Every morning Adam, Pepper (our dog) and I take a 4.5 mile walk through our neighborhood and the surrounding area. As the summer heats up, our walk keeps starting earlier and earlier. But, whenever it starts, pounding the pavement pushing a stroller and dragging a tired dog gives me a great chance to reflect on stuff. Yesterday's walk, for instance, produced the bulk of the letter contained in my last post. Today's walk, however, had slightly stranger fruit.
I'll spare you the visual image of me returning from such a long walk on one of these hot, humid, sticky, steamy summer mornings. Suffice it to say that, this morning, as I passed our neighborhood Catholic church, just under a mile from our house, I was more than aware of the weather. If their sign is any indication, that is exactly what they were hoping for.
I'm sure you've seen signs outside of churches intending to in some way evangelize the masses that pass by. I've always thought that such signs were silly at best, and invitations to engage in poorly thought out bigotry at worst, but churches don't consult me on such matters for some reason. One of my favorite bands, the Violet Burning, has a special feature on the concert DVD with their favorite church signs. Their treatment of these generally either stupid or offensive (or both) signs is by no means complimentary.
The sign on our neighborhood Catholic church this morning belongs on that DVD. In the midst of this scorching summer heat wave, it reads:
Think the weather is hot?
Hell is hotter!
Pardon the pun, but What the hell?!?
Seeing that sing this morning for some reason got me singing some of my favorite songs by a band called the Lost Dogs (including the fantastically funny Why is the Devil Red?), and reflecting on my spiritual and political journey. So, maybe the sign did its job?
I grew up in a liberal household and an evangelical church. When I was fourteen I had a religious conversion experience which I will no longer sully by trying to describe. At that moment I began to take my faith in God through Jesus Christ very seriously. Being in such an evangelical church (and a particularly evangelical Youth Group) my newly claimed faith was a very evangelical (and culturally evangelical faith). So I have long been both an evangelical Christian and a political liberal, two positions which are often held in tension.
Having been taught the maxim "garbage in, garbage out" in Youth Group, I decided to keep myself uncontaminated by the world by listening exclusively to Christian music. In hindsight I see that while there is a great deal of truth in the maxim I was taught, the people who taught it to me often failed to correctly identify "garbage," convinced as they were of the evils of "secular" music.
Art has a profound moral and spiritual impact on its audience. At its best it connects us with an experience of the transcendent. It has the power to inspire, and even to change the world. David Byrne argued, in fact, in his song "The Revolution," that listening to a piece of music can start a slow but steady revolution which transforms the world. You go out to a bar and accidentally encounter beauty, singing a song which touches your soul. You go home slightly changed, fall asleep, dream beautiful dreams, and wake up a new person. From there you take the beauty which you encountered in that piece of music, and use it to similarly transform others. Slowly, one person at a time, you have a beautiful revolution, just because someone happened to sing that song at the bar you went to, and you were in exactly the right place to listen to it and really hear it.
But art in general and music in particular cannot be divided into the all too neat categories of "secular" and "Christian," as though the "secular" music were entirely opposed to God and the "Christian" music entirely on God's side. "Christian" music, at its core, is an industry. It is, simply put, pop music marketed to evangelical Christians. These evangelical Christians (and despite my conversion in the past five years to a much more "liberal" theology, I still consider myself to be an evangelical) have many different motivations for participating in this industry, and many different motives for purchasing the products of this industry.
Many evangelical Christian, like the teenage me, want to keep themselves as uncontaminated by the "evil" world as possible. They see the universe divided into two opposed camps, "God (or the "godly") and "the world." Viewing this world as naturally opposed to God, and as such viewing the things of this world as being opposed to God, they segregate themselves, creating a form of ghettoized art. This art may stylistically parody popular music, but in their minds there is little to no overlap.
Other evangelical Christians desire to use their art to enter into and evangelize the culture. Often inspired by the great book Roaring Lambs by the late Bob Briner, a powerful figure in popular culture as an author, co-host of a nationally syndicated radio program, and especially as president of ProServ Television and an Emmy Award-winning producer, they seek to engage popular culture rather than retreat from it.
