I was traveling abroad with a friend. We’d just arrived back in the United States and were making our way through customs. Since he was from another country we were separated. The border agent told me I couldn’t come back into the country unless I demonstrated that I was a racist. Only racists were permitted. He began to pressure me, even offering to help. Should I comply? I awoke in a panic. As someone who suffered frequent childhood nightmares, this was something new. In the past it was merely a monster chasing me, or my alcoholic father. Now I’m having nightmares about the government of my own country. And here it is, Presidents’ Day. Like U2’s early “New Year’s Day” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Independence Day,” there’s a decidedly poignant tone to this holiday. Looking towards DC I see nothing to celebrate. I see a government putting the mock in democracy.
This Presidents’ Day, I have a modest suggestion. It could fix democracy. When an election (I’m thinking Brexit as well as 11/9) squeaks out a victory because people don’t vote or don’t understand the issues, a true democracy would then hold a follow-up, “what I really want” vote. If we insist on keeping such arcane tools as the Electoral College in place, this is the only way for democracy to actually work. It wouldn’t be necessary in the case of a candidate winning both the electoral and popular vote. When that happens it’s pretty clear someone won. When the two are divided, however, that’s also a clear signal. Only unthinking automatons would declare that a landslide defeat is actually a win, based purely on political casuistry. Is there an ethicist in the house?
This Presidents’ Day feels more like Ash Wednesday to me. Ash Wednesday is for public mourning. It is a realization and confession that we have sinned. We wear ashes to make it conspicuous. This year no ashes are required. Perhaps we should wear black bands on our arms. I would, only arm bands seem to have a way of becoming bright red and appropriating ancient religious symbols. We have sinned, and we have sinned boldly. The miasma of Foggy Bottom is as clear a condemnation as is devoutly to be wished. When I start waking up in a panic, in a body-sock of sweat, my childhood monsters have become real. It’s Presidents’ Day 2017.
Perhaps it seems that I’m writing quite a bit about music these days. Being a theoretical and practical failure in the practice of music, it may seem presumptuous. If I’m honest, I’d admit that visiting the site of Woodstock was kind of a religious experience for me. That experience and the fact that popular musicians from my younger days have been in the news of late compel me to analyze a bit. My wife shared a blog post on John Pavlovitz’s website entitled “Bono Called Out Christian Musicians For a Lack of Honesty. He Didn’t Go Far Enough.” The screed is both about the Christian music industry and about current trends in evangelistic super-churches that share in the glitz and glam and leave you wondering what Jesus would do. The message of early Christianity and the sixties was similar: social justice, peace, non-judgmental attitudes, care for others, love all. Don’t worry about the bottom line.
Many churches, it has become clear in this age of nones, are struggling to compete in the spiritual marketplace. Since every institution must have “product”—not books, music, reverence, or worship, but “product”—money must change hands. If you have any doubts look at what the mega-church pastors are driving. Christian bands seem not to have a social conscience so much as a desire to feel good. It’s a thriving industry, for sure. Music that makes you feel safe is delivering false promises, though. The deity thundering on that mountain might ask you to sacrifice your own son, and there could be a good, solid backbeat to that. What is the role of religion in an entrepreneurial society? It used to be that you couldn’t buy what they were giving away. Everything now has a sale tag on it.
Back in college we used to argue about whether U2 was a “Christian band” or not. Clearly they recorded on a secular label. Amy Grant, the darling of 1980s believers, matured and seemed to fall from grace. Larry Norman, never part of the establishment, died too young. Music and religion both stand, in fact, out of the reach of sticky capitalist fingers. Anything that you have to pay for is more a cheap imitation. YouTube has made all of recorded history available for all. Even mainstream churches are experimenting with tablet hymnals and virtual communion. Grace mediated through a touch screen. Debit cards accepted. The only thing that seems to be missing is that human touch. That down in the mud reality of it all. Music that had a message and that message wasn’t about supporting convention. “Upon this rock,” you can almost here the man say, “I will build my church.”
