Faith

Lucie Is Light

Processed with VSCOcam with m5 presetby:  Lisa Gungor

Pain is one of those things I don’t like much.

 

I’m sure there are at least a few people who share this sentiment. We’ve all heard the saying “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Normally when I hear that, I immediately revert to a juvenile eye roll or mutter a slew of choice words under my breath.  This is because I have never understood why the pain is necessary.  It’s kind of like hackers – if hackers didn’t exist, there would be no need for firewalls. But people have learned how to create stronger firewalls because the hackers exist. The whole “you can’t have one without the other” deal. People learn how to be stronger because pain exists. But I’d much prefer the hackers didn’t exist. I’d much prefer the pain just leave me alone.

 

This was my stance, up until the day Lucie was born.

 

I am sitting here thinking back on her birth. Remembering the labor, the elation of the first time I laid eyes on her tiny body - immediately, unreservedly in love. Remembering the blur and the feeling of falling that came when the nurse told us about her.  I can still see the nurses face, see the anxiety in the posture of her body and movement of her hands as she said “she has features that are consistent with Down Syndrome….”

 

I don’t remember what she said next. I saw her mouth moving, and I nodded like I was actually listening. But I was falling, or really caving inward like my body was a black hole, sucking the air and all emotion inside itself and just disappearing; mind all a blur, heart pounding and painfully breaking.

 

They took her from me, said something about more tests…she was turning blue. Would my sweet girl be okay? Would she talk? Walk? …would my girl live? I felt I had done this to her, I failed my Lucie. I felt I didn’t supply the proper womb for her to grow in, that I didn’t give her the best possible chance. And I felt I had failed Michael.

 

I remember Michael's face. We locked eyes in this unspoken shared pain; we reached for each other. He was trying to be strong for me but I could see it there plain, a helplessness that overtook him, a broken heart for his baby girl. We had no words for each other, it was just shock, like the universe flippantly decided to throw two parents into a different world in one fowl reckless swoop.

 

I remembered shrinking beneath the pile of hospital blankets; I couldn't hide my pain enough as uncontrollable sobs shook my body. I was ashamed at how I felt. Ashamed I didn't only feel joy, only excitement at her arrival. I felt I had been tricked, this was not our life, we were not the couple who could handle a child with special needs. Quite honestly we are pretty selfish with our time and drive any personality that leans toward the scheduled type totally crazy. We travel a ton, stay up way too late, love to sleep in, aren’t the most patient, pretty forgetful…two creative types, not the best combination for a structured household.  We were nowhere near prepared to supply a child with special needs the balanced life she would need. This was not what we had dreamed.

 

Somehow I had made plans for this little life without even laying eyes on her. I had made plans for her future, expectations for her relationship with her older sister – dreamed about them calling each other in the middle of the night, heard their conversations about friends, school, favorite coffee, future careers, families...whispers about first kisses and boys. I could see them huddled in a pile of blankets in the tent we bought for Amelie’s third birthday...telling secrets beneath the covers and giggling like mad. Me telling them to go to sleep for the 10th time.

 

Unconscious plans. And in that moment, they all disappeared. The relationship I made for them disappeared. And embarrassingly enough, the baby girl I dreamed up disappeared.

 

Friends and family trickled in with smiles holding both sadness and joy, grabbing my face, leaning in close with tears brimming and saying "we love this girl, she is precious, we are here for you." Sister, Mother, in-laws, old friends, all surrounding, becoming the support I needed to breath in and out.

 

And then I remember Michael coming back into the room; everyone leaving, and him tenderly putting his hand on my me.

 

"For You created her inmost being..."

 

I broke.

 

“You knit her together in her mother’s womb….she is fearfully and wonderfully made…”

 

We sobbed in unbearable pain.

 

But in the same moment, something else happened….I have not ever and may never again feel such an insurmountable force of love.

 

“Fearfully and wonderfully mae…” Those words washed over me like a Holy Other hovering over void and calling things into existence. Giving life. Knitting two broken parents together, stitch by stitch. I have thought about that moment countless times the past five and a half months. It was surreal, grief and miraculous love; a great summit of my life.

 

In that moment, I loved Michael more than I could ever dream up. And not some fickle romanticized dream world love. A painfully real, vulnerable thing opening up a well I did not know existed.

 

I had never realized what a beautiful experience it could be to share in suffering. There we were, totally broken, scared for the future, thrust into an unknown world. And there was a great force of love right there, like a miracle, showing us that this is what family is about. This is what friendship is about - support when you crumble, breath when your lungs fail, believing in you when you don't, seeing you at your worst and not only remaining in the room, but leaning in.  The scary kind of close.

 

I realized, I just had to hold my girl - that is all I wanted. Thankfully they let us in to see her, and as I put her tiny body on mine, that is when I finally felt it…breath. I felt this peace and life pulsing back into my veins. The spinning slowed, and all that mattered was that she was ours. She wasn’t medical conditions, uncertainty, or frightful future, she was ours, she was loved, and she was a gift.

 

It’s crazy, I look back at all of this with new eyes. Amazing at how crushed we felt that day when now, now I see it all as a gift. This girl. She has unlatch something in me and I feel nothing but lucky. And I have found that I now do something that is perhaps a little strange…I watch other kids with Downs. And by “watch” I mean stare at. And by “stare at,” I mean follow and spy on with great excitement down the street or in the grocery store or wherever they happen to be.  Weird?

 

A few weeks ago, I walked through the airport to baggage claim  and I saw them, a mother and her son - her smiling down at him, him beaming up at her. And then I noticed it…the features…he had Down Syndrome. Immediately, I had the urge to run toward them excitedly while waving Lucie in the air like some sort of country flag “Look! Down Syndrome! Awesome!” I wanted to scoop him up and squeeze his cheeks, give the mother a big hug and chat up a storm right in the middle of baggage claim chaos.

 

I didn’t do any of this for obvious reason like scaring her child or because waving my baby in the air while yelling out “Down Syndrome!” felt like bad manners as well as borderline appalling. But also for the reason that I did not in fact have my Lucie with me, nor, upon a second glance, was I positive he had Downs…pretty certain, but “pretty certain” in this case is not something you want to gamble on. So that would be the worst of it – approaching a mother and congratulating her on her Downs child when he actually was not.

 

I digress.

 

The thing is that I was startled at the strength of these feelings; my immediate feeling of connection. And though our babies would be very different, she would know what I knew, she would have the same secret thoughts, experience the same thrill of hearing her baby swallow, know the angst and elation from struggling or reaching each physical milestone. We would share in this experience and it would be a comfort for the simple reason that we are not alone. She would know the feeling of loss then rebirth.

 

And though I lost it for a moment, I hear it all again – the whispers in late night, phone conversations about friends and jobs, plans for the future of these two girls I get to mother.

 

 

And the pain…yeah, somehow it has made us stronger. Amazingly I am grateful. I am sometimes still scared, sometimes still worry about what she might face, I’m sure I will still have my hard days that come with anyone that has experienced the sleep deprivation, crying at 4am, diapers, barf on your pants and shirt and car, breast milk on the same…the oh so classy world of parenting.  But I wouldn’t trade our story for anything, not ever.

 

Because this side of love, it is something to behold.

 

So here we are, almost six months later, three days away from our baby’s second heart surgery. And I just can’t explain how grateful I am – grateful for our family, grateful for our friends, grateful this surgery exists, for the surgeon who is going perform this incredible task of fixing our girls heart. Grateful for all of the countless families who have walked this road and sent messages of encouragement – your words have completely held me.

 

Lucie. It means light.

