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.

03/4/13

Music Too Intimate for Church?

searchI came across a post on a news site several years ago about Wal-Mart refusing to shelf the latest CD by the Vineyard because the titles and lyrics were too racy. To be honest, for a couple hours I thought the story was legitimate, because the song titles they mentioned were just close enough to reality to make it believable. (Two of my favorites include “Touch Me All Over” and “Naked Before You.”) After some searching, I discovered that the news site was a Christian equivalent to The Onion and was known for satirical commentary on contemporary Christianity. (The site is now defunct.) Ironically, I actually found the post funnier when I participated in that kind of music than I do now. It is, however, an apt commentary on one of the uses to which music is put in some segments of contemporary Christianity.

The Vineyard Church is a neo-evangelical/charismatic movement that sprang up in the latter half of the 20th century out of Southern California (like many other “Jesus” movements of the time). It splintered off from the Calvary Chapel, itself a relatively new Christian denomination, over the issue of the role of the Holy Spirit in the contemporary church, believing that the Spirit could and should manifest in the same manner as it did in the New Testament (with speaking in tongues and other physical manifestations among the assembled believers). The Vineyard became especially well-known for popularizing a guitar-driven intimate style of worship music in churches, one that reflected musical changes in broader (counter-)culture as well. To the best of my knowledge, since the early 1980s it has been a primary source for worship music for many of the churches birthed in the twentieth century, and has had some limited crossover into traditional denominations as well.

Fast-forwarding to the time I began to be involved in playing and leading worship in the late 1990s, Vineyard worship music was the music to play in church because it seemed heartfelt and personal in comparison to the triumphant but slightly more formal music I had grown up singing. It was also typically guitar-driven rather than piano or organ-driven, which allowed the leader to interact in a different way with the audience. I certainly recognized the intimacy that the songs portrayed in the Christian’s relationship to Jesus. I even emulated the style as I attempted to write music of my own. The subtle sexuality of some—though not all—of the lyrics was lost on me, however.

It seems significant now for several reasons. The first is that it mimics contemporary music in broader culture. Relationships, sex, and love are probably the most common themes of popular music. This indicates not only the amount of space it takes up in the collective thinking of musicians and songwriters (just like the rest of us), but the fact that these themes make money. Songs about my day at work just don’t pack the same punch as a song about my night at the club with “the ladies” or the feelings I have for my one true love. Churches who play music that sounds fresh and similar to popular music get a better cultural reception. I heard many Christians talk about leaving a church or attending a church based on the music they did or did not like. At the time, I thought that was ridiculous, but it’s just being a good consumer.

The second and more obvious thing that “intimate” worship music says about Christianity is that many Christians are taught to conceive of their relationship with the divine, particularly Jesus, as a loving and intimate one. Jesus is conceived of as a friend who you can tell anything to, who loves you no matter what, who wants to talk with you and spend time with you, who you share special and intimate moments with, etc. Music that plays on these themes heightens the experience with the divine as a personal and emotional one. To provide just one example among many, Martin Smith of the worship band Delirious penned a song, which many churches used in worship, that includes the following:

Lead me to the cross

Where we first met

Draw me to my knees

So we can talk

Let me feel Your breath

Let me know You’re here with me

If you had to describe the kind of relationship that would entail the type of actions in the song, what would it be? Am I trying to say that the average Christian wants to have sex with Jesus? No. Throughout the centuries, mystical experiences of intimacy with Christ have often been described in thinly veiled sexual terms. My point here is rather that the contemporary church has used music as a reinforcement of commitment expressed in relational terms that a broad swath of culture can relate to. As in musical culture generally, although expressed against an object (of love), we are reaffirming ourselves. The emotional experience that music provides performs a number of different tasks. It can relieve stress, and it can make us feel happy or deeply saddened. Most importantly, though, in a corporate setting it reaffirms the commitment of the participants to one another and to the ostensible object of worship.

