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.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

There's nothing hip about faith

I was terrified from the very beginning. The floorboards were completely exposed. The walls were mostly bare except for a rare Joy Division seven-inch and I think a few abstract paintings. The couch we sat on was cramped and uncomfortable, and I vaguely remember half the cushions being torn. And the motley assortment of folks sitting before us were mostly white, often bespectacled, strikingly dressed and evidently ashamed of their God-given hair colors.

But in spite of this rather foreboding atmosphere, my then-roommate/bandmate and I took deep breaths and launched into our set list. I had already attended a few enjoyable shows at my friend's house and finally mustered the courage to ask him if we could play a show there. I was thrilled to hear him emphatically invite us to open for about 14 other acts at this December 2007 shindig. My then-group, The Invisible Teal -- essentially myself and whoever was available that night or otherwise not sick of me yet -- had been playing around the Phoenix Valley for more than four-and-a-half years, and I was chomping at the bit to prove to this mostly untapped audience that we had the melodic, creative and lyrical chops to hold our own with the snobbiest of the music snobs. (Quite a lofty goal for a mere vocalist/guitarist and percussionist -- we weren't no Dodos, that's for sure.) Plus, this performance gave us the opportunity to debut a few new songs, including one called "Purity."

Up to that point, I had never written a song quite like "Purity" before. It wasn't the typical slow, droning, epic prettiness The Invisible Teal had become known for in the area -- it was an upbeat, three-chord story-song in the vein of Bob Dylan or The Velvet Underground, talk-singing included. In this song, I detailed my initial reaction upon learning one of my fellow Christian friends had started smoking cigarettes, immediately after I had told this friend about my first experience getting drunk. As a naive, sheltered 20-year-old who was living away from home for the first time ever, I was convinced my friend and I were headed straight to hell upon ending our subpar versions of "The Word" with a whimper. But then I realized this is not the case -- far from it, actually. Just because we miss a few notes here and there does not mean that Awesome God will give our performances an "F" once we're reached the finale. In fact, I don't think Awesome God has ever given an "A+" to any rendition of "The Word" besides that of The Jesus Jam.

Metaphorical digressions aside, "Purity" explicitly documents this transition from embarrassed storytelling to utter moral repulsion to ultimate forgiveness. Deep inside, I was expecting listeners to be pleasantly surprised by what I thought was our newfound musical variety -- not all our songs sound like R.E.M., Radiohead or Low anymore! But as we played it that night, something else happened entirely. The person sitting to my right on the couch abruptly got up and left the room. One attendee who I had particularly admired for his musical tastes and sense of anti-fashion glared at me from outside through the living room window, with the kind of jaded contempt that could make the staunchest chin-stroker wet their pants. Applause (or any response at all, really) was rather scarce throughout the remainder of our set. I tried to talk to a few people afterward, but it seemed like few of them even wanted to be in the same room with me. I started wondering what the heck had happened. Did they really hate our music that much?

I did my best to ignore their aloofness and sat down with my roommate/bandmate and two other friends we had brought along. We watched the band after us play some irredeemably awful experimental rock and absolutely mangle a "cover" of "Hey Jude." My spirits were lifted slightly by the intriguingly angular noise rock outfit that played after them, but then something truly surreal happened. Before this group played their last song, their singer got up to the microphone and talked about how we are all good people regardless of whether or not we drink or smoke. And that was just the icing; the cake came when this band's drummer -- the aforementioned tastemaker who glared at me through the window -- pointed toward the back where we were sitting and said something that haunts me even now: "Choose your venue wisely!"

I looked to my roommate/bandmate to see if I wasn't just making this up in my nervous, insecure state of mind, but no such luck. The truth was instantly, painfully clear. These people didn't necessarily dislike our music -- they hated the fact I sang about Jesus at an indie rock house show. Even at the relatively early time we had played that night, a lot of the attendees had already inundated themselves with alcohol and tobacco, and apparently all they heard from "Purity" were the song's initial rants against drinking and smoking. As far as they were concerned, I was just some street preacher who had come to tell them all what evil, hell-bound sinners they were. Needless to say, I was furious. My friends and I had grabbed all our equipment and merchandise, I exclaimed a few things that were probably not too pleasing to the ears of the Lord and we left. The night was uphill from there, as is any night you sit with your good friends and watch something as gloriously inane as Wet Hot American Summer. But the film I was really watching was a newly released horror flick called Choose Your Venue Wisely on repeat in my head.

