03/20/13

“Everything I do, Aaahooow. I do it for you.”

ref=dp_image_z_0One hundred points if you can name the artist. It’s a song that I will not be sad to never hear again, but it was the theme song to Kevin Costner’s version of Robin Hood that released a few (gulp!) decades ago. I have been reminded of the key line to this Bryan Adams song every time that I hear a Christian say that it’s “all for Jesus.”

I was reminded again last night when I attended a Volbeat concert. The opening band was a group called Spoken, who I vaguely remembered as being Christian from when I followed the Christian music scene. The name should have been a giveaway. They put on a very good performance (better than the next opener’s performance), and right before the last song, the lead singer said at the end of his monologue (lead singers get very good at monologuing), “…and we do it all for Jesus Christ.” Crunching guitar…click click click “RAHHHHHHHHH!” (He was quite a screamer.)

So here’s my question. What does it mean to make a statement like this, either in the context of a love relationship or a spiritual one? Is it significant or self-deceptive? At first glance, it seems like a deep and honorable level of commitment to someone, being willing to go any distance and do anything to preserve or gain relationship. It’s a common theme of romantic movies, the same ones that appropriately end in a wedding ceremony, which is our cultural conclusion for a dedicated pursuit in a relationship. However, it gives little guidance for maintaining a relationship after the pursuit portion has, for all practical purposes, ended. The other as an “end” for meaning-making is, in the long term, a recipe for disaster, or at best disappointment by both parties. The pursuer is disappointed that the pursued fails to appreciate the significance and depth of the pursuit, and the pursued is unnerved by being the sole subject of such intense scrutiny and wants the pursued to broaden his or her interests.

That is the most charitable case, in which we take the “doing all for” or “giving all for” at face value. More often however, at some point a strongly felt level of commitment lessens while maintaining the original rhetoric. In other words, I do whatever it is I want to do, say whatever it is I want to say, and then dedicate that to the original object. To take an extreme example, a husband might justify his affair as letting out sexual frustration in order to preserve the relationship. It is unlikely, though, that his partner would see his actions as dedicated to preserving his marital relationship.

What, then, does this mean on a religious level? Because Western Christian religion is presented first and foremost as a matter of the heart or spirit as opposed to ritual action (due both to Protestant history and our separation of church and state), the believer expresses his or her affiliation through language, a language that must be received by the hearer, at least at first, on faith. Further, outside of a religious context, there are few if any acceptable, universally recognized religious actions. There was nothing to identify the black-wearing, tattooed, sweating, screaming, head-banging rock band as inherently Christian without the lead singer making an explicit statement of the band’s affiliation. There are other indicators, to be certain: a kinder manner, less profane language, etc. But these aren’t exclusive to Christianity. So then, does or should a statement of that exclusivity make a difference to the hearer?

This band is much more talented than I ever was as a musical performer, but I understand well the aim to “draw people in” through music that is culturally compatible in order to have opportunities to convert others, as I’ve mentioned. I see the advantage as a rhetorical tool, but am disillusioned as to its signifying potential as a life-changing paradigm, either to create or maintain a relationship. There are theologians (such as Agamben, who I’ve discussed before) who see a revolutionary potential in the concept of messianic time, living “as if not.” One lives as if there were no distinctions of class, race, gender, etc., while knowing full well that significant work, good and bad, is done with such categories. I value the sentiment, and see some potential for it, but only as it is enacted by individuals beyond repetition of the language. Depending on one’s life situation, remaining where one is might be beneficial, and it might be terrible. My contention is that such rhetoric substitutes for a inadequacy of action, and in fact encourages it because it delegates the heavy lifting to the divine.

What do you think? Does a paradigmatic shift begin with a change in rhetoric, or does language simply mask or compensate for an absence or un-present-ability of action?

Apologies for the excess of music posts.

03/16/13

“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?