None of this is particularly problematic if understood in its fullness. Music can and should be used to evoke an emotional response. Anyone who has watched a movie knows what a difference the music makes in receiving the action on the screen. I wouldn’t conclude that the emotion is not “real” because it was intentionally evoked. However, it can become a problem in the church if participants are not aware of the calculated function of music to provoke an emotional response, because it is often made to work as experiential “proof” of the divine.

As I noted last week, assuming the existence of God, God either wants/needs our glory and is consequently limited by that desire, or he has absolutely no need for it, in which case we worship him for other reasons, namely to reinforce our own beliefs. In either case, it is an act of creation. We use the medium of music to help create the object of our desire.

Music, both inside and outside religious circles, is a fascinating topic and I’ll continue to touch on it this week. Until then, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

01/7/13

Frustrations: Social Justice

It’s surprising to me looking back now, but the first frustration I had with the church was its seeming lack of consistency regarding what I’ll call social justice. At the time, I would have called it a question of neighborliness. I knew the call to love my neighbor as myself, and began more and more to ask, “Who is my neighbor?” When I read the story of the Good Samaritan now, I’d like to think that the man who asked Jesus the same question was attempting to set boundaries around who could and could not be considered his neighbor. It was clear to me who were my neighbors: those who attended my church, and in the broader sense, those who were Christian.

Contact with potential neighbors, on missions trips and in the local community, revolved around the necessity of conversion. After all, the best thing you could do for a non-Christian, regardless of their situation, was to get them to make a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. I sincerely believed that would take care of most of the problems one was facing. Looking at it cynically, my missions work and evangelization operated as a kind of bait-and-switch, where you helped an individual with what she thought was her most immediate need in order to work what she needed more: to become Christian. When I was in high school, my church went through a period where we talked about meeting people’s “felt needs.” It was a two-pronged approach: with their needs taken care of, they would be more willing to become Christian, and maybe they would be so impressed by getting a stranger’s help that they would want to learn why they were so helpful. The move out into the community was a step in the right direction, but it produced more good feelings on our part than converts. I remember in high school taking out a homeless guy to get a soda because I felt like God was telling me to. While we were talking, he told me he was Jesus, among other famous people. Since it’s hard to need Jesus if you are already Jesus, my angle was cut off. Mission abort.

It was music that helped me realize the disconnect between our talk and our actions. I became the worship leader at my church, and gravitated more toward songs that talked about serving the poor and needy, as Jesus did. I began to realize that because we were singing all these songs, we (myself included) began to convince ourselves we were actually participating in the actions described. When my family moved from Oregon to California and I got involved with a church there, I became the coordinator for local community involvement in the hopes that we could overcome the gap and do some of the things we were so good at singing about. It worked for me, only because I knew I was responsible for the success or failure of any venture. I got involved with another church organization that provided meals for the homeless once a week. I began going every week to help out, and tried to get our church involved with providing the meal once a month. The 80/20 rule that applies in most churches, 20% of the people doing 80% of the work, was even more exaggerated in my small church community of college students and young professionals, and the same people helped provide the meal that helped with every other function. Being forced to find places to help out in the community was beneficial for me; I continued to work with the homeless organization long after I stopped attending church. More importantly, though, it helped me realize that there was no necessary connection between the words that I sang in a Sunday morning service and the actions I performed the rest of the week, between my theological principles and my care for others.

I realize that my experience is not everyone else’s, and that many Christians do great things in their communities and beyond. But so do many non-Christians. I thought for years that the only reason I was able to love people the way I did and care about the world was because I had a personal relationship with Jesus. Once I realized that not only was I not doing a very good job, but that my performance also was not tied to theological dogma, Christianity ceased to have the urgent significance it once did for making a better world. According to many Christian, it works, and in a comparatively small number of those, others can see the sincerity and results. My claim is not that it is impossible to lead a caring and compassionate life in Christianity. Rather, it is that Christianity is by no stretch of the imagination the ultimate path to compassionate living. On balance, there are more authentic ways to live a thoughtful and caring life.