To be fair, my friend who owned that house apologized to me profusely, and the noise rock group's singer clarified that he didn't mean any harm by what he said (though I know for a fact the drummer most certainly did). But though I don't watch Choose Your Venue Wisely nearly as much anymore, I'd be lying if I said its images don't still haunt me. There are several reasons you never see me around the Trunk Space or any other downtown Phoenix art venues anymore -- my seminary studies keep me plenty occupied, my limited funds keep me from doing much for leisure and, in my less amiable moments, I've stepped on quite a few influential toes. There are many reasons I broke up The Invisible Teal -- I was drunk on the promise of two new bands which have since dissolved, our performance draw was significantly dwindling and, let's face it, our music got pretty darn boring toward the end of our "career." But nearly two years since that terrible incident, I've discovered the overarching reason: AS A CHRISTIAN, I FEEL UNWELCOME IN THE INDIE ROCK SCENE.

I don't know exactly when it happened -- estimably sometime between the Age of Enlightenment and the release of Modest Mouse's first record -- but it is unquestionable that identifying yourself as a religious person automatically makes you unhip in indie rock circles. There have been a few moments when I let it slip that I'm Christian at a show or party, and immediately endured an aggressive but very brief effort at de-evangelism. There have been a few moments the same kind of admission was met with a few well-meaning jokes, which I generally don't mind but still can't help but hear with a hint of tokenism. But more often than not, when I've told someone offhandedly about this one thing that happened in church or this other thing that I prayed about, the other side of the dialogue reverts to awkward stares at the floor, mumbled half-responses and finally a feet-dragging departure to the other side of the room.

It's bad enough to talk about your faith with members of the indie rock community at large, but singing about your faith is utter heresy as far as they're concerned. I've never been afraid to sing about my beliefs, and I've always been very aware The Invisible Teal's lyrical content would inspire a few snickers and guilt-ridden facial expressions. But I always tried to sing about my triune God in a non-cliche, non-condescending manner, and when Choose Your Venue Wisely unexpectedly debuted in my head that December night, I felt like I'd failed. Could I have been more tactful about it? Possibly. In retrospect, do I even think "Purity" is that great of a song? Not particularly.

Still, as I now realize more vividly than ever, we cannot let some listeners' gross misinterpretations of "The Word" discourage us from playing the piece at all. The fact of the matter is not everyone is going to want to hear "The Word" -- its challenging complexity and austerity is an acquired taste for some, and some self-deceiving "aficionados" write it off as nothing but hideous noise. But anyone who performs "The Word" and hears it for the immaculate masterpiece it is will rejoice in the opportunity to experience the most powerful piece of music ever written. Remember: The Jesus Jam were mostly poorly received when they played the greatest concert of all time (imagine playing a bad gig where the audience threw STONES instead of tomatoes or water bottles!), but that didn't prevent them from playing "The Word" with all the passion and expertise Awesome God intended it to be performed with. And for the few people at that concert that "got it," it was a truly life-changing experience. People need to hear "The Word," whether they want to or not.

And in the end, if listeners hear your unique rendition of "The Word" and still write it off as noise, they ought to remain respectfully aware of the other listeners who may have loved every gorgeous note. What happened at the house show that December night is possibly the most hypocritical thing I've ever experienced. The entire point of punk rock was that you didn't have to be part of any social or technical elite to pick up an instrument and make great music in the name of rebellion against this world's most corrupt establishments. And if you consider indie rock to be a very indirect outgrowth of punk rock, something went wrong. Now you're just not hip enough to hang with the indie kids if your guitar is in tune, your hair is traditionally styled, you wash your obscure band T-shirts, you sing on key or you sing about God. Things have come full circle -- at its worst, indie rock IS an establishment, and one that's just as rigid and closed-minded as the world's most unwelcoming churches. If I had sang a song with a chorus of, "F@#! God, f@#! religion/Go Richard Dawkins," I would've been the coolest person in the room for that moment, but if that's what it takes to be "cool," I'm not interested. I'm sure me playing "Purity" that night was punk rock in a way many of them knew nothing about.

A few weeks ago, I swallowed my traumatized fear and went to my friend's housewarming party in downtown Phoenix, which doubled as a house show with several gajillion bands. What I thought might turn into a series of dirty "What is your kind doing here?" looks ended up being the exact opposite. I saw tons of old friends and bandmates I hadn't seen in as many as three years, and every single one of them was friendly, sincere and apparently OK with the fact I'm in seminary. There were a handful of people who seemingly blew me off because I wasn't wearing thrift store clothing, but I was able to shrug it off and enjoy the night in full. One absolutely butt-kicking noise-punk band played a riveting set, and their singer/guitarist said something during the last song that boosted my hope for humanity and for the indie rock scene in general: "I know we like to make fun of the First Friday people, but we've got to f@#!ing love each other!" This feeling of hope was put into even sharper perspective later in the night by a stripped-down, acoustic indie pop band, with a song partially about how being a Christian or atheist doesn't give any of us an excuse to "be a d@#!"

