“You don’t lose God all at once; He goes in pieces. It’s like your hearing being claimed by a disease, or your memory by age, or love by boredom; you don’t wake up and realize these things disappeared in the night. You wake up and see the nights of the last several years lined up like bread crumbs to a security you can never walk back to. No one tells you all this when the candle of faith is still burning brightly in the dark woods, guiding your path, and your own soul feels on fire with devotion. You figure it out for yourself halfway through the forest, long after the flame has flickered out.”
So begins an essay I wrote for Bright Wall Dark Room last year about faith and doubt in the films of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. I’ve written more about losing my faith than perhaps any other personal subject. As I move toward writing more fiction, I have no doubt these themes will emerge there again and again. I can’t help it. Once you’ve been washed in the blood of Jesus, you never really get the stain out. Perhaps it’s too cliché to say that faith, once lost, is like a phantom limb that continues to itch.
I’ll never be free of God, no matter how long I spend not believing in him. My vocabulary is saturated with theology. My imagination still needs God as a foil. He’ll never really be gone, like the lost child a bereaved parent imagines in family photographs for years after. There is an empty chair reserved at the holiday dinner of my mind; we all turn to it, sigh and smile with dutiful gravity, and go on with the meal. Sometimes I even still think he’s there. The other children, grown now, are very understanding. That’s too many metaphors, but no one comes to religion looking for consistency of symbolism.
I recently put together a post-faith playlist to feed the angst I often feel. I titled it Water on the Flames. When we were young people full of passion for Jesus, we talked about being on fire for God (that our soteriology demanded we believe it was the unsaved who would, in fact, fulfill this image for eternity apparently never occurred to us). The playlist thumbs the bruise of my own religious angst, my loss of faith. It isn’t so much water on the flames as wet leaves; they’ll leave something smoldering underneath, and the smoke still gets in your eyes, but the flames, for now, are out at least.
Water on the Flames is a pretty long playlist, and it’s pretty divergent in its themes and purposes. Some of the songs aren’t actually about God or belief at all, but merely use distorted or perverted religious imagery in a fun way. Some of them are much more pointed, and deal directly with issues of theodicy, hypocrisy, or doubt. If you’ve ever believed and then stopped, or believed but struggled to, I think you’ll enjoy it.