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The Prairies and a Theology of BrokennessThe Prairies and a Theology of Brokenness

The Prairies and a Theology of Brokenness

Canadian musician Steve Bell sits down with Convivium's Hannah Marazzi to talk about his sources of inspiration and the geography found beyond physical parameters. 

Hannah Marazzi
Steve Bell
10 minute read

You released your first album, Comfort My People, in 1989 and have released a subsequent 20 albums, the most recent of which – The Pilgrim Year Companion CD – was released last year. How did you first begin your career in music? 

I actually got my professional start playing in nightclubs and commercial recording studios. And then, after ten years of struggle in the music business I got to the point where I felt that God was asking me to give up music completely. This began one of the hardest years of my life. I was depressed and felt I had squandered my early adult years leaving me with no adequate means to take provide for our young family. Tears flowed one morning upon reading Psalm 90: “May the favour of the Lord rest upon us and our land and establish for us all the work of our hands.”

Later that night I wrote a music setting for that text not realizing that the song, which would become the first song of my first solo album, was simultaneously my prayer and the answer to the prayer. For a while, songs kept coming out of me almost every time I read scriptures. I didn’t necessarily intend to release them, but they resonated with people that I shared them with until a friend encouraged me to record and release my first solo album. That was the beginning. 

Tell us more about the musical influences of your childhood. From where do you draw your inspiration? 

I grew up with music… in the early years mostly hymns, classical music and quartet music. We were a singing family and having recorded a gospel record with my mother and two sisters, when I was 12, we performed extensively in churches across the prairies. I also studied the trumpet through high school and assumed I’d end up as a high-school band teacher. But that all changed after the first time I heard Bruce Cockburn in concert when I was sixteen. There was something different about the way he approached music that intrigued me. The poetry was complex, touching on social justice themes. His music had an angular, other-worldly quality to it. That concert blew my world open. Artistically, as a guitar player, I had never heard that kind of finger-style playing. And lyrically, the scope of concern and the poetic quality of his words both unsettled and inspired me. Subsequently, Bruce’s album Circles in the Stream altered the course of my life. 

Then, of course there were The Eagles, Joni Mitchel, Crosby Stills and Nash, Bread, Kenny Loggins and the like. And because I played trumpet, Chicago, Lighthouse and Blood Sweat and Tears were also very formative. 

You have performed internationally but there is really the sense at least in my own community that you are a beloved Canadian musician. Could you share a little bit about how geography has impacted your music? 

Growing up in the prairies was distinctive for me. I am, spiritually speaking, a prairie boy. There is a vastness to the prairies that opens one to mystery. The idea of having been fashioned by “big sky country” is not just a romantic notion – it has been a way of seeing the world. There is something about the almost-infinite visibility and endless skies that speaks to a broader scope of vision than a closer, more cloistered landscape might engender. The prairie landscape is part of my DNA for sure. And it’s interesting to consider how geography affects our ability to comprehend, since we can only think with our own experience. 

My mind also turns to the inner geography we all carry with us. I think of my mother who suffered a nervous breakdown when I was eight years old and who continued to suffer much in the following years. I have a particular inner landscape because of that experience which has fashioned my imagination in a certain way. In our modern western context, we don’t always consider geography in this way. Geography is, too often, merely physical. 

You have written compelling songs on difficult topics like Auschwitz, the plight of the refugee and suffering. Can you share a little bit about your songwriting process, particularly when writing about difficult topics such as these?

I typically write hum-able melodies and so I think people don’t quite realize how dark my songs can sometimes be. 

The artistic temperament is such that we tend to have porous souls. It’s a gift and a curse. We don't have the typical defenses against darkness and suffering in the world. This is why, I presume, that so many artists self-medicate in order to cope. 

Suffering came into my family at a young age. I was part of a seemingly idyllic, born-again Baptist family life when suddenly my mother suffered a debilitating nervous breakdown. Mom was taken to a mental institution where she stayed for the better part of a year, and the mother I once knew never did return. That experience threw me for a terrible loop. There was no bible verse one could “lob” at that experience to make things better, although people tried to help in that manner. I had to determine whether or not there was something wrong with my mum (in a moral sense), or had God simply, and randomly run over us with a truck? Or… I needed to adopt a different worldview that made room for brokenness and trauma? 

I started to develop a theology of brokenness that encouraged me to become more and more open to feeling things I was going to feel anyways. I learned to adopt the language of poetry and melody to give expression to such things. I so I learned to let those things have a life. I can now see the gift in that darkness all the way through. We don’t have to deny that life is hard. Yet all of these experiences, I’ve learned, are also impregnated with the goodness of God for those who are somehow gifted with the grace to see it.

Would you be open to sharing with us a little more about your theology of brokenness? 

Brokenness is obvious. “Good” people do terrible things. Demonstrably, innocent children suffer miserably as a consequence of human greed for wealth and power. But I just can’t accept that life and suffering are random and meaningless. There is too much evidence to the contrary. Beauty and goodness just keep busting out of the strangest places.

I mentioned my mom’s mental illness. When her illness first manifested itself, the church we were going to had no adequate catcher’s mitt for such things. However, around the same time, my dad became a prison chaplain and, curiously, the inmates had no trouble with my mom being unwell. Their gift to us was acceptance in our brokenness. We were loved with no prerequisite of healing having to come. They loved us as we were, not as who they thought we should be. That’s what I meant beauty that busts out of unlikely places. Those same men taught me guitar and I now travel the world doing what I do largely, in part. because Canada's most unwanted men invested in me when I was a kid. My theology of brokenness comes from my experience of growing up in communities of brokenness and the brokenness of my own family. Yet, there is a deep story behind all of this that allows me to have confidence that there is truth, goodness and beauty at the core of things blazing out “like shining from shook foil.”