 

So on October 15th, the night before Lucie’s surgery, we are going to do a little something. We will stand outside and hold up a light, just a small flame, but a symbol of how these children our world is gifted with help us see; a symbol of solidarity to parents who know this road, who have felt the unbearable loss, beautiful gain, or a lot of the time, both.  Anyone who wants to join in, please do so, and if you would like, please share a picture or a video on Instagram or Twitter (@gungormusic, #lucieislight), we’ll look for you and send a whole lot of love your way.

 

Love is a force, and it’s strength is seen when we lean in close, dig beyond the pain, and find there is indeed, a light.

 

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Processed with VSCOcam with m5 presetProcessed with VSCOcam with m5 preset

Make Us One

My lateness to respond to the recent posts was because I wanted to make sure I didn’t give a knee-jerk reaction. I didn’t want to be angry or spinning. I greatly appreciate the positive support we have had and wanted to respond with a level head to it all… I went to bed three nights ago with a fair amount of anxiety. The past three months have been the hardest Michael and I have ever faced. They say things come in threes, but you just don’t expect for the grouping of three to happen three times over. The moment I feel I have a little breath in my lungs, something else hits hard.

It was sad to me how the articles spun out - believing in something many well-respected theologians hold to has blacklisted us and caused a wide array of hurtful comments. I stayed away from the comments, knowing I would feel beat up and angry. But of course, four days later, curiosity won. Some of the remarks were incredibly encouraging and wonderful – something we desperately needed. But others hurt deeply. As I fell asleep that night I tried to think of some clever retort, looking for THE thing that could help our case and bring peace. But I couldn’t find it. I knew there wasn’t one answer that would suffice. Someone would have a retort, a better answer, a fancier gun to fire.

Waking to morning, I hoped anxiety would find calm, but still, my mind swam once again. Strong was the motherly instinct to protect my family, wanting to defend against all of the people who have strewn hatred onto the oblivion of the internet.

I wanted to defend. But instead, I did the thing I didn’t really want to do…I prayed for love.

Honestly, I wanted to pray something like, “Oh gracious God, come to my rescue and crush or annihilate or rain down stink eggs from heaven upon my enemies! Make US the good guys and THEM the bad guys” …the kind of prayer that makes us feel like God is on OUR side and not the other. Our hearts were torn and hurting deeply, so I wanted to pray for vindication. But I realized God was not on my side…nor was He on “their” side. He was around and within all sides. So instead, I prayed blessings. I prayed for peace and understanding amidst the confusion and chaos. I prayed for those of you who somehow (despite our honestly best efforts), felt betrayed. For all who were berated. That’s the thing about sides – it is so very hard to see the other when a massive gulf lay between.

Both sides declaring “right-ness,” both sides stating a case but are we really listening to each other? So I prayed anger would subside; that Michael and I would lay down our desire for ammunition, and others would as well. I prayed for love.

I prayed we would be one.

I am all for working out our beliefs and theology, delving into the debate, I believe we move forward into truth when we do so. This is not about squelching the discussion. But I am not for hateful and sarcastic remarks…on either side. Berating people doesn’t help, it only hurts and loads another gun. Church history is jam packed with splits, new denominations, walls in and around and between. And it keeps happening. But unity doesn’t come by accident. It’s a choice we must eventually make. Unity isn’t us all believing the all the exact same dogma. It is loving each other over and above our differences.

I am not writing this to dig it all up again, just feeling a lot of love for everyone out there that wrote or was the receiver of a hateful comment. Let us remember we are all real people, real faces behind these computers, real kiddos to put to bed at night, real hearts feeling stress and hurt when discussions and comments run wild.

So I pray for you, for me, and for us - that we would discover unity. That as we discuss, search for truth and take leaps of faith, that love would rise above the noise and we would miraculously, amazingly, be one.

An Open Letter To Ricky Gervais (And Atheists Everywhere)

First, let me say... I love Ricky Gervais. He is a very funny and intelligent man that often does incredible work that I think makes this world a better place. He is also a very outspoken "atheist." Here is a tweet he just posted: Tweet

I wanted to respond to the tweet, but I saw no way of doing so within 140 characters. Of course, I don't really expect him to hear or care about my response. But I have some thoughts about it that I feel like expressing. So here we go.

That statement that Ricky tweeted is, I guess, a way of saying something like "I don't BELIEVE that there is no Santa Clause, I just don't believe in Santa Clause."

I think that's fair to a certain extent. The lack of belief in a specific concept is not necessarily belief in another one. But the concept of "God" is a little trickier than your typical concept because there is no universally agreed on definition of "God".

Not believing in Santa Clause is not necessarily a belief system in itself because there is a pretty universally agreed upon concept that is elicited with the name "Santa Clause", i.e. a fat guy in a red suit that flies around the world giving Christmas presents to children. To not believe in Santa Clause, I don't necessarily have to have a robust belief system in place to fill in the gaps. All I really have to believe is that the presents that children received were actually provided by other sources than the aforementioned fat, flying man.

But when you talk about “God”, things get quite a bit more complicated. As soon as you bring up the word “God”, you are now playing on the existential playing field. Now you are talking about metaphysics and the meaning or lack of meaning of life and so on. I think a lot of modern day atheists like Ricky don’t often acknowledge this complexity. They don’t acknowledge that they do operate within a system of beliefs just like everyone else does. They do BELIEVE in a system that allows them to think they have a level of understanding about the nature of reality. They BELIEVE in an actual universe, and one that has the ability to give rise to itself (not a small leap of faith). They BELIEVE that their senses and rational mind are able to accurately perceive that universe. They BELIEVE that science can potentially make accurate and complete descriptions of the universe. On and on these beliefs go. Most, if not all, of these beliefs are generally considered to be “reasonable”, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t beliefs. There are possible other ways of seeing. One has to choose how he or she will interpret the sensory input that he or she experiences. That is what belief is.

I think this is why theists often posit that atheism is a belief system. It's not so much that the absence of a belief in "God" is a belief as much as the other beliefs that must exist in order to replace the existential hole that is left when a theist removes "God" from the equation.

But that's not even my primary problem with Mr. Gervais' tweet… The bigger issue here is that "atheism" is an essentially meaningless term and the kind of invective that many of its adherents commonly spew (like this tweet) actually fosters and strengthens fundamentalist thinking on both sides of the theism/atheism divide, and therefore it is destructive for humanity.

Let me explain.

I don't believe in Bob.

"Well," one might ask, "what the hell does that mean?" Who, after all, is this "Bob" that you don't believe in?

Well, let's say that in my mind, Bob is a supernatural being that flies through space and makes planets with his thoughts. And I don't believe in him.

Fair enough. The problem is… To many other people, the name Bob elicits many other things…like people that they know named Bob.

Here's my point. You can't meaningfully say you don't believe in "Bob" if there is no universally agreed upon concept connected to the word that you are saying. For some people, "God" is a really powerful guy "up" in some place in space called "Heaven" that looks down on us and sometimes interacts with us depending on what sort of mood he is in or whatever. For some, there are lots of gods that do all sorts of things like send rain or make the crops grow. For some people, God is not any sort of being at all, but simply a word for the central essence of reality. For some, God is a word that they use to recognize the beauty of everything that they see. Love, infinity, the creative life force that holds the universe together…..The viewpoints and definitions are endless. The point is, the word "God" doesn't universally mean anything.

So when you, Mr. Gervais, say that atheism is simply a result of thinking, what does that actually mean, for instance, to the person that would define "God" as "existence" itself? To this person, saying "God does not exist" is the equivalent of saying "existence does not exist." That is, of course, a meaningless thing to say.

This may sound like semantic games to the atheist. It is not. "God" is not as simple of a concept to be dismissed as many of these "new atheists" seem to think. There have been plenty of theologians through the centuries who have argued that God does not "exist." This is why you can't say that "atheism is not a belief system", but is simply "the result of thinking" as though you are talking about not believing in Santa Clause. If there were thousands of different definitions and interpretations of "Santa Clause", it would be equally as difficult to dismiss the existence of "Santa Clause".

