Saturday, November 28, 2009

Jesus never looked like Peter Frampton

In preparing for this particular blog post, I bit the bullet, went to and listened to Peter Frampton's interminable Frampton Comes Alive! At the tender age of 25, I was obviously not around to witness this album top the Billboard 200 album charts for something like 10 jillion years, or see any videos of Frampton sucking on the microphonic component of that talk-box guitar effect he popularized (which is unfortunate, since the talk-box is possibly the worst thing to happen in the history of guitar effects -- if you need further proof, look to Bon Jovi's Richie Sambora). But I had obviously heard the mega-hits "Show Me the Way" and "Baby I Love Your Way" ad nauseam on our lite-rock radio station when I worked as a journalist for nearly three years, and needless to say, Frampton Comes Alive! is just about what I'd expected it to be: Expertly performed but utterly toothless, painfully unmemorable guitar-rock interspersed with Frampton's moronic stage banter about how this particular number is a "rocker" and that other one is "a bit funky." Hmmm, good to know ... still all sounds like crap to me.

But for the sake of this post, I want to focus on the album cover: A nearly iconic (OK, maybe just notorious) photo of Frampton himself, the neck of his Gibson Les Paul and two bright lights behind him playing second fiddle to his pasty white complexion, golden locks, seemingly stoned gaze and failure to button his shirt. I am drawn to this image because it bears a striking resemblance to most popular depictions of Jesus Christ our Lord. If that doesn't piss you off, it should.

It seems that somewhere down the line, people have forgotten or simply refuse to acknowledge that Jesus was Jewish by ancestry. With this in mind, it is very likely the Messiah had fairly dark skin, dark hair and brown eyes. He may have fulfilled the Jewish stereotype of possessing a relatively lengthy nose, and was probably about average height if not shorter (which had as much to do with people's general stature in the first century A.D. as the Jews' common physical traits). In addition, he probably rarely washed his clothes or cut his fingernails, and let's not even get started on whether or not the man even brushed his teeth. Ew. Our Awesome God's "spitting image" may have turned out to be a fairly nasty sight, and frankly, I'm totally comfortable with that. The Messiah is still the Messiah, whether or not he was much to look at.

Of course, an innumerable amount of medieval artists got all antsy about this notion and had to go and screw everything up. It's because of them (probably with the encouragement of more than a few northern European churches) that we now have the Nordic, Peter Frampton lookalike Jesus: Blonde, blue-eyed, tall, cleanly and so white we gotta wear shades just to look at any of these erroneous paintings. It seems that these Christians overlooked the Scriptural fact that God visited Earth in human form to save ONE people -- the Israelites, Awesome God's chosen noisemakers. Throughout The Holy Bible's four aural reviews of The Jesus Jam's tour throughout the Mediterranean, journalists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John make note of numerous lyrics that explain how the Jews have to hear the good tunes first, and none of this music will even apply to the Gentiles (i.e. everyone who isn't Jewish) until after The Jesus Jam, um, get run out of town. In other words, it's because of The Jesus Jam that European mutts like me are even allowed to join Awesome God's symphony.

But these stupid medieval artists just couldn't stomach that theological fact, portraying Jesus as an unmistakable Gentile and thereby setting in motion the still-prevalent image of Jesus as a white guy. There have been some notable exceptions, such as the Aramaic-speaking, very Jewish-looking Jesus in The Passion of the Christ (ironically portrayed by the U.S.-born James Caviezel), but in my experience most portrayals of Jesus still look like that from the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar, in which a blonde, pearly white Jesus plays opposite a black Judas -- and here we are almost unanimously calling Song of the South racist! To be fair, though, northern European white folks aren't the only ones who have seemingly tried to "rescue" Jesus from his Palestinian heritage. Numerous African artists have recast the Son of God as a black man, and I wouldn't be surprised if numerous Asian or Latin American artists have committed similar historical revisions. Heck, if someone asked me to paint a picture of the Jesus Jam, who knows if I wouldn't be tempted to portray them as a ragtag bunch of awkward, bespectacled nerds like myself?

Besides being historically inaccurate, though, I think these attempts to portray Jesus as anything but Jewish has only helped to further feelings of anti-Semitism among Christians. Anti-Semitism certainly didn't originate with all of this misleading medieval art, and its roots in Christianity can be arguably traced back to The Holy Bible itself. For example, Matthew's review of The Jesus Jam's seminal tour was probably written by a Jew but didn't do much to help the Jews' image, particularly because Matthew routinely, shamelessly bashed the Stereophonic Pharisees and did a disturbingly good job of depicting the Jewish crowd that advocated for The Jesus Jam to pack up their instruments and never play in their neck of the woods again, so to speak. Since then, general tension between Jews and Christians increased over the following centuries, and it all culminated -- to put it politely -- with the Holocaust, during which at least one German bishop went through The Holy Bible and omitted any lyrics that linked The Jesus Jam back to their Jewish origins.

