Wednesday, December 16, 2009

There will be an encore

I've done some good, hard thinking about it over several months, but I don't think there's a single musical metaphor that could do Jesus Christ's crucifixion justice. I've already made self-consciously flimsy parallels between the Messiah suffocating to death on a cross and The Jesus Jam breaking up or being run out of town. But off the top of my head there are few, if any, instances in the history of music when a musician was actually murdered on account of the sheer, righteous outrageousness of their tunes. Maybe John Lennon, but that had less to do with any particular provocation on Lennon's part and more to do with Mark David Chapman's less-than-ideal mental state. Or perhaps R&B singer Jesse Belvin, whose life ended at 27 thanks to a Ku Klux Klan-aided car crash, but that had nothing to do with his music and everything to do with his skin color (unfortunately). For now, I will stick with the idea of The Jesus Jam being banned from ever playing in Jerusalem again, since such prohibitions have occurred commonly in response to artists who dared to push sonic boundaries or obliterate the rules altogether. The Jesus Jam definitely fell into the former category -- their rendition of "The Word" showcased rock & roll at its most powerfully basic, a foundation The Stereophonic Pharisees and Prog Rock Priests had seemingly forgotten when cloying listeners with their needlessly bloated epics.

But The Jesus Jam -- ever the punks -- violated this restraining order and played a handful of secret, unexpected shows in Jerusalem. It's hard to say exactly when and where these shows occurred (Mark, Matthew, Luke and John couldn't agree on all the details), but we do know the handful of fans who witnessed them were distraught at the idea of never seeing their favorite band play again. The Jesus Jam comforted them by playing a life-affirming set dominated by songs about The Holy Mojo, something their fans would need to get workin' if they ever hoped for their versions "The Word" to come anywhere near The Jesus Jam's performance chops and Awesome God's compositional skills. Almost as importantly, though, these secret shows are famous for a bit of stage banter in which The Jesus Jam's ingenious frontman promised their fans that the band would return for one final encore.

That encore is what we wait for to this day, and it's probably the hardest thing about being a Jesus Jam fan. For centuries upon centuries, numerous performers of "The Word" have tried to calculate when exactly this encore will take place, and every single one of those prophecies has passed by unfulfilled thus far. To this day, you can see some poorly trained musicians on street corners performing sloppy monstrosities of "The Word," carny barking their way through Holy Bible lyrics and encore predictions in the midst of something as relatively routine as a heavy thunderstorm. Of course, the thunderstorm eventually stops and all those performers are left with is a wet, short-circuited PA system. Some who, for the sake of this post, I will refer to as Christian Friend #1 recently said she sometimes wonders if The Jesus Jam frontman just promised an encore in order for all their fans to remain loyal in their physical absence -- regardless of whether or not that absence will actually be dispelled one day.

I'd be lying if I said I don't feel much the same way from time to time. I have no doubt in my mind that The Jesus Jam changed the lives of all who listened to them, and that they did play that handful of secret, uplifting shows after being banned from Jerusalem, but for them to come back for that last encore? After so many well-intentioned, supposedly well-researched predictions turned out wrong? After the world has infested itself with countless amounts and varieties of unlistenable noise, both literally and figuratively (that's right, CCM, I'm looking at you)? After so much suffering continues around the world, in the lives of people who don't deserve to perish but often do at the hands of power-mongers justifying their atrocities in the name of "God?" If our ears were ever in need of that glorious encore, now may be the time; if not, I can't bear to think about how much more discordant the world will become before The Jesus Jam finally feel the need to unload their gear down here and rock us into victory.

But in the end, do any of us as imperfect performers of "The Word" have any right to proclaim exactly when that encore will take place? Far too many Christians forget that when The Jesus Jam's fans asked the frontman when the encore would be, all he did was shrug his shoulders and say, "Your guess is as good as mine; you can try asking our Manager, but good luck getting a straight answer from Him." When he was asked the same question again at those secret shows nearly 2,000 years ago, the frontman informed those devoted few fans that The Jesus Jam had signed a contract forbidding them from spilling the beans on when they would play their encore -- that has always exclusively been the decision of Awesome God. And we as believers must come to grips with the fact that NOT KNOWING IS OK. If we were given a booklet of sheet music with which we could anticipate every nook and cranny of "The Word" once and for all, where's the fun (and the faith) in that? The Jesus Jam are not like most bands, who will play an encore simply because their fans are shouting in unison for them to play one.

The best encore I ever saw was in August 2003 at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe, Ariz. That night, alternative rockers Eels -- one of the most criminally underrated bands of the past 15 years -- made a stop in the Phoenix Valley on their Shootenanny! tour. The band played two encores, walked offstage and then the lights came back on, signaling for the roughly 200 attending Eel-heads to head home. My father, sister and I walked out of the theater proper into the lobby, marveling at how effortlessly they knocked out radically different versions of old favorites like "I Like Birds," "Last Stop: This Town" and even "Novocaine for the Soul." Then, suddenly, a cymbal crash and subsequent bluesy stomp erupted faintly from inside the theater. After exchanging some flabbergasted looks, we reentered the theater and sure enough, Eels had come back onstage to play yet another encore. They didn't bother turning the lights back off, and really, all they were playing was an instrumental cover of ZZ Top's "La Grange." But you could tell they were having a blast playing it, and all 30 or less of us who actually got the chance to witness this secret encore were thoroughly enjoying every note. If only for a few minutes, we felt like this band was truly ours.

That's what I believe The Jesus Jam's upcoming encore will be like -- totally unexpected, bathed in light and joyfully rewarding for the hardcore fans who stuck around to listen to it. In my ideal vision of this encore, The Jesus Jam's return sounds less like a seventh trumpet and more like the climax of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," at last silencing the world's most corrupt, hideous noise with an invincible power chord and triumphant "YEEEEEAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!" Upon making that grand entrance, our favorite band will offer the truly righteous rockers an all-expenses-paid trip to finally meet the Great Composer Himself at the Ultimate Temple. I don't doubt that He will laugh hysterically over all our precious arguments and finally give us the REAL answers for which versions of "The Word" are right and wrong, if He is even that discerning. The chosen righteous rockers will jam gloriously on "The Word" with none other than Awesome God conducting the whole thing. "The Word" in all its majesty will be the only song available for performing at the Ultimate Temple, but anyone who's ever zoned in on the Holy Mojo at its purest knows "The Word" is impossible to tire of.

Unfortunately, though, not everyone is on the guest list for this eternal jam session. It's impossible to say who is and who isn't, but I don't think it's that great of a stretch to imagine Awesome God frowning upon the unrighteous rockers who play everything except "The Word," simply listen to "The Word" without performing it or -- worst of all -- people who have completely forgone their instruments in favor of more "reasonable" professions or hobbies. The most unrepentant of these brayers and snorters will foreseeably not be invited to the Ultimate Temple at all. In fact, they may very well suffer a much crueler fate: Silent Separation. My most horrifying vision of this eternal banishment from Awesome God is far removed from any images of fire and brimstone. Rather, it entails a place where those who refused to perform or even listen to "The Word" are punished with total deafness. And there are no chances for these newly christened demons to become Ludwig Van Beethoven-type prodigies; those in Silent Separation have no hands or feet to play anything, no vocal cords to console themselves with a hymn, no mouth to conjure a tuneless squawk from a saxophone, not even eyes to see sine waves.

This may seem like a harsh image -- let alone fate for those who do not take their performances of "The Word" seriously -- but far too many Jesus Jam fans downplay the very real notion that not all of us will get to take part in that great jam session at the Ultimate Temple. Another person I will call Christian Friend #2 recently told me she doesn't believe in hell, and as far as I'm concerned that's the equivalent of reducing The Holy Bible to nothing but smiley-faced, Polyphonic Spree-style hippie prattle (or even worse, the simplistic, exclusively positivist sentiments of most contemporary worship music). You can't have the sweet without the sour, and we must accept the possibility that some of our dearest loved ones on this Earth may not get to experience that encore. Larry Norman put it best in what many consider his definitive track, "I Wish We'd All Been Ready": "A man and wife asleep in bed/She hears a noise and turns her head, he's gone/I wish we'd all been ready/Two men walking up a hill/One disappears and one's left standing still/I wish we'd all been ready/There's no time to change your mind/The Son has come and you've been left behind."

As a Lutheran, I'd like to think that baptism is our ticket to not being left behind, but I could be wrong. For all I know, some people I consider consummately un-Godly may be given first chairs in the Ultimate Temple's orchestra, and I may be one of those ne'er-do-wells condemned to Silent Separation. No one has any authority over that but Awesome God Himself, and don't ever let anyone definitively tell you otherwise. I say all this not just to instill some kind of fear into your heart (though I think that can be productive), but more so as a reminder to numerous believers who have seemingly forgotten that there will indeed be an encore, and if we have no faith in such an amazing comeback, we have no business being Jesus Jam fans at all.

That being said, Christian Friend #1 was correct in the sense that The Jesus Jam's frontman didn't promise an encore just to scare people into still listening to them after their supposed demise -- he said it to instill hope among their biggest fans that loyalty to The JJ will be rewarded, and that their favorite band's legacy must be kept alive by performing "The Word" in all its diversified glory for the whole world to hear. The Jesus Jam may have physically departed from this Earth, but aurally they are alive and well in the nourishing words, melodies and cadences of those who've really got the Holy Mojo workin'. And in the end, who cares about what grade we personally, ultimately receive on our performances of "The Word"? If that's our main impetus for playing it, we're missing the point; what's really music to Awesome God's ears is the selfless act of inspiring others to pick up instruments and join this beautiful symphony.

