Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Any noise can be joyful

A few months ago I sat with some friends at a bar/restaurant, mostly just watching them eat and talking with them about random topics a plenty. As is typical for anyone speaking to me for longer than five minutes, we started discussing music. I mentioned the fact the term "rock and roll" originated as a blues euphemism for sex. It surprised a lot of my friends when I told them about a female blues singer moaning about how her man of choice rocks her with one steady roll. One of my friends laughed and said, "That kind of gives the term 'Christian rock' a whole new meaning!"

I greeted this revelation with the sudden eruption of laughter I tend to unleash whenever I deem it appropriate (and sometimes when it's wholly inappropriate). What a hilarious paradox: Christian rock. If we were to be very literal and tie "rock and roll" back to its linguistic origins, how could Christianity coexist with rocking and rolling without venturing into heresy? Should the term apply only to songs that forbid you from getting down and dirty until marriage? Should it apply to music that celebrates the joy of childbirth? And what about ascetic Christians? Are they doomed to listen to nothing but sexless hymns for the remainder of their lives?

But facetiousness aside, when my friend mentioned this to me I gained a firmer grasp on why rock and roll has been so chastised by Christians in the past. The fact of the matter is the term "rock and roll" was initially popularized as slang for shagging, with or without a wedding ring (most likely without). And the rock and roll genre itself certainly revels in its fair share of debauchery -- everything from Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" to Chuck Berry's "I Want to Be Your Driver" to the Rolling Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together" to Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" extol various pleasures of the flesh. I wonder what it must have been like for a 1950s minister to see Elvis Presley dance the way he did and sing lyrics like this one from his cover of "Shake, Rattle and Roll": "I'm like a one-eyed cat peeping in the seafood store/I can look at you 'til you ain't no child no more." These are all great songs in their own right, but I can kind of understand why churches in the 1950s and 1960s were calling it the "devil's music."

And then ... Larry Norman. Those of you who are fans of Christian rock would be much obliged to listen this guy -- without him, the genre basically wouldn't exist. Larry Norman was the first notable musician to sing explicitly Christian lyrics over rock and roll, and like most genre originators, no one who has followed him in his footsteps has quite reached the bar he raised. (Sounds a bit like Christ, if you ask me.) I have only heard his 1972 album Only Visiting This Planet once at, but that was enough to make me a fan. In an eerie, almost childlike voice and over songs that alternated between stalwart hard rock and intimate balladry, he would sing thoughtfully theological lyrics about remaining strong in the face of crushing breakups, putting love above all other acts of righteousness, Christians' lack of preparation for the Rapture, TV broadcasting's dour portrayal of the world, walking away from sexual immorality and his own not-so-high opinions of scientific "progress." My personal favorite from that album is one called "The Outlaw," which retells the story of Jesus and paints him as the righteous rebel he really was during his lifetime. But the one most relevant to this blog post is "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?" This two-and-a-half-minute track is unapologetically rockabilly (with slap-back delay and everything!), over which Norman basically laid down his mission statement: "I ain't knocking the hymns/Just give me a song that has a beat."

From what I understand, Larry Norman was pretty controversial during his heyday. Not only was he arguably the most explicitly Christian out of any rock & roller in the 1960s and 1970s, but he was the most rock & roll out of any Christian musician. I've read that a lot of churches wouldn't book him as a performer because they felt his music wasn't "Christian" enough -- his holy message was theoretically negated by the fact he sang it over music many Christians deemed unholy.

I can't help but shake my head at the eerie parallel between Norman's struggles and those of so many Christian artists today who are not deemed "real Christian artists" because their music doesn't fit into the rigid stylistic formats of CCM radio. As someone who sometimes feels like one of those rejected artists, my point is this -- there is no such thing as one style of music that is more "Christian" than the other. Jesus commanded us not to judge others, and if we are to hold true to that statement we should allow everyone to sing the good news in whatever genre they please, regardless of the genre's origins. Think about the upbeat, communal tunes sang in African-American-oriented churches; what we erroneously know as "gospel music" today (shouldn't any music about God be thought of as gospel?) originated among African slaves singing their praises to the Lord who would eventually deliver them from the fields they worked tirelessly in.

