When I was asked to write a track-by-track breakdown blog post about my new album, Unfall, my reaction wasn't, "Oh gosh, what can I say?" but rather, "Oh sheesh, how do I narrow it down?" If you've read my reviews or heard me on the JFH Podcast, you've probably noticed that I can be quite... verbose. Sometimes, I honestly think I could pen an entire book about this album. But I realized that I would love to take this opportunity to hone in on one specific topic: Unfall's relationship to Christianity.
If you've listened already, you potentially thought, "Is this really a Christian album?" You never heard the name of Jesus sung, and the two passing references to "God" seem kind of cynical. To be forthright -- no, it's not exactly a Christian album. As in, I did not create this album to be Christian music for Christian listeners. I created it for my friends, my family, my church, the Nashville emo/pop-punk scene, the readers of Chorus.fm (my favorite secular music site), and myself. Each one of those groups includes a mix of believers and non-believers, and I didn't necessarily want to "preach" to them with this record. (Also, I do not mean to give "preaching" a negative connotation there.) However, because I am a Christian, everything I do is informed by my faith.
So this post will be a deep-dive into the ways that the Christian worldview plays into each song on Unfall. I hope you will find this post interesting, illuminating, and informative, and may God be glorified through everything a Christian does or makes, whether that thing seems explicitly, marketably "Christian" or not.
The chorus of the opening track transitions from listing things that don't truly "matter," in the grand scheme of things, to that which matters eternally: people, one another, you. But why is this true? Because I want it to be? Because I say so? Am I speaking this truth into existence or imbuing you with value because I decided that you are valuable?
No. You matter because you were created by God in the image of God and are loved by God. I could have used the instrumental bridge of the song to write more lyrics and to suss this idea out -- this is, by the way, the album's shortest and simplest set of lyrics -- but I don't think that was necessary. Generally speaking, you rarely have to prove this to people. Scripture helps us understand why this is true, but without God's revelation, we still tend to know and feel how true it is. Romans 1 tells us that some basic truths, such as the existence of God, were built into the universe. It's why, with some sad exceptions, a mother doesn't need to be taught that the baby in her arms is a more important collection of molecules than the wood in the stove or the rocking chair she's sitting on. It's why the drafters of the Declaration of Independence had the bravura to assert, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights."
Undoubtedly, the lyrics to "Matter" have a romantic/marital slant to them, but so much about healthy family, friend, church, and romantic relationships is about learning to value and treat others with the worth they were given by God. Also, while our worth might not need to be factually proven to one another, there's a difference between knowing something and feeling what you know to be true. I wanted to write this song because it's so easy to not feel like we matter, to forget the objective worth we have in the sight of God and the relative worth we have in the eyes of one another. Often, we struggle with feeling this truth because we are forced to face with our brokenness; but even our brokenness can teach us of our worth when we remember that "while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly" (Romans 5:6). It reminds me of a line I love from the modern hymn "My Worth Is Not in What I Own": "Two wonders here that I confess / My worth and my unworthiness / My value fixed - my ransom paid / At the cross."
Search for Myself
This is one of two songs on the album (the other being "Honest Tree") that truly deal with Christian ideas in explicit, focused fashion. The gist of "Search for Myself" is that modern psychology, be it prescription medicine or personality tests or therapy/counseling, will never be enough to give us the sort of self-knowledge we're looking for. In recent years, I've been troubled by the ways a "know-thyself" mentality has permeated social media and popular art, as if the solution to all of our problems is to grow in self-knowledge and to be true to ourselves. Yet not only can this type of knowledge come exclusively from our creator, but we are also too broken and too limited to truly understand it. Instead, we should find our identity in Christ, the savior of the world, through whom and for whom all things exist.
In a sense, this song runs parallel to popular songs like Housefires's "Good, Good Father" and Lauren Daigle's "You Say," about finding our identity in what God says about us. However, in another sense, this song is saying the opposite; I sing here that we should take the focus off of the ever-shifting sand that is our self-identity and focus instead on the never-changing character of God. In this life, we will be constantly changing, in ways that are good, bad, productive, sinful, neutral, etc. God will sanctify us, life will challenge us, and sin cannot be completely removed from our mortal bodies, as they continue to break down by aging, sickness, and cancer. So when we look at ourselves honestly, what is there to learn except for our very real, desperate, moment-to-moment need for a God who's actually there with us? What we think we know about our un-glorified (pre-glorified?) selves will not stay true forever, but the knowledge of God is a firm foundation.
