A Troubadour for Jesus
Introduction by William Luse
Most of us like to live our lives inside of what is nowadays called a “comfort zone” of family, friends, work, fun and uninterrupted internet access. Whether Christian or Jew, animist or atheist, we revel in routine. Like all creatures, we seek out equilibrium, and writhe in agony when it’s disturbed. Faith can be a part of that routine, but probably shouldn’t be; its job is to call us out of that comfort zone. Its flower should be always in bloom, a beauty that distracts, and lifts our gaze, from the merely beautiful. As we drink the night away in good fellowship, the thought that we are dust and to it shall return should occasionally intrude, and a shiver of apprehension at what will be revealed when we are weighed in the balance.
I’ve always been a sucker for conversion stories, tales of that moment when the clouds part and the light breaks through, since they usually require a disruption of routine. St. Paul got knocked off his donkey by a big light, tramped in rags through Rome’s dominions preaching Jesus, and ended up (probably) losing his head to Nero’s sword. St. Augustine heard a child’s voice—tolle lege—and had to give up the concubine he truly loved and by whom he’d had a child. After his conversion, his mother and son died on the way back to Carthage, leaving him alone in the world. He too got killed in the end.
I don’t know how many of us modern Christians feel Christ’s commands so profoundly that we’d follow St. Anthony into the desert, or Mother Teresa into the slums, let alone lay our necks on the headsman’s block in anticipation of St. Paul’s crown of glory. I know that many unborn children were this very day slain in their mothers’ wombs, but, sweetheart, what’s for dinner and what’s on TV, or should we rent a movie instead? I don’t demand much of the modern Christian because I don’t demand much of myself. I take what I can get, look for signs of hope in the smallest gestures, and can honestly say that I still take joy in finding them. Though I doubt many of us have had to really suffer for our faith, some kind of death must have been involved, some big change, though the one that really counts is mostly invisible, that unseen struggle in the soul to live up to the standards our new Master has laid down.
A couple of years ago contributor William Mickelberry introduced me to the music of Bob Ayanian. I found out that he’d been a tenured professor of economics at an American university and had left it all to become, literally, a singing troubadour for Jesus, and this on the basis of virtually zero musical training. Realizing that such a radical change had not accompanied my conversion, or that of anyone of my acquaintance (save for a sweet and fiery young woman who had followed the call to the convent), I had to know more, and eventually wrote to Mr. Ayanian, asking for his story in his own words:
…There I was, a professor of economics at California State University, Fullerton. I had a number of publications in the top technical economics journals, tenure, and was about to receive an award as the school’s outstanding something-or–other for 1990-something. On paper I looked real good. On the inside, however, I knew that the whole publication and awards business was, for me, just dead ashes. And getting to this point had taken me over fifty years of struggle. This struggle began when, as everybody else on the planet, I was born clueless into a world at war. I do not mean here World War II, which the U.S. was about to enter when I was born in November of 1941; but rather the war that I now recognize between Satan and God for the eternal destinies of men.
As is typical, my life was a progression of ups and downs. The ups and downs were, I suspect, a bit more extreme than those of most people who are not mentally ill. As I think about this, the movie A Beautiful Mind comes to mind. I was neither nearly as brilliant nor as crazy as John Nash, but I did a pretty good simulation of the square root of the movie, especially after high school. A dose of Sunday School when I was young in which I did not understand, or at least did not accept, above one word in fifty, hard-working parents with some problems of their own, the Lone Ranger, a few good friends, the high school track team, and rock ‘n roll got me eventually to age 17, when I was cast-out of Croton-Harmon High to face the world beyond my small town and school. This didn’t go so well socially, but I could do the school work. So it was that I graduated from Clarkson College of Technology in 1963, and went on to graduate school in economics at the University of Wisconsin. I knew I couldn’t make it in the outside world, and graduate school was a path that was open.