Take that, tastemakers. To hell with hipness -- I love the Lord with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my mind, and I also love my broken neighbors as my broken self. I will never apologize for that love, and neither should you.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Don't let the sophomore slump get you down

I took a much-needed break from seminary studies to hang out with five of my friends several weeknights ago, but what I anticipated to be an uplifting night ended up being kind of a bummer. We met at one of our favorite bars and talked about various aspects of our lives in general ... actually, more accurately, four of us sat and listened and occasionally added our remarks while the remaining two had a very amusing conversation about sex. Good times all around, though I could feel God staring down at me with His arms crossed, and practically hear Him laughing hysterically at what was probably my very red face.

But the bummer came when one of my friends started talking about the numerous people in his life who have disappointed him, to which another one of my friends promptly responded, "Most people suck." Always the optimist, I politely interjected by saying "I disagree with that," in hopes of proposing a non-preachy argument that everyone has the capacity to be good, and that making a statement that most people are bad is not only unfair, but a little arrogant. But I never got the chance to, not least of all because one of my other friends at the table immediately started laughing at me.

She probably didn't mean it that way, but I felt totally patronized. I felt as if the entire table might as well have started patting me on the head and saying, "Awwwww, isn't that cute? He has the naivete to actually love people!" Though I enjoyed the rest of the night, I couldn't help but pine for that respectful debate that never happened. I felt utterly alone in my optimism, even in the presence of one of my devout Christian friends. But more importantly, I was heartbroken for my friends who were denouncing such optimism -- how badly burned were they that they closed themselves off to most people? And how could they do such a thing without feeling utterly depressed and alone in this world? I have yet to read President Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts of Reclaiming the American Dream, but I at least understand the first part of the title more vividly than ever: Hope in the face of the world at large is nothing short of audacious. Not only is it rare, but it's frequently frowned upon by those who know nothing about it. Morrissey, former vocalist for The Smiths, put it another way in their song "I Know It's Over": "It's so easy to laugh, it's so easy to hate/It takes strength to be gentle and kind."

One of the best songs the Jesus Jam performed during the greatest concert of all time is a challenging yet rousing anthem called "Love Your Enemies." The band knew full well that the lyrics would be considered revolutionary by all generations that followed it -- in fact, I can imagine that every audience member at this concert was flabbergasted upon hearing them, especially after hearing so many Stereophonic Pharisees tracks before it about how the "unrighteous" shouldn't even be allowed to hear "The Word" at all. After the Jesus Jam's demise, their fans had inherited a mission to not only start their own bands, but also to keep "Love Your Enemies" in their repertoires, which is quite a daunting task even today. Not that "Love Your Enemies" is a particularly hard song to play once you get the hang of it, but THAT CHORUS -- "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Those words are hard to hear and even harder to sing.

But as musicians continuing the legacy of Awesome God-via-The Jesus Jam, it is absolutely essential that we don't omit "Love Your Enemies" from our performances of "The Word." It's by far the most challenging section of the piece, but the rewards are great for anyone who plays through it successfully, and even greater for those fortunate enough to hear it played well. If we skip the section altogether, we are doing ourselves and our listeners a disservice. It may be easier in the short run to not have to even worry about that section, but in the long run, listeners will notice that a crucial part of the symphony is missing and, mistaking it for a poorly written piece, may never want to hear "The Word" again. In the end, performing "The Word" is not about how much fun we're having playing it -- it's about the healing, nourishment and inspiration the listener is capable of experiencing when they hear it the first time. A superbly rendered version of "Love Your Enemies" will motivate others to pick up an instrument and master it themselves.

But as I learned that night with my friends, far too many listeners don't want to even give first few seconds of "Love Your Enemies" a chance. I think a lot of them may have heard this section in the past, but it made for quite an uncomfortable listen. Perhaps they deemed the musicianship a little too intense. Maybe they felt the melody is just too dissonant. But it's most likely that the words are just too painful for them to hear. They've had too many bad experiences in the past to ever want to listen to a song about forgiveness and reconciliation in the face of relentless hatred and hostility. To put it another way -- and veer into another musical metaphor altogether -- these listeners are stuck on the sophomore slump.

Anyone who has ever actively sought great new music should be painfully familiar with the sophomore slump. It's always a thrill to discover that relatively rare thing -- a debut album that actually has consistently good songwriting, refreshingly innovative sonics and a solid front-to-back flow. For most musicians, the debut album is merely those first few awkward steps after hearing the starting gun, before they actually find their stride and learn how to run. So it's always uplifting and exciting to find musicians that begin the race at a full-fledged sprint.

