Cold War Kids’ Nathan Willett: My Evangelical Struggle
The frontman of the rock band Cold War Kids has largely stayed quiet about his faith. Here, he writes about his journey to—and away from—evangelical Christianity.
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so…”
— Thomas Merton
My wife is a physician assistant in a seminary program to become a hospital chaplain. Earlier this year, she took a class called “Social Ethics in Evangelical History” taught by Dr. Richard Mou. I decided to take it with her, sitting in on the Zoom sessions and doing all the reading.
It was the best part of quarantine for me. She and I had so many animated conversations and debates about the material. I hadn’t felt the excitement of being intellectually challenged by my faith in years. Eboo Patel’s Out of Many Faiths and Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism by David R. Swartz were our favorites. Dr. Mou was there in the ’70s signing the Chicago Declaration, which called evangelicals to social reform. It was such a pivotal time in history, when Evangelicals could have gone left but made a hard right instead. Dr. Mou posed this question to the class: The title “evangelical” is so hard to define, so confusing, so damaged; should we abandon the term entirely and start fresh? Or reclaim it, repurpose it to mean something more progressive and inclusive? This got me all fired up inside about a lingering struggle that I can never quite shake off.
I grew up in the church. My dad worked for Church Resource Ministries (CRM), living month-to-month on donations while getting a PhD in the Bible from Biola University. My mom was studying to become a therapist. They got divorced when I was 13, and everything changed. There was so much trauma in the split of my family. My parents never spoke to each other again (I joke that I had my mid-life crisis at 15). It wasn’t until my thirties that I got into therapy and received medication for anxiety and depression. But this isn’t about that.
As a teenager, I somehow never quite let go of God—or She never let go of me. The space where I felt an authentic connection talking to God usually came in solitude and in books. I can remember sitting alone at Borders for about four hours reading this introduction to Kierkegaard about religion, despair, anxiety, and how he chose faith over his lover. It was written over 200 years ago, but felt like he was talking directly to me. This was the kind of faith that spoke to the feeling that I had—that Christian history was profound, complex, and fascinating. My evangelical church experience wasn’t big enough to hold those kinds of contradictions. So I consumed the work of a lot of Christian writers like Dallas Willard, N.T. Wright, C.S. Lewis, Thomas à Kempis, and Henri Nouwen. They had a big message. The author Richard Rohr has written that it’s good to have a strong “container” early in life that you can grow out of. Looking back, I see how I didn’t have the strongest container in my family but evangelicalism gave me a worldview to live in.
Let me back up to 2002. I was 21 years old, had done my time in junior college, and was ready to transfer. I really wanted to go to UCLA but after 3 years of JC, I didn’t have the grades, guidance or support. My dad had taught at this school called Biola, so he got a good deal and really wanted me to go. I was desperate for support and guidance. But Biola was a conservative school—regressive, even childish. Picture college guys in “accountability groups” where they confess and cry about masturbating and vow to try harder to love God. Really embarrassing stuff. You were even required to sign a statement of belief that was airtight and certain about the existence of God and your personal relationship to Jesus. I wrote the lines, but felt compromised. I had found God reading The Catcher in the Rye and Dostoevsky. I had lost my faith and found it again. Biola felt like going backwards.
At the time I was bagging groceries at Albertsons, working at a skateboard shop, crawling through junior college, smoking weed and hanging out by myself. I lived in an apartment in Fullerton with my brother where touring punk bands would crash and get tattooed at our kitchen table. I needed direction and this was a ticket to somewhere different. So cautiously, I went to Biola, and in those two years my life was forever changed. I met my future bandmates, my future wife, studied literature with brilliant teachers, heard a lot of terrible worship music, and learned a lot about what I loved and hated about evangelical Christians—and how to separate the institution from the spirit of God.
Of all the places to meet a group of friends that were creative, eclectic, funny, smart and irreverent, I would not have thought it would’ve been at this tiny conservative university. These were people that shared an authentic desire to struggle past the embarrassing parts of the evangelical subculture we had grown up with and get to that sweet place where God is. As I write this, I don’t know how to define it. It’s a curiosity, vulnerability, and intimacy. It’s a rebellion against the mainstream of materialism, of hypocrisy, of individualism, of the status quo.
