Call it the evangelical comedown. We don’t talk about it often, but when we do, it’s a tough topic among my friends. I find to my surprise, in a city as diverse as Nashville, that apart from all superficial appearances to the contrary, we share a common bond of evangelical upbringing from which we diverge in several directions. Christian college, like a four year church camp, resulted for many of us in a decade-long comedown that unwound slowly toward various shades of agnosticism, atheism, or re-personalized orthodoxy. We’ve left countless churches that failed to make a safe space for hard questioning, some of us finally resting elsewhere, many of us nowhere. Largely, the safe space we’ve found has been our headphones — music that opens the imagination and lyrics that re-open the discussion. Tell someone that you listen to David Bazan, Mumford and Sons, or Derrick Brown, and suddenly you’re talking about more than music.

And now, with the release of their third record, Modern Vampires in the City, you can count Vampire Weekend among these.

Their music occupies a certain space carved out by J.D. Salinger, of those who were sincere before they became ironic and detached before they became (mostly) sincere again. Protagonists wrestle with their privileged status, over-think their most mundane problems, blindly deny the obvious, and ask all the wrong questions. To put it another way, Vampire Weekend sounds the way a Wes Anderson movie looks — highly curated, full of new things that seem old, and littered with dressed-down oddities and unlikely little details. They have Paul Simon’s penchant for world music appropriations, but meet them with the curiosity of bedroom pop experimenters and chops enough to acquit them of the damning stain of amateurism.

On their previous releases, Vampire Weekend and Contra, Vampire Weekend were merely tuneful, precise, and fun. They were a great listen, even on repeat, but they didn’t start or change conversations. Far from disposable, but not essential either. This time it’s different.

Without losing the wit and charm of their early work, the new record grapples with age, faith and mortality. Its natural gravity pulls in two directions at once — toward personal vulnerability and away from fear of the judgment. Some songs test relational boundaries (“Hannah Hunt,” “Step,” “Everlasting Arms”) while others rage at ticking clocks (“Obvious Bicycle,” “Don’t Lie”). Again and again, they venture where only tough conversations dare tread.

The songs on the second half of the album are where singer Ezra Koenig moves to the thematic heart of the record. Koenig gives us a challenging trio of songs (“Unbelievers”, “Worshipped You”, “Ya Hey”) that quibble with Abraham’s God while still accepting His story as somehow foundational. Is this a flight from faith, or a deeper engagement? “Through the flames, you won’t even say your name, only ‘I Am that I Am.’ But who could ever live that way,” Koenig bellows on “Ya Hey.”

“Worship You” rises to the intensity of accusation: “We worshipped you, your red right hand. Won’t we see once again? Who will guide us through the end?” If you catch God red-handed, the love affair is over, and you’re staring into the inevitable, who or what can comfort you now? If atheist apologists expect Christian agnostics to feel liberated, “Worship You” testifies to the surprising terror of it.

Direct second-person songs picking a bone with God are not new, nor are they unique to Vampire Weekend. David Bazan and a slew of artists in his wake have made it a lyrical linchpin, ever popular with exiled evangelical millennials. What sets Vampire Weekend apart here is the curiosity and optimism that steers them past the pompous gloom that makes songs about doubt such a drag. The vexing irony of so much “post-Christian” music is how preachy it is. But, questioning everything doesn’t have to be a crisis; it can actually be personable, fun, and even funny. To wake from reflexive acceptance and begin to engage deeply is highly exhilarating, and Vampire Weekend are among the first to capture what that sounds like.

So, with a wink and a nudge toward listeners on a similar trajectory, “Worship You” is a cry of annoyance with the Almighty. It’s a kind of love letter to disillusioned evangelicals everywhere. Rollicking acoustic guitars and quasi-martial drumming ripped straight from the Chris Tomlin playbook collide with a chorus one suffix away from raised hands and closed eyes, only the intent is the exact opposite. This is what it looks like to actually enjoy a crisis of faith.

If “Unbelievers”, “Through the Fire”, and “Worship You” are the brains of this record, “Step” is its heart. “Wisdom is a gift but you’d trade it for youth; age is an honor but it’s still not the truth.” Perhaps the flight from faith is only a growing pain of transformation, a necessary step to deciding what really matters. It’s worth remembering that frustration with the Almighty is not the same as outright rebellion. The God of Abraham, Jacob, and Moses is far more tolerant of doubt, criticism, and our own anger with Him than He usually gets credit for, to say nothing of His Church. So it’s understandable if trading youth for wisdom seems like a raw deal, or if the rhythms of adulthood feel less true than the follies of the young. It’s in the daily compromise of relationship that these trade-offs start to make sense and take shape into a kind of faith that puts hard questions and big grievances to rest without necessarily answering them all the way. Every quarrel is not a divorce.

So it’s between the lines of “Step” and “Hannah Hunt” that the struggle to believe reveals its source – a flight toward vulnerability. “If I can’t trust you then damn it, Hannah; there’s no future, there’s no answer,” Koenig whispers first, then jumps the octave and belts. A gentle travel diary gives way to the hurry of time, too fleeting to tolerate illusions. You’ve got to say it all before the opportunity is gone. It’s there, too on the most anthemic chorus of the record (situated over, you guessed it, more harpsichord) from “Don’t Lie”: “I want to know, does it bother you? The low click of a ticking clock? There’s a headstone right in front of you, and everyone I know.”

