My decades-long interest in Larry Norman led me to an article that The New Yorker posted this week: "The Unlikely Endurance of Christian Rock," by Kalefa Sanneh. It's a pretty fair, even-handed summary of the genre, with some good outsider commentary thrown in. Worth a read. And it got me thinking a bunch.
This week, through an online Marketplace, I bought a guitar pedal from Brander Raven, the man who opened for Larry Norman in Burnaby back in 1992, my first Larry Norman concert. That concert influenced me a lot: although I was disappointed that he didn't have a band with him, I appreciated how Norman would talk to the audience, share his ideas and visions, and how he generally came off. It may have even been something that messed with my sense of how music should work, insofar as it conditioned me to think concerts were less formulaic than they usually are.
When I saw that Brander Raven was selling some gear, I had a chance to meet up with him. We sat at Tim Horton's and talked about life, relationships, faith, culture, Norman, education etc.. And I came out of the conversation feeling pretty reflective about my decade of listening to Christian music and leading worship at churches and with different para-church groups.
Growing up, we had music in our house all of the time. My mother listened to white Gospel music, artists like George Beverly Shea and Tennessee Ernie Ford; my father listened to 60s pop, doo-wop, and plenty of country and western. I spent countless hours sitting on the living room floor, playing my parents' records on the living room turntable. I enjoyed making mix cassettes and they were always eclectic, spanning whatever music I happened to like. And I liked a lot of music.
When I decided that I needed to be listening to Christian music, perhaps around 1991, I tried to listen to the usual rock directed towards me: White Heart and the like. I'd visit the Christian Book and Music Centre in Victoria and listen to their sample cassettes and try to find things I liked. But I didn't really connect with most of it. It seemed tinny and cheesy, even when I was 12 years old. It didn't have the same quality that I was used to on my parents' records.
But that changed when my sister brought home a CD copy of Larry Norman's In Another Land. That was a CD I really connected with. Its production seemed legit; the lyrics were poetic and conflicted; the CD itself was packed with liner notes that I could read for hours. I listened to it more than my sister did.
And it made me feel like Christian music could be legit, like it was a thing. Most importantly, along with the emergence of Tooth and Nail Records in the early 90s, it led me to other Christian musicians who could be considered artists: Michael Knott, Michael Roe, Gene Eugene, Terry Scott Taylor, Mark Heard, Starflyer 59, and (to a point) Steve Taylor. These and others were the usual music I consumed back then. I still have a few of each of their songs on my phone. When most of that sort of music has drifted into childish schlock, these folks were artists.
There was always a "secular" tension for me, though. When is music "Christian?" Is it about the label? The artist? The message? This was particularly interesting at Camp, which had an "only Christian music" policy, which allowed anything as long as it came from a Christian label. This seemed strange, of course. I mean, Starflyer 59 was on a "Christian" label, but they never mentioned God in their lyrics; Michael Knott was on Christian labels, but he talked more about his troubles than God's direction in life. And then what about the people who are Christians but on a secular label, like Pierce Pettis or Steven Delopoulos? What about U2? What about Larry Norman, who seemed to have genuine disdain for the Christian Music Industry and stayed independent? What about when Christians found their way onto secular labels now and then, like Micheal Knott did with the Aunt Bettys? Where did the line really sit? At camp, we never really knew, and although we often listened to Christian music on speakers, we'd listen to "secular" music in our cars, on our headphones. We were all blurring the lines.
But as a teenager, these sorts of arguments are the bread and butter of our "Christian walk" discussions. They were part of the pleasure of living as a Christian. We could wonder whether the music was true, right, and lovely, and it made for endless conversation. At one point, I destroyed my Aunt Bettys CD (even though I'd made a self-censored cassette copy), only to re-buy it a couple years later. The arguments were ridiculous, but at the time it seemed like this was a matter of eternal consequence.
By the time I entered University in 1998, things were shifting in the Christian Music industry. Music seemed to be getting more saccharine. Popular "edgy" Christian musicians were only as edgy as the latest devotional had gone. People would say things ("Christ is the Savior of the Broken," "Salvation is very precise") that they felt were pushing the envelope, but then I'd realize that I was hearing the same envelope-pushing at multiple venues, that it was a publisher-driven talking point, that edgy pastors merely rehashed their favorite theologian's latest themes. I found that, once bands like Delirious and Third Day took over the Christian market, most of the artful music disappeared under this umbrella of "devotion." Creative renegades left the industry altogether.
With the creatives out of the picture, the publishing houses and big market churches (Hillsong United, Vineyard, etc..) leaned hard into priase and worship, which is essentially Christian easy listening. Delirous and Third Day introduced crunchy guitars and backbeats into regular worship services; as a result, "devotional" music got watered down so much that I just couldn't handle it. In the Christian bookstores, the "rock" section kept on shrinking. I'd look for new rock artists, but they just weren't there, even at the bigger stores. And of the rock that was there, it was as empty as the worship music that filled the shelves.
