Life is hunger, thirst, and passion for an ultimate object, which looms over the horizon, and yet always lies beyond it. When this is recognized, man becomes a tireless searcher.
—Luigi Giussani, The Religious Sense
As an evangelist especially interested in proclaiming Jesus in a postmodern context, I am uniquely engaged by musicians whose lyrics unpack some of the movements of their own spiritual journey. Postmodernity spends so much of its time acting like these questions do not exist that I love when they emerge from the creative enterprise of songwriting. It’s like as you enter these deeper places in your heart from which you write, you cannot escape the real questions that lie in those places. Songs like those teach me who people are at their core; they show what is at the heart of the human condition which, as St. John Paul II reminded us, is the “pathway for the Church.”
For this reason, I have always been fascinated by the spiritual seeking that makes its way into the songs of the Dave Matthews Band.
Few artists or groups have found fans across multiple generations the way Dave Matthews and his “good friends” Carter Beauford, Boyd Tinsley, Stefan Lessard, and Leroi Moore (may he rest in peace) have. Since the release of their first album in 1994, they have sold over one hundred million tickets to their shows and almost that many albums. Known for their jam band vibe and amazing live performances, I have even devout Catholic friends that have seen the Dave Matthews Band live something like thirty times.
Their appeal has stretched across multiple generations. One of my prized possessions (before it was destroyed in a tragic slip-n-slide incident—a story for another day) was a t-shirt with the famous Dave Matthews icon, the Fire Dancer, from one of his first tours in the early 90s. It was given to me by a daily communicant and mother of multiple sons at my home parish, who saw DMB at the University of Illinois when they were just starting out.
“Dave,” as he is simply referred to by his fans, is clearly one of those musical talents who inspires not just fandom but devotion among his more rabid base. This fan base is often accused of following this jam band just for the good parties, which is not an altogether unfair sentiment. At my high school, Dave at Alpine Valley in southern WI was always around the Fourth of July and was consistently the biggest party weekend of the year. As my own spiritual life has grown, however, and as Dave has stayed with me, I have discovered a depth to his lyrics that represents a genuine search for truth and meaning in life.
As I went for an early run this past Sunday morning, I turned to an old favorite, the famous live in Central Park concert, and was struck once more by the real seeking that many of his songs convey (especially if we all agree to pretend that Stand Up never happened.) It is hard to find a deeper reflection on the inevitability of mortality in music than “Gravedigger” and even “Two Step” which, with its chorus’ appropriation of the biblical sentiment to “Celebrate we will / cause life is short but sweet for certain,” touches upon spiritual themes of what we are to make of our earthly existence. He wrestles with whether pleasure will bring him the meaning he craves, but in other moments is more sobered about the reality of life and from where real happiness comes.
In interviews, and even in some songs, Dave is very clear that he is not a Christian and struggles deeply with doubt. However, I was intrigued to find a true spiritual movement in Dave’s songs. His lyrical relationship with meaning, life, and God is never static across his many albums; it vacillates and moves. In listening, I was reminded of the idea of the Five Thresholds of Conversion originally outlined in the book I Once Was Lost by Don Evert and Doug Schaupp and made popular in our Catholic context by Sherry Weddell in her book Forming Intentional Disciples. As Evert and Schaupp talked to dozens of postmodern skeptics who had come to faith, they noticed a consistent pattern in their journey, a movement from mistrust to initial trust, from complacency to curiosity, from being closed off to change to being open, and from meandering to seeking and, finally, to discipleship.
Above all, Dave is a storyteller and his songs seem to tell the story of his own spiritual journey. To me, it seems that they actually grow in raw grit as they start to move deeper through these five thresholds. In some ways, Dave’s journey as a postmodern skeptic is reflected in songs that speak to each of these five thresholds. Since I have always wanted to write something about Dave’s spiritual quest, I thought that idea might be worth unpacking here a little more.
First Threshold: Trust
Dave’s Trust Song: “Christmas Song”
Key Lyrics: “Rumors insisted he soon would be / For his deviations / Taken into custody / By the authorities less informed than he / Drinkers and Jokers all soul searchers / Searching for love love love / Love love love / Love love was all around”
The first threshold of conversion, trust, is the development of a positive association with Christ, his Church or, more likely, a Catholic. As we know, even this beginner step is not a given for most people. Think of trust as a bridge thrown out to a skeptic. They have not moved at all, but a bridge has been put in place where there is a possibility that they walk across. To me, “Christmas Song” represents the threshold of trust. It presents a very classically postmodern image of Jesus as one who came to bring love and did not mind engaging with the margins. As you and I know, Jesus and the Catholic faith is so much more than that, but “Christmas Song” at least speaks to this first and fundamental positive association with Christ that must be made.
