s in that direction; I’ve done kind of folk-rock, psychedelic Americana records and other albums that are more just straight-ahead folk. But those were the kinds of groups I was brought up on. Definitely The Beatles and the whole harmonic structure of what Lennon and McCartney were about was just profoundly huge on me.
- Describe the move from playing drums to being the one out front. When did you realize you had something to say?
That actually wasn’t until much later. I was real into life before I ever picked up a guitar. I think part of it was just the need to try and make sense of the ramshackle, incongruous life that I’d had. It was sort of like the guitar was a cheap form of therapy.
- The band went through several incarnations, how did you finally arrive at the Vigilantes of Love?
You know, the Vigilantes started just in the Athens, GA music scene. It didn’t come out of anything except an Athens music scene. We were, on any given weekend, competing for stage space in a club with some of those big Athens bands that made it like R.E.M. obviously. The rather lesser bands that had a fairly strong impact on the town were bands like Pylon and Love Tractor and we were all competing for the same space. We made it out a few years later when we finally got signed. The local music scene, the sort of “hipster” scene was the incubator for what I was doing and what we were trying to put across but it go through various incarnations just because with this town, so many people were playing in and out of each other’s groups and when we finally got signed in ’92, actually playing in Austin, TX as South by Southwest, that kind of cemented the group for at least a spell.
- Mark Heard and Peter Buck of R.E.M. worked together with you on Killing Floor. That seems like an odd pairing, how did that come about?
It was a total odd pairing, I agree. In fact, you’re the first person that’s ever said that out loud, though I think some people have probably raised an eyebrow. I had done two independent records at that point, probably written about 150 songs. One album was called Jugular and the other Driving the Nails, so we came up on this album called Killing Floor and it had had some interest. Pete Buck was kind of an acquaintance, not really a friend, but he said that he would be interested in working on a record with me, but the investors were actually part of Mark Heard’s label. That was guys like Dan Russell and a couple of other guys, there were three that sort of drove that thing. That was being based more or less in Boston. Dan Russell handles Black Rebel Motorcycle Club but Dan at the time was Mark’s manager and then came on board and managed me for about seven years. So that was the weird pairing. It was sort of like “Well, if you’re signing with us, we’d like to volunteer Mark at least as a co-producer/engineer on the project.
As it kind of worked out, for the two weeks, sixteen days or whatever it was, Mark was actually in the studio for the bulk of it, Pete Buck actually had very little to do with that record. He was in for about three days. Pretty much between Mark and I, we produced the record in probably two weeks and then there were another 30 phone calls and that was about it. Mark had his first heart attack at the Cornerstone festival that year and then a subsequent heart attack maybe 30 or 45 days later, something like that. I didn’t know Mark that well. I knew kind of, vaguely, what Mark was doing in the sort of sidebar thing of “Contemporary Christian Music,” but I wasn’t associated with that, so I didn’t know Mark except for previous histories.
- You were a school teacher, and then a stay-at-home Dad, and thena full-time musician, which brings up the idea of making sacrifices for art and romanticizing that concept. Looking back, what’s your perspective on those early years and that concept?
I think it’s great though I think in some ways it kind of hurt us. I think that staying at home and hanging out with the kids for six or seven years; we had the role-reversal thing going on. I was writing and then playing on the weekends but by the time the band really got going my kids were in grade school so there was a little bit less need for Dad to be immediately around. I wouldn’t have traded it for the world.
In the long run, when you look at it, artists are often viewed as completely irresponsible sorts of people because they end up giving everything for their art and they’re socially maladjusted and their relationships are all awry; there’s some truth to that. The stereotypes are only around as you know, because there’s a grain of truth in there. But I had all of that stability to create out of. It’s weird though, because even though I had the stability, at the same time, the music was pretty bleak and pretty dark. Once again, I think I was just trying to work out all those inner demons from just having grown up in a crazy family which affects everything. It affects your ability to believe in God, to trust Him, to view yourself with any kind of wholesome perspective.
It runs real deep and you don’t realize it all of the time. When you grow up, you think “Oh, this is normal, this is the family,” and then finally, maybe if you’re lucky enough in your teens and twenties, you realize that it wasn’t normal because your able to judge it against other people’s lives and family upbringing and you finally realize yours was crazy as hell. Then you start to wonder “Gosh, I wonder if this left some scars and some marks.”