This praise-and-worship market shift affected me directly, on a small scale. I had a band with some friends, but we couldn't maintain it in that culture. In regards to the tweet above, I was kind-of heartbroken when my fellow musicians went into the worship genre. For a bunch of teenagers, my friends and I were making some genuinely interesting music, filled with interesting chords and melodies and all that. But as they moved into the worship and praise realm, I just couldn't follow. I sung with a larger worship band for a bit in Victoria, but it wasn't really my thing overall. People would get all excited about the newest praise and worship CD or trend, and I couldn't feel it.
In a way, I'd been conditioned to the Larry Norman version of things, keeping my worship music low-key and simple, trying to aim for quality control without losing the intimacy needed for the seeming spiritual experience. I'd always felt that music that couldn't be respected by secular people wasn't worth doing, and I brought that sensibility into my worship leading. It was fun while it lasted, but it also left me quite alone. After leading music for IVCF in Victoria in 2002, I very rarely made any sort of music if I wasn't on my own. I had my vision and I stuck with it.
There really was no way around it. Standing in front of people, even with the agenda of worship, is performance. Chanting at a convent in order to create a mystical state... is performance. Tibeten bowls that aid in meditation are a type of performance. The idea that we weren't performing was a cognitive dissonance I couldn't maintain for very long.
I already wrote about this above, so that's enough for now.
Except for this: it's funny. It's funny that I spent so much time being so stressed out about whether music was Christian or not when... well... it was such a non-starter. It was an argument over nothing.
It reminds me of the following video from Seth Andrews, wherein he recalls his years working at a Christian music station. If you have a few minutes, enjoy it. Whether you're a believer or not, it's a great summary of how different cultures interact with and mimic one another.
In October of 2016, I voluntarily took a psychological exam. I wanted to see if my perception was all wrong, if I was looking at the world through a decidedly selfish, narcissistic lens. After bouts of therapy and counselling, the dissolution of my marriage, and loads of reading, I felt confused and frustrated. I wanted to see if I was as horrible as I sort-of felt I was. Maybe I just wanted to talk. For whatever reason, I took this exam-thing,
I can't find the online reference I made to it; I wrote a summary post on Tumblr, but perhaps I deleted it. The main thing I remember the psychologist saying, though, was "You seem to be of sound mind, but your values are all over the map." Essentially, I let myself be pulled around and don't really run with anything. Which is likely true.
I still find myself being pulled around this way. I still battle with trusting my gut enough to stand up for anything. When I do stand up for my values and what I believe is a good thing to do, I'm usually wracked with self-doubt. I'd say I'm doing better than I did a year ago, but I still find it hard to really stand up for anything. If someone suggests they have a better way of doing something, I tend to just go along with it. It takes deliberate, mind-wrenching effort to say, "I'd like to do this... this way... and I will follow that through."
I'm sure there's plenty of nature-nurture stuff to attribute this mindset to. Growing up in Baptist churches, I was frequently told told that I was a sinful wretch who didn't deserve anything without God's help, that Christianity was the only lens through which to see the world. My parents wanted me to follow the faith, but I don't think they intended for me to internalize as much of that type of negative teaching. When you have one authority figure after another telling you that you're horrible and incapable of navigating the world, and you really identify with that thinking, it's easy to let others abscond with your sense of perception; when shame and guilt are virtuous feelings to have to back up your wretchedness, and you're prone to shame and guilt, it ices the don't-trust-yourself cake. In my case, I believe it primed me for doubting my perception.
My counsellor suggested that I listen to Brené Brown's "Men, Women, and Worthiness," so I need to order that. I've read one of Brown's books before, but maybe it's time for me to return to her work again. Perhaps I'm a little more in touch with my shame than I used to be, and I might be able to take it on from a new angle.
I'd like to think I'm learning a little more about how it's OK to have values, boundaries, and needs, and that I'm allowed to try to be happy in my goals to be a good dad and good person. But I have a long way to go before I can feel confident in my own perception, confident that I won't hide behind tinted shame-glasses.
One step at a time.
Noisey posted this documentary on December 1, 2016, I Saw The Light. I watched it today. It's a well-made little film about Christian evangelical culture's relationship with music.
I attended a few Christian festivals with my church youth group: Sonfest in Abbotsford and Jesus Northwest in Vancouver, Washington, both in the mid-90s. As a Christian teenager, I had a good time at those festivals. I admit that I enjoyed the concert elements far more than preaching or "worship," so perhaps I didn't get the full experience as described in the documentary. But I remember feeling really good and meeting lots of other Christians who introduced me to really great music. I still listen to some of that music, even 20 years later, even after my faith has long gone.
