“Worship something other than yourselves, Mumford & Sons! Geez!”

Ladies and gentlemen, we have the latest iteration of the quasi-Christian band who doesn’t want to be labeled Christian. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, lead singer Marcus Mumford for Mumford and Sons explained that he doesn’t want to be labeled Christian because it carries too much baggage. Though raised in the UK Vineyard church, Mumford says his spiritual journey is a work-in-progress, but that he has never doubted God. It’s not the religious tell-all that Rolling Stone bills it as, but that hasn’t stopped Christian and non-Christian commentary on the interview.

I talked about the importance of music to the contemporary Christian church last week, and this argument flares up every time the beliefs of Christian music lovers may be shattered by finding out that their favorite band doesn’t share their beliefs. Scott Stapp from Creed is one example that comes to mind, and I’m not sure whether his decision to go full Christian has anything to do with his disappearance from the popular music scene or not. I don’t find it particularly threatening to hear music from Christian artists now if the music isn’t “Christian” (particularly hardcore because you can’t understand what they’re saying anyway), but as a Christian it was much more important to know which artists shared my views. I didn’t want to be deceived. The question of Christian identity is important for Christians as an issue of trust. It provides boundary markers, and when we find that the markers are not where we thought they were, we are upset. Thus, some may be disappointed that the band won’t “own” their tradition.

My favorite objection is the op-ed by Lillian Daniel in Relevant Magazine. Daniel is the author of When “Spiritual but Not Religious” is Not Enough, and she ends her opinion piece with one of the most stereotypical phrases of the Christian who cannot see beyond her own views. She concludes that people like Mumford are concerned about organized religion because “you might even be asked to worship something other than yourself.” The presumption that everyone worships something is a Christian construction that forces a dichotomy between self and God. If you are not worshipping God (in whatever particular manner the argument is advocating), then you are worshipping yourself. And that’s bad, because that’s an idol. And everyone knows that idols are substitutes for God. The argument has little traction with nontheists, who aren’t concerned with the jealousy of a nonexistent God, but it might be stinging to the spiritual but not religious crowd. It’s a shallow argument that demonizes anything that’s not a Christian-approved version of collective institutional self-worship.

But what’s the underlying issue? Why would Marcus Mumford not want to associate himself with Christianity, even the cutting-edge version that is the Vineyard, which undoubtedly strongly influenced his musical development? He reveals some common sentiments, that God cannot be contained in the bounds of one religious tradition, and implies that there are some things in Christian history that one rightly would not want to be associated with. In a culture where it’s perfectly acceptable to have a religion of one, why not go that route instead?

I get, and partially agree with, the critiques of Daniel. She contends that the spiritual but not religious take for granted that it was the tradition that brought them the religion that they now pick and choose from like a McDonald’s menu. In other words, “I love Jesus but not the church” begs the question of how much Jesus one is left with when one subtracts the church. But here’s why Daniel’s position is more duplicitous and dangerous than Mumford’s. She writes:

“When people tell me they can’t stand Christianity, they are usually describing a Church that bears very little resemblance to the open-minded church I serve.…No one group of people can carry the blame for all the worst that pervades society. We call that stereotyping. I am not apologizing for a church I am not a member of.”

So while Mumford separates himself from the church in general, Daniel implies that she just has the superior version, or the only real one. Do it like me, she claims, and you can hang on to your Christianity. This may seem like the more accommodating position because she does not make explicit the necessary assumptions for her position. Those Christians who are the reason that Mumford doesn’t want to associate with Christianity aren’t really Christians at all. Would Daniel come out and say this? No. She would say something like they have failed to live up to the ideals of the faith. Comparatively, this is a less courageous position. Any and all of the shortcomings of the institution, past and present, can be excised in one fell swoop, by saying that they weren’t really Christian, at least not in those moments. It is the insanity plea of religion.

The problem is that historical Christianity has never lived up to its ideals. Daniel is right to say that the spiritual but nor religious undermine the institution and still benefit from it without contributing to it, but Mumford is not unwise in gauging that his chances to pursue spirituality outside the church are better, and perhaps with less collateral damage, than within it.

Hemant Mehta of the Friendly Atheist scorns Daniel for her position, seeing the same flaws in her argument I’ve pointed out. Probably calculating that he’d rather have more innocuous religious folks in the world, he doesn’t critique Mumford’s position much. Having understood Christianity much the same way at a certain point in my life, I can sympathize with the idea of “Jesus good, Christianity bad,” and I toy with the idea myself from time to time. The problem is that it is next-to impossible to separate Jesus from the religion that sprang up in his wake. I think it’s a project worth pursuing if done rigorously, but most are content with constructing a Jesus of love and care for the poor while ignoring Jesus who prophesied the end of the world and condemned others. It’s a way station on a spiritual journey, but one where it’s difficult to stay.

As an aside, if someone can explain to me what the appeal of Mumford and Sons is, I’d like to hear it. I don’t understand. I’ve not listened to one of their albums entirely because the radio hits I’ve heard seem to repeat the same quiet-to-hillbilly explosion that sounds a little too calamitous. Okay, I feel older now that I’ve said that. What do you think? Is Mumford’s position legitimate?

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