So to those of you who feel crushed or overwhelmed by this world's perpetual onslaught of apathy, injustice, skepticism or straight-up denunciation of the Great Composer, fear not -- to quote my friend and fabulous singer-songwriter Matt Beem, from his song "More Than Conquerors," "Pay no attention to the floods and the earthquakes/For you will be delivered on the wings of a dove/And on that day the darkness will be defeated/And we will have the last word." And to you brayers and snorters who are perpetuating any of that aforementioned onslaught, pay heed to Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around": "The hairs on your arm will stand up/At the terror in each sip and in each sup/Will you partake of that last offered cup?/Or disappear into the potter's ground/When the man comes around?"

And what exactly will we be doing when the man comes around? Whenever that time may be, we might as well live as if it's a daily possibility. Amen for the encore -- here's hoping I get to see you all there.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

There is no joy without noise

About a month or two ago, I spoke with one of my pastors about the figureheads of the Protestant Reformation, and we got into a brief but enlightening discussion about Martin Luther vs. John Calvin (I'm biased toward the former, in case I haven't made that obvious enough). But in that same breath my pastor mentioned someone who I'd never heard of before -- an odd, very Germanic-sounding name that started with an "s" or a "z." After doing a little research for my systematic theology class, I successfully pinpointed this seeming dark horse of the 16th-century revolt against Roman Catholicism's more corrupt, non-Biblical tendencies: Huldrych Zwingli.

A distinctively humanist Swiss pastor whose fight against the Catholic Church led to an untimely death, Zwingli is to Reformed churches what Calvin is to Presbyterians and what Luther is to ... well, Lutherans. In the literal handful of weeks that I've studied the guy at all, I've discovered that he stirred quite a bit of controversy over attacking the act of fasting during Lent (which, by the way, isn't anywhere in the Bible as a religious ritual). And though I've heard people give Luther the credit for originating this "heresy," it was actually Zwingli who first proposed that we do not eat and drink Jesus Christ's literal body and blood through the Eucharist -- rather, it is a weekly memorial of sorts for our Lord's death and resurrection until his final return. But for the sake of this post, I will focus on something Zwingli pioneered which I consider a quite abominable offense: Diminishing the role of music in worship.

A friend of mine told me Zwingli completely silenced all possibilities for joyful noise within his church services, but after doing some research I've come to discover that's not quite true. Zwingli himself was a musician but preferred to play in private (much like another one of my pastors, who once said playing any number of the stringed instruments he owns is how he copes with bad days), and he did allow for singing in his services. But even then, when it comes to Zwingli's version of liturgy, saying he hated music isn't too great of a stretch. His congregants sang rather infrequently within any given service, and when they did sing it was strictly based on the Psalms or other Biblical incantations, and completely a cappella. That's right -- no instruments whatsoever, because Zwingli considered timeless worship staples like the pipe organ nothing but self-perpetuating obstructions between churchgoers and Awesome God Himself. Zwingli's ideal version of "The Word" was a stripped-down choral rendition, to be sung exactly as it was recorded on The Holy Bible. Any variation whatsoever was deemed instant blasphemy. To really drive the point home, Zwingli also removed all visual art from the church, because he considered it a violation of the Second Commandment's warning against idolatry. And this whole time I thought Luther was a reductionist.

In my sweetest dream, I would like to think Zwingli's kick in worship music's knees wasn't felt by many outside the Reformed churches, but alas, this dream did not come true. Calvin considered Zwingli's opinions on music a little too extreme, but upon reading the Swiss Reformer's treatises, the French Reformer did diminish the role of instrumentalists within his own services, and even went so far as to dismiss musical instruments as mere toys which must be set aside as adulthood sets in; there you have it -- John Calvin was Christianity's first curmudgeon telling musicians to get "real jobs." Nowadays, the self-described Churches of Christ typically follow Zwingli's model, completely forgoing instrumentalists for the sake of communal, a cappella singing. And for consummately different reasons, the Quakers are very well-known (some would say notorious) for conducting some of their services in silence, only breaking it for the extremely infrequent hymn, sermon or moment of the Holy Spirit moving congregants to stand up and perform their own spontaneous version of "The Word."

I think Zwingli meant well, and as much as I hate to say it, I can understand where he was coming from. Much like pastoral ministry, there are too many people who play worship music for the wrong reasons, whether it's for a single church or a broader CCM market. They pick up their instruments and start playing "The Word" because they want to wow this newfound, tragically uncritical audience with their "mad skills" at whatever instrument they chose (and sometimes because they failed at impressing the secular music world and are now making a desperate bid for niche acceptance). In worst-but-very-real-case scenarios, these musical opportunists break the Seventh Commandment and take physical advantage of those people they wowed, but more often their listeners start to worship the performer rather than the Composer. At a house show I attended a few months ago and wrote about earlier in this here blog, my atheist friend and I watched a noise-punk band play in the middle of the living room; I thought they were amazing, but I knew my friend's fandom went a step too far when he leaned over and whispered, "I just found a new god." Similarly, Bob Dylan recently said that after veering from Judaism to Christianity and supposedly back to Judaism, he now adheres to no religion besides the classic hymns themselves. That's nice, Mr. Zimmerman, but I don't care how good the music is -- idolatry is still idolatry.

That being said, I think Zwingli was totally wrong in thinking any form of artistic expression whatsoever is not a valid means of experiencing our Awesome God. One thing I disagree with Luther on was his reactionist motto of "sola Scriptura" -- i.e. any explicit or implicit rendition of "The Word" you listen to cannot be legitimate unless it's already on The Holy Bible box set. I actually prefer Calvin's view that there's nothing wrong with listening to more obscure, esoteric, personally meaningful versions of said symphony, as long as we never listen to those non-canonical renditions INSTEAD of any on the aforementioned box set. Through all of our musical explorations, as performers and listeners, The Holy Bible must remain our frame of reference. And frankly, it's all fine and good to continually acknowledge The Holy Bible as the greatest album of all time (which it is), but it's nothing but another golden calf in comparison to "The Word" itself.

As far as I'm concerned, our triune God manifests Himself on this Earth in no form more beautiful than music. When I attend church, nothing else feels more Spiritual to me than that joyful noise -- not communion, not responsive readings, not even sermons. I experience God the most vividly when singing a hymn, or at least listening in humble bliss when I don't quite know the words or melody. I feel like I'm the most successful at uniting people with Christ when I'm leading or assisting with worship. Outside church, I've gone to fairly secular (or at least spiritually neutral) shows where the sounds battering or caressing my eardrums resonated with a transforming joy I don't think any Earthly source could have ever claimed responsibility for. There have been times when my triune God literally saved my life through music; if it wasn't for particular lyrics hitting me at particular times in the past, I'm pretty sure my bouts with depression would have declared victory and I wouldn't be writing to you right now. I don't care what anyone says about potential "misinterpretations" of what is and isn't divine -- "The Word" IS a symphony in which we all are musicians, whether or not we realize it, and Awesome God is the Great Composer to whom all music belongs.

With this in mind, we must also remember that music is not only a completely legitimate form of ministry, but an absolutely vital one. It's not just about giving experienced musicians room to show off their chops (in fact, it shouldn't be about that at all), nor is it just about giving novice musicians an avenue to improve their vocal or instrumental skills. It's above all about being co-Creators of our Awesome God's divine magnificence on this Earth, which is what we were called to do from the very beginning. I am well aware that musicians can and will not change the world with the same degree as, say, Christian activists, but even for them music is often a huge part of the equation. The Civil Rights Movement, for example, wouldn't have been what it was if a certain Methodist minister hadn't written "We Shall Overcome" (which we shall, someday). And therefore, we will be blessed for literally picking up an instrument and playing, arranging or even co-writing whatever version of "The Word" we deem appropriate for the world to hear.

Of course, since entering seminary, I've encountered more Zwinglis and Calvins than I ever really bargained for. When I told my former roommate I applied to study worship music and ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary, he simply shrugged and sarcastically wished me good luck on finding a full-time position where I'd be working with "real" musicians. Another friend of mine basically criticized me for going from one profession (journalism) into another that "doesn't pay anything," then proceeded to tell me I should have chosen a more lucrative discipline for my master's degree. One of my pastors expressed a subtle but noticeable hint of disappointment upon discovering I'm working toward a master's in arts and theology instead of a master of divinity. And quite hysterically, one classmate of mine -- in a moment of unabashed denouncement that would rival Karl Barth's most ornery moments -- indirectly told me Christianity is not about a bunch of self-centered hippies sitting in a circle and strumming guitars.

I see where that classmate is coming from, and I cringe at the "Kumbaya" notion of Christianity as much as ... well, anyone who knows anything about Christian stereotypes. But if any of the aforementioned offenders were ever seeking proof that music can be just as important to church as preaching, they should have been in my situation for the past five months. The music minister at the church I am presently, regularly serving was laid off in July, and with all due respect to the pastors who had to make that hard but necessary decision, the church has been suffering ever since. Myself and a few other volunteers are gladly stepping in to pick up the slack, but our combined experience just isn't up to par with what this guy brought to our congregation. Several musical veterans have ceased participation in various programs, and still others have either left the church completely or are threatening to. Still, by trying the best we can to fill his shoes, I've seen firsthand just how much the musical element of worship helps people along on their faith walk, and I thank the Great Composer for every single kind word I've ever received in this particular director's absence. Seeing that kind of impact is much more rewarding than any kind of fat paycheck could ever be.

Not to toot my own denomination's horn, but I equate these angels who experience God through music with the grandaddy of the Protestant Reformation himself: Martin Luther. Though the German Reformer admittedly questioned the use of pipe organ in church services (for very anti-Semitic reasons, since apparently the organ's use as a worship instrument has its roots in ancient synagogues), he inadvertently declared a mission statement for Christian music nerds like me in his foreword to Georg Rhau's Symphoniae iucundae: "I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy and costly treasure given to mankind by God ... In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts and spirits ... we marvel when we hear music in which one voice sings a simple melody, while three, four or five other voices play and trip lustily around the voice that sings its simple melody and adorn this simple melody wonderfully with artistic musical effects, thus reminding us of a heavenly dance, where all meet in a spirit of friendliness, caress and embrace. A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs."

