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December 20, 2012

Book Notes - Chris Stedman "Faitheist"

Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Chris Steadman's book Faitheist is both memoir and manifesto, chronicling his life in and out of faith as a young gay male and calling for common ground and dialogue between non-believers and the religious. His life story is fascinating and engaging and his arguments crisp and intelligent in this timely, important book.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"...he paints an intimate and deeply affecting portrait of his own life, one characterized by the sort of staggering dissonances—gay Christian teen, religion-degree-seeking atheist—that could cripple a person. But Stedman is nothing if not determined, and his resulting journey toward personal reconciliation through service work and interfaith dialogue is inspiring. Stedman's story is motivational, his thoughts on interreligious dialogue insightful, and in this short memoir, he proves himself an activist in the truest sense and one to watch."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Chris Stedman's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious:

I believe that the universe contains no preordained meaning—that, as humans, we create our own. Alongside community, dialogue, and education, music is one of the ways I find meaning most readily. I wrote a music review column in college, and continued to post embarrassingly exhaustive lists of my favorite albums of the year on my own blog for years. At the beginning of Faitheist, I admit that I once dreamed of being a rapper. (I still daydream about it.) Though my writing and work today are focused on religion and atheism, music will always be one of my greatest passions and a huge source of inspiration.

So the task of determining which songs to list as a companion for Faitheist was daunting, but also exciting. I spend at least half of my waking hours listening to music, and this was especially true while I worked on Faitheist. I don't have the best memory, so I would listen to music that was significant to me at different points in my life to better connect with the past experiences I was trying writing about. I left unconscious traces of this signpost process throughout the book, mentioning songs and musicians with great frequency. (Nearly half of the songs or artists listed below are directly referenced in Faitheist.)

This list represents some of the music that has mattered to me over the years, but it isn't comprehensive—there are songs, musicians, and albums I love not included here, and I no longer love or even particularly enjoy a couple of the songs listed below. Instead, I see this as a kind of soundtrack to the book. It may be a bit excessive, but that's a testament to the central role music has played in my life, and in enabling me to write this book.

1. The Sound of Arrows, "M.A.G.I.C."

Yesterday, I had the longest ever dream / that the world was endless with possibilities / It had me thinking, one should never forget / that there are wonders, we haven't seen yet

As I finished writing Faitheist, I played The Sound of Arrows' forward-thinking Nova quite a bit. This song in particular conveys a sense of possibility and discovery. The chorus consists of a simple repeated phrase: "The world is full of magic." That's an attitude I try to live out—that, despite my frustrations and fears, there is always more to learn and discover.

2. of Montreal, "Gronlandic Edit"

I guess it would be nice to give my heart to a god, but which one do I choose?

Raised irreligious, I was curious about religion, but didn't really understand why people were religious. Before long, that changed dramatically.

3. John Grant, "Sigourney Weaver"

When I woke up today, the air was very strange / I couldn't feel my skin and there was evil in my bones / I tried to speak but found that I didn't have a voice / It was a prison like the one you would find in the twilight zone

John Grant's Queen of Denmark is one of my all time favorite albums. Much of it grows out of his experiences as a closeted gay youth in a religious environment, and I really connect with his descriptions of feeling like an outsider. This song relates that feeling with heart and humor, and it perfectly captures some of the confusion and exclusion I felt as an adolescent—especially after, while seeking community, I became a Born Again Christian. Realizing I was gay shortly after I converted, my feelings of isolation increased exponentially.

4. Garbage, "Queer"

The queerest of the queer / hide inside your head

I was introduced to Garbage after I had become a rather fundamentalist Christian. Some of their lyrics made me blush—particularly in this song. As I became aware of and began to wrestle with my sexual orientation, I would listen to it and secretly, subconsciously relish in their unapologetic use of what I considered a terribly dirty word.

5. dcTalk, "Jesus Freak"

What will people think / when they hear that I'm a Jesus freak?

This song plays as an almost bizarro-"Queer." I listened to it a lot in the years following my conversion to evangelical Christianity—in part because I felt like such a freak. "I ain't into hiding the truth," concludes the song's chorus. But at the point I most loved this song, I was all about hiding the truth, trying to convince the world I was a straight Christian.

