Wednesday, December 16, 2009

There will be an encore

I've done some good, hard thinking about it over several months, but I don't think there's a single musical metaphor that could do Jesus Christ's crucifixion justice. I've already made self-consciously flimsy parallels between the Messiah suffocating to death on a cross and The Jesus Jam breaking up or being run out of town. But off the top of my head there are few, if any, instances in the history of music when a musician was actually murdered on account of the sheer, righteous outrageousness of their tunes. Maybe John Lennon, but that had less to do with any particular provocation on Lennon's part and more to do with Mark David Chapman's less-than-ideal mental state. Or perhaps R&B singer Jesse Belvin, whose life ended at 27 thanks to a Ku Klux Klan-aided car crash, but that had nothing to do with his music and everything to do with his skin color (unfortunately). For now, I will stick with the idea of The Jesus Jam being banned from ever playing in Jerusalem again, since such prohibitions have occurred commonly in response to artists who dared to push sonic boundaries or obliterate the rules altogether. The Jesus Jam definitely fell into the former category -- their rendition of "The Word" showcased rock & roll at its most powerfully basic, a foundation The Stereophonic Pharisees and Prog Rock Priests had seemingly forgotten when cloying listeners with their needlessly bloated epics.

But The Jesus Jam -- ever the punks -- violated this restraining order and played a handful of secret, unexpected shows in Jerusalem. It's hard to say exactly when and where these shows occurred (Mark, Matthew, Luke and John couldn't agree on all the details), but we do know the handful of fans who witnessed them were distraught at the idea of never seeing their favorite band play again. The Jesus Jam comforted them by playing a life-affirming set dominated by songs about The Holy Mojo, something their fans would need to get workin' if they ever hoped for their versions "The Word" to come anywhere near The Jesus Jam's performance chops and Awesome God's compositional skills. Almost as importantly, though, these secret shows are famous for a bit of stage banter in which The Jesus Jam's ingenious frontman promised their fans that the band would return for one final encore.

That encore is what we wait for to this day, and it's probably the hardest thing about being a Jesus Jam fan. For centuries upon centuries, numerous performers of "The Word" have tried to calculate when exactly this encore will take place, and every single one of those prophecies has passed by unfulfilled thus far. To this day, you can see some poorly trained musicians on street corners performing sloppy monstrosities of "The Word," carny barking their way through Holy Bible lyrics and encore predictions in the midst of something as relatively routine as a heavy thunderstorm. Of course, the thunderstorm eventually stops and all those performers are left with is a wet, short-circuited PA system. Some who, for the sake of this post, I will refer to as Christian Friend #1 recently said she sometimes wonders if The Jesus Jam frontman just promised an encore in order for all their fans to remain loyal in their physical absence -- regardless of whether or not that absence will actually be dispelled one day.

I'd be lying if I said I don't feel much the same way from time to time. I have no doubt in my mind that The Jesus Jam changed the lives of all who listened to them, and that they did play that handful of secret, uplifting shows after being banned from Jerusalem, but for them to come back for that last encore? After so many well-intentioned, supposedly well-researched predictions turned out wrong? After the world has infested itself with countless amounts and varieties of unlistenable noise, both literally and figuratively (that's right, CCM, I'm looking at you)? After so much suffering continues around the world, in the lives of people who don't deserve to perish but often do at the hands of power-mongers justifying their atrocities in the name of "God?" If our ears were ever in need of that glorious encore, now may be the time; if not, I can't bear to think about how much more discordant the world will become before The Jesus Jam finally feel the need to unload their gear down here and rock us into victory.

But in the end, do any of us as imperfect performers of "The Word" have any right to proclaim exactly when that encore will take place? Far too many Christians forget that when The Jesus Jam's fans asked the frontman when the encore would be, all he did was shrug his shoulders and say, "Your guess is as good as mine; you can try asking our Manager, but good luck getting a straight answer from Him." When he was asked the same question again at those secret shows nearly 2,000 years ago, the frontman informed those devoted few fans that The Jesus Jam had signed a contract forbidding them from spilling the beans on when they would play their encore -- that has always exclusively been the decision of Awesome God. And we as believers must come to grips with the fact that NOT KNOWING IS OK. If we were given a booklet of sheet music with which we could anticipate every nook and cranny of "The Word" once and for all, where's the fun (and the faith) in that? The Jesus Jam are not like most bands, who will play an encore simply because their fans are shouting in unison for them to play one.

