Brandi Carlile is not a textbook revolutionary; she does not look the part, and she never asked for it. What she asked for was a lasting career in folk music, where she earned her second Grammy nomination towards the end of last year. (Coincidentally, she also earned her third, and her fourth, and her fifth, and her sixth nominations towards the end of last year.) She asked to be considered among the ranks of Americana singers, in a letter to the Academy of Music following her nomination. But Carlile never, ever asked to be a revolutionary: She’s a 40-year-old, happily married white woman from the exurbs of Seattle, after all. Conventional wisdom plants the seeds of discontent somewhere else, and in that elsewhere it often grows.
None of Carlile’s apparent conformities meant an iota of difference to PBS when they profiled her on the December 17 NewsHour. The rural bard of Peugeot Sound, they explained, had “cultivated a rebel image,” which was itself a stylistic revolution in her class and cultural cohort. Female folk and country singers were rarely celebrated for an aesthetic that stood athwart the norms of polite society, even as their male colleagues served up Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard, and a dozen others who warbled their way through stories of crime and conflict with the powers that be. Carlile was, therefore, a rebel twice over — a rebel because she wore black and sang about the downtrodden, and a rebel because she did these things as a woman, and operated en ligue with women.
“It made me feel like I did in church,” Carlile mused, halfway through the profile. “I don’t belong here, and that’s why I’m going to stay. It’s an act of defiance.”
If television sets were still adjustable, I would have adjusted my television set. If televisions sets were yet rewindable, I would have rewound my television set. Going to church? An act of rebellion? Surely, I’d misheard. Church in the American imagination is one of the corporeal acts of conformity — an ancient institution, upholding antique norms, for the religion of two thousand years past. The white church, from which Brandi Carlile is descended, remains a symbol of conformity; what’s more, shorthand for an America where roles and hierarchies were clear, and “no friction needed ever abide in the nation God ordained to benevolently bestride the Earth.” How could attendance at such a place — such a bulwark of the nation as it was — be an act of rebellion?
As the highest moments of her overdue rise carted across the screen, the announcer at PBS reminded viewers that Carlile was a lesbian. She liked girls; this alone was a faux pas powerful enough to turn Sunday service into enemy territory. As a child.
Brandi Carlile never quite left my mind after that. In an interview with PEOPLE, she remarked, “I have a more intimate relationship with God than I would have, if I had an easier time with acceptance around the basic tenets of my faith.” She told the Advocate magazine, “The ‘#blessed’ human, don’t get those deep moments of darkness and rejection where they have to ask the questions. And in asking the questions, I feel that I’m getting the answers, and that pushes me closer in my faith, I think, than it would if I hadn’t experienced those dark times.”
Christianity in America, though the faith of the plurality until further notice, is in the middle of an identity crisis: In these fraught, uncertain times, during which a deadly disease pollinates the face of the Earth and the social fabric is torn by loneliness and alienation, any religion might — or even should — become palatable to the young and desperate. But this religion is not, at least not on this side of the world. Instead, membership in Christian churches is at its lowest ebb ever recorded, and the religiously unaffiliated are the fastest-growing cohort of belief in the entire country.
The church itself, particularly the bellicose, conservative evangelical church that has become the public and financial face of stateside faith, has a number of reasons why their ranks are thinning out: Education, with its dismissal of the mystical and magic, is turning people towards a way of thinking wholly incompatible with the faith of our fathers. Parishioners themselves are to blame, having lost interest in ruffling feathers for Christ in favor of maintaining their inoffensive relationships. (Why, you ask, is Christianity offensive in the first place? Don’t be silly; it’s all from the devil.) Or, perhaps — and this is a personal favorite — the people who would be predisposed to fervor are too busy attempting to shore up their financial futures to practice their faiths more fully. One thing is certain: Whatever ails Christianity, it is not the church, it is not the church’s doctrines, and it is not the church’s failure to broaden its vision in this century.
Then again, there’s Brandi Carlile. There could be millions of people, sitting in church pews, in predicaments a lot like hers: They want to be Christians, in their hearts. They’re drawn to Jesus Himself like moths to a white porch light, or compelled by the mission of a church that serves as a lighthouse of charity and community to a world in troubled times. Perhaps the things of Earth, the chase for more money, more stuff, more everything, has rang hollow for them, as plagues and political strife teach us how little sway we truly hold over our own lives. Maybe they want to be churched. But the churches they attend have lofty ideas about what Christians are like — where they live, what they think, who they love — and those ideas are enough to seal off the kingdom, even for those who want to get in. And that’s not the end: The attitude of exclusivity might raise the eyebrows of those who are already in, and become the nudge that makes them want to get out.
Not too long ago, churches were having it out over guitars on the pulpit or street clothes in the pews, and the memory of those shifts is enough to make millions of Christians feel as though they’ve done something courageous, and their pews, stocked with casually-dressed congregants might be enough to comfort them with the appearance of courage. But to open the gates of glory to people like Brandi Carlile, those who hunger and thirst for the kingdom outside the stereotype of what — or who — that kingdom actually is, would be an act of real courage in our time.
As Americans drift away from the institutions that once gave our democracy a bedrock of community — churches, yes, but also labor unions, American Legion outposts, and Decisions to expand American Christianity’s moral imagination would draw a lot of friendly fire from church members who’d worry that this was a distraction, a dilution, or even a desecration of “the Gospel.” But the opposite may well be true: To reduce the Gospel, the message of Jesus Christ, to a set of lovely-sounding stories or a prayer at some altar, and to reduce its hearers to some sort of checklist, is a mistake that the church can’t afford to make.
Their future may well depend on it.