I am not at all gangsta. I am not from the streets. I am not hard core. I grew up in a town of 5,000 people, with one (totally unnecessary) stoplight. My parents are still married. They were nice to me. They still are. Grudgingly, I will now admit that we were upper middle class. I can probably count on two hands the number of times I've even seen drugs that weren't marijuana. I don't know that I've ever really feared physical violence. I went to college. I went to graduate school. I have never spent any time on the corner. Or in the joint. If I was ever trapped in an elevator with 50 Cent, we would struggle to find something to talk about.
And yet … there are times when hip-hop fits my life perfectly. Not many of them, but still. I know I listen to mostly Pitchfork-approved artists (Cam'ron, Outkast, Clipse), and I probably avoid some of the grimier, true-to-life stuff, but yeah … sometimes it works. The right beat, turned up loud with the bass maxed out, sounds triumphant. The right lyricist, with the right flow, sounds like the personification of swagger, like vindication, like everything is possible. It's the kind of "I am The Man" sentiment you'd never actually express yourself, because you would sound ridiculous, and people would make fun of you, and for good reason. It was funny in Office Space when Michael Bolton listened to gangsta rap, because he was a scrawny little white guy with glasses who wore short sleeved dress shirts and worked in a cubicle, but … I relate to the guy. I know what it's like to finish a project at work, something boring and annoying and probably ultimately pointless, but to do it and do it right and on time and to be done with it, finally, and to think, "Damn … it does feel good to be a gangsta."
And I know there is absolutely no connection between my life and the lyrics on the page. I know I should take nothing from tales of gang violence and drug dealing and misogyny and hopelessness and death. I know that making it out of the projects, beating the odds, when all your friends are dead or in jail, becoming a multi-platinum rapper and international celebrity … I know this is not quite the same thing as finally finding a relevant cite discussing how the Ninth Circuit handles plaintiff's assertions of fact for purposes of a motion to dismiss. I should not relate. But I do. At that moment … we both won. We are both unbeatable.
And there's really no reason why Christian rock couldn't work like that. Not in a triumphant sense, like hip hop, but in an empathetic sense. We should all be able to relate, at least a little. There's no reason why everyone, no matter how you feel about Jesus, shouldn't be able to take something from Christian rock. That's how it should work. But it doesn't. And it took me a long time to figure out why.
When I say that everyone should be able to empathize with Christian rock, I mean this:
Being a Christian, like a real, true, evangelical, fanatical, all-consuming Christian (like the kind of person who would start a Christian rock band) is something that sets you apart from the world. It puts you at odds with your surroundings. It's not a direct opposition most of the time, but it's a skewed angle at the very least. So you've made this decision to be all-out for Jesus, and now things just don't fit like they used to. Everything is a struggle now. Things that used to be easy are difficult. Things you never thought about now require constant attention. This world gets harder.
So how is that different from the internal monologue of a normal person? How is that different from the doubts that I have? Don't we all feel at odds with our surroundings sometimes? Don't we wonder if it's something we did that's causing this disconnect? That maybe we want the disconnect, maybe we want to set ourselves apart?
How do I make this work? How does all of this fit together? What does it all mean? Why does it get more confusing the more I understand? Where did I come from? Where am I going? All of the oldest questions which are so profound that they often sound stupid and clichéd …
I guess what I'm saying is this: a song, written by a fundamentalist Christian, about his attempts to make his way in this world, should not be all that different than a song written by anybody else who tries to deal with the Big Issues. In fact, his unique perspective would likely shed some light on your situation, no matter how different it was. We do this all the time. We read books about other cultures, and watch movies about other times, and we can't literally relate to any of it, but we constantly learn things about ourselves in the process.
This happens very rarely in Christian rock. And this makes me sad.
I know that Christian rock is not made for me. I know that it is made for believers, and a small group of believers at that, the evangelical, the fundamentalist. I know that I should not expect them to go out of their way to include me.
On the other hand, hip-hop is not made for me, either, and I can still relate. So what's the difference?
As I see it, Christian rock seems almost designed to exclude outsiders. Remember those big questions I was talking about a few paragraphs back, our human struggling with doubt and confusion and frailty? Christians don't have that. Well, to be more precise, they do have that, but they gave all of that to Jesus, and he's taking care of it now. So there's no need to ever reference it in a song. Lyrics about your struggle mean you're doing it wrong. You're too proud, trying to understand your own problems like that. So … if you don't already have all the answers, there's nothing for you here. If, on the other hand, you do have all the answers, well, you've come to the right place. We'll repeat those answers over and over again. And this is all we will do.