So what are we talking about when we talk about God?

This is a more interesting conversation, in my opinion, than arguing about whether or not God "exists".

It is very easy to set up straw men arguments about a silly being in the sky who created the world six thousand years ago and then tweet from your ivory tower that "God" obviously does not exist. Well, if you have any belief in science, which I do, then of course that God does not exist. But that's as meaningful as a statement as "Bob does not exist."

The problem is that this sort of talk creates strong emotions in everyone and we all fight about it. "Of course God exists!" "Of course he doesn't!" Blah, blah, blah. And everyone digs in their heels and simple, dogmatic, fundamentalist, black and white thinking is strengthened on both sides of the fence. And we don't even know what the hell we are actually fighting about. The atheist feels he is fighting against ignorant thinking about some flying spaghetti monster, and the theist feels he is fighting about all that is good and beautiful in existence. And it's because we are fighting about the wrong question. Fighting about whether Bob exists or not is a meaningless conversation. Fighting about what the nature of reality is, whether love is worth it or not, whether we should follow the cue of evolution and fight for the survival of the fittest, or whether we should fight against that impulse…those are more interesting conversations. "Who or what is God in your perspective and experience?" is a far more interesting and meaningful question than "Does God exist?"

So, Mr. Gervais, I love your work. I think you are brilliant, but I would love to challenge you to take a moment of thoughtful reflection about what you think you are saying when you tweet things like that. Not everyone defines God the same way that you do, and while this may not bother you, perhaps the truth that you are actually strengthening the arrogant, ignorant fundamentalism that you rail against should give you pause. "God" bless. ;)

For the Doubters

First, a word of warning… This blog is NOT intended for everyone.  It is written for a very specific group of people—those who would like to have some sort of intellectually honest faith but have experienced crippling existential doubt that makes faith difficult or impossible for them.  If that phrase means nothing to your own experience, I’d suggest you move on to a different blog because this probably won’t be all that helpful to you.

I guess I could start this with the image of me weeping on my knees in a bathrobe in a spa.  I’ll save the (fairly entertaining) details for another time, but basically I lost my metaphysic.  I lost the ability to “believe” anything.

I’m not talking about the “Why didn’t God do this for me?” kind of doubt here.

I’m talking about a complete lack of ability to hold any sort of metaphysic. Is this universe “real” or an illusion or some kind…a software simulation, perhaps?  I don’t know.

Some of you are scratching your head or furrowing your brow at this point.  I told you this blog is not for everyone.

Is there a God, an afterlife, a direction to the universe?  I don’t know.

I suddenly found myself for the first time in my life with no actual metaphysical beliefs.

This kind of doubt is not some postmodern, hipster trendy sort of “doubt.”  It is a very real and painful loss of the ground beneath your feet.  This can be a very depressing and horrifying experience for people.  Some of you know what I’m talking about, and it’s you that I’m writing this blog to.

Through this experience (“dark night of the soul”, or whatever you would like to call it), I’ve had a few things that have really helped me “spiritually”.  (Community, ritual, apophatic theology, meditation…etc) But I came across something this week that really helped me cerebrally.

The philosophy and science of the day have left us with very little certainty about the universe we inhabit. (“I think therefore I am” really doesn’t get you very far.) We are subjective creatures that have very limited and flawed receptors. There is really no way to objectively “know” anything.  It all comes through our subjective lenses. In reality, it all comes down to faith. And faith is not something one can force.

Nearly everything can be philosophically deconstructed.  So those of us who lack the faith to believe even in our subjective senses or reasoning can have a very hard time finding things to be “true.”  This can lead to paralyzing doubt. The kind that keeps one from living the kind of life that he would like to live.

Ok, so now to the helpful part.

I had a conversation the other night with this brilliant guy that everybody kept calling “Science Mike.”  Mike grew up in Christianity but then became an atheist, and has recently come back to his faith.   I was startled at the similarities in his experience and thought world to my own.  And when I shared with him about some of my experience, he shared with me a set of axioms that he has come up with that has allowed him to continue to practice his Christianity in an intellectually honest way, even during seasons of extreme doubt.  These axioms, he explained to me, act as a sort of ground floor upon which he can deconstruct no further.  They are built on the idea of “at least”.  So, while these axioms may be extremely unhelpful to a person who has no metaphysical dilemmas, they can be EXTREMELY helpful to a person who sometimes dips into deep, debilitating existential doubt.

You ready?  I hope you’re ready for this, because this is freaking brilliant.  I asked him to write it down and send it to me, and this is his email:

OK, my little system is AT LEAST, EVEN IF. I provide definitions for religious concepts in the form of axioms in a manner that is compatible with naturalism (falsifiable and provable). Even in the sciences, we must admit we don't have a complete understanding of most concepts, so AT LEAST could be applied to natural concepts too (the Universe, gravity, etc.)

Basically, this is a ground floor which doubt can dip no further. It allows us to always feel intellectually honest about pursuing God, religious ritual, fellowship and even Jesus himself.

God is AT LEAST the natural forces that created and sustain the Universe as experienced via a psychosocial construct rooted in evolved neurologic features in humans. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition for God, the pursuit of this personal, subjective experience can provide meaning, peace and empathy for others and is warranted.

Prayer is AT LEAST a form of mediation that encourages the development of healthy brain tissue, lowers stress and can connect us to God. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition of prayer, the health and psychological benefits of prayer justify the discipline.

The Bible is AT LEAST a set of writings where a people group describes their experience with and understanding of God over thousands of years. EVN IF that is a comprehensive definition of God, study of scripture is warranted to understand our culture and the way in which people come to know God.

Jesus is AT LEAST the idea of a man so connected to God that he was called the Son of God and the largest religious movement in human history is centered around his teachings; he was very likely a real person. EVEN IF this is all Jesus is, following his teachings can promote peace, empathy, and genuine morality.

HOLY @#$#!!

This is amazing.  Every word in this is very intentionally crafted, and I really can’t see any way to reasonably deconstruct this argument.

Of course, for most Christians, these axioms fall woefully short of any robust orthodoxy. Still, the beautiful part of this is that it provides some sort of framework upon which you can continue to live the kind of faithful life that you’d like to live even when doubt takes over and drives you to the absolute depth of uncertainty.  This argument basically “proves” that even when everything gets deconstructed to the very least (God as a word for our subjective experience of the natural forces that create and sustain the universe), Christianity is still worth LIVING.

That’s they key to this to me. Living.  Doubt has its benefits. It asks questions that can lead to progress and growth. But the dark side of doubt is when it stops the person from actually living the kind of life she wants to live.  It’s one thing to have cerebral doubts about whether love is anything more than a set of chemical reactions in the brain; it’s much more severe problem to let those doubts actually stop you from living a life of love.

It’s one thing to doubt the dogmas and ideas about Jesus. It’s another thing to let those doubts keep you from living the “abundant life” that he invited people into in the Gospels.

So, there you go. Mike is a genius.  If you want to know more about him or contact him, you can find him at http://mikemchargue.com or @mikemchargue on Twitter.

Ps.  As far as blog comments go, I would love to ask the Christians that don’t struggle with this sort of doubt to please refrain from speaking too quickly here. There are many people that believe the answer to this sort of doubt is “Come on, just believe! The Bible says…” Regardless of how good the intention in that sort of statement may be, please trust me when I say that this sort of response is not at all helpful in these situations. It actually can be quite destructive and can lead the doubter to push away even farther from what you are saying. Thanks!