The best encore I ever saw was in August 2003 at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe, Ariz. That night, alternative rockers Eels -- one of the most criminally underrated bands of the past 15 years -- made a stop in the Phoenix Valley on their Shootenanny! tour. The band played two encores, walked offstage and then the lights came back on, signaling for the roughly 200 attending Eel-heads to head home. My father, sister and I walked out of the theater proper into the lobby, marveling at how effortlessly they knocked out radically different versions of old favorites like "I Like Birds," "Last Stop: This Town" and even "Novocaine for the Soul." Then, suddenly, a cymbal crash and subsequent bluesy stomp erupted faintly from inside the theater. After exchanging some flabbergasted looks, we reentered the theater and sure enough, Eels had come back onstage to play yet another encore. They didn't bother turning the lights back off, and really, all they were playing was an instrumental cover of ZZ Top's "La Grange." But you could tell they were having a blast playing it, and all 30 or less of us who actually got the chance to witness this secret encore were thoroughly enjoying every note. If only for a few minutes, we felt like this band was truly ours.

That's what I believe The Jesus Jam's upcoming encore will be like -- totally unexpected, bathed in light and joyfully rewarding for the hardcore fans who stuck around to listen to it. In my ideal vision of this encore, The Jesus Jam's return sounds less like a seventh trumpet and more like the climax of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," at last silencing the world's most corrupt, hideous noise with an invincible power chord and triumphant "YEEEEEAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!" Upon making that grand entrance, our favorite band will offer the truly righteous rockers an all-expenses-paid trip to finally meet the Great Composer Himself at the Ultimate Temple. I don't doubt that He will laugh hysterically over all our precious arguments and finally give us the REAL answers for which versions of "The Word" are right and wrong, if He is even that discerning. The chosen righteous rockers will jam gloriously on "The Word" with none other than Awesome God conducting the whole thing. "The Word" in all its majesty will be the only song available for performing at the Ultimate Temple, but anyone who's ever zoned in on the Holy Mojo at its purest knows "The Word" is impossible to tire of.

Unfortunately, though, not everyone is on the guest list for this eternal jam session. It's impossible to say who is and who isn't, but I don't think it's that great of a stretch to imagine Awesome God frowning upon the unrighteous rockers who play everything except "The Word," simply listen to "The Word" without performing it or -- worst of all -- people who have completely forgone their instruments in favor of more "reasonable" professions or hobbies. The most unrepentant of these brayers and snorters will foreseeably not be invited to the Ultimate Temple at all. In fact, they may very well suffer a much crueler fate: Silent Separation. My most horrifying vision of this eternal banishment from Awesome God is far removed from any images of fire and brimstone. Rather, it entails a place where those who refused to perform or even listen to "The Word" are punished with total deafness. And there are no chances for these newly christened demons to become Ludwig Van Beethoven-type prodigies; those in Silent Separation have no hands or feet to play anything, no vocal cords to console themselves with a hymn, no mouth to conjure a tuneless squawk from a saxophone, not even eyes to see sine waves.

This may seem like a harsh image -- let alone fate for those who do not take their performances of "The Word" seriously -- but far too many Jesus Jam fans downplay the very real notion that not all of us will get to take part in that great jam session at the Ultimate Temple. Another person I will call Christian Friend #2 recently told me she doesn't believe in hell, and as far as I'm concerned that's the equivalent of reducing The Holy Bible to nothing but smiley-faced, Polyphonic Spree-style hippie prattle (or even worse, the simplistic, exclusively positivist sentiments of most contemporary worship music). You can't have the sweet without the sour, and we must accept the possibility that some of our dearest loved ones on this Earth may not get to experience that encore. Larry Norman put it best in what many consider his definitive track, "I Wish We'd All Been Ready": "A man and wife asleep in bed/She hears a noise and turns her head, he's gone/I wish we'd all been ready/Two men walking up a hill/One disappears and one's left standing still/I wish we'd all been ready/There's no time to change your mind/The Son has come and you've been left behind."

