Friday, September 25, 2009

Redefining mediocrity

The last post I made drew much praise from my friends and family, for which I am very thankful -- it is nice to know I am not alone in wanting to fill the God-shaped hole in a lot of contemporary worship music with something other than countless mentions of Jesus' name, as if churchgoers perpetually forget where Christianity originated. (If you haven't seen the South Park episode that lampoons this particular cliche, weep under your bed in shame for an hour and then watch it.) Nevertheless, as I had somewhat expected, my opinionated essay did draw the ire of one of my buddies at Fuller Theological Seminary.

This particular friend of mine called me a music snob, and I would be lying if I said I didn't smirk a little (OK, a lot) on the inside. She doesn't see anything wrong with David Crowder, Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin or Hillsong United, and explained very rationally that music is merely supposed to enhance the worship experience, not stun you with its musicianship and/or originality. I can totally understand where she's coming from -- I'm also of the opinion that a church service is nothing without a powerful, nourishing, Scripturally sound message. But since when does the transforming Christian message have to be relayed in the context of terrible music? I still don't understand why artistic creativity and Biblical tradition have to mutually exclusive, which I think is the unfortunate message being sent by most contemporary Christian music of the past decade.

But we can't just blame it on the Chris Tomlins and Hillsong Uniteds of the world. For as long as I can remember being at least aware of the Christian music scene -- from roughly 1995 on -- I have detected an utter lack of discernment among many of its listeners. There wasn't really much of a difference between the people who listened to Jars of Clay's lite alternative rock and those who listened to Five Iron Frenzy's ska-punk. The people who blissed out to Michael W. Smith's lengthy, sobering worship performances tended to also mosh at 30-minute Beanbag concerts. There is certainly nothing wrong with musically diverse tastes, but that diversity tends to stop at a certain point; I don't know a lot of people who listen to the jazzy a cappella group Take 6 and also listen to the jangly pop of Sixpence None the Richer, which is actually heartbreaking evidence of Christian music industry's interminable racial divide. (Again, another post for another time ... )

But disregarding stylistic diversity, the thing that still baffles me is that so many Christians can't seem to tell the difference between high and low musical or lyrical quality -- something I don't think you necessarily need to enter seminary or take a music appreciation course to learn. There is an overwhelming tolerance for mediocrity among Christians. If it's about Jesus, they're into it, whether it's as amazingly profound and passionate as Larry Norman and Andrae Crouch or as irredeemably awful as Creed. (Yuck, I need a shower after typing that.) This seems to be an indirect application of God's unconditional love toward music, which I will applaud for its good intentions. But when God through Christ commanded us to love another, I don't think he was giving us an excuse to create or experience poor art. Like any influential band, I'm sure the Jesus Jam would be embarrassed to know their music inspired some terrible musicians that completely torpedoed the point of their music. (Case in point: Pearl Jam > Creed -- yeesh, I need to stop typing that!!!) And I'm sure they would also be horrified to learn certain fans weren't getting the point either, much like Nirvana's completely unintentional appeal to jocks and rapists.

If anything, I think the Bible indicates that putting time and effort behind one's art is quite pleasing in the sight of the Lord. Take this rule for Christian living from Colossians 3:23: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men ... " Or this saying of the wise from Proverbs 22:29: "Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men." Perhaps that latter quote could be facetiously interpreted as a diss on the indie scene about two to three millennia early, since that whole subculture is all about obscure men (and women). But then again, it could be taken as a promise for the afterlife, as many unabashedly Christian artists who languish in obscurity on this frighteningly secularized Earth will be named among the kingdom of heaven's rock stars.

Either way, the point is clear: However you serve God -- through art, preaching, mission work, science or otherwise -- you are called as a disciple to give it your all. The Jesus Jam were asked by Awesome God to do plenty of research on how "The Word" was written, and how to make the tune's very best sections count like no one did before them. All of this so that when they performed that brilliant concert as reviewed by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, it didn't just come across as a band playing another passionless tour date on one of their off nights. This concert was raucous, sweaty, uplifting, energizing and unforgettable. Everyone who got the Jesus Jam knew they had performed the best concert of all time.

