Mizmor // In Conversation

Faith is an intensely personal matter, yet for some, that faith is tested and broken and the subsequent fallout discussed and laid bare for all to see. Portland’s Mizmor is one such instance of faith being a central pillar of a person’s existence before life created ways in which to test and create cracks within that belief. This year’s full-length, Cairn (which was written about here), is the result of many years of searching, thinking and creating from it’s sole recording member, A.L.N., and here we talk about the moments that led up to his belief in God diverging from that of family and friends and the ultimate separation that needed to occur.

I would like to thank A.L.N. for his openness and honesty in discussing difficult subjects and for creating such challenging music that brings about much introspection and catharsis.

Faith is a central theme in your music and the path you took to this point is one that is coloured with many intensely personal moments – can you please explain a little about how Mizmor came to be, your reasons for rejecting this idea of a God and your reasons for choosing the name?

I was raised in a Christian family whose practice of Evangelical Christianity (Christian Missionary Alliance denomination, to be precise) was central to our lives and relationships. I was “dedicated” as a baby in the church, went to Sunday school as a kid, and to youth groups as an adolescent. In my early teens I began to reject the faith, seeing it as something my parents subscribed to that I didn’t necessarily believe in. I was interested in exploring other religions, philosophies, and worldviews and also wanted to experiment with “worldly” things forbidden by the church. I pulled away on the inside but was forced to attend church every Sunday until I turned 18. I (obviously) stopped going once I reached that age. However when I was 19 or 20 I had a conversion experience that led me to see Christianity with new eyes and take it on as an adult, for myself, in all seriousness. This was very different than my force-fed experience of Christianity as a younger person. It resulted in an immersion in the scriptures, hours of daily devotional prayer and worship, the compulsion for outreach, and an overall transformation of many of my personal qualities which defined my identity (for good or bad).

Mizmor – Cairn (painted by Mariusz Lewandowski)

During this time I moved to Germany, away from literally everyone I knew and all my habits and routines, to attend a six-month Bible school program. This program was immersive; I lived on campus with a group of about 100 other international students who were all seeking to deepen their knowledge of the scriptures and intimacy with Christ. We spent our days soaking up lectures, reading the Bible, praying, worshipping, doing outreach, and fellowshipping with one another. During this time, my depression became particularly bad. As a young adult, I had already experienced some degree of depression (usually coupled with obsessive, circular, self-doubting thoughts), but in Germany it got really bad. I began to have doubts about Christianity, which is fairly natural for believers, and I was prescribed answers for both contradictions in the Bible and my own personal suffering. There are many things in life and the world that are hard to reconcile with faith in God and the scriptures, but most faiths are aware of these issues and have answers for them, however unconvincing they may be.

Despite the goodwill of my mentors and peers, my depression and doubts worsened. I have a memory of being alone in the prayer room, lying face down on the ground before God, wanting to die. I was trying to pray, trying to worship, but all I could do was lie prostrate, lump in my throat, heavy-laden with the numbness of total sorrow. Needless to say, I got through my time in Germany, and actually came through the other side still a Christian, though a struggling one. I continued in my practice and devotion, finding a church of like-minded folks in Portland to get plugged in with. The doubts and darkness would not let up though, and slowly I faded away from the outward practice of my faith. Prayer and time spent in the scriptures only ended in pain, frustration, and confusion; there was no genuine song of worship in my heart any longer. For a while, I tried to continue to go through the motions despite my feelings. But eventually I realized the insanity analogous to beating my head against a wall repeatedly and expecting contradictorily for a different outcome than pain one of these times.

It was at this time that I began to write and record the first Mizmor album. These songs were literally prayers of mine, addressed to God; wrestling, wailing, lamenting, inciting help, floundering in all honesty that God might hear me and finally act, or at least hear me before I walked away, if there was anyone to hear me at all. My practices had all but ground to a halt, but I was still meeting with a mentor from the church who was “discipling” me. I told him how painful continuing to seek God through prayer, scripture, and church had become. I also told him about the music I was making. With great wisdom he told me to go ahead and stop the formal practice, as it really was doing me no good, and press into the music I was making since it was clearly the closest thing to heartfelt worship that was currently present in my life. That’s exactly what I did, and though there is still much more struggle in the journey that has gradually brought me to my stance of atheism today, that was the first step in my freedom. Mizmor means “psalm,” a reference to the Biblical psalms, examples of which include struggling with God in bitterness and pain in the form of prayer and song. This serious pursuit of Christianity as an adult was about a two year process overall.

