"To me, Christian music is propaganda." David Bazan simultaneously shrugs and nods when he says this, as though stating the obvious. Bazan's career makes him uniquely qualified to comment on the relationship of Christian music to the secular world. Having grown up an evangelical Christian, he and his friend TW Walsh began releasing records under the name Pedro the Lion in 1997. The songs dealt openly with complex themes about Christian faith and appealed to a big audience of religious kids, many of whom had been raised in a church culture that explicitly forbade them from listening to non-church-sanctioned records.
Though Pedro the Lion records had all the sonic hallmarks of 1990s indie rock, the band's Christian fans had likely never heard anything like it before. Here were stories of doubt and struggle that didn't resort to standard Christian tropes. No doves. No "Awesome God." No altar calls. Pedro also attracted a significant secular fan base that may or may not have been aware of the faith component of songs like "Whole" or "Big Trucks."
But after nearly a decade, Bazan found he couldn't write any more Pedro the Lion songs. Around the same time, he experienced a crisis of faith. His first full-length as a solo artist, Curse Your Branches (Barsuk Records, 2009), describes his shift from struggling believer to agnostic, but the process had been under way for years—much to the alarm of his Christian fan base.
"I was hemorrhaging fans with each Pedro record," says Bazan. "A guy sent Control  back to me with a letter that said he got the record, read the lyrics, and then sent it back without listening to a note of it. With each record, more people were telling me I had crossed one too many lines. When I put out Curse Your Branches I was pretty sure there weren't any more uptight Christian fans left—which was kind of right."
The fans who stayed with him convinced him that Christians might be ready for a more complex musical and verbal palette. "I thought [Curse Your Branches] was an outright slam on Christianity, but a lot of Christians told me it helped them process doubt. Which is great, because when I was doing [the first Pedro the Lion record] It's Hard to Find a Friend, I was trying to distance myself from the overarching bias of Christian culture, which is where I felt pressure. I never felt pressure from some creator of the universe. I felt it from the church. It turned out that a lot of Christian fans wanted to escape that pressure, too."
GOING TO CHURCH BUT NOT SINGING ABOUT IT
While more fashionable forms of rock 'n' roll have always dominated the headlines, Christian music's prominence in Seattle dates at least as far back as 1995, the year Brandon Ebel and his Christian indie record label Tooth & Nail moved to town. Having identified a niche in the booming marketplace of alternative music—young Christians hungry for music created without the pressures of church—Tooth & Nail ambitiously filled it with records by Christian punk, hardcore, and alternative bands.
The label's success planted the seed of a subculture that thrived in the shadow of the city's more famous music community. The kids who were secretly listening to Nirvana and Soundgarden in their bedroom suddenly had an outlet, far away from televangelists and megachurches.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the local Christian indie rock underground successfully nurtured young bands—including Pedro the Lion, Damien Jurado, MxPx, Poor Old Lu, Roadside Monument, 90 Pound Wuss, Raft of Dead Monkeys, and many others—and young audiences at a time when the environment for all-ages live music in Seattle was notoriously hostile.
The environment for public declarations of religious faith was just as hostile, which may explain why the community preferred to remain underground, and how that mentality of wanting to belong helped form their relationship to the secular scene.
The Catch formed in 2001 and played around town regularly for several years. "A lot of the musicians from when the Catch was around in the early 2000s were doing the same things we were," says Alissa Newton, the band's drummer. "We were Christian kids going to church, but not singing about it."
Newton, now a priest at St. Columba's Episcopal Church in Kent, says the band's tendency not to write songs explicitly about faith was in keeping with community values.
"What you want," she explains, "is to have someone tell you what something means to them and how it looks to them. You don't want people telling you how it should look to you. We were all trying to figure it out inside and outside the church."
But Bazan wasn't the only one addressing his religious questions and convictions. You hear a lot of this in Damien Jurado's early records. On Waters Ave S (Sub Pop, 1997), he ruminates about death and afterlife "Did you get to close your eyes / Father setting sun / I think this is the big surprise / We were waiting for" ("Hell or Highwater") and flirts with biblical syntax ("Treasures of Gold"). That continues on "To Those Who Will Burn" from the 1998, along with moralism on "Tragedy" (from Rehearsals for Departure, 1999) and hellfire on "I Am the Greatest of All Liars" (Holding His Breath EP, 2003). The faith-related material was mixed in with love songs, breakup songs, songs with no traceable theme, and a style that grew increasingly hallucinatory—more surrealist than worshipful.