Death, of course, raises the inevitable question which faith tries so hard to answer. And on “Unbelievers,” Koenig recognizes the default answer (“We know the fire awaits unbelievers”) and offers a common, defiant response: “You and I will die unbelievers, bound to the tracks of the train.” It’s as if he’s pleading with a God he no longer recognizes, saying “you forced me to disbelieve; now how can you punish me for it?”

The flight from faith is always a paradox, expressing anger with a God whose existence is newly doubted. In this case, our doubter emerges from his momentary crisis with, of all things, a guitar solo that sounds curiously like the old Quaker hymn “Gift to be Simple.”

What kind of resolution is that? Where does that leave him, or us? Doubt is not a binary that sorts us on opposite sides of a towering wall, but a cloud that touches us all eventually, from which we emerge only to someday re-enter. No one is exempt.

When the music stops, the questions linger. From the safety of headphones, the asking is possible, even exhilarating. So we think, we joke, and we venture to ask the hard questions out loud, even in the Church. Our quibbles with the almighty might unite us sooner or later. There is a way through the wilderness.

About The Author

Chris Leonard

18 Responses to Vampire Weekend and the Evangelical Comedown

  1. sycamore says:

    great article! not sure about this, but you may have meant Derek Webb rather than Derek Brown. 🙂 also… “won’t we see once again” should be “won’t we see you once again.”

  2. Derrick Brown is a spoken word artist from the LA area.
    His 2009 record Black Urchin changed my life.

    Thanks for reading.

    • sycamore says:

      ah, ok! that makes more sense. i was googling for “derek brown” and not coming up with anything, trying to make sense of it. i’ll check him out.

      and man, i haven’t been able to stop listening to vampire weekend’s new one. it’s a grower.

  3. Steve says:

    Good stuff, thanks. But making the “evangelical comedown” uniquely millennial and tracing lyrics complaining to God only back to David Bazan? Stuff like that is really distracting in an otherwise great article. Just maybe stay away from anything that smacks of “this is totally new” or generational preoccupation. We were doing this stuff in the late 80’s with different music, so maybe you’ve hit upon a developmental trend instead of a change. Sorry to sound so cranky and old, because I like VW and this article quite a lot.

    • Tamara says:

      I think you’re right, Steve, that there have always been those pushing for answers from Him and struggling. But, as a “Millennial”, it does seem as if it’s happening with much more frequency and in larger numbers than in the past. I live in Alabama, just an hour south of the writer, in a very, very rural area. Here, it’s church every Sunday and that’s all there is to it. It’s still very much a way of life for many. And yet…and yet…amongst my peers, even in towns such as mine, we all seem to be asking the same questions of God, all at the same time. And not just a few. Many, MANY of us. I think the Holy Spirit is doing something here. And I don’t want to sound as if I believe I’m special somehow simply because of the decade I was born in, but our world has been changing VERY quickly since the mid-80’s – the decade many of us were born in. We’ve grown up in an time of rapid, constant change…it’s all we’ve known. And that’s made us question things many who came before us have been content to accept. I don’t think you sound cranky or old at all. I think you are however looking for recognition that there are those of you who’ve been in the trenches here for several years. And here it is: you’ve been searching for a long time. Many your age have. (And older!) And we young’ens are grateful for it. I wouldn’t be where I am if not for a small group of cranky, older folks blazing similar trails before I was old enough to walk. So, thank you. 🙂

      • Thanks, Tamara. Discussing Christians in the millennial generation typically presents the challenge of explaining that something noteworthy is happening while acknowledging that this sort of thing has happened before.

        What unique challenge does our generation present and how is the Church doing at handling that? Who is articulating it well? And what would a truly redemptive response look like?

  4. OverDeployed says:

    Hi, I’m a 45 year old evangelical missionary with a decade serving in various countries overseas. That being said, this year I have gone through one of the most difficult times of doubt that I have ever experienced. I am almost at the point of giving up the faith altogether. It’s not about ‘sin’ or anything hidden in my life pushing me away from God but rather there are intellectual, moral, aesthetic, social and political reasons — simply put, I just can’t stomach Christianity in any of its forms any longer. And I don’t know what to do about it. So my college age sons were listening to this new Vampire Weekend album and I caught the lyrics of ‘Ya Hey’ and I thought, ‘wow, these guys are asking the right questions!’ And so I was delighted to find that nuanced theme of grappling with faith and morality throughout the album. Their music has resonated with me deeply and Chris I think you really put your finger on something in this article. So, where do I (we?) go from here? I don’t know, but I’m glad I’m not alone.

  5. […] author of “When ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Is Not Enough” (RNS) • Vampire Weekend and the evangelical comedown by Chris Leonard (Patrol) • The Virgin Mary Church, A Coptic Monument to Survival Dating to Fifth Century, […]

  6. OverDeployed, thanks for sharing. Sometimes I comfort in knowing that life is a story not a snapshot, and that tomorrow is different from today. It helps me.