While the evangelical approach to pop culture and artistic media cannot be so neatly divided into two camps, for our purposes we can see these two camps, and see them often opposed to each other. My former youth minister, for instance, really struggled when a prominent evangelical Christian musician would move from the one ghettoized camp to the other engaging camp. He considered people like Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant, who crossed over from "Christian" to "secular" music, to be money-grubbing turn coats, never mind that they just gave up a guaranteed audience to try to reach people who weren't in their natural demographic.
When his hero, Steve Taylor, "retired" from Christian music only to form the short-lived and dismal commercial failure (though rousing artistic success) Chagall Guevera, he was sick to his soul. How could the man who brought modern rock to Christian audiences (for those of you less familiar with the strange genre of Contemporary Christian Music, Steve Taylor was a revolutionary figure best known for making that actually sounded "new" - he was one of the few "Christian" artists who could rival "secular" stars for creativity and production values, for which he was reviled by many a televangelist who consider "Rock" to be entirely of the devil. No less a figure than Jerry Falwell publicly condemned Steve Taylor as being an agent of the devil, meaning that he and I are in good company) leave the "Christian" music scene to try to "make it" in the broader secular culture?
That Taylor in fact gave up a great deal of money to follow his heart and break-out of the sterile "Christian" mold meant little to those who lacked the vision to see the evangelical potential in the field of popular culture. But, with the popularity of such cross-over acts as Sixpence None the Richer and P.O.D., not to mention newer cross-overs like Switchfoot and Underoath, Christian rock has thoroughly embraced the more culturally engaged model.
By the time I was a teenager there were plenty of options for someone who craved modern rock with Christian lyrical content. But growing up a political liberal, much of the "Christian" content overtly (and often nonsensically) attacked my inherited political beliefs. In his song "Bad Rap (Who You Tryin' to Kid, Kid?)," the venerable Steve Taylor not only attacked godless liberalism, but even managed to somehow connect the animal rights movement with the pro-choice movement, saying:
You save the whales, you save the seals
you save whatever's cute and squeals
But you kill that thing inside the womb,
would not want no baby boom!
The lyric shows Taylor's creative wit, which was as often directed against hypocritical evangelicals as it was at political liberal, but it also shows a failure to take liberal arguments and positions seriously. That song came from his debut EP, I Want to Be a Clone, which was generally a scathing attack on the "cloneliness" of evangelical Christianity. The title song from that album had a satirically droning refrain:
If you want to be one of His
you've got to act like on of us!
But that album also contained a song which is certain to offend anyone who wished to consider the possibility that homosexuality is not per se sinful and that abortion might not always be morally impermissible, "Whatever Happened to Sin?" along with the menacing "Whatcha Gonna Do When Your Number's Up?," a not so subtle reminder of hell.
While the I Want to Be a Clone EP came out when I was four years old, a decade before I would have my conversion experience, because it had such a profound impact on two adult leaders in my Youth Group, it quickly became a part of my life. But, as a teenager I also listened to more recent Christian music, including the first album by Audio Adrenaline, a now legendary Christian act currently on their farewell tour. That album, Don't Censor Me, was among other things a protest against the perceived censorship of evangelical Christian ideas and speech.
What almost all of the "Christian" music that I listened to had in common was a particular political ideology which was overtly opposed to my own. While many of the songs were devotional in nature, and helped me see music as one of the many ways in which we experience the presence of God, too often those devotions were made part of a political agenda which included pairing progressive politics with social ills and religious persecution. This did not help me in my struggle to remain faithful to both my politics and my religion.
