Buying Intangibles

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.”

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Simon Says

Music preserves your youth. When my wife was studying music therapy, one of the pieces of information she received is that those whose brains have begun to shut down the speaking faculties can still sing. People respond best, in such states, to the music of their youth. Anyone who lives long enough will decry the noise that the younger generation calls music. I’m thinking about this not just because of my recent visit to Bethel Woods, but also because of a New York Times story that Paul Simon is planning to leave the musical stage. Simon and Garfunkel was among the music of my youth. Accessible music with profound lyrics and, for the most part, a muted sadness. I grew up a long way from New York City, but listing to this music I felt like I was wandering the streets of the Village, soaking in a reality I would otherwise never experience.

It strikes me as no surprise that among the earliest manufactured artifacts discovered are musical instruments. While I seem to have missed nature’s boon in offering musical gifts, I nevertheless inherited the appreciator’s side. I don’t often listen to background music. I listen to music to listen. It carries its own meaning, akin to what we tend to think of as a religious experience. No doubt, for many, Woodstock felt like such an encounter. Music that could take you away from the troubles of a war-torn, prejudicial, jaded society. Even if only for a few moments. “I am a Rock,” was, for much of my youth, a kind of personal anthem.

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During a commencement address in not too distant months past, Simon told the graduates that ours was becoming a society at war with art. Music is money. College isn’t about becoming who you are; it’s career training. We don’t allow our young any time to explore any more. Few are willing to admit that capitalism, unrestrained, is just as bad as communism. Music used to be about the soul. The artists I know tell me it’s now about the cash. The man calls the shots. So as I stood on the hill overlooking the former Max Yasgur’s farm a few days ago, the lack of sound was poignant. There used to be, it seemed, different ways of existing in the world. Today the tempo is set and the music composed by those who prefer marching tunes that lead straight to the bank. Standing on that windswept hill I’m sure I can hear the sound of silence.

Things Remembered

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Freedom. Independence Day is our celebration of liberty. Yesterday I happened to find myself at Bethel Woods, the out-of-the-way location in New York where Woodstock was held. Probably no one in 1969 realized just how formative Woodstock and its message of peace, love, and music would become for American culture. Those of us who came of age in the ‘70s learned about it as recent history (I was only seven at the time and, I’m sure, would’ve found the whole thing somewhat unChristian had I been here then). Much has changed in the intervening years. Not many peaceful events get so much airtime any more. Upwards of 400,000, basically unpoliced, youth, gathered in Bethel, New York, for three days of music, chaos, and peace. The Vietnam War was still draining our nation of its youth and murdering its idealism. Fear of the other, racial inequality, and male superiority were part of the context that led to the need for Woodstock. Freedom was free.

Often on this blog I reflect on the sacredness of place. Events that take place in a location leave their impression on the land. Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, the current administrators of the property, have left the field largely intact. As my wife and I stood at the top of the hill and tried to imagine almost half-a-million people here, it was strangely quiet. The nearby museum had plenty of music playing, but standing where it actually happened, there were only ghosts of an event studied in school and which, even today, kids can generally identify. I couldn’t have named every act that played the concert and, although the music was clearly important, it was the gathering that is most remembered. Self-governing youth getting along in an area so remote that still today you have to drive a couple miles to find even basic necessities, sent a powerful message. It was an event that, I fear, can never be replicated. The snake has spoken.

Nearing fifty years later, we’ve become so paranoid that anyone who looks Middle Eastern is under suspicion. Guns, which children of the sixties shunned, have proliferated and may now be carried, wild-west style, in many states. A fear-mongering candidate bellows fascism before the Grand Old Party. Remember, Nixon was president during Woodstock. I may have lived hundreds of miles from here, occupying myself with the matters that seven-year-olds find so pressing. But Woodstock happened. By the time I got to Woodstock, everybody else had gone. I see others milling about the museum, slightly older than me. Perhaps some of them were here for the event itself. We all seem to be searching for something here. The festival had its problems, for sure, but with a sincere belief in freedom, it makes the pre-seventies United States feel like a strangely foreign county. How do we get back to the garden?

To Obey the Scout Law

Society’s prurient interests have been on display again with the intense media blitz concerning Boy Scouts of America and the fraught issue of sexual orientation. As is to be expected, certain religious bodies have sounded the final trump once again as they frenetically posture against equality. The story is so old it is difficult to see how it counts as news. When I saw that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the oldest sponsor of Boy Scouts and the denomination with the highest numbers) had made a statement about the issue, I almost didn’t even click on the link. We already know the official stance of such conservative groups, right? So I was genuinely surprised when I saw the note. This Mormon Church has no problem with the admission of homosexual boys since, and rightly so for a youth organization, the members are expected to behave according to the code of conduct. That code forbids sexual relationships, no matter a boy’s orientation, no matter with whom.

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We all know that ideals are seldom observed. We should lead by example. I spent my high school years deeply involved in the feeder program for future clergy in a major Christian denomination (the one with the second highest number of Scouts). The youth programs frequently involved having hundreds of youths together for multi-day events. Chaperoned, of course. But kids with active hormones are about the most clever creatures on the planet. I frequently heard that opportunities to find some time alone with your favorite “spiritual advisor” were not difficult to arrange. And when I enrolled in a program to study for the ministry officially, I learned that the name seminary was somehow overly appropriate. Codes of conduct exist for a reason, and those who hold to them reward the trust of adults who institute them. Society can’t operate without such rules. What happens in reality, however, is a different matter. Anyone who reads the headlines can see that.

I applaud the Mormon Church’s stance on this issue. The Boy Scouts is a social organization with nary a merit badge for sexual knowledge or experience (at least not in the Handbooks I’ve seen). Those matters, as with adults, are private. Religious groups often act as if admitting admitted homosexuals somehow changes the Jamboree into a Woodstock. The problem is with the imagination of puritan adults. The solution to the anxiety is rather simple. For those concerned, volunteer to lead a troop. Attend a meeting. See what actually goes on. The fact is, kids will be kids, and making rules to satisfy uptight adults will not change that. Many groups could learn from the Mormons here: Scouting is not about sex. It takes the imagination of adults to make it so. Boys, as the saying goes, will be boys.