You have had a 25 year solo career, won two JUNO awards, four Western Canadian Music awards and have performed for over half a million people across the world. In a sense you are both a performer committed to producing excellent music and at the same time serve as a guide that has welcomed Canadians into worship for many years. How do you navigate this tension?

In my early years I wrote songs (more than I have tended to as of late) that could be used in a congregational worship setting. That wasn’t deliberate. I just wrote what wanted to come out and was surprised (and delighted) that they served the community in that way. I have rarely been deliberate about what I write. Mostly, I gratefully receive the songs that seem to want to come. Loreena McKennitt  talks about the artist’s work as the work of preparing for “the visit.” One discovers after the fact who or what the songs are for. But mine to come from a place of personal devotion and ardour; from the foot of the throne, so to speak. When I’m there, melody comes, poetry begins to form… and these constellations of words and melodies start to come together to form songs. The process is as mysterious as having a child. You know you are a loving part of the process, but you also know you are part of something quite beyond yourself. Perhaps the reason that people recognize the spiritual aspect to my songs has to do with where the songs come from. 

You recently toured with beloved poet, singer-songwriter, priest Malcolm Guite. Could you share with us a little bit about what that tour was like? 

Malcolm is someone who seems to have internalized all the best words that have ever been written in the English language. There is an elegance when he speaks, even if he’s just clowning around. He understands the power of words and how they can create something out of nothing. He is a humble man who deeply loves Christ and who is also steeped in the Anglican liturgical tradition— a tradition that has nourished the church for centuries. Malcolm is also someone who is comfortable with all manner of brokenness which may be why I’m attracted to his work. 

When I first announced that I was bringing a poet with me on tour, folks were a bit unsure. You can imagine my delight then when I saw people's jaws drop within two or three recitations. It turns out that people love poetry. They just don’t know it.

I used to remark that my life can be marked by two major stages: before and after I encountered the music of Bruce Cockburn. Malcolm has had a similar impact on me, and I’ve seen a similar impact he’s made on others. On my deathbed, I’ll be pleased that I had a small role in introducing him to the world.

Your musical offerings are not restricted to a CD or the stage. You also offer retreats that invite listeners of faith to “seek a pattern of prayer and worship.” You’ve fashioned these retreats after Isaiah 6:1-9, drawing upon the liturgical calendar, Hebrew psalms, and ancient prayers. Could you share your vision for these retreats? 

My spirituality was formed to some degree in the Catholic Church. My dad, when he was the protestant chaplain at Stony Mountain prison, became friends with the Catholic prison chaplain, Fr. Bob MacDougal, who early on took an interest in my music and spiritual formation. Fr. Bob was also the priest of the local parish which had no-one to lead their congregational music, so I would often accompany him, with my guitar in hand to Mass where I regularly led the singing.

At first, the liturgy made no sense to me whatsoever, and initially I wasn't particularly intrigued or inspired by it. But over months and years, I found that consistently, at key points of the liturgy, my soul would thrill. Week after week when they rang that bell for instance, my heart would leap. The more familiar I became, I began to notice that I was eagerly waiting various moments in the liturgy that would consistently draw me into wonder and prayer in a way that I had no categories for. And so, over time I started to attend more deliberately, and expectantly to what was going on. 

As an adult, I have realized there is a deep hunger in our evangelical Christian communities for a more rooted faith tradition. However, ancient traditions can be a little daunting if you have no upbringing in them. I seem to have some ability to take remote traditions and ideas and make them a little more accessible for the novice. And so, over the years, I’ve taken on more of a teaching role in my ministry by way of retreats and lectures in churches and on college campuses.

You have published a collection entitled Pilgrim Year, a seven-volume set that includes devotional reflections on the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter and Ordinary Time. Could you share a little more about what the Pilgrim Year book series is?

For a song to be a song, it needs time to do its work. If you collapse all the notes of a song into a moment, you only have a noise that resembles a crash more than a melody. The same is true with a story. A story needs time to be what it is. Someone once said, “God created time so everything doesn't happen at once.” The liturgical calendar is a way of telling the story of God, and God’s creation over the time it needs to be what it is. And the Christian church really does have a great and transformational story that she loves to tell year after year much like a parent tells a child her favorite story over and over. I wrote the Pilgrim Year series in an attempt to help give folks like me, who want to attend to the pattern of the church’s story, access to a deeper tradition. The point of the book series is to reveal the roots and tendrils of a magnificent narrative we’ve been entrusted with for the sake of the world.

Would you share with us a little about your theology of music? What role does music play in a life of faith? 

Melody can be truth bearing. Music can be medicinal. 

I've come to realize that artistic knowing (poetry, song, dance, painting etc.) is a unique way of knowing, just like faith or pure sciences are ways of knowing. However, these need not be in competition. There can be, and needs to be, a convergence or a dialogue of ways of knowing if we are to manage the complexities of the modern world. We artists need to stop apologizing because we aren't necessarily scholarly or rationally theological. Our credential is that we know things that only artists can know. Our way of knowing shouldn’t have sovereignty over other ways of knowing, but our way of knowing needs to be at the table, and we have to take our place there humbly, but without apology.

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Topics: Music

Hannah Marazzi

Hannah Marazzi is a masters student at the University of Cambridge.

Steve Bell

Steve Bell is a musician, songwriter, storyteller, author and troubadour. For close to 30 years Steve has pursued a full-time vocation as a music minister: writing and recording songs and performing concerts world-over. With his mission to "encourage Christian faith and thoughtful living through artful word and song," Steve is known as much for his story-telling, social commentary and theological insights as he is for his music.

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