I hear about stories like this and I just want to cry. Especially as a Lutheran, it was depressing for me to not only learn that Martin Luther published treatises like On the Jews and Their Lies, but that such hateful sentiments were common in Europe during the 16th century. And it's even more distressing to see devout Christians like Mel Gibson and Rev. Jeremiah Wright still generate 15-minute media fodder with ill-advised anti-Semitic comments. If Christians continue to do this, all we amount to in my mind are teenagers badmouthing our parents just because we arbitrarily can't bear the thought of being associated with our roots -- we're rebelling against our religious ancestors just because we can.

And yes, folks, the Jews are our religious ancestors; if it wasn't for Judaism, Christianity wouldn't exist. Far too many Christians still commit one of the greatest heresies possible by only listening to the second, "newer" part of The Holy Bible box set, because they think the tunes contained in that portion are the only ones that apply to Christian listeners. The songs in the first, "older" section are often deemed too lengthy and challenging for Christians to listen to comfortably, especially those verses that mention circumcision, food laws, burnt offerings and holidays we never even observe. And while it is true some sections of The Holy Bible's "older" part aren't directly incorporated into most Christian renditions of "The Word," it is still necessary for us to listen to in order for the compilation's "newer" part to make sense. It isn't a matter of choosing between one section or the other -- they represent two distinct but complementary phases in Awesome God's ongoing musical career, and like any superb "greatest hits" collection, the compilers intended for Christians to listen actively to every song contained therein. It's called the Judeo-Christian tradition for a reason; "their" history is part of "our" history, too.

Several months ago, I heard one of my friends say that the only difference between Jews and Christians is whether or not one believes The Jesus Jam's rendition of "The Word" was the best that ever was and ever will be. And fundamentally, that's it -- according to most Jews, Go Down Moses' version of Awesome God's symphony still stands as the best. In that aforementioned "older" section of The Holy Bible, there are lyrical clues that the Israelites were expecting some revolutionary rocker to come blaring a version of "The Word" that would save them from the unbearably awful sounds that had polluted their once-mellifluous world. Some Jews thought The Jesus Jam instigated that revolution, and consequently those Jews became Christians. Other Jews think the revolution has yet to take place, and considered The Jesus Jam nothing more than a bunch of overrated opportunists who deserved to get run out of town. To put it another way, Jews think The Jesus Jam were The Sex Pistols, while Christians think they were The Clash.

Obviously, this fundamental disagreement is pretty huge, and probably provides more than enough justification for Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity to eventually split into two different religions after The Jesus Jam's demise on this Earth. But I see no reason that we can't agree to disagree -- at the end of the day, we still believe that "The Word" is the greatest piece of music ever written, regardless of who played it the best. Failing to treat someone with dignity simply because they possess different religious beliefs than you is like refusing to be someone's friend just because they listen to music you despise. It ultimately comes down to personal preference, and I would hope we can freely, respectfully express our differences in opinion without wanting to wring each other's necks. After we die, I guess we'll see which of us was "right," if there's even a "right" religion at all.

More importantly, though, we've treated our ancestors poorly enough throughout history that I think we owe them an apology of sorts. So, to all my Jewish friends who may or may not be reading this, we Christians are sorry you as a people got blamed for running The Jesus Jam out of town when, in reality, we Gentiles would have been down there shouting "Crucify him!" with you. We're sorry Martin Luther said so many horrible things about you after he had a stroke. We're sorry people like Mel Gibson, Rev. Jeremiah Wright and a whole bunch of other Christians I can't think of right now still say pretty nasty things about you. While we're not directly responsible for the Holocaust (Adolf Hitler actually denounced Christianity as the invention of a Jew), humanity in general should be sorry for allowing six million-plus to die, more or less behind our backs. And of course, we're sorry it's gotten to the point where some people still think Jesus looked like Peter Frampton.

And really, fellow Jesus Jam fans, we should be ashamed of ourselves for letting it get to that point, too. I mean, Peter Frampton? To quote High Fidelity, PETER EFFING FRAMPTON!!?!!?!??? One of the most embarrassingly cheesy musicians in the history of rock & roll? Come on now, Jesus always has and always will deserve a better likeness than that.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Holy Bible: A lesson in history

The first real-life "big time" journalism gig I ever got was writing music reviews for "alt.," a short-lived section of The Arizona Republic written for and by teenagers. As a high school senior, I was super-excited to finally get a chance early on to do what I love the most and get paid for it -- and hey, when you're 17 to 18 years old, getting a $50 paycheck every other month is a pretty smokin' deal (maybe not so much anymore with that darned inflation thing). But what turned out to be even more rewarding for me in the short term was hanging out with other young wordsmiths who actually listened to a lot of the same music I do. You have no idea how deliriously exciting it was to finally discuss the pros and cons of Radiohead's Amnesiac with more than one or two people. Then again, if you're a 25-year-old music nerd like myself, maybe you do understand my nostalgia for that pre-iTunes sense of childlike wonder from way back in 2001. If so, holla back, geeks.