Yes, I did the house-Dad thing with the kids. Then when we started playing, it took off at a time when it actually became feasible for me to get in a van and go to 140, well, initially we weren’t doing that many shows, we probably did 100 shows a year at first. But very quickly, by the early ‘90’s, it was up to about 160 and 180 shows, through pretty much about ’94, through about 2001. So I was gone a good, solid 5, maybe 6 months out of the year or so.
- You mentioned some of the bands from Athens that “made it,” sounding as if you didn’t make it . .
I think that Athens has been a horrible home for us. It was never a town that embraced us. I’m 99% sure it’s because the perception was that it was a “Christian” band with a “Christian” agenda.
- The other side of that though is that you haven’t ever really been accepted by “Christian” music either…
No, that’s why Bill has lived below the poverty level!
- Would you call yourself a Christian?
I usually have to ask people what defines that. I’m a creedal-believing Roman Catholic. I tell people I’m an evangelical in recovery. I did 25 years in a Presbyterian house church and was even an Elder for 7 years, so I understood that whole approach. I think my perspective is that I think the church talked out of both sides of its mouth. During that mid ‘90’s period, there were so many CCM mainstream bands out there, everybody from Third Day to Jars of Clay that had these slight Americana overtones but the band they were all listening to was Vigilantes of Love. Tons and tons of bands and artists and I knew because I met them, knew them on a first-name basis and they would always tell me “We love Vigilantes of Love, you guys are spectacular.” The records we were listening to weren’t CCM records, they were Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. On the college side of the equation we listened to Wilco and Son Volt, The Jayhawks and we were trying to make music; I was trying to write and make music that I felt was competitive with that.
The weird thing to me is that the church during that time period was talking out of its mouth very long and loud in its publications, its seminars, everything about “faith, art and cultural relevancy” and after a while, I kept thinking “Good grief, I can’t think of another band that’s more authentic than VOL, we’re very rarely playing churches, we’re out there playing clubs on most nights.” I was being as articulate as I could coming from a mild to hyper-Calvinistic sort of Reformed, theological perspective and I was trying to make that hip and understandable, articulating that in the press. I didn’t do it obviously for money reasons. I never thought I would be a songwriter or a musician and now I realize its my vocation and calling, but that didn’t come to me until a little bit later in life.
All of that to say that there were numerous bands who I thought had way lesser talent that went right by us in terms of success and stability and all of that. We just felt continually like we were getting kicked to the curb. When it came down to having a home to come home to, i.e. Athens, GA, the preconception that it was already a Christian band with a Christian agenda hurt us amazingly.
It actually hurt us in the secular press too. A record that actually sprung us nationally was a record that we did with Buddy Miller in 1999 called Audible Sigh. That record was in the charts in England very quickly. It’s as good if not better than anything; and you know, this is my less-than-humble opinion, as anything Son Volt or Wilco ever did. It sold real well for being a very small label with no resources behind it at all. We went out and toured 200 shows that year behind it. The record had Buddy Miller, who at the time was Emmylou Harris’ guitar player, Steve Earle’s guitar player, Buddy produced it, Emmylou Harris sang on it, we had a little bit of “star power” working on the fringes of the record and that made for a good bit of a story, but you know, at the end of the day, there was a particular Americana journal called No Depression. The title’s taken from a Carter Family song, an old spiritual that the Carter Family did.
But No Depression magazine learned from Buddy directly, whom they loved, they’d given Buddy a cover story once in a while. This was before Paste, before Harp, before a lot of the trendier Americana magazines, this was the journal to be in. When the record came out, they refused a story. They said “they didn’t think Vigilantes of Love counted.” I remember walking around Nashville that night, in the middle of the recording session and we just found out they weren’t even going to review the dang record; I just remember crying out, thinking “Lord, this isn’t fair!” The church isn’t getting it and the “secular” people who it was actually being made for, they aren’t getting it either. The weird thing is, if you go in that record and take it apart, there’s nothing in it, there’s nothing in it that would lead you to believe one way or the other that I’m a Christian. You would just say that this guy knows about the dark side of life and he’s hoping for some kind of redemption. Sometimes that has a religious symbology in it, but that’s really as far as you get into it in that record. I think the preconception on that side was that it was an Americana band with a Christian agenda but it was just being wrapped up in this Americana overlay, so they just weren’t going to have any part in it. Pretty much a year later the band was done.