By now my intellectual journey had taken me to Ayn Rand and Objectivism – not exactly a Christian orientation. After a couple of years of this I drifted into libertarianism. Around 1973, while finishing-up my doctorate at UCLA, God sent me, I see in retrospect, my wife Barbara at a time when my first wife had left me (can you blame her?) and I was raising my three-year-old daughter Erin by myself…Barbara and her two children, Patrick and Barby, and Erin and I, set up a genuine 1970’s family. Among other things, these were good years for hang-gliding.
Fast forward to the culmination of my academic career at Cal State Fullerton circa 1992, with which I opened this paper. The administration at my campus was trying to implement a “politically correct” speech policy, and I was fighting it, which was at least something worthwhile. (They lost that round. But as for the situation today I do not know.) During this controversy, Barbara brought home from her office a Wall Street Journal article about a biology professor at San Francisco State University who had been removed from the classroom, at the complaint of some students, for teaching “creationism.” Barbara knew I would be interested because San Francisco State was part of the same University system as Cal State Fullerton, and I had once taught at San Francisco State, when we were first starting-out. I didn’t know what “creationism” was, but this business sounded very much like the kind of thing I was fighting at Fullerton. So I called Dean Kenyon, the offending professor, to see what was up and to ask for a copy of his reading list. The University administration was trying to silence him, and I wanted to hear what he had to say. God was at work. Well, he didn’t have a reading list, but he recommended the book Of Pandas and People. So I got the book, struggled through it, and realized that if what the author was saying was true, the Darwinian theory of evolution, which I had assumed was true, was solidly contradicted by new research in biochemistry. This was serious business, and an exciting prospect.
The first item to check was the credentials of the Darwinian biologists who were being criticized. Were they knowledgeable or just some people easily criticized? Nope. Gould and Dawkins were the real thing. And Dawkins in particular claimed that biochemistry confirmed Darwinian evolution. Somebody was seriously wrong. I spent my research time over the next year or so studying biochemistry, mostly out of a book that had virtually fallen off the shelf at a bookstore and hit Barbara on the head. Once again God had used her to get me moving in the right direction. When I was finally able to read the technical biochemistry findings with some degree of comprehension, it was clear to me that these results had been generated by something other than a totally random process. Indeed, they contradicted the implications of Darwinian theory. Somebody did this. Let’s see ... if we hadn’t evolved, then we must have been created! Uh-oh. Was Genesis true? I remember explaining my thoughts to Barbara. She is a smart cookie and I knew she was going to raise objections. I was ready for them. Before long we both went over like the Trade Towers. On the way, Barbara spent an entire day having anxiety. But I beat her by a mile. Prone over the years to panic attacks, I was having a doozey. I don’t remember the exact timing of these events, but I do remember one day desperately crying out to God, if He was there, to “clear my mind.”
So it was that in the fullness of time there came three months or so of Prozac, skeptical church attendance and, finally, a willingness to take a look at the Bible—even though my past uninformed attitude had been that it was primitive, ignorant, superstitious stuff for primitive, ignorant, superstitious people. I started reading the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, and by the time I was six verses in I was pierced to the heart: “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” (Matt 5:6) My immediate thought was “My God, this is me.” And upon further reading “We’re adrift on a sea of mystery and magic! The future is open!” I was totally excited and, indeed, I find that excitement returning as I recount these events here. At other times I recall feeling, in the days that followed, like some dead thing that had been washed up on a barren shore, inexplicably alive.
The prayer to “clear my mind” had been answered with medication for my hideous hypoglycemic/panic attack condition, and Jesus for my soul and spirit. Saved and saved. (And, indeed, I feel this prayer still being answered today.) God had come at me in two ways: the terrible panic attacks had driven me to call out to Him—personal need; and the exposure of Darwinian evolution as a fraud—intellectual need. At the risk of TooMuchInformation, I think it is worth noting that the biochemistry was aimed right at me. Without going into details, understanding the biochemistry research required interpreting some numerical data, and deducing what kind of process could have produced these numbers. But this was exactly what my research in economics required. It was something I knew how to do. I feel as if God was saying to me, “So, you think you can interpret data? Take a look at these numbers.” I can not think of anything at the intellectual level that would have been more convincing to me. God’s grace reached even to Professor Thinksheknowsalot.