With all this talk about fighting against mediocrity, I feel I should offer my own definition of the term: Mediocrity has nothing to do with technical skill and everything to do with creativity. There have been plenty of very good musicians who created utterly bland music -- heck, as much as I hate Creed (UUUUGHHH!!!!!! I'm going to claw my eyes out ... ), I can still acknowledge their guitarist is quite skilled at his instrument. But a bad song played well is still a bad song. On the other side of the spectrum, there have been numerous musicians who could barely sing or play their instruments but made some great music out of sheer enthusiasm and ingenuity. All one needs to do is listen to the best early rock & roll, punk rock, hip-hop or experimental music to discover this truth. These artists redefined the idea of what constitutes good musicianship. There may be nothing new under the sun, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't explore some of the shady spots.

For this reason, I like working with musicians who may be relatively inexperienced but have the creative drive to worship God with all their heart, soul and mind. I have drawn some criticism for adopting this approach from people who adhere to the more traditional definition of musical mediocrity as technical ineptitude. These people want their worship experience to be a big, tight, clean, pitch-perfect production -- in other words, they want it to sound like all the other Chris Tomlin and Hillsong United soundalikes. I understand that some Christians want that out of their church services and I respect their preferences, but I don't plan to conform to that trend anytime soon. Personally, I equate the desire for super-polished Christian music as a quest of sorts to equate the perfection of God when an essential and inevitable part of our existence is our imperfect, sinful, perpetually broken nature. I'm not saying we as performers of "The Word" shouldn't fine-tune our skills, but we also shouldn't fine-tune them to the point of sounding like every other popular performer. We are a cluster of varied yet complementary notes, not just a series of drones.

On that note, I would like to end by saying thank you to all the musicians at Esperanza Lutheran Church for remaining patient with my busy schedule and occasional disorganization, and more importantly for continuing to offer their numerous talents and ideas to our 10:30 a.m. versions of "The Word" and beyond. And I would also like to extend that gesture of thanks to any Christian who has ever strived to be different in the face of conformity while staying true to their core beliefs. It can be a hard balance to achieve, but you give me hope that someday we shall overcome this crippling blanket of artistic and theological mediocrity. God deserves way better than what He's been getting lately.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Christians need quality music

I was at a housewarming party hosted by a friend of mine a few months ago where I was quite possibly the only Christian there. This happens to me a lot -- being an artsy person hanging out with other artsy people means a whole lot of staunchly secular attitudes in this day and age.

While at this party, a friend of mine asked how I had been, and I told her the bad news of being laid off from my job as a journalist and the good news of being accepted into graduate school. Inevitably, she asked me if I was going back to Arizona State University, and with an internal sigh, I broke the excitement of me potentially rejoining the Sun Devils and kind of half-muttered that I am in SEMINARY, studying toward worship and music ministry. As I had expected, her response was a mere surprised, alienated "Oh." And I think the conversation more or less ended there for a while.

Much later, as I was turning in for the night, this friend bid me farewell with this request: "I know you're going into church music, but I hope you'll still make good music!" Ouch. I was a little hurt by this, even though she probably said it with the best of intentions (and also seemed more than a little intoxicated). But I have to say, her fears are not completely unfounded.

I feel no need to beat around the bush: MOST CONTEMPORARY WORSHIP MUSIC SUCKS. By contemporary, I mean most of what has been written in the past decade or so. By worship music, I'm not talking about centuries-old hymns, which I think are beautiful and Scripturally accurate in their own right. And I'm also not talking about Christian rock or rap or metal or punk or pop or any other veritable genre of music that happens to have lyrics about God through Christ instead of sex, drugs, angst, politics or sheer silliness. (Though some Christian punk is pretty ridiculous -- apparently the group Noggin Toboggan have a whole album all about kittens.) Worship music is a whole different species of suckitude altogether: It's adult contemporary pop/rock written specifically for church services. And it is by far the prime example of banal, soulless marketing fluff that makes this monstrosity we call the contemporary Christian music industry tick.