When I worked as a journalist, I once interviewed a youth minister for a piece I wrote about his church's upcoming hip-hop service. He explained how he grew up in a culture where hip-hop was all the rage, and was ecstatic to find out that there are, in fact, MCs who rap about God instead of drugs and violence. Larry Norman-style, he said he has nothing against the older traditional hymns, but they don't speak to him like hip-hop does. I think this is an amazing idea -- in a world where so many people are still convinced that rap isn't even music, this ministry (whose name I cannot remember offhand) is taking a stance against such narrow-mindedness and offering an innovative form of evangelism.

It is outright arrogant and indirectly racist and agist to think that hymns written by white Europeans and played on a piano or organ are the only music God appreciates. There are countless different denominations of Christianity, and none of them are right or wrong; they just emphasize different facets of the same message. This is how I think Christians should approach whatever they do in their lives, music or otherwise. I consider it our duty as Christians to create things in God's name, and the Word of God is far too complex and frankly far too good to be confined to one style of expression. The Lord doesn't care about what your noise sounds like -- just as long as it's joyful.

Upon doing a little research (thanks, Wikipedia!), I just realized that "rock and roll" only originated as a blues euphemism for sex in the world of secular music. It existed before that in "The Camp Meeting Jubilee," an anonymously recorded spiritual with these lyrics: "We've been rocking and rolling in your arms/Rocking and rolling in your arms/In the arms of Moses."

Maybe we're giving the devil too much credit -- maybe God had all the good music in the first place.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Da Vinci Code: Stop dissing the Beatles

I recently had a productive, respectful religious debate with a person I will designate as Friend #1 for the sake of this blog post. (I love to engage in religious debates, by the way -- if you ever want to sometime, I'm totally down). Friend #1 amusingly said they were baffled that an intelligent, open-minded person like myself is religious. I laughed hysterically on the inside and explained that Christians do not have to be unquestioning robots, and in fact are usually better Christians if they aren't. I don't think God minds a few well-intentioned inquiries now and then.

After my explanation, Friend #1 proceeded to ask that inane question so many modern Christians dread: "What do you think about the possibility Mary Magdalene was Jesus' wife?" After an annoyed sigh and roll of the eyes, I calmly insisted that though "The Da Vinci Code" is loosely based on an apocryphal Gospel and the legend of the Holy Grail, the STONE COLD FACT is that book is a work of fiction and frankly not even worth discussing in the context of a theological discussion.

A week or so later, I met with a person I will call Friend #2 at a bar (yes, I drink socially, breathe out conservatives) in Phoenix. We sat at a table beneath a painting of Jesus and Mary Magdalene with their fictional baby, which inspired me to tell Friend #2 about my conversation with Friend #1. When I told Friend #2 how absurd I thought Friend #1's question was, Friend #2 merely shrugged and basically said, "How do you know? You weren't there."

I will give Friend #2 the very, very reluctant benefit of the doubt on that one. I do understand the quest for the historical Jesus involves a huge amount of speculation, and some questions are simply never going to be answered; we could conceivably have a million authentic Gospels about the Son of Man but still never have a complete picture of a guy none of us personally saw when he was physically on this Earth. But that's OK -- faith is obviously essential to being a Christian, and if we did have all the answers then what's the point of following God? Not even Jesus had all the answers during his ministry (especially when it came to predicting the apocalypse), but he kept his faith in spite of pretty much everything, and upon his death he was given new life and a throne in the Kingdom of God.

That being said, I will gladly listen to opposing theories about the life and times of Jesus, but the idea that Jesus was married to and had a child with Mary Magdalene is utterly preposterous -- not least of all because THAT IDEA IS DERIVED FROM A MYSTERY-DETECTIVE FICTION NOVEL!!!! I am not bashing "The Da Vinci Code" as a high-quality book. It is an interesting, decently written story and I enjoyed reading it and seeing its subsequent film. But why are so many people flocking to this made-up non-theory like it's the Dead Sea Scrolls? Why are people are taking a clearly fictional narrative that has little to no scholarly research behind it and using it to debunk the entire celibate nature of Jesus? Has this really become the big theological quandary of the 21st century? Come on, people of all beliefs! Where are your heads at?

I liken those who try to use "The Da Vinci Code" against the canonical Gospels' account of Jesus to those ceaselessly annoying people who try to badmouth the Beatles. It may be somewhat blasphemous to say, but the Beatles are the closest thing pop music has to Jesus. (Though they were certainly never bigger than Jesus -- sorry, John.) To this day, they remain the most popular, innovative and influential pop music group of all time, and I highly doubt pop music will ever get any kind of "second coming" of their caliber.