Jurado's first few records came out on Sub Pop (a label that had weathered minor controversies in the mid-'90s when a couple of its artists, Jeremy Enigk and Eric Matthews were "outed" as Christians on the fledgling internet), but he frequently played on bills with Christian artists like Pedro the Lion.
Considered from one angle, the rise of these bands was a rebellion—Christian artists escaping the stricture of the church, mingling with the world, searching for common ground with the kind of people who frequent clubs and coffeehouses.
Some chose secrecy, but many did not. "I felt raw honesty would be best," Bazan explains. When asked about his faith by fans or interviewers, he pulled no punches. "It felt like an exodus, not an invasion," says Bazan about the rise of alt-Christian music. "The whole paradigm of making music as a Christian was just wrong. I didn't know exactly what I wanted my music to be like, but I didn't want to play at churches and in the [Christian] industry. I wanted it to matter if I did good music."
As the grunge boom faded into memory, Christian bands were successfully crossing religious boundaries and gaining popularity—a surprising turn of events in a decidedly secular Seattle. The fact that many of the new Christian artists were reluctant to openly acknowledge their faith began to inspire mistrust among skeptics who were paying attention. When people come from any institution, it's difficult to know what parts they have left behind, and what parts they haven't. Could Evangelical Christianity use the alternative-music boom for ministry?
"It's always the goal, really," says Bazan.
The Seattle city government proved an invaluable ally in this effort: The Teen Dance Ordinance, in effect from 1985 to 2002, made cost-prohibitive demands on venues trying to host music events for underage audiences ($1,000,000 in liability insurance, two off-duty police officers at every show), thus severely limiting independent promoters' ability to present entertainment to people under the age of 21. All-ages-friendly clubs like the OK Hotel, RKCNDY, and Velvet Elvis Arts Lounge were smothered out of existence by the ordinance.
The result was a cultural vacuum. It's only fitting that the first step in filling it should have been called the Paradox.
"NOT GONNA FORCE ANYTHING ON ANYBODY"
Mars Hill Church opened its doors in 1996 under the leadership of 25-year-old pastor Mark Driscoll. He embraced a conservative Calvinist theology, which believes in predestination, or the idea that God has already chosen who is saved and who is not.
From the beginning, the church aggressively courted young people, in particular those who had been ostracized by more traditional churches. Mars Hill flaunted its embrace of tattoos and piercings.
In 1998, Mars Hill pastor Lief Moi bought the Historic University Theater in the U-District for $285,000. In 2003, Moi told the UW Daily that he'd discovered a loophole in the Teen Dance Ordinance that exempted venues owned by nonprofit organizations, and set to work remodeling the space to create a live music venue, radio broadcasting station, and recording studio. With either extreme self-awareness, or an uncharacteristic embrace of irony, he christened it the Paradox Theatre.
Mars Hill funded and ran the Paradox—because they "value the art community as a church," according to Moi—booking rock and hiphop shows by local and touring bands (secular and Christian alike) in between regular worship services conducted by Moi, and an aggressive street ministry.
Over time, a group of volunteers not affiliated with the church came to run the music side of the operation, booking and promoting low-cost shows, and even showing up early to remove church paraphernalia from the space.
For the next four years, the Paradox was the only all-ages venue operating continuously in Seattle. They hosted shows by a slew of bands like Bright Eyes, Low, Songs: Ohia, and Dirty Projectors, who would go on to much greater success. Local heroes like Carissa's Wierd, Rosie Thomas, pre–Father John Misty Josh Tillman, Peter Parker, Say Hi, Schoolyard Heroes, and Akimbo played the venue regularly. The 250-ish capacity room wasn't always full, but the turnout was steady.
Much as Tooth & Nail had done, Mars Hill's leaders saw a gap in the market—this time for all-ages music spaces—and filled it. The difference this time is that the church wasn't looking to make a profit, at least not off the shows themselves.