In the midst of this confusion, enter the Lost Dogs, a group whose images often come directly from the Gospels, and yet who have, if you listen, a subtly liberal political message. Comprise of four giants of Christian rock, Terry Taylor of Daniel Amos, the late Gene Eugene of Adam Again, Derri Daughtery of the Choir, and Mike Roe of the 77s, they had so much credibility with the evangelical culture that my Rush Limbaugh listening youth minister loved their debut album, Scenic Routes even though it contained an anti-gun song ("Bullet Train"), and anti-death-penalty song ("The Last Testament of Angus Shane"), and even an anti-war and not so subtly anti Bush I song ("Bush League"). Part of this was due to the fact that their politics only subtly crept into their lyrics. They didn't beat you over the head so much as they let their point slowly sink in. Another part of this had to do with the fact that most of their songs were religious rather than political.
But that first album was, if you looked closely at it, a powerfully political album; an album whose politics came from a deep-seated humanity and a love of the Gospel. Perhaps the most powerful song on the album was the last song, "Breath Deep," an egalitarian look at the Kingdom of God. The lyric recites almost every label you could think of applying to a person, and then emphasizes that all of these labels are united in the Kingdom of God.
That is a very political message, overtly stating that gays and lesbians are in the kingdom of God, along with war mongers, peaceniks, preachers, atheists, evolutionists, creationists, xenophobes, politicians, the homeless, and everyone else, good or bad. All can, as the song says,
Breath deep, breath deep
the breath of God
This image is especially powerful in light of the Biblical connection between "breath" and "spirit," especially as it applies to God. Simply put, to breath the breath of God is to take in the spirit of God. This powerful song says that all, regardless of label or ideology or even and especially merit, have access to that spirit.
This leads to a willingness on the part of the Lost Dogs to, in their songs, give some basic human dignity to all kinds of people. In "Built for Glory, Made to Last," for instance, a homeless person provides the narrator of the song with a powerful moral example, leading the narrator to a deeper understanding of God. That homeless person, who in the song refuses to give his name, is given the dignity of having a story to tell and a lesson to teach.
The basic human dignity which comes from their egalitarian vision of the Kingdom of God also show up in other songs, especially the subtly anti-war songs like "The Fortunate Sons" and "Amber Waves Goodbye." Both songs look at the tragedy of death and destruction, a tragedy made more poignant by the fact that real people rather than just images on a television screen or words in a newspaper account, are doing the killing and dying. "Fortunate Sons," written by Gene Eugene and Terry Taylor, is the story of the spiritual anguish of a soldier, and begins
Blood, thunder and fear
I cry when I need you
and march when I'm told where to go
Lessons I know
Is it the way of a soldier to offer his soul?
"Amber Waves Goodbye," penned like so many other Lost Dogs songs, by Terry Taylor, looks at the grief of those who try to survive the tragic loss of senseless death. It often uses patriotic imagery, but turns is just slight to illustrate the perverse way in which such blind patriotism is used to justify horrific violence. The song ends with this lament:
Bright white crosses line the hillside
So long Danny boy
She prayed to heaven
but you still died
Please come back Danny boy
God bless the poor she left in the streets
Lord she heard those babies cry
those little fallen angels weep cause
Amber waves goodbye
But the most powerful example of the way in which many Lost Dogs songs extend dignity in the name of Christ to those who are often dehumanized is in their portrayal of criminals. Country music, and the Lost Dogs' music is certainly influenced by country, has long had a tradition of empathizing with criminals, especially murderers. Hank Williams and Johnny Cash among so many others were famous for their treatment of law breakers and crime. But that theme does not play well with evangelical Christians, who despite the fact that they serve a Lord who was put to death by the state, rarely seem to have any pity for those our state condemns to die.
The first Lost Dogs album, Scenic Routes (and all of the songs thus far considered come from Scenic Routes, the most political Lost Dogs album) contains the song "The Last Testament of Angus Shane," a song which anticipates an even better one, "The Mark of Cain," from 2001's Real Men Cry, the fifth Lost Dogs album. "The Last Testament of Angus Shane" is a story told from the perspective of a condemned killer, about to be put to death. In it he offers this prayer:
Lord, be with my children
and dear Sarah, my wife
Lord, comfort their sorrow,
for I love them more than life.