Having a child in college is one way for me to stay attuned to popular culture. You can absorb quite a lot by simply paying attention while on campus. For example, on the last several visits I’ve heard the song “Demons,” by Imagine Dragons, being piped into various venues. Given the biblical language of the song, I wondered about its origins, but, like many a distracted parent, had too much on my mind to pursue it. Well, on a recent visit, the song got stuck in my head. Partially this was because during an a cappella concert the Christian group did a cover of the song. This sent me to the internet—the only place where information on contemporary culture is instantly at your fingertips—to do a bit of poking around. Secular groups, after all, frequently use biblical references unnoticed.
When I learned that two members of Imagine Dragons were from Brigham Young University, I just had to know if they were Mormons. From what I’d seen of concert photos, white shirts and ties were rather conspicuous by their absence. Indeed, it turns out, according to the web, that the group does have some LDS in its bloodstream. I’m not so naive as to think that being of a particular religious background makes rockers religious. The debates raged in college over whether U2 was a Christian group because some of them were Catholics. I don’t recall seeing any crucifixes on the album art. This is all especially intriguing because Christianity and rock-n-roll are considered by many to be natural enemies. The origins of rock in the sexually suggestive blues had many 1950’s parents quite worried.
Religion changes, however, once you get away from the parents. I’ve known Mormons that I couldn’t identify as such until they told me. I’ve known Catholics about which I still harbor doubts. Religious affiliation is sometimes purely cultural. That won’t prevent you from being excluded from consideration for a teaching position at any of their schools, however. Scholars of religion can be the greatest believers of fiction to be found. Still, I have to admit to myself that the song “Demons” does keep me coming back. I wonder if the Christian group performing the song was aware of its Mormon tinge, or if they even cared. Sometimes theology can be had for a song.
Sitting in traffic outside the Lincoln Tunnel, I see that the Violent Femmes are coming to town. The billboard sends my mind spiraling back to college, when the Violent Femmes had released their debut album. Not that I ever listened to it (then), but in the fervently evangelical atmosphere of Grove City College, many students rooted and grubbed for any whiff of esoteric Christianity in a culture on the—pardon the genre-switch—highway to Hell. Rumors abounded that the Femmes were covert Christians, just like another up-and-coming band called U2. Not only the Femmes were violent—reaction to such Christianizing assertions was as well. I remember one of the dorm-mates in my housing group getting into a shouting match that U2 was not a Christian group and slamming his door to sulk, literally for hours. This was important stuff. We were Christians in an underground world.
Of course, some of us knew that Gordon Gano clearly betrayed the influence of Larry Norman in his voicing. And there were rumors and rumors of rumors that the Violent Femmes were coming out with a Christian album, despite the popularity of “Blister in the Sun,” the homage to masturbation that raised the group to stardom. This rumor turned out to be partially true, as Hallowed Ground took on spiritual themes, a little bit country, a little bit soul. There was some tension in the group as Gano’s lyrics began to suggest something more overtly Christian. All of this was going on long before I discovered the Femmes. At Nashotah House I taught a guest lecture on Christian themes in rock music. I researched the Violent Femmes and found that I liked their sound. They made the cut for the lecture.
In a culture as deeply steeped in the Bible as ours, it is difficult to avoid Christian imagery altogether. The Femmes were from Milwaukee (not far from Nashotah House, as the raptor flies), the heartland where beats the pulse of unadulterated religiosity. Even Iron Maiden, after all, had released the platinum album The Number of the Beast. And David Buckna points out in a recent MuseMash post, that even Ozzy Osbourne has some religious aptitude. (I always thought there was more going on in “Iron Man” than meets the ear.) This may all be chalked up to cultural Christianity—there need not be too much conviction here. Those who feel oppressed, however, huddled together in their evangelical college dorms, will always suspect that there is something more beneath the surface that makes even the “Prince of Darkness” the bearer of light.