Let the Conversation Begin: Steven Siler
Interview by Chris Johnson
Steve Siler founded Music for the Soul on the basis of two passionately held beliefs—that Jesus is a compassionate and loving healer and that music has the power to speak healing straight into people's hearts.
Siler writes and produces songs that address painful topics rarely breached in music—abortion, eating disorders, cancer, life after suicide. He writes for those living with terminal disease, disability, or grief of any kind. But one of his central passions is putting to music the pain of sexual abuse and addiction, expressed in his Somebody's Daughter project, which tells the truth about pornography.
How did you get started on this unusual journey of putting the painful truth about pornography and sexual abuse to music?
Siler: In 1989 I had written lyrics for several songs and had my first hit single on pop radio, but the moment I heard it on the radio for the first time I instantly realized that this was not what I was supposed to be doing with my life. Having pursued that goal for my entire adult life, that was a very sobering moment for me. I prayed to God, "Clearly this is not what you want me to be doing with my life, Lord. I hope you still want me to do music, but I am ready to surrender to whatever you want me to do now."
And God sent me a very specific answer. A guy named Stephen Breithaupt called me and said, "You don't know me, but I visited your church a week ago and heard you sing a song. I've just licensed a book on childhood sexual abuse, and I'm going to create a stage play. I want it to have music, and I think you're the guy who is supposed to write the songs."
So for the next three years that's what we did. The first time we did the play, over 1,000 adult women showed up, and that was when I found out that the problem was far more pervasive and serious than I had ever realized. After that we got invited to perform the play in 20 California public schools, from Watts to Beverly Hills. And it just took off. I began to understand how powerfully music could impact people on issues of all kinds.
How did you get to a place where you could write about songs dealing with childhood sexual abuse?
Siler: Once you take a look and do some research, you understand that every single child who has been abused thinks it's their fault. So that's how a song like "Innocent Child" came to be, because the first thing a child and an adult woman who is still a wounded child in her heart need to know is that it wasn't their fault. There was nothing she could have done as a small child to cause an adult to rape or abuse her. It's not her fault, but that's what she has internalized and that's what victims believe.
To identify the things that need to be said, regardless of the topic, I study the issue, talk to people who have lived through it, confer with people who counsel on it, and pinpoint the core things that everyone who walks this road experiences. Then I tell stories and speak to that place in the heart where we are all vulnerable and wounded, where we are all broken. All of us need to know that we are loved and have value. For the child abuse project, in addition to "Innocent Child," another song is called "Learn to Trust Again," because obviously their trust has been shattered. One is called "Tell Someone." Abuse victims often don't tell anybody because the abuser has threatened to kill them or their family. So we created songs that specifically addressed those core issues.
How can men be a part of the solution to stop the exploitation of girls and children?
Siler: Somebody's Daughter came about because my friend John Mandeville said to himself, "If I don't come forward with my secret addiction to pornography, I am going to lose everything."
When I heard that, I couldn't believe it. John's wife is someone that people envy; she is beautiful, smart, funny; she's a great mom, a great cook—I can just go down the list. I couldn't understand why on earth John would go looking for porn, but that was back before I understood that pornography addiction doesn't have anything to do with how beautiful a man's wife is. But John also had two beautiful daughters, ages 2 and 4. When he asked me to walk with him so he could overcome the addiction, we sat down and tried to figure out the best way to do it together. While we were praying about it, one of the first things that came up was that every woman you look at in pornography is somebody's daughter. If you wouldn't want to see your daughter, your wife, your mom, or your sister being prostituted in that magazine spread or video, why would you want that for anyone else's daughter, wife, mom, or sister?
Once you acknowledge that, it becomes incumbent on us as men, and especially Christian men, to take a step back and a hard look at our culture and ask, "Where in my life I am dropping the ball? Where have I become so anesthetized that I don't object to the way we look at women culturally, that I don't object to the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue? That's not the message I want to send to my daughter about what it takes to have value in our culture."
