In the opening scene of filmmaker Brandon Vedder’s documentary Strange Negotiations, as the buzzing bass of David Bazan’s song “Impermanent Record” pulses with grim resilience, we find ourselves seeing through a drone’s camera eye high in the air above a stretch of I-5, the freeway vertically bisecting the screen and vanishing at the top into a fog bank.

Those cars and trucks descending on the right, ascending on the left, might be angels on a rungless Jacob’s Ladder, silent as souls. Or they might be images of Protestant proposals about heaven and hell. But does this path lead to someplace heavenly? Those clouds are less than bright; they look more like a frontier of uncertainty, a place people go to get lost.

It’s an effective stage-setting for the drama that’s about to unfold. Strange Negotiations is about an artist we cannot discuss without bringing up the toxins that have poisoned evangelical Christianity in America. And before long, Vedder will slant those lines, giving us a sense of how this poet’s understanding of faith has tilted off of its axis.

If, during the last 25 years, you’ve lived in the world of rock, or, if you’ve lived in the world of Christian pop culture, you will already know the outline of this story: David Bazan became a rising rock star when he fronted Seattle’s beloved band Pedro the Lion in late ’90s and early 2000s, singing about Christian ideals, religious hypocrisy, and a yearning for an authentic faith. Then, he disbanded Pedro in 2006 and made a startling departure from the stage that this distinctive band had built, declaring that he didn’t believe in Christianity anymore. His belief, it seemed, had been broken by the relentless contradictions between what Christians profess and what they actually do. The Scriptural mantra “You will know them by their fruits” had led him, as it has led so many recent generations of young Americans, to the conclusion that the fruit of Christianity, at least in America, is rotten.

Since then, Bazan’s spent 15 years zigzagging around the country on solo tours, releasing solo records, and starting up collaborative side projects like Headphones and Lo Tom. Every step of the way he has borne the burden of those betrayals by people who had taught him that they believed in love. And ever since he left the name Pedro the Lion behind, the names on the covers of his albums and concert posters have seemed almost inconsequential. What has kept listeners — believers, agnostics, and atheists alike — coming back has been the ongoing saga of Bazan’s wrestling match with the angel of American evangelicalism, as well as his raw and rigorous self-examinations in verse. These conflicts are boldly and bravely expressed in his beleaguered baritone, one of the few voices that has ever raised the words Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and sounded worthy of the task. The main attraction has become more about a struggle than a sound, more about a man haunted by the Jesus he left behind than about hits or show business.

In this intimate portrait, Vedder puts us in the passenger seat of Bazan’s car on “the 137th day on the road in 2015,” as he drives around America performing shows in fans’ living rooms and engaging in emotional Q&A sessions about his beliefs, his family, and his “breakup with God.” His face is a compelling subject for the camera: a canvas fraught with anger, grief, regret, and longing. His rugged forehead is furrowed with world-weariness, his expression wounded and yet resilient, his eyes vigilant tot he road as if determined to find some exit toward relief.

As the scenery rolls past, he describes how the demands of this career have separated him from his family, his journey becoming a manifestation of that famous U2 refrain “I can’t live / with or without you.” “I’m on the road all of the time,” he says, his composure almost crumbling. “I recently realized I was gone two years and nine months of my son’s first five years on earth. Over half.”

Even more prominently, he gives voice to the challenges of navigating a darkening world after having thrown the imperfect compass of his Christianity out the window. “I want Christianity to get better,” he tells a crowded living room. “I want it to quit shittin’ the bed.” These monologues in the car and the exchanges with his fans are occasionally sewn together with montages of radio news and NPR stories about Bazan himself. Inevitably, he ends up berating the abominable marriage of evangelical leaders and Antichrist con man Donald Trump.

“Until the [2016] election,” Bazan eventually laments, “I was under the impression that the white American church was not a lost cause. I thought I saw it maturing and evolving…. But the fruit that showed up on the tree was, for me, very much the ‘cut the damn thing down and throw it in the fire’ kind of fruit. For everything Christians claim to believe, the election, I think, laid bare what they actually believe. They reliably work against the best virtues of their tradition. The people who taught me how to be a decent person are losing their minds.”

The prodigal troubadour also describes how his traveling road show became a journey of self-discovery and re-invention, his intimate performances for fans revealing that “vulnerability was the antidote for all of this anxiety and self-loathing.”

That vulnerability is what makes the film so fascinating. I was particularly delighted to see excerpts of Bazan’s onstage conversation with my friend David Dark, one of the most provocative conversationists I’ve ever met, and then doing an interview with another Christian author and musician whose insights I appreciate: Justin McRoberts. Bazan’s willingness to engage and embrace those who still believe and those who don’t in the very same living rooms is a model of behavior that few Christians I know could carry off so effortlessly.

I doubt that Strange Negotiations will unpack many surprises for Bazan’s fans, Christians or otherwise. He’s worn his broken heart on his lyric sheets so brazenly that his frankness has become his most familiar feature. I may have hoped for more historical background, more specifics on the influences that inspired Bazan’s doubts. I may have hoped for a greater focus on musicianship and performances of full songs. But the movie might lead his Christian fans and friends to reflect on how the power of love — or what I would call, more specifically, the True Holy Spirit — often speaks most powerfully through the music of those who have enough distance from the church that they can see it clearly and proclaim uncomfortable truths.

And lest I paint too grim a picture of this testimony of torment, let me assure you that you’ll find glimmers of hope breaking through those relentless Pacific Northwest rainclouds.

Watching the film a second time, I could not help but think about the disheartened men who away from the sight of Jesus’s death hanging their heads, despairing, believing that their Messiah has failed and that the bad guys have won. But when these men, their faith in shambles, nevertheless invite a stranger to dine with them, they realize suddenly that it is Jesus in their midst. They are blessed by his breaking of the bread, and the sequence is significant: He blesses their goodness and turns their simple meal into sacraments without requiring any apology or formal recommitment first. I feel that flash of recognition and restored hope when Bazan, at the end of the film, reaches for new terms to express his sense of a Grand Design: “What if the divine is just balance and harmony itself? In harmony… that’s where you experience transcendence.” It’s as if he is tasting salvation in a new vocabulary, having too much trauma associated with his first language.

Bazan finds the vocabulary of America’s churches too toxic to accept — that much is clear as he drives headlong into the fog of his uncertainties. (And, in view of how many professing Christians now openly endorse practices of cruelty, racism, misogyny, and child abuse, who can blame him?) But in his honesty and sacrifice, he reveals what a life touched by a true Gospel might look like. His open arms are a picture of Jesus’s own teachings, one more visceral and inspiring than many — if not most — celebritiy “testimonies.” I continue to admire him, and I am grateful for this intimate filmic portrait, which is as honest, as earnest, and as soul-searching as David Bazan himself.

[Full disclosure: While I wouldn’t call Bazan a “close friend,” it’s true that he lives a few minutes from me and we’ve had quite a few conversations in local coffeehouses. I’d been a fan of Pedro the Lion for years before that first encounter in a local cafe, where I had trouble containing my enthusiasm. (That beautiful Zu Cafe in Edmonds, Washington, has been closed for quite a while now.)  We would have several conversations in years to come in that space of gourmet espresso drinks and exquisite French pastries. The day he greeted me with an enormous grin and announced No Country for Old Men to be his new favorite film is an occasion I’ll never forget.]