But as fondly as I remember those days, there is something someone said that still haunts me like a ghost with 100,000 bones to pick. We were at a "company picnic" (i.e. let's make the kids feel appreciated to soften the blow of their page's inevitable demise!) and somehow Green Day got brought up in conversation. The discussion was going just fine until one person called Green Day the first punk band -- ever. Like, EVER EVER. To say I couldn't believe my ears would be a gross understatement. Here was this girl who completely overshot the whole existence of originators like The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Clash, not to mention progenitors like The Velvet Underground, The Stooges and Patti Smith and progeny like Joy Division, Elvis Costello and Black Flag. No, apparently 1976 was not the year the term "punk" was born; it all culminated in 1994 when three young dudes from Berkeley, Calif. took a legitimately punk sound and applied it to relatively inoffensive but maddeningly catchy pop songs on an album called Dookie. Give me a break. This was beyond ignorance -- it was flat-out naivete, which is arguably even more depressing.

But I would be hard-pressed to tell you I've not heard such obliviousness to musical history in less shocking forms since then. I hate it whenever I hear supposed music nerds extol the complex musicianship of progressive rock but totally decry the primitive thrills of 1950s rock & roll. Or when contemporary nu-metal heads proudly bear the Slipknot logo on their shirts and backpacks but grimace in underwhelmed disgust at the comparatively less heavy rock of Led Zeppelin or AC/DC. Or when people listen to avant-garde classical, free jazz or the farthest-out-there experimental rock and dismiss it as nothing but talentless "noise." Or when people describe Nirvana as the band that invented alternative rock or grunge. Or when some teenager points his or her chin in the air, trying desperately to appear condescending as they commit pop music's greatest blasphemy: "The Beatles were overrated."

Granted, I'm biased against these ignoramuses because unlike me, their childhood (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, adulthood) probably didn't involve a constant, willing quest for musical knowledge at the expense of a social life and other hobbies that tend to get you farther in the middle school/high school popularity contest. But honestly, people, I don't think it takes a nerd, scholar or even a particularly smart person to do just a little research and understand the essentials of musical history. Yes, progressive rock's sophistication is cribbed from various strains of classical and jazz, but classical or jazz is all it would be if it did not adopt its backbeat, instrumentation and singalong melodies from basic rock & roll. Yes, Slipknot was arguably as heavy as metal got when they debuted in 1999, but one cannot use that as an excuse to dismiss the sheer oomph of Jimmy Page or Angus Young's riffs that may or may not have aged particularly well. Yes, avant-garde classical, free jazz and experimental rock are challenging to listen to, but that's precisely the point -- and it's extremely likely their bizarre sonic excursions were direct reactions to a barrage of mind-numbingly tame ones. Yes, Nirvana popularized alternative rock and grunge like no other band before them, but they didn't invent either genre by a long shot; just ask R.E.M. or Green River, to name only two predecessors. Yes, The Beatles are the most popular and influential pop band of all time, but they are routinely listed in the upper echelon of Top 10 lists for a reason, grasshopper.

As I am progressing through my studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, I am starting to realize how many people I know (or at least know of) who listen to The Holy Bible -- the greatest album of all time -- with the same level of naivete. I've heard horror stories about people who assume this most wholly holy of records is not a box set, but a single LP on which each tune was written by the same composer. I've learned about other hair-raising moments when self-described fans talk about The Isaiah Playas and The Jesus Jam like they existed simultaneously and were playing shows together. I've heard people flat-out dismiss the whole album because some of its tunes happen to say some not-too-flattering things about women, homosexuality and sometimes entire ethnicities and nationalities; none of that even accounts for its lyrical references to righteous warfare or rampant animal sacrifice. But more than anything, I've heard far too many people claim that The Holy Bible is the absolutely infallible, historically and culturally universal, note-for-note transcription of "The Word" -- and may Awesome God smite thee who dares to claim any of its 66 to 73 variations on this theme contradict each other. These diehard, truly sheep-like fans have no idea nor do they seem to really care to learn about the 1,000-plus years of time and effort that went into crafting each track on this compilation. Some people just want to perform the music as it's written without thinking about it, assuming that the mere fact they want to perform it at all will be more than enough.

I recently learned that this sort of blind, fundamentalist allegiance to The Holy Bible is what some call "folk theology." It's basically the assumption that since this album is the greatest album of all time -- which it is, sour notes and all -- it therefore cannot be analyzed critically. You must simply play it verbatim and passionately scold listeners who speak up whenever one version of "The Word" seemingly stands in direct contrast with another version, or listeners who try to explain that a few parts of The Holy Bible's tunes don't sound all that good today. What is arguably an even greater travesty is that these folk theologians usually play these tunes in only one style: Quick, peppy and with disturbingly wide smiles. Even the harshest, dreariest and most legalistic lyrics sound like happy-clappy songs of praise coming from these self-deceiving experts. Any Christian with a functioning brain would be well-advised to stay away from any version of "The Word" that contains even one exhortation of "JAAAAAYYYYSUUUUHHHSSSSSSS!!!!!!"

