Torres: Running from Faith

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by John Ellis

The most annoying thing about my mom was her refusal to argue with me. Whenever I would point out all the devastating effects that would resort from the physics-defying stopping of the sun in Joshua 10:12-13[1] or attempt to discuss the apparent contradictions in the Bible[2], my mom would gently reply, “John, I’m not going to argue with you. I just want you to know that I love you, God loves you, and I’m praying for you.”

Her gentle kindness and love smoldered within me for years. God eventually used my mom’s grace as a means to reveal Himself to me; but, in the interim, I spent years running, chasing, and hiding. Never quite sure what I wanted, I believed that I knew what I didn’t want. I didn’t want what my mom had – faithful submission to God. That belief propelled my journey, and ultimately consumed me. Thankfully, that swirling reactionary period of my life did strip-mine an artist’s voice out of me. Similarly, Mackenzie Scott’s (Torres’) rejection of the faith of her parents and her childhood helped produce one of 2015’s best albums, Sprinter.

Adopted by a conservative, Baptist family, Scott grew up in Macon, GA., a town in the Deep South that is straight out of central casting. Reflecting the cultural stereotypes, her adopted parents were actively involved in a conservative, evangelical church, as was Scott – playing guitar for services and deeply engaged in her youth group. In interviews, she speaks of the external and internal pressure she felt to feel, well, faith, at least a faith as was defined by those around her. Although she still calls herself a “Christ follower,” I’m not sure at which point Scott abandoned faith that is reflected by a historic, orthodox understanding of the Bible, but her present journey has taken her far afield of that Baptist church in Macon, GA.

Musically, Sprinter demonstrates how seamlessly early 90’s alternative blends into post-rock. The guitar is simultaneously sparse yet expressive, and has its roots in the exhaustion of Kurt Cobain. Understanding the power of tension, Scott never allows the music to overwhelm the lyrics but, at the same time, the threat is always right at the surface as she matches emotionally intense music with emotionally intense lyrics. Her voice is a blend of delicate empathy and brave strength as she confesses the type of personal lyrics that are only the pretense of most songwriters. Sprinter spools around just enough musical diversity to make it one of 2015’s most musically engaging albums but without strangling the lyrics. And, make no mistake; Mackenzie Scott’s lyrics are what elevate Sprinter from very good to great.

Those lyrics are the product of a skilled storyteller (Scott was an English minor in college) that has been enveloped by influences like John Donne, Joan Didion, and Sylvia Plath, as well as being schooled in the transcendent aesthetic of the Creator God. An understanding of the earth’s violence contradicted by beauty and mysterious grace paved Scott’s path out of Macon, GA, and she lacquers her lyrics with terror and hope.

On “New Skin” she demands patience so that she can take her new identity out “for a spin.” That demand seamlessly transitions to a prayer request, revealing the existential reality that a new skin merely cover the old self. Of course, that old self doesn’t fit well within that new skin, and “New Skin” crescendos to a desperately pleading Mackenzie Scott as she attempts to ward off the demons inside and outside of herself.

An aspect of her journey that gives it a greater resonance than many similar stories is her refusal to succumb to bitterness and cheap-shots. Even while confronting hypocrisy, fleshing out her relationship with faith, and expressing the smothering angst that comes from turning your back on the faith of your father and mother, within her music Scott layers a genuine love, concern, and appreciation for her family and her upbringing. There is a gentleness on Sprinter that demonstrates Scott’s desire to be honestly fair about her role in her journey and her family’s positive role in who she currently is.

As evidenced by the roughly haunting title track, that doesn’t mean that she’s not capable and willing to hit back hard against hypocrisy and deceit. “Sprinter” is not only a confessional that relates Scott’s grappling with faith while ensconced in religiosity, but is also a heart-breaking tale about the soul-burrowing damage inflicted by a lecherous pastor. “Sprinter” is a song that could’ve sprung from the hurting souls of many who were pawns in the evangelical youth group movement. Mackenzie Scott not only understands but beautifully communicates the longing, the confusion, and the betrayal that was often the fetid fruits of that movement.

One of my favorite songs on Sprinter is the softly rueful “Ferris Wheel.” On the song, Scott mourns, “There’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t do/To show you that I’ve got the sadness too.” That line almost perfectly expresses the emotional angst that characterizes many ex-evangelicals. The choices that are often styled as expressions of freedom are, in actuality, often prisons of rejection. And not the rejection of family and past friends in regards to those choices, but the rejection exhibited by a lost soul trying desperately to push past graces out of mind.

Sprinter ends with the doleful story of Scott’s birthmother. That story is folded into the internal tug-of-war threatening to rend Scott’s soul into nothingness. Threatening to break out into chaos, Scott whispers, “Mother, Father/I’m underwater/And I don’t think/You can pull me out of this.” Her plaintive voice barely rises throughout the song, but the power of fear threatens to rip the song apart with a wail of pain. By the end, the listener is left with the ambient noise of loneliness.

Mackenzie Scott isn’t necessarily traveling in the same wandering boxcar that I called home for years, but the singer-songwriter has hopped the same existential train that pulled me in circles for the first three decades of my life. I’m not sure where that journey is going to end for her, but I pray that, like mine, it’s at the foot of the Cross. Until that day, I’m going to enjoy the music she creates as a result of that journey.

Order Sprinters here.


 

[1] FYI – miracles are called miracles for a reason. The question shouldn’t be, “can miracles happen?” but “are miracles cogent and coherent within the framework of how God reveals and defines Himself in the Bible?” followed by “If God is who He says He is, how am I relating to Him?”

[2] I don’t have the space to go into apologetic detail, so this will have to suffice, for now – in metaphysics, apparent contradictions are problems to be solved and are not refutations. If your response is to dismiss the Bible offhand when confronted with the apparent contradictions of the Bible,  that says more about your presuppositional commitments than it does the Bible.

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2 thoughts on “Torres: Running from Faith

  1. Hi, thanks for the serious reflection on an album and artist that have been important to me. Torres seems quite unique in her ability to confess the sacred both without artificiality and without bitterness — or perhaps with some bitterness, but not the bitter kind of bitterness, if that makes any sense. Some of her songs from her older album are also strong with the sense of the sacred and the struggle of the wandering of the soul, namely “Mother Earth, Father God” and “Chains.”

    I never thought to interpret “Ferris Wheel” from the post-evangelical perspective. Your take on the song as post-evangelical loneliness is definitely relevant in context of the album, although it’s far from clear that that is the main theme of that particular song, and I think ascribing it to the author’s religious experience is a little over-analytical in ways that are external to the song and the album. (I’m really not comfortable with making so many claims about the artist’s state of faith (I’ve read the interviews), or in interpreting anyone’s experience so rigorously. After all, I think art is supposed to be universal, or something.) Still, now that you can mention it I think the line “Crying over something I never had” definitely jibes with the sense of never quite “getting it” in church. Trying to find an analogy to some corruption within church or some kind of spiritual disillusionment experience in the identity of the person the song is addressed to would be stretching pretty far, though.

    But you didn’t say anything about my number one Torres song, “The Harshest Light”! That song really expresses the fulcrum of a dire faith crisis, and I think it can be interpreted in either a pro-faith or an anti-faith way.

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  2. […] I reviewed far fewer albums in 2016 than I did in the previous years. That was mainly because at the end of 2015, I was fired by the music site that employed me. I did manage to write a few album reviews this past year, though. My review of Sprinter by Torres in January may be my favorite album review that I’ve ever written. I believe that the review serves both the album and the reader equally. You can read it here. […]

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