These are the kinds of questions I don't think guys are asking themselves, because we have just accepted that "boys-will-be-boys" thing that has been handed to us. That is not good enough for us, especially as believers. People ask me if there is Scripture on this issue, and I tell them there is tons of it. But you can start simply with the Golden Rule—if you wouldn't want the women you love in a pornographic video, why would you want it for any woman? And every time you buy a magazine, every time you rent a DVD, you are speaking out with your money about whether or not the way women are being presented in those scenarios is okay with you or not. You're complicit. Guys will say, "You're being too harsh," but Ephesians 5:3 says that "among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality." I don't see any wiggle room here. First Corinthians 6:18 says, "Flee sexual immorality." That means to turn and run hard in the other direction. I don't see the Christian men in this culture turning and running hard from a porn-drenched culture. I do not see them objecting to Kate Hudson posing naked on the cover of a magazine sold at the supermarket right where any 5-year-old can see it. We are like frogs in a pot—we are being boiled alive, and we don't even know it.
How challenging is it for men to face their own sexual lust, failings, and the damages they've both caused and incurred?
Siler: It's very challenging, because when you wake up in the morning this stuff is coming for you. The only thing you have to decide is what you are going to do about it. So I ask each man to take his own inventory. Look back on the relationships in your own life. How have you honored women, treated women with dignity? Because when we defile somebody else we defile ourselves. So how has your behavior made the world a kinder place? Is the way that you treat women God's best for women? Is it God's best for your life? You know these are the kinds of questions I want guys to answer.
Let's have a conversation, because we are willing to look at this stuff all day long, but we don't want to talk about it. I find that as soon as we begin to talk about it, as soon as we drag this problem out into the light, guys will instantly cop to this, and they will laugh at themselves at how silly they've been. Then they will get serious and become a part of the solution. That's what we need; we need guys who will challenge the boys-will-be-boys attitude of our culture. We need guys who will be willing to be perturbed when others are joking about this stuff, looking at a picture and laughing at a girl who is probably in that video because she was sexually abused as a child in the first place. It is not okay for us to pile on and make fun of her and use her again, because quote/unquote "She wanted it. It's her choice."
What guys need to understand is that if you grow up in a home with two loving parents and get a good education and have people who love and support you your whole life, maybe you have choices. But if you grow up with a single mom who is a meth addict in a poverty-stricken area, and she brings home boyfriends who use you repeatedly from when you are 5 years old until you are a teenager, you really don't have the same set of choices. And that's the kind of things that guys are not thinking about. They are not asking themselves, "What on earth would compel a young lady to want to be sodomized on camera for strangers to watch?" What kind of pain must there be in her life that she would wind up in this kind of position, and how can I help end that pain? Those are the kinds of questions I want men to ask—especially Christian men.
What are the biggest challenges facing men in terms of sexual addiction, sexuality, etc? And what can the church do to help?
Siler: Well, this is an area where we really need some help in the church. Because the whole "flesh being evil" thing has really created some seriously bad theology. If God created us in God's image, then divinity is a part of who we are. That's how we reflect God. So when we buy into this idea that somehow there is some part of God's creation that is inherently evil and then we shush it up and refuse to talk about those dirty parts, we create a situation where things fester, and anytime you do something in the dark, you know Satan has a field day. That's what we've done; we've basically said, "Oh, we don't talk about this stuff." And sin can flourish because it is in the dark. The moment you drag it out in the light and start talking about it, that changes the game. So the first thing I think the church needs to do is start talking honestly about this. The church wants to change the world, but we can't change the world until we have the ability to mentor our own kids, and we can't mentor our own kids until we clean up our own act, and we can't clean up our own act until we turn the light on.
So let's go way back to the beginning and click the light switch on and say, "Hey, guess what? There is sexual immorality in the church." Why are we shocked? It's all through the Bible. But let's acknowledge our own failings. Once we talk openly about it and get help for ourselves and our friends, then we are at a healthy enough place to mentor our kids, prepare them for the society that we are living in; and once we have cleaned up our act and prepared our children, THEN we can go out and talk to the culture about what they are doing.