Catholicism

Last night, I had one of the most beautiful worship experiences I have had in a long time. We played at a Catholic youth festival in Louisiana, and afterwards we stayed for "adoration." Wasn't quite sure what that was, but we ended up kneeling in silence in a field for like 20 minutes with thousands of young Catholics, all holding candles. It was amazing. A procession of priests came walking through the candlelit masses holding a big golden cross and then they put this other golden thingy in the altar (forgive me for my ignorance of any of the proper terms, and for my use of the word "thingy"), and we all just sat there and adored Christ together in silent reverence for a long time. Honestly, it made me want to be Catholic again.

I say again, because I tried to become a Catholic a couple of years ago. I failed. The priest I was talking to at the time told me that I had to believe in everything if I was to convert, and I was like, "Whoa, man, come on now. I don't believe 'everything' of 'anything.'"

Still, I sat there in the candlelight last night wishing that I had the faith to believe in everything. Because it is all so beautiful. It really is. I grew up Protestant. More specifically: evangelical. I don't feel that that word accurately describes me now, but it is my heritage.

The thing about evangelicals is that they tend to take everything so literally. I can just imagine the evangelical, 17 year old me sitting there in that field and praying in tongues because I was afraid that some sort of Catholic idolatry demons would possess me. I would have been freaked out that all of them were staring at those golden thingys because I had no mystery or metaphor in my faith. God was a big powerful guy "up" there. So a bunch of people bowing down before a golden image… Well, that sounds like idolatry.

I didn't really understand everything that was happening last night, but that was part of the beauty of it. That heavy and intoxicating aroma of the incense. The bending flickering flames of the candles in the wind. The bold colors of robes and crosses and crucibles. The use of different languages. It was Heaven crashing into earth.

A lot of Protestants don't think of the first 1500 years of Church history as part of their story. They seem to think that the disciples wrote the Bible and then the Catholic church just worshiped idols and killed people for 15 centuries until Martin Luther and Calvin came along and the Church got back to Christianity.

I'm sorry to tell you this, Mr. Evangelical, but without Rome, you have no Christianity. You have no Bible. You have no theology. You have no story.

The Church today is severely splintered and fragmented, and that should break our hearts. But healing needs to start somewhere. That's why I wanted to tell you about my experience. Because perhaps for a few of you, you can think about your relationship with the "other", no matter who that might be. But most of the time, the "other" is exactly who has the most to offer us. And any loving movement towards the other is a movement towards healing, unity, and peace--all things we desperately need.

ps. I will be deleting any foolish, ignorant, or divisive comments about Catholic theology. Protestants would do well to actually study the theology before speaking about it (ie. idolatry, Mary...etc)

The Gun God

I don’t claim to be a pacifist. If I would have been at that school the other day, and I had a gun, I would have shot that man in a second to stop him.

What I’m not going to say is that this response would have been the Christian one. I’m not going to say that I know that this is what Christ would have done.

Jesus, the one who taught us to turn our cheek when our enemies strike us. Jesus, the one who taught us to pray for our enemies, love them, give them more than they ask for when they rob us… Jesus, the one who rebuked his disciple when he drew his sword to try to protect Jesus. Jesus, who did not resist being cruficied. Who looked at the people who were torturing him and muttered “Father, forgive them…” The one who causes lions to lay with lambs and beats our swords into plowshares.

Jesus.

Prince of peace.

Now, of course, there is also the Jesus of the turned tables. There is the Jesus who ferociously deals with the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and oppression. Yet, we have no examples of where Jesus ever turns righteous indignation into actual violence against flesh and blood.

Jesus response to violence is never the sword, it is the cross.

Which is why I was so distressed yesterday when Christians responded to me about my comment about guns in the wake of the shootings.

I posted a blog that argued that it was time to examine our system to see what was making it so easy for men like that to get guns.

The response?

Outrage.

I’ve never had backlash like that, and I’ve written some pretty “out there” things…

I couldn’t even keep up with my twitter feed. Some of you were very supportive and in agreement, but others accused me all sorts of things. Arrogance. Closed-mindedness. Divisiveness. They called me names. They told me they weren’t following me anymore. They told me that I should stick to making music. They told me that they hope that I thought my judgmentalism was worth losing fans over. They laughed at me and made fun of me, consistently using examples like, “oh, what should we outlaw cars because they kill people too?”

Now, let me remind you what I said…

I didn’t say that we shouldn’t allow anyone to have a gun. I didn’t say that we should outlaw anything. I said that we should make it more difficult for people like that to get guns.

Apparently I hit a nerve.

After 9/11, one of the first responses that we as a nation had was to try to make it harder for terrorists to get airplanes. This is a reasonable course of action. When people run planes into buildings, it’s only reasonable to want to make it harder for terrorists to take control of airplanes.

Nobody said, “Hey, now’s not the time for politics! Now’s not the time to talk about regulations and debate about the security at airports!”

Because, airplanes… Well, that’s not a sacred cow.

So we all do our part and take our shoes off at the scanners now. We all empty our water bottles and sometimes even let the scanners show our nude form to some stranger in a cubicle at the airport. We don’t love it. It’s inconvenient, but we are willing to sacrifice to make it harder for someone to waltz onto an airplane with a bomb on his chest or a knife in his pocket.

When a man walks into a school full of little children and starts firing assault weapons into their little bodies… When a man waltzes into a movie theatre in military gear and starts shooting brothers and sisters, moms and dads… I mean, how many of these things are we going to have to experience before we say, “ok, maybe we should re-look at how we are distributing weapons to these people?”

Seems like a natural and reasonable response to me. A response in the direction of justice.

I make no claims to know the appropriate way of accomplishing this. I also do not mean to vilify anyone that believes that gun control would be ineffective (even though I disagree with them.) I just think the conversation is important, and it is important to have before these deaths are quickly forgotten like all of the other shootings.

Yet the response to me yesterday… It was like these Christians that on the surface are all sentimental and sweet and weepy about the tragedy suddenly turned green, bared their teeth and screamed “NOT MY PRECIOUS!!”

Their precious guns.

Don’t talk to me about my precious guns!

Red flags anyone?

Now to be clear, I never made the claim that gun control was the ONLY thing we should do. Certainly there are other important conversations that needed to be had in figuring out ways of safeguarding against this kind of violence. Mental health care, public training or security…etc But nobody is freaking out about those things. Nobody is having a seizure and shooting flames out of their eyeballs when someone says, “hey, maybe we should try to figure out a better way of identifying and treating mental illness.” But, mention the god of the gun!! “NO!!!! MY PRECIOUS!!!!

Perhaps this response has something to do with why America has at least 5 times the murder rate of other first world countries. It might have something to do with our gun laws, but I also bet it has a lot to do with that demon that a lot of people manifested yesterday. That demon that worships blood. That worships power and violence.

Ok, so that sounds a little melodramatic. But, I believe that this goes to our roots.

America has been built on blood. We worship this god of the gun. We sacrificed to it to own this land. We spilled the blood of the Native Americans to satiate it. The British. The French. The Mexicans. Anybody that stood in the way of what we wanted, we killed. Sometimes the violence may have been justified, other times, it certainly was not by any other standard but “well, we wanted this, and you didn’t give it to us, so we killed you.” We’ve killed each other on this land. People killed their brothers on this land so that they could keep their slaves. (Not surprisingly, it is still the South that is most adamant about its guns and also is the most violent region in the country)

America is a young nation, but it is drenched in blood. And oh how we treasure the power that we have received in response to our blood sacrifices. We hold our big guns and we feel pleasure coarse through our bodies. Power. It’s sexy as hell. We love it. We feel so important and powerful, like gods ourselves.

I’m sure there are some that fight for no gun laws that really do hate violence. But I also bet that a lot of us have been infected with the violence that goes so deep into our roots. We have been infected with the idea that the use of guns are a good thing, synonymous with words like “freedom” and “justice.” And as a result, we violently hold onto violence.

