“Jesus, Jesus, I’m still looking for answers / Though I know that I won’t find them here tonight / But Jesus, Jesus, could you call me if you have the time?” Singer-songwriter Noah Gundersen cuts to the chase in his song Jesus, Jesus from his 2009 record Saints and Liars. It’s a provocative song: Gundersen is quite clear in interviews that he doesn’t hold to the Christian faith in which he grew up, but the song gives Christianity, and Christ, a measure of respect in the questions it asks.
In the clarity of its challenge, it expresses the feelings of many: “Jesus, Jesus, there are those that say they love you / But they have treated me so goddamn mean.” That’s refreshing: there are plenty of artists from similar backgrounds who’ve left their faith behind them with scorn and derision and no further thought, but Gundersen is more interested in thinking through it and in asking, “What is it all about? Is there anything here of any value?” He tackles the big questions of life boldly and carefully. Oh Death references the classic country song of the same name and is hymn-like: “From dust and ashes I have called you / And dust you shall become in the end / . . . Oh death / Where is your sting?” Middle of June is deep and rich: “And peace is a ladder up to the clouds / That I’m wishing I could climb but I don’t know how” and “We come and we go / Losing everything just to gain it back again.”
The music is sparse — guitars and violin — and sits somewhere amidst the genres of country, rock and folk. Not folksy though — Gundersen’s voice is strong and direct and the guitars have grunt.
Saints and Liars was followed by another mini-album and two full-length records, and the exploration of life and its purpose has continued across all of them. Although at times the lyrics veer a little close to what poet Dana Gioia has called “the vague and sentimental spiritual pretensions of so much contemporary art”, they are more often quite clear and direct.
From 2011’s Family, the song David: “I don’t wanna be a proud man, just wanna be a man / . . . I wanna hunt like David, I wanna kill me a giant man / I wanna slay my demons, but I got lots of them.” The title track from 2014’s Ledges: “I want to learn how to love / Not just the feeling / Bear all the consequences / . . . And give it all back / And be forgiven for all I’ve done.” Carry the Ghost, from 2015, has the song Empty From the Start which again critiques Christianity but yet comes close to the heart of the Gospel: “Cause I’ve been finding / . . . To truly love someone is the closest I have come to truth.”
There’s a yearning in Gundersen’s music — see the repetition of “I want” in the lyrics above — that appears in a lot of contemporary music. “Am I giving all that I can give / Am I earning the right to live?” he asks. I like this kind of restless art, these searching lyrics, as they help me think through my own restlessness — but only to a point. Then I remember St John Paul II’s words: “It is Jesus in fact that you seek when you dream of happiness, he is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; he is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is he who provokes you with that thirst for fullness . . . . It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal.” Here’s the challenge for Gundersen, and for us: to go beyond the self-reflection and the questioning and the yearning, forwards to repentance and conversion in humility and faith.
This year we celebrate 100 years since the appearance of Mary to three children at Fatima, Portugal. Her message in a nutshell was that same challenge: to repent and convert.
The answer to Gundersen’s difficulties with Christ and his Church, and the way to discover the full picture of the truth that he has glimpsed in “truly loving someone”, is to have the faith and love of Mary in the midst of doubt, hurt and disillusionment. Following her as the model disciple walking in radical love, faith and hope to the heart of Christ is surely the path to the answers to every question.
“Dear young people,” said Pope Benedict in 2005, “the happiness you are seeking . . . has a name and a face: it is Jesus of Nazareth. . . . With Mary, say your own ‘yes’ to God, for he wishes to give himself to you.”