The nature of the relationship between Paradox the all-ages music venue and Paradox the Mars Hill church space was murky. It was not a secret that the church owned and ran the space, but the question of why persisted. Was it a ministry outreach or a safe place for kids to engage with live music? In January of 2000, Mark Driscoll assured the Daily that there would be "no preaching or Christian bands. Just a good clean club. Not gonna force anything on anybody."
His 2006 book, Confessions of a Reformission Rev, tells a different story, bragging about the construction of a music ministry. The venue, Driscoll wrote, enabled Mars Hill pastor Bubba Jennings, "and his army of indie-rock volunteers, many of whom are not yet Christians, to run a lot of free concerts and draw the young fan base back to the shows."
The book outlines Driscoll's outreach strategy, saying he "envisioned a large church that hosted concerts for non-Christian bands and fans on a phat sound system, embraced the arts, trained young men to be godly husbands and fathers, planted other churches, and led people to work with Jesus Christ as missionaries to our city."
(It should say a lot that the worst part of that sentence is not a white guy using the word "phat.")
NO BAIT AND SWITCH
The all-ages music landscape in Seattle was changing, gradually. The Teen Dance Ordinance was replaced by the less-restrictive All-Ages Dance Ordinance in late 2002. The Vera Project was founded in 2001, but still lacked a permanent home. Suburban all-ages venues like Ground Zero in Bellevue, the Old Firehouse in Redmond, and the Kirkland Teen Union Building made valiant efforts to survive while being run by young volunteers.
The Paradox remained the only reliable all-ages music space in town, but it operated at a significant financial loss. Bubba Jennings told The Stranger that the space lost $230 a day just to stay open. The church later claimed to have lost nearly $100,000 on the venue in 2002 alone.
In February of 2003, Mars Hill closed the Paradox, claiming that the space had served its purpose. Despite the less-restrictive environment for all-ages promoters in town, the absence was felt.
Then, in November, it was announced that construction had begun on a brand-new Paradox, to be housed in a 5,000-square-foot space attached to the 40,000-square-foot Ballard campus of Mars Hill Church.
The move to a building physically connected to its primary campus had made it more difficult to maintain the idea of separation between church and venue, but Jennings was quick to allay concerns. "The church does own the building," he told The Stranger, "but anytime a show says 'Paradox,' the event will be for everyone. There's no bait and switch." The music would continue to be booked by volunteers who were not members of the church.
The church's repeated insistence that the Paradox was an independent entity (that just happened to be owned by a church) is significant. Mars Hill was expanding massively during this period. By 2006, the church had between 4,000 and 5,000 attendees and four separate campuses, compared to its 1,000 person congregation when the venue opened. The campuses operated in West Seattle, Ballard, Shoreline, and Wedgwood, and reported assets of more than $31 million that year.
At the same time, Mark Driscoll was emerging as a controversial figure.
His presentation had always been strident and colloquial: He wore Chucks, listened to punk rock, drank, and swore. But for all the "not your typical pastor" trappings, the theology of Mars Hill was hardly reformed. Driscoll railed against the modern interpretation of Jesus as "a neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy," equated LGBTQ tolerance to a cancer that must be excised, and preached that women must be submissive to their husbands.
As the church grew, Driscoll's radically conservative message was increasingly at odds with the values of liberalism and tolerance that Seattle's secular music scene prided itself on embracing. And yet, for several years, Mars Hill held a de facto monopoly on live all-ages music in Seattle. But the church's interest in music wasn't limited to putting on shows.
Mars Hill house worship bands plucked musicians from the bands that played the Paradox—like Jeff Suffering (né Bettger) of 90 Pound Wuss and Suffering and the Hideous Thieves, and Dustin Kensrue of Thrice.
Resurgence, Driscoll's evangelical training program for would-be church leaders included a component called ReSound, which was meant to function like a record label, cultivating "music that is theologically unified, stylistically diverse, and musically excellent." In a Facebook announcement, ReSound described its hope to "show more mission-driven, diverse music... it would encourage others to not consume the foreign culture of music that is being marketed to them."
In 2006, the same year that Driscoll created Resurgence, Mars Hill seized the reins of the Paradox back from the secular volunteers. Alicia Blake, the volunteer who ran programming for the venue, recalls the circumstances clearly nine years later.
