Tuesday, November 11, 2008
This is My Truth, Tell Me Yours, Part 2
I thought that we’d be Further along by now I can’t remember how We stumbled to this place I loved you like a long lost brother On a bad day maybe I thought why bother I’ve seldom seen so much anger In a face I wanna do better I wanna try harder I wanna believe Down to the letter -- Over the Rhine, “Long Lost Brother” There is a nearly universally used name that gets thrown in to the ring when the topic of villains comes up in Christian circles. It’s a name that practically jumps out of the mouths of people who are trying to explain why Christianity is in deep, deep trouble. The villain is seen as the product of an intractable, backwards-thinking religiosity that’s dangerous to America, especially since many of the public appearances this person makes involve him calling down wrath on America for its decadent, irreligious lifestyle. I speak, of course, of Pat Robertson. Other names come up, too. James Dobson gets a lot of vitriol and Jerry Falwell still gets plenty of posthumous flak. Those who pay more attention bring up Tim LaHaye, D. James Kennedy (who also recently died), and Chuck Colson while those of us who watch emerging trends are keeping an eye on Ron Luce (but I have seen very few people within Christianity who are worried about Teen Mania and BattleCry, which worries me in and of itself). Still, no one invites negative rhetoric from his supposed religious peers quite like Pat Robertson. Unfortunately, both for those inside evangelicalism and those without – whether we’re talking about atheists, Muslims, or Presbyterians – Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and a legion of nameless, faceless publishers, bookstore owners, small town pastors, and website administrators who share their values still function as the gatekeepers of Christian culture.* As long as they serve this role, Christianity will continue to build an alternate, history-less culture within America that serves to diminish both sides of the divide and increase the rancor and hateful language tossed back and forth across the wall. The problem with the gatekeepers is that they are far more interested in dogma and “proper” theology than art and therefore force an unnecessary cultural divide and an oversimplification of Christian thought. This oversimplification of Christian thought, in turn, encourages an oversimplified projection of non-Christian thought and an oversimplification of the human experience. So non-Christians are cast as blathering idiots who just don’t get it at best or hateful enemies at worst and those non-Christians respond with little charity because, well, everyone hates being stuffed in to a tiny box, especially if the one doing the stuffing hasn’t bothered to learn anything beyond their own wrong-headed projections. The truth is, too, that gates might be effective in keeping dangerous ideas out, but they function quite well at keeping things trapped inside, too. A siege, even if self-imposed, may keep the ravening hordes at bay, but it does little for the development of the besieged. Fields lie fallow, industries sit dormant, and the exchange of goods, services, and information is choked off. It doesn’t have to be that way, and there’s a very good chance that leaving the gates open and realizing there is no enemy waiting to storm the keep would be extremely good for those locked away in self-imposed exile from the world. Much ado is being made about how Christian pop culture is catching up with secular pop culture. This may be the case, but the fact is that even after supposedly gaining so much ground, it’s already evidence that Christian culture has lost a tremendous amount in the intervening years. It’s a tired and old argument, but the fact is that Flannery O’Connor, J.R.R. Tolkien and Dostoyevsky were Christians who wrote classics of Western fiction, but there is basically zero chance that you’d be able to walk in to a Christian bookstore today and buy their works. The Christian experience is further limited by the fact that the gatekeepers spend a lot of time frowning on things, so it’s almost necessary to limit music and books to lists of how great god is and put a Bridge Diagram and conversion scene in to everything. The limitations placed on the authors and artists who try to work within the strict guidelines are unreal. I have on the hard drive of my laptop a manuscript from a book I tried to write to sell as Christian fiction that will probably never see the light of day because the need to reach that climactic conversion scene corrupts the plot. The fact that the characters can’t swear or have sex or engage in any number of other questionable and human activities means that, even when fully fleshed out, they seem a thin and a little too much like cardboard. Art, as the saying goes, imitates life. Art cannot, therefore, have limitations placed on it. If there are limitations it no longer seeks to imitate life but define it. Art becomes propaganda. Craig Ferguson’s Between the Bridge and the River is one of the most amazingly uplifting and deeply Christian books I’ve ever read. I do not think that it’s possible to appreciate the book fully without being steeped in Christian philosophy, theology, liturgy, and language. It was, I truly believe, instrumental in my ability to finally come to terms with my own anger upon leaving Christianity and my burgeoning ability to appreciate and respect the religion in a way that I never could while I was within the throes of evangelicalism. Yet Between the Bridge and the River would never be sold in a Christian bookstore. Even if Ferguson wanted to try he would never make it past the gatekeepers. It includes extra-marital sex, drug use, acceptance of homosexuality, prostitution, negative depictions of pastors and televangelists, violence, and crime. Even though it is a story of redemption, acceptance, love, and grace just as clearly as