Worth the Wait
"Worth the Wait" is chiefly about the difficulties of walking away from our past sins. Will we ever be able to forgive ourselves for our mistakes? Will other people be able to look at me the way God sees me through Christ -- with grace and forgiveness -- or will the knowledge of my past forever skew how I'm seen and treated?
Without removing your ability to interpret these lyrics differently, I wrote this song to investigate these hard questions through the lens of someone sharing his sexual history with the woman he's hoping to marry. The narrator is measuring himself up to God's standard, seeing how he's fallen short, realizing that he would've been better off living the way God tells us to, and recognizing there's nothing he can do except hope that his beloved will have grace toward him.
I think this concept is truly important in today's modern era. The #metoo movement brought about many wonderful and necessary things, but in some aspects, the pendulum has swung too far to the other side. Now, instead of merely punishing the men who are proven to have committed sexual misconduct, many are being ostracized and villainized at the first sign of sin, with zero hope for redemption. But redemption is exactly what they need. And while some sins absolutely justify criminal punishment, there is simultaneously no crime too heinous to be forgiven through the blood of the cross.
Programming the Soul
1 Corinthians 15:26 says, "The last enemy to be destroyed is death," and later in verse 54, "Death is swallowed up in victory.” When my former pastor was preaching on this passage, he said something like, "Death swallowed me whole, but then Christ swallowed death whole." That essentially became the first line of this song (with lyrics that were also inspired by podcast episodes from The Briefing with Albert Mohler and Reel World Theology), which is the first of a handful of highly conceptual tracks on the album. Boiled down, this song is a critique of moral relativism.
Here, our narrator has been told that his conscience will not lead him astray, that whatever he feels is right is right. But what if he loves hating? What if, to him, murder is not only acceptable, but even good? The conscience is a good thing, for sure, yet the conscience is not infallible. God's Word, God's law, is infallible. Good, evil, right, wrong -- these are not ideas that society gets to invent for itself. Absolutely morality is based on God's absolute character and the ways in which he chose to create our universe.
Throughout the song, the narrator is faced with the dilemma of people telling him that he can decide what's true for himself, while those same people turn around and hate him for doing what he loves. So which is it? At the end, he asks a very valid set of questions: "Who am I to decide what's good and what's evil? / But who are you to tell me that I'm wrong?" We do have a duty to teach others, to correct and rebuke and discipline, but we do not arrive at this authority by voting to see whose idea of morality is most popular. We appeal to the highest authority: our Creator.
For one year, I met with a biblical counselor every week. If you just read the blurb for "Search for Myself," you might have assumed that I'd be opposed to or cynical toward counseling. (Ironically, even my performance of this song makes it sound like the counselor-character, with his onslaught of questions during the verses, is the "bad guy.") Specifically, I'm opposed to any claims of the full sufficiency of counseling. In practice, I think counseling is part of a pastor's job description, and I'm very grateful for the year that I had with my counselor.
That said, I composed the original version of this song the day before I'd be meeting with my counselor for the last time. What I was hoping to accomplish through writing this song was to set in stone some of the things I'd learned through my years of appointments: to have his questions and insights memorialized, for me to keep reminding myself of for years to come. And much of this comes down to the interrogation of our desires: What do you want? Why do you want it? Does this conflict with something else you want? Which desire is better? The chorus of this song is reminiscent of Romans 7, where Paul states, "For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate."
The life of a Christian, saved by grace and filled with the Holy Spirit, is one of growth, struggle, repentance, and sanctification, as God transforms us "from one degree of glory to another" (2 Corinthians 3:18). We have a new self that is at war with the old self (Romans 7 & 8 are an excellent exposition of the battle between flesh and spirit), and often the desires of the old will beat out the desires of the new. However, by the power of Christ, there is always the possibility for the new self to win, for the spirit to beat the flesh; as Galatians 5:16 says, "Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh." In the meantime, as we continue to fail and fall short and require forgiveness from both God and one another, may we remember that we aren't alone, that we're in this together, that God is close, and that love covers a multitude of sins.