It's like Jesus said: "Take the plank out of your eye before you help your brother with the speck in his eye." I want to encourage churches by saying that the very minute you start talking about this stuff, you start setting people free and good stuff starts happening—you start saving marriages, keeping kids with their families. That doesn't mean that it doesn't get messy on the front end, because if you tell your wife you've been looking at porn for the past 20 years, it's going to be very messy before it gets better. But if we create a culture of openness in the church, where people can get counseling, where we meet this issue with grace instead of condemnation and with mercy instead of judgment, THEN we have a chance of getting the upper hand on this thing.
Talk to me about how pervasive pornography use is.
Siler: People often ask for statistics. In response, I like to ask them, "What are the chances your child will see pornography before he/she graduates from high school?" The correct answer is 100 percent. If you're okay with your child or grandchild seeing hardcore pornography so that their chance for a true understanding of pure intimacy in relationship is forever warped, then do nothing. If that is not okay with you, then we need to start asking how we can be a part of creating a culture where that is not acceptable for anyone. Some people ask, "Well, don't you think it's too late?" Even Christians say this. I like to draw an analogy to smoking. In the 1940s everybody thought smoking was glamorous because all the movie stars were lighting up and puffing their way through the movies. But nobody thinks smoking is glamorous anymore. We all know it causes cancer.
Pornography is cancer; it's a toxin. It has the same reaction in the brain as crack cocaine. You feed that nonstop to your adolescent kids and you are going to have the death of relational hope. You'll have a generation of kids who don't know how to have a relationship and are so depressed that they can't even function. I think it is that serious. That sounds like a doomsday analysis, but my feeling is that there is hope. The fact is that smoking was once considered cool and glamorous and now it's not. Today most people think pornography is harmless entertainment, but one day I hope they will see it for what it is. It is cyanide. To the people who say, "I don't look at it, so it doesn't affect me" or "Our computer has a filter on it, so our kids are safe," I simply ask, "Do your kids ever plan on leaving the house? Do they ever interact with other people outside the home?" Culture is like a pond, and somebody is pouring cyanide where your kids have to swim. It is a toxic scenario, so we need to clean up the pond, for your kids, for my kids, for all kids. If we won't do it for ourselves as adults, then let's at least do it for our kids. We teach our kids to hold our hands and look both ways before crossing the street, and yet we send them out into this world and expect them to fend for themselves without getting any mentoring or any protection on this issue.
Can you speak to what went into writing your songs and documentary about pornography? And are you getting feedback on how churches are using your work?
Siler: All of the songs were created after long conversations with guys who had been through porn addictions and with people who counsel and pastor them. Once the songs were written we went back to those folks and played the songs for them, and when they said, "That's it—that's exactly how I felt," then we knew they were good. We want people to hear their story and to recognize themselves in these songs. If the song is meant to convict, we want them to recognize their sin in the song. If the song is meant to encourage a spouse, we want her to be able to say, "Oh, I thought I was the only one, but I'm not, because that woman is singing about it so it happened to her, too." We are trying to create community and a sense of support for people.
It was the same process for the documentary. We prayed so heavily over the interviews and really felt the Spirit's presence that day. The vulnerability of the folks we interviewed is what gives She's Somebody's Daughter its power. They were courageous beyond measure, and they shared openly and honestly about things most of us would prefer not to share if it were our story. I can tell you that several times we had to stop the camera for people to cry and pray and the whole process was difficult, but it was a beautiful kind of difficult. We all knew the reason it was so hard was because we were in the middle of the real stuff, and people were going to find hope and freedom because of what was happening there. That is an exciting thing to be a part of.