You just can’t keep playing when there’s no audience. I’d kept four or five guys in a truck well paid and fed for almost ten years and so I just gave up. So my little ax to grind with Evangelical “faith art and cultural” voices is, “OK, where were you people? You were certainly supporting U2 and Bruce Cockburn and on the other side of the equation, you were certainly supporting people like Waterdeep and Derek Webb, Caedmon’s Call and all that other stuff.” But where was the little bit of love when we needed 20,000 record sales to even put a record in the CMJ charts, we didn’t have anything from you guys.
I recognized very, very quickly that I was starting to get bitter about it. I was poor. I was selling gear, I was into deep, deep debt and there was nothing that was even remotely stable. But all during that time, when most critics who were actually writing about it were giving it 4 and 5 star reviews, so the incongruity of it was just madness.
- So how have you wrestled against bitterness?
Well, I wrestle with it, but I don’t win. At this point in my life with 25 records out and 17 years of touring, it’s just, there are really days when I wake up and think “Shoot, I should have gotten a job at the Post Office or taken a High School job teaching.” But in some ways, I’m so committed to this thing that I’m really not even employable. I spent last Christmas just desperate after I’d sold a guitar, just to pay the rent. I spent last Christmas looking for a job and couldn’t find one. Nowhere, not even a temporary service. You go in and fill out an application somebody says “Well, what have you been doing for the last years, what was your last job?” When I say I was self-employed, they ask “Oh really, what were you doing?” When I say I was a songwriter, I managed a band and made records, you can just see them look, they look at the application and just say “Mr. Mallonee, we might call you later!” Nobody ever did. And we’re talking school systems, hospitals, temporary work for Christmas shoppers; nothing, I got nothing last year. It’s pretty scary. Bitterness? I don’t know the answer to that. Sometimes I really do wonder. The whole thing’s starts to feel a little bit like the book of Job without a happy ending.
I know you’ve interviewed Doug Burr (see Doug’s interview here). Doug’s been at it for a while. Doug’s an acquaintance. I think if we were living within each other’s 100-yard radius or something we’d probably be friends. Doug’s a young guy starting out with it and I wish him the best but for me, it just seems like every time we’ve ramped up with a new record and good intentions; and I don’t know the business side of it. Most people who stood outside of it who do know the business say “You guys were so connected to the wrong people and not inside the right pipeline, that’s why it never happened.” I keep thinking, you know, I just didn’t even think about that, I’m an artist and a writer, I’m not a business man, I don’t jockey for position, trying to be at the right table trying to brown-nose somebody so I can get my record in the right magazine. I just figure, the cream rises; somebody hears it and it moves from one level to another. I think that was my misplaced faith, I kept thinking that God is bigger than Interscope records, and He’s bigger than David Geffen, He’s bigger than all that and in reality, I don’t really know anymore. Like I said, I see so many lesser artists who have so little to say and they make these paint-by-numbers sort of songs out of Nashville, but, they’re selling records. People are digging them. I just don’t even have an answer, so if I sound dazed and confused, you got it.
- For someone like Doug Burr, just coming up, what is some advice you might pass along?
Doug’s got a good thing. He has spent years sort of getting to the first record. He was sending me demos of his stuff years ago. I thought it was pretty good then but now I think it’s really well formed. That’s just judging from an outsider’s perspective. I didn’t think it was hugely great initially, but there was a record he did I got a copy of about three years ago I think, Sickle and the Sheaves and I thought that record had a real spark of something genuinely cool in it and I kind of feel like he’s followed that through to this Promenade record.
The only advice: I think he’s doing it right, Doug’s a family guy, he’s got a kid and he’s married and I think he’s going to start finding out what that balance is like. The advice would be, well, I taught high school and it got to the point of “well, we’ve got a record deal now” and it was a decent deal, so I quit the day job. With Doug doing the indie thing, things are a little bit different because when I came up in ’92, that’s 15 years ago now, it was the “sign to a label, have the label be the bank” so to speak and offer the resources, it was a different paradigm from what’s going on now. So now if someone goes out and sells 5,000, 10,000 records, that’s as large of an impact of, say, in the ‘90’s when we were going out and selling 20,000-25,000 records. But the overhead was a little bit higher. In this day and age, you make the record, hand it to the label, they put it out and I know he’s got a pretty good press agent I think working for him. That’s one thing that I haven’t actually had the resources to do because they’re so expensive. A good press agent will cost you about $1,500-$2,000/month. I don’t have those kinds of coins to do anything now.