As a Lutheran, I'd like to think that baptism is our ticket to not being left behind, but I could be wrong. For all I know, some people I consider consummately un-Godly may be given first chairs in the Ultimate Temple's orchestra, and I may be one of those ne'er-do-wells condemned to Silent Separation. No one has any authority over that but Awesome God Himself, and don't ever let anyone definitively tell you otherwise. I say all this not just to instill some kind of fear into your heart (though I think that can be productive), but more so as a reminder to numerous believers who have seemingly forgotten that there will indeed be an encore, and if we have no faith in such an amazing comeback, we have no business being Jesus Jam fans at all.

That being said, Christian Friend #1 was correct in the sense that The Jesus Jam's frontman didn't promise an encore just to scare people into still listening to them after their supposed demise -- he said it to instill hope among their biggest fans that loyalty to The JJ will be rewarded, and that their favorite band's legacy must be kept alive by performing "The Word" in all its diversified glory for the whole world to hear. The Jesus Jam may have physically departed from this Earth, but aurally they are alive and well in the nourishing words, melodies and cadences of those who've really got the Holy Mojo workin'. And in the end, who cares about what grade we personally, ultimately receive on our performances of "The Word"? If that's our main impetus for playing it, we're missing the point; what's really music to Awesome God's ears is the selfless act of inspiring others to pick up instruments and join this beautiful symphony.

So to those of you who feel crushed or overwhelmed by this world's perpetual onslaught of apathy, injustice, skepticism or straight-up denunciation of the Great Composer, fear not -- to quote my friend and fabulous singer-songwriter Matt Beem, from his song "More Than Conquerors," "Pay no attention to the floods and the earthquakes/For you will be delivered on the wings of a dove/And on that day the darkness will be defeated/And we will have the last word." And to you brayers and snorters who are perpetuating any of that aforementioned onslaught, pay heed to Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around": "The hairs on your arm will stand up/At the terror in each sip and in each sup/Will you partake of that last offered cup?/Or disappear into the potter's ground/When the man comes around?"

And what exactly will we be doing when the man comes around? Whenever that time may be, we might as well live as if it's a daily possibility. Amen for the encore -- here's hoping I get to see you all there.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

There is no joy without noise

About a month or two ago, I spoke with one of my pastors about the figureheads of the Protestant Reformation, and we got into a brief but enlightening discussion about Martin Luther vs. John Calvin (I'm biased toward the former, in case I haven't made that obvious enough). But in that same breath my pastor mentioned someone who I'd never heard of before -- an odd, very Germanic-sounding name that started with an "s" or a "z." After doing a little research for my systematic theology class, I successfully pinpointed this seeming dark horse of the 16th-century revolt against Roman Catholicism's more corrupt, non-Biblical tendencies: Huldrych Zwingli.

A distinctively humanist Swiss pastor whose fight against the Catholic Church led to an untimely death, Zwingli is to Reformed churches what Calvin is to Presbyterians and what Luther is to ... well, Lutherans. In the literal handful of weeks that I've studied the guy at all, I've discovered that he stirred quite a bit of controversy over attacking the act of fasting during Lent (which, by the way, isn't anywhere in the Bible as a religious ritual). And though I've heard people give Luther the credit for originating this "heresy," it was actually Zwingli who first proposed that we do not eat and drink Jesus Christ's literal body and blood through the Eucharist -- rather, it is a weekly memorial of sorts for our Lord's death and resurrection until his final return. But for the sake of this post, I will focus on something Zwingli pioneered which I consider a quite abominable offense: Diminishing the role of music in worship.

A friend of mine told me Zwingli completely silenced all possibilities for joyful noise within his church services, but after doing some research I've come to discover that's not quite true. Zwingli himself was a musician but preferred to play in private (much like another one of my pastors, who once said playing any number of the stringed instruments he owns is how he copes with bad days), and he did allow for singing in his services. But even then, when it comes to Zwingli's version of liturgy, saying he hated music isn't too great of a stretch. His congregants sang rather infrequently within any given service, and when they did sing it was strictly based on the Psalms or other Biblical incantations, and completely a cappella. That's right -- no instruments whatsoever, because Zwingli considered timeless worship staples like the pipe organ nothing but self-perpetuating obstructions between churchgoers and Awesome God Himself. Zwingli's ideal version of "The Word" was a stripped-down choral rendition, to be sung exactly as it was recorded on The Holy Bible. Any variation whatsoever was deemed instant blasphemy. To really drive the point home, Zwingli also removed all visual art from the church, because he considered it a violation of the Second Commandment's warning against idolatry. And this whole time I thought Luther was a reductionist.