Second Threshold: Curiosity
Dave’s Curiosity Song: “Grey Street”
Key Lyrics: “You know she wishes it was different / she prays to God most every night / and though she swears He doesn’t listen / there’s still a hope in her He might”
Movement to the threshold of curiosity is marked by the arousal of questions, a wondering at whether there is something more to Catholicism than had been previously thought. This curiosity can range from someone being somewhat passively intrigued to a very profound and active questioning. As our representation of the threshold of curiosity in the life of Dave Matthews, “Grey Street” tells the story of a girl who, through encounters with the emptiness of life, has been prompted to start asking questions and even, as the lyrics above indicate, attempt to pray at times. The rawness of this song speaks to something painful and deep about Dave’s attempts to speak the mystery of his search.
Third Threshold: Openness
Dave’s Openness Song: “Time Bomb”
Key Lyric: “Baby when I get home / I want to believe in Jesus / Hammer in the final nail / Help me pick up the pieces”
Openness, while still a passive threshold, is the first moment that someone really becomes open to change. It is possibly the most difficult threshold for people to walk through in the process of conversion because it represents an awareness that their life may have to change and that there may be suffering resulting from that change. As our representation of Dave’s dabbling in the threshold of openness, “Time Bomb” has one of the most explicit mentions of Christ in the entire DMB discography. The chorus, from which the lyrics above are taken, literally has Dave crying out to the heavens of his desire to believe and change his life.
Fourth Threshold: Seeking
Dave’s Seeking Song: “Bartender”
Key lyric: “Bartender, please / Fill my glass for me / With the wine you gave Jesus that set Him free after three days in the ground / Because Bartender you see / The wine that’s drinking me / Came from the vine that strung Judas from the Devil’s tree with its roots deep deep in the ground”
Though right on the verge, seeking is not yet fully following God with your whole life. It is an active threshold, characterized by a searching for the God who you are thinking about following with your life. Think of seriously dating someone before you propose. It is not yet full commitment of your whole heart, but it is moving in that direction. In “Bartender,” the “bartender” is a stand-in for God, as Dave pours out his troubles and doubts in prayer. You can hear in Dave’s lyrics this active seeking. He knows Jesus has the answer, and he is actively praying for God to fill him. He likewise has noted the reality of sin in his life, even how deep its currents have run, and is desiring liberation from these patterns, which is a characteristic of seeking.
Fifth Threshold: Intentional Discipleship
Dave’s Intentional Discipleship Song: “Where Are You Going”
Key Lyric: “I do know one thing / That’s where you are / Is where I belong / I do know / Where you go / Is where I wanna be”
Okay, this one is a bit of a stretch. None of Dave’s songs ever really reflect intentional discipleship. I have always been struck by this lyric though. Have you ever heard a better summary of discipleship? “I do know / Where you go / That’s where I wanna be.” To me, that sums up so much of what the Christian life of actively following God is like. In the quiet of our relationship with God in prayer, we are listening, discerning, and actively seeking out where Christ is leading us. To me, that is the heart of intentional discipleship. The threshold of intentional discipleship is where someone goes all in, and decides to “drop their nets” (to use the biblical image) and follow Christ with their entire life. There is a peace and a rest that comes in this decision, even as in many ways, spiritual growth brings its own pains, which you can hear in the tone of “Where Are You Going.”
Whether Dave ever actively walked these thresholds in his life or if the journey remained at the lyrical level, I am not sure. Honestly, I would be lying to you if I told you I think that Dave Matthews is a Christian now, let alone a disciple. I am not even sure whether he believes in God. What I do love is the messiness of his journey and his willingness to publicly wrestle with his own questions of doubt and belief.
A line from Graham Greene’s story “A Hint of an Explanation” comes to mind. The narrator is on a long train ride, sharing a compartment with a stranger. The narrator recounts, “By the time we were halfway to Bedwell Junction, we had found an enormous range of subjects for discussion; starting with buns and the weather, we had gone on to politics, the government, foreign affairs, the atom bomb, and, by an inevitable progression, God.”
I have always loved that: “by an inevitable progression, God.” The human soul is wired for God—what Luigi Giussani would have called “the religious sense.” Even when coming from a clear work-in-progress like Dave Matthews, I will always be drawn to musicians who are willing to lay bare their own experience of life’s deepest questions. As an evangelist, they remind me that this sense is found in every soul and, as a fellow human person, they remind me of the desperate cry of my own heart for God.