03/12/13

Collective Effervescence Reaches the Billboard 200

For only the fourth time in history, a Christian music album topped the Billboard 200. Chris Tomlin’s album, Burning Lights, hit #1 for a brief moment in January. On one hand, it’s surprising, because there is little to recommend Tomlin’s style of music as anything particularly spectacular. There are no gimmicks like auto-tune, no unique subjects such as thrift shopping, and no sweet guitar solos way up high on the tiny strings. It’s a collection of songs written in a standard set of chords (G, C, D, Em, and sometimes Am) made to be easy to play and easy to sing. In full disclosure, I haven’t actually heard this album, but I am familiar with Tomlin’s older music, having played and sung it in churches for the last decade.

It’s not just a fluke that Tomlin’s album hit the top of the charts. He has a knack for producing anthemic music that makes you feel good. The secret to him being sung more often than Katy Perry (who also recorded a Christian album), as a recent news story reported, is that his music is sung corporately. It is eminently singable, and as anyone who has joined in with hundreds or thousands of other voices at a concert in a common refrain knows, there is a cognitive and physiological sense of participating in something big. The unity reinforced by a large number of people performing the same action, presumably for the same purpose, gives the participants a feeling of awe.

One of the first ideas I latched onto in the study of religion was “collective effervescence.” Perhaps it’s because it sounds like an amazing shampoo. Regardless, it was used by sociologist Emile Durkheim in his book, Elementary Forms of Religious Life. He is one of the dead old white guys we learned about only to dismiss his ideas as out-of-date and politically incorrect. It makes us feel more enlightened and pluralistic. But that’s another story. In Durkheim’s important work on religion, he claimed that we can observe the social function of religion by looking at the way primitive societies organize and divide their time between the profane (mundane daily living) and the sacred. Collective effervescence was the term Durkheim used for what happens when people meet together to re/affirm a common goal or idea. In his examples, tribes organized and performed a regular series of rituals around a totem object. The participants acted in dramatic and expressive ways that they did not in normal life. The corporate performance of ritual re/created their beliefs in the power of the object and the supernatural forces it represented, giving them the energy to perform their mundane activities until they gathered again.

The most popular way of producing a sense of collective effervescence in modern Western Christianity is through music. Tomlin is popular because he provides an easily accessible way for a large number of people to get a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves. Other methods that the church has used and does use are comparatively less effective, either because they are outdated, more hierarchical, or more complicated. Baptism and communion, the participation in fasting across the monotheistic traditions, meditation in the Eastern traditions all create a sense of belonging, but the prerequisite level of knowledge is higher. Singing just involves more or less following the words sung in somewhere close to the right pitch, which a majority of people have already done before, whether in the shower or in the car.

imgresFrom a musician’s standpoint, worship music is simple, too simple. But it’s  designed to be that way. And Tomlin has made a lot of money from it. I’m not saying that he’s trying to go the route of “Faith + 1” from my favorite South Park episode (and the only one I’ve watched). I think he’s sincere, and so are the majority of folks who sing his music. But he, like they, mistake the feeling of collective effervescence they get from singing for the divine. Dramatic conversions, reaffirmations of faith conviction, and an expression of spiritual manifestations such as speaking in tongues and being “slain in the Spirit” (falling over in ecstasy) all are more likely to occur in the large group settings that have been the hallmark of American Christianity. Singing songs that are as simplistic as radio pop  with religious lyrics provides the easiest cultural “in” to experience a sense of the divine on a regular basis. For Marx, religion may have been the opiate of the masses, but for Tomlin and others, music is like meth (or maybe weed) for the masses. But, as Christian proponents would say, without the harmful side effects.

03/6/13

Mindless Manipulation or Symbolic Significance?: Music and Ritual

Ritual is often used as a derogatory term to describe religion. To the casual observer, it may suggest a performance of actions with no “real” meaning behind them. This was and continues to be a consistent Protestant critique against Catholicism. The latter tradition (having been around much longer) has a breadth of rituals encompassing all aspects of the liturgy (the church gathering), and the average attendee of Mass likely does not know what they all are supposed to mean. Yet he or she participates in them in some form nonetheless. This critique is made in a broader form of religion in general as mindless repetition. In a certain sense it is true that religion is ritualistic, but in that regard it is not much different than other aspects of life.

