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.


  1. i think we have to look at the possibility that the holy bible is, at best, a mix tape as eclectic and dischordant as the worst bedroom mash up. any even half-hearted inquiry into it's 66 canonical tracks won't show cohesion, but contradiction. the jesus jam dropped some vocals into four of the songs on the tape, but any collaboration between him and the other contributors, (let alone production by awesome god) is speculative, and it's apparent that even those vocal tracks were autotuned after the fact.

  2. Hahaha, well said, Matthew (which Matthew is this?). I totally understand where you're coming from and agree with you in certain respects.

    I believe Awesome God definitely had a hand in producing every track on "The Holy Bible," but ultimately it was left up to the various artists themselves on how to develop His creative input into concrete songs. Of course there are discrepancies throughout the whole box set -- as is customary for any compilation, even under the helm of one Producer -- but nothing so contradictory that it completely nullifies the overall nature of the music itself. And though some of its sounds are obviously, painfully outdated, it's still worthwhile to listen to those sounds in their historical context in order to understand how outrageous those riffs must have been at one point in time.

    Though I agree there was surely a little auto-tuning in the post-production of The Jesus Jam's four cameos on "The Holy Bible," it was only to enhance those four tracks' overall power. Plus, there are quite a few misplaced notes and beats that a record executive named Constantine decided to leave in -- because, again, none of those mistakes are bad enough to ruin the songs themselves. In fact, I think those discrepancies tend to be more endearing than anything, as long as people recognize that they are there. As far as I'm concerned, the four Jesus Jam cameos don't contradict so much as they complement each other.

  3. this is MattKlassen! what's up Todd?

    I don't know man, it's not quite so endearing when such a vast majority of JJ groupies base their lives on the belief that "the Word" is immutable and innerant. take an issue like eschatology: what does "the Holy Bible" say about heaven and hell? What does the Jesus Jam say? and what do you believe? there are three vastly different answers to those questions.

    and though autotune may be theologically enhancing, it's not historically enhancing. and if it's okay for 1st and 2nd century producers to give Jesus the Timbaland treatment, isn't it okay for Christian Friend #2?

  4. Hey, man, it's been a while! How have you been?

    Well, I think "The Word" itself is inerrant, but "The Holy Bible" contains less-than-perfect renditions of that symphony, which is why we have prayer and fellowship to fill in the aural blanks, as it were. There are certain verses -- particularly the ones about women oppression, homosexual condemnation, nationalistic prejudice, holy warfare and animal sacrifice -- that simply don't sound all that good today and are downright impractical to perform. That being said, we shouldn't dismiss the entire box set simply because there are a few sour notes here and there. Jesus Jam fans who refuse to listen to "The Holy Bible" at least in part will have a hard time ensuring their versions of "The Word" are anything above subpar.

    I don't think The Jesus Jam's four appearances on "The Holy Bible" are quite as Auto-Tuned as you seem to think they are. Additionally, if all we had were the most "bare-bones" renditions of The Jesus Jam's output, we might as well listen to "Antiquities of the Jews" instead of "The Holy Bible." On that lyrically controversial but historically relevant epic by Jumpin' Josephus, there's an extremely brief song about The Jesus Jam's miraculous stage shows and eventual banishment from Jerusalem. "Objective," I suppose, but like I said in my post, where's the fun (or the faith) in that?

    And while I think postmodern Auto-Tune is all fine and good as time goes on, I don't like the idea of completely jettisoning the concept of Silent Separation. If Awesome God invited us all to the Ultimate Temple regardless of how good or bad our versions of "The Word" sounded on this Earth, why would we even listen to The Jesus Jam or pay any heed to the Holy Mojo? I have no doubt in my mind that there are at least a few tone-deaf players within Awesome God's symphony (if they're even bothering to play "The Word" at all), but only He has any authority to say who is ultimately a sheep or a goat.

  5. i've been just dandy! i've been enjoying your blog for a while, and just thought i'd add my licks to the mix.

    i feel like without the silent separation, we approach the holy mojo on it's merit. why would anyone listen to the jesus jam if they weren't threatened with eternal damnation? well, simply because the jesus jam kicks existential ass. it is utterly mind-blowing socially, spiritually, politically, on the quantum level...but the minute i have to choose between some kind of inscrutable arcane commitment to the jesus jam and the highway to hell, i feel like i'm napster and the jesus jam is like ASCAP/BMI. you feel me? i used to be in the same boat with hip-hop as you...and every time someone told me to listen to kanye or outkast or i was going to music hell, i wanted even less to do with it. but as soon as i approached it without obligation or pressure, i started to dig it. i don't think we as people need or want threats hanging over our heads...when it comes to religion and theology, people have to decide for themselves which philosophies are sheep and which are goats. i believe that in the end, neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor anything above or below, nor anything in all creation can separate us from the love of god. if that love exists, then it existed before the jesus jam, and not even hell can take that love away. aren't we all then, elect? aren't we all then justified?

