Music to Break the Heart
Interview with David Gungor by Jennifer Carpenter
Racism, church division, armed conflict, doubt—friends David Gungor and John Arndt of The Brilliance take on all kinds of heartbreak on their latest album, Brother (Integrity). The opening lines of the album invite us to consider that "When I look into the face of my enemy / I see my brother."
Your song "Does Your Heart Break" was originally written for the Lenten season. How did the song evolve between its creation in 2012 and how it appears on the album Brother?
We wrote from a place that was loosely around Lamentations and the honesty of dealing with doubt and the reality of injustice within the world. When we re-released some of this for Brother, we took our time and allowed the songs to season. There was a moment during one of our shows, with all that was going on with racial tension in the US, that I changed the lyrics on the spot—from The world is burning as you're standing by / Are you watching, as your children die? / Did your heart break? / Does your heart break now? to When the man said / "You are choking me" / And he cried out "I cannot breathe" / Did your heart break? / Does your heart break now?—and when we re-released the song we decided to keep that change.
What was it like being in New York when Eric Garner died during a police arrest?
John was in Chicago, and I live in New York. We both have a lot of African American friends who have to deal with a reality that neither of us have to. Racism, violence against black people, and fear of black people have been a reality for a long time. My church in New York is just a couple blocks away from City Hall, so we were experiencing the marches and the protests. We feel we need to stand up for people who are facing injustice, and we need to be able to do it a nonviolent and peaceable way. Solidarity is one way to lament Garner's death and racial issues in general. We need to pray and lament and give voice to these issues.
What has helped you to recognize the difference between what you experience and what your friends of color experience and to stand against the injustices they face?
Trauma—acknowledging it and entering into it rather than limiting your worldview to the bubble you choose to live in. There are lots of different ways you can experience trauma, and none of them is pleasant. But following the teachings of Jesus will lead you into the places that are painful. For example, traveling to a different country and experiencing the trauma of "the other" there, experiencing the trauma of poverty. New York is a very wealthy place, but wealth can make you vulnerable to a different type of poverty—like spiritual poverty, for example. If you have never experienced racism before but you begin to see racism for what it is, it starts to mess with your reality. The best way that's happened for me is through relationships. When I engage with the "other," when I begin to really love and be in relationship with those who are of different backgrounds and faiths from mine or who don't think the same way I do—it messes with my reality.Do you draw on those experiences as you create?
Yes, definitely. As I write, I try to deal with reality and the world, with my own personal disruptions and trauma, with the "upside down" versions of hope that God offers—that's often where the tension will come into the music. Often in that tension, within the wrestling with human and divine thoughts, we attempt to step into the different narratives that God provides. In the face of violence, injustice, and racism, the counter-narrative would be, "I'm going to respond with nonviolence and forgiveness instead of violence." This is the traumatic experience of forgiveness. Forgiveness requires me to actually acknowledge how people have hurt me, what they did to me, and that's not easy. But this happens all the time in dealing with issues of injustice.
You lead worship regularly at your church. What role does imagination play in faith in general, and in the worship service in particular?
Well, I think faith is imagination. I don't know how you can have faith without imagination. If you have no imagination, then within the context of faith all you have is certainty. If it's certainty, then it's not faith.
One of the ways you can inspire imagination is through beauty. As a musician, I try to make music that inspires me, music that is beautiful and inspires the imagination. Our entire liturgy is to inspire the faith, or the imagination, of the Christian. It is hopefully a narrative that will change the reality of our world by pointing to a different way of living, to the kingdom or reign of God.
What are some things that have made an impression on the way you develop liturgy and music and art now?
To say "I believe in God the creator of the Universe" and to understand what that means, I start with Scripture and the narrative we've been given, and I constantly use the creativity and imagination God has given me to begin to know God more. Then we attempt to participate with the Divine in loving God through prayer, scripture, and songs as a community. This shapes us as we gather together around the Eucharist, and the entire liturgy helps to shape our imagination around Christ.
The Brilliance got started by writing liturgy for the church—is that correct?
Yeah, it really started when I called up my best friend and told him, "I have an idea to make some music for my church that's based around a string quartet." We didn't try to start a Christian band—we just started writing music around the church calendar. It's kind of funny, because we write music for the church, but I wouldn't always necessarily call it "worship" music. I mean, I try to steer clear of those words anyway, because all music can be "worship" music if you posture your heart to be opened up to God. So we don't label it as "worship music" per se, but we write music that is based around the church narrative. The more you head down that path, the more it will bring you to writing about humanity and our relationship with God.
What do you hope to be moving toward with music and liturgy for the church?
Sometimes we talk about singing ancient things, but they are really only a few hundred years old in the grand scope of church history. Our idea of worship music is vastly different than 1st-century music—music itself is vastly different! It is easy to become nostalgic of music, thinking "this is how it used to be." And it is important to look at the past and see how it shapes the future, but I am working on moving toward a more complete musical landscape that inspires the imagination. The worship experience within the congregation should be as inclusive and accessible as it can be. There has to be balance, but we hope to move away from predictable patterns while still being inclusive of all who are participating in worship with us.
Jennifer Carpenter is a construction site of grace, Palmer Theological seminary student, Sider Scholar, musician, baker, solution-seeker, and investigator of good stories. She sporadically tweets @jcsongwriter.