Since 2010, The Brilliance has developed a reputation for thoughtful, relevant, eclectic, and deeply moving music. The Brilliance recently released their second album, “All is Not Lost,” under the Integrity Music label. Alongside the album, they launched a podcast unpacking the themes in each song and explaining their inspiration. The first episode of the podcast covers the songs “Oh Earth” and “Gravity of Love” which begin the album. In it, band members David Gungor and Jon Arndt talk of their love of science, and how they want to write better songs about creation (there’s also a guest appearance by Science Mike, which pushes the cool level into the stratosphere). I was thrilled to connect with David Gungor recently and further discuss his thoughts on faith and science, and his journey that led him to appreciate science and want to write music about it.
But before you read the interview, I strongly recommend you listen to the song “Gravity of Love” below.
Brad Kramer: As I was listening to “Gravity of Love” in preparation for this interview, I realized that it was the first song I had ever heard that used the metaphor of gravity in a positive way. When I think of gravity, I immediately think of John Mayer’s track, where it’s something that’s holding us down; keeping us from transcendence. What inspired you to use this metaphor in the way you did?
David Gungor: I think for [The Brilliance co-writer] John [Arndt] and me the biggest sense of awe or wonder that we get from anything is based on science. This kind of reaction where we go, “wow, can you believe this is really happening?” We’re both big podcasters, so we love Radiolab. We really, really love [the documentary series] Cosmos. Things where you’re hearing what the universe is like, but it’s kind of upside down to what you had in your imagination. And so when something gives you that moment of awe or wonder, it kind of flips the script. This is similar to what Jesus does; Jesus is constantly flipping the script and making you think, “wait, I thought it was supposed to be like this.” Often with science, I find that I’m constantly in awe by something that takes me totally by surprise. It’s that element of mystery. The more you discover, the more you realize it’s beautiful and that it is even more unlike what you thought.
So in the song “Gravity of Love,” it says, “this is the gravity of love / just as the moon follows the sun / you’re all around me / you’re holding everything.” There’s a sense here of being out of control. You’re not always in control. Here’s another way to think about it: the moon doesn’t give off light, it reflects light. And just as the moon follows the earth and reflects the light off of the sun and gives off light, I love the idea of beauty and faith as being something that I can’t generate. In the same way that you can say that gravity is something pulling you down, you can say that faith is something you cannot generate, it’s only something you can reflect. And true, unconditional love is the same thing. It’s not something you can just generate. We talk about it in theory, but we try to reflect it. But it’s based off the life of Jesus. So for us, when you talk about being tied down to something, that’s not a bad thing. You ask yourself, “being tied down to what?” That’s the nature of God’s love, it’s something that is always calling me back in a beautiful way.
I feel like the verse of the song is saying, “Where’s my help? I’m about to leave this thing! Am I supposed to stay here? God, where are you at?” Then the chorus is not exactly an answer to those questions, but more of a “breathe in, breathe out, what’s still tying you to this place is love.” It’s not meant to make people feel better about their strife or the problems they face in life, it’s not an answer to it, but it’s another way of looking at it. That’s why the second half of the chorus is even more important to me. It says, “this is the hope of every land / just as the universe expands / your love is reaching.”
BK: One word that comes up in the podcast, and in the lyrics of the album, is this imagery of “scars.” It’s not used in “Gravity of Love,” but it’s a central image in “Oh Earth,” the short track which immediately precedes it. In the podcast you spend a lot of time expanding on this theme, saying, “The same scars, the same wounds, the same things that cause us pain also give us life.” But you also openly wonder, “will we ever free ourselves from the scars from which we emerged?” I really love that because you’re weaving together a statement about humanity with a statement about Creation. Could you expound upon what you were trying to get at with those lines and how it played into the songwriting process?
DG: I think from an evolutionary standpoint, we are always coming out of trauma. We are shaped by it. And that trauma propels us forward. In order for there to be life there has to be death. We are created out of stardust, and we return to that dust when we die.
It’s easy to look at the world and the history of humanity and think, on one level, “we’re just apes.” We are brutal. We have such a history of violence. It is totally possible that we will kill creation with our violence, through global warming or nuclear weaponry, and so on. There’s a narrative out there that just says that we are just terrible, and there’s nothing to do about it. Then there’s another narrative out there which says that we are beings who have evolved to care for creation, to fight for creation and to fight for other beings of creation, and to transcend the evolutionary narrative of just survival. I think this is the better narrative of what it means to be human.