And yet you tend to get that one doubter in numerous music nerd circles who cries "Jehovah" and calls the Beatles overrated. In my experience, it's usually some naive indie kid or metalhead who's only really heard "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "Hey Jude" or "Yellow Submarine"; though those are all good songs, they provide only a very basic taste of the Beatles' vast, diverse catalog. It would be like only reading three passages in the Gospels and thinking you know all there is to know about Jesus.

But then you get some astute historian who points out that the Beatles never really invented any genres. They are actually right -- the Beatles didn't invent rock & roll, folk rock or psychedelia, though they appropriated all of those respective genres on Please Please Me, Rubber Soul and St. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Still, I would much rather hear those three records than Chuck Berry's The Great Twenty-Eight, Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home or the Byrds' Fifth Dimension. All of those are great records (or at least I've read they are -- I honestly haven't heard all of them in their entirety), but the Beatles were great at taking the freshest sounds and ideas of the 1960s and making them better. To analyze it through a Biblical lens, they were not forging radical new directions so much as they were merely fulfilling previous prophecies.

But the most infuriating moment of all is when some pretentious post-punk and/or experimental rock fan turns up their nose and claims the Beatles were "merely" pop music. They see the Beatles as just another "trendy" band and they've got to go against the grain. They've found some newer or more obscure band that they think are even better than the Beatles could have ever dreamed of being. I am of the opinion that most "Da Vinci Code" diehards are like this -- frightened by the herd mentality of joining a Christian community, they've latched onto "The Da Vinci Code" as the first excuse available to defy authoritative, 2,000-year-old documents of Jesus' life.

In any case, whether or not you like the Beatles' music is irrelevant -- people have every right to their own opinions. But you can't ignore the Beatles. You can't deny they are the most influential band of all time whose influence looms over practically every pop genre that came after them. You can never call the Beatles overrated unless you want most people in the room to jump down your throat. And it really doesn't matter whether you're a music connoisseur or a casual listener -- the Beatles are enjoyable for either party. No one is too good for the Beatles. The Beatles are better than you. So is Jesus. And if Christ calls us to be musicians, not fans (read my last post if you haven't already), it would be in our best interest to learn a thing or two from the Beatles, if you know what I mean.

So to my aforementioned Friends (who I love dearly despite our disagreements), and anyone else who treats "The Da Vinci Code" like it's another book of the Bible: Stop dissing the Beatles. Don't knock it until you really know something legitimate about it. And know that you can harp all you want about what Jesus did or didn't do, but nothing's gonna change my world.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

We are musicians, not fans

There's no denying it -- the Christian church is in a bit of a pickle. Congregations are dwindling all across the U.S., and therefore churches are making significant staff reductions and grasping for a way to make our Messiah's message relevant to this generation. I'm not pointing any fingers, but needless to say, some churches are making better choices than others.

I've heard many theories. I would imagine some atheists are perversely overjoyed by the fact churches are suffering, and interpret this moment as a long-awaited human exodus from God. But that's not what's happening -- from what I understand, most U.S. citizens still believe in God and more than half of my country's population still considers religion an important part of their lives. However, I also understand that less than half of my country's population goes to church on a weekly basis. The U.S. mostly consists of folks who only go to church at Christmas and Easter, or just cut out church altogether.

I heard one of my fellow Fuller students propose that this is the most self-centered generation in U.S. history. I can understand where this person is coming from -- it seems like more and more Christians I know are adopting a "Jesus and me" philosophy, and a lot of people who do go to church are only interested in what's in it for them. But I don't know if this is true, either, especially after some other friends of mine promptly reminded me why Baby Boomers are said to come from the "Me Generation." As self-centered and individualistic as a lot of U.S. citizens are, I'd like to think this generation is doing a little better than that one.

After reading a book for my leadership and diversity class called "The Missional Leader," by Alan J. Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk, I think I have a firmer grasp on what's really going on. People are not opposed to liturgy or communion or even gathering inside a building with a bunch of potential strangers -- it's just that a lot of churches are not offering what modern-day disciples are looking for. Most people are no longer going to church in hopes that some trained, heroic super-Christian will absolve them of all their wrongs and show them "the way." I think most halfway-educated Christians already know "the way"; what many of them are looking for are opportunities to spread the transforming Christian message to the world in a sincere, meaningful and truly integrative manner. It's not about the pastor and other church staff carrying the torch anymore. It's about stimulating imagination, sharing ideas and acting upon those ideas so we can show people what Christ's redeeming forgiveness, generosity and love are all about.