For those of you who have had the good fortune to not hear David Crowder, Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin or -- heaven forbid -- Hillsong United, I envy you. For those of you who have, you are probably a churchgoing Christian or at least have been to a few contemporary church services before. These artists, in particular, are pretty ubiquitous nowadays, though you would be totally forgiven for not knowing who they are since ALL THEIR MUSIC SOUNDS THE SAME. The melodies are anthemic and sweeping. The tempos are egregiously slow, and not in a cool minimalist sort of way. There is almost always an acoustic guitar or piano holding the whole thing down. The songs are typically pretty lengthy, but only because they are so repetitive. A few of the songs are backed by choirs that are polished to the point of sounding synthesized. Then there's the inevitable overproduced backwards cymbal effect to let you know there's about to be a significant shift in dynamics. And worship music only has one song structure: Start off quiet, build oh-so-gradually, hit an overlong bowel purging of a crescendo, and then bring it back down for a quieter repeat of that huge chorus. It can admittedly sound quite pretty, but in a very harmless and predictable way. I shudder just typing out this description for you.

But what amplifies my reaction from shuddering to near-vomiting is worship music lyrics. These lyrics don't bother to take any chances. You could probably spend at least an entire week straight counting out how many times "Jesus," "God," "love," "salvation," "faith" and any other cliche word associated with Christianity is pumped into these just-add-water anthems. This is disappointing, considering some of the Psalms express very strong and legitimate feelings of doubt and anguish toward God, and some of the older battle hymns are rife with pretty hardcore imagery: "From victory unto victory/His army shall he lead/'Til every foe is vanquished/And Christ is Lord indeed." ("Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus," George Duffield Jr.) But worship music removes any elements that would be considered the least bit offensive -- and also anything that would appeal to anyone who is not already Christian. Sounds like a pretty terrible method of evangelism.

I fear these worship music "artists" may be perpetuating a separationist attitude among burgeoning Christian musicians. Even worse, I think they are perpetuating self-centeredness among many Christians. The thing that irks me the most about worship music is most of it exclusively features "I," "me" and "my" language. There are hardly any mentions of the essential notion of Christianity as a familial community. There are hardly any songs about trying to make the world a better place. There are hardly any songs about loving one another, even. It's all about what we as individuals can get out of God. All it really amounts to is that most irritatingly blase of any "divinely inspired lyrics" I've ever heard, courtesy of Delirious?: "God, You're my God, and I will seek you." Good for you, but what does that mean for your brothers and sisters in Christ?

I equate this kind of attitude with churches that maintain a pastoral approach to ministry in the face of missional living's increasing relevance. Like pastoral churches, contemporary worship music is not there to motivate people to fulfill their duty as Christians -- it merely serves as a Band-Aid for whatever spiritual boo-boo's they may have recently suffered. People who listen to contemporary worship music have no interest in joining the proverbial orchestra and performing "The Word," as composed by Awesome God. They only want to sit in the audience and listen to subpar musicians give a very dull rendition.

Not only do I wish there were more Christian musicians who encouraged people to join that orchestra, but I wish the musicians that do encourage people to do so would get more exposure than these worship music torchbearers. Even with a zillion mentions of the word "Jesus" in any given contemporary worship song, I hear little -- if any -- of Jesus in any of that kind of music. I hear Jesus more so in the music of artists on the Asthmatic Kitty and Sounds Familyre record labels, many of whom sing unabashedly about God over some of the strangest music you could ever imagine. I hear Jesus in Animal Collective's latest album, Merriweather Post Pavillion, which features songs about cherishing your loved ones and "support(ing) your brother." I even hear Jesus in the music of hardcore punk sextet F@#!ed Up's The Chemistry of Common Life; even though it's taken from a very agnostic perspective ("It's hard enough being born in the first place/So who would ever want to be born again?"), at least they haven't given up on the search. This is the kind of music that fuels my desire to pick up my instrument and perform "The Word" in the most creative, passionate and relevant way I can muster through Awesome God's rockin' grace.