We have had churches use our songs to create performance art pieces, staging their own plays and incorporating our songs. We have had churches that had cook-offs and showed She's Somebody's Daughter as the film. We've had pastors stand up and insist that every man in their church go through the DVD and set up screenings seven nights a week to make sure no man has an excuse to miss it. Churches also use it as a discussion guide in small groups, large groups, Sunday school classes. We have had pastors use pieces as a sermon illustration. Lots of Christian counseling centers use it; one pastor, after a year of working with a couple, actually performed a remarriage ceremony using the last song on the DVD. So we hear all kinds of creative and exciting ways that people are using this. I always encourage people to use their imaginations and let us know how it works out. But I think the combination of songs, spoken word, and interview pieces—all these different ways into the conversation— are what get people talking. So I just encourage people, whatever works for you, find a way to get the conversation started, and the arts can do that sometimes.
Why do you think the arts are so effective in helping people access their stories, their hearts?
Siler: Language is processed primarily in the left hemisphere of the brain, and melody is processed primarily in the right hemisphere. So the only time I have your whole brain's attention is when I am singing. So basically pastors should sing their whole sermon if they want to get people's attention! I read one study that said people remember 10 percent of what they are told, 40 percent of what they read, and 90 percent of what they hear in music. We instinctively know this somehow—that's why we teach our kids the ABCs with a song. Advertisers sing about toilet bowl cleaners and beer, because it is harder to forget a jingle than it is a slogan.
Every time there is a horrible event, isn't music always a part of the healing process? After 9/11 there was a big concert, and after the Virginia Tech shootings I remember the music that was played at the memorial service there. We always pull music in as a part of the healing process, and we don't even really know why, but it's because it touches both the mind and the heart. We build walls to protect ourselves from pain—we all do it—but words have a way of hitting the wall and just falling to the ground; we fight them off because we don't want to deal with the pain that even healing words can bring. But because music works on the right side of your brain, the words to a song can seep through the cracks in the walls, and before you know it your heart has been softened and opened up. You're defenseless against it, and now I can take those lyrics that you have been trying to push back and I can lay them in that open heart with a melody. Melody is a memory device, so now not only are you going to hear it but you're also not going to forget it.
So I am going to sing to you that you are an innocent child. I am going to sing to you that "she's somebody's daughter," and maybe then the next time you go to act inappropriately and look at a girl you say to yourself, "Oh, man, she's somebody's daughter." Or the next time you say to yourself, "I'm such an evil, shameful person," you stop and say, "Wait a minute, I'm an innocent child. It was not my fault what was done to me."
I've talked to literally thousands of people. I have seen this work over and over again. I have had women come up to me and say, "I used to take drugs to go to sleep. Now I listen to this."
When we're in church singing worship music, we send up all this love to God: "You're so awesome, we love you." There's all this love flowing vertically, which is great, but what about the horizontal worship? What about loving our neighbor as ourselves? We leave church and haven't even asked the guy next to us how he is really doing, and heaven forbid if he's trying to tell us how he is really doing, because we'll probably head for the door. We really don't want to know that his marriage is falling apart or he just got fired and is thinking about suicide. But that is what is happening in our churches. It's a lot of vertical love but not enough horizontal love. I'd like to see the church work on that, too, because if we would include more songs that talk not only about God's love for us and our love for God but how we can extend that out to others, we could see some really good things happen.
Where do you see the church going from here?
Siler: I think this could be the adventure of our time for Christian men, if we will simply take up the mantle. If we want to be better husbands and fathers and members of the community, what better thing can we say than we want God's best for our sons and daughters, for our marriages? So I simply ask people, "Is pornography the best we can do by our families?" I don't believe it is. Are we just going to sit here and wave a white flag on this deal? We are supposed to surrender…but to whom? I know for a fact that it is not to pornography. So let's surrender to Christ and put down the white flags and get busy.
Let the conversation begin.
In 2013, She's Somebody's Daughter launched a nationwide conversation, starting in Oklahoma City, involving billboards, PSAs, and a non-proprietary website where people can get the facts, get help, and get involved. Learn more at ShesSomebodysDaughter.wordpress.com. To get a copy of the Somebody's Daughter DVD or learn more about Siler's other music projects, visit MusicfortheSoul.org.