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From hell to atonement, musician Audrey Assad has been quietly evolving

Musician Audrey Assad. Photo by Kelsey Cherry

(RNS) — Four years have passed between spiritual songwriter Audrey Assad’s last studio album and her new, highly anticipated record, “Evergreen.” During that time, the evangelical-turned-Catholic says she began deconstructing her faith and battling anxiety. Though her fans did not know, her religious beliefs were “practically nonexistent” at one point.

Assad’s newest album chronicles something of a spiritual rebirth, a process from which she has emerged holding divergent viewpoints about God, faith and doctrine. Here, Assad talks about her quiet evolution, which many readers will doubtlessly recognize as similar to their own.

You were raised Protestant, but after studying Catholicism in your teens, you became a part of the Roman Catholic Church at 24. Was there anything about Protestantism that left you wanting, that perhaps drove you to look elsewhere for spiritual answers and fulfillment?  

I began to feel that I needed Sunday, supposedly the high point of religious practice for a Christian, to consist of more than just sermons (which I could download and listen to alone) and worship music (likewise). The sacraments seemed like the answer to my need. They were something I couldn’t get anywhere else except at church, unlike preaching and singing. They were both physical and spiritual, which was weirdly and intensely grounding. I found that they deepened my relationship to both God and myself, and they gave me a compelling reason to actually show up to church.

I have Catholic friends who are drawn by the rituals and liturgy and others who just looked at the history and theology and concluded that the facts indicate it is the true Christian church. Other than the sacraments, what about Catholicism drew you?

I think I ended up coming to Catholicism because, frankly, I wanted to go back as far as I could to the oldest church possible. Call me an idealist — because I do struggle with being perhaps too much of one — but my desire was to try to get as close as I could to the seed of the ancient tree that is the church. I am cognizant now of the perspective that that might in fact be the Orthodox church, but I wasn’t at the time, so I chose Catholicism. This was at least partially due to my desire to be as close to Christ as I could, but I also look back and see how much I needed to feel that I was right. It was a mixed bag of motivations.

In a 2013 interview, you said, “My evangelical upbringing made it difficult for me to see how a song that didn’t say ‘Jesus’ could be beneficial, good, or true.” It’s difficult to deny that evangelicals haven’t always produced high-quality art — Thomas Kinkade isn’t exactly Renoir — while Catholicism has a rich history of valuing art. Why do you think this is?

I’m not totally sure, but I suspect that it might have something to do with Catholicism’s long history and pattern of becoming part of the cultural fabric of a place, unlike fundamentalist evangelicalism’s tendency to practice separatism. When you steep yourself in a place, you learn to speak its language. My particular evangelical experience was intensely and purposefully isolated — not of the world, and barely in it. How could great art be made or appreciated in that sort of echo chamber?

Audrey Assad’s album “Evergreen” is out now.

You’ve been experiencing a bit of a theological transformation recently. What are some core doctrines that you used to accept that you now reject?

If only it were that simple. I am going through more than a theological transformation — I am going through a spiritual transformation, and one which requires me to at least tweak my whole relationship to theology. For most of my life, theology was ultimately a barometer of “right standing” with God, and what has been required of me in this season is to realize that I have been practicing a Christianity whose God amounts to an angry, sanctified Santa Claus making his list and checking it twice.

I have been lured into the desert either by my own heart or God’s or both, and it is unsurprisingly lonely and painful. I suppose if there is anything I could say I reject, it is the idea that God’s love and acceptance is dependent on our right belief. I no longer see how that could be possible.

“Atonement” is one of those loaded theological words that make some Christians squirm. How has your understanding of the atonement changed?

As my spiritual journey and transformation has unfolded, it has required me to examine the effects of certain things on both my psyche and my theology. Atonement theory is certainly one of those things, and it has been fascinating to uncover that it seems to have been one of the most formational elements of my Christian experience. How could it not be?

How God saves is, for most of us, formational and fundamental to our understanding of God’s nature. I was raised in an environment which primarily taught penal substitution, as well as several other types of atonement theory. At this point, I no longer see penal substitution as consistent with the God I have come to know in the broader context of history and church teaching. That said, do I know how atonement works? No, I most certainly don’t.

You’ve told me before that you think one’s view of atonement might play a significant role in their mental and emotional health. Explain what you mean. 