One of the consistent morals on this blog is a self-reflexivity regarding the way we interact with and participate in religion and culture. Embracing doubt and questioning the structure of our beliefs and actions help us become aware of the amount of hypocrisy and self-deception we practice in our daily lives. However, we all ritualize our own lives to a certain extent, because it makes the mundane easier, and sometimes more efficient. A simple example is your morning routine. You probably don’t get up in the morning and think, “What am I going to do first today?” You likely engage in a morning routine that deviates fairly little from day to day. Why? Because it makes the performance of those tasks existentially easier, and you can focus your mental energies elsewhere. It’s not as if eating breakfast and putting your clothes on are extremely difficult tasks, but if you have to ponder all your available options for each of these tasks everyday, you will lose time and become more frustrated than if you follow a fairly regular ritual performance each day.

“Yes,” you might say, “but my morning rituals aren’t supposed to have any deep meaning behind them. They just help me get things done.” With religious ritual on the other hand, actions are often imbued with a sense of divine significance, and when performed thoughtlessly, there is only a symbolic shell. Yet this is often noted of our daily routine as well. Leo Babauta of Zen Habits writes that we should create “sacred spaces in our hearts” in order to give meaning to what otherwise are mechanical actions. A host of different actions can be sacralized through concentrating on them, thinking about doing them while we are doing them and doing them in a specific. regular way. Action, in other words, can help create intention as well.

The accusation that ritual is meaningless action, then, is usually made by someone who is familiar neither with the symbolic action itself nor the meaning behind it and presumes an essential connection between the action and its purported meaning. It seems to make no sense that one would dance in a particular pattern in a ceremony in order to propitiate the divine. Why that way? Why not another way? We could usually ask the same of our own routines as well. Why always the right shoe on before the left? The reason is that both the rituals performed and the apparent meanings behind them are not fixed. They are excessive in meaning, because actions can symbolize different meanings, and meanings can be symbolized by different actions. In other words, the notion that ritual is mindless is an accusation with a long-standing history and  substitutes for a lack of understanding. However, it is true that our rituals can “lose” meaning, because the connection between symbol and ritual must be perpetuated to maintain it.

What is interesting about music as a ritual is that, in a religious setting, it can be used as a symbol pointing toward a divine truth, but it is also often an end in itself. Listening to and participating in music can be a pleasurable experience, one practiced for its own sake. Because the dividing line between these two possibilities, means and end, is not visible or fixed, there is slippage between the two, and this slippage can be used to reaffirm both of them.

Thus, if I particularly enjoy a certain song sung in a religious context, if I have an emotional reaction to it, I am likely (and encouraged) to attribute that to some sort of interaction with the divine. It grows in power as a symbol, and the lines between self, signifier (symbol), and signified get blurred. I deemphasize the particularities of my context that contribute to such a reaction in favor of a divine communication. This narrowing of focus in turn excludes other possibilities and I might begin to think of a particular song of or group of rituals as a privileged means of divine communication. The warming sensation I might feel, accompanied by feelings of compassion, is attributed to a form of divine communication facilitated through song. This is indeed an affirmation of meaning, but it is also in meaninglessness, because it is demeaning to all other meanings; in other words, it limits the excess of meaning within the symbol. “No,” you might say, “it is not because the song is well-crafted or that I just like the instrumentation. I like this music because the divine communicates through it.” Yet there are obviously many other factors that contribute to that singular conclusion.

When used as part of ritual activity, music, as a multivalent form of communication, can serve as a powerful creation of and affirmation of belief. Yet it is not exhausted in a singular meaning and depends for its religious success on the attribution of its power to a commonly agreed-upon source. I’ll talk more specifically about the uses of music in my religious background in the future. For now, any thoughts? What’s the relationship between music and ritual?