6. eels, "Suicide Life"

I don't know where I'll go / … / I'm so tired of living / the suicide life / That ain't no reason to live

As I spiraled deeper into my despair over being gay and Born Again, I began to contemplate suicide. Feeling isolated and helpless, I was terrified that I'd be kicked out of my home if my secret was discovered—a fate I considered worse than death, but perhaps not as bad as eternal damnation.

7. Cass McCombs, "You Saved My Life"

Here I stand, alive unto / because you saved my life / Now I see there's so much to lose

This song is for my mother who, upon learning of my struggle, helped me come to accept my sexual orientation. Her intervention quite literally saved my life, and I'll always be grateful for her act of love.

8. Audio Adrenaline, "Pierced"

You forgave me and made me new

After I started to accept myself and come out as gay, I didn't know how to feel about the church. But my commitment to Christianity was renewed through a youth program called Teens Encounter Christ (TEC). Soon after joining the program, I came out to the entire community in a talk I gave at a TEC retreat, which was accompanied by this song (all TEC talks were paired with a song). To my great surprise, they accepted me. Before I found that kind of acceptance at school or among my friends, I found it in a church from a group of Christians I didn't know all that well. I will forever associate this song with that moment.

9. Relient K, "I Am Understood?"

Sometimes it's embarrassing to talk to you / To hold a conversation with the only one who sees right through / this version of myself I try to hide behind

This selection is from another Christian band I listened to quite a bit in high school, but it's significant for another reason. When I was seventeen years old, I had my first romance. We quickly fell high-school-head-over-heels, and solidified our relationship by making elaborate mix CDs for one another. I included this earnest, saccharine song on his because I couldn't believe I had met someone in high school who understood what it was like to grow up gay in a religious environment, and who loved me for the person I was.

10. Elliott Smith, "I Better Be Quiet Now"

If I didn't know the difference / living alone would probably be okay / It wouldn't be lonely

That relationship ended quite abruptly when his disapproving parents learned of it. I dramatically locked myself in my room, listened to Elliott Smith, and sobbed. After that, I lost a lot of the renewed hope I had felt, becoming increasingly resentful toward religious institutions that perpetuate anti-gay attitudes.

11. St. Vincent, "All My Stars Aligned"

I read the signs / I got all my stars aligned / … / There are no signs / there are no stars aligned / no amulets, not a charm

I went off to college to become a Christian minister because I wanted to help others—and the people I knew who gave their lives to serving others were ministers. I felt that my negative experiences within Christianity had equipped me to assist those struggling with similar issues. This song about lost love, and the pain that comes when expectations aren't realized, parallels how I felt as I started to second-guess the religious beliefs that I thought were driving what I wanted to do with my life.

12. Tom Waits, "God's Away on Business"

It's all over / It's all over, It's all over / There's a leak, there's a leak in the boiler room/ The poor, the lame, the blind / Who are the ones that we kept in charge? / Killers, thieves, and lawyers / God's away / God's away / God's away / on business

13. Nada Surf, "Whose Authority"

Under whose authority? / I have none over me

14. Cursive, "Rise Up, Rise Up"

So rise up, rise up! / There's no one to worship / But plenty of life to lose / … / But do you want to hear my confession? / It's my greatest sin / Ok, here it is: I wasted half of my life on thought that I'd live forever 

As I began to question the existence of God in college, I became bolder in my questioning of religious authority. Eventually recognizing my atheism, I became disenchanted with religion—and somewhat angry about it. As I divorced myself from Christianity and began to find the courage to say that aloud, I felt very conflicted about religion, and struggled to have constructive interactions with religious individuals.

15. Matthew Dear, "Deserter"

I am really all that I've been looking for

After college, I escaped to a rural town. I got a job working with adults with developmental disabilities and found my focus shifting. As Gandhi said, "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others." This song was a companion as I began to find myself again. Of course, as I was reminded by my work helping others, no one exists alone. Community was still important to me, but I needed to find my own footing first.

16. Bill Callahan, "Faith/Void"

It's time to put God away

Eventually, I was able to make peace with the culmination of my religious beliefs. I came across this song later in life, and it remains a favorite to this day. Gorgeous and spare, it feels almost like an atheist hymn.