But these folk theologians straight-up ignore something I think gives the Judeo-Christian tradition a leg up over other supposedly inscrutable faiths such as Islam or Mormonism: We are actually willing to go back and investigate the history behind The Holy Bible. And if we want to truly understand every sound made on this box set, we need to think about history. So many Christians are afraid to do that because then The Holy Bible transforms from a divinely composed, feel-good devotional treatise to what it was meant to be all along -- a centuries-old compilation of versions of "The Word" that were deemed the most authoritative and normative for Christian listeners by a record executive named Constantine. None of this historical investigation is meant to ultimately debunk any of The Holy Bible's tunes (although some agnostic listeners would like to think that's the case); it is merely an effort to put each song within its original context. And wouldn't you agree that music tends to make more sense once you realize why it was written, or at least acknowledged as relevant and influential?

Ever wonder why the first two verses of The Holy Bible's epic opener, "Genesis," explain two seemingly conflicting stories of humanity's creation? That's because the second verse about Adam and Eve was most likely written when Kool King David or Songster Solomon were at their peak, while the first "let there be light" verse was probably added later by a punk rock priest as a direct protest to the Babylonians' overlong polytheistic suites. Ever wonder why that often boring, sometimes antiquated tune "Leviticus" is still included in its grisly, unedited form on every reissue of The Holy Bible? Because without it there would be no basis for the Psalms, "Acts of the Apostles" or the four aural reviews of the Jesus Jam written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Ever wonder why "The Greatest Tour of All Time, According to John" is so different from Matthew, Mark and Luke's reviews? That's because John mainly wrote about The Jesus Jam's controversial gigs in Jerusalem, whereas the other three journalists focused primarily on performances in Galilee. (This also goes a long way in explaining why John's review is sometimes erroneously accused of anti-Semitism.) Ever wonder why The Jesus Jam kept calling themselves "Sons of Man" while their most devoted listeners kept calling them "Sons of God" or the Messiah? Go back several tunes and listen to "Daniel" -- particularly the seventh verse, in which the "beasts" of four different Mediterranean empires are slain or dethroned -- to get a clue. And to all you super-duper-liberal fans of Awesome God, ever wonder why The Holy Bible contains all those lyrical mentions of female oppression, homosexual condemnation, holy warfare, animal slaughter and all kinds of ethnic prejudice? Because these tunes were written two to three millennia ago in a time and place when those things were common; it is culturally ignorant to keep the bath water but culturally arrogant to throw the baby out, too.

Just a few nights ago I gave an homily on Habakkuk at University Lutheran Church in Tempe, Ariz. I focused primarily on the fact Habakkuk -- one of The Holy Bible's minor prophets -- starts out as an angry rant toward a seemingly oblivious God but in a few brief chapters mutates into a song of unabashed, throat-lump-inducing praise in the midst of tragedy. But I didn't delve into this before informing the congregants about the Chaldean Dynasty's destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the Jews' subsequent exile, and how Iran's Cultural Heritage Organization reports that Habakkuk was captured and imprisoned by the Babylonians. Assuming that Habakkuk wrote his little section in The Holy Bible from a jail cell (which is likely but not really provable based on available evidence), his frustration with God was that much more understandable, and his ultimate unwavering faith in God that much more powerful. An agnostic friend of mine who came and supported me said he loved the historical context of my homily, which was not only kind and encouraging of him, but further cemented in my mind that historical and cultural context MUST be considered when one is performing The Holy Bible's variations on "The Word" in any capacity. No one can listen to this music with complete objectivity, and I think everyone has a tendency to take a few pleasing notes here and there and use them to support their own agendas to some degree, but that's not an appropriate way to perform anything off this box set.

That being said, one must be careful with what I've recently come to know as "academic theology." It's easy to set aside one's spectacles of faith when thinking critically about The Holy Bible; some people get so wrapped up in analyzing these important contexts that they forget why they enjoyed this music in the first place. To put it another way, it's the difference between being a musician inspired to play along with the records they love the most and being a music critic who may not even like the records they're reviewing. I've often heard theologians describe seminary as the place where Christian faith goes to die, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a few moments when my spiritual boat was rocked so hard I thought about jumping ship. But the ones who make it through all this minutia and academia eventually, theoretically reach what is called "second naivete," in which your faith is as strong as ever -- if not stronger -- and your academic knowledge is maintained through prayer, fellowship and listening to the aforementioned greatest album of all time on a regular basis. The record-making process may now be completely demystified, but the tunes themselves still sound as rockin' as ever.

