“I’m not even an atheist anymore,” I protested to my wife one recent springtime Sunday.
We were sitting under the dogwood where we often drink coffee, read the paper and play Bananagrams instead of making the kids get up for church.
Around us lusty birds sang hook-up songs.
My wife was theorizing that the homeschooling moms we’d met the previous afternoon felt a mild thrill when my very Christian sister would introduce me at my niece’s graduation open house—as I shook hands, the moms must have thought, “Oh! It’s the atheist!”
Surely my sister had told them about me. A few years ago I’d often felt compelled to explain how Christianity seemed like a set of pre-Newtonian magical explanations of un-fact-checked news reports which had been misconstrued, codified, enforced by a paternalistic system, and sentimentally handed down from parents to kids who primarily treasured the familiarity and sense of tradition.
I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.
Piscine Patel’s tiger story is way preferable to his alt-version.
So yeah, on any given Sunday I’m open to about anything—maybe even the gory Easter passion play we took the kids to a few weeks earlier. Who knows?
I’m fine with Christianity. Just not only Christianity.
By the way, do you realize the notion that “Protestant Christianity is The Most American of The Religions” is being broadcast on FM radio waves that are passing through your body right this very second? Conservative talk shows, Christian stations—it’s all inside you, literally.
The waves are as invisible as The Holy Ghost.
Radio transmission: one example of believing in something-invisible-which-I-don’t-completely-understand.
Another example is the story my wife’s friend’s husband told about visiting a Quaker meeting out of curiosity one Sunday morning, and coming down with the flu.
“Everyone was sitting in a big circle, silently. Now and then one of the old people—they were all old people—would say something about God. Then they were quiet again. I started sweating, and my face was all hot, and I could tell I was going to throw up soon. I was watching for my chance to bolt.
“Then I realized I was talking. I was speaking, saying, ‘In a sense, we are always worshipping, every day, each in our way.’ It wasn’t something I’d been thinking about, or planned to say.
“Immediately I stopped feeling sick.
“After the meeting I was hurrying to leave, because I was weirded out. An old lady came up and said, ‘You were moved by The Spirit, weren’t you? I could tell.’
“So I went back the next week. And when I started to feel flu coming on, I got out ahead of it. I’d been thinking about what I might say, and when I said it, I felt awful. It felt like I’d gotten in its way.”
So yeah, I dig the mystery. I think we all occasionally experience invisible forces that are mixed up with nature, and creativity, and the interconnectedness of humanity.
Our limited ability to detect that mystery makes a lot of people religious.
Music, of course, helps us access that wordless part of our sensibilities and fingertip-touch the mystery, so for centuries it’s been integral to worship.
Unless you’re a Quaker, apparently.
When I’m at the Methodist Church where my sons are going through confirmation, I hear all kinds of music.
Some gets me closer to the mystery, mostly when I’m obliged to stand and sing along with old-fashioned hymns—the tenderness of “This Is My Father’s World;” the hushed tension and unexpected chords of “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind;” or the musical invention of the third stanza of “Rejoice the Lord is King” where Charles Wesley (the Dr. Luke/John Rich-ish songmeister of his day) arrives from three centuries ago to stir our blood with unexpected half notes in “Lift up— your— heart—” which release back to an unrelenting major-chord quarter note progression rising, rising: “Lift up your voice, rejoice, again I say, Rejoice!”
Oy. Hard to resist.
Unless… well, our church has a traditional, red-synthetic-robed choir with sopranos, altos, tenors and basses who often shoo away the mysticism like a stray dog.
Sometimes they get at joy. Sometimes they evoke triumph o’er the grave.
Still, marketing forces within the church recognize that the choir isn’t for everybody. So they have an 11:00 o’clock rock service now.
My eldest son was paired with the nicest guy in the world for a confirmation counselor. This guy plays guitar in the rock combo each Sunday. They sound great.
But they play “Christian rock.”
(sigh) Why do I find Christian rock sooooooooo tedious?
I like rock. I like hymns. I’ve opened myself to a sense of spirituality—I’m not an atheist anymore. My son’s counselor plays that guitar like ringing a church bell.
But I can hardly endure it.
It’s always, always the same story.
It’s always the same words even.
We thank Jesus, admit sin and guilt, confess amazement at how receptive He is under the awkward circumstances of us having killed Him, and compare Him to a bloody lamb. We ask forgiveness. When we receive forgiveness, we praise Him and The Father.
Often we praise not just Him but His Name.
(pause while I hope no Methodists are reading this)
It all just irritates me. This is not rock: Rawk!—that primordial stew that can combine elements with electricity and create life.
Sanctioned phrases and predictable endings are the wrong elements.
As part of the confirmation class, I went with the boys to a service in a different church, which puts on a professional show—the lights and sound system rival the city’s finest venues. Dramatically a band takes the stage and sounds like frickin’ U2.
Digga dagga digga dagga guitar; a sexy bald man emits “ahh-ahhhh, ah, ahhhhh…”’s.
BUT THE SONGS ARE SOOOOOO BORING. So boring. So boring.