Only our Awesome God can say how the afterlife is panning out for Zwingli, but I'd be lying if I said my inner vindictiveness doesn't hope it's rife with donkeys and pigs making their own, um, joyful noises (which he might actually prefer over church music). As for the rest of us, we will continue singing "Alleluia!" for this marvelous aural gift and the opportunity to share it with others. Thanks, Awesome God, for giving us Your amazing grace as a sound, and a sweet one at that.

Friday, December 4, 2009

How (not) to be Wu-Tang style

If any genre could rightfully be called the "devil's music," I was convinced in middle school and much of high school that that genre was hip-hop. And to me it wasn't just an opinion -- it was practically a Biblically stated fact that the apocalypse would be brought about by none other than this sorry, tuneless, self-aggrandizing excuse for music. I made a habit, if not a pure obsession, out of telling all my fellow students who listened to rap (which was almost everyone) what idiots they were and encouraging them to listen to bands with "integrity" like Blind Melon, Bush and Everclear. I even based whole school projects on the subject, and nearly got into trouble a few times over arguing why hip-hop had to be banished from the Earth as promptly as sin itself. Man, was I annoying.

That was then and this is now, though, and with the help of numerous educational sources (primarily a history of rock & roll class at Chandler-Gilbert Community College), I came to realize that rapping, DJing, sampling, breakdancing, etc. are not only veritable art forms in their own right, but the basis for an entire culture that cannot and must not be dismissed. Though I still only physically own one hip-hop record -- Madvillain's surreal underground masterpiece Madvillainy -- I have taken it upon myself to give most critically acclaimed rap at least one very open-minded listen. I have rarely been disappointed since, and now can acknowledge why people I used to despise like Dr. Dre, The Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z and even Eminem were and are so popular, not to mention placeholders on various Pitchfork "best of" lists.

When curiously flipping through The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide to the Greatest Songs from Punk to the Present (and yes, I'm admitting to visiting that shamelessly elitist online hype-monger on a regular basis, even though I adamantly disagree with some of their tastes), I read a blurb on Wu-Tang Clan's "Protect Ya Neck" from 1993's Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). I was unfamiliar with most of Wu-Tang's material before reading this, and I was intrigued by the author's vivid description of their loping beats, hazy samples, offhandedly violent imagery, sick sense of humor and myriad MC tradeoffs. But then it mentioned something that still irks me to no end: Apparently RZA, the collective's commander-in-chief, has elevated the Wu-Tang style into its own psuedo-religious philosophy. RZA has explained that Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) -- often considered one of hip-hop's landmark records -- was as inspired by Islam and Eastern thought as it was by comic books, kung fu film fighting scenes and the austere conditions of New York City ghetto life. And though I admittedly have yet to read either book, he also evidently explains in The Wu-Tang Manual and The Tao of Wu that the Wu-Tang way of thinking is more or less a combination of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.

I would be lying if I said I didn't grimace and shake my head immediately upon reading this, not least of all because I am staunchly opposed to the idea of religious amalgamation. However well-intentioned it may or may not be, you can't simply harmonize conflicting religions because ... well ... it's IMPOSSIBLE to do successfully, unless you omit certain parts from whatever religions you are trying to combine. There is a reason that the four canonical Gospels were never melded into one -- there are some scenes that directly conflict with each other, and who is to say which review of the Jesus Jam's got those details exactly right? Not Constantine, not the church, not anyone. Until the time machine is invented (which I hope never actually happens, because then we would have no reason for faith or God's mystery), we will never know whether the Jesus Jam caused a riot in the Temple in the middle or at the beginning of their tour of the Mediterranean, or whether their rockin' tunes opened the eyes of one blind listener or two.

I'm not an expert on Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism or even Islam by any means, but I'm pretty sure the developers of each one wanted its followers to adhere to ONE religion. A person I will call Friend #1 made a comment several years ago about how all Eastern religions are basically the same, and two other people who will go by Friend #2 and Friend #3 told me afterward how offended they were by Friend #1's poorly educated remark. Friend #3 -- who has a degree in religious studies -- mentioned that if all Eastern religions are the same, why on Earth did they engage in holy wars? I am curious to read RZA's books just to see what he takes and leaves out from each conflicting faith to create his own philosophy. Based on listening to the gritty, unsettling and sometimes quite heartbreaking narratives on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and The W, the Wu-Tang style of life doesn't sound terribly affirming or rewarding.

Half-joking aside, I would like to note in the midst of this argument that I am not against learning about other religions outside Christianity; in fact, I believe doing so is essential, not just for Christians but all people religious and nonreligious. But in the end it must stop at LEARNING, so that whoever is learning about whatever religion they are studying can make an informed judgement about its pros and cons. If one decides to convert to a different faith in the process of learning about it, to each their own, but you can't be just slightly obedient to one faith because you want to make room in your heart for slight obedience to another. From what I know about RZA's books and sources of inspiration, he doesn't seem to have a firm grasp on the true meaning of religious equality. Mohandas Gandhi may have famously advocated for such equality, but at the end of the day he was still a lifelong Hindu. All that term means is that we are in a perpetual state of agreeing to disagree -- we're not going to kill or oppress each other over our differences anymore, but if our beliefs are criticized we will stand up and defend them proudly.

Going to Fuller Theological Seminary -- the largest multi-denominational seminary in the world -- I have realized the value of agreeing to disagree more vividly than ever before. I argued with a classmate over whether or not convicted felons deserve a second chance at functioning respectably in society. But on the last day of class, he unexpectedly came to me personally and said how nice it was to meet me. I often butted heads with a more orthodox Christian than myself in a recent class, once to the point where the guy basically belittled me for being young and therefore full of "postmodern psychobabble." I was livid at first, but ultimately had some very pleasant, enlightening and loving conversations with him during our breaks from lectures. I got into a long, heated Facebook debate with a seminary buddy of mine over one of my previous blog posts, arguing back and forth over whether or not homosexuality is a sin (which I've come to the conclusion it isn't). But the next time I saw him, I ignored the knots in my stomach, sat next to him at lunch and was delighted to hear that he enjoyed the discussion as much as I did. All urges to protect my neck vanished in a heartbeat.

As one of my professors recently said, the worst arguers are ones who call the opposing side an idiot. There are certain religions and Christian denominations I disagree with -- sometimes quite vehemently -- and though I sometimes get into modes when I would love to just banish or ignore them all, I understand there's a lot you can learn from those who are not like you. And ultimately, just because someone is not like you does not mean they are less deserving of human dignity. Even in our evangelistic efforts as Christians, we ought to respect or at least remember the fact that what works for us may not work for everyone.

Although I take issue with RZA's thoughts on philosophy, I think Wu-Tang Clan as a unit actually stand as a decent model for ecumenism. At the time Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was released, the collective had no less than nine MCs. I've never been fortunate enough to witness a street rap battle, but I can imagine it's not too dissimilar from listening to this record -- the MCs take turns with their verses, each one bringing their own unique style to the often intense mix. Ghostface Killah practically screams in a high-pitched yelp like someone's holding a pistol to his head. Raekwon the Chef sneers nonchalantly like he and his crew are about to smoke your behind in a blaze of gunfire. Method Man distinctively wheezes when taking breaths amidst his near-tuneful rhyming. Inspector Deck articulately proclaims every syllable like a newscaster announcing the apocalypse. The GZA plays it the coolest out of them all like a sardonic late-night disc jockey. The RZA shouts angrily like he's about to finish you with a single, fatal kung fu move. U-God and Masta Killa's appearances are scant throughout the record, but their respective menacing growl and preacher-style bellow are highly memorable. And Ol' Dirty Bastard ... well ... he sounded a lot like his namesake, mumbling semi-comprehensibly like he was wasted on the floor (which probably wasn't too far from the truth); may he rest in peace.

In addition, I think the music itself on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) reinforces the idea of the Clan as a good ecumenical model. The RZA had a very strange, innovative and massively influential approach to assembling beats. It's almost like he put them together as a low-resolution afterthought to the raps. Muted mid-tempo drum loops, overdriven bass, dissonant piano and organ motifs, kung fu film samples and a number of other ghastly noises are assembled haphazardly on what sounds like 20-year-old turntables, without any real regard for whether it was all rhythmically synced or even in the same key. It really shouldn't have worked but ... somehow ... it does. In fact, one could argue the music is beautiful because of the mess, not in spite of it.

Such a principle could apply to what humanity is in this day and age, when religious pluralism is all the rage. Society at large has taken a relativist approach to the divine, seeing every individual religion as a self-contained truth. But I disagree with this -- as the black liberation theologian James Cone once said, all religions are fundamentally searching for the same kind of meaning, just going about very different ways of doing so. Our rhythms may not pound in tandem with each other, and we are certainly not all playing in the same key, but at least we can all agree on a love for music. And in this increasingly secularized culture, perhaps we should sing a quiet ditty of praise whenever people still bother to worship some kind of higher power at all.

