The Raw Devotion of Julien Baker

Photograph by Angela Owens / NYT via Redux


The first book in English that can be identified definitively as written by a woman is the mystic text “Revelations of Divine Love,” by the fourteenth-century anchorite Julian of Norwich. Everything about Julian was unusual, particularly her intense awareness of failure and frailty: she was a child when the plague came to England, and the sixteen religious visions she chronicles in her book were triggered by a near-fatal illness that struck her at age thirty. Her pursuit of the truth of God is solitary and blazing, gorgeously rigorous, as if she was generating and synthesizing personal theology to light her way through an awful dark. Sin is “behovely” to her, and to God—necessary, expedient. “The soul is highest, noblest and worthiest when it is lowest, humblest and gentlest,” she writes. To read her is to observe a young woman flaying herself open in a startling act of devotion. Julian’s writing is physical—at one point, she likens the body of Christ to mother’s milk—emotional, and cerebral at once.

I thought of Julian of Norwich while listening to “Turn Out the Lights,” the new album from a musician who almost shares her name: Julien Baker, a twenty-two-year-old singer-songwriter from Memphis. Baker is a Christian whose faith has been shaped by trial and revelation: she is gay, and went through addiction and recovery before she was out of her teens. She is theologically minded and obsessively self-interrogating; on the phone last week, we spent ten minutes talking about Calvinist doctrine, which depends on the presumption of the total depravity of man.


“A house show feels like a true faith community, socialist and communal,” she said. “The lead singer is less than two feet away from thirty people who are screaming the same thing. Punk teaches the same inversion of power as the Gospel—you learn that the coolest thing about having a microphone is turning it away from your own mouth.”

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