How did the people around you react to this change of thinking? Your family, friends and those you encountered while on your religious journey?

The believers in my family are deeply pained by this change of thinking. They were overjoyed when I first rekindled my relationship with Christ as an adult and were on the front lines praying for me since the beginning of my crisis of faith; they are heartbroken by this outcome. They still pray for me and hold out hope that God will lead me back to himself by changing my heart. It’s a wide chasm between us, something we don’t really talk about when we get together. My close friends are supportive of me on my journey. I imagine they had the opposite experience as my family, feeling conflicted over watching me get involved so passionately with religion in the first place. I think they are glad I’ve seen reason and come back to reality. My friendships with them suffered while I was Christian; not to the point of us not being friends, but we certainly had less common ground during that time.

Things are back to normal now and I’m thankful they never turned their backs on me. I do not keep in regular contact with any of my friends from Bible school or my church. Contact happens every once and a while and I am always glad to reconnect, despite feeling kind of awkward. Some of those folks also are no longer believers; a lot still are though. I’m thankful for the mentor I mentioned above who, though devout in his faith, didn’t just keep telling me to pick myself up by the bootstraps and press on. Despite our differences in worldview, he proved his wisdom, empathy, love, and kindness that day. In true Christian fashion, he was more concerned about where my heart was in the matter. We are no longer in contact.

Cairn seems to be an album that is the culmination of a lot of thinking, living, facing trials – how do you even think about approaching such a task? Some artists purposefully sit down to write music but I get the feeling that is not how you operate?

Although I put a lot of effort into the execution of writing/recording a Mizmor album, there is a larger sense in which the albums write themselves. It is true, I don’t force the process or try to write anything at all really. Whenever I do, I don’t like the results. I typically wait until my thoughts and emotions percolate, until my bones ache and mind is aflame with the sickness of needing desperately to birth an expression. I am thankful for this process because, you are right, it is the culmination of a lot of thinking, living, and facing of trials. But it is all those things that are the hard part, not the artistic expression, which comes naturally for me and is the cathartic release of all the pain that has brewed up inside. It is very much a therapy in that regard; without the outlet… I truly don’t know where I’d be. Mizmor is my journal and it is there for me whenever I need it. 

You’ve used Mizmor to describe your relationship with God, but you’ve also spoken about insomnia, depression, anxiety, suicide – Have you used more formal therapies in order to process your past or mental state, or is using your music something that fulfills that need for you? Do you think that at some point you will no longer need Mizmor?

Mizmor is a huge part of how I therapeutically process and deal with my past and emotions. I think it is probably the most effective form of therapy for me in actually working through these gigantic ideas – bringing things to the surface, identifying them, going deep, and releasing them. It is not the only thing I use for healing though. I used antidepressant medications for a couple years and have been on medication for insomnia as well. I moved on from my antidepressants a few years ago as an experiment in my wellness and it seems they served their purpose, as I haven’t felt the need to use them again. The insomnia medication didn’t really help.

Ultimately, I feel disappointed (and disillusioned) with my current experience of the American healthcare system. Right now in my life, in addition to making music, I practice meditation and mindfulness, eat healthy, and exercise (still something I struggle with, but the habit is forming). I find meditation and mindfulness particularly useful for anxiety; it gives me the tools to slow down, clearly identify components of my experience, and have options to choose from in my reactions. A huge part of managing my conditions also comes from a sort of DIY form of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) which places immense importance on self-education, whereby an individual may come to actually change the way they think about certain things. This was really helpful with my insomnia. Learning the scientific facts about a given subject and reframing your thoughts around it to reflect reality and not a story you tell yourself can be quite freeing.

I also believe in the medicinal properties of certain psychedelic compounds. I use cannabis in a targeted way (mainly CBD and certain terpenes; THC is helpful too, though less of it and less often) and also, though extremely infrequently, I will use LSD or psilocybin, all of which have scientific research showing their legitimate medicinal value to treat conditions like anxiety, depression, and PTSD (among many others).

It’s hard to say what the future of Mizmor looks like. Like with other therapies/medicines, there ideally should come a time when you no longer need them. I think it is entirely possible that that day could come for Mizmor, but I will always leave the project open-ended, because you never know. What I can say with confidence, from looking back at my life, is that I always have a need to make music.