If you remove doubt … and confusion … and struggle … and pain … and anger … if you remove all of this from art, what do you have left? In Christian rock, you have precious few themes.* Two of the main ones are fascinating for the seemingly deadly inherent contradiction. They should cancel each other out, but somehow they don't. Last fall, after I got back from South America, but before my job started, I went back and listened to some old Christian CDs,** and I was struck by two refrains:
(1) Christians are totally being persecuted, almost like our culture is systematically trying to wipe them out.
(2) A lot of people will tell you they're Christians, but they're only pretending to be because it's so cool.
Think about how both of those concepts could exist at the same time.
My head hurts.
Combine them, and you get the artistically-unique situation where you, as a non-Christian, cannot get anything from Christian music. They will not let you. Now that's gangsta.
* It's hard to be objective about your past, looking at it through the eyes of your present self. I look back at a lot of things and think, "How could I ever have liked that/done that/bought that/etc?" at the same time knowing deep down that it made perfect sense to me at the time. Looking back on the Christian rock lyrics of the late-90s, though, it's a different feeling entirely. What could I have EVER gotten out of this? Did I really ever relate to this at all? It might be revisionist history, but I'm just not sure what part of this ever struck a chord in me.
**I had to buy them secondhand off Amazon. Ilana LOVES getting used Jesus music in the mail. She is terrified that this whole process of writing about my past will trigger some kind of Manchurian Candidate switch inside me, and I'll start standing in the median of highways with a "GOD HATES FAGS" sign. If this happens, you guys totally have my permission to run me over.
When we lived together in San Jose, JD would occasionally post newspaper clippings on the refrigerator. More than once, it was the story of some Republican congressman wailing about "The War on Christmas," about how secular society was trying to do away with Jesus' birthday once and for all. JD thought these were hilarious. And … they were hilarious. They were almost non-sequiters. You could not explain to an alien life form how these people could possibly think that Christmas was in danger of being wiped out. Somewhere, a store is thinking about putting up Christmas decorations right now. It is May. Christmas is bigger than it has ever been. Next year, it will be even bigger.
But that congressman believed the end of Christmas was imminent. So did his constituency. So do a lot of people, right now, today.
How is that possible?
This next paragraph began with the sentence "Christians desperately need to feel persecuted," but that's unfair. We all would like to feel persecuted. Christians are just the only ones fleshing out the fantasy. So let's try it again …
Mixed up in the thousands of words, this blog is oftentimes just a place for me to brag about all the books I've read. I know that.
So … I recently read Chris Hedges' War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, and it was okay, but its title encapsulates the contents of the book so well that it's barely worth reading. For better or worse, war sorts out our lives. It is us against them. They want to do this, so we have to do that. At the end of the day, we are winning, or we are losing. I helped the cause, or I did not. Too often our lives are directionless. Too often we do not know if we are doing the Right Thing, or even if our decisions have a moral quality at all. In war, these worries disappear.
The evangelical Christian life is exhausting. I should know, I tried to live it for several years (as with our musical cutoff points, let's use 1994-1999 as the relevant dates). Jesus asked a lot of people. "Be perfect, as I am perfect." If you are not saving souls right now, you are not doing your job as a Christian. People are dying and going to hell and it's your fault. Luckily, the Bible also includes the tacit understanding that you are human, and therefore not perfect, and that Jesus will not cry every time you fail to win a co-worker over to Christ during your lunch break. Still, you better be trying. All the time.
And so your life, for the most part, becomes you against yourself. Why aren't you doing more? Why aren't you doing better? Are you good enough? Will you know when you are good enough?
At a certain point, you invent a war. At a certain point, you have to make it us against them, because me against me will end badly. At a certain point, you come to the necessary belief that your problems are being caused by someone else. At a certain point, you become persecuted by everything.
There are a lot of verses in the New Testament devoted to overcoming persecution. This is because the early church … was actually being persecuted. Killed and tortured and kicked out of town, chased by angry mobs. They were being stoned. They needed some guidance on how to deal with that.