I’ve made records into a solo career now, but I’m just selling to old VOL fans who are generous enough to keep ponying up money. I think the records are good. I think actually the life experiences have made the songs better and better but I’m not really able to round it out with a band or a really good studio. I do most of it just right here in my kitchen. They’re very acoustic, home-spun records. My wife and I make those records and that’s kind of where it’s fallen. I can’t remember what the quote is in an old Dylan song but it’s something like “You’re either on the way up or on the way down.” For me, one of the sad things is that I feel like none of the records have actually gotten the kick-off or the birthday they deserved. When we were in the middle of it, traveling like nomads for 180 shows a year, it kind of began to feel like something was happening, but on the other side of the equation, it never felt like there was a strategy behind anything. So the advice to Doug would be: try to find something that looks and smells a little bit like a strategy, although you’ll never be able to cover all the bases, there’s so much of it; good intentions and strategy, all of the sudden you realize that you’ve come to the end of that very short fuse and you’re just making it up as you go. Hopefully, the lines fall, as the Scriptures say, “the lines fall in pleasant places,” but sometimes they don’t.
I was always laboring under the illusion that if you gave it 110%, and put your heart in it, and I felt like the music we made was consistently good, I can truthfully say that out of the 25 albums and probably the 1,500 songs I’ve written that there’s not a single one that’s filler. I am so heavy with the self-editing that by the time it gets to a record, you’ll find that the records are extremely conceptual from beginning to end. Over the last couple of years I’ve started to make records that have only 10 or 11 songs on them just because I want the concept and the themes to be really strong and I think that the average listener has more of an ADD personality now.
Our attention spans are a little bit less than they used to be. The idea of listening to a 60 or 70 minute record, it’s like, I can hardly hang with it anymore when people put out records that long. So I just keep thinking make something really concise and if it’s a pop record, get in, get out, say it in like 44, 45 minutes, kind of like records were in the ‘60’s, really. You had 10 or 12 songs and they all clocked in at about 38 minutes and that was your record, whether it was Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys or Sgt. Peppers by The Beatles, they were both actually, time-wise, pretty short albums, so I try to keep it kind of that way, it’s just a way of continuing to make real consistent statements.
But again, I wish that the records had all gotten a proper kick-off because they’ve all gotten great reviews whenever there was any press there that was willing to take a chance and listen to it and review it. We’ve never hired the killer publicist who was going to put it on the right desk in front of the right people to say the right things about it and I think now, American rock journalism, if it’s guilty of anything, it’s primarily guilty of writing infomercials for people that have already got labels and resources to make sure those things perpetuate and continue on. I’m just convinced that that’s kind of the way it works. Not that there isn’t some real artistry going on, but there’s also a lot of making sure; there’s a great deal of turf guarding and gatekeeping that’s going on so we were never really able to break into much of it. I think the Christian thing actually hurt us over the long haul.
- How do you try to incorporate your faith into your art without falling into Christian clichés?
I think you just write from your perspective. That’s a whole interesting topic and again, I think Catholic novelists and artists and writers and musicians over the centuries, if you want to go back that far, have a far easier job of making work that stands versus CCM. CCM has always just struck me, and I didn’t come up with this term, the first time I heard it was Mark Heard, as the “ghetto” of contemporary Christian music and it seems to be something that’s kind of dictated, the output of it, the vertical and the horizontal of it, seems to be dictated by youth pastors. Yeah, you can change the dress and it can be whatever it’s going to be, you know, grunge or West Coast crunk or folk, or whatever it’s going to be, pop or whatever, but at the same time, it’s got to have pretty much the same message in it from decade to decade to decade. In some ways, after a while, if I were a kid, I’d feel heinously insulted after a while, because the stuff doesn’t really speak to every issue of life.
Now, the older you get, that doesn’t work the same way, but it seems like these artists keep coming up and they keep coming up; now what’s happened though in the last five years is that because there’s such a huge cross over, those people who grew up with their favorite CCM bands have now got kids. You’ve still got CCM bands with Christian overtones, it’s just that Christians have gotten hipper at veiling it. You end up with these bands like Arcade Fire that everybody wants to embrace and the sense of ownership. That’s what I come back to, the sense of ownership that Christians have with, quote, their band, is unbelievable. Every artist should be that kind of fortunate to have that kind of fanbase.
But my question is: “Do you like the band?” Are you into the band because they’re saying the right things and because it’s cool to have a band that’s cutting edge or because; and I pick on Arcade Fire because I think all their songs tend to sound the same even though I think they’re a good band. The hipsters won’t say it! The hipsters are looking over their shoulders to make sure everyone sees them listening and I understand hip, I’m from freaking Athens, Georgia and grew up in the hippest scene in the world, you know. I think that anyone can make a record, but if you’re going to make the same good record again on your second and third one, then, where’s the artistry? Where’s exploring deeper issues and topics?
