This one comes to us from Cody Gainous

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Julien Baker believes in God. So reads the title of Rachel Syme’s excellent piece on the Memphis, TN native for The New Yorker back in April. When I say that sin and grace are the themes of Julien’s debut Sprained Ankle, I’m not stretching, or even saying anything that Baker would not say herself. This is an album filled with explicitly Christian imagery, and the artist, born and raised in the Bible Belt, unapologetically claims Christianity and apparently attends Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Murfreesboro.

When I saw the New Yorker article, I immediately played the album straight through and was blown away by how well she captures the realities of fallen humanity and the redemption we have in God’s one-way love. The album isn’t Christian music per se, not in any CCM sense of the term. She deals with some pretty ‘hard-boiled sins’ as Luther might call them — addiction, rejection, etc. But it is explicitly Christian in how it deals with real sin, real forgiveness, and real grace. Read the article for yourself and you’ll see that this isn’t just religious jargon for Julien — she has experienced grace on the ground. She has sat in fear of judgment and received mercy and affirmation in real life.

Luther defined sin as ‘humanity turned in on itself.’ We see this inward turn clearly at work when Baker sings on “Everybody Does”: “I know myself better than anybody else, and you’re gonna run when you find out who I am … It’s alright, everybody does.” Perhaps she is talking to another human, or perhaps she is praying here. Either way, the fear we all have of being ‘found out’ is on full display here. And eventually, as the album goes on, we find out that Walker Percy was right when he said, “We love those who know the worst of us and don’t turn their faces away.” In fact, the very next track after this confession of sin is, what else, but “Good News.” But even then, its not quite that simple … Baker says she ruins everything she thinks could be Good News. Don’t we all? We hear forgiveness and turn it back into moralism. Or, as Derek Webb tells us, we hear grace and want a New Law.

Julien Baker is a theologian of the cross. Explaining the album title, Sprained Ankle, “You have to keep walking on something to make it better. Sometimes you want to complain and be like, ‘Why? Life is so horrible.’ But it doesn’t change that there are redeeming qualities and a universal capacity for redemption and grace. There are still things that make it worth it and bearable.” Suffering can’t be ignored, only embraced. And Julien seems to find God in the suffering: “Our Carpenter is so elegant at placing splinters right beneath my nails, where I cannot dig them out,” once again from Everybody Does. When we hear the most explicit God-talk on the album, it isn’t polite or cute. It’s Baker crying out, on Rejoice:

I think there’s a god and he hears either way when I rejoice and complain
Lift my voice that I was made
And somebody’s listening at night with the ghosts of my friends when I pray
Asking “Why did you let them leave and then make me stay?”
Know my name and all of my hideous mistakes
But I rejoice. I rejoice. I rejoice. I rejoice.

There it is. The God who knows our hideous mistakes doesn’t run when he finds out who we are.

The album closes out with another sad song (“Wish I could write songs about anything other than death,” she semi-ironically sings at one point), but Julien’s final words are another prayer: “God, I wanna go home.” And then, moment of all moments. In what Julien says in an interview with Stereogum was a total coincidence and/or accident, the pre-amp picks up a radio sermon as she plays ‘In Christ Alone’ on the piano. You can hear the typical Southern preacher in the background saying ‘He (God) is now a judge.’ Julien just plays her song… In Christ alone, my hope is found. Against the voice of judgment, Julien found hope in Christ’s righteousness on her behalf.

This wasn’t always the case, however. Julien remembers a time when she was deeply hurt by the fact that many of her friends were “dismissed or sent away from the church community after not conforming to its strict standards.” It took one-way love in the form of a father accepting her when she felt she was in no way acceptable. When this happened, “Baker confirmed her belief in God, though not in the judgmental being she had been raised to fear and hide herself from.” Law always creates distance, whether it comes from God, parents, society, etc. But grace answers Julien’s prayer — it brings us home. Yes, Julien Baker believes in God. Because when He saw who she was, He didn’t run.