17. Okkervil River, "John Allyn Smith Sails"

And so I fly into the brightest winter sun of this frozen town / I'm stripped down to move on

I decided that I wanted to try to understand religious believers and communities—and to open up about my atheism in the process. Electing to leave that small town in northern Minnesota and move to Chicago to study religion, I blasted this song while packing and sang along at the top of my lungs.

18. Joan as Police Woman featuring Rufus Wainwright, "To America"

To America, America! / Alone, alone, alone, alarm, alive!

I played this song over and over as I moved to Chicago, and it girded my hope in the face of a whole lot of unknowns. Leaving my family and friends behind, I felt at once completely alone and entirely alive. Even after I was physically attacked by anti-gay bigots, my general attitude was infused with optimism that a better world is possible.

19. Wilco, "Theologians"

Theologians / they don't know nothing about my soul

I listened to this song on my way to my first day as an intern at Interfaith Youth Core—a nonprofit that works with young people of different religious backgrounds to promote dialogue and cooperation—wondering how an interfaith group would function, and whether there would be a place for me as an atheist. Could atheists and religious believers really find points of agreement without pretending they agree about absolutely everything? Imagine my surprise at seeing a colossal Wilco poster in the office of the organization's founder. Even the smallest bit of commonality can feel significant.

20. Brother Ali, "Tight Rope"

Wear the wrong garment your parents get an ulcer / If you wrap it up the other children picking on you / … / He retreats inside himself  / Where he lives life itself in secret / Daddy says people go to hell for being / What he is, and he certainly believes him / … / It's a cold world y'all / Shame on us.

When I was in college, I volunteered at a community center that primarily served members of Minneapolis' Muslim community. But due to my conflicted feelings about religion, I avoided conversations about religion. Years later I had the opportunity to work with members of Chicago's Muslim. Early on, I found solidarity with someone over our mutual love for this song. We bonded over how we both felt that the song represented struggles we had experienced and the parallels between them. By the end of the conversation, she and I had uncovered a lot of common ground between our seemingly disparate identities.

21. The Avett Brothers, "The Perfect Space"

I wanna have friends that I can trust / that love me for the man I've become not the man I was

22. The Notwist, "One With the Freaks"

Have you ever been all messed up? / … / All of a sudden, you are one with the freaks

23. Sigur Rós, "Við Spilum Endalaust"

We play endlessly, we play endlessly together / We play everywhere together, we sing all together (English translation)

Sometimes it feels like the only thing that unites us is the joyous, awkward, and occasionally agonizing experience of being human. But perhaps that is enough. I believe that we can find happiness and make progress as a society by seeing and treating one another as fellow human beings, in spite of the different labels and ideas we sometimes cling to. When I finally let go of the idea that I was going to "belong" somewhere, and that I couldn't connect with people who see the world differently than I do, I found my community expanded beyond the boundaries I had created for myself.

24. Sufjan Stevens, "Impossible Soul"

We can do much more together

This is one of my favorite songs from Sufjan Stevens, a man who has made many of my favorite songs. It feels like a lifetime or a year—there are dramatic and unexpected transitions, the changing of seasons, cycles of emotions. As the song winds down his voice remains, accompanied by a simple, gentle guitar plucking, as he repeats: "We can do much more together." My life hasn't been long, but after struggling with religious exclusivism and tribalism as both a Christian and an atheist, I've come to believe that we can accomplish more by working together to get past our disagreements. In a world where religious differences are frequently used as an excuse to dominate and divide, it strikes me as our best bet for a better world.

25. Shakira, "She Wolf"

There's a she wolf in your closet / Let it out so it can breathe

Bonus track. Because, why not? Life is short, and this song is replete with (sounds resembling) wolf cries, a reference to lycanthropy, and this line: "I'm starting to feel just a little abused like a coffee machine in an office." When I feel overwhelmed or discouraged, I listen to this song and laugh. In the face of life's many challenges, sometimes you just have to embrace the absurd.

Chris Stedman and Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious links:

the book's website
the author's collaborative blog
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Booklist review
Feminismxianity review
Kirkus Reviews review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
Skeptic review

Beacon Broadside interview with the author
EDGE Boston profile of the author
Oberlin review interview with the author
Patrol interview with the author
Pioneer press profile of the author
Popbytes interview with the author
Religion Dispatches interview with the author
The Rumpus essay by the author
Washington Post interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

The list of online "best of 2012" book lists
The list of online "best of 2012" music lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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