But with that unexpected starting sprint comes potentially crippling expectations: Now you want these musicians to win the race. You want them to prove themselves as the greatest runners of all time. But sadly, some of these musicians simply lose their energy and finish second, fifth or sometimes dead last. Countless artists have released utterly disappointing follow-ups to those amazing debuts (which I will explain out of popular hearsay as much as actually hearing the music). The Doors brought psychedelic rock to previously unheard-of levels of darkness with their self-titled 1967 debut album, but spent much of the rest of their career in the annals of schmaltzy pop, hackneyed blues-rock and Jim Morrison's drug-addled "poetic" indulgences. Dr. Dre basically revitalized West Coast rap with 1992's The Chronic, but his output has been spotty at best ever since. The B-52's and Pretenders helped define New Wave with their self-titled debuts -- released in 1979 and 1980, respectively -- but the former band has lost much of their endearing quirkiness, while the latter band has essentially become a mediocre Chrissie Hynde solo project. And Guns N' Roses made hard rock tough and ugly again in the face of polished hair metal with 1987's Appetite for Destruction, but it takes a truly special person to forgive Axl Rose's ego or "November Rain."

Nevertheless, though we tend to focus on sophomore slumps because it IS easier to laugh and hate than to be gentle and kind, numerous artists who fell prey to this curse quickly recovered and delivered on their initial promise. Ramones and The Clash both released second albums that fell short of the simple rock & roll revolutions they instigated on their self-titled debuts, but they more than redeemed themselves respectively with 1977's Rocket to Russia and 1979's London Calling, both considered two of the best punk albums ever made. U2's 1980 debut album, Boy, was followed by the comparatively lackluster October before they came back with even bigger statements and more riveting tunes on 1983's War. Pearl Jam followed their grunge powerhouse of a debut, 1991's Ten, with the inconsistent Vs. before taking a real walk on the wild side with 1994's odd but brilliant Vitalogy. And outside of the great first album/worse second album/better third album pattern, Bob Dylan basically screwed around for much of his post-Blonde on Blonde career before unexpectedly dropping the classic breakup album Blood on the Tracks in 1975.

Music nerd indulgences aside, the point is that we can't wallow in the throes of sophomore slump disappointment forever. I've seen it again and again (in myself, too) that listeners will stop listening to an artist just because they had the gall to upset their otherwise "perfect" repertoire and release a subpar record. All of a sudden, they decide not to follow this or that band anymore just because of a single misstep. Or even worse, this disappointment "puts things into perspective" for the listener and they decide this or that band was never really that great to begin with. Sometimes they base their level of disappointment on the simple fact this or that band are doing something DIFFERENT. Heaven forbid anything about their sound changes or progresses.

It is absolutely crushing for me to see my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ or otherwise treat people much the same way. As I said before, adopting the attitude that "most people suck" is not only unfair to that person, but it's a little arrogant since it more or less assumes that whoever is making that statement isn't one of those sucky people. By putting all your faith in flawed human beings alone, you are already begging for trouble. People are going to trespass against you sooner or later, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. But we are called not just as Christians, but as human beings to forgive each other for those trespasses. It may be hard to listen to and sing "Love Your Enemies," but it's absolutely necessary if we are to get the most out of Awesome God's greatest love songs. And once you familiarize yourself with it, "Love Your Enemies" not only becomes easier to sing and listen to, but it can be kind of fun.

On our way to an internship interview this weekend at Fuller Theological Seminary's main campus in Pasadena, Calif., my mom and I got into a huge fight. I expressed my anger toward her becoming very upset over the fact she had managed to get dog poop on her jeans, after which she proceeded to lecture me for not letting her vent about something that had nothing to do with me. Long story short, one unnecessary rehash of our sometimes volatile past led to another, and it more or less culminated in her sarcastically apologizing for not being a perfect mother. All of a sudden, it dawned on me like the midday sun in the middle of July in Phoenix, Ariz.: Humans screw up sometimes, and it's totally unfair to see a person for the number of mistakes they've made instead of their overall, wonderful, God-given character. Performing and listening to "Love Your Enemies" may be challenging, but by doing so we are ultimately rewarded with life, while holding a grudge (and consequently acting upon that grudge) can only lead to death. Phoenix-based folk-punk duo Andrew Jackson Jihad summarized this notion in their song "People": "People are wasteful, they waste all the food/People are hateful and people are rude/But God, I love some people sometimes/Because people are very, very special/And people are impatient, they don’t know how to wait/People are selfish, people are prone to hate/But God, I love some people sometimes/Because people are the greatest thing to happen."