"They sat me down and said that they'd like to get the church more involved," she says. "I said I didn't have interest in that. I spent a lot of time informing bands and agents that it wasn't a Christian venue, and I didn't want to change that. My concern was that all the work I had done letting people know it wasn't a Christian venue would be gone, that it wouldn't be communicated well that a church was taking over."
Blake informed The Stranger of the changes at the Paradox, and Megan Seling reported them. Her story quoted Jennings's assurances: "We're still figuring everything out... but it doesn't look like there's going to be any preaching at shows."
Driscoll immediately wrote a letter to the editor pleading for tolerance. "I know that some folks will be suspicious about our intentions," he wrote, "but I hope they give us the benefit of the doubt that even though we are Christians we are one's [sic] that love the all-ages scene and really want to help provide nice safe venues for bands and younger fans."
The last Paradox show booked by Blake and her colleague Liz Martin—Speaker Speaker, BOAT, Shorthand for Epic, Patience Please, and Ghosts & Liars—was held on December 16, 2006. The club never really reopened. It could be that in a city with the Vera Project, young audiences couldn't get excited about an all-ages club attached to a church. Or it could be, as Alissa Newton now observes, that Mars Hill had already recruited "enough cool, young people from the Paradox to not need it anymore."
In all, Mars Hill's experiment with hosting all-ages music lasted less than eight years, but that proved to be more than enough time to normalize the connection between rock music and religion for a new generation of Seattle music bands and fans.
"Mars Hill did not want to be a church," Newton says now. "They wanted to be a culture."
And for a while, they succeeded.
The expansion continued in the years that followed. Mars Hill would nearly triple in size between 2006 and 2014, with 15 satellite franchise churches in five states. Driscoll's fame and influence were expanding, too, and the cracks began to show. He doubled down on his anti-feminist, anti-gay agenda and was soon called out for spiritual abuse, bullying, plagiarism, and generally being a fraud. He was caught leaving abusive comments on internet message boards under a pseudonym. Church funds that had been designated for global outreach and a music festival disappeared. In 2012, a company called ResultSource was paid a reported $200,000 to bulk-buy copies of Driscoll's book Real Marriage in 2012 to send it to the top of the best-seller list. Acts 29, the "church planting" network that Driscoll cofounded, removed his name from their materials. Members left in droves. A group of 21 former Mars Hill pastors filed formal charges of workplace abuse against Driscoll with the church's elders. The Calvinist conservative booming through the phat stacks of rock 'n' roll was heading for disgrace.
Driscoll resigned in October of 2014. A month later, Mars Hill announced that it would officially close its doors, leaving its churches to become self-governing entities, and doing more or less the same thing for the generation of Seattle music that had grown up either within or just outside its walls.
Mars Hill Church officially disbanded as of January 1, 2015, and marshill.com is no longer online. All attempts to reach former pastors and associates of the church, including Mark Driscoll and Lief Moi, for comment on this story were unanswered.
"IT'S NOT A BIG SECRET"
Though Driscoll's fall from grace and the dissolution of his church sent shock waves through the city, it did not shake the presence of Christian themes in the city's art. Christian imagery continues to permeate post–Mars Hill Seattle music, though its tone and reception has shifted. Songwriters still approach the subject of faith in allegorical, roundabout ways. This is both a reflection of the complex relationship to faith, and a perfectly understandable aversion to guilt by association.
Bazan's Curse Your Branches is set at this intersection. "With the threat of hell hanging over my head like a halo / I was made to believe in a couple of beautiful truths / That eventually had the effect of completely unraveling / The powerful curse put on me by you," he sings on "When We Fell."
Bryan John Appleby's 2015 record The Narrow Valley is a conceptual narrative about a small town with a religious core being swallowed by an earthquake on the California coast. The album can be read as an allegory of his own exodus from the church in which he was raised. It is sweeping, symbolic, and uses storytelling to get to truth. The album is riddled with religious references—Bible-scale cataclysm, the demon Abaddon—but closes with the narrator driving away from the disaster singing the telling lines "What a relief / sweet disbelief... Praise the void."
Some artists are still willing to wrestle with faith from within.