I am not married. I hope to be one day. God has not promised me a wife, and if he does bless me with one, he also has not promised me an easy marriage. Martin Luther referred to marriage as the "school for character" -- the relationship/ministry in which you shall be tested and stretched to your core. As we are taught quite counter-culturally in Ephesians 5, marriage is not about finding our soulmates, fulfilling our romantic/emotional/physical needs, or even about creating the best habitat for procreation; marriage is about picturing the gospel and proclaiming the love of Christ to the world. It's less about two people being super in-love or super-compatible and more about choosing to lay our lives down for one another, even when that's hardest to do.
"Lonely Saints" (which, fun fact, was written on the same day as "Counsel") is a projection into the future: a cautionary tale about what my hypothetical future marriage could look like if I were to stop caring, stop serving, stop laying down my life. It's a portrait of how my own selfishness could tear my wife and me apart, without even leading to divorce -- a galaxy apart while living in the same house. And that's exactly where the original version of the song ended, with the husband mourning the loss of the days when he still cared.
However, when I was looking at my demos for the album and discerning which ones needed to rewritten, I realized this song needed a new ending, because the wife we see in the second verse is a wife who prays, a wife who cries, a wife who hasn't given up. And what is the gospel if not the story of a God who continues to offer grace and mercy to "hopeless" cases? So while I don't mean to suggest that spouses should always stick it out, regardless of how unhealthy or dangerous a marriage becomes, I did decide that I wanted to end the song with a picture of a Christlike wife, who loves as much as she ever has, even when she's being loved less than ever before.
Of all the songs on the album, especially the more conceptual ones, "Humanizer" is the candidate most likely to be interpreted in a manner that doesn't seem to align with mainstream/traditional Christianity. That's because, in this song, a male vocalist is wrestling with the flirtations of a male character, trying to discern whether his intentions are good or evil. What's more is, in the final version of the lyrics, I decided to leave it completely up for interpretation as to who or what the "he" is (a male suitor? a predator? God? Satan?), whereas the original version revealed explicitly that he was an anthropomorphized metaphor for the future.
What I really wanted to explore and examine in this track was something called the "male gaze," concerning how male desire and pursuit often starts with his eyes, where he will stare after the object of his desire in a way which, for the person on the receiving end, is at best awkward or uncomfortable while at worst predatory and downright terrifying. This is a serious problem, one which reveals how all lustful sin is predatory by nature, and I wanted the final version of the song to honor the anxiety-inducing reality of being objectified in such a manner, while also still allowing for metaphorical interpretations.
Crafting a song where the "he" could be Jesus or Satan or a man or just an idea was certainly an arduous task. I don't totally know whether I accomplished it. But for those who don't yet know Jesus, his pursuits can be undesired and scary, just as much as the tricks and temptations of demons can seem charming and attractive. When a woman notices a man looking at her from across a room, how is she to discern whether welcoming his pursuit will lead to a loving marriage or a destructive disaster? Intentions are hard to read, and the perplexities therein are clear.
Do any of you remember Sanctus Real's album We Need Each Other? I loved that album back in the day, and it's still my favorite SR release. The title track, though, was an uneasy listen for me initially. We don't really need each other, do we? All I need is Jesus, right? It took me a while to wrestle with this and realize that I was wrong: we do need each other. Why? Is Christ insufficient? Emphatically, no! He's not. But we need each other because that's exactly how God designed it to be.
I had bought into the lie of American pseudo-Christian individualism, when in fact, nothing in Scripture is about God saving self-made go-getter loners with a "me+Jesus" mentality. The redemptive story we see in Scripture is one of God saving a people for himself, of Christ building a church that, at the end of time, God the Father will present to his Son as a bride. And even better, we don't lose our individual selves by being part of the church; to the contrary, we discover more about ourselves and who God made us to be by being part of the body, the church, the bride.