And we are the greatest thing to happen. So to my friends who unintentionally bummed me out the other night, I forgive you and love you for the broken but beautiful souls you are. Because of the Jesus Jam's timeless rendition of "The Word," we will always be better than the sophomore slump.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Any instrument can be of His peace

Several years ago, upon the request of a friend, I played a single service at one particular church in the Phoenix Valley area and decided never to play there again -- not that I disliked the music, but I was busy as a community college freshman who was already committed to another church, and frankly a little disgusted by the music director's diva-worthy attitude. But I did not leave without an unforgettable and appalling nugget of information. As I overheard the other musicians talk amongst themselves, I heard one of them mention that one of the singers temporarily quit the band because she simply couldn't worship God in a group with a drummer.

OH MY GOSH. I seriously couldn't believe what I was hearing, and I still don't. I understand people are picky about the music they want to hear in church (including yours truly, in case you couldn't tell), but drums!? That's what determines whether or not a band is worshipping God the "right" way? Is any percussionist that plays anything more than a shaker or tambourine indisputably hell-bound? Does God really want us to stick exclusively to ancient hymns that lack any sort of beat or syncopation? I mean, this was an ELECTRONIC drum kit, too -- good for volume control in the face of occasionally novice musicians (and people like the aforementioned Righteous Rhythm-Hater), but bad for any purist who realizes there ain't nothin' like the real thing. Apparently, even this lame alternative to acoustic drums was way too radical for this lady.

To say I was a little biased would be an understatement. I basically learned to play my primary instrument, guitar, by playing in Esperanza Lutheran Church's contemporary worship band on and off since I was about 17, if not younger. Rocking out for God (electronic drum kit and all) was never a big deal to me -- in fact, it never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with it until I heard about this vocalist's brief, rhythmaphobic exodus. Naively, I reacted by adopting the polar opposite viewpoint, insisting that the Rock Band version of church was the only "real" way to praise God. I was convinced the Jesus Jam's frontman was an electric guitar shredder, not some tortured pipe organist. Larry Norman put it quite eloquently in his song "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?": "I don't like none of those funeral marches/I ain't dead yet!" (Kind of cruel considering the aforementioned Righteous Rhythm-Hater was rather elderly.)

Then, once I transferred from Chandler-Gilbert Community College to Arizona State University, I started attending University Lutheran Church because it was closer to my new house and many of my friends had extolled its virtues to me. It was culture shock from the beginning -- the very first song at the very first service I attended there was a completely unfamiliar hymn played on piano. I was expecting the band to show up and kick in at any moment, but that moment never came. Every song was on piano or organ -- that was it. I could feel my face going as white as most of either instrument's keys. How on earth could people worship to such minimal dreariness as this? In the most traditional of settings, I felt like a participant in the utmost heresy.

I was comforted to discover there were contemporary services held there on Wednesday nights, but this comfort was largely shattered upon attending my first such service. The music was still guided by just a piano and no drums; if we were lucky, there would also be a guitar (often played by myself), and even then usually just an un-amplified acoustic. As far as I was concerned, the only thing more contemporary about this service was the fact they played more songs I and other people my age were familiar with. Since then, University Lutheran Church's Wednesday night services has added bongos, electric bass and a microphone system to the equation, but it's still quite a reserved affair compared to my halcyon days of rockin' for Awesome God.

But though I considered my transition into ULC somewhat of a curse initially (in terms of music alone -- I have never considered their staff or attendees anything but angels), I now realize it was an absolute blessing in disguise. For one thing, the sanctuary is much smaller than the one at Esperanza, so even an electronic drum kit would sound a bit overwhelming. But even if they had a sanctuary the size of the Tower of Babel, drums wouldn't be an absolute necessity. I did not abandon my electrified past for the sake of a more somber, canonized future; rather, I realized worship music's instrumentation does and should not matter. The God I experienced moaning my way through an organ-led anthem like Martin Luther's "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" was the same God I experienced half-dancing to a percussion-driven tune like Charlie Peacock's "In the Light." In the end, they're all just variations on "The Word."

When it comes to being biased toward particular instrumentation in a worship setting, I think it's a lot easier for old-school liturgists to criticize the relatively new phenomenon of "Christian rock." Larry Norman may have released "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?" 37 years ago, but as evidenced by my experience with the Righteous Rhythm-Hater, there are still people who don't think church is a place for drums, electric guitars or even synthesizers. I think this attitude is epitomized by an incident I read about regarding the Resurrection Band (also known as Rez Band or just REZ). Between 1972 and 2000, the Resurrection Band offered Christianity-filtered social commentary in the context of raw, balls-to-the-wall hard rock -- think less Stryper and more AC/DC, Van Halen or Guns N' Roses. One of their vocalists, Glenn Kaiser, had a raspy, bluesy bellow that would have gotten him kicked out of the choir but sounds right at home with the Bob Segers and Rod Stewarts of the world. But their grit and volume were way too much for one church they played at, which basically kicked them out after about three songs because their music was inspiring everyone to dance. According to this church, no one should have fun while performing or even listening to "The Word." The notion of the Jesus Jam's frontman as a tortured pipe organist must be preserved at all costs.