It is the lens you see the whole world through. We didn’t talk about our relationship with God explicitly. We talked about our beliefs by interacting with art—reading Henri Nouwen or listening to Nick Cave. Watching Magnolia. Art could be a portal to God.
Maybe we found each other because we came from similar evangelical backgrounds and we were insulated—stranded 20 miles outside of LA, starving for culture. We had the rigid structure of Biola to kick back against. We were pretentious about our opinions but we also were different from Ginsberg’s “angel-headed hipsters.” We weren’t so naive to think that experience would get us closer to God; precisely the opposite. We had the anxiety of knowing that the flesh is temporary, hollow. So... how then should we live?
Fast forward to forming Cold War Kids in 2004. I was busy writing, recording and playing shows, and substitute teaching. Our friend Matt Wignall helped us with our first recordings; he had been in a band on a “Christian alternative label” called Tooth & Nail. We hated that scene. Most of it was a formulaic, safe alternative to mainstream music. Some of it was made by great musicians we knew who got roped into a subculture that ended up defining them, and they lost their spark because of it. We knew we weren’t getting anywhere near it.
A year later, Cold War Kids blew up. We released our debut album Robbers and Cowards. We were in Australia playing festivals and our friends in Long Beach were texting us that our video was on MTV every day. We had already achieved a success that we never thought possible. Then Pitchfork reviewed the album early and set the tone for every other media outlet. My 15-year-old traumatized memory of it was that they saw that we had gone to Biola and used that to affiliate us with all things evangelical at the time: post-9/11 conservatism, George W. Bush, and even claimed our song “Hospital Beds” was about baptism.
The tone of the article was as though we were working undercover to infiltrate the gospel into the culture and they had exposed our secret mission. Ha! And I sort of couldn’t blame them. At that time, evangelicals were indefensible. So, when every major media outlet wanted to ask us about our response to the Pitchfork review, what could I say? I didn’t want to defend or apologize for all Christians or evangelicals to these super-educated liberal atheists. They heard the word Christian and thought: homophobic, patriotic, war-loving, gun-toting Republican. That you must be somehow dumb. It meant we were suspect.
And I understood as well as anyone why they made those assumptions. Looking back, I would’ve responded that they were intolerant, pretentious, and out of touch; that faith and reason are totally compatible. I could have pointed to Francis Collins, Chance the Rapper, or MLK—people that mainstream culture praises as both intellectuals and Christians. But it was a different time.
I love this story I once heard about Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien telling Kanye West that nobody intelligent in England believes in God, leaving Kanye shocked and appalled. That says so much about liberal assumptions of class, race, and religion. Liberals love MLK and the civil rights movement, but they don’t know what to do with the Black church, because it represents hope in God that cannot be achieved through policy or politics; because reparations is the absolute minimum for the pain and suffering of the marginalized, but even then, nothing will ever heal those wounds. Only God.
Talking with anyone about your relationship with God is intimate. It is an earned privilege. Would I debate about how sweet and funny my kids are with a stranger? No, that’s subjective. Human beings develop relationships through organic chemistry—through trust, risk investment. Not from hitting each other over the head with capital-T Truth. The problem is: evangelicals do exactly that.
When God Talks Back is a book by Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann that explains it. There are profound differences in the psychology of the evangelical when it comes to being entitled to the rightness of belief. For me, removing doubt from faith is heresy and most evangelicals I know are blasphemous in their certainty of all things related to understanding God. They are operating off this idea that they have a biblical commandment to share their faith, whether they want to or not, with people who don’t have faith, whether they want to listen or not, in order to go to heaven or something, and it’s just insane. I think a lot of this is rooted in the idea of the “inerrancy of scripture”—the literalism of the Bible. The fun and subversive fact about a literature degree at Biola is that once you have some classes in critical theory, you cannot remove all the historical context and authorial intent of the Bible. How can Paul’s letter to a church be “inerrant?” This is where a lot of evangelicals become the Pharisees they love to hate, using scripture to maintain the powers that be. I saw a lot of good people argue for hateful interpretations of the Bible at Biola out of naiveté. I would rather chat with a salty atheist who digs Ottessa Moshfegh any day.
On the flip side, liberals often see themselves as intellectually superior to evangelicals. If you take one thing away from this article it is that if you want to understand America, you must try to understand evangelicals. This is the divide that is central to the culture wars.
Now, I’ll have those debates and arguments around my kitchen table with friends and family all night. But public figures in the trenches of the culture war on both sides often have a scary desperation in their eyes. I have a family full of pastors, missionaries and church people, so I definitely have a degree of familiarity breeding contempt. They speak a different language that is alienating to an outsider. A Catholic or an Episcopalian would never get the references, let alone a Jew or a Muslim. Most of our old crew of friends from the Biola days have distanced themselves from anything institutionally Christian. They are mostly still scarred from all that righteousness. Human beings are not just saved or unsaved—they are flawed and beautiful. I would never ask some of my old friends, “Are you still a believer?” That would belittle the complexity of the journey of faith. We never arrive at God. But With a close friend, you already know. I watch intently to see how they shed their evangelical faith. Oftentimes, they feel resentful, even betrayed. I secretly try to encourage them to work through all the disappointments and see that God is good even though his followers often aren’t.
So why write about my personal relationship to faith? Many writers I’ve admired have been ousted by their evangelical tribe, from Rob Bell to Rachel Held Evans. So, am I criticizing evangelicals as an insider or an outsider? I guess both. I don’t want to get my band thrown in the trash heap of Christian music. I don’t want to be a part of any tribe that puts you on a pedestal one day and tears you to pieces for saying the wrong thing tomorrow. There doesn’t seem to be any upside to it. I wanted to make authentic music, not preach. So I stayed pretty quiet; tried to put my beliefs into the music. But by not speaking openly about myself as a Christian was I somehow being dishonest about my art and its source?
I have felt convicted to participate in an evangelical dialogue. I do believe that in humility, in acts of service to others that we don’t ever mention or publicize, is where we find God. I think of the LGBTQ+ students at Biola. They don’t have a voice. Their community denies their existence. They tried to bond together on campus and were denied. As I tried to rally some of our alumni to their cause, one friend told me he thought it was a great idea but ultimately, hopeless to try to change evangelicals’ minds. The least I can do is direct those kids to writer-activists like Matthew Vines who battle every day against the Bible thumpers. Is that my battle to fight, my story to tell?
It’s been years since I’ve been to an evangelical church. I go to my local Episcopalian church a bit. They have very little of the baggage of evangelicals. They do the liturgy and a sermon. The music is not a rock ‘n’ roll laser show. Sometimes I am bored and sometimes I am inspired. There is a quiet reverence there that I’m drawn to. A priest friend asked if I would be willing to perform music for the church. I told him that I have a very strict rule: as long as I’m in Cold War Kids, I will not. I’m hoping to be in this band for a long time. It’s funny though: in the Episcopal Church, I don’t get fired up in the same way that I do talking about evangelicals. Their underdog mentality, their inconsistencies, and their views on the culture wars get me all twisted up.
The Cold War Kids song “Miracle Mile” has a lyric that goes, “I’d be alright, if I could just see you—on miracle mile, where does it lead to?” It’s a lyric that, for me, can be just as much about God as about a lover. It would be a hell of a lot easier to know God if we could physically see Her. I have felt transcendence in performing for a hundred thousand people at Glastonbury. But I know that there is so much more behind the curtain than this life can offer; so much that we don’t have access to. And it is deeply frustrating. That’s faith. That’s yearning. That’s what art is for. It’s like the movie Nomadland: it’s awkward and incomplete, but it is authentic, joyful, and beautiful. There are moments of joy and transcendence—and no certainty. The details of our stories vary, but the most interesting part, the universal part we all share, is how we react in a crisis. That’s where faith begins. It’s a warmth, a presence. I don’t always feel it. But I know it when it’s there.
I talk to God every day. I struggle with knowing whether my good or bad feelings have anything to do with God speaking to me or just my brain’s chemical highs and lows. Leonard Cohen said that he would wake up every day and try to find a state of grace. Evangelicalism was the vessel that brought me to be a believer. But it is not inclusive—in fact, it’s exclusive by design, and therefore wasn’t meant to carry me forever. Whether an artist can be an evangelical I can say with certainty that I do not know.