I read that Albert Camus was a great inspiration for Cairn, and I am personally, not all that familiar with his work, can you talk about which book inspired you and how you wove your own experiences into that work in order to create the album?

Camus greatly inspired “Cairn.” As I explained above, the inner percolation had begun; I knew there was a much needed artistic expression afoot, but I wasn’t able to articulate myself for a while. I knew where I had left off – This Unabating Wakefulness, my last release, was a song literally about insomnia and anxiety, and metaphorically about lingering on in a post-traumatic, waking life, devoid of God and ultimate meaning, its duration seemingly infinite and correspondingly discouraging. I was intangibly seeking to expound this idea. I wanted to explore what exactly this lingering on is; if life is devoid of inherent meaning, why am I choosing to live it? What is it about life that keeps me around if it feels so terrible a lot of the time? If not a God hypothesis for life, the universe, and personal meaning, then what? I did not have the answers to these questions, but knew that I felt that the whole predicament was completely absurd. So I began to do some research which led me to discover absurdism, a school of thought whose chief contributor is Albert Camus (in specific, his book Myth of Sisyphus). I checked the book out at the library and devoured it. It gave me the chills, taking the words I grasped to express right out of my mouth (or rather, mind). He articulated what I was feeling exactly.

The main idea of this book is that the premise in which we live is completely absurd; that premise being that mankind cannot help but continually seek meaning in a chaotic world that is inherently devoid of ultimate meaning and purpose. Either one of those realities on their own is not absurd, but both together in a system creates a cognitive dissonance that is completely absurd. He then postulates that an individual can have one of three responses to this scenario: a leap of faith into ultimate meaning (belief in God; a rejection of reality and embracing of the supernatural), suicide (because life is no longer worth living without ultimate meaning), or acceptance of the absurd reality whereby the individual defines their own meaning and seeks a life of enjoyment in truth, living in the present moment, each day in the face of the asburd. He asserts that the third option is the only viable one as the other two are escapes and/or suicides (either philosophically or literally).

In my view, this could not be a more a spot on explanation of the truth of life and its subsequent temptations. I appropriated this idea in my album by depicting the individual (i.e.: me) in the “Desert of Absurdity” (to use my song title, also Camus inspired). In this desert I have built giant cairns, or stone monuments/memorials, to the first two options, a “Cairn to God” and a “Cairn to Suicide,” to mark the death of those concepts in my mind because I have determined that they are worthless things to be permamently left behind, that I may continue forth in truth in life on “The Narrowing Way” (the third option) without confusion or temptation to circle back and retrace my steps.

Photograph by Kento Woolery

The line “Nostalgia for the absolute ever potent fume, is only a spandrel of human unfolding” is quite a concrete image, that we as humanity have created this other-worldly being that can solve our problems but, to many, has seemingly done nothing to create problems. Can you talk a little about your meaning with these lyrics and how they feed into your beliefs then and now?

This line means that just because we have the impulse to attribute things to God (or a god, or the gods, or a supernatural force) does not mean that God exists. The word “spandrel” is an architectural term that refers to the in-between space created by two adjacent archways. The idea I am expressing is that belief in god (and ultimately religion) is a byproduct of other mental faculties. In our evolution, humans complexly developed different areas of the brain for specific biological purposes to our benefit. These areas encompass such concepts as our sense of agency, theory of other minds, and ability to infer intention. However, we now see these faculties being foolishly transposed, resulting in the deification of the natural world (for example, the attributing of the cause of weather patterns to the intention of a supernatural being). Whereas our ability to infer intention and sense agency have proven a necessary survival skill, there are consequential byproducts to these acute capabilities, like belief in god. God is typically the label slapped on the unknown/mysterious. It is a primitive way to explain things. No one believes Thor is the explanation for thunder anymore, and we can perhaps now see how this false idea cropped up in the first place.

To relate it back to your question, I do think that religion, and ultimately belief in god, is problematic. Not only is it a lazy, convenient, and comforting explanation for things that stifles the seeking out of true understanding and knowledge, it often results in harmful secondary beliefs/attitudes, like many religions’ oppressive views toward women, abortion, homosexuality (and the entire LGBTQ community), and other religions/races. This not only creates issues in families and personal relationships, but ripples out to affect politics, and the innocent people of the world at large. It is my personal opinion that our world would be better off if religion and belief in the supernatural dissolved. 