But throughout the development of contemporary Christian music over the past several decades, the opposite approach has suddenly become a problem. People like my former self and far too many other people I know adamantly refuse to worship God in any setting where the only instrumentation is a piano, organ or vocal or bell choir. They want a beat. They want electricity. They want to leave their worship experience with ears ringing and souls singing. Several newer churches -- particularly the Acts 29 Network, which I criticized in a previous post -- seem to pander to this mentality with their exclusively full-band version of "The Word." The tortured pipe organist has now been recast (resurrected?) as an electric guitar shredder.

I think adopting either attitude is silly, elitist and totally detrimental to the Awesome God-given purpose of "The Word." Any church who hopes to meet the needs of believers over 60 and under 40 (to quote the title of an Edward H. Hammett book) must be able to find a middle ground between both approaches. Of course, that's all assuming that only the elderly like traditional hymns and only the youthful like contemporary Christian music, which is a stereotype that's long overdue for a swift, completely deserved death. I know many people in their 20s that absolutely love centuries-old hymns like "All Creatures of Our God and King," "Amazing Grace" and "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing," and many in their 40s and 50s who go nuts for CCM standards like "Awesome God" (the song, not the band/composer I made up to represent the Lord our Creator), "I Could Sing of Your Love Forever" and "Heart of Worship." Assuming that hymns and CCM are generationally exclusive totally goes against the nature of "The Word" -- it was written to be a symphony for all generations to perform in perfect harmony, despite the fact our favorite parts within its score may differ.

Another thing people must realize about "The Word" is that it was written to be played on any instrument. Awesome God doesn't care if "The Word" is relayed via piano, organ, synthesizer, guitar, choir, drum kit or even kazoo -- as long as the notes are correct and played with unbridled passion, He's mainly just happy to hear people are still playing it after all these years. (Heck, a kazoo choir might actually bring out the best of memorably obnoxious hymns like "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.") But if Awesome God does have an ideal version of "The Word," it probably sounds less like one of Joseph Haydn's string quartets or Glenn Branca's experimental guitar compositions and more like the climactic performance during the final scene of Mr. Holland's Opus, in which 20th century instruments coexist peacefully and beautifully with older, traditionally orchestral ones.

Funk-rockers Audio Adrenaline, one of the more popular contemporary Christian groups of the 1990s, resolve this issue quite nicely in "The Houseplant Song." Over a ramshackle, 1960s-style acoustic garage rock tune, vocalist Mark Stuart sings about how a book told him that any song with a syncopated beat guarantees a one-way trip to a fiery afterlife. But in that same book, he discovers a revelatory experiment: "Take two houseplants and put them to the test/Set them both in front of speakers and let the music do the rest/The first one you play Mozart or something lovely like that/The second one you play that Petra or that Megadeth/Doesn't really matter what kind of rock it is." After trying the experiment -- evidently late at night -- his neighbor angrily knocks on the door. Stuart explains the experiment to his neighbor, who then points out that Stuart is playing Richard Wagner for one of the plants, not Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Ultimately, his neighbor suggests they start hanging out, and they head out on a drive where they talk about life, love, happiness and the Holy Spirit. What starts out as a near-fight over implied musical differences becomes "a meaningful relationship that's headed straight to heaven."

Tortured pipe organist or electric guitar shredder, why can't we all just get along? Any instrument can be of His peace.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Christianity as a ministry, not an industry

I think any music nerd worth his or her weight in pop knowledge, good humor and/or weakness for cute love stories should see That Thing You Do! For those who have not seen the film, it tells the story of a fictional 1960s band called The Wonders. One of their songs, "That Thing You Do," starts out as a lovelorn, Everly Brothers-style ballad but the drummer, Guy Patterson, unexpectedly ups the tempo when they debut it live, forcing the rest of the band to play it as a jangly, ultra-catchy singalong in the Beatles/Byrds vein. One thing leads to another and this upbeat version of "That Thing You Do" eventually becomes a #1 pop hit. But when it comes time to produce another single, The Wonders' manager, Mr. White -- played by Tom Hanks, who also directed the film -- says that he wants none of the "lover's lament" dirges the group's primary songwriter, Jimmy Mattingly, seems to specialize in. Mr. White wants something happy, peppy and snappy to bring in more dough from fickle listeners seeking an instant hit fix.