A few days ago, I was filling up a couple booklets with CDs for my car. Going through the old CDs—all on spools at this point—I was a little bit floored that I had such a significant Christian music collection: Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, Daniel Amos, Starflyer 59, etc.. I'll probably keep those CDs forever; they're an essential part of my collection.
Funny thing is, I've had The Hold Steady's "Chillout Tent" running through my head for the last few days, which tells a very different music festival story. Enjoy:
Should I feel guilty about enjoying this lovely, melodic, narrative drug-trip song? The Ottawa School Board might think so.
Makes me wonder what the Shewens are up to these days.
Today, as I rushed through Abbotsford to a job interview, I saw this sign for what appears to be a razed Bar and Grill: "JESUS IS LORD OVER ABBOTSFORD." Even though I was in a rush to get to the interview on time, I felt that I needed to talk about this one. So I did (embedded below).
Seriously. God's obsession with human politics in the Holy Land is absurdly provincial, weirdly local, and entirely irrelevant to people today, or even then. Clearly, the Old Testament is a political text intended to propagandize for particular political ends.
As I mentioned in the video [deleted] above, this bugged me while I was growing up. It was a strange contradiction to me to see how God seemed so political on such a small [provincial] scale while he also happened to run the entire universe. The largeness of God and the minuteness of his prejudices were a contradiction that I never really sorted out, no matter which apologetics I adopted.
What God cares about these sort of politics? From Judges 3,
It just seems unnecessarily petty for a God of the Universe to use tactics like this.
Or how about this, from 1 Chronicles 11 in the KJV?
This is a whole bunch of political jibber-jabber. Why does God need to be involved in any of this? The answer is that He doesn't need to be there. All the characters would do just fine without the presence of a provincial, political, warrior god.
Again, it seems rather peevish of God to care about this. Such an omnipotent God wouldn't be very concerned about who smiteth who, or who rebuilds a city, right?
I love maps and pored over the maps in my Bibles for many hours in my youth. What about this map?
There we see a line dividing two nations. At some times, God liked one of them; at other times, God liked the other one. There's no way to get around the politics of this: clearly the writers of the texts would have a bias towards their own nation. Note that Jerusalem is on the "Judah" side of the line; guess which nation was usually favoured by God? And wouldn't the omnipotent God understand that political borders constantly shift, that they're arbitrary delineations of human tribal social organizations? I'd like to think that God wouldn't even notice our borders, but instead look directly at our hearts.
Again, this bugged me. And it still does. It seems strange to think that political decisions in the United States of America are often based on an interpretation of a 2000 year old political text from a different continent.
No matter what a person believes, I think it's important to have a clear idea of what type of a being they're worshipping. I, for one, was never at peace with the provincial god who takes sides in battles and sends "his people" to be slaves in other countries. This made it easy to adopt more "ecumenical" approaches to Christianity, ones that focused on unity and personal religious experience. Unfortunately for my faith's sake, that made my faith so subjective that I couldn't seem to reconcile aligning myself with the organizations any longer.
Even though I don't believe in that God anymore, the God I once worshipped was way bigger than the God of the Bible.
NOTE: DUE TO THE SENSITIVITY OF THE TOPIC, CHANCES ARE THAT I WILL BE EDITING THIS BLOG ENTRY A FEW TIMES OVER THE NEXT DAY OR SO. BEAR WITH ME.
The recent, socially and politically complex nightclub shooting in Orlando has prompted a whole load of anti-religion rhetoric. And justifiably so, sort-of: most recent analogous shootings — Dylann Roof notwithstanding — have been performed by people who claim to adhere to a certain religion: Islam. Since there is no reason for us to doubt someone's convictions and claims to follow any faith, we should not ignore or downplay it.. In the case of Orlando, the perpetrator, in his last act before the massacre, admitted his own Islamic religious angle himself. Religious identification is a common factor in the lives of people who perpetuate popularized violence in our worldwide culture today; I have no interest in trying to step around that fact.
However, saying "Muslims" or "Islam" or "religion" is the problem misses the mark by a wide margin. The religion isn't a problem on its own; a combination of factors is the problem.
If I have to identify with a belief system, I will admit that I am a secularlist. I see no need for religion in my own life or in the political sphere. In my experience, and through my reading, I've come to believe that religion in all its facets causes more problems than it solves. It misguides people; it promotes authoritarianism; it defies reason; it obfuscates social and personal development. Religion inherently creates arbitrary, evidence-free lenses that confuse people from a potentially clearer view of reality. I shed my religion in order to better understand my world, and for me it has worked.
