Days after I moved to Minnesota for college, my roommates and I sat in a circle on our dorm room floor and shared our testimonies. Wrapped in animal-print fleece and brightly colored pajamas, we’d just finished a box of Kraft mac ‘n’ cheese, toast, and grapes we’d proudly shopped for and prepared ourselves. After dinner, we sat in a circle and conjured up the holy emotions we were supposed to feel when invoking the divine. We’d been taught that to share your testimony—to talk about when you accepted Jesus, how it made you different and how you stayed the same—was to glorify God. Sharing felt like a big deal then, but it was nothing new. I’d shared my testimony at youth group overnighters, Cheeto dust still on my fingers; before bunk beds of girls in lantern-lit camp cabins; on mission trips around the world, in Mexican migrant camps and Czech orphanages and South African slums, where we’d used flannel graphs and face paint when words didn’t work. I’d done it again and again, with reverence, even as I trembled.
It’s a long road that brings a kid to that place on the floor. It goes back all the way to diaper days and feels as natural as breathing. You hear the same story every week, you trace the rims of hundreds of plastic communion cups, and you believe.
I don’t remember what I said that night to my roommates, but I remember, for the first time in my life, being afraid I had nothing to testify.
Many people call Jethro Tull’s Aqualung a concept album, and although the band itself doesn’t approve of the label, the themes are plain: God vs. religion, the corruption of the church, Christian hypocrisy and idolatry—all familiar topics I’ve wrestled with a lot over the years. As a convalescing Baptist, you can never really get away from them. But lately, if I think about them at all, it’s with a quiet acceptance.
Maybe that’s why the spiritual songs on Aqualung don’t resonate with me nearly as much as the ones that land on the human side of the divine. “Cheap Day Return,” one of the shortest songs on the album and a departure from the overall style, is a tiny acoustic snapshot in which Ian Anderson stands at the train station after visiting his father. Then you sadly wonder, does the nurse treat your old man the way she should? She made you tea, asked for your autograph, what a laugh. And though it sounds like the story should continue, there’s only a short instrumental break before the song tapers off, and you’re left, mercifully, wondering what’s unsaid.
A block from my apartment in Roanoke, Virginia, there was an old southern church building, all brick and triangular, with a neon red sign overhead, simple capital letters that read JESUS SAVES. The church was on top of a hill and the sign was visible from far enough away that I could see it every night driving home. Sometimes it said JE US SAVE or ESUS AVES and sometimes the lights flickered. It was always the important parts that burned out.
In some of the album’s most memorable lyrics, Ian Anderson sings: If Jesus saves, well, He'd better save Himself from the gory glory seekers who use His name in death. But between save himself and the rest of the line, there’s a break just long enough for the chords to strike and for you to imagine all the things Jesus better save himself from. The first time I heard it, I wished they’d cut it off at the break. Every time after that, I wished for mystery just a little bit more.
Sophomore year of college, I drove my roommates to Iowa for fall break. About 30 miles outside my hometown, a multi-car pileup on I-380 stopped all traffic and we were stuck in my Volkswagen Beetle for more than an hour, gridlocked with the headlights off. Although it was cold for October, we opened the sunroof to let the stars in.
We started talking about the semester and about Jesus, and ended up on the topic of how much we wanted to say the word fuck. By then we’d completely adapted to our sterilized campus. None of us had realized how much we’d needed out, or, for that matter, how inconceivable and ridiculous it was to have spent nineteen years avoiding all profanity—especially fuck, the big kahuna. So right there in the midst of all those stopped cars, we breathed deep and screamed it into the night. Fuck this and fuck that and fucking fuck and motherfucking motherfucker, too, just for good measure. Jesus doesn’t fucking care if you say fuck! one of us said in joyful revelation, or at least one of us meant to.
One of my favorite songs on the album is “Wond’Ring Aloud.” It’s a simple love song, the kind I’m a sucker for, where you can picture the scene exactly as described, down to the buttery toast, and it’s so damn sentimental in the best possible way. But when Anderson sings, We are our own saviors, you can’t help but take what might be a throwaway line in a different context as significant within the framework of the album. Here, it’s not God who saves—it’s you, it’s me, it’s the love we have for each other, it’s the crumbs left forgotten in the bed.