Growing up with penal substitution as the primary theological context in which I heard about God’s love, I managed to piece together an idea of God as the kind of dad that would kill his kid for a good enough reason. I know it’s supposed to be a story about the mercy of God, but I remember being horrified as a kid by the Old Testament tale of Abraham putting Isaac on the altar. I thought to myself that I wouldn’t trust God ever again when he told me something. And I felt a deep sadness at the trauma Isaac must have endured, being nearly killed by his father with a godly “gotcha” at the end. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know that for me, our atonement theory played a role in sowing a lot of distrust and fear.

Catholics don’t accept a strictly literal or inerrantist reading of the Bible like many evangelicals. Are there parts of the Bible that many Protestants consider to be inspired and read literally that you might interpret differently or even claim isn’t actually inspired?

The Bible is a collection of different types of literature, some of which are written in ancient mythological style. I do revere the Bible, so I believe in reading it as it was written. It is an ancient anthology of poetry and history meant to draw us further into the incarnate love of God, not a code or a textbook. So yes, I am very open to many parts of the Bible being mythological — not “untrue,” mind you, because that’s not at all what I mean by the word. I believe that all parts of the Bible contain objective truth, but that certainly doesn’t mean we have to read all parts of it literally.

I also like to joke that as a fundamentalist evangelical Christian I was taught to read all parts of the Bible literally, including all of Revelation, except for anything Jesus actually said. Think about it. We’re all inconsistent to a point with how literally we read Scripture — the best I can do is learn how each book was meant to be read and try to read it that way. So if that means Genesis 1 didn’t happen exactly as it is recorded, but that it has something more important to offer than scientific facts to communicate about God’s mercy and love, I’m certainly open to that.

Your 2013 album was heavily influenced by St. Augustine. Who are some of the more progressive thinkers that inspire your music today?

A lot of voices that have been consolations to me in this process are ones I might have discounted years ago as “too fringe” for comfort. Richard Rohr is one. I can just hear a bunch of my faithful Catholic friends cringing as they read that. But I would respond with this: Richard Rohr probably could be at least partially credited with saving my faith when my belief died. The same goes for Thomas Merton, and Madeleine L’Engle, both of whom are often dismissed by believers as being too liberal or even dangerously universalist.

Let’s talk about the afterlife. Many Catholics have less dogmatic views about hell than do some conservative Protestants. Do you believe in a literal hell or is your view more inclusive and universalistic than that?

I have tormented myself over this one. At one point, I got so obsessed with figuring out if I could definitively say there was no hell that it was probably more of the same need to be right I had displayed when I did believe in hell. I don’t know what lies beyond, exactly. I hope it is mercy, and if there is a literal hell I hope and pray it will be empty.

I will say I no longer believe eternal conscious torment is consistent with the God I think I know. And I also believe that some of our certitude about the afterlife can serve as a psychological escape from the heaven and hell that already exist on this earth. At this point I am steering clear of any belief that might distract me from staying present to the beauty and/or suffering of humanity now.

Are their any notable Catholic doctrines that you flat-out reject, and if so, which ones?

No. I do not know enough to flat-out reject anything. I have deep doubts about some of them, but my spiritual journey is moving me past the need to know everything.

Photo courtesy of Audrey Assad

Do you believe that contraception is sinful?

I would say that I believe the contraceptive industry is disturbingly patriarchal and maybe even anti-feminist in both its origins and in its current state — it’s mind-boggling to me that women are the ones who are expected to drug themselves in order to space pregnancies. I don’t personally use it, because I personally find it dehumanizing. But I don’t pass judgment on those who disagree with me.

That said, I also think the Christian conversation around contraception is problematically patriarchal. I believe women ought to be at the forefront of it, and they are not. Until they are, I see the conversation as incomplete.

Do you consider yourself pro-life? If you could snap your fingers and overturn Roe v. Wade, would you? 

I consider myself pro-life, yes. They say Christ came to defeat death, so anything that promotes resurrection and redemption on this earth — and not death — seems beautiful to me. I want to work for a world where death happens less, including abortion. But I see a lot of issues as being tied into that, including our society’s prevalence of guns and the death penalty.

With abortion, though, I think Christianity in America has gotten in its own way by ignoring women too much and by adopting certain dismissive attitudes toward the poor. We seem to have adopted the idea somewhere that rich people deserve to be rich and poor people deserve to be poor. So we don’t work very hard to systemically lift people out of poverty. And that seems to impact abortion rates.

Would I overturn Roe v. Wade if I could snap my fingers and make it happen? Not if I thought abortions would go up. And I’m not honestly sure if they would. So rather than hyper-focusing on one issue like abortion, which is honestly very important to me, I have adopted a  broader social approach in hopes that it will generally promote life and not death.