If having total “freedom” from governmental meddling with our firearms actually does result in at least part of the violence that we keep seeing, are we really willing to offer our own children as blood sacrifice to this god for the sake of that convenience? Are we really willing for more mothers to have to lie in bed, tossing, turning and weeping, playing the imagined scene of their baby being shot over and over so that we can keep stroking the barrel of our shotguns and feeling the pleasure of the demon shudder through our spines knowing how easily we were able to acquire it?

It should be shocking and horrifying to us that some of us are even using our “Christianity” as an excuse for this clutching to violence. We say how the problem is “sin”, and it’s only Jesus that can do something about it.

That’s convenient for us, because it frees us from responsibility. It lets us avoid actually having to be the hands and feet of God. So in other words, we use our Christianity to avoid being Christians.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world stares at us with their mouths gaping. They wonder how we can be so blind about the consequences of our obsession with guns.

There was a guy on my twitter feed yesterday that actually used the verse where Jesus said that he came to bring a sword to justify guns.

Selah.

I think gun control is important. If you are curious why that is, just read this article.

But now I’m seeing how, even though it is important, it certainly is not the ultimate cause of the violence that we have seen. That thing that made a lot of you respond to me yesterday like you did… That thing in me that made me want to respond with far more sarcasm and colorful language than I did… Perhaps, that’s the primary cause of all this violence. That American demon inside of us that probably is rearing its head right now in some of you.

“HOW DARE YOU!!!”

That demon that makes you want to protect your guns more than our children. That demon that makes you jump into the defensive at a suggestion like making it harder for evil people to acquire so much killing power. After all, again, I never said anything about prohibition. I didn’t even say that you couldn’t have your precious. But to some of you, my fingers got dangerously close to your precious yesterday, so your demon manifested and you bit my fingers.

We all go through all sorts of red tape and bureaucracy all of the time. To get our driver’s licenses. To pay our taxes. To get a permit to sell flowers, for crying out loud. Yet many of us are unwilling to even talk about having to go through some sort of complicated process to earn the right to own a firearm that could be used to blast away an elementary school. We will spend a third of our income and a bunch of our time filling out tax forms, but don’t you dare try to make me go through a process where someone decides whether I’m mentally or emotionally fit to own a firearm! Don’t you dare try to tell me that there are certain military grade weapons that are not possible for me to purchase!

I smell the demon, folks. This is not common sense at work. This is bloodlust. It’s the desire for power. Its good, old-fashioned idolatry.

If we want to stop some of the violence in our schools, mosques, churches and movie theatres, perhaps the first step is to look down and notice the white knuckles around the barrel of our guns.

I am not under the delusion that the government can fix the human heart. You cannot regulate away violence. But we can do little things to safeguard that limit the carnage when the violence comes out. Again, I don’t claim to have the answers to what those things are exactly. But I do hope that Christians will stop worrying so much about ensuring that they can acquire firearms without any inconvenience to them and start trying to figure out a way to limit the pain that our weapons allow us to inflict on each other.

Christian Pizza

An excerpt from "The Crowd, the Critic and the Muse" (Appendix 2):

A typical conversation I might have on an airplane:

Stranger (upon seeing the guitar on my back): Hey, are you gonna play us something?

Michael: Ha ha! Maybe, we’ll see! (Note to jokesters: anybody who regularly carries a guitar onto a plane is tired of this joke.) 

Stranger: You know, I’m not sure that guitar is going to fit in the overhead . . .

Michael (trying to stay nice): Yeah, it does actually.

I place the guitar in the overhead bin and close it without a problem. I realize my seat is right next to the stranger and sit down.

Stranger: So, what kind of music do you play?

It is here that I have a difficult time knowing how to answer.

If you asked Bill iTunes or John Google this question about Michael Gungor, the answer that you would find would be “Christian and Gospel.” There are a number of reasons that this is not the answer I would prefer to give someone, especially a stranger on a plane. It is not because I am embarrassed about the spiritual content of our music. I’m not. It’s essentially a language problem.

It actually gets kind of complicated. So to begin, let’s take another jaunt back to my fundamentalist days.

Here’s how art worked in the religious subculture that I grew up in: If you want to be a painter, and you want God to be happy with your art, you better paint crosses or doves flying around a globe or something. If you want to be a singer, and you want to use your gift for God, you need to sing Christian music. The more JPM’s (Jesus’ Per Minute), the better.

I loved music. I loved God. So I tried to write Christian music. I wasn’t great at it.

I lost my first Christian music competition when I was eighteen. It was a big seminar held in the Rocky Mountains where the winners could win things like Christian record deals.

In the first category, instrumental music, my toughest competition was a blind guitarist. I didn’t know how to feel about that. He was a really good player, and I felt bad for him because he was blind and all; but man, there was still a big part of me that wanted to crush that visually impaired acoustic shredder into the ground. No luck there, though. I came in second. I hoped for better luck in the songwriting part of the competition.

I had submitted a song called “What a God” that was a big hit at my church. People would actually start chanting “WHAT A GOD! WHAT A GOD!” at the end of services. This would happen quite regularly. I think it may have had something to do with all of the solos in it. Acoustic guitar solos, sax solos, percussion solos, drums solos . . . it was the late 90s, and people ate solos for breakfast.

The judges told me that the song was trite.

Trite.

Stupid judges. They must not have heard the incredible solos.

In retrospect, the song was trite, but I still felt like I had been robbed, so I came back the next year. This time, I had written a song in a minor key with a 7/8 time signature, and I thought it was pretty amazing. I was confident that the judges would think so as well. They did not. They told me that odd time signatures do not work well in Christian music. They told me that people like Sting might be able to get away with it, but he is not in Christian music.

I tried for a long time to be part of the Christian music industry. I even went to the Dove Awards one time. I sat there in my nice suit, daydreaming about what it would be like to win one of those someday.

So, yeah, there would have been a day that I would have gladly told the stranger on the plane that I played Christian music. But in the years of trying to make it in the Christian music industry, I came to discover how fundamentally fraught with peril an idea like Christian music can be.

First, and least importantly, there is the problem of the idea of genre. This is my first hurdle with the stranger on the plane. He’s asking for a genre, and so much about the idea of genres drives me crazy. Genres are all about labeling, marketing, and boxing art into imaginary constructs for the purpose of making money.

Genres are arbitrary. You can’t accurately classify art into categories like you can with lizards or different species of ferns. In science, classification works well—“It’s got four limbs, some hair, milk for its babies, lungs, and warm blood. It’s a mammal.” In art, the situation is not so cut and dry.

How many jokes must be included in a screenplay before the drama becomes a comedy? How many bombs must explode before the thriller becomes an action movie? If a rock band decides to start using banjos rather than electric guitars, are they still a rock band, or have they suddenly become a country or bluegrass band?

If musical genres were based on concrete and consistent musical characteristics, the marketers would have to create new genres in the record stores for every new, innovative artist that comes along. That’s not what happens. What happens is that the marketers simply categorize the artist’s album into the alternative section or the pop section or wherever they think it will have the best chance of selling. A genre is an imagined box that marketers have found to be effective as a marketing channel to a certain type of consumer.

What, for instance, does a typical country music fan look like in your imagination? What is he wearing? How does he speak? Ok, now think of a typical hip-hop fan. Same questions. How do you imagine him?

I doubt that you are imagining both the country fan and the hip-hop fan to be two identical middle-aged Asian businessmen in suits with no discernable differences between them or their lifestyles other than what is playing on their iPods.

Both country music and hip-hop music come out of a certain type of culture. Country music originated in southern parts of the United States in the 1920s. This was the same culture that had given birth to the concept of the cowboy. Country stars often wear cowboy clothing, which is clothing designed to help a person do the job of a cowboy, not sing music on a stage. A cowboy hat is intended to help keep a rancher protected from the weather. Cowboy boots were designed to help protect a cowboy while he rides his horse.