Still, just because our tunes don't exactly match up doesn't mean we should edit "The Word" to accommodate for every other composition in existence. So RZA, please take note: Amalgamation is not the same thing as equality. And to those who listen to and/or perform a single divinely written piece because you felt called to do so, keep doing what you're doing. Just know that if your favorite composer is challenged, be sure to bring the ruckus with the equivalent of a rap battle and not a drive-by shooting. There is a place on this Earth for every sound, even hip-hop.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Jesus never looked like Peter Frampton

In preparing for this particular blog post, I bit the bullet, went to and listened to Peter Frampton's interminable Frampton Comes Alive! At the tender age of 25, I was obviously not around to witness this album top the Billboard 200 album charts for something like 10 jillion years, or see any videos of Frampton sucking on the microphonic component of that talk-box guitar effect he popularized (which is unfortunate, since the talk-box is possibly the worst thing to happen in the history of guitar effects -- if you need further proof, look to Bon Jovi's Richie Sambora). But I had obviously heard the mega-hits "Show Me the Way" and "Baby I Love Your Way" ad nauseam on our lite-rock radio station when I worked as a journalist for nearly three years, and needless to say, Frampton Comes Alive! is just about what I'd expected it to be: Expertly performed but utterly toothless, painfully unmemorable guitar-rock interspersed with Frampton's moronic stage banter about how this particular number is a "rocker" and that other one is "a bit funky." Hmmm, good to know ... still all sounds like crap to me.

But for the sake of this post, I want to focus on the album cover: A nearly iconic (OK, maybe just notorious) photo of Frampton himself, the neck of his Gibson Les Paul and two bright lights behind him playing second fiddle to his pasty white complexion, golden locks, seemingly stoned gaze and failure to button his shirt. I am drawn to this image because it bears a striking resemblance to most popular depictions of Jesus Christ our Lord. If that doesn't piss you off, it should.

It seems that somewhere down the line, people have forgotten or simply refuse to acknowledge that Jesus was Jewish by ancestry. With this in mind, it is very likely the Messiah had fairly dark skin, dark hair and brown eyes. He may have fulfilled the Jewish stereotype of possessing a relatively lengthy nose, and was probably about average height if not shorter (which had as much to do with people's general stature in the first century A.D. as the Jews' common physical traits). In addition, he probably rarely washed his clothes or cut his fingernails, and let's not even get started on whether or not the man even brushed his teeth. Ew. Our Awesome God's "spitting image" may have turned out to be a fairly nasty sight, and frankly, I'm totally comfortable with that. The Messiah is still the Messiah, whether or not he was much to look at.

Of course, an innumerable amount of medieval artists got all antsy about this notion and had to go and screw everything up. It's because of them (probably with the encouragement of more than a few northern European churches) that we now have the Nordic, Peter Frampton lookalike Jesus: Blonde, blue-eyed, tall, cleanly and so white we gotta wear shades just to look at any of these erroneous paintings. It seems that these Christians overlooked the Scriptural fact that God visited Earth in human form to save ONE people -- the Israelites, Awesome God's chosen noisemakers. Throughout The Holy Bible's four aural reviews of The Jesus Jam's tour throughout the Mediterranean, journalists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John make note of numerous lyrics that explain how the Jews have to hear the good tunes first, and none of this music will even apply to the Gentiles (i.e. everyone who isn't Jewish) until after The Jesus Jam, um, get run out of town. In other words, it's because of The Jesus Jam that European mutts like me are even allowed to join Awesome God's symphony.

But these stupid medieval artists just couldn't stomach that theological fact, portraying Jesus as an unmistakable Gentile and thereby setting in motion the still-prevalent image of Jesus as a white guy. There have been some notable exceptions, such as the Aramaic-speaking, very Jewish-looking Jesus in The Passion of the Christ (ironically portrayed by the U.S.-born James Caviezel), but in my experience most portrayals of Jesus still look like that from the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar, in which a blonde, pearly white Jesus plays opposite a black Judas -- and here we are almost unanimously calling Song of the South racist! To be fair, though, northern European white folks aren't the only ones who have seemingly tried to "rescue" Jesus from his Palestinian heritage. Numerous African artists have recast the Son of God as a black man, and I wouldn't be surprised if numerous Asian or Latin American artists have committed similar historical revisions. Heck, if someone asked me to paint a picture of the Jesus Jam, who knows if I wouldn't be tempted to portray them as a ragtag bunch of awkward, bespectacled nerds like myself?

Besides being historically inaccurate, though, I think these attempts to portray Jesus as anything but Jewish has only helped to further feelings of anti-Semitism among Christians. Anti-Semitism certainly didn't originate with all of this misleading medieval art, and its roots in Christianity can be arguably traced back to The Holy Bible itself. For example, Matthew's review of The Jesus Jam's seminal tour was probably written by a Jew but didn't do much to help the Jews' image, particularly because Matthew routinely, shamelessly bashed the Stereophonic Pharisees and did a disturbingly good job of depicting the Jewish crowd that advocated for The Jesus Jam to pack up their instruments and never play in their neck of the woods again, so to speak. Since then, general tension between Jews and Christians increased over the following centuries, and it all culminated -- to put it politely -- with the Holocaust, during which at least one German bishop went through The Holy Bible and omitted any lyrics that linked The Jesus Jam back to their Jewish origins.

I hear about stories like this and I just want to cry. Especially as a Lutheran, it was depressing for me to not only learn that Martin Luther published treatises like On the Jews and Their Lies, but that such hateful sentiments were common in Europe during the 16th century. And it's even more distressing to see devout Christians like Mel Gibson and Rev. Jeremiah Wright still generate 15-minute media fodder with ill-advised anti-Semitic comments. If Christians continue to do this, all we amount to in my mind are teenagers badmouthing our parents just because we arbitrarily can't bear the thought of being associated with our roots -- we're rebelling against our religious ancestors just because we can.

And yes, folks, the Jews are our religious ancestors; if it wasn't for Judaism, Christianity wouldn't exist. Far too many Christians still commit one of the greatest heresies possible by only listening to the second, "newer" part of The Holy Bible box set, because they think the tunes contained in that portion are the only ones that apply to Christian listeners. The songs in the first, "older" section are often deemed too lengthy and challenging for Christians to listen to comfortably, especially those verses that mention circumcision, food laws, burnt offerings and holidays we never even observe. And while it is true some sections of The Holy Bible's "older" part aren't directly incorporated into most Christian renditions of "The Word," it is still necessary for us to listen to in order for the compilation's "newer" part to make sense. It isn't a matter of choosing between one section or the other -- they represent two distinct but complementary phases in Awesome God's ongoing musical career, and like any superb "greatest hits" collection, the compilers intended for Christians to listen actively to every song contained therein. It's called the Judeo-Christian tradition for a reason; "their" history is part of "our" history, too.

Several months ago, I heard one of my friends say that the only difference between Jews and Christians is whether or not one believes The Jesus Jam's rendition of "The Word" was the best that ever was and ever will be. And fundamentally, that's it -- according to most Jews, Go Down Moses' version of Awesome God's symphony still stands as the best. In that aforementioned "older" section of The Holy Bible, there are lyrical clues that the Israelites were expecting some revolutionary rocker to come blaring a version of "The Word" that would save them from the unbearably awful sounds that had polluted their once-mellifluous world. Some Jews thought The Jesus Jam instigated that revolution, and consequently those Jews became Christians. Other Jews think the revolution has yet to take place, and considered The Jesus Jam nothing more than a bunch of overrated opportunists who deserved to get run out of town. To put it another way, Jews think The Jesus Jam were The Sex Pistols, while Christians think they were The Clash.

Obviously, this fundamental disagreement is pretty huge, and probably provides more than enough justification for Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity to eventually split into two different religions after The Jesus Jam's demise on this Earth. But I see no reason that we can't agree to disagree -- at the end of the day, we still believe that "The Word" is the greatest piece of music ever written, regardless of who played it the best. Failing to treat someone with dignity simply because they possess different religious beliefs than you is like refusing to be someone's friend just because they listen to music you despise. It ultimately comes down to personal preference, and I would hope we can freely, respectfully express our differences in opinion without wanting to wring each other's necks. After we die, I guess we'll see which of us was "right," if there's even a "right" religion at all.

More importantly, though, we've treated our ancestors poorly enough throughout history that I think we owe them an apology of sorts. So, to all my Jewish friends who may or may not be reading this, we Christians are sorry you as a people got blamed for running The Jesus Jam out of town when, in reality, we Gentiles would have been down there shouting "Crucify him!" with you. We're sorry Martin Luther said so many horrible things about you after he had a stroke. We're sorry people like Mel Gibson, Rev. Jeremiah Wright and a whole bunch of other Christians I can't think of right now still say pretty nasty things about you. While we're not directly responsible for the Holocaust (Adolf Hitler actually denounced Christianity as the invention of a Jew), humanity in general should be sorry for allowing six million-plus to die, more or less behind our backs. And of course, we're sorry it's gotten to the point where some people still think Jesus looked like Peter Frampton.

And really, fellow Jesus Jam fans, we should be ashamed of ourselves for letting it get to that point, too. I mean, Peter Frampton? To quote High Fidelity, PETER EFFING FRAMPTON!!?!!?!??? One of the most embarrassingly cheesy musicians in the history of rock & roll? Come on now, Jesus always has and always will deserve a better likeness than that.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Holy Bible: A lesson in history

The first real-life "big time" journalism gig I ever got was writing music reviews for "alt.," a short-lived section of The Arizona Republic written for and by teenagers. As a high school senior, I was super-excited to finally get a chance early on to do what I love the most and get paid for it -- and hey, when you're 17 to 18 years old, getting a $50 paycheck every other month is a pretty smokin' deal (maybe not so much anymore with that darned inflation thing). But what turned out to be even more rewarding for me in the short term was hanging out with other young wordsmiths who actually listened to a lot of the same music I do. You have no idea how deliriously exciting it was to finally discuss the pros and cons of Radiohead's Amnesiac with more than one or two people. Then again, if you're a 25-year-old music nerd like myself, maybe you do understand my nostalgia for that pre-iTunes sense of childlike wonder from way back in 2001. If so, holla back, geeks.