Jessica Dobson, the voice, guitar, and songwriting mastermind of Deep Sea Diver, and past member of the Shins and Beck's touring band, is also formerly of Mars Hill. Dobson has said she and her husband and bandmate Peter Mansen left the church before its sharp decline. Her songs reflect her faith, but to the unaware listener, they could easily double as songs about romantic relationships. On "Keep It Moving," from the band's 2012 debut History Speaks, she sings, "You might wonder now, is this the girl you wanted? / So unmovable... I've been a stranger / I've caved to every whim / I know it's hard to stand to next to me / You keep wondering." The transcendent "Always Waiting" (from the 2014 EP of the same name), contains these lines: "So I called and I dragged my heels in the wilderness / I heard your voice, you know I'm running on fumes / I was a shield, I was so cruel / Now you're the one I can't get through."
Dobson's songs are beguiling in their openness. They leave space for the listener to determine their own experience. Some artists are more direct.
The record release show for Damien Jurado's 2014 record Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son featured a choir onstage with him at the Neptune. Jurado dressed in all white, and announced bonus track "All for You" as a "worship song." The lyrics spilled out, beautiful and no longer obscured through a psychedelic shroud: "Heaven it seems / angels applaud / and all for you / How great your love is / how much you are needed."
Jurado was open about his renewed faith in 2014 interviews for the album. "It's not a big secret that I'm a Christian and follow the teachings of Christ," he told the Boston Globe.
Maybe it wasn't a big secret before, but it wasn't necessarily obvious. Several people walked out of the Neptune show when Jurado began testifying. Others pointed out that it was childish to feel so surprised and disconcerted by an artist's declaration of faith.
To feel betrayed by the idea that you no longer know an artist may seem childish—the illusion being that you ever knew them to begin with—but no fan approaches art with their guard up. We give the music we love unfettered access to our soft center. When the ones who gave us the salve suddenly sing from places that gave us the wound, it can be jarring. This betrayal is echoed on both sides of the religious divide—the man who could not bear to listen to Bazan's Control, the few Jurado fans who walked out of the Neptune, unwilling to answer the altar call.
The way Seattle music culture typically deals with the question of religion is simply not to acknowledge it—this also applies to both sides. We walk out, we send the album back. We cannot bear to acknowledge each other's pain as real, and each other's art as influential. Christians feel they have to be secretive or unbending about it, and nonbelievers are hostile to the possibility that religious themes have a place in rock music.
Jordan Butcher reflects, "If you write about faith, I think you damn well be ready to answer some questions. Especially when it's something as polarizing as Christianity that has caused so much pain, especially here [in Seattle]."
Butcher, a former member of Mars Hill, plays drums in the band Copeland. While a member of the church, he was the drummer for the local Christian indie folk band Ivan & Alyosha, and worked as a designer at Tooth & Nail (his design of the band Underoath's box set was nominated for a Grammy in 2010). His exit from the church lined up with his exit from the band, and he remembers the stigma of association with the church that followed. People rescinded offers for drumming gigs and cast uncomfortable glances at each other when they found out about his former membership.
"I get it," he says now. "What happened at Mars Hill hurt so many people, including me. There's a lot of healing to do, and the more transparent I can be and the more I can listen to people who have concerns about the church and what it did—the same concerns that I have—the better it will turn out."
But what about artists who don't feel comfortable talking about the subject at all?
"I've always been a believer in God because I'm Christian," local songwriter Kris Orlowski told a MySpace interviewer in 2014. "But I don't know if I've ever been overly so in my music, and I don't know if I ever will be. There's a point, though, where you gotta be able to stand up for what you believe in and just be okay with everybody not being into you."
In his song "Believer," Orlowski sings: "I'll be here until it's right / Could be here till Sunday night / Holy roller, see me rise / Eye for an eye / Stand tall, I'm a believer / Wishing for the words to carry on."
Those lyrics are hard to read as anything other than "overly so." Still, Orlowski's answer invites a conversation, and then backs away from it. That kind of balancing act is the byproduct of a culture of silence on one side and skepticism on the other.
It's easy to blame this tense, toxic environment on Mark Driscoll. But he is only the most recent example, and Mars Hill was only one church. There will always be Driscolls. Our refusal to engage in meaningful conversation about our differences creates the toxic secrecy that allows the Driscolls to fill the void.
That's no way to make art, no way to be a fan, and no way to be a city. The hard question is: Can we believe radically different things and still create a scene together?
I don't know, but I'm ready to talk about it.