In my sweetest dream, I would like to think Zwingli's kick in worship music's knees wasn't felt by many outside the Reformed churches, but alas, this dream did not come true. Calvin considered Zwingli's opinions on music a little too extreme, but upon reading the Swiss Reformer's treatises, the French Reformer did diminish the role of instrumentalists within his own services, and even went so far as to dismiss musical instruments as mere toys which must be set aside as adulthood sets in; there you have it -- John Calvin was Christianity's first curmudgeon telling musicians to get "real jobs." Nowadays, the self-described Churches of Christ typically follow Zwingli's model, completely forgoing instrumentalists for the sake of communal, a cappella singing. And for consummately different reasons, the Quakers are very well-known (some would say notorious) for conducting some of their services in silence, only breaking it for the extremely infrequent hymn, sermon or moment of the Holy Spirit moving congregants to stand up and perform their own spontaneous version of "The Word."

I think Zwingli meant well, and as much as I hate to say it, I can understand where he was coming from. Much like pastoral ministry, there are too many people who play worship music for the wrong reasons, whether it's for a single church or a broader CCM market. They pick up their instruments and start playing "The Word" because they want to wow this newfound, tragically uncritical audience with their "mad skills" at whatever instrument they chose (and sometimes because they failed at impressing the secular music world and are now making a desperate bid for niche acceptance). In worst-but-very-real-case scenarios, these musical opportunists break the Seventh Commandment and take physical advantage of those people they wowed, but more often their listeners start to worship the performer rather than the Composer. At a house show I attended a few months ago and wrote about earlier in this here blog, my atheist friend and I watched a noise-punk band play in the middle of the living room; I thought they were amazing, but I knew my friend's fandom went a step too far when he leaned over and whispered, "I just found a new god." Similarly, Bob Dylan recently said that after veering from Judaism to Christianity and supposedly back to Judaism, he now adheres to no religion besides the classic hymns themselves. That's nice, Mr. Zimmerman, but I don't care how good the music is -- idolatry is still idolatry.

That being said, I think Zwingli was totally wrong in thinking any form of artistic expression whatsoever is not a valid means of experiencing our Awesome God. One thing I disagree with Luther on was his reactionist motto of "sola Scriptura" -- i.e. any explicit or implicit rendition of "The Word" you listen to cannot be legitimate unless it's already on The Holy Bible box set. I actually prefer Calvin's view that there's nothing wrong with listening to more obscure, esoteric, personally meaningful versions of said symphony, as long as we never listen to those non-canonical renditions INSTEAD of any on the aforementioned box set. Through all of our musical explorations, as performers and listeners, The Holy Bible must remain our frame of reference. And frankly, it's all fine and good to continually acknowledge The Holy Bible as the greatest album of all time (which it is), but it's nothing but another golden calf in comparison to "The Word" itself.

As far as I'm concerned, our triune God manifests Himself on this Earth in no form more beautiful than music. When I attend church, nothing else feels more Spiritual to me than that joyful noise -- not communion, not responsive readings, not even sermons. I experience God the most vividly when singing a hymn, or at least listening in humble bliss when I don't quite know the words or melody. I feel like I'm the most successful at uniting people with Christ when I'm leading or assisting with worship. Outside church, I've gone to fairly secular (or at least spiritually neutral) shows where the sounds battering or caressing my eardrums resonated with a transforming joy I don't think any Earthly source could have ever claimed responsibility for. There have been times when my triune God literally saved my life through music; if it wasn't for particular lyrics hitting me at particular times in the past, I'm pretty sure my bouts with depression would have declared victory and I wouldn't be writing to you right now. I don't care what anyone says about potential "misinterpretations" of what is and isn't divine -- "The Word" IS a symphony in which we all are musicians, whether or not we realize it, and Awesome God is the Great Composer to whom all music belongs.

