A few thoughts I started pounding into Twitter today, with annotations:
I had so many chances to not try to be a Christian. My conversion experience, as my Camp "Counselor In Training" leader said, wasn't very convincing, for example; I had soul-affecting conversations with so many people along the way. But instead of scrapping the faith and identity, I mastered bending and contorting the faith to fit my understanding. Sometimes it was overly abstract; sometimes I clung to tradition. Most of the time, though, I clung to the false hope that I would understand better in the future why my beliefs seemed to contradict my understanding of the world so much.
I remember, not long after he became an atheist, having a conversation with my brother, for example, and I had an apologetics-based sort of justification for everything he said. And I knew I was jumping through hoops, but I kept jumping. I couldn't seem to let go. And I got accustomed to that magical thinking in so many places in my life. This became most problematic when I justified getting married when I knew I wasn't ready: I kept saying, "This may be your only chance," "just have faith," and it will work out in the end." And as a result of that magical thinking, I'm responsible for that broken home.
When I heard and read "saved a wretch like me" sort of stuff from practically every medium I consumed, when I read messages like "you are nothing without God," or "God killed his own child for you," it gets totally ingrained that that sort of thinking is legitimate. How many times did I hear, "You have no rights?" How many times did I hear about the "God-shaped hole" or how "life is hard and it doesn't make sense, and the only thing that can help you is God?" And all the times that I clung to those hopes, I got more and more alienated from myself.
I don't blame any of those people who gave me those messages. They were doing their best to help me with my "eternal soul" and whatnot. But I took those messages, despite my reservations, and I conditioned myself to second-guess myself and never trust myself.
I thought poorly. And although I abandoned the creed years ago, I'm getting so, so tired of fighting the internal struggle over and over again.
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.
When I was 12 years old, Steve Taylor released Squint, a disjointed solo album that I really enjoyed. The songs were a little uneven, but as a whole I enjoyed them. I was particularly fond of "Smug" and "Sock Heaven," and the opening track "The Lament of..." is a pretty awesome rock track as well.
I was never quite a fan of one of the hits, "Jesus is for Losers," but I accepted the message. The concept of the song is essentially "We're all broken, sinful losers and Jesus came to save us." Taylor was trying to send a classic evangelical message by turning it on its head.
I internalized that kind of messaging hard. I, Jeffrey Nordstrom, was a born horrible and unacceptable, such a horrible being that God had to send his son and kill him in order to make me acceptable.
The issue was, though, that I took it further. When I felt shameful, I assumed it was because I was intrinsically a shame; when people constructively criticized me, I assumed it was due to my sinful, broken nature; when I felt like crap, I felt like I deserved it; when people complimented me or praised me, I talked myself down in order to remind myself of mine and the world's sin of pride. Although I always knew I was an OK person, any time I even slightly felt negative about myself, I had an all-encompassing, supernatural reason to confirm my bias of wretchedness.
In the end, I never stood up for myself. Standing up for myself was evidence of pride. When I'd get yelled at or criticized or told-off, I just thought I deserved it. Sometimes I'd stand up for myself once, but after repeated attacks I'd assume the problem was with me. When I got called names, I'd think "There must be truth to this" and try to own it. It got me nowhere.
It didn't help that this brokenness seemed so virtuous in the religious circles I worked in. I heard so many sermons from so many different pulpits that seemed to back up this message, that I was horrible and only "worthy" if Jesus covered my sins. Being a "slave to Christ" was an ideal that I heard many times, and "turning the other cheek" was seen as a prime directive. Although I've moved on from those beliefs, they still sting in the back of my head every time I see someone act more patient, more generous, more thoughtfully than myself. These beliefs sit deep in my consciousness.
For the last few months, I feel like I've been redeveloping a bit of a sense of self. I'm a little more at peace with myself more than I have for a while. For the last few years, with therapy, counselling, reading, and vulnerable openness with friends, I feel like I've been developing a bit of a... me. I've been learning to accept that I'm allowed to have needs, to set boundaries, and to do things for myself now and then.
But then I realize just how far I have to go. I catch myself cursing myself, calling myself names, the same things I was called through all those years of supplicance. This will likely be a lifetime of deprogramming and trying to learn new systems. I need to set up better routines in my life and need to learn how to use my time more wisely, to motivate myself to do the things that make me happy. I think these things and then I curse myself again and it all starts all over again.
That's all. I have a long way to go because I started at a really low place. But I'm taking steps forward every day. So it'll be alright.
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.
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