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.

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