I think that sense of ownership that contemporary Christian music fans have with bands that they perceive as “their own” is huge. It worked a little bit more in the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s than it did for us when we were coming through. I don’t know really why that is, I just know that there’s artists out there that are sort of like that. Many artists are very, very careful if you start pinning them to the wall about what they think and feel and believe about things. They get real liquid about it.
For me, my stuff is Americana. It’s always been sort of straightforward. The homage that I pay is to people like Dylan and Neil Young, that pretty straightforward kind of stuff. Springsteen maybe on a lesser scale, we get compared to R.E.M. and Tom Petty and things like that. I’m real happy with the output of it but I don’t know how to play the game where it gets inside the skulls of the leading people and they say “You know man, he’s one of ours and we need to support this,” that’s fine but I would rather just people react to the songs because they interface with it, not because of something I’m saying or not saying that’s lining up with their theology.
Roman Catholics have, I’m not evading the question I just got lost, imagine that, me being tangential, but the Roman Catholic church has had a tendency to just let its artists and writers do what they do and view grace and the power and work of the Cross in people’s lives and just let it be what it is. It’s a more fully-orbed approach to things. The Catholic Church has been full of artists who have struggled with everything from alcoholism to homosexuality, consistent faith, any of it and yet they still created great work, whether playwrights or writers, it’s all there, whereas, if somebody struggled with those sorts of things in the more succinctly defined, narrowly defined CCM market, they wouldn’t have an audience.
- Can you speculate as to why Catholic artists have traditionally been more open about their struggles than Protestant artists?
I don’t know. It seems like, by the time you’re 30 years old, you ought to know that the stuff in your skin is pretty inconsistent. I think there’s a tendency, my wife and I talk about this a lot, I think there’s a tendency for spirituality that comes out of the, well, let’s just call it “Bookstore Christianity,” the contemporary Christian bookstore mentality, there’s, to my mind anyway, there’s an element of being taught to walk in sort of a spiritual denial of what goes on under your skin. Or, you’re told that you really can have this victorious life where you sort of walk on water and you can rise above it all. My experience hasn’t been that way. I don’t know what the English play is, but “we’re not made of very stern stuff.” That theme has been underlying all of my music from the beginning.
I’m not saying it doesn’t work, I’m just saying I’m a poor specimen. Even though I believe in a historic resurrection, the power of the Cross and I’m glad when people find that bigger, higher life, but my attitude is that for some, you know what, it might just be a season. You have no idea where you’re going to be in 3 years, 5 years, and if you haven’t been tested, you really don’t know what’s under your skin. So much of CCM seems to be about insulating itself from the real struggles that people have. That’s what bothers me the most about it. It’s like when you put people in a room and you give them a buzz line to speak and some stranger walks in and they have no idea what they’re talking about. They culturally cut themselves off with this buzz language and they put it in their music and they put in their books and in their movies and the people who are starving for truth and starving for meaning and contact with God, they don’t get it. They feel like they can’t measure up, or they feel like it’s just bizarre.
I don’t know why Catholics have a little bit more freedom. Obviously somebody could point to me and say “Well, yeah Bill, the Catholics have censored book lists, they have films you’re not supposed to watch,” it’s not any less like a police force in some ways. I would agree but you’ve got to look at the fact that those books that have made the censored list are fewer and fewer over the last 50 years and they’ve actually said that some of their books are OK for their theologians to read, they would like to know what’s going on. They just don’t want the faith of the common, average layperson disturbed. The church was graced by having Pope John Paul II because he had the church presses printing Bibles, he encouraged Catholics to actually study Scripture, to learn Scripture, to read it, to figure out its history, the Catechism of the Catholic Church was reprinted in a very readable form in the early ‘90’s. He told the local dioceses all across the country and the world, “Get your people to know who they are,” because most Catholics I grew up with in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, they didn’t know. They were what they called Baltimore Catechism Catholics, they painted by numbers and touched all the right bases and everyone thought they were in, but it was ridiculous and there was an incredible amount of presumption.