The thesis of your newest album is that the tree of life is “evergreen.” What does this mean, and why do you think people need that message now?

I read somewhere that the tree of life was probably a sycamore fig tree — the same tree that Zacchaeus climbed to see Jesus. I have a special relationship to the Zacchaeus story. I so deeply relate to him. A sycamore fig tree is both evergreen and fruit-bearing, which seemed to carry a deeply poetic truth about the divine life. Well, I needed a tree of my own to climb. So I made the album to serve as that tree. If people need that message now I think it might be because a lot of people are needing trees to climb, to see above the religious and political noise of their upbringings, to lay eyes on Christ.

You’ve been fairly outspoken with your political views. What do you make of the Christian support of Donald Trump? 

I think we all make gods of things. And I think a lot of us have made gods of our economy, our social standing and “the way things used to be.” I also think that since church is one of the most segregated venues in the United States, segregationist views surely still exist in an uncomfortably large number of white American Christian individuals.

I also see a tide of nationalism sweeping over Europe and the West in general, including America. All of that combined seems to have made Donald Trump’s ascent not only possible but easy, and polls will show you that white Christians are the very opposite of absent from his fan base. I don’t honestly know what to make of it beyond that. I guess American Christianity is largely American first and Christian second. I don’t know what other conclusion to draw.

Can you be a true Christian and support Donald Trump, in your view?

Seeing as my working definition of “true Christian” is “someone who was baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” then of course a Christian can support Donald Trump. I think to claim otherwise is to minimize the culpability and participation of the American church in this situation.

Years ago, you would often say that you “don’t make Christian music,” but the Christian themes in your music have persisted, even intensified. It seems pretty Christian to many of your fans, I’d imagine. How do you describe your music now?

What I meant by that was that, in my opinion, “Christian” is not a qualifier that should be applied to anything but a person. It does nothing to describe what the music sounds like, and it waters down the word “Christian” to simply mean “anything made by a person who calls themselves a Christian.” You can’t have a Christian painting. Why can you have a Christian pop song?

I used to say “I make church music” because that felt more accurate than “Christian music,” but now I tend to call what I make “soundtracks for prayer,” because I think that’s how my music is most often used—sometimes people sing my songs at their churches, but more often than not it seems like people put my music on to grieve to, to give birth to, to pray to. And I think that’s really beautiful.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

41 Comments

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  • Fascinating interview. Thoughtful woman. Like all too many, she was taught the what of theology, not the why, and it has driven her from absolute, redemptive truth into a smorgasbord of syncretism.

  • If sister Audrey Assad really “wanted to go back as far as [she] could to the oldest church possible … to get as close as I could to the seed of the ancient tree that is the [Catholic] Church … to be as close to Christ as [she] could” – then why did she foolishly stop at the year 380 Anno Domini? Wasn’t that when Emperor Theodosius I narrowed down the meaning of the term Catholic to signify the cult followers of Pope Damasus I of Rome and Pope Peter of Alexandria?

    Or is it the mid-2nd Century AD? – when the term Catholic was in vogue so as to discriminate all others as Heretics.

    Or is it 108 AD? – when one of the prophesied-to-come Savage Wolves, the Early Church Father Ignatius of Antioch, coined the term Catholic in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans.

    I MEAN, SERIOUSLY – why not go all the way back to 52-55 AD when, as recorded in Acts 20:29-30, apostle Paul prophesied the Coming of Catholicism through Savage Wolves?

  • Comprehensive questions, largely unstudied (in the best sense) and uncertain answers thoughtfully declared. A commitment to continued assessment. Not the worst road to follow.

  • Hmm. A most interesting interview about Audrey Assad’s personal journey.

    But her “evolution” involves a rejection of two explicit (and very important) biblical teachings: “penal substitution” and “eternal conscious torment”. So let’s go to the Bible, and see what it really says about them.

    Does the Bible teach “penal substitution”? (And what does that mean anyway?)
    https://www.gotquestions.org/penal-substitution.html

    Does the Bible teach “eternal conscious torment”? (What happens if you go to hell?)
    https://carm.org/hell

  • If penal substitution were ‘explicit’ in the Bible, the subject wouldn’t have been discussed, debated and exposited for centuries, up to and including the present day.
    It’s explicit to you because your particular protestant denomination requires it, not because the Bible does.

  • “…then why did she foolishly stop at the year 380 Anno Domini?”

    She didn’t. She went all the way back to when Christ established His Church – the Holy Catholic Church, outside of which there is no salvation.

  • You seem to be saying Christianity existed for like 70-150 years then was mostly eclipsed for around 14 centuries.