I mean, the music seemed to work for some of The Faithful.
But there’s no Wesleyian invention to the music or lyrics. The band sounds like U2 before Bono is done writing the hook.
Imagine a hookless U2 song—digga dagga digga dagga Edge guitar chugging, barooooom-bada daba daba daba daba rhythm section rolling and pumping. “Ahh-ahhh, ah, ahhhhh…”
Certainly nothing about the streets having no name, or playing Jesus to the lepers in your head.
Just repetition of the saaaaaaammme phraaaaaases.
The same plot, the same language, the same everything every time—it’s like a TV Land marathon of old Beverly Hillbillies epsiodes. Nothing is ever different.
And I am unmoved.
Now, let’s twist that Jeep radio knob to a Nashville format and listen to supposedly secular FM airwaves blasting the notion of Christianity into your body.
A different sensation, no?
My dad’s pickup’s differential gear fell apart on a Saturday, and he was stranded at the intersection of two two-lane highways in Southern Indiana, alone at a Sunoco gas station, borrowing their phone—he’s supposed to carry his cell with the giant buttons but he never turns it on because he’s trying to save its energy. So, he forgets it at home a lot. On the Sunoco land line, leaning over the counter, he called me for help since my mom can’t abide his nonsense anymore and moved to South Carolina to stay with her brother after over fifty years of marriage.
He felt very alone, there at the Sunoco, until I arrived.
A couple weeks later, I took time off work to drive him down to retrieve the truck from the shop there in his old hometown of Spencer (which is where he was headed when the transmission quit). After dropping him off and making sure everything was okay, I drove back to work on curvy, hilly highways.
Naturally I turned on country music.
There are so many references to religion in country, of course: “Jesus Take the Wheel” was Carrie Underwood’s first big hit, and describes a very believable scene of a single mom overwhelmed by life—she hits a patch of ice literally that soon becomes symbolic. And I like in Montgomery Gentry’s “This Is My Town” when the narrator is talking about Sunday at the Church of Christ and sort of interrupts his narrative to say to his wife or kids in a believably redneck warning tone, “And if we want a seat, we better leave right now.” That’s exactly how that goes down every Sunday morning.
I admire how those scenes play out.
Yarns and anecdotes. Characters.
Nashville country is constantly offering radio listeners a unified theory of daily life—new ideas and unexpected twists on old ideas, and sudden awareness of human connection: that’s not a bad way to get a guy to brush up against the mystery, rolling along in Owen country.
As I pulled out of Spencer, I heard a new one: “If I Could Have A Beer With Jesus,” in which an ol’ boy figures nobody would believe him when he told about his holy encounter. It’s mawkish, but written conversationally with some unexpected turns that seem like what a real person might say.
A human connection.
“I’ve been listening to my stories,” my wife will say semi-ironically when I come home and she’s been on a Nashville station listening jag. Those connections get kind of addictive. (Right now she listens to youth stations in hopes of hearing Macklemore, though—she will not be labeled.)
Any good story can make a writer feel a jealous thrill at the well-chosen details (“I wear your granddad’s clothes/I look incredible/I’m in this big-ass coat/From that thrift shop down the road”—that’s great). But I also thrill to the sudden realization that I get exactly what they’re saying, usually at the end of the first chorus. Bzat! Yes!
That thrill might be similar to old Quaker lady’s Holy Spirit visits.
I believe an unexpected connection moves all of us.
Unless you’re a Christian-rock songwriter.
(slant-mouthed emoticon face)
Those writers are not looking for a fresh narrative to help us poke at the mystery.
They’re just recycling old ideas and word clusters.
I feel I’m being pandered to: “Oh, you like when music sounds like that? We can make it sound like that!”
Digga dagga digga dagga daba daba daba daba.
Sometimes Christian Rock makes a connection, though. One Sunday during the Methodist rock service, the minister introduced a girl the same age as my son who’s been singing “since she was a girl” in Kansas. She travels America with her mother, singing for churches, and here’s a song [starts playing]: oh, wow. She can play that guitar, and sing like the lost cousin of Taylor Swift, thought the congregation all at once.
Her song… well, like Taylor’s, you had to admit—it was good.
“I go to Nashville once a month to write with people there,” she said during a Q&A with the minister after her last song.
Everyone I was sitting near subtly turned and looked at me.
Afterward she was signing CDs in the narthex. “You should go talk to her,” my son said as we shuffled down the aisle toward the back. I made a squish face. “I’m an old guy with a son her age. I think it would be weird to wander up and say, ‘I like going to Nashville for songwriting, too!’ It would just be …” My son started nodding in agreement.
Not only that, I just can’t imagine re-combining those same fifty words to write songs with the same preordained ending—aiming at a spiritual connection and missing.
Unless maybe my Dad’s failed transmission and utter dependence on the Sunoco phone could play a part—his despair, his loneliness, the dry bread on the vending machine sandwich as he waited for the one person who would answer his call to come end his feeling of being utterly stranded.
There might be something there.
Except it’s not Jesus on the phone.
It’s just me.