But my fellow secularists like to point a singular finger at religion in situations like this, and I think that's also misguided. People are more complicated than their religious beliefs; culture is more complicated than religion, just as it's more complicated than economic factors. Pointing the finger at religion — or any other factor — creates a type of tunnel vision that misses out on the problem as a whole: that humans are animals living a far more complex lifestyle than any other animal has in the history of the world. We've made a real mess in our development as a civilisation and our brains haven't adapted as quickly as our societies have.
Humans need a lot of shit to thrive. We need support networks; we need stability around us; we need autonomy; we need a sense of belonging; we need to feel as if we make a difference in our world; we need to express ourselves; we need medication and therapy. In short, we need a balanced life, as far as we can get it.
And this can look like millions of different things. One balanced person might be a "pillar of their community" while another might be something more subtle. And it goes through changes over time and some people have to watch their balance more carefully than others.
There is one person in my life who found an explicit way to balance out her life: my sister. She struggled in normalized Western life. She was out of balance in the hectic expectations we place on young, beautiful women in our society. She battled with mindless, retail jobs and empathized with people to a degree that would seem to debilitate her. She struggled to maintain her religious identity in a world that expected so much of her time and energy.
But she was strong enough to do something about it, even though it was seemingly drastic.
She joined a convent in late 1997; she has been a nun for almost 20 years. There, she has found a way to live a life that seems as balanced as it can be. It has its stresses, but she found a place where she belongs, where she knows her place and role in the community, where she can make a contribution to her limited, but real world. Drastic move for a Baptist pastor's daughter? Certainly. But it was effective. Essentially, she saw a means to reach the top of Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs and embraced it full force.
Considering the news that's come out about Omar Mateen — that he was prone to rage, that he abused his wife, that he had a history of threatening people, that he would get angry when drunk and would drink in the corner of the bar alone — I think it's safe to say that he did not have a balanced life. I wouldn't be surprised if some sort of religious thinking legitimised his personal hatred of homosexuality. I imagine he had some severe morbidity of psychological disorders. He was a mess of a person, out of balance on many, many levels. He clearly lacked empathy and compassion. And he had access to guns that could shoot bullet after bullet after bullet. This is so tragic that I feel snobbish and elitist even attempting to put it into words.
I'm not going to point at his religion and say "His religion made him do it." That's a gross understatement, just as it is when people say "It was a mental disorder" or "He was ostracised." There is a wide swathe of factors that contributed to this case of "homegown extremism" and "self-redicalization." I refuse to point at a finger at a single snapshot as if it could tell the whole story.
Some secularists might suggest that Omar Mateen was just fulfilling the "essence" of his religion. I've heard many secular activists say things like "The extremists are the ones who are actually practicing the religion the 'right' way." But there is no "right way" for something that's already baseless, already in their own heads. Nobody has a trump card on the "right way" to do something that has no foundation in the first place, neither those who claim the religion or those who criticize it. Successful religions are megamalleable: adaptability is the hallmark of any enduring idea — religious, political, social, or even personal. Religions that cannot adapt to the disparate ideas in people's brains die out.
And Omar Mateen adapted his religion too, just like everybody does. Through his own hateful, distorted lenses, for his own purposes, he killed. His religion was just a part of his already distorted, hateful, mindset. But it was not the cause. It was merely another factor among many, a rack on which to hang his hatred, disillusionment, and insecurity.
Besides, which religion would we blame anyhow? Islam? Or perhaps his internal religion of masculinity? or of hatred? or of honor?
It's just too messy to pinpoint.
To put it another way, if you're a secularist who wants to blame all of this on Omar's religion, or if you're a liberal who wants to pin it to his psychological disorders or family history, and you don't take the whole picture into account, you're no better than the guy who's saying that this happened because Obama let him.
We will always have imbalances in our world; we need to do our best to give everybody a chance to find their centre and balance in their own lives. Our culture's incessant focus on capital and growth thrives on instability, but we — as human being animals — don't.
And when we create a shifty, careless culture and then give people access to handheld, legal WMDs, we pay a terrifying price for this cultural instability.
When we mix religious ideas, politics, and psychological disorders or imbalances, we have a recipe for serious instability. All of these ideas are just that — ideas. And ideas are only real in the minds of people, and they're fluid and dynamic, and they create the mindsets and lenses by which we see the world. All these abstract layers of ideological blame are as unsteady as standing on a top-heavy Jenga tower, assembled on a trampoline.
I think that's what I appreciate about Obama's speech embedded below: he captures a level of pragmatic empathy that I believe is truly admirable in its forthright care for people.
UPDATE JUNE 16
This morning's diatribe on The Scathing Atheist drives this home from a different angle.
And Thomas at Atheistically Speaking also had some interesting conclusions:
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