Well, I hung-on at Cal State Fullerton another two or three years, until we could afford to retire. During this time I spent many commuting hours listening to Chuck Smith and Chuck Missler on KWVE, the Calvary Chapel station in Orange County, CA. I’m sure this was a great influence on my theological understanding, especially concerning the end-times. Upon my retirement, Barbara and I moved to the little town of Cambria, on the California coast. And that was it. I had walked away from my professorial identity, and now spent a lot of time walking on the beach. At least I thought that was it, but I was wrong. Again. About a year after retiring, a song about Jesus’ return at the end-times came into my head. So I dug out my old guitar, and figured out the chords. “Wow! I’ve written a song!” I found this quite surprising since my musical education, aside from listening to the radio, consisted of a course in beginning guitar at USC in 1974. A few more songs came along, and one afternoon I was half asleep, napping on my bed. Suddenly I received a verbal (though not audible) communication in my head: “You can have the songs come tumbling out of you if you want.”
I was so startled I fell out of bed onto the floor, and immediately replied, “No! I can’t have that!” What raced through my mind at the time was that this would be akin to being a prophet. And, as everyone knows, prophets are likely to come to a bad Earthly end. The following day I repented of this decision and told God, “OK, I’ll do it.” And, despite some episodes of difficulty and discouragement, I’ve pretty much been doing it ever since, for almost ten years now. There is no question in my mind that most of my songs are inspired by the Holy Spirit. (This is a serious claim, but there it is. Indeed, there is no other explanation.) I would love to write a song that had the power to turn everyone’s heart to Jesus. But, as Frank Peretti said in one of his books, “Jesus never took a town for Jesus.”
Still I have found that the songs speak to some people—non-believers as well as Christians (and that they are of no interest to some people, both non-believers and Christians). At this writing, the songs are starting to receive some public attention (e.g. some 1200 copies of At the Edge of the World were distributed at the Oregon Country Fair this summer). This attention is due in no small part to the musical arrangements of Eric Williams, who was literally an answer to years of prayer for someone who knew music to come and help me. Where all this will lead I do not know. God told me only that the songs would come, not that they would find an audience. I have hopes, but it’s in His hands. How often does a once hopelessly lost, burned-out economics professor get to do something like this? Thank you Lord Jesus!
Mr. Mickelberry and the editors issued some follow-up questions.
Q: Willie says he loves your “clean but surprising lyrics which are frequently truly poetic,” and wants to know if you had any exposure to poetry and, if so, what influences there might have been on your own work.
Ayanian: To the extent that there was poetry in popular music from 50’s R&R through Neil Diamond, I had early exposure to poetry. But I certainly never read poetry. However, I was very much taken with the mode and phrases of expression of the characters in the Lord of the Rings books, and later in Jane Austen. This showed me new dimensions to language, and I’d like to think this has affected my writing. I guess I should also mention that I have always liked story songs. Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is a good example.
Q: Did religion have any part in your marriage (to Barbara) prior to your conversion?
Ayanian: After having lived together for 8 years, Barb and I got married at the Justice of the Peace window at the Santa Ana, CA city hall. The lady at the next window, who was having her notary license renewed, cried and wished us well. That was our marriage ceremony.
On the other hand, we had for years discussed the big questions of “What the hell is going on here?” And “Why do so many people seem to be impervious to facts and reason, and bent on evil?” Our answers tended very strongly toward the psychological. The ideas of rebellion against God and of “demonic influence” would have seemed crazy to us.
We had a commitment to truth and morality (as we saw it), but it did not have an explicit religious foundation. We had both spent our early years in the 1940’s and 50’s, when the culture was still pretty-well saturated with Christian values. Basic Christian concepts and values took, but religion per se did not.
Q: You apparently had a brief fascination with Ayn Rand before “drifting” into libertarianism. What was it in Rand that interested you? Did you ultimately reject her philosophy for a particular reason?
Ayanian: Remember my epiphany verse: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” (Matt 5:6) The longing for righteousness was in me, and Rand’s rhetoric appealed to it. All the more because I was seriously uneducated in the humanities. However, in time I came to see that her righteousness was self-righteousness. Acquaintance with some of her more oppressive, legalistic followers (we called them Randroids) also set me searching further afield. I now view Rand as attempting the impossible: building a morality on an evolutionary base.
