On Underoath, From a Longtime (Christian) Fan

Underoath, Spencer Chamberlain

This post originally appeared on Threads of Stars.

Recently Underoath, one of the most crucial catalysts for hardcore as we know it, returned to the music scene with the announcement that they had an album done– and we’d be hearing it soon. However, this was not the reason why they instantly became a trending topic in Christian music circles. The bigger news was that they’d come back with songs requiring an “explicit” mark on iTunes.

Underoath was formed by church kids in the late 90s, or else the conversation never would have bent this way. The band was in the Tooth & Nail family, a label that has historically signed bands with spiritual roots who choose not to confine themselves to one market. Underoath had a few songs that had notable spiritual undertones, particularly through the influence of original lead singer Dallas Taylor and the then-teenaged firebrand drummer and backup vocalist Aaron Gillespie. But the shift to lead vocalist Spencer Chamberlain, the focus on mainstream markets for touring, and the eventual infamous year that Underoath was pulled from Warped Tour amid drug abuse rumors quickly signaled that the band was becoming something different. A few years later, they began to say so openly in interviews, in performances, in conversations, to anyone who would ask: they were not a “Christian” band. They were six men of diverse beliefs and positions in life, making music they all mutually enjoyed. Listeners were welcome to resonate with that music, wherever they came from.

Over ten years passed– then entered “On My Teeth.” The attention span of the internet is unfortunately short. Listeners who remembered Underoath from youth group but missed the decade since found themselves (understandably) stunned by what they heard. And I, as a known Underoath fan who both works in Christian music and also attends Warped Tour every year, found myself in countless conversations about the whole thing.

The situation has been a fascinating case study to me on how those who identify as Christians respond to those who believe differently– especially those who have left Christianity. And that is indeed the route that a few of the individual Underoath members have taken, the professional marketing decision aside.

In light of that, I’ve been perplexed by an adamant requirement many Christians have voiced that the members of Underoath should still adhere to Christian principles and value statements. I have intense theological discomfort with that notion, and in fact I think it contradicts what even the most conservative Evangelical Christianity purports to teach. “It’s not religion, it’s a relationship” is a phrase that has been repeated until it has practically lost useful meaning, but the core intent behind it is sound: any behavioral requirements of Christianity, under the new covenant as established by the first century Jewish rabbi Jesus, are only supposed to be lived as a natural outworking of receiving the grace of God. This is why the answer to the “works or faith?” question is simply “yes.” They come together, or not at all. Behavior modification without the Spirit is essentially worthless. Worse, it’s the exact kind of thing Jesus repeatedly corrected. The entire sermon on the mount, one of the most crucial accounts we have of Jesus’s primary teachings, is about taking moral codes and dismantling them, reframing unity with God as being about who we are instead of what we do.

So to require men who may or may not be Christians (by traditionalist definitions) to act in accordance with Christian values is actually a kind of insidious heresy that undermines the very core of the gospel. My language is strong here for a reason; any ideology that places certain moral codes above a heart encounter with the person of Jesus, Grace and Love and It-Is-Finished-Redemption Himself, ceases to be Christian.

“Ah, BUT,” some have said, “Aaron Gillespie at the very least still identifies as a Christian. Can we just excuse him for being a part of a band that would use profanity in a song?”

The caveat I would offer here would be that not all Christians actually believe swearing to be innately a sin. But that aside, if you are not in that camp, this brings us to the core question I mentioned earlier: how do we interact with people who believe differently than us, who may have even walked away from what we believe after years of standing in agreement with us?

Does someone who we do not agree with on some things still have anything to offer that we can enjoy? Who is there room for at the table of the Kingdom of God?

I would never want to undermine the importance of personal convictions; again, that is not even what is at stake here. The question is that of interacting with someone whose convictions are quite different, even at odds with, your own. This is a question we navigate daily. For example, most Christians watch movies with varying levels of conflict with their value system. I can also almost guarantee that there are at least one or two people on the staff of every single movie like that who would identify in some way with the person of Jesus Christ. Are they at fault? Or what about working retail for a massive corporation with questionable values, a company that exploits the labor of slaves to increase their profits? Would we feel as much unease with that as we would with a Christian in a mainstream market band? In short: these kinds of conflicts are inevitable and everywhere, and the answers are often on a case-by-case basis.

If you’ve grown up in the Church, in all likelihood you’ve also experienced watching someone you loved very deeply, someone you maybe even went on mission trips with, evolve in their belief system until they no longer identified as Christian. That loss of common ground, the fear of their soul being lost, is terrifying, and I think it is part of what has made the Underoath scenario difficult for many. There is a real sense of grief, and I believe that’s normal. I’ve actually heard the same grief echoed by my friends who do not identify as religious when one of their friends converts to Christianity; losing something that was once shared is always something that causes some heart pain, and that’s human and allowed. But the question is what we do with that pain, whether we let it become a knee-jerk rejection of the person who the pain is centered around– or whether we do the hard work of staying, of finding new ways to relate, of affirming that we value them as a person, not just a walking talking ideological checklist. I am grateful beyond words for all of the friends who have done that kind of process with me as we’ve grown up together.

Because here is another truth, one I have seen outlined over and over professionally in particular: imagine that someone is deeply, terribly wounded, and they go to a hospital emergency room. They sit there for days bleeding out, but no one can get the wound closed. They’ll inevitably say “hey, I have to try going somewhere else to get healed or I’ll die.” Now imagine that the doctors and nurses in the ER, those who claimed to be healers, actually actively shot the wounded person in the back the whole time they were trying to drag themselves out to find help. What do you think the likelihood is that that patient would ever return to that hospital?

And of course we don’t agree with all the reasons why someone would leave our particular belief. If we did agree with them, we’d be joining them. But there’s room within that disagreement for grace– in fact, I would say that it’s required of us.

If we are who we say we are as followers of Jesus, we are always required to show the most grace. If we are who we say we are, we never have an excuse to avoid the high road (even when it’s harder). If we are who we say we are, we never get to use our own grief as a weapon against another person. If we are who we say we are, we are equipped and called to radical acceptance, to listening, to empathy– to grieving someone’s wounds, even when (especially when) they came at the hands of our own spiritual family.

And it’s in that light that, although I don’t know anymore more about the individual stories of the band members aside from what they’ve shared publicly, I can respect and honor Spencer Chamberlain’s fight to claim sobriety, a fight echoed in Underoath’s new music. It’s in that light that I resonate with what Aaron Gillespie has shared about entering new understandings of Christianity. It’s in that light that I delight in some really well-written music. It’s in that light that I can let go of what doesn’t ring true for me, but still enjoy what does.

It’s in that light also that I respect anyone for whom listening to music like this isn’t healthy for their souls. I have been the person who could not listen to anything but Christian music because of where I was in my spiritual process. I have also been the person who avoided religious music as part of my healing process. I can empathize with both, and both are valid. But my hope for myself is that, wherever I am on that spectrum, I can be compassionate more than critical and see human beings clearer than the issues on which we disagree.

So I’ve preordered Erase Me, and I’ll be headbanging along. And whether you can join me in that or not, I hope you’ll join me in the road to compassion– a road I’ll be on for the rest of my life.

“Hey unfaithful, I will teach you
to be stronger.
Hey ungraceful, I will teach you
to forgive one another.
Hey unloving–
I will love you.”

“Some Will Seek Forgiveness, Others Escape,” Underoath, circa 2004


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