03/5/13

Mrs. Robinson’s Explicit Lyrics

I stopped buying CDs about seven or eight years ago. I didn’t stop listening to music, obviously, but when the iPod and iTunes started to become viable alternatives, it just didn’t seem necessary to buy a physical CD. For a while I lamented the demise of cover art, but I got over it. When I was in high school, though, Columbia House and BMG were the way to get your music. They were always offering some insane deal of between six and twelve CDs for the price of one to get on their monthly membership. I signed up for Columbia House and got the twelve CD deal. I can’t remember all the music I got, but I think it included the Counting Crows, maybe REM, the Cranberries, Phil Collins, Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits…and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic.

urlUntil they got smart and imprinted the explicit lyrics sticker in the cover art, the warning was just a sticker on the outside of the CD. I simply transferred the explicit lyrics sticker from Dr. Dre to Simon and Garfunkel and my problem was solved. Fool anybody, right? I don’t think I knew anything about Dr. Dre other than I’d heard “Nuthin but a ‘G’ Thang” on the radio. It became a guilty pleasure for a nice Christian kid to be bumpin’ Dre in the car as I cruised to 7-11 (even though it was only a block away) for a Super Big Gulp.

It’s difficult for me to separate my feelings about “inappropriate” music from the Christian moral standards by which I judged both it and myself (while still listening to it). I do think that to a certain extent despite background, that type of music is popular because it is transgressive, yet it can be separated from the self. In other words, I can listen to it without it being a part of me. I can live vicariously through the music, through the “profane” language, through the sexual explicitness, through the demeaning treatment of women and figures of authority without actually being that way myself. I told myself that it was just the music that I liked, not the lyrics. But that’s not exactly true, is it?

The debate over the influence of media is not new. Video games, comic books, music, and movies have all come under fire for negatively influencing people (often children, although I think focusing on kids is an excuse to ignore the equally complex influence on adults). With the lines drawn, there are those who suggest that these media “desensitize” people to social norms, thus increasing their chances of in some sense mimicking what they see, read, or hear. They point to the most transgressive elements of these media and seem to have ample evidence for their claims. On the other side, defenders show that the vast majority of people who consume these media don’t become “bad” people, so that it’s not possible to single it out as the cause of transgressive actions. They might even contend that without such “outlets” to blow off steam, people might even be more transgressive.

The “truth” lies somewhere in between. Ignoring the question of the ethical responsibilities of the media producers—a significant discussion, although I’m unconvinced of any lasting ethical standards where capitalism is involved—it would be ignorant to assume either that we can posit a self that exists in the world but is unaffected by it, or that we are passive automatons with no ability to filter the information we receive. What is most interesting to me now is how music, as a media in and of itself, is inherently transgressive, or has the potential to be. It is the fact that a series of musical notes can circumvent the normal process by which we like to think we reason and interpret our world. We even identify certain types of music with particular emotions, as if these were inherent to the music itself, because of their ability to produce those emotions within us. When language is then added to music, it adds a message that can become self-founding because it is processed in an emotionally-supported environment transcending the context of its production.

At some point, I was found out and probably threw Dr. Dre away out of guilt or fear of punishment. But there would be others over the years. I had a complicated relationship with Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Alice in Chains, Onyx, Wreckx-N-Effect, and many more. I have long since stopped beating myself up over my musical choices. However, there is still a sense of guilty pleasure in the sensory reception of transgressive action, even if it is as artificially constructed as killing zombies (just as a hypothetical, of course). The way for us to “humanize” music, as well as other media, is not to come to an answer about its societal or individual role, but to take a step back regularly and cognize our complicated relationship with it, recognizing the variegated functions it performs in our own lives. This will neither assign it wholly to the moral realm nor separate it completely from it.

I’ll talk more about specifically religious functions of music this week as well. Until then, any thoughts? Does/should music have a morality?