With this in mind, we must also remember that music is not only a completely legitimate form of ministry, but an absolutely vital one. It's not just about giving experienced musicians room to show off their chops (in fact, it shouldn't be about that at all), nor is it just about giving novice musicians an avenue to improve their vocal or instrumental skills. It's above all about being co-Creators of our Awesome God's divine magnificence on this Earth, which is what we were called to do from the very beginning. I am well aware that musicians can and will not change the world with the same degree as, say, Christian activists, but even for them music is often a huge part of the equation. The Civil Rights Movement, for example, wouldn't have been what it was if a certain Methodist minister hadn't written "We Shall Overcome" (which we shall, someday). And therefore, we will be blessed for literally picking up an instrument and playing, arranging or even co-writing whatever version of "The Word" we deem appropriate for the world to hear.

Of course, since entering seminary, I've encountered more Zwinglis and Calvins than I ever really bargained for. When I told my former roommate I applied to study worship music and ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary, he simply shrugged and sarcastically wished me good luck on finding a full-time position where I'd be working with "real" musicians. Another friend of mine basically criticized me for going from one profession (journalism) into another that "doesn't pay anything," then proceeded to tell me I should have chosen a more lucrative discipline for my master's degree. One of my pastors expressed a subtle but noticeable hint of disappointment upon discovering I'm working toward a master's in arts and theology instead of a master of divinity. And quite hysterically, one classmate of mine -- in a moment of unabashed denouncement that would rival Karl Barth's most ornery moments -- indirectly told me Christianity is not about a bunch of self-centered hippies sitting in a circle and strumming guitars.

I see where that classmate is coming from, and I cringe at the "Kumbaya" notion of Christianity as much as ... well, anyone who knows anything about Christian stereotypes. But if any of the aforementioned offenders were ever seeking proof that music can be just as important to church as preaching, they should have been in my situation for the past five months. The music minister at the church I am presently, regularly serving was laid off in July, and with all due respect to the pastors who had to make that hard but necessary decision, the church has been suffering ever since. Myself and a few other volunteers are gladly stepping in to pick up the slack, but our combined experience just isn't up to par with what this guy brought to our congregation. Several musical veterans have ceased participation in various programs, and still others have either left the church completely or are threatening to. Still, by trying the best we can to fill his shoes, I've seen firsthand just how much the musical element of worship helps people along on their faith walk, and I thank the Great Composer for every single kind word I've ever received in this particular director's absence. Seeing that kind of impact is much more rewarding than any kind of fat paycheck could ever be.

Not to toot my own denomination's horn, but I equate these angels who experience God through music with the grandaddy of the Protestant Reformation himself: Martin Luther. Though the German Reformer admittedly questioned the use of pipe organ in church services (for very anti-Semitic reasons, since apparently the organ's use as a worship instrument has its roots in ancient synagogues), he inadvertently declared a mission statement for Christian music nerds like me in his foreword to Georg Rhau's Symphoniae iucundae: "I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy and costly treasure given to mankind by God ... In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts and spirits ... we marvel when we hear music in which one voice sings a simple melody, while three, four or five other voices play and trip lustily around the voice that sings its simple melody and adorn this simple melody wonderfully with artistic musical effects, thus reminding us of a heavenly dance, where all meet in a spirit of friendliness, caress and embrace. A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs."

Only our Awesome God can say how the afterlife is panning out for Zwingli, but I'd be lying if I said my inner vindictiveness doesn't hope it's rife with donkeys and pigs making their own, um, joyful noises (which he might actually prefer over church music). As for the rest of us, we will continue singing "Alleluia!" for this marvelous aural gift and the opportunity to share it with others. Thanks, Awesome God, for giving us Your amazing grace as a sound, and a sweet one at that.

Friday, December 4, 2009

How (not) to be Wu-Tang style

If any genre could rightfully be called the "devil's music," I was convinced in middle school and much of high school that that genre was hip-hop. And to me it wasn't just an opinion -- it was practically a Biblically stated fact that the apocalypse would be brought about by none other than this sorry, tuneless, self-aggrandizing excuse for music. I made a habit, if not a pure obsession, out of telling all my fellow students who listened to rap (which was almost everyone) what idiots they were and encouraging them to listen to bands with "integrity" like Blind Melon, Bush and Everclear. I even based whole school projects on the subject, and nearly got into trouble a few times over arguing why hip-hop had to be banished from the Earth as promptly as sin itself. Man, was I annoying.