But as fondly as I remember those days, there is something someone said that still haunts me like a ghost with 100,000 bones to pick. We were at a "company picnic" (i.e. let's make the kids feel appreciated to soften the blow of their page's inevitable demise!) and somehow Green Day got brought up in conversation. The discussion was going just fine until one person called Green Day the first punk band -- ever. Like, EVER EVER. To say I couldn't believe my ears would be a gross understatement. Here was this girl who completely overshot the whole existence of originators like The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Clash, not to mention progenitors like The Velvet Underground, The Stooges and Patti Smith and progeny like Joy Division, Elvis Costello and Black Flag. No, apparently 1976 was not the year the term "punk" was born; it all culminated in 1994 when three young dudes from Berkeley, Calif. took a legitimately punk sound and applied it to relatively inoffensive but maddeningly catchy pop songs on an album called Dookie. Give me a break. This was beyond ignorance -- it was flat-out naivete, which is arguably even more depressing.

But I would be hard-pressed to tell you I've not heard such obliviousness to musical history in less shocking forms since then. I hate it whenever I hear supposed music nerds extol the complex musicianship of progressive rock but totally decry the primitive thrills of 1950s rock & roll. Or when contemporary nu-metal heads proudly bear the Slipknot logo on their shirts and backpacks but grimace in underwhelmed disgust at the comparatively less heavy rock of Led Zeppelin or AC/DC. Or when people listen to avant-garde classical, free jazz or the farthest-out-there experimental rock and dismiss it as nothing but talentless "noise." Or when people describe Nirvana as the band that invented alternative rock or grunge. Or when some teenager points his or her chin in the air, trying desperately to appear condescending as they commit pop music's greatest blasphemy: "The Beatles were overrated."

Granted, I'm biased against these ignoramuses because unlike me, their childhood (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, adulthood) probably didn't involve a constant, willing quest for musical knowledge at the expense of a social life and other hobbies that tend to get you farther in the middle school/high school popularity contest. But honestly, people, I don't think it takes a nerd, scholar or even a particularly smart person to do just a little research and understand the essentials of musical history. Yes, progressive rock's sophistication is cribbed from various strains of classical and jazz, but classical or jazz is all it would be if it did not adopt its backbeat, instrumentation and singalong melodies from basic rock & roll. Yes, Slipknot was arguably as heavy as metal got when they debuted in 1999, but one cannot use that as an excuse to dismiss the sheer oomph of Jimmy Page or Angus Young's riffs that may or may not have aged particularly well. Yes, avant-garde classical, free jazz and experimental rock are challenging to listen to, but that's precisely the point -- and it's extremely likely their bizarre sonic excursions were direct reactions to a barrage of mind-numbingly tame ones. Yes, Nirvana popularized alternative rock and grunge like no other band before them, but they didn't invent either genre by a long shot; just ask R.E.M. or Green River, to name only two predecessors. Yes, The Beatles are the most popular and influential pop band of all time, but they are routinely listed in the upper echelon of Top 10 lists for a reason, grasshopper.

As I am progressing through my studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, I am starting to realize how many people I know (or at least know of) who listen to The Holy Bible -- the greatest album of all time -- with the same level of naivete. I've heard horror stories about people who assume this most wholly holy of records is not a box set, but a single LP on which each tune was written by the same composer. I've learned about other hair-raising moments when self-described fans talk about The Isaiah Playas and The Jesus Jam like they existed simultaneously and were playing shows together. I've heard people flat-out dismiss the whole album because some of its tunes happen to say some not-too-flattering things about women, homosexuality and sometimes entire ethnicities and nationalities; none of that even accounts for its lyrical references to righteous warfare or rampant animal sacrifice. But more than anything, I've heard far too many people claim that The Holy Bible is the absolutely infallible, historically and culturally universal, note-for-note transcription of "The Word" -- and may Awesome God smite thee who dares to claim any of its 66 to 73 variations on this theme contradict each other. These diehard, truly sheep-like fans have no idea nor do they seem to really care to learn about the 1,000-plus years of time and effort that went into crafting each track on this compilation. Some people just want to perform the music as it's written without thinking about it, assuming that the mere fact they want to perform it at all will be more than enough.

I recently learned that this sort of blind, fundamentalist allegiance to The Holy Bible is what some call "folk theology." It's basically the assumption that since this album is the greatest album of all time -- which it is, sour notes and all -- it therefore cannot be analyzed critically. You must simply play it verbatim and passionately scold listeners who speak up whenever one version of "The Word" seemingly stands in direct contrast with another version, or listeners who try to explain that a few parts of The Holy Bible's tunes don't sound all that good today. What is arguably an even greater travesty is that these folk theologians usually play these tunes in only one style: Quick, peppy and with disturbingly wide smiles. Even the harshest, dreariest and most legalistic lyrics sound like happy-clappy songs of praise coming from these self-deceiving experts. Any Christian with a functioning brain would be well-advised to stay away from any version of "The Word" that contains even one exhortation of "JAAAAAYYYYSUUUUHHHSSSSSSS!!!!!!"

But these folk theologians straight-up ignore something I think gives the Judeo-Christian tradition a leg up over other supposedly inscrutable faiths such as Islam or Mormonism: We are actually willing to go back and investigate the history behind The Holy Bible. And if we want to truly understand every sound made on this box set, we need to think about history. So many Christians are afraid to do that because then The Holy Bible transforms from a divinely composed, feel-good devotional treatise to what it was meant to be all along -- a centuries-old compilation of versions of "The Word" that were deemed the most authoritative and normative for Christian listeners by a record executive named Constantine. None of this historical investigation is meant to ultimately debunk any of The Holy Bible's tunes (although some agnostic listeners would like to think that's the case); it is merely an effort to put each song within its original context. And wouldn't you agree that music tends to make more sense once you realize why it was written, or at least acknowledged as relevant and influential?

Ever wonder why the first two verses of The Holy Bible's epic opener, "Genesis," explain two seemingly conflicting stories of humanity's creation? That's because the second verse about Adam and Eve was most likely written when Kool King David or Songster Solomon were at their peak, while the first "let there be light" verse was probably added later by a punk rock priest as a direct protest to the Babylonians' overlong polytheistic suites. Ever wonder why that often boring, sometimes antiquated tune "Leviticus" is still included in its grisly, unedited form on every reissue of The Holy Bible? Because without it there would be no basis for the Psalms, "Acts of the Apostles" or the four aural reviews of the Jesus Jam written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Ever wonder why "The Greatest Tour of All Time, According to John" is so different from Matthew, Mark and Luke's reviews? That's because John mainly wrote about The Jesus Jam's controversial gigs in Jerusalem, whereas the other three journalists focused primarily on performances in Galilee. (This also goes a long way in explaining why John's review is sometimes erroneously accused of anti-Semitism.) Ever wonder why The Jesus Jam kept calling themselves "Sons of Man" while their most devoted listeners kept calling them "Sons of God" or the Messiah? Go back several tunes and listen to "Daniel" -- particularly the seventh verse, in which the "beasts" of four different Mediterranean empires are slain or dethroned -- to get a clue. And to all you super-duper-liberal fans of Awesome God, ever wonder why The Holy Bible contains all those lyrical mentions of female oppression, homosexual condemnation, holy warfare, animal slaughter and all kinds of ethnic prejudice? Because these tunes were written two to three millennia ago in a time and place when those things were common; it is culturally ignorant to keep the bath water but culturally arrogant to throw the baby out, too.

Just a few nights ago I gave an homily on Habakkuk at University Lutheran Church in Tempe, Ariz. I focused primarily on the fact Habakkuk -- one of The Holy Bible's minor prophets -- starts out as an angry rant toward a seemingly oblivious God but in a few brief chapters mutates into a song of unabashed, throat-lump-inducing praise in the midst of tragedy. But I didn't delve into this before informing the congregants about the Chaldean Dynasty's destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the Jews' subsequent exile, and how Iran's Cultural Heritage Organization reports that Habakkuk was captured and imprisoned by the Babylonians. Assuming that Habakkuk wrote his little section in The Holy Bible from a jail cell (which is likely but not really provable based on available evidence), his frustration with God was that much more understandable, and his ultimate unwavering faith in God that much more powerful. An agnostic friend of mine who came and supported me said he loved the historical context of my homily, which was not only kind and encouraging of him, but further cemented in my mind that historical and cultural context MUST be considered when one is performing The Holy Bible's variations on "The Word" in any capacity. No one can listen to this music with complete objectivity, and I think everyone has a tendency to take a few pleasing notes here and there and use them to support their own agendas to some degree, but that's not an appropriate way to perform anything off this box set.

That being said, one must be careful with what I've recently come to know as "academic theology." It's easy to set aside one's spectacles of faith when thinking critically about The Holy Bible; some people get so wrapped up in analyzing these important contexts that they forget why they enjoyed this music in the first place. To put it another way, it's the difference between being a musician inspired to play along with the records they love the most and being a music critic who may not even like the records they're reviewing. I've often heard theologians describe seminary as the place where Christian faith goes to die, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a few moments when my spiritual boat was rocked so hard I thought about jumping ship. But the ones who make it through all this minutia and academia eventually, theoretically reach what is called "second naivete," in which your faith is as strong as ever -- if not stronger -- and your academic knowledge is maintained through prayer, fellowship and listening to the aforementioned greatest album of all time on a regular basis. The record-making process may now be completely demystified, but the tunes themselves still sound as rockin' as ever.