To delve into musical metaphor -- which is kind of the whole point of this blog -- for the last several decades (and probably earlier), church leaders have operated their ministries like Christian rock bands. If you've decided you enjoy Christian rock, these bands' concerts can be a great experience. The lyrics carry a wholesome, uplifting message that the band's listeners connect with on a variety of levels. They are driven into spiritual bliss, closing their eyes, waving their arms in the air, singing along at the top of their lungs and maybe even crying. Facetious cliche-flogging aside, though the audience members are deeply moved, they don't necessarily act upon their revelations once the concert's over -- a lot of them simply head home with ears ringing and hearts singing, and within a few days life continues as it did before. In the end, they were merely spectators of a really good performance. (Of course, depending on the band's style, the music could be thrilling and poignant or unbearably dull; knowing the way most Christian rock sounds nowadays, I'm voting for the latter.)

I would suggest that these church leaders put down their guitars and pick up a conducting baton. Every single one of Christ's disciples is an instrumentalist performing a classic piece called "The Word." Composed thousands of years ago by Awesome God (read the previous post and you'll know what I mean), "The Word" is the most gorgeous, affecting symphony ever written. It does not highlight any particular soloist -- every player's motif is equally unique and essential to the whole. Awesome God even allowed for certain sections of "The Word" to be improvised by the players, as long as they avoided notes that would detract from the symphony's thematic beauty. Whether the piece is performed by a full orchestra or a string quartet, a conductor is necessary to ensure the musicians remain focused and in sync. Even if the musicians they work with are just beginners, this conductor must train and encourage them to develop their hands, feet, lungs, eyes and ears. The conductor should also warn the players about the only way "The Word" should never be performed: Solo.

Probably the most unique thing about "The Word" is that Awesome God apparently wrote a pretty killer ending, but thought it so good that they are declining to publish it until they feel the world's best musicians are ready to play it. Not even the Jesus Jam -- a group countless critics called the best Awesome God revivalists ever -- could figure out the symphony's final section. But so great is the promise of this grandest of finales that its musicians keep playing the piece's preceding sections over and over again. It's so beautiful that the musicians really don't mind the repetition. In fact, they've never really stopped playing it since its debut.

It is not enough for instrumentalists to merely rehearse "The Word" on their own. With the help of the conductor, they must seek large audiences -- not for the sake of profit, not for the sake of displaying technical skill, but for the sake of inspiring others through the power of music. Hopefully, any uninitiated listener will be moved to tears of joy upon hearing "The Word" and maybe want to pick up an instrument themselves. One doesn't have to audition for this orchestra, but they had better hone their chops if they want a chance to perform that big, elusive finale.

I could go on forever with this, but I think I've made my point. Missional leaders are the church's future, and as far as I'm concerned, it is closer to what Christ intends for discipleship. To quote a U2 song, no one wants to watch someone "play Jesus to the lepers in (their) head." Not that I'm saying all pastoral leaders have that intention -- I don't think most of them do -- but we must realize that all of us have the capacity to be lepers AND to be like Jesus Christ our Lord, regardless of theological training. Studied leaders are obviously essential to keep order among Christian communities, but it is no longer sufficient for disciples to just listen. We must boldly and gracefully play our parts in this great orchestra, and until Awesome God gives us our cue to finally perform that ending, may our symphony resound beautifully throughout the world.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Jesus Jam -- the only band that matters

In my still-limited experience as a student of Fuller Theological Seminary, I have learned that many non-Christians will use the differences in detail among the four canonical Gospels as grounds to argue against the most reliable and detailed story of Jesus Christ's life. But those differences in detail are minute (one Gospel says Jesus healed two blind men and another says he healed one -- WHAT A QUANDARY!!!!!) and they don't change the essential message behind the Messiah's ministry. Plus, those differences are simply the product of four different authors writing about Jesus several decades after his death and resurrection. Let's say you have four different journalists review the same concert -- are they all going to write the exact same review? No. Some of them will focus on particular details more than others, and even if all four journalists enjoyed the concert, they may go about very different ways of explaining why they enjoyed it.