That was then and this is now, though, and with the help of numerous educational sources (primarily a history of rock & roll class at Chandler-Gilbert Community College), I came to realize that rapping, DJing, sampling, breakdancing, etc. are not only veritable art forms in their own right, but the basis for an entire culture that cannot and must not be dismissed. Though I still only physically own one hip-hop record -- Madvillain's surreal underground masterpiece Madvillainy -- I have taken it upon myself to give most critically acclaimed rap at least one very open-minded listen. I have rarely been disappointed since, and now can acknowledge why people I used to despise like Dr. Dre, The Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z and even Eminem were and are so popular, not to mention placeholders on various Pitchfork "best of" lists.

When curiously flipping through The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide to the Greatest Songs from Punk to the Present (and yes, I'm admitting to visiting that shamelessly elitist online hype-monger on a regular basis, even though I adamantly disagree with some of their tastes), I read a blurb on Wu-Tang Clan's "Protect Ya Neck" from 1993's Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). I was unfamiliar with most of Wu-Tang's material before reading this, and I was intrigued by the author's vivid description of their loping beats, hazy samples, offhandedly violent imagery, sick sense of humor and myriad MC tradeoffs. But then it mentioned something that still irks me to no end: Apparently RZA, the collective's commander-in-chief, has elevated the Wu-Tang style into its own psuedo-religious philosophy. RZA has explained that Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) -- often considered one of hip-hop's landmark records -- was as inspired by Islam and Eastern thought as it was by comic books, kung fu film fighting scenes and the austere conditions of New York City ghetto life. And though I admittedly have yet to read either book, he also evidently explains in The Wu-Tang Manual and The Tao of Wu that the Wu-Tang way of thinking is more or less a combination of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.

I would be lying if I said I didn't grimace and shake my head immediately upon reading this, not least of all because I am staunchly opposed to the idea of religious amalgamation. However well-intentioned it may or may not be, you can't simply harmonize conflicting religions because ... well ... it's IMPOSSIBLE to do successfully, unless you omit certain parts from whatever religions you are trying to combine. There is a reason that the four canonical Gospels were never melded into one -- there are some scenes that directly conflict with each other, and who is to say which review of the Jesus Jam's got those details exactly right? Not Constantine, not the church, not anyone. Until the time machine is invented (which I hope never actually happens, because then we would have no reason for faith or God's mystery), we will never know whether the Jesus Jam caused a riot in the Temple in the middle or at the beginning of their tour of the Mediterranean, or whether their rockin' tunes opened the eyes of one blind listener or two.

I'm not an expert on Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism or even Islam by any means, but I'm pretty sure the developers of each one wanted its followers to adhere to ONE religion. A person I will call Friend #1 made a comment several years ago about how all Eastern religions are basically the same, and two other people who will go by Friend #2 and Friend #3 told me afterward how offended they were by Friend #1's poorly educated remark. Friend #3 -- who has a degree in religious studies -- mentioned that if all Eastern religions are the same, why on Earth did they engage in holy wars? I am curious to read RZA's books just to see what he takes and leaves out from each conflicting faith to create his own philosophy. Based on listening to the gritty, unsettling and sometimes quite heartbreaking narratives on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and The W, the Wu-Tang style of life doesn't sound terribly affirming or rewarding.

Half-joking aside, I would like to note in the midst of this argument that I am not against learning about other religions outside Christianity; in fact, I believe doing so is essential, not just for Christians but all people religious and nonreligious. But in the end it must stop at LEARNING, so that whoever is learning about whatever religion they are studying can make an informed judgement about its pros and cons. If one decides to convert to a different faith in the process of learning about it, to each their own, but you can't be just slightly obedient to one faith because you want to make room in your heart for slight obedience to another. From what I know about RZA's books and sources of inspiration, he doesn't seem to have a firm grasp on the true meaning of religious equality. Mohandas Gandhi may have famously advocated for such equality, but at the end of the day he was still a lifelong Hindu. All that term means is that we are in a perpetual state of agreeing to disagree -- we're not going to kill or oppress each other over our differences anymore, but if our beliefs are criticized we will stand up and defend them proudly.

