Blog: The Sacred and Profane

Luke Oram

What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music…. And people flock around the poet and say: ‘Sing again soon’ – that is, ‘May new sufferings torment your soul but your lips be fashioned as before, for the cry would only frighten us, but the music, that is blissful.

– Soren Kierkegaard

Authenticity is the artist’s great white whale.

A songwriter is an expert bloodletter; they know that when they tap a deep vein, when they open up the chambers of their hearts in their art, they have reached a true and beautiful thing. They know that, in turn, taking this risk will create a deep connection, a strange synthesis with the person who consumes their art. This is the beauty of the song; that the artist’s vulnerability breeds vulnerability in the listener, their music speaks a language that is translated directly by the soul.

Chad Gardner, frontman of 10-piece Seattle outfit Kings Kaleidoscope knows a lot about the lovely music of anguish. A survivor of megachurch Mars Hill’s much publicized 2014 implosion, Gardner led his band through a journey of brokenness, anxiety and doubt in Kings Kaleidoscopes’ 2014 debut ‘Becoming Who We Are’. The album was an exciting discovery; this hybrid of modern worship hymns and intensely personal accounts of Gardner’s life, including ‘Zion’, a song about his stillborn son.

The band’s sophomore effort ‘Beyond Control’, released last month, sees Gardner digging even deeper inward, with a group of songs that traverse a landscape of emotional extremes; a description of what Tolkien described as “a place where joy and sorrow are sharp as swords.”

However, it looks like this time all that mining’s hit a nerve.

The band’s currently courting controversy among their conservative thanks to one of the album’s closing tracks, ‘A Prayer’. Gardner says the song was one of his most vulnerable efforts, with lyrics taken straight from his journal:

“That song comes from the deepest part of my gut and my being, and the fear that I face throughout my life – I’ve had really severe anxiety disorder my whole life, and that’s been a major part of my struggle and story. That song is about the fear of running from God or that God will turn his back on me and I will end up apart from him in hell. And the actual lyric is something that is from my journal – I don’t know how everyone else has conversations with God, but I have very vulnerable conversations, and God already knows how afraid I am. I usually figure it’s good for me to pour out my soul to him, and that’s what that song is.”

Listen to the track and check out the full lyrics to ‘A Prayer’ below:

Will I fall or will I misstep?
Will I fall or will I misstep?
Will I call you with my last breath?
Will you be there for me after?

Will I waste inside the silence?
Where the fear is f**king violent?
Wicked sinner thrown to lions
With no hope on the horizon

Will I fall or will I misstep?
If I fall or if I misstep
If I fall or if I misstep
If I call you with my last breath

Will you be there for me after?
Cause I’m wasting in this silence
And my fear is f**king violent
I’m a child thrown to lions

Is there hope on the horizon?
If I fall or if I misstep
Jesus, where are You?
Am I still beside You?

Jesus, where are You?
Am I still beside You?
Jesus, where are You?
Am I still beside You?
Am I still beside You?
Jesus, where are You?
Jesus, where are You?

[Jesus’ Response]

I’m right beside you! I feel what you feel!
And I’m here to hold you when death is too real!
You know, I died, too! I was terrified!
I gave myself for you! I was crucified
Because I love you! I love you, child!
I love you!
 

No-one will deny that Gardner’s tapped a deep vein in ‘A Prayer’, that he’s gone where many songwriters are afraid to, opening deep recesses of doubt, anxiety and an internal dialogue that’s plagued with fear and baggage. But chances are that’s not the first thing that struck you.

Sure, that’s a straight-up F-bomb.

It’s one word, that has become the most divisive moment of the young band’s life. Their fanbase, many of whom have spent the last few years singing Gardner’s neo-hymns in their local churches, have been split in two. Many praise the songwriter’s brutal honesty, his bravery in directly transposing his inner dialogue and foregoing the filter. Many others accuse Gardner of being an irresponsible spokesman; they quote the apostle Paul’s urging for Christians to be of ‘wholesome speech’. The comments over here are a minefield.

[Update] the band has since been dropped by major Christian festival Creation Festival.

It’s a big discussion. Massive. And probably a less linear one than we think it is. Honesty is important. Authenticity is vital to a healthy dialogue with God. But do taboos exist for an artist with a faith? After all, in a world where our modern faith is becoming increasingly deconstructed, are there still black and white guidelines somewhere?

It’s a big question. And we may never get to the empirical bottom-end of it. Perhaps there’s another question that could help us explore the initial one – motivation.

I guess if you were using Conservative Christian language, you’d say the heart of it. Because even the Good Book can seem contradictory when it comes to our motivations. Sure, external behaviours are addressed; watch your mouth, be responsible with your tongue, don’t offend. Keep it clean. But alongside this advice we discover a Christ who forgave prostitutes and tax collectors, possessing the ability to see past their external state and find purity in their intent. He is the God who said to Samuel “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart”. He’s also the guy who called his fellow church leaders hypocrites and white-washed tombs.

Around here, our central challenge to artists lies in their motivations. Nothing about their art, including their language should be gratuitous – that’s a pointless waste. But will there be times when emotion is so strong it cannot be contained by conventional language? When the function of vocabulary falls short? In penning ‘A Prayer’ and refusing to censor it, Gardner felt like he was being his most authentic self – we’ve all had those moments, where political correctness falls short.

The jury on the semantics of F-bombs and the newly dubbed genre of ‘Explicit Worship’ may be out for a while yet. In the meantime, can we connect with the blood behind Gardner’s diary entry? Can we see past it to find the authentic, broken prayer, and if so, does a cussword cut all that off at the knees?