I am nowhere near "academic" level yet. What I'm offering to you in this here blog is what I've heard described as "lay theology." My ministry resume is relatively limited compared to actual pastors, seminary graduates and people who have otherwise been in seminary for more than five months. And to tell you the bitterly painful truth, I still have yet to listen to The Holy Bible in its entirety. So occasionally I do make unfounded assumptions about it, hopefully to the immediate chagrin of those who know better -- I once said in my leadership and diversity class that the term "Christian" does not actually appear in any of The Holy Bible's lyrics, only to be rightfully corrected by two of my fellow classmates (to both of whom I'm very grateful). Still, my boat of knowledge has been rocked time and time again in this past five months, only to float back up to a significantly higher level than it ever was before. And since we are called by Awesome God to recruit musicians from all nations, I figured why not start the process now? I would like to think I know enough about the good news to share at least some of it with you; still, if you see any gaps in my knowledge of The Holy Bible, please keep the Ninth Commandment and let me know ASAP.

I guess the ultimate point I wanted to make with this post is though all believers have a long way to go in their faith journey -- seminarians or not -- it shouldn't take a rocket scientist or even a master of divinity to be able to consider The Holy Bible's historical and cultural influences and relevance. Doing so is not just vital for our own knowledge, but also helpful for us to be taken seriously by others who have never considered the value of "The Word" before. If we stay stubbornly true to folk theology, all we will ever sound like to unbelievers are naive listeners who really think Green Day was the first punk band. Consider The Jesus Jam's iconic refrain, as documented in the Synoptic Reviews: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." As one of my professors eloquently put it, this is not a multiple choice question. Loving our Awesome God with heart and soul is all fine and good, but it's all for naught if we forget our minds.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Homosexuality: The Jesus Christ Superstar of its time

I am of the opinion that every man and woman who is honest with themselves has a celebrity man or woman crush, respectively. This is not to say that every heterosexual man and woman has fantasized about, um, "knowing" another person of the same sex (although I know people who would attest to such fantasies without batting an eye). All it may mean is that there at least one famous person you acknowledge as attractive, despite the fact they have the same kind of private parts as you. Mine is Seth Green -- it was uncomfortable, "is this really happening?" lust at first sight when I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer in middle school and saw his geeky, boyish, non-werewolf likeness grace the screen. Oh, Oz, I ... well ... I don't really know what this feeling is. But I can at least understand why some girls think you're cute.

When I'm hanging out with friends and/or acquaintances, as an icebreaker I sometimes like to ask people which celebrity is the object of their man or woman crush. I did this at a friend's birthday party a few weeks ago, and the question was mostly well-received and hilariously answered by the 10-ish people that were there. It's a good way to get to know a person, as well as a quick, easy way to determine just how comfortable a person is with their sexual orientation. Some people answer the question instantly, like they've been waiting their entire lives for someone to ask them, while others fumble through stuttered gibberish and flabbergasted expressions before finally, sheepishly spilling the beans. So I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised when the question got around to one guy and he offered this reply, with a look on his face like humor is the eighth deadly sin: "If I were gay, I'd be celibate."

Wow. Point taken. To each their own, I suppose, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't shaking my head and snickering on the inside (and maybe a little on the outside, too). I was also incredibly depressed by his curt, judgmental response, because it clearly illustrated to me how much farther we have to go before the Big Controversial Topic of homosexuality can be at least discussed comfortably by some Christians. And trust me, if the Christian church hopes to survive, we MUST engage in that conversation. The whole "Don't ask, don't tell" attitude isn't going to cut it in the long run. Our society's acceptance of homosexuality is increasing by leaps and bounds, and whether you think that's a good or a bad thing, it's not something that can be ignored any longer.

I personally think it's a great thing. I'm not typically one for denominational pride, but I don't think I was the only proud Lutheran whose heart swelled with joy upon hearing the news in August this year. That month, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America narrowly passed a resolution allowing for homosexual clergy to engage in extramarital monogamous relationships. If an ELCA church decides to adopt this resolution (which they still have the option not to), the homosexual pastor there is no longer bound by vows of celibacy. Of course, this does not grant the pastor permission to sleep around -- to which I say thank goodness -- but it allows them to engage in an intimate physical relationship with one special someone if they so chose to. Frankly, it's not the LGBT community's fault they can't get married in most states, and until the fundamentalist conservative lawmakers who routinely prevent it from happening either change their minds or pass away, this resolution will have to do.

Of course, not every Lutheran feels this way. I've heard about numerous pastors who are outraged by this resolution, some so much so that they're leaving the ELCA. Many other churchgoers are abandoning the denomination for more conservative worship alternatives. And to top it all off, this resolution comes on the coattails of the emerging Reconciling in Christ movement, which advocates for churches to openly, explicitly welcome members regardless of sexual orientation, and has caused considerable controversy at two churches I'm involved with. The ELCA seems to be losing members left and right -- all we wanted to do was be a little more open-minded.

But I have a distinct feeling our open-mindedness toward homosexuality will be rewarded over the next several decades. A friend of mine who also rejoiced over the ELCA's recent decision pointed out that other denominations that made similar decisions -- namely the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ -- have more or less recovered from their initial drop in numbers. But ultimately, numbers are not what it's about. In a world where idiots like Fred Phelps grab all the headlines for propagating God's supposed hatred of homosexuals (I don't dare use that other "f" word Phelps loves so much), the LGBT community needs to know they are welcome in the church. And though I can't say I know a single church that turns homosexuals away from their services, a warm welcome is nothing if it's not accompanied by loving affirmation. Every LGBT person is a child of God, too, and they ought to be reminded of that, if not told for the first time ever.

