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.


  1. Awesome entry, Todd. That night is still very clear in my head also. I've learned to keep my faith quiet and, quite frankly, it's sad and disappointing. I know we've talked about this extensively, but my problem with the episode is this: indie culture prides itself on being different, tolerant, accepting. But yet, they only accept their own differences. They are "different" in that they are not religious. But they sure as hell are not going to be tolerant or accepting of Christians, even though they are the minority in this subculture. I think it's really sad that these people think so highly of themselves and tout their open mindedness, but that's not the case at all. Usually they are just as damning as the "religious right" they hate. It's all very hypocritical and depressing.

    Jo and I are members on a fixed gear forum, and there have been a few times members have mentioned something about God, church, whatever (in the context of "I can't ride today, I'll be a church" or something equally as relevant). Every single time, the person is met with so many rude, harsh and disrespectful remarks. I know it's "just the Internet," but these people know each other in the real world and still feel the need to say inappropriate, belittling things. It's just really too bad that our "scene" is so narrow-minded.

  2. Thank you for reading and for the kind words of encouragement, Celeste! Don't ever be quiet about your faith -- we should never be ashamed about what we believe in. I got sick of retreating into that kind of attitude a long time ago. If they don't like it, that's their problem, not yours.

    I am very sorry to hear about the negative remarks any mention of religion draws on that fixed gear forum. That in and of itself brings back so many bad memories from that whole scene. I would urge you and/or Josiah or any other faithful person you know on that forum to stick up for someone whenever they are belittled for expressing their beliefs even slightly. That's so stupid considering they all know each other, too -- the whole "just the Internet" excuse is flimsy anyway, but these people are downright cowardly for not directly debating with whoever they disagree with.

    That's unfortunately pretty typical of the indie scene, though ... I might try to confront that drummer (you know who he is) the next time I see him. Assuming he even bothers to talk to me.

  3. "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."

    So true. That story sounds pretty traumatizing. If that were me, I would probably cry.
    I've been a little shy about my faith, because I'm shy about everything. I noticed that when I started hanging around that scene a lot, I started to turn into someone I didn't want to be, instead of standing up to it. Now I simply avoid it. I wish I could build up the kind of courage it takes to be involved in the culture, and still be vocal about my core values. It's something I've been praying about.

  4. Thanks for reading and for the comment, Kristen! It was quite traumatic, and I wanted to cry pretty much the rest of the night.

    Standing up for your beliefs in the face of a culture that doesn't condone them is really hard, but absolutely necessary. It breaks my heart to see some people seemingly denounce all their core beliefs once they are in a mostly secular setting, or to see people not want to enter that setting at all for fear of being ridiculed. That being said, I know how it feels to worry about turning into that ugly someone, which is another reason I don't interact with that scene much anymore. Plus, I got sick of the general air of superficiality -- it really is an environment where whatever you are wearing or listening to is used to measure the content of your character.

    I will keep you in my prayers, Kristen. With His help we can and will make a difference. :)

  5. You just gotta do you and not worry about anyone else. That is much harder to do than to say though.

  6. hey big T -

    i read your blog every now and then, and i'm really glad i read this. i totally forgot about this night and your telling of it was spot on. it's hard not to exaggerate when you're attacked...proof you still got skills in the (hopefully) objective world of journalism!

    i think we all learned some interesting things there, which you've detailed. i have to say, i've maybe never felt cooler being apart of the "outcast" crowd. we try to follow our ideals and ideas, and don't give in to the crap. i've only been your wingman on a few occasions, but that night i felt proud to be in the crowd and the company of my new friends.