Angus Shane knows that he has tragically wasted his life, even though he can't bring himself to confess to murder. While offering his confession, he even slips in a slight protestation of innocence:
I confess I'm a sinner,
but I never killed no one.
Whether he is innocent or not, one man is dead, and another is about to be dead, and many grieving family members are suffering with no relief in sight. In the song, Angus Shane's impending death is just one more human death to mourn, no less valuable than any other.
"The Mark of Cain," which was recorded nine years later, is an even more nuanced song. As the political message of the Lost Dogs dulled over the years, it doesn't even take an overt stand on the death penalty. But it does lend dignity to the unnamed killer who narrates the song. The haunting lyrics make up some of the best poetry I've seen, and go a long way toward showing that "Christian" music need not be inferior in quality.
I have dark dreams of that murderous night,
I see the hammer swing and the blood run bright.
Then the sky rolls back in a blinding light
and I cannot hide from the master's sight.
I don't ask to be spared the criminal's shame,
I deserve these bars and the ball and chain,
the hangman's rope and the fire's flame,
for the dark in my heart is the mark of Cain.
I had my good reasons to do the deed.
For a lover's treason sews the devil's seed.
And revenge is the fire that dragon breathes
and murder's the madness that hatred breeds.
Come this very morning when the rooster crows,
only the preacher will pray for my soul.
They'll hang me high and bury me low
in a Potter's Field where the cold wind blows.
The scriptural imagery is clear and powerful. The murderer is Cain, Peter and Judas rolled into one. But, of course, the mark God placed on Cain was meant to preserve his life, keeping him from being killed by human retributive justice. Here, however, it marks the unnamed killer for death. And Peter, despite betraying Christ, became the Rock (Petra) on which the universal church was built. Of the three, only Judas died for his crime, and his death was self-inflicted.
The third stanza is perhaps the most powerful one. It first gets us into the perspective of the unnamed killer:
I had my good reasons to do the deed.
For a lover's treason sews the devil's seed
We now understand the situation better. This was a crime of passion, spawned by betrayal. Perhaps the killer was not violent by nature, but was made so by his passion for the woman who betrayed him. Here too we also have some solidarity with Judas, though I won't finish that thought except to echo a line from Michael J. Pritzl, who wrote in the 9-11 song "Halo"
Aching like Judas, betraying his lover...
The second half of the stanza moves from the particular to the general, leaving for a moment the killer's perspective to see how that perspective fits in with human nature and societal ills.
And revenge is the fire that dragon breathes
and murder's the madness that hatred breeds.
This, then, is not just a problem with a single person, but rather is evidence of human sinfulness and sick society, poisoned by our collective propensity towards violence. As we saw with "Breath Deep," the Lost Dogs in general and lyricist Terry Taylor in particular love breath images. Here we have another, though instead of the breath of God we have the breath of a dragon. This breath, this sustaining spirit, this fuel for the fire of violence, is revenge, vengeance. Vengeance is, of course, often a justification for the death penalty, and this image is a reminder that violence, even at the hands of the state, does not put out violence but instead, like the breath of a dragon, only fuels more violence. The killer in this song may or may not deserve to die, but to take his life will not solve the problem.
As you can see, I could go on and on forever. The Lost Dogs, with their willingness in their music to merge more progressive politics with their evangelical Christianity, thus demonstrating their allegiance to the politics of the Gospel rather than the politics of the Republican party, entered into a mixed up cultural mess and kept me from placing my politics and my faith as necessarily opposed to each other. Now I know that some political liberals and some evangelical Christians are going to say that they are, in fact, opposed to each other. And, that's fine. The political wing of evangelical Christianity, with its frightening hope for an American theocracy, is in fact often opposed to liberal democracy. And liberal politics, like all other forms of politics in a plural society, certainly fails to always line up with the Gospel. But the Gospel cannot and should not be reduced to a political platform, and the fact that Contemporary Christian music, which is marketed exclusively to evangelical Christians, has room for a group with a politically progressive message, gives me a great deal of hope.
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