Our scars are a reminder of something; of the battles we fight. There’s a temptation to live back into that narrative of violence. For example, I was just in DC at the United States Institute for Peace and there was an event on Israel and Palestine. And this is a good example of two people groups who have scars. And it’s so easy to define yourself by these scars and to live back into that narrative. How do you get past those scars? So the powerful message of Jesus and Resurrection was that his scars didn’t hold him down; they were a catalyst for a new way of life, and a new creation.
BK: One of my favorite lines from the podcast is when you said, “wonder makes you realize you aren’t in control.” What immediately struck me is that makes wonder scary, and I think that is really profound.
DG: Yes, I think that is why people move away from science. Most people within the 7-day literal creation story can tell you how creation worked: “God did this or God did that.” Then they are totally in control of the narrative. When you throw out huge numbers that are beyond our imagination or comprehension, with the age of the earth and so on, they are put in a place where they are no longer in control. It is scary to venture into the unknown.
BK: Could you talk about your own journey in relation to that? You talk about 7-day creationism in the podcast as something you wanted to move away from.
DG: I grew up in central Wisconsin and went to a private Christian school with an anti-evolutionary curriculum. When I was in high school my brother Rob told me that he believed in evolution—he was in college at the time—and I remember thinking that he had lost his faith, and I tried to convert him back to creationism. Back then I had a fundamentalist mindset where you were reading Scripture like a textbook. There’s no poetry, it’s just numbers. You get to this place where you think that if anything in the Bible isn’t exactly how you think it happened, then the whole thing crumples upon itself. So that’s why I was trying to safeguard it.
In order to be open to science, I had to be open to breaking the way I read Scripture. Which meant I had to be okay with getting out of dualism. I had to learn how to see things in a non-black and white kind of way, learning slowly how to deal with paradox and contradiction in Scripture, and how to wrestle with that. That actually opened me to an alternative view of Scripture that let me see things like science in a much different light. I transferred to a public school in high school and started liking science, then I started loving it in college.
It also really helped to have healthy conversations with people who saw the world in a different way. My brothers were able to talk to me in a way that made me evaluate my own views. It took repeated conversations; nobody changes their views the first time you talk about something. I had to slowly learn to not have my identity wrapped up in a certain way of seeing things. But once that happened, I was OK with evolution.
I still see the Creation narrative in Scripture as such a beautiful narrative, but it gets hijacked by the impulse to be in control of it, so that everything can make sense. When we do that, we’re muddying up the art form.
BK: One of the things you said in the podcast is you wanted a different sort of song about creation for your kids. What did you mean by that?
DG: Well, first of all, it’s not just “Gravity of Love” I was talking about. In every song that we sing and the Church sings, I want us to have a sense of wonder. For me, the moments when I feel the deepest sense of adoration and wonder is when I feel connected to creation.
Whenever people feel wonder and awe, it inspires a sense of ethicality and generosity. And if the only place where people are feeling wonder and awe at creation is within a different type of narrative, and there’s no theological component, then your sense of ethics will lead you to a different place. That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s a different narrative. So we shouldn’t be surprised when people lose their faith because their imagination is being drawn by experiences that are outside of that theological framework.
The problem for Evangelicals is that our sense of wonder and awe is driven so often by personalized experience, and if that’s the only case, then we’re only chasing experiences. And in particular, these experiences are centered around the language of the Church, and meditating on Christ. The language of science, on the other hand, is not something that the Church “owns,” but it still gets us to a place of awe and wonder. I think that makes Christians nervous.
BK: So in order for the Church to get beyond that dualism, we almost have to give up some control over the narrative.
DG: Yes, exactly. This is the problem with fundamentalism, whether on the right or left. It blinds you to the point where you cannot see the other side at all, because you believe you own the truth. And your hands are so tightly gripped around the truth that you don’t have the ability to share anything; there’s no sense of generosity. It ends up being a form of escapism where the only thing that matters are the winners and losers.
So I’m at the place in my life where I’m ready to let go of that. Having kids has helped me realize: I’m probably not right about everything. I definitely don’t understand everything. And that’s the beautiful thing that science can teach us about faith. In science, you’re constantly learning about the universe through different theories and tests. There’s a certain humility in science that’s often lacking in Christianity. We’re not willing to question things enough.
The human soul longs for a beautiful story that draws out of a scar-filled life into something bigger. And the Gospel is that beautiful story that calls us out. It messes with you. It seems upside down. But science is also a beautiful narrative. It has many similarities to the life of faith, because it’s tapping into a sense of wonder, curiosity, and mystery. And when you understand the scientific narrative in this way, it actually works together with the life of faith; they are deeply compatible.