Have you found that Mizmor has enabled you to see your past more clearly and in turn your future? As the band has progressed has it also opened your own thinking and beliefs?

Mizmor has certainly enabled me to see my past more clearly. I see that I was indoctrinated at a young age (the youngest age possible, infancy) which accounts for my former tendency to believe the Bible is true. I see that religious experiences I had, or moments I felt were full of God’s presence/inspiration, were actually just natural, explainable, coincidental occurrences intensely distorted by my beliefs and desire for what I wanted to be true. I see how religion could have evolved in the human psyche, that its presence does not validate God’s existence. I see who Jesus (most likely) was; how Christianity could have formed as a cult on the basis of Jesus and those around him having been subject to their own childhood indoctrination (into Judaism) and their expectation of a coming Messiah that they desperately wished to show fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, which they (mainly the apostle Paul) then consequently turned into a global religion.

Mizmor did open my thinking for a time; it enabled me to consider the possibility that my religion was false and to take steps to walk away from it. For a few years after I was confused and did not know what to believe; I felt I knew nothing. But from then on, I slowly began to piece together a new theory of life/existence and in that sense Mizmor has come to my aid in closing my mind to certain ideas. At this moment in time, I do not feel my mind is open to the idea of God because there is not sufficient (if any) evidence for it. I had to have an open mind at some point, that I might survive such a radical paradigm shift as losing my faith and changing my worldview inside out. But I feel I am ever on a journey that is continually honing in on truth, and in that honing there is a rejection of bad ideas, and in that sense I do not feel I am truly open-minded, given the evidence on the table. As for my future, I truly do not know. I hope I am scientific enough, in the true sense of the word, to accept whatever ideas have overwhelming evidence to support them, whether theistic or atheistic in nature, though I feel fairly confident about the pieces I am using to build my worldview now (and it does not include God).

Cairn, I think, will strike people quite deeply – there are themes present that a great deal of people will have dealt with in their own lives – do many people talk to you about how they bring their own experiences to your music? For me, I rejected the idea of God at a young age, certainly by the time I was 10, but the album really resonated with me in that it brought a lot of long-suppressed guilt to the surface and I began thinking about the reasons I gave up with religion (Catholicism in this case) and I think that actually, I realised that there was a lot of falsehood built into it and Cairn have helped me to understand my own feelings on religion a lot. So for that, thank you. 

Thank you very much, that means a lot to me. Yes, people talk to me about how the music resonates with them, particularly folks that have left, escaped, or survived their religions/cults. It has become an immensely important part of the project for me actually. When I first started Mizmor, I sought to be cloaked in mystery as I was embarrassed about the subject matter, having created the first album while still technically a Christian. In an overtly anti-Christian, Satanic, metal-head culture, I assumed that most of my listeners would have had this question long figured out and would find it silly that a person of my age was still grappling with the existence of God. Slowly the project became more and more knowable and people began to talk to me about how it has touched them.

I’ve talked with former Christians, Catholics, Jehova’s Witnesses, Latter Day Saints, and others about their experience escaping their religions. Arguably all these people underwent some sort of trauma from their religious experiences, but sometimes these scenarios even result in blatant physical/mental abuse and the religion/cult maintains a hush culture around it, whereby it can continue. Learning that people could relate to my story, that my music has even helped them, was incredibly inspiring and humbling. It has ignited in me a stronger desire to be clear with my message, to express my purpose more missionally. There is a lyric in Cairn that sums up how these interactions have affected me.

“The vulnerable universe strikes a human chord. Resound. Relate. Create.”

These conversations I’ve had with the ex-religious, inspired by my music, has given me a new sense of purpose. I resound my life experiences like an instrument with honesty, openness, and vulnerability. People relate to that and let me know, and we have life-giving conversations that can be healing for both parties; it is a reciprocal feedback loop of sorts. And it drives me to create more. Having a creative outlet is immensely important for people with mental illnesses and traumas in their lives and I am so thankful to have an audience, a community who receives my music, and spurs me on. We help each other.

I hope trauma from religion is more and more recognized that it might be exponentially decreased in the future due to the dissolving of harmful ideas like those religion propagates. 

Cairn can be purchased directly from Mizmor here.

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