I am nowhere near "academic" level yet. What I'm offering to you in this here blog is what I've heard described as "lay theology." My ministry resume is relatively limited compared to actual pastors, seminary graduates and people who have otherwise been in seminary for more than five months. And to tell you the bitterly painful truth, I still have yet to listen to The Holy Bible in its entirety. So occasionally I do make unfounded assumptions about it, hopefully to the immediate chagrin of those who know better -- I once said in my leadership and diversity class that the term "Christian" does not actually appear in any of The Holy Bible's lyrics, only to be rightfully corrected by two of my fellow classmates (to both of whom I'm very grateful). Still, my boat of knowledge has been rocked time and time again in this past five months, only to float back up to a significantly higher level than it ever was before. And since we are called by Awesome God to recruit musicians from all nations, I figured why not start the process now? I would like to think I know enough about the good news to share at least some of it with you; still, if you see any gaps in my knowledge of The Holy Bible, please keep the Ninth Commandment and let me know ASAP.

I guess the ultimate point I wanted to make with this post is though all believers have a long way to go in their faith journey -- seminarians or not -- it shouldn't take a rocket scientist or even a master of divinity to be able to consider The Holy Bible's historical and cultural influences and relevance. Doing so is not just vital for our own knowledge, but also helpful for us to be taken seriously by others who have never considered the value of "The Word" before. If we stay stubbornly true to folk theology, all we will ever sound like to unbelievers are naive listeners who really think Green Day was the first punk band. Consider The Jesus Jam's iconic refrain, as documented in the Synoptic Reviews: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." As one of my professors eloquently put it, this is not a multiple choice question. Loving our Awesome God with heart and soul is all fine and good, but it's all for naught if we forget our minds.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Homosexuality: The Jesus Christ Superstar of its time

I am of the opinion that every man and woman who is honest with themselves has a celebrity man or woman crush, respectively. This is not to say that every heterosexual man and woman has fantasized about, um, "knowing" another person of the same sex (although I know people who would attest to such fantasies without batting an eye). All it may mean is that there at least one famous person you acknowledge as attractive, despite the fact they have the same kind of private parts as you. Mine is Seth Green -- it was uncomfortable, "is this really happening?" lust at first sight when I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer in middle school and saw his geeky, boyish, non-werewolf likeness grace the screen. Oh, Oz, I ... well ... I don't really know what this feeling is. But I can at least understand why some girls think you're cute.

When I'm hanging out with friends and/or acquaintances, as an icebreaker I sometimes like to ask people which celebrity is the object of their man or woman crush. I did this at a friend's birthday party a few weeks ago, and the question was mostly well-received and hilariously answered by the 10-ish people that were there. It's a good way to get to know a person, as well as a quick, easy way to determine just how comfortable a person is with their sexual orientation. Some people answer the question instantly, like they've been waiting their entire lives for someone to ask them, while others fumble through stuttered gibberish and flabbergasted expressions before finally, sheepishly spilling the beans. So I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised when the question got around to one guy and he offered this reply, with a look on his face like humor is the eighth deadly sin: "If I were gay, I'd be celibate."

Wow. Point taken. To each their own, I suppose, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't shaking my head and snickering on the inside (and maybe a little on the outside, too). I was also incredibly depressed by his curt, judgmental response, because it clearly illustrated to me how much farther we have to go before the Big Controversial Topic of homosexuality can be at least discussed comfortably by some Christians. And trust me, if the Christian church hopes to survive, we MUST engage in that conversation. The whole "Don't ask, don't tell" attitude isn't going to cut it in the long run. Our society's acceptance of homosexuality is increasing by leaps and bounds, and whether you think that's a good or a bad thing, it's not something that can be ignored any longer.

I personally think it's a great thing. I'm not typically one for denominational pride, but I don't think I was the only proud Lutheran whose heart swelled with joy upon hearing the news in August this year. That month, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America narrowly passed a resolution allowing for homosexual clergy to engage in extramarital monogamous relationships. If an ELCA church decides to adopt this resolution (which they still have the option not to), the homosexual pastor there is no longer bound by vows of celibacy. Of course, this does not grant the pastor permission to sleep around -- to which I say thank goodness -- but it allows them to engage in an intimate physical relationship with one special someone if they so chose to. Frankly, it's not the LGBT community's fault they can't get married in most states, and until the fundamentalist conservative lawmakers who routinely prevent it from happening either change their minds or pass away, this resolution will have to do.

Of course, not every Lutheran feels this way. I've heard about numerous pastors who are outraged by this resolution, some so much so that they're leaving the ELCA. Many other churchgoers are abandoning the denomination for more conservative worship alternatives. And to top it all off, this resolution comes on the coattails of the emerging Reconciling in Christ movement, which advocates for churches to openly, explicitly welcome members regardless of sexual orientation, and has caused considerable controversy at two churches I'm involved with. The ELCA seems to be losing members left and right -- all we wanted to do was be a little more open-minded.

But I have a distinct feeling our open-mindedness toward homosexuality will be rewarded over the next several decades. A friend of mine who also rejoiced over the ELCA's recent decision pointed out that other denominations that made similar decisions -- namely the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ -- have more or less recovered from their initial drop in numbers. But ultimately, numbers are not what it's about. In a world where idiots like Fred Phelps grab all the headlines for propagating God's supposed hatred of homosexuals (I don't dare use that other "f" word Phelps loves so much), the LGBT community needs to know they are welcome in the church. And though I can't say I know a single church that turns homosexuals away from their services, a warm welcome is nothing if it's not accompanied by loving affirmation. Every LGBT person is a child of God, too, and they ought to be reminded of that, if not told for the first time ever.

To put it another way, I think social acceptance of homosexuality is the Jesus Christ Superstar of its time. Debuted in 1971, Jesus Christ Superstar is a musical theater adaptation of the canonical Gospels, beginning with Judas' anxiety over the "buzz" surrounding Jesus and ending with the Messiah's crucifixion. Doing some research for this blog post, I became pleasantly reminded just how awesome this Andrew Lloyd Webber-penned production is. I nodded my head in 5/4 time and wished the female vocalists singing on "Everything's Alright" would whisk me away siren-style to some blissful abyss. I giggled impishly to hear people screaming during Jesus' righteous ruckus in "The Temple," completely disrupting the corrupt marketplace it had become. I felt chills consume my entire body at the end of "Judas' Death," when the traitor's ranting is abruptly overtaken by that eerie chant: "Poor old Judas/So long, Judas." I wept uncontrollably to hear Jesus' final words in "The Crucifixion," accompanied by terrifyingly atonal vocal harmonies and noises no God-made piano should ever make. In my always-humble opinion, Jesus Christ Superstar is one of history's greatest creative interpretations of that Superstar we all know and love.

But naturally, not everyone thought so. I wasn't there to witness it, but from what I understand Jesus Christ Superstar caused quite an uproar upon its release. I'm sure at least some of this was the responsibility of those reliable knee-jerk reactors toward anything remotely religious in pop culture, comparable to contemporary Christians who protest the Harry Potter series or The Da Vinci Code just because they exist. But some of what I know about the initial controversy sounds warranted -- though it's actually quite Biblically accurate (disregarding its use of modern slang, of course), Jesus Christ Superstar more or less portrays the Son of God as an outrageous political rebel first, the Messiah second. From a theological standpoint, this is a little upsetting since Jesus had no illusions of taking down the Jerusalem Temple or the Roman Empire during his lifetime on this Earth. And while the song "Superstar" is a great tune, lyrically the sudden return of Judas before Christ's crucifixion seems a bit odd, if not downright unnecessary: "Tell me what you think about your friends at the top/Who'd you think besides yourself's the pick of the crop?/Buddha, was he where it's at? Is he where you are?/Could Mohammed move a mountain or was that just PR?" Um, OK. Have we been mistranslating the Greek the whole time? Because I'm pretty sure none of that's in the Bible.

But that was then, and this is now. When I saw Jesus Christ Superstar back in late 2004 at the Gammage Auditorium, I went with some folks from my church. And we weren't there to picket it -- we were there to watch it and enjoy it for the wonderful piece of Biblically inspired theater it has always been. And today Jesus Christ Superstar (along with its more Scripturally accurate but musically inferior counterpart, Godspell) has become a staple of church community theaters all over the world. Still, I'm sure there are certain Christians out there who want to wring Andrew Lloyd Webber's neck for daring to unleash this musical on the Earth. From what I understand, Jesus Christ Superstar is still banned in South Africa. But with all things considered, so what if Webber took a few liberties with the Bible? In the end, the message is still basically the same.

And on that note, the church is still the church regardless of the minister's sexual orientation or relationship status. Yes, the Bible does say some not-so-nice things about homosexuality, and I'm the last person to advocate for any part of Scripture to be omitted, but for the literal love of You-Know-Who, read them within their context! For one thing, a lot of this same-sex condemnation was a reaction against ancient pagan rituals, at least one of which entailed an old man penetrating a young boy in public. Additionally, about the Sodom and Gomorrah story in Genesis -- how would you feel if a group of people knocked on your door late at night and threatened to anally rape you? Sounds pretty horrific regardless of the victim's sexual orientation; I don't blame God for getting pissed.

But above all, the books of the Bible were written in a time and place where growing the family tree was of the utmost importance. Gay or straight, if a couple couldn't produce a son, they were nothing. And in this day and age, I think condemning the childless is completely unfair; in addition to homosexuals, you might as well condemn bereaved parents, barren women, sterile men, the romantically challenged and -- gasp! -- people who simply don't want to have children. Even if you disagree with me and think homosexuality is the horrible sin the Bible says it is (which it may very well be), is there anyone in ministry who isn't a horrible sinner at least some of the time? Out of Awesome God's list of bad notes, we've seemingly isolated certain ones we've heard to be more dissonant than all the others. But these bad notes are all equally sour and, if one tries hard enough, equally forgivable. Regardless of their musical resumes, no one should be barred from listening to or performing "The Word" if they feel so inspired -- NO ONE.