Most country artists aren’t riding horses to and from the stage. That’s not why country singers wear this clothing. Country music is perceived to come out of a certain lifestyle. That lifestyle has all of its own boundary markers that separate it from other cultures and lifestyles. Country artists wear cowboy hats as social boundary markers for their particular subculture.

The same is true for hip-hop. Hip-hop came out of the lifestyle of poor or working class people living in crowded urban centers. Hip-hop and rap often address issues that are familiar to their urban source—economic pressures, crime, drugs, gangs, violence, and so on. What is odd is that most successful rappers or hip-hop artists do not live in “the hood” anymore. They live in the rich areas. The style of sagging pants that many of these artists wear is believed to have originated in the prisons where belts were not allowed for the fear that the inmates might hang themselves with them. These artists are not in prison, and most of them probably never have been, but crime and a perceived oppression from authority figures is part of the subculture that gives birth to the art, so they’ve come to sag their pants.

So all of this is my first problem with answering the stranger’s question—he’s asking for a genre, and I don’t want to jump into any of his boxes.

The second reason I am not comfortable telling the stranger that I make “Christian music” is because I believe that this sort of categorization is precisely the kind of destructive separation of the sacred and the secular that is the result of fundamentalism, idolatry, and remnants of Gnosticism. That sort of division between sacred and profane makes for a small and anemic faith that is only relevant to the tiny corners of existence that we allow it to inhabit.

In Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell writes, “’Christian is a great noun and a poor adjective.” I agree with him. When the word “Christian” is used as an adjective, the assumption is that the essence of Christianity is something that can be transferred to a lifeless object. If Christianity is simply a set of lifeless dogmas and ideas, then one can certainly copy and paste those ideas onto any other lifeless object and describe it as Christian. As far as I am aware, there is no Christian automobile industry, no Christian mathematics industry, and no Christian airline industry. Most people would probably find it odd if someone tried to start such an industry. Would painting a big red Jesus on the hood of a car make it a Christian car? Would a pizza with dove-shaped pepperonis or cross-shaped sausages be a Christian pizza?

A third reason I’m uncomfortable telling the stranger on the plane that I play Christian music is because it begs the question: What exactly is Christian music?

Is it a musical style? No. Saying that I play “Christian music” says nothing about the actual music. It could mean that I direct a large church choir, sing tenor in a southern gospel quartet, or play electric guitar in a Christian hardcore metal band.

Is it music made by Christians? No. There are plenty of Christians who aren’t categorized in the Christian genre. There are also people in the Christian music industry who are not Christians. Our road manager, Heath, recently had a conversation with an artist who is pretty well known in many parts of the world for writing Christian music. Heath was asking her about her life, and asked where she we went to church. She laughed and told him that she wasn’t into all of that stuff. She told him that she is not actually a Christian. She just knows how to write the stuff that Christians like to hear.

Most people probably assume that Christian music is categorized as such because of the content of the lyrics. This would be odd, because no other music is categorized by the content of its lyrics. There is no Buddhist or Atheist section of a record store. There is not a “gay” section or a “money” section. The only exception is Christian music, but if Christian music is categorized by the lyrical content, what does it mean for a lyric to be Christian? Singing about Jesus? But there are plenty of mainstream acts that sing about Jesus, and plenty of “Christian” songs that don’t mention Jesus at all.

David Crowder Band* was a band that was marketed as Christian, but they sometimes covered songs from different mainstream artists like Sufjan Stevens, Hank Williams or Sinead O’Connor. They didn’t change the words of the songs to make them “more Christian” or anything. They didn’t put a sermon or a prayer in front of those songs. They just sang the songs. Which leads to odd developments—the Sufjan Stevens’ song “O God, Where Are You Now?” was labeled as Alternative when Sufjan recorded it, but when David Crowder Band* recorded it, the same song became “Christian.” What’s even weirder is that Sufjan Stevens is a Christian.

If the determining factor of what falls into the Christian genre has nothing to do with the music, is not based on the content of the lyrics, and is not based on the personal beliefs of the artist, what could it possibly be? Is it simply that the music is released by labels that call themselves Christian?

Three major labels represent over eighty percent of the market’s music: Universal, Sony, and Warner. These labels own most of the other significant labels in the world, including the Christian ones. Pretty much everybody in the music industry ultimately works for the same people. Whether you buy a Michael W. Smith album or a Marilyn Manson album, you are still paying the same small group of executives at the top of the food chain. So does being in Christian music simply mean that you are signed to one of the “Christian” marketing arms of the big three labels?

No, because there are also artists like myself who are not signed to a Christian label, but are labeled as Christian artists. Our band was signed to little indie mainstream label in Atlanta called Brash Music. Brash is not a Christian label. To my knowledge, they don’t even have any Christians on staff. Yet, somehow our music is still always relegated to the Christian music industry.

So what is Christian music? I think I can finally answer the question. It’s music made for Becky.

Becky

Like all genres, Christian music is simply a category that marketers use to reach a certain type of consumer. It is a marketing channel used to reach a very specific subculture.

This is further attested to by the common separation of “Christian” and “Gospel.” While “Gospel” actually is a bit more consistent in its musical styles and sounds as a genre than “Christian” is, there is another primary difference between the two terms. For the most part, Christian music is made by white people and Gospel music is made by black people. You don’t normally hear black people on “Christian” radio, and you don’t normally hear white people on “Gospel” radio. These categories have more to do with subcultures than Christianity or the Gospel.

The subculture that buys Christian music couldn’t accurately be called the Christian subculture. A Christian music executive at one of the big labels recently told me that the entire demographic that buys Christian music is only about two million people. Two billion people in the world consider themselves Christians. So only about 0.1% of people who consider themselves Christians buy Christian music.

0.1%

Christian music is not marketed to Christians so much as it is marketed to a very narrow subculture of a certain type of Christian. For years, Christian music marketers and radio programmers have known who their target demographic is. They actually have personified this target demographic, and her name is “Becky.”

If you think I’m joking, ask any Christian radio programmer about her. A lot of stations have very specific information based on reams of market research. One station programmer told me that Becky is a forty-two-year-old soccer mom. She has three kids and she has been married twice. She is an evangelical Christian, but not a radical who watches Christian television or goes to church three times a week. She only attends church once or twice a month. They know what her favorite restaurant is. In fact, they know what restaurant she likes to eat at with her husband on a date and which restaurant she likes to take the kids to. They know the movies she watches and how she spends her money. She is the one who runs her household, the one with her finger on the radio knob, and she wants something positive to play in the minivan as she drives her kids to soccer practice.

Becky is the quintessential Christian radio listener.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone who listens to Christian radio fits this description. It simply is the bull’s-eye of their demographic. If they aim at Becky, they get the most other people along with her. When Christian radio stations target Becky, they experience a vast increase in their numbers. They get specific in their targets for a reason. For years, they didn’t target Becky, and they couldn’t understand why they couldn’t compete with the bigger mainstream stations. Now they can. This is how the entertainment industry works no matter what sort of categories they use. They target the demographic that will allow them to get the biggest numbers.

I once had a writing session with an artist who couldn’t stop talking about Becky. He told me from the beginning that he really needed a song that would resonate with Becky. I asked if maybe we could just write something that felt honest and true to us. He said okay, but he really needed Becky to be okay with it as well.

Every idea I brought up was immediately brought through the Becky filter.

What about this?

Well, that’s cool, but I’m not sure how Becky would feel about that.

Okay, what about this?

Listen, I personally like it. It’s edgy and provocative and musical, but I really don’t know what Becky would think about that.

I asked him what Becky would think if I shoved my guitar up his…well, not really—I’m not that clever when things get tense. Instead, I just start seething and retreating into my inner world. So that’s what I did, and we eventually just gave up and left.