    So how did it revive at all in this formula?

  • Interesting, but sad. As a theologian, I find the answers – and the questions – wanting. There are fine guides available who perhaps could have helped on the journey. If the sacrament was desired, it is available weekly with the Anglicans and Lutherans. No reason to accept many troubling RC doctrines and reject a Reformation perspective.

  • What’s the point of any Christian “reviv[al]” in the aftermath of a permanent coup d’etat by these Early Church Wolves I mean Fathers? The only way to survive is in Acts 20:29-32. Listen to your apostle Paul:

    “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”

  • Can’t you read her confession? “I ended up coming to Catholicism … to the oldest church possible”. ERGO: “108 AD … when one of the prophesied-to-come Savage Wolves, the Early Church Father Ignatius of Antioch, coined the term Catholic in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans.”

    In “52-55 AD when, as recorded in Acts 20:29-30, apostle Paul prophesied the Coming of Catholicism through Savage Wolves” – Catholic Church didn’t exist.

    Christ Jesus & His 1st apostles and disciples predated the Catholic Church. None of them were Catholic. Thank God!

  • YES, “the Bible teach[es] ‘penal substitution'”!

    And YES, “the Bible teach[es] ‘eternal conscious torment'”!

    Not only that, all fired-up & die-hard followers of THE Christ Jesus of the gospels, epistles & revelation BELIEVE those 2 to be the truth, and nothing but.

  • So basically you have no answer. The wolves referred to could be Gnostics or Marcionists or any number of things.

    You need to imagine there was somehow a coup in a period where Christianity was spread out yet not official anywhere. How was that managed? What is your evidence?

  • “If penal substitution were ‘explicit’ in the Bible”?

    Alright, I’ll bite. Which passages indicate that it’s merely IMPLICIT at best? Come on, give me your best shot. You have 24 hours. GO.

  • The Legend of Gnostics and Marcionists was these Wolves’ Propaganda. Just like The Legend of Commies in the 20th century and The Legend of Muslim Terrorists in the 21st invented by the US & NATO.

    Remember The Matrix? You’re in it.

  • And “no reason [either] to accept [one of the] many troubling RC doctrines [namely the] Reformation perspective.”

  • Not merely “explicit.” Totally explicit. Unavoidable.

    “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body, but made alive in the Spirit.” — 1 Pet. 3:18

    The fancy name for this and other texts is simply, “penal substitution.”

  • 1/2 of Reformational Protestantism is Catholicism. For instance: sacrament, liturgy, clericalism, trinitarianism, money, religious buildings, creeds.

  • I’m truly sorry for your heresy, but Christ created one and only one Church here on earth, the Holy Catholic Church.
    There is not one trace of protestant delusion to be found in any of the oldest Christian writings, from Scripture to the voluminous apostolic letters to the Church Fathers. From its earliest days, the Church was liturgical, sacramental, and episcopal in governance.
    None of Christ’s apostles or Church Fathers were protestant. Thank God!

  • Alright, then for starters, show me in the New Testament where any of the following false teachings of these “Savage Wolves” came directly from Shepherd Jesus and His 1st Sheep of Apostles & Disciples. Don’t go blah blah blah (or rather woolf woolf woolf) on me but just give me chapters & verses. You have 24 hours. GO.

    I. Clement

    (1) “The Phoenix [Is] an Emblem of Our Resurrection.” (The Ante Nicene Fathers, volume I, page 12.)

    II. Ignatius

    (2) “Breaking one and the same bread … is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying”. (Epistle to the Ephesians, page 58, chapter XX.)

    (3) “Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, Chapter VIII.)

    III. Irenaeus

    (4) “The Virgin Mary [had] become the patroness (advocata) of the virgin Eve. And thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so is it rescued by a virgin; virginal disobedience having been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience.” (The Ante Nicene Fathers, page 547, book V, chapter XIX, 1.)

  • Quick correction: “Are their any Catholic…” subhead should read “Are there any…” Interesting interview. Her theology seems to have become centered around what she feels God could be rather than trust in the bible even where it doesn’t seem to make sense. A common spiritual journey.

  • Jesus spoke about people like Assad at Matthew 13:14: 14In them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.’
    Jesus said no idolater will survive Armageddon or be found acceptable at Judgement Day yet Assad leaves the church with no idols to join one stuffed with idols of a dead woman to who they all pray!

  • My Bible says an awful lots about people who worship idols and die awful deaths and get the thumbs down on Judgement Day!