There are a lot of songs on late-90s Christian rock albums about standing up to persecution. This is because … I have no idea. We have more freedom of expression now than we ever have, freedom to talk about Jesus, sure, but freedom to get as whacked-out crazy as we feel. Everything is protected. Studying for the bar, I remember the "Unprotected Speech" section of the outline to be one of the easiest. There were like three things on it. You can say, almost literally, whatever you want to say.
So what were all these bands talking about? Why did Audio Adrenaline have an album called Don't Censor Me?* Why did Newsboys** lead an album with the song "God is Not a Secret," featuring lyrics like:
Take back your free advice
I don't accept
I will not play those games
God is not a secret to be kept
God is not a secret to be kept
Who was telling Newsboys to keep God a secret? Who was trying to censor Audio Adrenaline?
* Marketed as Christian heavy metal, most of Audio Adrenaline's hits sounded like the Spin Doctors. Just throwing that out there.
** I don't know if I ever considered Newsboys my favorite band, but they keep coming up in these essays, and they now seem to be the one band that personifies the era for me. Wacky Australians.
The answer, of course, was … no one. And I think I always understood this. We have freedom of religion. We have freedom of expression. We do not have freedom of guaranteed acceptance. Or freedom from opposition. Or freedom from ridicule. Or freedom from being ignored. Or freedom from a counter-argument. Or freedom to be cool. I think these bands dreamed of a world where fundamentalist Christianity was cool, and eventually this evolved into the belief that this coolness was a God-given right.
I can tell you from experience that being way into Jesus music was not cool. But I can also tell you that, in high school, being way into anything different was not cool. I don't know that I ever felt persecuted. I don't think I ever felt like a martyr. I didn't see how it was any different than the kids who were way into Marilyn Manson, or Star Trek, or Magic: The Gathering, or show choir, or acting, or anything else. If you gave a piece of yourself over totally to a weird thing, that ... kinda made you a weirdo. If I was being persecuted, then so was the kid with all the Satanic symbols drawn on his jeans with a Sharpie. And I didn't think we were supposed to be on the same team.
I will always believe that those of us who developed our weird interests chose to move a little closer to the fringes. I will always believe that we did the math in our heads, that we knew this would make us a little less cool, but that it was worth it, that we were doing the right thing, that we were being true to ourselves. I believe this always made sense to me. I think I knew what I was getting into. We would not listen to Christian rock to be triumphant, to rule over society, to dictate culture to the masses. We would do it because it worked for us, because we were trying to make our way in this world, and sometimes it made sense. Back then, maybe it did. It certainly doesn't now, but that's not really the point.
I'm far enough out of high school now that I can look back at it nostalgically, but I know it was a struggle. I can tell you I had a lot of friends, and never got picked on, and played sports, and was invited to the parties and all that, and it's all true, but I constantly worried about my station in life, just like everybody else did. It's incredibly difficult to be cool. No doubt about that. But I feel like everyone kind of knows, on some level, how the system works. It's a balancing act, and most kids can't pull it off, but I think they know how to try.
The most important step to coolness, as I see it, is this: never get too attached to anything. You must float above it all. You must be everything to everyone, but this also requires you to be nothing. You must even float above the traditional signposts of coolness. You must party, sure, but the kids who got way into drinking quickly became the drunks, the kids who gained 30 pounds over the summer and smelled like a brewery. You must play sports, sure, but the kids who got way into sports quickly became the arrogant, scary-intense guys with tattoos of the AND1 logo. If you got too into anything, it would hurt you.
The flip side of this, though, was that you could be a LITTLE into almost anything, and it would be totally fine. Even Jesus. Which brings us to point number two, which I will restate here, since it's been 5,000 words since I laid out the thesis of this essay.
Christian rock lyrical theme #2: A lot of people will tell you they're Christians, but they're only pretending to be because it's so cool.
I was in junior high when Michael W. Smith opened his Change Your World album with "Cross of Gold," a strangely dance-y takedown of people who wear Jesus-based jewelry but are not born-again, speaking-in-tongues, waiting-for-the-rapture Christians. I was in high school when the "W.W.J.D." bracelet phenomenon took off. The second one made a lot more sense to me than the first.