I think this attitude could apply all too well to our brilliantly asinine contemporary Christian music industry. Much like Mr. White, these CCM suits are not interested in bands trying new things and developing artistically. They can't take that kind of business risk -- and trust me, the way they market these "music ministers" has little, if anything, to do with ministry and much more to do with making money. Just like the most shameless movers and shakers within the secular music ministry, they simply want to take the kinds of songs that have proven to be commercially successful in the past and reproduce them over and over and over again for returns that are unlikely to diminish (that is, until consumers move onto something else). There are quite a few CCM songs of the past decade that qualify as happy, peppy and snappy -- if not that, at least songs you can kind of dance to. But the CCM industry actually banks on the "lover's lament" material Mr. White so staunchly loathes -- the kind of lethargic, contemplative and anthemic music that sounds bearable and maybe even likable upon first listen but has folks like me nodding off and/or pulling my hair out by the 50th. I listen to this music and I can practically feel my brain fighting to retain all my vocabulary words besides "Jesus," "God," "holy," "praise" and "hallelujah." The Jesus Jam were never this boring.

I don't think the industry's higher-ups are entirely to blame for the sameness of most contemporary Christian music -- some fault must go to the artists themselves that produce this kind of stuff with the same guaranteed-hit expectations. But I don't think a lot of people realize that the Christian music industry has a disturbingly firm grasp on what counts as "real" Christian music and what doesn't. These industry standards have largely squelched the efforts of many Christian musicians who have tried to avoid cliche and craft work with honesty and nuance (including myself) to be heard by a larger audience. If you don't fit the mold, you are none of the CCM business' business.

In the book I cannot stop raving about, Body Piercing Saved My Life, Andrew Beaujohn writes about the Gospel Music Association Dove Awards, aka the Christian Grammys. He writes about the fact jangly pop-rockers Sixpence None the Richer were one of the prides and joys of CCM until they scored a mainstream hit with "Kiss Me." The song -- which appeared on the soundtrack to She's All That and made it to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 (!) -- is a very innocent request for a smooch under the "silver moon sparkling," and really contains nothing that would be considered morally offensive to most Christians. However, its commercial success and secular subject matter were enough for the GMAs to turn their backs. The group had officially gone to the dark side as far as these suits were concerned, and the song was deemed ineligible for a Dove nomination according to some then-newly written rules.

But paradoxically, in the Dove Awards ceremony Beaujohn attended (I believe in 2004), grunge-lite quartet Switchfoot were nominated for numerous awards. Like Sixpence None the Richer, Switchfoot made their name in the Christian music scene and then unexpectedly scored two Top 20 hits with "Dare You to Move" and "Meant to Live," rousing, lighter-raising anthems about overcoming life's sometimes crippling obstacles. I've admittedly only heard a handful of Switchfoot songs, but in that little nugget of their repertoire I don't recall a single mention of the words "God" or "Jesus." But their lyrics speak about love, forgiveness, generosity, unity, strength, peace and hope in the face of a discouraging, terrifying and hateful world -- a message that is consummately uplifting and only implicitly Christian. Through their music, Switchfoot don't tell you about how great Awesome God's rockin' tunes are; they simply play the tunes for you, and you are free to interpret them however you please.

Switchfoot won several of the awards they were nominated for that year, but failed to show up to accept them. The band has said numerous times in interviews that though they were on a Christian record label and don't shy away from playing Christian festivals, they prefer to think of themselves as "Christians by faith, not by genre." Artist or otherwise, I think this is a perfectly admirable way of conducting one's career as a Christian. The sad truth is most of society tends to tune out once they learn you're a Christian; all of a sudden, your opportunities for evangelism are very limited. But I think some of history's most effective evangelists are the ones who took a more subtle approach to performing "The Word" -- you have to really listen carefully to recognize the symphony's meaningful nuances, but the piece is still enjoyable to casual listeners who may not know who wrote it. Many obsessive readers get wrapped up in the fantastical details of The Lord of the Rings series without realizing its very Christian lessons on greed, perseverance and friendship, courtesy of Roman Catholic author J.R.R. Tolkien. Numerous children and adults alike are delighted by the winsome songs and magical characters of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood without recognizing its appropriation of Jesus' command to love our neighbors as ourselves, courtesy of Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers (still the best televangelist of all time). A whole bunch of agnostic and atheist indie kids sang along with refrains like "He is the Lord!" simply because they enjoyed the stripped-down yet ornate beauty of Seven Swans, an album courtesy of Episcopalian folksinger Sufjan Stevens.

