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.

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