With all this being said, I must offer a full disclosure: As someone who oversees the 10:30 a.m. service music at his own church, I try to avoid this dreadful contemporary worship music I am speaking of at all costs, but sometimes I succumb. It's not that I like the music (although a few of the songs have admittedly infiltrated my pleasure centers), but the fact of the matter is that quite a few Christians do like contemporary worship music. This terrifies me to think people would rather listen to "The Word" than play it themselves, but at this point in my very young mission I am still learning and therefore playing by some of their rules. One day I dream of a church where a band as bizarre but unmistakably spiritual as Danielson can be played without confused looks or congregants walking out, but I'm doubtful that day is today.

Still, I don't see any reason church music can't be more challenging, motivational and evangelistic than it has been in the past decade. Awesome God did not write "The Word" to be played solo or casually listened to; He wants us all to play our parts and make its melody resound for all the world to hear and recognize its beauty and power. Awesome God is a brilliant composer, and the Jesus Jam were pretty groundbreaking for being an Awesome God cover band. I would like to think they are offended to see "The Word" replicated so poorly by so many sycophantic fans who don't attempt to be innovative musicians.

So to my friend who hopes I still make "good music" in spite of my excursion into seminary, don't worry. I'm working on it, and I hope other future worship leaders will, too. The terms "Christian" and "quality" do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Acts 29: Butt rock pretending to be indie rock

This past Sunday night, I attended Praxis Church in Tempe, Ariz. for the first time in a while and what is likely to be my last time ever. Many who attend that church are good friends and acquaintances of mine (and one of them is my sister). One such acquaintance saw that I was wearing my Fuller Theological Seminary T-shirt and said, "You left-wing wackos!" And then in a mocking, high-pitched voice he exclaimed, "We love God and everybody else!"

To be fair to this acquaintance, he told me he was joking, but I still don't find it very funny and frankly, I think it pretty much encapsulates the Acts 29 theology. For those of you who aren't in the know (which may or may not entail being an unbeliever), the Acts 29 Network is a organization of neo-Calvinist churches founded by a certain Mark Driscoll. If you haven't heard of Mark Driscoll, I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with him so you can at least be aware of a ministry that I believe is hurting the Christian message.

Driscoll is the pastor at a Seattle-based church called Mars Hill, which in its 13 years of existence has grown into one of the more prominent mega-churches in the U.S. As was documented in an episode of ABC News Nightline, Mars Hill has a reputation of being a "hip," non-liturgical church where the pastor dons fairly casual wear, the congregation is mostly in the 18 to 30 age range and, by church standards, the music is very loud; think of a combination between Nickel Creek, Coldplay and, at its edgiest, Death Cab for Cutie and you'll get an idea of the worship band's style. This church conveniently offers coffee and free Wi-Fi to congregants whenever they are not listening to Driscoll drop terms like "dude" and "chick" and curse in the middle of sermons. In other words, Mars Hill is an indie rock church -- or at least it would like you to think it is.

Driscoll describes his church as "culturally liberal and theologically conservative," and the latter couldn't be any closer to the truth. Driscoll is a strict patriarch who discourages women from preaching and believes women's top priority must become submission to their husbands upon getting married. He is notorious for frequently talking about the do's and don'ts of sex during his sermons, and even more notorious for thinking pastors' wives should oblige to their husbands' sexual wishes more often to reduce the pastors' urges to screw around with other females and/or males. And on that note, he is a big homophobe -- I heard him once say in an interview that he considers Biblical figures like King David, Elijah, John the Baptist and St. Paul "rough" and "heterosexual" guys, and express distaste at the fact 60 percent of churchgoers are women and most men who do attend church are "chickified." There is nothing indie rock about Mark Driscoll -- he is 100 percent butt rock.