Still, I found it rather disappointing to read that Stevens now refuses to do interviews unless questions about his Christian faith are avoided. I understand where he is coming from -- as I said before, making your beliefs obvious can sometimes put off people who would otherwise give you a chance -- but I think there's a difference between tact and pandering. I can't help but wonder if artists like Stevens or Switchfoot play subtler variants of "The Word" because they seek mainstream or indie acceptance, rather than sincerely wanting to show intelligent, open-minded people what Christianity is really all about without alienating them. I think any Christian worth their weight in gold (and frankincense and myrrh ... sorry, I had to) must harness his or her calling as a disciple and apply that mission to everything they do in life, whether it be subtly or obviously. This is a ministry, after all, and music is certainly no exception to that rule.

When it comes to the idea of Christianity as a ministry instead of an industry, I don't think anyone epitomized that mission better than Keith Green. If Larry Norman was the father of Christian rock, Green was its first superstar. But that certainly isn't to say Green is responsible for this shallow mess we call the contemporary Christian music industry -- far from it, actually. Like Norman, Green followed his God-given calling to make disciples of all nations, and he did so with some pretty awesome music. Green's style was alternately boisterous and stately piano rock in the vein of Billy Joel, Elton John and Randy Newman (or Ben Folds, the logical conclusion of all three), and over it he sang unabashedly about what being a Christian is and what it isn't. He used Moses as an example for people who feel unworthy of performing "The Word," and Noah as an example for those who are criticized for wanting to join the symphony at all. He expressed gratitude to the Lord for giving him a second chance at life after recovering from drug abuse. He told jokes in between and sometimes during songs, amusing audiences by comparing Christians whose reverence to God doesn't extend beyond Sunday mornings (and Wednesday evenings) to people who visit a friend in prison once a week. And on that note, Green importantly and distinctively criticized those who fail to take their faith seriously, or lack any faith at all. Take this line from "To Obey is Better Than Sacrifice": "If you can't come to Me every day/Then don't bother coming at all." Pretty harsh words, but isn't that sentiment really what being a child of God through Christ is all about? It's OK and perfectly natural to go through rough spots, but His promise for eternal life is entirely dependent upon our devotion to and passion for Him. We are either diehard fans of Awesome God or we aren't, and Green never cared if he offended anybody by saying so. The Jesus Jam got ran out of town, so to speak, for performing what would eventually be acknowledged as the best concert of all time, so in the long run, why should we be afraid of other people's booing and hissing? Sadly, Green died in a plane crash in 1982, at the age of 28, but I'm sure Awesome God gave him a permanent slot on heaven's main stage. I hope to see him perform there one day.

I think much of Green's sense of ministry died along with him. All that most Christian musicians have now is a suffocating industry. It's an industry where Christian radio stations can play Christian bands' covers of U2 songs but not actual U2 songs since the Irish alt-rock group's faith apparently isn't obvious enough. (They have an unbelieving bassist -- HERESY!!!!) It's an industry where Derek Webb, former singer/songwriter for Caedmon's Call, has serious issues with his record label over the use of a single curse word on one of his albums. It's an industry where I don't think I can say I've ever seen a female singer who wasn't a pinup-style "babe," while conventionally unattractive male singers like Bart Millard from MercyMe and David Crowder can seemingly succeed without a hitch. And outside of music, it's an industry where Christians can be pumped with all kinds of harmless bookstore garbage, whether it's fluffy devotional packets, "WWJD?" stickers or Testamints. (Really, do we need Scripture on breath mints!!?!?)

To sum up this post (and really, the last couple of posts about my thoughts on contemporary Christian music), WAKE UP, PEOPLE. This is just another niche market that has little, if anything, to actually do with God. I don't think God has a favorite style of music; if He does, I would hope it isn't the blandly epic folk-pop that has all but consumed any other style being played on Christian radio stations or in numerous churches. And the idea that the "realness" of Christian music can be measured is absolutely absurd. Any version of "The Word" is real Christian music, regardless of tempo, mood, melody, skin color, technical skill, overtness or covertness. The only universal standard by which a performance of "The Word" should be measured is whether or not it inspires someone to join the symphony who would have never picked up an instrument otherwise.

In the aforementioned scene of That Thing You Do!, immediately after Mr. White demands another hit, Mattingly promptly steps up to the studio microphone, adopts an all-too-eager grin, snaps his fingers in a swingin' rhythm and intersperses giggling with a single sung-spoken phrase: "I quit ... I quit ... I quit."

For all who consume the many vacuous, Mr. White-approved elements of Christian culture, I urge you to quit. But don't ever give up on the holy essence of our Awesome God. If your performance is sincere, your unique version of "The Word" will be rewarded.