Sam Beam, the singer-songwriter who records under the nom-de-disque of Iron & Wine, is as far removed from your average rock star as it's possible to be and still sell records. Like Will (Bonnie "Prince" Billy) Oldham, he sports a beard big enough to nest a family of puffins, behind which he lurks quietly, evading the less welcome attentions resulting from his recent celebrity.
A friend asked me if Sam Beam (aka Iron & Wine) is a Christian? My inkling -- to paraphrase Andy Gill above -- was that he mentions Jesus, God and faith as much as it's possible to do and still not be a Christian. Some Google searches (what else?) confirmed this, with Beam identifying himself as an agnostic.
The explanation for his frequent use of biblical imagery is that he was raised in the "Christ-haunted" landscape of the South:
We went to a Presbyterian church, sometimes a Baptist one. All kind of different but all loved Jesus.
Of Christianity, he says,
That was my mythology as a kid. Those were the stories that we learned how to live life (from). I didn't have Zeus and Athena. We had Jesus and Job.
I know the word "mythology" comes with all sorts of connotations, but I quite like the way Beam phrases his Christian past. Our faith is not a set of abstract principles about an "unknown god", but a mythology, or to use a less controversial word, a story, centered on the man Jesus. Paul makes this clear in the latter of half of Acts 17, where we trumps the stories of the Greek gods with the story of the one true God, made known through Jesus. He is giving these Greeks a new mythology, a new story that will dismantle the old ones and create fresh ways of living and moving and being -- ways consistent with the story of Jesus's death and resurrection.
Though Beam has grown to question the truthfulness of the Christian story -- and let's be honest, we all do to some degree when we look at the broken world around us -- God remains in his thoughts and in his songs in a way that many Christian artists would do well to learn from:
You have your three big things that you can talk about, basically, if you’re going to write something that actually means something to you as a human being, which is Love, God and Death. That’s basically the thing. Love, which occupies a lot of our time, because we don’t like being lonely. God, because everyone wants to know that there’s a reason behind what they’re doing and what the hell is going on. And death is just the reality of your finite time here.
If you've yet to be converted to Iron & Wine, here's a song that's been swirling around in my head for the last week. It merges each of the "three big things" into one simple and beautiful piece of art.