Brandi Carlile: A Theology of Belonging

This article was first published at Pop Culture & Theology 

“I want to be a musical preacher for the rest of my life.”

This seemingly throwaway comment by singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile has proven to be prophetic, and sums up how the award-winning artist uses her art to loudly proclaim her truth…as real and vital as any that comes by way of religion.Imageof Brandi Carlile Library of Congress

After spending dozens of hours absorbing Carlile’s music, interviews, memoir and lyrics, an undeniable theme emerged that I call a Theology of Belonging. It’s a theology that is concerned with real life experiences, and causes us to make room for others. For Carlile, this Theology of Belonging doesn’t have the trapping of the traditional church, but shows up in radical connections, forgiveness, salvation, community, inclusion and care. It lives deep in the body and in experience; it is in the bones, the flesh and the minutiae of everyday life. 

God is in us, with us, and through us.

A Reluctant Theologian

Brandi Carlile (musician, wife, activist, daughter, fishing fanatic, friend, amateur carpenter, grammy winner and mother) preaches a version of gospel that springs from her own story. While it’s doubtful the artist would ever call herself a theologian, she consistently weaves together a compelling theology across many albums and years.   

My claim of Carlile as theologian is not due to discovering overt doctrine in her music, but experiencing her songwriting and vocal skill as vehicles for deep meaning-making. Sound is a powerful medium that communicates meaning even before words, and research often notes the connection between music and religious experience.

Theologian Jeremy Begbie suggests that all the ways in which God comes to be learned and articulated is a certain “ecology of theology,” evident both inside and outside the walls of traditional religion. Carlile seems comfortable in such an ecology, as her work recalls Christian themes that she reworks in new ways that are refreshed and energized by her authenticity. 

In her critique of religion, Carlile uses the techniques of other liberation theologians, who insist that theologies must be relevant to what is actually happening in the lives of real people. I specifically liken her work to that of ecofeminist Ivone Gebara, who says, 

“The things we produce, even the most precious among them-sublime creations such as our religious beliefs-arise from a long maturation process in which our concern for our immediate needs has always been present. Our extraordinary creativity acquired the ability to produce meanings capable of helping us live out this or that situation. But these meanings are not static realities. They are part of the dynamism of life and thus they change as well.”

Gebara and Carlile are doing something unthinkable for those who come out of fundamentalism; they are re-imaging theology. Through her music, Carlile gives a nod to her religious upbringing, but then molds it to something better, something hers – more whole, healthy and useful over what she found inside the walls of religion. She reshapes her understanding of grace, forgiveness, family, and salvation into a more generative, authentic and better version of the human/God story. 

A Living Theology

Popular music has always been an excellent forum for theology because, according to Begbie, it “has the capacity to bear and enlighten the most substantial questions of human existence and reflects the meaning-making people do in their everyday lives.” This is a theology stripped of its intellectualism, and made acceptable to average people; something Garcia Rivera calls a “living as opposed to textual theology.”

Carlile’s living theology comes through in her 2007 breakout album The Story, with a title song that might be considered an anthem of vulnerability. Not only does she share openly about her values, she also reveals a subtle insight into her theology that will resonate with millions. She invites us to look at the lines on her face, notice the story they tell, and consider her conclusion that after all the adventure, accolades, and fame, what’s most pivotal to her journey, and ours, is relationship. Life cannot work in isolation, and she loudly proclaims, “I was made for you.” 

It’s here that her thesis for a Theology of Belonging is clearly articulated. 

Making Space for All

Carlile’s theology is abundant, extravagant, and generous, offering room for everyone. We hear this in the song, Crowded Table, which she co-wrote with the two other women. Considering the subject of this song and its significance in her theology, it makes sense that it was a collaboration. It speaks to community, and to her desire to create a space where everyone is welcome and everyone belongs. WE will plant a place of happiness where the roots run deep, and where love reigns. WE will create a place where all of us, in our various states of brokenness can be at home.

Yeah, I want a house with a crowded table

And a place by the fire for everyone

Let us take on the world while we’re young and able

And bring us back together when the day is done


The door is always open

Your picture’s on my wall

Everyones a little broken

And everyone belongs

Brandi is hardly perfect, and that’s the point. She offers a theology for everyday folks where we all can drink deeply, no matter who we are, what we have done, or where we come from. 

Creating Family

Deep connection and relationships emerge as overriding themes in Carlile’s life, music, and theology. She counts the likes of Joni Mitchell, Rick Rubin, Barack Obama and Elton John as close friends. The stories she shares are not of casual acquaintances or shallow conversations, but of in-your face intimacy that are clear marks of her Theology of Belonging.

