Body Piercing, Borat, and Blind Boys

This past week has thrown me some potholes in the road of my faith journey. In recent years I've been in a fairly positive and and un-disturbed phase of my religious life, and the recent birth of my daughter Svea was a beautiful and obvious reminder of the power of love and life over the power of fear and death. However there have been a few events in recent days that have caused me to wince and cringe and struggle with frustration in my life-of-faith.

FIRST: I finished reading the book "Body Piercing Saved My Life" by rock journalist Andrew Beaujon. It's an outsider's investigation of the hugely-popular but weirdly-isolated Christian Rock Music Industry (Beaujon is an agnostic, previously unfamiliar with this particular music community and scene). The book is very entertaining, funny, insightful, fun to read, spin-free, honest, and fair in its descriptions of the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) parallel universe.
In my own music career, I've occasionally been invited "behind the curtain" of CCM to play shows at festivals, events, clubs, etc., and I've shared the bill with a lot of the bands Beaujon writes about in the book, such as Half Handed Cloud, Sarah Masen, Switchfoot, OC Supertones, and Bill Mallonee.
Although I really enjoyed the book, after I was done I couldn't shake a subtle, nauseating, creeped-out feeling...and that's the same feeling I always get after a visit behind-the-scenes of the CCM world. Beaujon writes about the never-resolving struggles of Christian Rock bands: are we a Christian Band or a Band comprised of Christians? How are we viewed in the media? How can we maintain serious rock & roll credibilty without alienating the Conservative Church audience which primarily finances our lives on the Rock Star Express? Even I have had to wrestle with these issues occasionally (even though I've never been adopted by the CCM industry or audience), and I'm stuck in that place in my own life even now due to my newest album Protestant Rock Ethic...the question being: By publicizing my new album of liturgical music and youth-gathering songs do I risk ruining the nice momentum of credibility I've enjoyed since the release of my previous CD Public Library? In addition to these age-old conundrums, I was reminded of the profoundly yukky back-stage environment I've seen at these Christian events: musicians with collosal egos; youth and adults drooling at the feet of their favorite artists; hair, makeup, designer clothing, teeth whitener, and sexed-up singers that could give Britney and Gwen a run for their money; bands arriving in black BMWs and served by an army of adoring slave-volunteers all day long; back-stage prayer sessions led by young people with the weirdest manipulative and paranoid language you could imagine. I could rant and rant.

So this book stirred up in me a bunch of the negative baggage I've got regarding the Christian Music realm, and it made me want to run screaming from the entire thing. I was having thoughts like "Maybe I should never play music at a church again." The whole thing just seems so goofed up and creepy. At least when I play the 400 Bar for no money I know that I can play music for the joy of music, and not have any implied eternal significance or weird psychological manipulation going on. Just turn up the amp, play the songs, enjoy it, say thanks, and go home to bed happy. Of course nothing is that simple, but it's how I felt after reading the book.

SECOND: I went out by myself on Friday night and saw the movie Borat. The hype for this film is huge, as you probably know, so there's no way it could live up to the hype, and it didn't. But I still enjoyed it quite a bit, and there were moments (the fight scene, the rodeo) where I laughed that great cathartic kind of laughter. But right near the last part of the film I got another slap to my spiritual life. Borat goes to church. He shows up at a big Southern Pentacostal Conservative mega-church and attends a worship service. And this is part of the non-scripted part of the film...it's like a documentary or reality TV show where the actor interacts with real people on camera. And the folks in this church are really hitting all the stereotypical marks...the shouting and shaking and freaking out and speaking in tongues. And Borat goes up for the altar call and the minister attempts to "save his soul" and it's a total freak show. And I'm feeling really weird at this point 'cause I'm simultaneously laughing, but embarrassed, and angry, and disappointed, and sorry. And Borat effortlessly uncovers the truth about a huge part of American Christianity, and the truth is ugly, and psychotic, and ridiculous, and foolish, and abusive, and sad. And again, as I left the theater I felt like, man, I just need to distance myself from the church for awhile, before I get sick.

So, those were the moments that gave me a real shaking. But tonight there was a bit of redemption for me. My friend Steve invited me to go to a concert by the Blind Boys of Alabama at the brand new and gorgeous Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. The Blind Boys have been a band for SIXTY years. Yes, the number 60! They sing old-school gospel music, backed by a tight little rock/blues band, and in recent years they've won 4 Grammy awards for their albums. The place was packed, mostly with white baby-boomers, but also a sizable crowd of African-Americans. Well, the Blind Boys totally rocked. And there was a palpable Spiritual vibe going on in that theater...the band leader Jimmie Carter spoke of the trouble in the world...Iraq, North Korea, etc., and reminded the crowd that whatever happens "God is in control." And the crowd went wild. And they sang to us about "all you need is faith to hear the diesels humming," and "God has been so good to me," and "I believe," and "Jesus was born in the last month of the year," and "there's a light," and "this may be the last time we pray together." And it was cool and loving and serious and joyous and the way it should be. I've had similar moments at "rock concerts," like singing "I'll Fly Away" with the crowd at a Gillian Welch show, or hearing "I'm Gonna Wait" at a Lyle Lovett show, or hearing "infinity always gives me vertigo" at a Bruce Cockburn show, or hearing "Vertigo" at a U2 show.