I don’t actually have a problem with radio programmers talking about Becky. The stations know who their listeners are and program accordingly. It’s smart.

I do have a problem with artists talking about Becky.

When the artist starts talking like the marketers, you know he has stopped listening to the Voice. The Voice doesn’t speak in marketing terms, but in terms like truth, beauty, and passion.

The artist ought to listen to the voice inside, not Becky.

When the creator listens to the external voices, those voices will eventually lead her to sell out. They will lead her to put her art in the cookie cutter and cut away all of the dough that falls outside of the edges. But the edges are what make her who she is. The edges are good.

This is why there is so much soulless music in our society. Our artists are listening to the wrong voices. This seems to be especially true in the Christian music industry, which is another reason I feel uncomfortable telling the stranger on the plane that I play Christian music.

Zombie Music

Art that is laden with heavy messages can feel like soulless propaganda.

Think of corporate jingles. Would you ever walk down the aisle at your wedding to a full-length version of a McDonald’s corporate jingle? If you were to make a playlist for the birth of your first child, how many of the songs would you want to be advertising jingles? Not many? Why not? Jingles are catchy. But most people would never include them in such special occasions, because corporate jingles have no soul.

Folgers Coffee had a competition recently with a big cash prize for anyone who could write a new jingle for them. The song that ended up being chosen is actually pretty cool. It has all the elements of the laid-back indie singer-songwriter drinking a cup of coffee. Pretty melody, nice sultry vocals, warm acoustic instruments. But there’s no soul to it. Because it’s a freaking Folgers jingle. Who is going to put that on their iPod and just groove to it all day?

A song like that is what I call a musical zombie.

A zombie looks like a human. It eats like a human. It walks and makes noise and resembles a human. But it’s a zombie. It has no soul.

Christian music is filled with zombies. The message of the music is predetermined, so we just need a form of music that can carry the message to a broad group of people.

“Well, let’s see, hardcore music is pretty popular with the kids right now. Let’s insert some Jesus language in that!”

Good music has soul, and the soul matters more than the form. You can’t subtract the anger and angst from most hardcore music and still retain the essence of the music. Musical expression is not limited to just the notes and rhythms of a piece. Music is human. And if you take out the human bits and leave just the technical bits to be reproduced as carriers of whatever message you want it to carry, you no longer have a living thing. You have an un-dead thing. You have a musical zombie.

That’s why a lot of Christian music feels contrived and lifeless. It’s like a Folgers jingle because it has separated the message and the medium into two different things. This is also why much of the Christian industry is behind everybody else by five or ten years. Much of the Christian industry is like a beggar walking behind the rest of culture, picking up the crumbs of her marketing slogans and creativity to be used for our own purposes.

That seemed to work well! Let’s try it with our message! 

This can make things difficult for artists who enjoy making music about God, but would prefer not to be associated with art that has been bastardized into propaganda for the religious right.

When people hear my thoughts about these things, they sometimes ask, “Well then, why are you part of the Christian music industry?”

My answer to that question is, “What do you mean?”

It’s not like you sign up for a Christian music industry membership. I was signed to a mainstream label.

Most musical acts who are Christian have to intentionally distance themselves from the Church in order to have any success within the mainstream. As a result, there are loads of Christians in the music industry who wouldn’t dream of performing in a church because of what it would do to their reputation.

This makes it difficult for a lot of bands that work (or would like to work) in the mainstream music industry but don’t want to turn their backs on their roots. Many of us love the Church and even enjoy playing in churches sometimes. But this sometimes limits our ability to work with the people who inspire us or to find opportunity beyond the Christian music ghetto.

For our last album, “Ghosts Upon the Earth,” I wanted to try to find a producer to work with that I could respect and trust musically. I started dreaming about my ideal producer, and I found some contact info for a guy who has produced a lot of music that I really like. I sent a demo to him with a proposal and a budget, and he responded and told me that he loved it. He said that he had been listening to all sorts of stuff recently and just couldn’t find the inspiration to do any of it, but that when he heard my stuff, it just clicked for him. He said that he played it for his friends and they all felt the same. He said he was excited to do it.

The song I sent him was “When Death Dies,” which is lyrically ambiguous enough that the listener may not assume that it’s necessarily “Christian.” But as the conversation progressed, I felt that I needed to confess to him that I am often associated with the Christian industry, because I know that this can be a taboo subject in the music industry at large. So I told him that this had been the genre that our music had been classified in before, but that I really wanted to make a record that would speak to an audience outside of the one we had already reached. I explained that I wasn’t interested in trying to get him to operate within any of those confines. I just wanted to make some good art. I put this in a quick email that I thought would serve as a courtesy to avoid any awkwardness in the future.

Suddenly, he was not interested in working with me. Maybe it was coincidence; maybe it wasn’t; but that was not the only time that kind of thing has happened.

On multiple occasions, I’ve had musicians turn down work because they weren’t comfortable with the Christian music thing. For instance, we recently contacted an artist whose music I really enjoy. We asked her if she would be open to touring with us. At first, when she heard what we are offering with crowd size, number of dates, and so on, she was very interested. Then she saw the venue list, which included some churches. “Wait . . . so is this a Christian tour?” Her interest was gone.

Imagine if this was the gay music industry, and people were being turned down for work with simply because they were gay. People would be outraged. There would be protests and lawsuits and public outcry. But it’s okay not to work with someone because he is associated with the Christian music industry.

If this is the price we have to pay to make music that is meaningful to us, that’s fine. Honestly, it’s really not that heavy of a price. People have been sawn in half for staying true to their beliefs; I can deal with a few unanswered emails.

Liturgical Music

All of that said, I do think that some Christian music has an element to it that sets it apart from other kinds of music. I do write within a tradition of music that exists for something more than entertainment or even artistic expression. In this stream, we write music that is intended to make God happen within a community of faith. It is music that is often (though not always) intended to be sung by others. It is prayer. It is a sort of sacrament that allows a community of people to brush up against the future God in present space and time. It is music that intends to become worship. This is a specific artistic function, and for that reason, I wouldn’t have a problem with this kind of music being separated into its own category or genre.

Some have called this music “Praise” or “Worship” music. For reasons similar to my disdain for the term “Christian music”, I have a problem with this language as well. It imprisons the idea of worship into a very small box. For the Christ follower, worship ought not to be limited to a genre or the singing portion of church services. Worship is a way of life. It is an offering of a person’s self in whatever capacity and condition he finds himself in. For Brother Lawrence, washing dishes was his primary method of worship. All good work can become worship. Relationship can become worship. Singing can become worship. But none of these things ought to be named worship in and of themselves for the same reason that marriage shouldn’t be named “love.” Love can happen in a marriage, but love and marriage are not always the same thing.

For this reason, I prefer terms like “Liturgical Music” or “Church Music.” Liturgical music is categorically different than other types of Christian music that are intended to be “alternatives” to mainstream music. If this were a marketing category, there could be different subcategories of actual musical genres like “Liturgical Rock”, “Liturgical Pop”, “Liturgical Classical”…etc. (Even though I don’t like the idea of genres, I realize they may be a necessary evil in the marketplace).

In my perspective, liturgy is a very broad idea. It is not limited to robes, stained glass and incense. Liturgy is simply public worship. Every church is engaged in some type of liturgy. Some use readings and Eucharist; others use fog machines and strobe lights. The liturgical space is a broad and open space for experimentation. In my opinion, there are plenty of mainstream artists that write music that would be appropriate for certain kinds of liturgical space. This space is largely unexplored right now, and there is so much room for creative experimentation.