Carlile’s deliberateness to craft a family of her choosing is nothing short of inspiring. In her memoir, she tells of her deep longing to have a family of her own and her struggle to make that a reality in a world that didn’t want to offer too many choices to a queer woman. Carlile married Catherine Shepherd in 2012 and they had two daughters as soon as possible. You and Me on the Rock is about what they have created and, not so accidentally, references a biblical allusion to something foundational, to the faith that has allowed her to weather incredible hypocrisy and homophobia

Since the very beginning of her work with bandmates Tim and Phil Hanseroth she has called them family. On its face this isn’t so unusual, but she really means it. They share tattoos, a history, and the intimacy and respect stronger than most biological families. Their connection and trust is so strong, she doesn’t even own her name, and if she were to leave the band, they could legally still perform as Brandi Carlile without her.  

Brandi, Catherine and their daughters live on 90+acres in the Pacific Northwest that they share with this on-purpose family: the twins and their families, other band members, and a variety of children. Catherine and Brandi’s siblings have married into the band, and the “compound” is a prototype of the crowded table she longs for- of people living life authentically together. In one interview she joked that the kids don’t know whether they’re cousins or siblings!

Radical Mercy

One author noted that Brandi loves and sings out of an illogical mercy, which can be both confusing and inspiring. This was the thing that initially drew me to Carlile’s work, and I quickly noticed the through-line of the Theology of Belonging that could allow her to offer radical mercy as a lifestyle. Growing up, Brandi’s life was impacted by poverty, class, exclusion, addiction, and a troubled story of rejection from organized religion, and it is from here that she writes with a great deal of care and kindness for the world. 

One album, By the Way, I Forgive You, revolves around this theme, where she explores forgiving her family, former lovers, pastors and herself. She has spoken extensively about this and, leading up to the release of her latest album, posted an open letter on Facebook to the Baptist pastor who refused to baptize her because of her sexuality when she was 15. She forgave him, in what she calls a “radical, filthy, trembling, scary, life-changing, beautiful forgiveness. It’s a willingness to look foolish to those who don’t understand. It looks like naivety. It looks like being a doormat. It looks like being walked on, but it’s so much more radical than that.”


Another element to Carlile’s Theology of Belonging is a concern for those on the edges. Theologian Willie Jennings highlights the connection of the artist to the prophetic, and how they echo back and forth the possibilities of newness of abundant life. For Jennings, the convergence of the artistic and the prophetic lead to more keen attention to suffering and need.

This is what Brandi Carlile does best, and what she invites us into. Through her music, she is paying attention to issues of oppression and poverty, injustice and violence. To her, “there’s nothing on planet Earth more maddening than the religious right’s rejection of displaced people. It’s just baffling.” 

The Joke is an ode to every marginalized person living in America who has suffered because of “their difference whether based on race, age, sexuality or economic. And, Sinner, Saints and Fools highlights the pure evil of rejecting the vulnerable 

You can’t break the law

There are reasons for the rules

They keep things safe here for everyone

You Sinners, Saints, and Fools

To the poor and huddled masses

Who are hungry and afraid

You gotta do it by the book and there’ll be

No exceptions made

Over the years and throughout her catalog, Brandi Carlile is unapologetic in her insistence on belonging that is rooted in a faith where love is an action. And she seems to insist that the mercy, relationship, and radical acceptance inherent in a Theology of Belonging can go a long way towards healing our world. 

“We can fix it. We can change as a species if we want to. It’s not hurtling towards some fiery end. It’s a living, breathing faith.”

Photo Credit: Library of Congress



Babka, Susie Paulik. “The Feminine Face of God Is My Face On the Empowerment of Female Self-Portraiture.” In She Who Imagines : Feminist Theological Aesthetics

Begbie, Jeremy. Beholding the Glory: Incarnation Through the Arts. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.

Carlile, Brandi. Broken Horses: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 2021. 

Demmrich, S. (2020). Music as a trigger of religious experience: What role does culture play? Psychology of Music, 48(1), 35-49.

Garcia-Rivera, Alejandro. Introduction to A Wounded Innocence: Sketches for a Theology of Art. Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2003. Ix. 

Jennings, Willie. “Embodying the Artistic Spirit and the Prophetic Arts.” in Literature & Theology, Vol. 30. No. 3, September 2016, pp. 256–264.Zane Lowe , “Brandi Carlile: ‘In These Silent Days,’ a reflective album written in the woods, Apple Music. September 29, 2021.