Breaking Free From the Spell of Religion

Despite having grown up in the Deep South, I never had a heart-to-heart encounter with blues music until I moved to Chicago for graduate school. Shortly after classes began, the student association sponsored a concert by blues singer Koko Taylor and blues guitarist Lonnie Brooks and his band.

I found myself mesmerized by the poignancy and power of the music. It embraced the often-withering pain of human experience and transformed it into something bearable, even beautiful.

So I began to make regular pilgrimages to Chicago’s North Side, the epicenter of Chicago blues. Often making the trek on my own, I found good company in the music of Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Lee, Otis Rush, and of course, the chairman of the board, B.B. King, who died last week.

As Tim Wiener describes in the New York Times, King was born in 1925 to sharecropper parents in the Mississippi Delta, but found himself on his own by age 14. His mother dead and his father gone, King worked dawn to dusk on a cotton plantation from Monday morning until Saturday noon, and then headed into town on Saturday afternoon to play guitar in the street for tips. One day, he heard a radio broadcast from Arkansas called “King Biscuit Time,” featuring Mississippi Delta blues. King knew then he had found his calling.

But his sense of being alone in the world persisted. He married twice as a young man, and divorced twice, spending the last half-century of his life as a single man. By his own count, he fathered 15 children with 15 women, but the counterpoint of longing and loss remained the existential and musical refrain of his life.

His biggest hit was a 1969 tune titled “The Thrill Is Gone,” which King wrote after his second marriage failed. Repeating the mantra that articulates both the problem and the promise of life in the modern world, King writes:

You know I’m free, free now baby
I’m free from your spell
Oh I’m free, free, free now
I’m free from your spell
And now that it’s all over
All I can do is wish you well

And then comes the chorus:

The thrill is gone
It’s gone away from me
The thrill is gone baby
The thrill is gone away from me
Although, I’ll still live on
But so lonely I’ll be

When I first heard B.B. King perform this song live in 1988, I had recently learned for myself about the interplay of freedom and loneliness. Having grown up Mennonite, and having married a Mennonite, and having gone to seminary to prepare for Mennonite ministry, I had walked away from it all. The spell of traditional religion had been broken, and I was free.

In his song, King uses the word “free” seven times in four lines, as if to press the point that freedom itself can become oppressive. “Although, I’ll still live on,” he says, “but so lonely I’ll be.”

For my part, I knew what he meant. Having left my marriage, and my family, and my faith, not to mention the vocation for which I was fully credentialed, I needed to find my own way in the world.

When it comes to the spell cast by traditional religion, more and more people in the U.S. are doing the same — especially young people. According to an extensive survey released last week by the Pew Research Center, the number of American adults not affiliated with a religion have increased from 36 million in 2007 to 56 million in 2014 — from 16 to 23 percent of the population.

Among millennials, those who identify as not affiliated with a religion have increased by about 10 percentage points in less than a decade, to about 35 percent today.

I think these findings are mostly good news. The spell that is increasingly gone from the lives of many people in our nation is a spell that needs to be gone. Millennials often experience traditional religion as judgmental and hypocritical. My own sense is that the same is true for older adults who leave.

Especially to LGBT people, people of color, people from non-Western religious traditions, and even people who have no religious background, the legacy traditions often seem indifferent or even hostile to their identities and their spiritual needs.

Writing last month in the Washington Post, religion blogger Rachel Held Evans, author of Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, observes that many churches have responded by trying to make church “cool.” They have “sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology.”

While these aren’t inherently bad ideas and might in some cases be effective, she says, “They are not the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making things worse.”

Evans cites recent research showing that two-thirds of millennials prefer a classic church over a trendy one, and three-quarters would choose a sanctuary over an auditorium. She quotes her friend and blogger Amy Peterson on this issue: “I want a service that is not sensational, flashy, or particularly ‘relevant.’ I can be entertained anywhere. At church, I do not want to be entertained . . . I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.”

Blogger Ben Irwin makes the same point in a different way. “When a church tells me how I should feel,” he says, “it smacks of inauthenticity. Sometimes I don’t feel like clapping. Sometimes I need to worship in the midst of my brokenness and confusion — not in spite of it and certainly not in denial of it.”

The Holmes Brothers have long been one of my favorite blues bands. Their signature song, to my ear, is a Townes Van Zandt tune titled “If I Needed You.” The lyrics of the refrain go like this:

If I needed you
Would you come to me?
Would you come to me and ease my pain?
If you needed me
I would come to you,
I would swim the sea for to ease your pain.

Today, more and more people find themselves free of traditional religion’s spell, but they’re spiritually alone. They are often confused and sometimes broken. They may be oppressed in body or in spirit. Our mission as people of faith is to welcome them into a transformative spiritual community — one attuned to the realities of the modern world.

Once we find the place where we belong, we have the freedom to help others. In so doing, we can redeem our common humanity. As the Talmud reminds us, we are not obligated to complete this work, but neither are we free to abandon it.

The future of faith depends upon us.

Image courtesy of Daniel Bowman.

OnFaith Voices is a series of perspectives about faith.