For instance, there is a need (and plenty of room) in this space for lament. For prophetic railing against the powers that be. There is room for songs, poetry, and artwork that explores doubt, hope, joy, struggle and storytelling. The idea of liturgy is a broad idea, and if it had a category of its own, perhaps it could invite a surge of creativity into that space. I think that would be good for the Church right now.

In my opinion, the non-liturgical music that is currently labeled as Christian should be placed in the genres that are more appropriate to the actual musical style. Rock, Pop, Country…etc. Just because a song sings “Jesus” rather than “baby” doesn’t make it categorically different than its musical equivalent. Of course, there are a lot of Beckys out there that do want a positive or religiously infused alternative to the typical bawdy lyrical content of most popular music. She wants music that she can play for her family without worrying about offensive lyrical content. Also, there are a lot of these Christian bands that would not survive the transition to mainstream. Becky is their audience, and she doesn’t necessarily want to (or know how to) navigate within the huge rivers of mainstream music to find music that she feels is safe for her kids to listen to. So perhaps another category of “Positive Alternative,” “Family,” or “Religious” music could be started. Whatever the language, it should not be included in the same category with liturgical music, and it should not be called “Christian”. It is a categorically different thing. (And since when was Christianity a safe, positive alternative for the family anyway?)

Of course, iTunes, Amazon, and the three major labels haven’t been calling me to ask my opinion on all of this. Most likely, we liturgical writers will just have to grit our teeth and deal with the inappropriate and potentially harmful label of “Christian music.” But perhaps if a few more of us started making an effort to secede from the Christian music ghetto in little ways and find ways of cooperating on liturgical experimentation, something could eventually change.

So what do I tell the stranger on the plane? Well, it kind of depends on my mood. I might tell him “Liturgical Post-Rock” and smile at his confused facial expression, or I might just say, “Well, it’s kind of hard to explain.”

All of my idealistic problems with the language and categories aside, I actually do enjoy being part of the Christian music industry in a lot of ways. There are amazing people in my industry who take their art seriously and have inspired me greatly. People who believe that ordering creation is a sacred task and have acted accordingly. People I’m honored to work with.

Also, I really do love Christians. As weird as we can get, there is something really beautiful about the Church. And I am grateful for the time I’ve been able to spend singing and making music with people who love Jesus.

The reason I am so passionate about the subtleties of this idea of Christian music is that I think the idea of creating music for liturgical space and spiritual connection is so full of potential. At our best, we are able to see glimpses of what it could be, but I believe that we could be and do so much more. Like all human cultures, we have a lot of weeds to pull. A lot of underlying roots that need to be cultivated and soil that needs tending. In my opinion, that’s work worth doing.

A Worshiping Evolutionist?

I was leading a question and answer session a couple of days ago, and a young man who looked to be 12 or 13 asked me if I believed in a literal six-day creation. I suddenly felt very awkward.

Now, to be fair, I have no idea what this kid actually believed himself. But I assumed from the question that he believed in a literal six-day creation, and from how random the question was within the context of what I had been talking about, I also assumed that it really mattered to him that I believed in that version of the creation story as well.

I probably assumed this because that’s what I was like when I was younger.

In high school, I used get on Internet chat rooms and debate the evolutionists. I had all the arguments about how carbon dating methods weren’t reliable, and blah blah blah.

Basically, my relationship with science was adversarial. I was afraid of it. It threatened my faith. I assumed MY reading of Genesis was THE message of Genesis, and if Genesis was wrong, then the Bible couldn’t be trusted. How could I know that Jesus was even real then?  This is why Creationism is so important to so many people. It has very little to do with scientific concern, and everything to do wanting to keep one’s faith system in tact.

The red-faced creationist is not arguing about science. In his mind, he is arguing for the God that he loves. He feels like any view outside of the one that he believes is an attack on his faith. The faith that gives him purpose. The faith that he finds hope and life within.

So in my Christian school growing up, we’d all snort and chuckle when a scientist in a documentary would mention evolution or talk about how this sort of animal existed millions of years ago.  We needed to hear each other laugh, so we knew our whole life wasn’t a lie.

But now that I am a songwriter, I see this whole thing as absolutely absurd.

Genesis is a poem if I’ve ever seen one.

It’s full of refrain, metaphor, and rhythm.

And God said that it was good.

Over and over like the hook of a pop song, like a wave sculpting its shores…this is good, this is good.  The poetic refrain of Genesis hammers the wonder and beauty of a creator making a good creation into our hearts.

In a science book, you’d have to discredit a text like this for glaring logical errors like the creation of light before stars, or days before an earth and a sun.  In a poem, you don’t have to worry about such things.  You simply can enjoy it’s beauty and hear the voice of God as it speaks over and over.

Let there be...

It is good...

Let there be...

It is good...

As a songwriter, I see the "days" of creation not as any sort of scientific statement, but as stanzas...verses...poetic structure.

So many people have totally butchered the poetry of Genesis by treating it like a science book. It’s sad, really. It would be like a sect of really hardcore Shakespeare fans arguing that Romeo believed that Juliet really was literally the sun.

“No, look, it says it right here!  ‘It is the east and Juliet is the sun!’ See!?” 

And then someone leans over and whispers in his ear, “Hey man, you’re kind of embarrassing yourself…There’s this thing called metaphor. It’s something writers love to use. Juliet is not actually a giant ball of fire that warms the earth.”

If this is the case, and Genesis is not a scientific text but a poetic one, then how about taking Genesis off the table when talking about science?

It would be like if a bunch of scientists were sitting around discussing the properties of earth’s sun, and one of them piped up “Well, you know, Shakespeare wrote that Juliet was the sun…Maybe that big ball in the sky is actually the rich daughter of the Capulet household. Have any of you considered that?”

What would you do with such a person?

Smile uncomfortably and ask as politely as possible for the ill-informed man to leave the room, perhaps?

That’s what our culture is doing with creationists that try to bring Genesis into the scientific discussion. (Perhaps understandably so)

Maybe we shouldn't bring our religious poetry to the science lab. It doesn’t belong there. Doing so is disrespectful both to the text and to the lab.

Science doesn’t have to be scary. In fact, I’ve found that when I finally let Genesis be what is (a beautifully meaningful poem) and science what it is (science), it can all actually be tremendously awe-inspiring.  Science can actually become another testament of God--another space where the voice of God can be heard.

Why do you care whether you are made from literal dust or some guy’s rib or from chimp descendants? What does it matter? Is one really better than the other? What does that have to do with whether or not Jesus rose from the dead? What does that have to do with whether or not we ought to love God or our neighbor?

Nothing.

I’m not saying that every scientific theory that comes along ought to be believed blindly. Historically, human beings are generally wrong about a lot, and awfully confident in their wrongness.  In reality, none of us were there at the beginning of all things. We're all guessing based on the limited amount of evidence that we have. All I’m saying is that there is no reason to be afraid. Let the scientists do their work, and then look for God within that work. Why try to impose your religious views before the science is even done? That just leads to both bad religion and bad science.

Still, I feel bad for the kid in the question and answer session. Here he is (in my imagination anyway), hoping that this musician guy that he evidently respects enough to attend this session believes in a literal six-day creation theory, and instead finds out he seems to be some sort of crazy evolutionist or something. So I feel bad for that, but I also have hope for him and the rest of us that have struggled to reconcile faith and science. I hope that we will learn to grow into people with faith that isn't threatened by science, but enriched by it--a faith that is more living and active than the commonly held dead set of fundamentalist doctrines built on fear that has to stand in opposition to science like a brick wall that tries to withstand a nuclear blast. (By the way, it's no wonder so many college students leave their faith these days.)  I have hope that we will learn to find God in both the Scriptures and the testament of science, and that in letting go of our religious fear, our hearts and minds will be enriched and enlarged.

So, as to the question, I guess I'll have to come out of the closet and admit...no, sorry kid, I don’t believe in a literal six-day creation.