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.

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