To put it another way, I think social acceptance of homosexuality is the Jesus Christ Superstar of its time. Debuted in 1971, Jesus Christ Superstar is a musical theater adaptation of the canonical Gospels, beginning with Judas' anxiety over the "buzz" surrounding Jesus and ending with the Messiah's crucifixion. Doing some research for this blog post, I became pleasantly reminded just how awesome this Andrew Lloyd Webber-penned production is. I nodded my head in 5/4 time and wished the female vocalists singing on "Everything's Alright" would whisk me away siren-style to some blissful abyss. I giggled impishly to hear people screaming during Jesus' righteous ruckus in "The Temple," completely disrupting the corrupt marketplace it had become. I felt chills consume my entire body at the end of "Judas' Death," when the traitor's ranting is abruptly overtaken by that eerie chant: "Poor old Judas/So long, Judas." I wept uncontrollably to hear Jesus' final words in "The Crucifixion," accompanied by terrifyingly atonal vocal harmonies and noises no God-made piano should ever make. In my always-humble opinion, Jesus Christ Superstar is one of history's greatest creative interpretations of that Superstar we all know and love.

But naturally, not everyone thought so. I wasn't there to witness it, but from what I understand Jesus Christ Superstar caused quite an uproar upon its release. I'm sure at least some of this was the responsibility of those reliable knee-jerk reactors toward anything remotely religious in pop culture, comparable to contemporary Christians who protest the Harry Potter series or The Da Vinci Code just because they exist. But some of what I know about the initial controversy sounds warranted -- though it's actually quite Biblically accurate (disregarding its use of modern slang, of course), Jesus Christ Superstar more or less portrays the Son of God as an outrageous political rebel first, the Messiah second. From a theological standpoint, this is a little upsetting since Jesus had no illusions of taking down the Jerusalem Temple or the Roman Empire during his lifetime on this Earth. And while the song "Superstar" is a great tune, lyrically the sudden return of Judas before Christ's crucifixion seems a bit odd, if not downright unnecessary: "Tell me what you think about your friends at the top/Who'd you think besides yourself's the pick of the crop?/Buddha, was he where it's at? Is he where you are?/Could Mohammed move a mountain or was that just PR?" Um, OK. Have we been mistranslating the Greek the whole time? Because I'm pretty sure none of that's in the Bible.

But that was then, and this is now. When I saw Jesus Christ Superstar back in late 2004 at the Gammage Auditorium, I went with some folks from my church. And we weren't there to picket it -- we were there to watch it and enjoy it for the wonderful piece of Biblically inspired theater it has always been. And today Jesus Christ Superstar (along with its more Scripturally accurate but musically inferior counterpart, Godspell) has become a staple of church community theaters all over the world. Still, I'm sure there are certain Christians out there who want to wring Andrew Lloyd Webber's neck for daring to unleash this musical on the Earth. From what I understand, Jesus Christ Superstar is still banned in South Africa. But with all things considered, so what if Webber took a few liberties with the Bible? In the end, the message is still basically the same.

And on that note, the church is still the church regardless of the minister's sexual orientation or relationship status. Yes, the Bible does say some not-so-nice things about homosexuality, and I'm the last person to advocate for any part of Scripture to be omitted, but for the literal love of You-Know-Who, read them within their context! For one thing, a lot of this same-sex condemnation was a reaction against ancient pagan rituals, at least one of which entailed an old man penetrating a young boy in public. Additionally, about the Sodom and Gomorrah story in Genesis -- how would you feel if a group of people knocked on your door late at night and threatened to anally rape you? Sounds pretty horrific regardless of the victim's sexual orientation; I don't blame God for getting pissed.

But above all, the books of the Bible were written in a time and place where growing the family tree was of the utmost importance. Gay or straight, if a couple couldn't produce a son, they were nothing. And in this day and age, I think condemning the childless is completely unfair; in addition to homosexuals, you might as well condemn bereaved parents, barren women, sterile men, the romantically challenged and -- gasp! -- people who simply don't want to have children. Even if you disagree with me and think homosexuality is the horrible sin the Bible says it is (which it may very well be), is there anyone in ministry who isn't a horrible sinner at least some of the time? Out of Awesome God's list of bad notes, we've seemingly isolated certain ones we've heard to be more dissonant than all the others. But these bad notes are all equally sour and, if one tries hard enough, equally forgivable. Regardless of their musical resumes, no one should be barred from listening to or performing "The Word" if they feel so inspired -- NO ONE.