There’s a book out there, I don’t know if you ever have time to read it, but there’s a guy, a Catholic author named Paul Elie, you may have heard of the book, it’s about six years old now, but it’s called The Life You Save May Be Your Own, after a Flannery O’Connor story. He covers the lives of four Catholic authors, none of them were born Catholic, but Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton and he covers the spiritual journey and the writing life of each of them. It is a really good book, it is so well done, economically written and really inspiring. But the point is that all four of these people had huge crises in their lives one after the other and two of them, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton were hell-raisers before they came into the church, so they knew the darkness they were coming out of. But that kind of stuff imbued their writing as Catholics. I think it would be great if Protestant Christianity would open itself up to a little bit more of that because I think it would see depth in its art and it would just be utilitarian in the sense that we have to create this stuff to save people to save people to save people.
- You refer to yourself as an “Evangelical in Recovery.” What was it for you that drew you from Protestantism to the Catholic Church? You didn’t just go from Evangelicalism, you went from Reformed Theology to Catholicism!
I was baptized Catholic, so I grew up in it. I guess it was a number of different things. It was the sacramental theology, I did a lot of homework on this stuff. There were a couple of books that I had read over a period of about five years, one guy named Thomas Howard who wrote a book called On Being Catholic and Howard was a Protestant, Presbyterian I think, and made a journey, I think there was another Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, he was an Anglican for about five minutes and then he made it over to the Catholic church.
This stuff started to make sense to me after a while. You know, the notion about church history and where it came from and which came first, the church or the bible. You start figuring out that there was oral tradition that was actually out there that was establishing and crystallizing in the late 100’s and 200’s and that ended up becoming the church and that then gave us the canon of Scripture. So in some ways, for people to just say, “Well I have the Bible,” my counterargument is that there was a church before there was a bible. Yes, there were a lot of documents floating around but there was a lot of old tradition that carried the message of the Gospel and people’s roles in that life before then. It all got codified and canonized in, what was it, like 392, 395, something like that at the Council of Nicea and there you have the church actually giving the bible to the church. So there’s a little different chronology in my mind about how things got started. Has it been a church full of abuses? Yes, it has been heinous. The more I read about things like the Spanish Inquisitions or just the church, the Catholic Church I’m referring to, getting into bed with political power, which it did after the fall of the Roman Empire, it got sucked into the vacuum that was left by the fall of Rome that basically, by 1000, 11000, it was almost not recognizable from anything that had been there before. It was a church in need of a savior, no doubt.
I think that Luther and all the guys before him, whether it was John Huss or whomever were right in addressing the abuses of the church, yes they were wrong, but to break from it, and I think Luther realized this at the end of his life, as soon as you break and cut faith and basically, well, in my mind, Luther’s biggest issues weren’t the doctrines of faith and justification and how that works, it was the whole notion of ecclesiology; what constitutes the church? For 1,500 years, nobody had questioned that, and then Luther basically says, “Well, it’s you, the Holy Spirit and a Bible.” Those are kind of dangerous waters and you still see we’re kind of paying the price for that. Anybody now can, quote, start a church. You can have a six-month Bible software program sent to you, the next thing you know, some guy has an English copy of the Scriptures and he legitimate enough, so to speak to start a church and that’s kind of where we’ve gotten.
So part of my journey away from a more Protestant approach has been because I think it’s been such a misused dynamic. When I was traveling on the road in the ‘90’s, I just saw so many churches that were centered around personalities, cultish kind of figureheads. I saw lots of young kids getting burned and just disillusioned that they didn’t come up on the right side of whatever issue was going on in that church and so I gravitated to something that was, in some ways, if you’ve ever been in a Catholic liturgy, it’s alternately beautiful and impersonal at the same time. You are basically invited to be a part of something that people have been standing in the stream of for 1,000 years. Actually parts of that liturgy, if it were still said in the Latin, would have been almost 1,700 years old, it goes back pretty deep, or at least the superstructure. It was there when Ignatius was going to jail. I just wanted something that felt a little bit more unchanged. I’ve had numerous artist friends who’ve gravitated toward Greek Orthodoxy for the same reasons or the Episcopal church for the love of the liturgy.
I had to take pause at what was going on in the Protestantism that I was in. You know, obviously, it’s, you know, I don’t mean we’re all asleep at the top of the mountain, but we’re all working it out. If I sound like I’m trying to make an apology, so to speak, for the Catholic Church, that’s not it at all! I hold that position lightly. It’s not an agenda of mine to ram down somebody’s throat. My journey has taken me over there. And there’s an uneasy sort of balance with it for me, because, like I said, it’s a church full of abuses.