So anyway, it's been a weird week. As we move now through the first week of Advent I pray I can learn from the wisdom of those old Blind Boys, and know how to process Body Piercing and Borat.

Blah blah blah

Comments

Rimbo said…
Phew, I really hear you on this one.

I had the same reaction to the Borat movie -- I might have laughed harder than you did through most of the movie, probably because I'm a little less mature that you, but I had the same mixed reaction to the scene in the Pentecostal church. What a weird mix of emotions I experienced -- laughing at the way Cohen highlighted this weirdness, discomfort at the fact that people will see it and reach conclusions about ALL Christians, sadness that these people seem (to me) to be putting on a show of their own . . .

Also, I never knew you played with Half-Handed Cloud. He intrigues me . . the album is on my Christmas list. Have you heard it?

ALSO -- I'm recording demos for an EP I'm recording with Nate in January. I think it'll be great -- you should come over to play when I do them in concert.

ALSO! -- Sad news -- Angie and I lost the baby we were planning on for June. So we'd appreciate your prayers.

Apparently I had a lot to say. I guess I could have saved a lot of that for an email. Oh, well.
Bridget said…
I've not seen "Borat," just all the hype. Random fact - he is the brother of Simon Baron Cohen, one of the leading researchers in Asperger's syndrome (Briana has Asperger's syndrome; we watched a comedy special on Comedy Central).

I want to read "body piercing," but of course, the way I am, I've started reading something else. Now I have this (silly? questionable? odd?) goal of reading all the plays in a drama anthology I hae from college.

I've felt the way about church, though. There is a huge Assembly of God church next to St. Paul. When I was in high school, a friend invited me there. I thought she had just invited me, but of course, it was to one of their recruiting services. It was so awful.

Briana and I have been to some youth services with their current youth pastor, and he's good. sometimes we don't quite agree, but we've not heard much that makes us feel weird. We do hear this from other members, though. We see it, too.

Stein Auf!
Bridget
Steve said…
Hey Jonathan,
Cool new blog--I love the photo below from your Recital recording! I agree that the Blind Boys show was pretty fantastic. I didn't realize that the lead guy's name was Jimmie Carter--I thought they were making some sort of presidential joke that I didn't get. What a great spirit amongst the crowd (even though it was a very "Guthrie" group)! And I'm glad you read "Body Piercing." Sometimes negative baggage can be a good thing.
Andy said…
Haven't seen the movie or read the book. HA!

U2 at the United Center was one of the best worship services I've been to.

OK. I go to a Vineyard church with raising of hands and healing and shaking. What's wrong with any expression of worship as long as it's sincere? After playing a number of ELCA youth events I wonder how that expression of faith makes any sense, either.

It's cool, man. Keep doing what you do.

rimbo - hang in there.
Scipio said…
Jonathan,

thanks to your mailing, I discovered your blog. I liked your "Sound Theology" so much, so I guess I will have to listen what the Protestant Rock Ethic sounds like.

Keep on blogging, and I will follow via my RSS reader...
Andy said…
That didn't come out the way I meant. I haven't seen the movie or read the book, so I'll just shut up now.
No problem Andy! Let me know what you think when you see the movie. I've never been to a church service at a Vineyard congregation, but I'm guessing it's not much like what is found in the Borat movie. I found an interesting link about that particular church in the film...it's called the United Pentacostal Church, and the the church is featured on a webpage called "Spiritual Abuse." Whew...

Regarding the ELCA Lutheran expression of faith, I realize that our flaws lie on the opposite end of the spectrum: energy-less, spirit-less, dirge-like worship services with congregations full of people unable/unwilling to feel any passion about their faith. Of course this is a Lutheran stereotype, but there is certainly some truth to it (just visit my home congregation in Upper Michigan to see what I mean...in the times I play music for them there, I can't get them to clap, or smile, or do anything that might look like they're having a good time!). This is why we're jokingly called "the frozen chozen." And yes, there may even be examples of "Spiritual Abuse" going on in some really sleepy Lutheran congregations, but I think it's nothing when compared to the scene in the Borat movie.

This is my first comment to a comment on this blog...I hope I created the above link correctly!

Jonathan

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