Let's say these four journalists are named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and they all went to see a rock band called the Jesus Jam (cheesy, I know, but just go with it). Mark posts his review online first (because let's face it, who reads print journalism anymore?) and it's a pretty short review. It does not feature much information at all about what happened toward the concert's beginning or end, but Mark's description of every song and moment of stage banter is extremely lengthy and detailed. He portrays the audience reaction as routinely stupefied -- this is the best freaking band in the world (as Mark describes them at the review's beginning) and their fans are enthralled by them in a way they cannot completely comprehend. The Jesus Jam are ahead of their time.

Matthew and Luke read Mark's review shortly after he posts it. They like the review's structure and the concert highlights Mark focuses on, although they both agree his descriptions are a bit long-winded. Assuming that plagiarism and uncredited paraphrasing are not punishable by law (because back in the first century A.D., they weren't), Matthew and Luke basically copy Mark's review verbatim but condense most of the details. Interestingly, they mutually but independently decide to leave out certain parts of Mark's review, which leads one to question if they both simultaneously thought those parts of Mark's review were irrelevant (or maybe it was divine intervention). They both decide Mark's review is a little too short, so they add some details about the concert Mark didn't touch on.

Matthew posts his review, which portrays the Jesus Jam's frontman as an ingenious lyricist; the audience connects with and are nourished by his words. The fans in Matthew's review do not come across as aurally perplexed, like they are in Mark's review -- they understand this band, and are compelled to go out and form their own bands to forge similar connections with eager listeners. Matthew also talks at length about how much better this band is than the Stereophonic Pharisees, who always called themselves the best band in the world but never had the rockin' tunes to validate such a claim. The Jesus Jam are dramatically changing the way people view rock music. The Jesus Jam are punk rock.

Luke posts his review around the same time as Matthew, and though he touches on many of the same points as Matthew, Luke's writing style is very different. Luke is all about music history -- he explains at length how the Jesus Jam are the logical successors to the influential Elijah's Eardrums, who many a past rock journalist praised as purveyors of rock music's ultimate potential. He even recalls a moment when the frontman steps up to the microphone and says the Jesus Jam's goal is to pick up where Elijah's Eardrums left off. Luke's review focuses on the "feeling" the Jesus Jam creates within the audience. It's a feeling of pure, transforming joy one can only experience through a particular lyric, melody, rhythm or chord progression. The audience has never felt this way before. This "feeling" is something the fans want to sustain throughout their lives and share with other people, either through forming their own similar bands or simply playing the Jesus Jam for friends, family and even strangers. This band will change your life.

John reads all three reviews and likes what each one tries to portray, but he thinks he can do a much better job of encapsulating why this concert was so awesome. He joins Mark, Matthew and Luke in acknowledging the song "5,000 Fed" as a concert highlight, but his review is otherwise very dissimilar from the other three. He talks about songs that none of the other three journalists even touched on (it was a fairly long concert), and he does not waste time on details. There is an overarching point behind every concert highlight he writes about: This is the best band that's ever existed, ever. The Jesus Jam's frontman directly says so several times throughout the concert, and unlike the Stereophonic Pharisees, they do have the rockin' tunes to prove it. Like Luke, John talks extensively about that "feeling" but links it back to Awesome God, an iconic group that also had amazing music to validate their lofty claims. John does not think it's enough to simply say the Jesus Jam are Awesome God's successors -- they are the same band with the same mission. Awesome God created and are synonymous with that "feeling," and the Jesus Jam are simply spreading that "feeling" to those who have yet to experience it. Many others have tried to replicate Awesome God, but no other band does it better than the Jesus Jam.

There were a few other, less reputable journalists at the show, and though their accounts of the Jesus Jam make for interesting reading, some of the concert "highlights" they write about seem very far-fetched, and all of them do a poor job of explaining why the performance was and is important. Unfortunately, some of the Jesus Jam's detractors naively use these questionable reviews as basis for their "arguments."

Of course, all of these comparisons assume that the authors of the four canonical Gospels were eyewitnesses to Jesus' ministry while he was alive, which was not the case. That being said, the Gospels are still authoritative documents for us as Christians, based upon facets of oral tradition that we accept as factual and theologically infallible. Getting hung up on tiny differences in detail reduces much of Scripture's power. Like many an educated news reader I know, it is wisest to read several different accounts of the same event to get a clearer, more complete picture of what happened. For those of us who believe in the power of their music, the Jesus Jam will always be the only band that matters.