Q: You say that after becoming aware of Dean Kenyon’s situation, and after reading Of Pandas and People, you took up the study of biochemistry. Can you be a little more specific about what it was that made it clear to you that “these results had been generated by something other than a totally random process”? Maybe give an example or two of what you mean?
Ayanian: At the risk of being pedantic—Darwinian macro-evolution purportedly occurs through random mutations in an organism’s DNA, such that offspring have some new characteristic. If the new characteristic is beneficial to survival, the mutated organism will thrive, and serve as a launching platform for the next evolutionary development. This process is alleged to have driven life forms forward from a single-cell organism to man. (Pretty-much silence on where the single cell came from.) Thus different life forms have developed through an accumulation of DNA mutations.
Now consider the standard Darwinian scenario: fish to amphibian, to reptile, to mammals (and on through the apes to man). This process should have left a DNA trail behind: amphibian DNA should be relatively close (similar) to fish DNA; the DNA of reptiles, mammals (on through apes and man) successively dissimilar from that of a fish. But this trail is not there. The DNA of a frog is as different from that of a fish as is human DNA! Furthermore, amphibian, reptile, bird, ape, and human DNA are all about equally dissimilar from that of a fish. Somebody did this.
I had to learn about DNA, RNA, amino acis, proteins, the genetic code etc. before I could verify this for myself. But it’s true. Darwinian macro-evolution just won’t fly.
Q: You went to Sunday School for a while as a kid. Why did you find it hard to accept Christian teaching as a youngster, do you think?
Ayanian: It was a high Episcopal church (the one closest to our apartment). I didn’t know what the heck was going on. There was a lot of weird ritual and mumbo-jumbo. Also, the priest seemed to me the saddest man I had ever seen.
Q: You say a couple of times that, in retrospect, you can see that God sent Barbara to you. You and daughter Erin, and she and her two children became a family. Did your child-rearing practices change from that of your parents after you changed your world view? How? How did your children respond to your changing perspective?
Ayanian: Remember (I think I mentioned this) I was in my early 50’s when my conversion happened. Our children were grown. But our child-rearing had been very different from my own in any event. I wasn’t going to put my kids through that.
Now here’s a big surprise. Unbeknownst to us, our daughters had already quietly accepted Jesus! Our son Patrick was a more difficult case. Whenever we were all together talking Christianity he would say, “You guys are scaring me.” But, thank God, he eventually came around.
Q: Did you share your conversion with any of your colleagues at Cal State Fullerton, and if so, what was their reaction?
Ayanian: Good question. I attempted to share my thoughts on evolution with my colleagues, but no dice.
I wrote up a paper very carefully explaining what the DNA researchers were finding, and my interpretation thereof. I gave a seminar to faculty and students on the paper. The biology department was invited, but nobody from there showed up. The response among those who did show up was, “I’m not an expert in this, you’re not an expert in this, we should leave it to the biologists.” No one was moved.
There was a back-up position on the paper: don’t read the paper, don’t attend the seminar. My closest colleague, with whom I had shared research for 10 years, took this tack. This was a great disappointment. As is often said, no amount of evidence or fine words are going to influence someone who doesn’t want to go there.
After this, the faculty more-or-less distanced themselves from me. I suppose they could see differences in me (there was a great calming of my spirit) but the differences made no difference (as far as I know).
So, as I said earlier, I retired as soon as I financially could do so. I had absolutely no objectives or agenda in mind - and then the songs started.
Readers can visit Mr. Ayanian at his website, Truebador.com, and buy his music at CDBaby.com (http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/BobAyanian). His output is pretty impressive. There are three volumes of Good News From the Badlands and a new album At the Edge of the World. He also has a Youtube channel at username truebador1. If you like (as it seems to this listener) a sound reminiscent of Dylan with a country-western foundation and arresting lyrics, you’ll like Mr. Ayanian. Here‘s one of my favorites from his first album: