A Fractured and Beautiful Faith
Audrey Assad was in her early 20s when her parents told her they were considering divorce. An hour later she was at a sound check for a church worship service. Be happy, she was told. Smile!
"They wanted us to be bright-eyed. To smile and be perky," she says. "I just wanted to throw the microphone down and shout the f word."
That reaction forms the pillar of Assad's career as a Christian musician. The ever-present need to be "positive," she contends, is a distraction. Her music is made in direct—often conscious—opposition to that expectation.
Assad has had one of the more successful debuts in Christian music in the past few years. Her piano-based, introspective music has sold 100,000 albums on two records from Sparrow and won her the iTunes Christian Breakthrough Album award in 2010, along with several Dove nominations. She appears as a named artist on Chris Tomlin's Christmas record.
Apparently you can still succeed in the genre of contemporary Christian music (CCM) even if you dissent from its ethos: reassuring, upbeat, and "safe for the whole family." Those sentiments weren't enough when Assad's parents divorced and they weren't enough when her husband was diagnosed with cancer six months after their wedding.
"I don't think the words positive and encouraging have ever historically been adequate to describe Christian life," she says. "Yet these are the words being thrown around now as the two main characteristics of music made by Christian people."
Assad's music, echoing the thoughtful, melodic arrangements of Sara Groves and Brooke Fraser (who shares a producer with Assad), is intensely personal, seasoned with deft musical and literary references. Her lyrics can be stark, like these from "Show Me," the final track of her debut album: "Bind up these broken bones / mercy bend and bring me back to life / but not before you show me how to die." Pain, sorrow, and regret—a sense that the world is not as it should be—pulse beneath the beauty.
Just as honest offstage as on, Assad has forthrightly discussed her addiction to pornography as a teenager—including on Twitter. "There were specific people who told me I shouldn't talk about that, and I listened to them for a long time. But I felt I was doing a disservice if I didn't," she says. Her fans were listening, and they responded.
"It's been overwhelming how many people, especially young girls, have said the same thing. They had no idea that a woman could struggle with something like this."
Assad shows life as the broken pieces of a stained glass window—beautiful, but fractured all the same.
Yet Assad's acknowledgment of her flaws doesn't become an excuse to shun piety or virtue. If the first striking point about Assad's music is its clear-eyed honesty, the second is its religious source. Assad is a devout Catholic, having converted at age 19 after growing up in the Plymouth Brethren church, a conservative Protestant movement. The decision was a shock to family and friends.
Assad's music is not narrowly Catholic. Yet recently, when she posted a picture of the newly elected Pope Francis on Twitter, it received a hostile reaction from some erstwhile fans. "I'm continually surprised not just by the opposition but by the revulsion," she says. "It's an exception, not the rule. … I'm truly brokenhearted over it."