As I alluded to before, Praxis Church is part of the Acts 29 network. I have attended about six or seven of their services, and I think the pastor there is several steps above Driscoll. (For the sake of this post, I am omitting the pastor's name -- all of you who attend Praxis know who he is.) I would be lying if I said I did not find some his sermons very compelling, thoughtful and enjoyable in their own right. But from what I have heard within his sermons, read on his blog and heard about him from some of my friends who attend Praxis, he also seems to be a big fan of the patriarchal route. On one of his blog posts, he echoes Driscoll in explaining why husbands are supposedly the natural leaders in any marriage. I once heard him say during a sermon something to the effect of "Mary was a virgin -- yeah, right." A female friend of mine said she and her friends asked this pastor about joining a group where men undergo preliminary pastoral training, and he responded by reading a piece of Scripture as an excuse to keep women out of the program.

The thing that scares me even more than these views is the fact so many Acts 29 congregants seem to be more tuned into the "culturally liberal" aspect of this ministry than the "theologically conservative" one. I know quite liberal people who talk about this network like it is the most revolutionary Christian organization in existence and it's simply not true. I think a lot of this misperception has to do with presentation: Driscoll's preaching style, the Starbucks-style service and -- above all -- the music. Extremely fine-tuned but not overly polished, churches like Praxis are offering a variation of "The Word" in a style tailor-made for thousands of young folks who bliss out to the anomaly of "mainstream indie rock." It's completely understandable that people's choice of church is determined by the kind of music played within, but it's still disappointing to me. It's kind of like determining which person you would like to date based on that person's musical tastes: It might make for some enjoyable, revelatory conversations, but ultimately it's a shallow move. And in the case of Acts 29, I think it's a shameless, bait-and-switch marketing ploy.

One thing I take great offense to is the fact Driscoll paints Jesus as a macho dude-bro who would have watched football, shot guns recreationally or worked on his truck in this day and age. He denounces the most common portrayals of Jesus as a "hippie, diaper, halo Christ ... I cannot worship a guy I can beat up." I can kind of understand where he's coming from -- I do agree that Jesus tends to be sissified in much modern theology, and the fact of the matter is that the Messiah is a rebel who pissed a lot of people off, got killed and was resurrected for standing up for what was right. But Jesus was a rebel in the punk rock sense, not in the heavy metal sense. Jesus' authority cannot be measured by sheer volume or girth. He was not a bully, in spite of the often misinterpreted text in the Gospel of Matthew about bringing a sword to the world (which had more to do with triggering the Jewish and Roman authorities' wrath than conducting any of those horrible Crusades). Jesus did occasionally get angry -- especially when interacting with the Pharisees and the Temple's money changers -- but righteous anger was not the foundation of his ministry. He was not a "cool guy," as ABC Nightlife portrayed Driscoll; Jesus was a complete and utter social outcast and so were every single one of his disciples. To draw a comparison to the Sex Pistols, Jesus' ministry and message is his "God Save the Queen" -- banned by the BBC but ultimately a No. 2 single (though any Jesus Jam track is always No. 1 in my books). As someone who considers himself a sensitive, artsy, "chickified" nerd who has never felt entirely comfortable among anyone on this Earth, not least of all macho men, I can wholeheartedly identify with the Jesus Driscoll would probably assault.

But the thing that troubles me the most about what I've seen from the Acts 29 Network is that it is missing the Christian message's most vital ingredient: Love. I know there is little, if anything, warm and fuzzy about Jesus' love -- it's the brutally honest, consummately transforming and downright scary kind of love we don't deserve and are profusely thankful to have. But it is also forgiving, generous and blind to whether or not we are jocks, nerds, extroverts, introverts, liberals, conservatives, artists, engineers, men, women, heterosexuals, homosexuals, young, old, mobile, immobile, etc. No one is unworthy of performing "The Word." Like any good punk rock, passion is more important than precision.