This all being said, I know for a fact some people like the guy I mentioned earlier in this post will continue denying the inevitability of celebrity man or woman crushes. But Christians who maintain that staunch, vow-of-celibacy attitude toward homosexuals -- in clergy or otherwise -- will have a hard time being taken seriously as church for the next generation. It'll be a cryin' but justified shame if their uber-traditional renditions of "The Word" are forgotten, usurped by the common crowd's much-too-loud chorus of "Hosanna, hey sanna/Sanna sanna Hosanna/Hey sanna Hosanna." God bless the Christians who realize Jesus Christ Superstar wasn't a heresy, but a slightly updated version of "The Word" all along.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Redefining marketability

I know this blog is called God According to a Music Nerd, but humor me as I transition briefly into God According to a Kinda Sorta Film Buff. I would very highly recommend reading Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders of Faith, Film and Culture for Christians whose divine revelations tend to be more visual than aural. As one could guess from the title, the book is a collection of essays from 18 different Christians with various connections to the Hollywood film industry, and many of the anecdotes contained therein are insightful, impassioned and outrageously funny. Craig Detweiler, a professor at Biola University, explains how The Passion of the Christ was a missed opportunity to reconcile the longstanding tension between Jews and Christians in Hollywood; I don't know about you, but making a film that ONLY focuses on Jesus' nearly unbearable suffering at the hands of those particular first-century Jewish authorities sounds quite anti-Semitic to me (and if you've heard about Mel Gibson's notorious drunken rant against a Jewish police officer, you can easily fill in the blanks). Thom Parham, from Azusa Pacific University, writes a hilarious piece about how non-Christian filmmakers are usually better at making Christianity-themed films than Christian filmmakers who are too worried about soiling sacred tradition to produce anything the least bit thought- or emotion-provoking. And several essays touch on the Southern Baptist Convention's tendency to somehow take offense to even the most innocuous movie moments, and subsequently protest its existence as a threat to the moral fabric of our society, blah blah blah ...

But for the purpose of this post, I will focus on "A Filmmaker's Progress," an essay by Scott Derrickson. In this essay, Derrickson -- director and cowriter of The Exorcism of Emily Rose -- details the steps toward his eventual "membership" in what he calls the Quality Club, evidently the ideal meeting place for Christian filmmakers. And the Quality Club has strict Fight Club-style rules: The work you produce must be excellent, marketable and virtuous. When I read this, I immediately decided it would be beneficial for modern-day Christian musicians to have their own Quality Club.

Christians who recognize the Real Reason they attend church (sorry, mere socializers don't count) shouldn't have to be told the value of being virtuous. Everything we do -- whether it be writing a song, directing a film, painting a picture, carrying a conversation or simply keeping our mouths shut in the face of traffic and frustrating family situations -- should be done with "The Word" stuck in our heads. Any note we play and sing that doesn't sound at least a little like "The Word" should probably be silenced, and yes, our admission into the Jesus Jam's upcoming performance at the Ultimate Temple DOES depend on that. Still, our reverence to "The Word" doesn't mean that we should stop listening to all other songs, period. Especially in this day and age, Christian musicians can and do learn a lot from secular music that frankly doesn't suck nearly as much as most CCM. And as I explained in a previous post, mediocrity has less to do with technical skill and everything to do with originality.

So, Quality Clubbers, we've determined why virtue and excellence are important ... but what about that marketability rule? That seems like kind of a toughie, especially considering we are to base our own unique versions of "The Word" closely on the Jesus Jam's rendition. Didn't the Jesus Jam play an unexpected, unwelcome show at the High Priests' Hangout in Jerusalem, deliberately starting a riot with a breakneck protest rant called "Awesome God's House Ain't a Market"? Didn't their "Beatitudes Medley" contain a section entitled "Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit"? And what about that uncompromising rocker they played called "The Eye of a Needle"? The chorus of that one made its message pretty clear: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle/Than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

It seems as if making marketability a rule is at odds with these vital sections of "The Word." If we happen to make money from performing "The Word," hallelujah indeed, but that's not why we are hired to play it. All of our performances are meaningless if we don't inspire at least one person to pick up an instrument and join in the symphony, and it doesn't matter whether we do that with nine 18-wheeler trucks full of gear or a single beat-up ukulele. The Jesus Jam didn't tour the Mediterranean circuit on an extravagant tour bus -- heck, they weren't even luxurious enough to have the stereotypical Volkswagen van that barely functions. They WALKED to all their gigs, except for that "triumphal" one in Jerusalem where they rode through the branch-laden streets on donkeys. You don't get more indie than that.

But as I thought about it more, I started to realize that much like mediocrity, maybe "marketability" also needs to be redefined. In "A Filmmaker's Progress," Derrickson talks about marketability like it's a defeated requirement of sorts -- he's a reputable director hired by a studio and therefore has Earthly contractual obligations to fill. While I can certainly understand where he's coming from, I can't help but feel like he's sucking up to The Man. All the studio wants is to make money, and consequently, so does Derrickson. The only contract we should be following to a tee is that written by Awesome God, signed by Daddy Abraham, refined by Go Down Moses and renegotiated by the Jesus Jam. It may be tempting to place another, more lucrative contract before this one, but doing so will significantly hinder our chances of witnessing that final Ultimate Temple extravaganza. Derrickson's essay doesn't sound like "The Word" so much as the corporate-mogul narrator of Pedro the Lion's "Penetration": "If it isn't making dollars/Then it isn't making sense/If you aren't moving units/Then you're not worth the expense."