I knew that it was not cool to listen almost exclusively to Christian rock. I knew it was not cool to go to church multiple times a week, to participate in Christian youth groups, to go on Christian retreats. I knew it was not cool to be that into anything. On the other hand, I knew that people were not anti-Jesus. I knew that Jesus' approval ratings, as a guy, were probably near-unanimous. People love the Jesus that doesn't require you to make any actual life changes. I knew you were supposed to keep your Jesus at arm's length.
Left-leaning people are almost constantly freaked out by poll numbers suggesting a vast majority of Americans consider themselves Christians, believe Jesus is the Son of God, believe in a literal heaven and hell, etc., as if these numbers signify a waiting army of believers that will someday rule us all with an iron fist. The truth is that very few people who profess these truths believe that they require any action on a day to day basis. They are just things you say, because the opposite sounds terrible. "I'm pro-Jesus, anti-drunk driving, pro-recycling, anti-poverty." And I never DO anything about any of them. Why would I?
So the fundamentalist Christians miss the point entirely, or at least fail to see how it could be a valid one. The offending subject of Michael W. Smith's "Cross of Gold" was not oblivious to the meaning of the symbol. At the same time, he or she was not trying to pass herself off as one of the saved, either. What does a cross of gold symbolize? "I think Jesus was pretty okay, and also this looks cool." We do this with bands, teams, brand logos, causes, locations … but Christians are the only ones who seem hurt by it.*
* Christians and, weirdly enough, graduates of UC-Santa Barbara. Since Ilana's sister Nicole goes there, I own a couple UCSB shirts. I explain this to UCSB graduates when they start quizzing me on my ties to the school, as they invariably do, anywhere and everywhere, complete strangers, when they see me wearing the shirts, and they all treat me like some kind of horrible fraud, like by wearing the t-shirt I'm claiming to be Dean of Students or something. It doesn't work like that, guys. You can totally just buy these shirts anywhere. They didn't give me a background check or anything.
For the duration of the song, Smith tirelessly attacks an enemy who is completely unaware of the fight:
Is it a flameIs it a passionA symbol of love living in youOr is it a gameReligion in fashionSome kind of phase you're going through
For the vast majority of people who wear gold cross jewelry, it is none of those things. When you invent a war, though, you have to invent an opposition that fits. If cheap religious iconography is a life or death matter to you, it better be for your opposition as well. If you believe that the only people who would ever wear a gold cross are (1) people who have given their lives wholly over to Jesus and (2) evil, lying tools of Satan who are pretending to be members of category (1) to reap all the supposed benefits, well ... you're going to have make a whole lot of enemies, aren't you?
It must be exhausting to keep up a worldview that doesn't really match the world at all. Imagine you believe that the only people with the right to wear Nike shoes are professional athletes. You believe Nike shoes are a sacrament, a symbol of a life devoted to athletic excellence, a symbol of your attaining the highest peak of sport. Parts of this belief would make sense: a whole lot of professional athletes do wear Nike shoes. If you spent your whole life just watching sports on television, your belief system might remain intact.
But as soon as you left your house, things would start to fall apart. You would see Nike shoes everywhere. Who are these people, and why are they pretending to be professional athletes? You would have to re-think your beliefs, and you would have to reach one of two conclusions: either (1) other people think of Nike shoes differently than you do, or (2) a lot of people are horrible, devious liars. It takes a unique type of person to go with option (2) there, but that's what Michael W. Smith is doing in this song. And, growing up, I listened to this song hundreds of times over. How did I attempt to make sense of it? Was I ever able to reconcile it with the world I actually saw out there?
This is how the math works in the real world. If you are exponentially more invested in something than the average person, it is weird. This is true if it's Christian rock or curling. There are no martyrs. On the other hand, a small dose of a curiosity, marketed correctly, can be a huge hit. This is true of the W.W.J.D. bracelets, the crosses of gold, and I guess … again, curling.
And this concept doesn't seem like a strange and new idea for me. I don't think it took years of soul-searching to come to these conclusions, years spent listening to evil secular music and living in the modern day Sodom and Gomorrah.
So the question becomes: What did I get out of years spent listening to songs I didn't really agree with, songs about persecution and infiltration and an enemy attacking from all sides for the apparent purpose of trying to blend in? What can anyone get out of them? The answer, I fear, is … nothing. They want to destroy us! They want to be us! Don't let anyone in! Don't let anyone out!