But I'm convinced Acts 29 are the ultimate bitter, jaded, Pitchfork-style music critics, hanging every sour note you've ever played over your head so you'll never be able to play comfortably, even though you may sincerely want to improve your musical skills. I especially feel this way after reading the aforementioned Praxis pastor's blog post where he bashes on unmarried 25-year-olds who live with their parents, do not hold high-paying jobs and "suddenly" decide to go into ministry. I am 25, single (asking women out has never been my sharpest skill, frankly), live with my parents out of financial necessity and work part-time because it is relatively convenient for my school schedule. In spite of all this, I don't think there was anything sudden or insincere about my recent foray into ministry. I love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, mind and body and want to use my musical talents to glorify His holy name, and I don't think anyone's age, financial situation, marital status or even past mistakes should be used against anyone who wants to perform "The Word." Being a successful, married Acts 29-style macho man is not that easy for some of us.

Now with all this being said, there are some things I do like about Praxis and, to a lesser extent, Mars Hill (a church I've admittedly never been to personally, though I've read and viewed enough to decide it's not my thing). The pastors at both churches are intelligent, captivating evangelists in their own right -- as I've sincerely told the pastor at Praxis on several occasions -- and in spite of my beef with their patriarchal views on marriage, I'm sure they are wonderful husbands and fathers. I do like the fact Praxis is encouraging involvement in missional communities, which will ultimately become the future of the church as Christians move away from buildings and further into their various communities. And please note that this post is not necessarily a dig on the people who attend these churches. As I said earlier, I know a lot of them personally, and this past Sunday after church I had an amazing in-depth theological discussion with my wonderful sister and many of her incredible friends. Honestly, that post-service discussion (at Four Peaks Brewery, of all places!) felt more like church to me than the service itself.

But as Christians, we are in fact called to love God and everybody else, above any other commandment the Bible gives us. And if thinking that makes me a left-wing wacko, I'm OK with that. Larry Norman, the father of Christian rock, put it best: "You could shake hands with the devil/Or give your life to God on the level/But without love, you ain't nothing without love."

Mark Driscoll, please take note. The Kingdom of God is not biased toward butt rock.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Transformative Christianity: An honest walk

I would highly recommend Andrew Beaujon's Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock for any Jesus freak who has ever felt alienated by the more homogenous aspects of Christian culture and/or the more atheistic tendencies of contemporary artistic culture. In his book, Beaujon -- an unbeliever -- interviews many of Christian rock's most notable figures and offers his take on the genre's best and worst qualities. I admittedly have yet to finish the book (a generally busy school schedule plus a new job will do that), and the rest of this blog post is based on one of Beaujon's references to another book I haven't even read, Apostles of Rock: The Splintered World of Contemporary Christian Music. But apparently, this latter book contains something I have turned into my own personal mission statement, musically and missionally.

Apostles of Rock proposes the existence of three kinds of Christian music artists: separationist, integrationist and transformative. I'll go even further to say that these categories apply not only to Christian musicians, but anyone devoting their creative capacities to His holy name.

Separationist Christians create stuff specifically for other Christians. They don't even try to offer anything that would appeal to anyone who isn't already down with the Jesus Jam. (See my first blog post if you haven't already.) Their "creations" are guided entirely by existing formulas that have yielded the most success in the past. There is no attempt to evangelize -- it's broken-record niche marketing in its most obvious, shameless form. A parallel can be drawn to the world's most stagnant Christian denominations and churches. Progress and ideas are out of the question; you can rest assured you will never experience anything unfamiliar or challenging. While there is potential for some separationists to bear influence outside their immediate sphere, it's never sought out. They sound less like the Jesus Jam and more like the Stereophonic Pharisees, who were notorious for their staunch aversion to the Genuine Gentiles.