But if taken from a different viewpoint, marketability might not be such a bad thing. In fact, it might help us performers of "The Word" in encouraging others to join the symphony. A friend of mine mentioned a few weeks ago that not every song about God has to contain the word "God" in the lyrics, and I think that's true. I'm certainly not an advocate for omitting God-talk (i.e., "Jesus Christ," "sin," "prayer," etc.) out of utter fear -- far too many Christians become sheepish about their faith for the sake of being "respectful" to those who mercilessly throw us believers under the bus. However, I'm well-aware that bragging about one's faith can be construed as sinful if done for the wrong reasons, not to mention alienating for those who were required to perform unlistenable, unnecessarily rigorous monstrosities of "The Word" growing up and now cringe at its mere mention. Just because we are required to "Be Bold, Be Strong" doesn't mean we can't be tactful about it; if we aren't tactful about it, oftentimes we look no better than the Southern Baptist Convention protestors outside Disneyland.

As far as I'm concerned, when it comes to managing all three Quality Club rules with equal aplomb, there's still no Christian artist who's done a better job than Amy Grant. Yes, I went there, indie snobs -- I love Amy Grant. DEAL WITH IT!!!! In all seriousness, though, somewhere down the line Amy Grant became the default flogging horse for every secular music critic who ever briefly mentions how all Christian music sucks except this particular band they're reviewing, yadda yadda yadda. And sure, Amy Grant is an easy target; not only was she one of the pioneers of what we know today as contemporary Christian music, but she was one of the first Christian artists to experience success in both the Christian and mainstream markets. She was kind of a flogging horse for me, too, since much of her music is super-duper-polished and she also happens to be very pretty. She was just-another-pop-diva in addition to being partially responsible for CCM, and therefore on my poo-poo list.

But then I did a little more research and some closer listening, particularly in regard to her #1 hit from 1991, "Baby Baby." This song is how I was introduced to Amy Grant -- I remember watching VH1 at the age of 12-ish and watching her lip-sync over that incessant, manipulatively catchy (and unfortunately, unmistakably early-'90s) keyboard hook. I came to my just-another-pop-diva conclusion right then and there, but a few years later I was surprised to discover she was a Christian artist. I was also intrigued to learn much later that at least certain tenants of Christian culture flipped their wigs when Amy Grant became a sex symbol and genuine pop star; 1991's Heart in Motion alone scored five Top 20 hits, which is absolutely colossal for a Christian artist.

A situation like this begs for listeners religious and nonreligious to cry "Sellout!" in unison, but I don't know if that's quite warranted -- especially after discovering Amy Grant wrote "Baby Baby" about her then-newborn daughter, Millie. Suddenly, what I initially heard as a trite love song transformed into a sincere and quite moving tribute to the joys of parenthood: "Baby, baby, the stars are shining for you/And just like me, I'm sure that they adore you/Baby, baby, go walking through the forest/The birds above a-singing you a chorus." I'm seriously crying just typing that right now; not only does it make for an awesome welcome to the world, but I think it goes a long way in proving that a song can still express very Christian sentiments without involving God directly. And in a stroke of sheer marketing genius, the lyrics to "Baby Baby" work just as well as a simple, fun radio singalong, although I have a feeling those birds above were probably singing "The Word."

Also, in regard to the controversy over her relatively suggestive image, I've got to give mad props to Amy Grant for responding in 1991 with a concise quote she is now famous for: "Christians can be sexy." And why can't they? It's exactly because of protestors like those in the Southern Baptist Convention (with all due respect to Baptists who abstained from the boycott against Disneyland, etc.) that Christianity has been reduced to a mere niche market -- the mainstream market figures we can never be pleased no matter what they do, so why bother considering us? It's almost as if Amy Grant saw Christianity becoming compartmentalized and reacted by showing just a little skin. It wasn't just about making extra money or getting teenage boys to drool. She was making a statement that Christians can be sensible, relatable people, too, and deserve to be included in mainstream society just as much as anyone else. What she did was very punk rock. (Although I think she may have unintentionally started the continuing trend of all female Christian musicians looking like models.)

And as I've already ranted and raved about numerous times in this here blog, it's happening again, folks. Christian music -- and consequently, Christianity -- is seen as more or less a niche market in our crushingly secularized society, and that needs to change. I'd assume we already have the virtue (or as much virtue as we can possess as sinners), and we already know full well that the excellence can and must be improved. But now with this new, un-Derricksonian idea of marketability, let's start working on employing that into the Quality Club's mission. Simply performing "The Word" may not be enough for some people; offering lessons on how to appreciate the piece may prove extremely helpful. But more importantly, "The Word" should never be played from atop a gaudy, elevated stage. It sounds best when performed at street level.