  • My Bible has Jesus saying ‘Call no-one Father’ yet Ignatious was so-called and now Assad will daily call a man ‘Father’ was he leads her to worship Ishtar and Tammuz and eat cakes baked and dedicated ot them while they smoke of fragrant sticks is in her nostrils…

  • I’m sure GOD is thankful Tyndale and others smashed through the fortification the Catholics had built around the Bible Truths!

  • Your false god, perhaps. Certainly not the Blessed Trinity.
    Tyndale’s false ‘bible’ contained countless mistranslations, and those were no accident. Indeed, all protestant pseudo-scriptures are perversions of the Bible that was compiled, codified and authorized solely by the Holy Catholic Church.
    Calvin, in his commentaries for instance, frequently mistranslated Hebrew and Greek words that didn’t conform to his heresy, making it clear just how ‘bible-based’ their new apostate movement actually was.
    I’m sure you probably wish Luther had been more successful in removing the epistle of St. James and the Apocalypse from Scripture too, as he valiantly attempted. Neither book conforms to the false gospel of protestantism.

  • I’m sure your friend Satan is delighted you worship his imaginary goddess Ishtar and the baby Tammuz.

  • Countering the facts I gave you with idiotic rambling is par for the course with protestantism, but your profound ignorance leads me to think you sit around watching TBN all day.
    Also, if you’re going to pretend to uphold ‘Bible Truths!’ you might want to avoid using long-refuted arguments that were created by atheists. They’re usually the only ones willing to blaspheme Christ and Mary in that manner.

  • Mary Ishtar had a little lad his halo is white as snow..

    everywhere that Mary’s idolised the lad is also so.

    Catholics is walking dead, led by the demon pope,

    when he sees Jesus come he’ll wish he’d swung on a rope.

  • A-ha, you ARE a Pentecostal!
    Only demon possessed heretics could spew out that kind of vile, nonsensical gibberish.
    Although I notice that you refer to yourself as ‘retired’ (did you actually mean ‘retarded’?) so I suppose we can’t discount your growing senility, can we?

  • Is your reference there to Ishtar being worshipped with fluffy cakes & hot-cross buns, and revered for her fertility Easter eggs and procreated Easter bunnies in one big family event for the children?

  • Poor Jeffrey is a slave to Ishtar aka Mary and the scent of the incense sticks they burn as they eat the cakes they hold up to the sun for her and little Tammuz…
    Just like Muslims the Catholics are so deeply brainwashed that they cannot understand the truth and dismiss all Christian truth as, quote: ‘vile, nonsensical gibberish.’
    Jeffrey thinks he writes grown-up criticism of Protestants but is really just a deluded child.
    He and all Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and similar idolaters will realise their mistake when the see the clouds part and reveal not Mary/Ishtar but Jesus and his avenging angels coming to slaughter all idolaters.

  • I found this interview and Audrey’s answers saddening. I personally, deeply understand how twisted a childhood in a “christian” home can be. How the pain and the distortion created by pastors and those close to you (parents and grandparents) can be crippling and affect how God is viewed, but God and His Word does not change. I feel like she threw out all of the truth of the Bible, while trying to throw out her broken past (this I surmise from previous interviews of hers I’ve watched or read). I nearly did this myself at one time, so I would like to believe I get it. But… Christ came and tore down all the rituals, the idols, and the human made rules, which the Catholic church is now full of. He tore the Temple curtain in two, there is no longer a need for a priest or pope, or any of that nonsense because God has invited us in to the inner court of His mercy and love through the blood of Jesus, and gift we receive by faith (not works or rituals). Rituals make us comfortable, like we’re doing something to get closer to God, but there is nothing biblical about man made rituals… If I am wrong in this then I have severely misread the Bible.

  • Amen to that – that “God has invited us [Audrey Assad included] in to the inner court of His mercy and love through the blood of Jesus, and gift we receive by faith” – so, so-not-true, this – “I am wrong” – and this – “I have severely misread the Bible.”

    By the way, the interviewer here, “Jonathan Merritt is [no longer] senior columnist for Religion News Service [but just] a contributing writer for The Atlantic.”

    But hey, though? You should stick around at RNS. We surely could savor lots of foods for thoughts prepared and served by you. By we I mean not just the Ashiest, Eggnogshticks, Proggies & Nones-sensicals, but your Blood Family as well. YuP – them born-from-above, fired-up and die-hard followers of THE Christ Jesus of the gospels, epistles and revelation!

    I’m commuting now on my way to the office, so I really appreciate this time of fellowship. I thank God & Jesus for you – sister Caitlyn Baldo! See ya!

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