    as for the overproduction on the jesus jam's vocal tracks, i may be a curmudgeon, but i just hate being lied to. so when one track jesus sings "i and the father are one" and on another track he sings "why do you call me good? no one is good except one: the father." and on one track, the earliest basement bootlegs don't even mention the jesus jam fucking RISING FROM THE DEAD!!!!! (that's a pretty epic solo to just leave off the record) i feel like i'm being lied to. and seriously i could go on forever pointing out little autotunes and big autotunes, and you could go on just as long telling me why they still agree and why some of them are really no big deal, but as you say, you have faith in the text, and i don't. if you have faith in the text, you live your life accordingly and that's that. but in sooooo many things, the text is vague or contradictory, or (most often) taken completely out of context (ie. what is the 1st century jewish view of hell/gehinom vs. the classical christian view of hell?) and it all collapses down to how you interpret what you believe is (or isn't) "the word." i guess i'm only trying to say that faith in "the holy bible", even faith in "the word" is really faith in the self.

  6. Hahaha, thanks for sharing your version of "The Word," man! I appreciate you taking the time to listen to my version of "The Word." :)

    I'm not saying that people should listen to The Jesus Jam strictly because they are literally damned if they don't! Like I said in my post, the self-interested desire for a decent grade on our renditions of "The Word" from the Great Reviewer Himself should not be the primary motivation behind our performances. Nor should that pressure and obligation you're speaking of be the main feeling one feels after hearing "The Word" (one of the reasons I stopped attending Praxis). Rather, the most important thing is to heal ears of all nations with Awesome God's amazing symphony as mastered by The Jesus Jam and propelled by the Holy Mojo. And as a Lutheran, I personally believe that we are saved by the grace incurred from our loyalty to the Jam -- in other words, if you're a hardcore fan and perform that music well (either through literal performance or at least telling your friends about this imperfect but still quite rockin' compilation called "The Holy Bible"), your admission into the Ultimate Temple is secure. I would like to think the Ann Coulter, Fred Phelps, Mark Driscoll, Benny Hinn, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh genres stand as pretty awful examples of "The Word," and good luck to anyone who tries to convince me otherwise; as you eloquently put it, they are the ASCAP/BMI to our Napster. But all I'm saying is I could be wrong. No one but Awesome God has any ultimate authority over whose versions of "The Word" are worthy of four or more stars. Without Silent Separation and the expectation of The Jesus Jam's encore, "The Holy Bible" is reduced to nothing more than a harmless collection of feel-good fluff (the aural equivalent of "Chicken Soup for the Soul," if you will), and that doesn't speak to me. The melodies contained within "The Word" are ultimately uplifting and transforming, but in the most terrifying way possible, you know what I mean? Plus, if we don't believe The Jesus Jam will ever play that encore, countless faithful musicians have nothing to look forward to, and thus will continue having their instruments stripped away from them from numerous corrupt forces telling them to get "real jobs," without the possibility of those forces ultimately getting theirs at the downturned thumbs of Awesome God.

    When The Jesus Jam sang about their band and Awesome God being one, they meant that The JJ are of a piece with the Great Composer. They were the physical embodiment of how best to perform "The Word," and not even that does them justice -- they remain the only band that matters for those who believe. The resurrection is a pretty epic solo to just leave off the record, and you're actually the second person I've heard use guitar leads as a metaphor for The Jesus Jam's collective death and resurrection. :) But I disagree adamantly that faith in "The Word" amounts to faith in the self. Not to sound offensive or insulting, but in my always-humble opinion there is no form of idolatry more hideous than idolatry of oneself -- Augustine put it best in his tune "Original Sin" when he said the credit for any good note we play must go to Awesome God. Not to say that people can't and won't interpret "The Holy Bible," etc. from their own personal standpoint, or that there's anything wrong with that; like any music, you can't listen to anything completely objectively. But we don't deserve the glory, the Great Composer does. And if we start to let our best performances go to our heads, our skills will sound like nothing but a tuneless, formless racket to Him (and not in a cool, artsy way, either).

  7. hmmm...i don't see how you can have a faith in the word without first having faith in yourself. faith doesn't necessarily equal worship, but acknowledging your own capacity to know/believe the limits (if any) of that capacity certainly helps create a foundation for those beliefs. give credit to whoever you like, as long as you recognize that that is a choice made independent of awesome god. that was more a comment on the inherent subjectivity of, well, any knowledge/faith. feel free to give exegesis on whether god predetermined and also foreknew what each of us would ultimately believe, but i think that might be worth a new blog entry. :)