Integrationist Christians are a little better at replicating the Jesus Jam. These Christians try to have the best of both worlds -- creating thoroughly faith-informed things that are also enjoyable by secular standards. It's fun to witness moments when integrationist Christians' unbelieving appreciators realize the object of their appreciation is all about God. And it's downright uplifting to see some unbelievers continuing to appreciate that object regardless of its source of inspiration. Successful integrationist Christians are a rare breed -- many try and most fail -- but I think most nondenominational organizations tend to fall into this category. I've been to services at one such "mega-church," in particular, where many of its regular congregants are not Christian. This is in line with the Jesus Jam's appeal to Jews and Gentiles alike, but I can't help but wonder if these unbelievers are on a sincere quest for spiritual revelation or simply hanging out with the rest of their friends in a big building that happens to have a cross in it. It seems that integrationist Christians sometimes dumb down their theology in an attempt to make their message more "universal."

But the transformative Christians are the ones who truly "get" the Jesus Jam. These are the Christians who are unafraid to tell it like it is. Let's face it -- the Christian journey ain't no walk in the park. It's an arduous lifelong struggle. There are people who persecute us in ways both obvious and subtle. Countless times we try to show and/or tell people about Christ's amazing love, forgiveness and generosity, and they simply don't want anything to do with it. Heck, sometimes the mere mention of the word "God" or "Jesus" or "church" provokes responses I think most Christians are used to: Our friends and acquaintances either censor themselves, tell us how "good" they are, completely throw us under the bus, try to change the subject or simply walk away. All of this -- in addition to numerous other factors -- leads to doubt, that thing every Christian feels but so few of us talk about.

My favorite song of all time is "Casimir Pulaski Day" by Sufjan Stevens. If you haven't heard the song, first of all I feel incredibly sorry for you, and secondly it's about an ex-girlfriend dying of cancer. Stevens, an Episcopalian, sings in his friendly, intimate whisper of a voice about how he and his fellow Bible study attendees pray over the girl's body, but in the end she still dies. Over a sparse, beautifully simple Americana-style backdrop, Stevens laments the "complications" the Lord throws into our lives, and the song ends with this line: "He takes and He takes and He takes."

When I told one of my friends this is my favorite song, he immediately asked me, "But don't you feel like such a bad Christian listening to that song?" And my answer was and still is, "No." In spite of all its sadness and bitterness, "Casimir Pulaski Day" still sounds like it was written by someone with a strong faith in God. Stevens simply sings about the Christian life honestly, and that's what transformative Christianity is all about. I am a transformative Christian. It may be reductive to put it this way, but transformative Christians are misfits -- graduates from the Awesome God-via-the-Jesus-Jam school whose renditions of "The Word" sound markedly different from most. (Read my second blog post if you haven't already.) Transformative Christians understand that when the Jesus Jam proclaimed themselves as the only band that matters, that statement didn't forbid us from listening to any secular bands or adopting their styles into our own. The Jesus Jam are OK if we don't buy all their merchandise, and they never said we had to listen to them or play their material all the time if we're just not in the mood.

But when it comes to following whatever vocation we are called to, the Jesus Jam remain the ultimate role model for transformative Christians. Transformative Christians recognize the difference between doubt and blasphemy -- it's one thing to say you don't feel like listening to or playing "The Word" every now and then, but it's another to stop listening to or playing it altogether or, even worse, call the piece overrated. Even if we don't like a particular section of "The Word," we still must be able to appreciate it as important within the context of the entire symphony.

Transformative Christians are obviously better at performing "The Word" than separationist Christians simply because we try to play it to those who haven't already heard it. And ultimately, I think we're better at performing it than integrationist Christians because we don't try to hide our mistakes, which makes us more endearing and approachable. But even though we don't feel totally comfortable among the other two categories of Christians, we can't simply isolate ourselves from them. Transformative Christians perform a vital role in that symphony; we must remember our parts and play them proudly. Our triune God loves misfits, and in the end our blind eyes, deaf ears, withered hands, flows of blood and demon possessions will not matter. As long as we remain faithful yet honest performers of "The Word" and encourage others to join in the song, we will never be turned away from the Jesus Jam's concert at the Ultimate Temple.