This all being said, I know for a fact some people like the guy I mentioned earlier in this post will continue denying the inevitability of celebrity man or woman crushes. But Christians who maintain that staunch, vow-of-celibacy attitude toward homosexuals -- in clergy or otherwise -- will have a hard time being taken seriously as church for the next generation. It'll be a cryin' but justified shame if their uber-traditional renditions of "The Word" are forgotten, usurped by the common crowd's much-too-loud chorus of "Hosanna, hey sanna/Sanna sanna Hosanna/Hey sanna Hosanna." God bless the Christians who realize Jesus Christ Superstar wasn't a heresy, but a slightly updated version of "The Word" all along.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Redefining marketability

I know this blog is called God According to a Music Nerd, but humor me as I transition briefly into God According to a Kinda Sorta Film Buff. I would very highly recommend reading Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders of Faith, Film and Culture for Christians whose divine revelations tend to be more visual than aural. As one could guess from the title, the book is a collection of essays from 18 different Christians with various connections to the Hollywood film industry, and many of the anecdotes contained therein are insightful, impassioned and outrageously funny. Craig Detweiler, a professor at Biola University, explains how The Passion of the Christ was a missed opportunity to reconcile the longstanding tension between Jews and Christians in Hollywood; I don't know about you, but making a film that ONLY focuses on Jesus' nearly unbearable suffering at the hands of those particular first-century Jewish authorities sounds quite anti-Semitic to me (and if you've heard about Mel Gibson's notorious drunken rant against a Jewish police officer, you can easily fill in the blanks). Thom Parham, from Azusa Pacific University, writes a hilarious piece about how non-Christian filmmakers are usually better at making Christianity-themed films than Christian filmmakers who are too worried about soiling sacred tradition to produce anything the least bit thought- or emotion-provoking. And several essays touch on the Southern Baptist Convention's tendency to somehow take offense to even the most innocuous movie moments, and subsequently protest its existence as a threat to the moral fabric of our society, blah blah blah ...

But for the purpose of this post, I will focus on "A Filmmaker's Progress," an essay by Scott Derrickson. In this essay, Derrickson -- director and cowriter of The Exorcism of Emily Rose -- details the steps toward his eventual "membership" in what he calls the Quality Club, evidently the ideal meeting place for Christian filmmakers. And the Quality Club has strict Fight Club-style rules: The work you produce must be excellent, marketable and virtuous. When I read this, I immediately decided it would be beneficial for modern-day Christian musicians to have their own Quality Club.

Christians who recognize the Real Reason they attend church (sorry, mere socializers don't count) shouldn't have to be told the value of being virtuous. Everything we do -- whether it be writing a song, directing a film, painting a picture, carrying a conversation or simply keeping our mouths shut in the face of traffic and frustrating family situations -- should be done with "The Word" stuck in our heads. Any note we play and sing that doesn't sound at least a little like "The Word" should probably be silenced, and yes, our admission into the Jesus Jam's upcoming performance at the Ultimate Temple DOES depend on that. Still, our reverence to "The Word" doesn't mean that we should stop listening to all other songs, period. Especially in this day and age, Christian musicians can and do learn a lot from secular music that frankly doesn't suck nearly as much as most CCM. And as I explained in a previous post, mediocrity has less to do with technical skill and everything to do with originality.

So, Quality Clubbers, we've determined why virtue and excellence are important ... but what about that marketability rule? That seems like kind of a toughie, especially considering we are to base our own unique versions of "The Word" closely on the Jesus Jam's rendition. Didn't the Jesus Jam play an unexpected, unwelcome show at the High Priests' Hangout in Jerusalem, deliberately starting a riot with a breakneck protest rant called "Awesome God's House Ain't a Market"? Didn't their "Beatitudes Medley" contain a section entitled "Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit"? And what about that uncompromising rocker they played called "The Eye of a Needle"? The chorus of that one made its message pretty clear: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle/Than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

It seems as if making marketability a rule is at odds with these vital sections of "The Word." If we happen to make money from performing "The Word," hallelujah indeed, but that's not why we are hired to play it. All of our performances are meaningless if we don't inspire at least one person to pick up an instrument and join in the symphony, and it doesn't matter whether we do that with nine 18-wheeler trucks full of gear or a single beat-up ukulele. The Jesus Jam didn't tour the Mediterranean circuit on an extravagant tour bus -- heck, they weren't even luxurious enough to have the stereotypical Volkswagen van that barely functions. They WALKED to all their gigs, except for that "triumphal" one in Jerusalem where they rode through the branch-laden streets on donkeys. You don't get more indie than that.

But as I thought about it more, I started to realize that much like mediocrity, maybe "marketability" also needs to be redefined. In "A Filmmaker's Progress," Derrickson talks about marketability like it's a defeated requirement of sorts -- he's a reputable director hired by a studio and therefore has Earthly contractual obligations to fill. While I can certainly understand where he's coming from, I can't help but feel like he's sucking up to The Man. All the studio wants is to make money, and consequently, so does Derrickson. The only contract we should be following to a tee is that written by Awesome God, signed by Daddy Abraham, refined by Go Down Moses and renegotiated by the Jesus Jam. It may be tempting to place another, more lucrative contract before this one, but doing so will significantly hinder our chances of witnessing that final Ultimate Temple extravaganza. Derrickson's essay doesn't sound like "The Word" so much as the corporate-mogul narrator of Pedro the Lion's "Penetration": "If it isn't making dollars/Then it isn't making sense/If you aren't moving units/Then you're not worth the expense."

But if taken from a different viewpoint, marketability might not be such a bad thing. In fact, it might help us performers of "The Word" in encouraging others to join the symphony. A friend of mine mentioned a few weeks ago that not every song about God has to contain the word "God" in the lyrics, and I think that's true. I'm certainly not an advocate for omitting God-talk (i.e., "Jesus Christ," "sin," "prayer," etc.) out of utter fear -- far too many Christians become sheepish about their faith for the sake of being "respectful" to those who mercilessly throw us believers under the bus. However, I'm well-aware that bragging about one's faith can be construed as sinful if done for the wrong reasons, not to mention alienating for those who were required to perform unlistenable, unnecessarily rigorous monstrosities of "The Word" growing up and now cringe at its mere mention. Just because we are required to "Be Bold, Be Strong" doesn't mean we can't be tactful about it; if we aren't tactful about it, oftentimes we look no better than the Southern Baptist Convention protestors outside Disneyland.

As far as I'm concerned, when it comes to managing all three Quality Club rules with equal aplomb, there's still no Christian artist who's done a better job than Amy Grant. Yes, I went there, indie snobs -- I love Amy Grant. DEAL WITH IT!!!! In all seriousness, though, somewhere down the line Amy Grant became the default flogging horse for every secular music critic who ever briefly mentions how all Christian music sucks except this particular band they're reviewing, yadda yadda yadda. And sure, Amy Grant is an easy target; not only was she one of the pioneers of what we know today as contemporary Christian music, but she was one of the first Christian artists to experience success in both the Christian and mainstream markets. She was kind of a flogging horse for me, too, since much of her music is super-duper-polished and she also happens to be very pretty. She was just-another-pop-diva in addition to being partially responsible for CCM, and therefore on my poo-poo list.

But then I did a little more research and some closer listening, particularly in regard to her #1 hit from 1991, "Baby Baby." This song is how I was introduced to Amy Grant -- I remember watching VH1 at the age of 12-ish and watching her lip-sync over that incessant, manipulatively catchy (and unfortunately, unmistakably early-'90s) keyboard hook. I came to my just-another-pop-diva conclusion right then and there, but a few years later I was surprised to discover she was a Christian artist. I was also intrigued to learn much later that at least certain tenants of Christian culture flipped their wigs when Amy Grant became a sex symbol and genuine pop star; 1991's Heart in Motion alone scored five Top 20 hits, which is absolutely colossal for a Christian artist.

A situation like this begs for listeners religious and nonreligious to cry "Sellout!" in unison, but I don't know if that's quite warranted -- especially after discovering Amy Grant wrote "Baby Baby" about her then-newborn daughter, Millie. Suddenly, what I initially heard as a trite love song transformed into a sincere and quite moving tribute to the joys of parenthood: "Baby, baby, the stars are shining for you/And just like me, I'm sure that they adore you/Baby, baby, go walking through the forest/The birds above a-singing you a chorus." I'm seriously crying just typing that right now; not only does it make for an awesome welcome to the world, but I think it goes a long way in proving that a song can still express very Christian sentiments without involving God directly. And in a stroke of sheer marketing genius, the lyrics to "Baby Baby" work just as well as a simple, fun radio singalong, although I have a feeling those birds above were probably singing "The Word."

Also, in regard to the controversy over her relatively suggestive image, I've got to give mad props to Amy Grant for responding in 1991 with a concise quote she is now famous for: "Christians can be sexy." And why can't they? It's exactly because of protestors like those in the Southern Baptist Convention (with all due respect to Baptists who abstained from the boycott against Disneyland, etc.) that Christianity has been reduced to a mere niche market -- the mainstream market figures we can never be pleased no matter what they do, so why bother considering us? It's almost as if Amy Grant saw Christianity becoming compartmentalized and reacted by showing just a little skin. It wasn't just about making extra money or getting teenage boys to drool. She was making a statement that Christians can be sensible, relatable people, too, and deserve to be included in mainstream society just as much as anyone else. What she did was very punk rock. (Although I think she may have unintentionally started the continuing trend of all female Christian musicians looking like models.)