    Steve, I can’t quibble with either of your thoughts. I’d like to read how the comedown took shape for people not born in the 80’s. For my tribe, David Bazan was the one to crack the door open. I suspect Christians have been questioning for as long as there have been Christians.

  7. […] + Ya Hey? Vampire Weekend and the Evangelical Comedown […]

  8. Dan Meyer says:

    I think you have a virus or worm or whatever that inserts links to “payday loans” in your RSS feed. Just FYI.

    This probably sounds a lot like comment spam.

  9. Allen says:

    When I read articles like this, I see a myriad of things that aren’t new; yet every generation treats them as if they were.

    For some who might be truly weighing the merit of serving God, please read GK Chesterton’s Heretics/Orthodoxy books. Keep in mind one of his main points: “It’s never the artisans that go insane, it is always the extremely logical, analytical.” At some point, man’s desire to quantify truth to the most minute, finite, existence causes him to go crazy. There comes a point where higher truths must be accepted on the premise of faith, and to simply (and inadequately) attempt to explain them takes away from the awesomeness found in these truths, thereby making them lesser and simply untrue.

    Additionally, when I read things like this, it makes me think of the children of Israel. In reality, the crisis of faith is never brought on by God’s inconsistency, but man’s. I should think this to be the result of our westernized, frail grasp of what Lordship means. I also find that, consistent with the children of Israel, there is a lack of desire to search out the truth in God’s word as opposed to listening to other voices, telling them what to think.

    Here is a logical concept that many may, or may not have considered: If you can discover truth by looking exclusively at what is false, could you not discover truth by looking exclusively at what is true? Do I need to research what other religions believe in order to know that anything other than what the Bible says is false? I’m not advocating for willful ignorance, nor blind acceptance of fact, but what I am advocating for is that a person’s mind be protected and kept from reading themselves out of the very thing they sought to defend.

    • Thanks, Allen. I, too, commend Chesterton’s work to all comers. Too often, people stumble over distortions of orthodoxy when the real deal is much more persuasive.

      I suspect doubt is not a rebellion vs. scripture but a continuation of Scripture writers’ own struggle to understand God. The struggle is proof to the strength of the relationship.

      Among my friends, doubts arise not from examining other faiths but from more closely examining one’s own. Source criticism, Gnostic gospels, and disputed authorship are more problematic than any world religion.

      • Allen says:

        Chris, I am encouraged by your first sentence in your response, and share your view whole heartedly. I think we both agree that people struggle with accepting Christianity because of what man has done under the guise of the church, as opposed to what God Himself has done.

        To the next statement, I don’t believe the writers themselves understood the fullness of Christ. But I do believe that a full relationship with Christ (as you said), driven to draw-ever closer to God, can remove doubt. Much like gravity or electricity. After continued experience, does anyone in their right mind doubt these forces exist? I speak from my own experience, that at a time when I doubted Christ, I realized that my relationship with Him was why I doubted; not because He Himself wasn’t providing evidence on a continual basis, but because my relationship with Him was not evident enough of His existence. I wasn’t staying in the word, I wasn’t praying, I wasn’t in pursuit of Holiness and living a life set apart for Him. It only makes sense then, that I would have doubt.

        O. Guiness once said, “The Gospel isn’t true because it works, it works because it is true.” I believe and know this sentiment to be evident in my life, as well. To know, that at the foundation of the Gospel of Christ, objective truth resides and has been set into motion to exist, whether man ever realizes the truth’s potential or not.

        To your last point, additional research into our faith is great, but if we know that this faith is true, having confessed Christ as our Lord, we have to make a decision to believe that 1) God desires a relationship with those whom He created in His image, after His likeness, 2) God is good and just and 3) He would seek to preserve His truth. If we can accept these things without condition, any rationalization or investigation into this faith is not literally an investigation into the Christian faith, but a faith that men decided Christianity should be allocated to, which tend to liken it to a ‘creation of a power-hungry men/women seeking to control the thoughts of many.’

        Thank you for responding Chris. I appreciate your humility even when I lack it in my response.

        • Allen says:

          To clarify: Any rationalization or investigation into the faith, the causes one to doubt these three principles..

  10. Elizabeth says:

    I just felt that I should add Ezra Koenig is Jewish. His questions are him struggling with his faith but also very interesting. He himself is active on Twitter and has, in the past, answered questions fans have asked about the songs and replied to comments about them. I remember one where a fan joked about writing an exegesis of “Ya Hey” and he said that’d be cool. Honestly I’m proud of anyone who asks questions. I myself came out on the non-religious side but I’m still happy when my friends are at least questioning and even becoming stronger in their faith. I just really dislike blindly following because “that’s what my family raised me as” when you’re a thinking human being.

  11. Paul says:

    Thanks for writing about the comedown. Two of my best friends from Christian college have spiraled into atheism, my church allows no space for asking *any* questions, and I’m still trying to settle on a “repersonalized orthodoxy.” It was good to read that we’re not alone.

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