Going to Fuller Theological Seminary -- the largest multi-denominational seminary in the world -- I have realized the value of agreeing to disagree more vividly than ever before. I argued with a classmate over whether or not convicted felons deserve a second chance at functioning respectably in society. But on the last day of class, he unexpectedly came to me personally and said how nice it was to meet me. I often butted heads with a more orthodox Christian than myself in a recent class, once to the point where the guy basically belittled me for being young and therefore full of "postmodern psychobabble." I was livid at first, but ultimately had some very pleasant, enlightening and loving conversations with him during our breaks from lectures. I got into a long, heated Facebook debate with a seminary buddy of mine over one of my previous blog posts, arguing back and forth over whether or not homosexuality is a sin (which I've come to the conclusion it isn't). But the next time I saw him, I ignored the knots in my stomach, sat next to him at lunch and was delighted to hear that he enjoyed the discussion as much as I did. All urges to protect my neck vanished in a heartbeat.

As one of my professors recently said, the worst arguers are ones who call the opposing side an idiot. There are certain religions and Christian denominations I disagree with -- sometimes quite vehemently -- and though I sometimes get into modes when I would love to just banish or ignore them all, I understand there's a lot you can learn from those who are not like you. And ultimately, just because someone is not like you does not mean they are less deserving of human dignity. Even in our evangelistic efforts as Christians, we ought to respect or at least remember the fact that what works for us may not work for everyone.

Although I take issue with RZA's thoughts on philosophy, I think Wu-Tang Clan as a unit actually stand as a decent model for ecumenism. At the time Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was released, the collective had no less than nine MCs. I've never been fortunate enough to witness a street rap battle, but I can imagine it's not too dissimilar from listening to this record -- the MCs take turns with their verses, each one bringing their own unique style to the often intense mix. Ghostface Killah practically screams in a high-pitched yelp like someone's holding a pistol to his head. Raekwon the Chef sneers nonchalantly like he and his crew are about to smoke your behind in a blaze of gunfire. Method Man distinctively wheezes when taking breaths amidst his near-tuneful rhyming. Inspector Deck articulately proclaims every syllable like a newscaster announcing the apocalypse. The GZA plays it the coolest out of them all like a sardonic late-night disc jockey. The RZA shouts angrily like he's about to finish you with a single, fatal kung fu move. U-God and Masta Killa's appearances are scant throughout the record, but their respective menacing growl and preacher-style bellow are highly memorable. And Ol' Dirty Bastard ... well ... he sounded a lot like his namesake, mumbling semi-comprehensibly like he was wasted on the floor (which probably wasn't too far from the truth); may he rest in peace.

In addition, I think the music itself on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) reinforces the idea of the Clan as a good ecumenical model. The RZA had a very strange, innovative and massively influential approach to assembling beats. It's almost like he put them together as a low-resolution afterthought to the raps. Muted mid-tempo drum loops, overdriven bass, dissonant piano and organ motifs, kung fu film samples and a number of other ghastly noises are assembled haphazardly on what sounds like 20-year-old turntables, without any real regard for whether it was all rhythmically synced or even in the same key. It really shouldn't have worked but ... somehow ... it does. In fact, one could argue the music is beautiful because of the mess, not in spite of it.

Such a principle could apply to what humanity is in this day and age, when religious pluralism is all the rage. Society at large has taken a relativist approach to the divine, seeing every individual religion as a self-contained truth. But I disagree with this -- as the black liberation theologian James Cone once said, all religions are fundamentally searching for the same kind of meaning, just going about very different ways of doing so. Our rhythms may not pound in tandem with each other, and we are certainly not all playing in the same key, but at least we can all agree on a love for music. And in this increasingly secularized culture, perhaps we should sing a quiet ditty of praise whenever people still bother to worship some kind of higher power at all.

Still, just because our tunes don't exactly match up doesn't mean we should edit "The Word" to accommodate for every other composition in existence. So RZA, please take note: Amalgamation is not the same thing as equality. And to those who listen to and/or perform a single divinely written piece because you felt called to do so, keep doing what you're doing. Just know that if your favorite composer is challenged, be sure to bring the ruckus with the equivalent of a rap battle and not a drive-by shooting. There is a place on this Earth for every sound, even hip-hop.