And as I've already ranted and raved about numerous times in this here blog, it's happening again, folks. Christian music -- and consequently, Christianity -- is seen as more or less a niche market in our crushingly secularized society, and that needs to change. I'd assume we already have the virtue (or as much virtue as we can possess as sinners), and we already know full well that the excellence can and must be improved. But now with this new, un-Derricksonian idea of marketability, let's start working on employing that into the Quality Club's mission. Simply performing "The Word" may not be enough for some people; offering lessons on how to appreciate the piece may prove extremely helpful. But more importantly, "The Word" should never be played from atop a gaudy, elevated stage. It sounds best when performed at street level.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Art and religion were meant for each other

Gogol Bordello are a band from New York City that plays an inspired, high-energy mix of Clash-influenced punk rock and Eastern European "gypsy" music. I dig their tunes a lot, but based on principles alone I have to give at least one thumb down to their song "Supertheory of Supereverything." Over a mid-tempo two-step beat augmented by violin, accordion and dirty electric guitars, frontman Eugene Hutz rants in his thick Ukrainian accent and noticeably broken English about why he doesn't read the Bible or trust Christ's disciples. (Hey, that rhymes! What a clever chorus!!!!) I could at least understand if he was criticizing Christian culture or hypocrisy within the church -- which a lot of good Christians rightfully continue to do -- but as I listened to the song, it seems like the reason Hutz condemns religion is because, like Steven from Nacho Libre, he "believes in science." In other words, he thinks religion and science are mutually exclusive by nature: "Give me Everything Theory/Without Nazi uniformity/My brothers are protons/My sisters are neutrons/I stir it twice, it's instant family!"

First of all, I'm offended by the idea of comparing Christianity to Nazism, especially considering Adolf Hilter's rejection of Christianity and the fact our whole message is about unity in diversity, or at least should be (yeah, Lutherans, blushing in embarrassment won't do much for our mostly pasty complexions!). Also, the whole religion-vs.-science argument is not only insufferably trite, but it's also unfair because all scientific theories are just that -- THEORIES based on well-researched speculation. A seminary buddy of mine who works as an engineer once explained that every atheist engineer is a person of faith in the sense that they are operating under the mere assumption that Isaac Newton's laws of motion are correct. But more than anything, I am perturbed by anyone's assumption that religion cannot coexist with something that does not directly conflict with it, and besides atheism and agnosticism, I can't think of anything that does.

In my last post, I wrote about how uncool it is to be a Christian in the indie rock scene, an attitude I think that scene adopts toward anything even remotely affiliated with any religion. And therein lies my fear: We are getting to a point in society where people think faith cannot coincide with good art. The laughably vacuous state of most contemporary worship music is at least somewhat to blame for this -- I can think of very few overtly Christian artists in the past decade whose cloying, narcissistic "message" didn't completely torpedo the quality of the music itself. But a good chunk of the blame also has to go to every artist that has taken the opposite approach. In the past century (if that), countless musicians have put their blood, sweat and tears into making the highest-quality music their God-given talents can muster, but wed those unbeatable tunes to lyrics that either protested religion or ignored it altogether. The ball arguably started rolling with a push from Ray Charles, who sang secular lyrics over church-born chord progressions, and was just as arguably kicked into full speed by John Lennon, whose claim that The Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ was only the tip of a career-long iceberg of passionate atheism. As a consequence, few "respectable" artists nowadays even consider performing "The Word"; doing so guarantees either career suicide or eternal niche market damnation.

Fellow disciples and artistic souls, this is not the way things should be. Not only is it incredulous to assume good music and religion are mutually exclusive, but it's historically ignorant. As I alluded to before, it is only in the last several decades that music has become so secularized. Let's assume that these unbelievers are right (which they're not), and in the name of the good music "gods" we decide to get rid of everything that has the smallest iota of religious content. First off, we get rid of those nasty European hymns that formed the basis and inspiration for an incalculable amount of songs that followed them. Next, we erase the memory of African-American spirituals and most Appalachian folk and country music (and on that note, Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch). Then, we kick out every single singer-songwriter who ever dared to reference the Bible in their lyrics, such as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen, Warren Zevon, Nick Cave and Sam Phillips. And while we're at it, let's get rid of every alternative/indie rocker whose ever dared look to Scripture for inspiration, whether it be Sufjan Stevens, David Bazan, Damien Jurado, Denison Witmer, Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes, Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian, John Darneille of The Mountain Goats and Mark Eitzel of American Music Club.

In the world of musical theater, let's just pretend Andrew Lloyd Webber doesn't exist. In the world of hard rock, let's forget some of Alice Cooper's latter-day material and all of his philanthropic efforts. In the world of progressive rock, let's jettison most of the material produced by Jethro Tull, Kansas and ex-Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman. In the world of experimental rock, let's forget that Pere Ubu's David Thomas and Talk Talk's Mark Hollis are devout Christians. In the world of hip-hop, let's unravel the sometimes very spiritual flows of Nas, Common, Kanye West and, soon enough, DMX. (No, I'm not making that last one up -- he decided in prison he wants to become a pastor.) In the world of early country and rockabilly, you'll have to forget that Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and The Everly Brothers all recorded Christian music. In the world of rhythm and blues, you'll have to deny the fact that Little Richard and Al Green ultimately became ministers. In the world of classical, you'll have to forget ever hearing the immortal "Alleluias!" exclaimed in George Frideric Handel's "Messiah," Krzysztof Penderecki's The St. Luke Passion and pretty much anything written by Johann Sebastian Bach. In the world of The Beatles, you'll have to delete Paul McCartney's "Let It Be" and most of George Harrison's songs. That Andy Griffith dude, who recorded numerous Christian albums? Gone. "Tears in Heaven," Eric Clapton's poignant elegy to his deceased son? Gone. At least two-thirds of all the Christmas music you've ever heard? Gone. And a definite "no" to that one Irish band ... U-who?

My goodness, we're on a roll! Since we seem to be doing so well with this religious cleansing, why don't we move on to other forms of art, too? Lord forbid that we artsy types should have ever had to think about ... um ... the Lord. We have much work to do in the world of literature -- C.S. Lewis is arguably at the top of the hit list, with Dan Brown at a close second for totally different reasons. But Jane Austen, William Blake, E. E. Cummings, Philip K. Dick, Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, Madeleine L'Engle, Flannery O'Connor, J.D. Salinger, Robert J. Sawyer, Alfred Tennyson, J. R. R. Tolkien, Leo Tolstoy, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and even hardcore atheists like Philip Pullman have all apparently soiled their work with varying levels of religious content. (I say "apparently" because I haven't read every one of those authors myself, but have no fear, literature buffs, I plan to eventually.) And don't even get us started on Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, or just about any epic poetry that preceded those works.

We also need to do away with a great number of films that dared to give various aspects of "The Word" a music video, so to speak. Vicious but hilariously accurate satire like Saved! and Dogma? Gone. Lighthearted comedies like Sister Act and Bruce Almighty? Gone. Science fiction and horror thrillers like The Exorcist, Children of the Corn and Signs? Gone. All the distinctively Jewish humor in Woody Allen films? Gone. Stories set in Biblical times like Ben-Hur, The Passion of the Christ, Prince of Egypt or even the hysterically blasphemous Monty Python's Life of Brian? Come on, is that a trick question? GONE!

And what do you know, there's religion in a lot of visual art, too! We Christian peeps could have easily and very necessarily done without all the medieval paintings of Jesus the Jew as a somehow white guy. But it's going to be hard to say goodbye to the Sistine Chapel, The Last Supper and almost any other product of the Renaissance. Well outside Christianity, we'll probably have to get rid of sculptures like Laocoon and His Sons and Venus de Milo, too. And sorry, Japanese art lovers -- a significant portion of religiously themed manga is out of the question.

Hopefully, you catch my drift by now. Anyone who claims that high-quality art and religion are mutually exclusive is not only wrong, but also a historical revisionist. Art -- musical, visual, literary, cinematic or otherwise -- has always been one of Awesome God's greatest gifts to us measly broken folk, and what better way to put that art to use than to glorify His name as a "thank you" for giving us that gift? I almost feel as if the increasing secularization of art is a punishment of sorts for letting this gift become so poorly utilized in the past decade. People got so used to hearing awful renditions of "The Word" they decided to move on to other compositions that were less rewarding for musician and listener alike.

But fellow disciples and artistic souls, upon being given our various, creatively expressive gifts, we were asked to continue a legacy established thousands of years ago by a then-obscure group called Daddy Abraham. Daddy Abraham signed a contract unexpectedly offered by Awesome God, stating that as long as they only performed their own superbly rendered versions of "The Word" -- no other tunes -- Daddy Abraham and all the best bands that formed in their wake would secure a permanent gig at Awesome God's most hoppin' venue, The Promised Land. But this contract has a pretty hefty rider attached to it, and Daddy Abraham fell through on Awesome God's demands numerous times during their career. Nevertheless, every time Daddy Abraham or their most notable proteges trotted out a lackluster run-through of "The Word," or started playing something else altogether, Awesome God never fired them. Instead, He would come back with a copy of the exact same contract Daddy Abraham originally signed, sealing the deal all over again.

In all our various artistic capacities, we are bound by that same contract to perform "The Word." It's not enough to merely play it like we "have to" or play it like everyone else does. We have to play and sing it with all our hearts, souls and minds like it's never been heard by anyone before, or else our performances are unconvincing at best. And nowhere in the contract does it say that we are required to play only play upbeat, happy versions of "The Word"; just look to some of the more distraught Psalms to realize angst-ridden laments can be just as valid. The greatest travesty of all, though, is ignoring "The Word" altogether. That's a direct violation of the contract we signed upon being taken under Awesome God's management. We are not the ones who hired Him to do our bidding -- He hired us to do His, and so all of us need to keep our end of the deal.

And actually, I think many of us are keeping our end of the deal whether we realize it or not. As put off as I was by "Supertheory of Supereverything," the fact of the matter is that Gogol Bordello still took the time to write a song about the Bible. Love it or hate it, "The Word" is inescapable, and it's not fading into silence anytime soon.