Singer-songwriter Dar Williams's 1995 hit "The Christians and the Pagans"--possibly the world's first interfaith pop song--brought a new spiritual sensibility to the folk-music scene. Her tale of a pagan couple sitting down to their extended family's Christmas dinner caught perfectly the new intricacies of religion in American life, a theme that Williams recently experienced for herself. The 34-year-old former religion major who once turned up on the Internet's "Celebrity Atheists" list now openly declares her belief in God (though whose God, exactly, she doesn't say).
Her transformation preceded the release of her fourth album, last year's "The Green World," which includes songs about a failed 17th-century messianic cult, Williams's travels in Buddhist Bhutan and the efforts of Catholic priest and anti-war activist Daniel Berrigan. Beliefnet spoke with Williams on the eve of the appearance of her latest, "Out There Live" (Razor & Tie), about growing up without religion, her newfound belief in God, and her spiritual heroes.
Were you raised in a particular religion?
Not at all. I was doing this really freelance--my parents didn't go to church. I was raised by parents who really admired the religious leaders of the left, as many 60s and 70s liberals did. My parents had a very aesthetic and intellectual connection with religious figures, whereas I was more interested in the next part of that--what that feeling is beyond the aesthetic.
But because I came to this freelance, at the age of 17 or so I started deconstructing all the messages that come with religion, the ways that Christianity plays on adolescent fears that are already there. The way we have become so ripe for fear of the 'other' by trying to foster such certainty. This God who is portrayed as very male, very blond, very blue-eyed. I was horribly afraid of the devil, horribly afraid of being possessed as a teenager. I would have anxiety attacks because I was afraid that I was a horrible, wretched sinner. So of course I became a religion major because that question was not done.
I've always had this duality of this incredible desire to have spiritual purity and then on the other hand realizing what a scam that desire for purity is. I've seen spirituality cross roads with eating disorder culture, capitalism, consumer culture, religious conservatism that refuses to grapple with earthy issues. That's been a very defining tension in my life.
That said, my cousin died a couple of years ago, and the day after he died, I believed in God. I was trying to swing all this stuff without actually believing, without any faith.
And now you would consider yourself a believer?
Yes. One of the reasons that I came to have this faith was I was in a part of my life where I was really lost. I was breaking a lot of my personal rules about what you're supposed to do on any given day of your life. I was in a car accident just before my cousin died that was my fault. If you aspire to take up very little space on the planet, then how can you deal with the fact that you can cause harm, that you can potentially be so destructive?
|There is a little grain of angst that is missing from my life, now that I am a believer, that might have been the essential grain of sand for the pearl of some of these songs.|
So here I was at my lowest--one of my favorite cousins has died, and I have been in a car accident. Somehow at this place where I was in a position to believe in God the least, to feel the most separated, I woke up and I just understood. So I feel incredibly lucky. I feel very calm now. Before, there was still that question--maybe I have to accept all of that bad if I ever want to be religious. I had so easily identified spirituality with a certain body type, with a certain cleanliness level, with a certain quality. Just believing in God was a real relief, because it removed those questions of regimen.
This belief has obviously meant a lot for your music. Your cousin died soon before "The Green World," which is by far your most spiritual album. Are you going to continue in that direction?
I'm a little scared. A year after my cousin died, I was asking for an opportunity to expand as a writer. I'm writing a book, and I'm writing songs for other people. I'm obsessed with a play that I want to write and a screenplay that I want to write. The one thing that is not coming to me is songs for my next album. And there is a little grain of angst that is missing from my life, now that I am a believer, that might have been the essential grain of sand for the pearl of some of these songs.