That said, "Cave" presents the exact opposite, with a narrator who has started to live life all by himself, inside his "cave," while we watch him fall further into his descent of self-delusion as he becomes convinced that, not only is he fine by himself, he's actually better off being alone. This is one of the greatest lies we can believe or practice. Even if we're using our solitude in a good-natured attempt to better follow God, like the medieval monks, this is a perfect recipe for becoming susceptible to warped beliefs, selfish practices, and problematic interpretations of Scripture that could easily be amended through being in tune with community, church history, and loving accountability.
We've reached the album's second and final track that I would consider to be explicitly faith-based. "Honest Tree" finds its greatest inspiration in a regular practice that my home church promotes. We call it "Walking in the Light," based on 1 John 1:7, where we take dedicated time to gather into small groups of the same gender, confess sin to one another, and prayer for each other. Whatever sin you confess to that brother or sister gets immediately prayed for... and that's it. You won't be given advice or recommendations or unrequested accountability. We take it to the Lord, then we bury it; and we don't bring it up again unless you ask us to, simple as that. As far as we know, in the church's decade-plus history, the sanctity of this confidentiality has never been broken. And there have been powerful prayers and profound healing in these instances of stepping into the light, for "if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin."
The lyrics of "Honest Tree," then, detail how necessary yet how difficult this level of honesty can be. Wouldn't it be easier to continue living within the fiction of everything being okay -- "How are you?" "Good." -- rather than dealing with the reality of our weaknesses, shortcomings, failures, and needs? Yes. It would be easier. But following God and doing what's right has never been synonymous with doing what's easiest. And what we risk by not being honest with one another is, ultimately, finishing life having never been honest with ourselves or with God. This is the lifestyle and heart posture that can lead someone who thinks they've been serving Christ all along to approach the throne and be told, "Depart from me. I never knew you."
So where is our assurance? Where lies our confidence that we know Christ and that Christ knows us? It's not found in our strict adherence to tradition, in our record of good-works, or even in our zeal for expressions of worship. In a manner that is confounding and comforting all at once, one of the greatest assurances we can have of our salvation is not that we never sin but rather that we mourn when we do keep sinning -- that our sins sadden and anger us, make us want to pray for forgiveness, stir within us a desire to confess and repent. As James 5:16 tells us, "Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed."
A very careful thing that I've attempted to do in small spurts throughout the album, without directly teaching or preaching to people, is helping provide them with the tools of how to discern truth and how to analyze the world correctly. Even though this song is primarily (as the title suggests) about falling in love, and how hopeless it can be in the search for someone to fall in love with you, too, the second verse of this song is dedicated to deconstructing a logical fallacy: that one single shred of evidence falsifies a "never"-based argument. We can ignore the evidence, or try to pretend that the evidence is just an exception to the rule, but if we want to be honest, truthful, and consistent, then we must accept when a "never" statement gets disproven.
Paul deals with this exact type of logic in his letter to the church at Corinth. 1 Corinthians 15:12-14 says, "Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain." I've seen this logical error come to play in evangelism, as well. Recently, a pair of unitarians visited my best friend, hoping to convince him that God is only one person and that Christ cannot also be God. As part of their argument, they shared the easily disproven (yet oddly popular) misconception that no one believed in the Trinity until the Council of Nicea in AD 325. So my friend pulled out some books and showed them historical, indisputable documentation of early church fathers speaking in trinitarian terms, prior to the year 300. After the duo admitted that what they were looking at was trinitarian belief prior to Nicea, my friend asked them, "So now that you've seen this, do you realize that, if you ever tell someone the Trinity was invented at Nicea again, you'll be lying?"
The hope I'm trying to offer in this closing track of the album is that, if someone has ever loved you, you can no longer say that you are unlovable or that you have never been loved. You don't get to believe that falsehood any longer. For the sake of thematic consistency, I kept the song limited to the romantic potential between only two people (the narrator and the person being sung to), but in an earlier draft of the lyrics, I had a line about how the ultimate thing that destroys the lie that you are unlovable is that God loves you. And better yet, he set his love upon you long before you could have done anything to earn his love -- which means that you can't do anything to lose his love, either. So while I unfortunately needed to cut that line from this song, the fact remains true: "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19).
by Chase Tremaine