the Christ story is, there’s no way it would be allowed. There is, however, a thirst for complicated depictions of religion within the Christian world, even those who are within the evangelical pop culture. Even a decade after it came out (and several years after it was completely ruined by the craptastic sequels), evangelicals love The Matrix. U2 is practically accepted as a Christian band. A few years ago Evanescence was actually sold briefly in Christian music stores because they had a song that kinda-sorta sounded like it was Christian. I think it would be good for Christians to read Craig Ferguson’s book. I also think it would be good for them to listen to Mike Doughty’s “Like a Luminous Girl.” And since they love U2 so much, it might behoove them to wrestle with the theology of The Waterboys’ “Glastonbury Song” and sing the soaring, pained, almost liturgical “You in the Sky” instead of the latest “Rah rah Jesus!” chorus to come out of Hillsong. Inviting the world in also might help in teaching an important lesson. Pop culture is constantly dismissed as silly and much of it is. The old saw says that 90% of everything is crap and that applies to pop culture like anything else. But pop culture is also a way of tracking our immediate history. The music I still love from the ‘90s was my generation’s musicians’ attempt to appreciate and incorporate the rock of the ‘70s in their own world. Seattle grunge didn’t spring full-formed from the ether. It was built from Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and The Stooges. Oasis and The Verve, similarly, were influenced by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. The bands of my teen years now influence bands that are rising to prominence and kids who are playing guitars in their room and dreaming of their turn on the stage. CCM, or Contemporary Christian Music, has no such drive to learn from the previous generation of music. The CCM drive is to copy whatever is popular (or, really, whatever was popular a couple years ago) and interweave that with praise music, which is intentionally simplistic, easy to memorize and, basically, artless. It rewards mediocrity, eschews innovation, and punishes any acts that are good enough to get mainstream exposure by accusing them of selling out. And selling out in Christianity doesn’t just involve your artistic integrity, but your eternal salvation. Seriously, there are still Christians out there who hate Amy Grant like Vietnam POWs hate Jane Fonda. True art, like philosophy and thought, has to grow over time. When Barack Obama recently included the concept of a house divided against itself in a speech he wasn’t just making up pretty words. He was recalling, and therefore connecting himself to, the words of another untried Illinois politician who took the office of President at a time when the country was deeply divided along ideological lines. Abraham Lincoln, in turn, was connecting himself to that wellspring of Western culture, Jesus Christ. We recall our history, whether we’re talking politics or punk rock, to learn from our past, innovate, and connect with each other through the common bonds of culture, memory, and shared experience. Christian pop culture, therefore, is seen as parasitical. Those within the Christian pop bubble, meanwhile, focus relentlessly on the wrong things. They try to prove that the latest CCM retread is as good as, if not better than, the secular artists it ripped off, then try to listen to the music for the message – not the art – and try to get others to do so, too. Whenever they try to appeal to history, they grab on to the post-conversion works of Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan and claim them, an act that seems almost deserving of scorn, like if I tried to claim Ron Santo as the greatest White Sox player in history because he played one season on the South Side. Meanwhile, the truly sad thing is that there is a vibrant Christian culture growing around the fringes of Christian pop culture that gets little respect because there’s little mainstream attention and the fringe acts have a hard time getting around the gatekeepers due to their complicated, sometimes ambiguous message. I speak of folk singers like Andrew Peterson, Eric Peters, and Mitch McVicker: highly talented artists who wish to glorify their god through their art and honestly believe that the core of glorification through art involves the understanding of craft and creation of genuinely good works. I speak of The Elms, a rock band capable of holding their own with any band on mainstream rock radio. Above all I speak of Over the Rhine, a band that may well be one of the most talented musical acts in the world and one that bears the signs of influence from jazz, classical, bluegrass, folk, cabaret, and every genre of music in between while filling their songs with praise, awe, disappointment, doubt, love, anger, and humanity. Yet Over the Rhine has been around for nearly twenty years and I didn’t know about them until after I left Christianity. Something is very wrong when a cultural group can have genuine talent that it refuses to celebrate and nurture because it would prefer to nurture insularity and propaganda. In ignoring Over the Rhine in favor of Mercy Me Christianity diminishes itself. More than that, it spits on its legacy as the cultural movement that brought us Dante, Bach, Handel, the Sistine Chapel, Flannery O’Connor, and Kierkegaard. It’s sad, too, since so much of Western art, allegory, and society rests firmly on its Christian roots. I fear that by allowing and even celebrating the gates around Christian culture we have diminished ourselves. We may not need to turn to Jesus for our salvation, but we do need to turn to him to understand our society. *That was an awesomely tortured sentence. I’m pretty sure that I put a hyphenated interior thought at the end of a comma splice. My high school English teachers would be so proud.