Christian Rock and disillusionment

Every once in a while, the Internet casts up on its shores some poor soul who used to be an evangelical but now has rejected Christianity altogether or who has become a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. Or even heretic. And often, CCM is part of the story. At some point, this person woke up and realised that life wasn’t all happy and cheery, that it was complicated, and that the opponents of belief, whether atheists and agnostics or Christians opposed one’s own particular belief, aren’t idiots, but are actually quite articulate. And many of them are really nice.

But Christian rock seems to tell us a different story at times.

At least, it feels that way.

That the story told in a lot of CCM is one of unending triumph. Of mountaintop to mountaintop. And some people seem to think this is about as deep as Christianity goes. That Christianity is a religion about moralism, about resisting temptation, or simply about saying ‘the sinner’s prayer’, and that Christianity is about telling other people what to do and confronting them about it.

Life, of course, is messier than this. And, while I think a lot of CCM is written to actually help people through hard times, a lot of people find songs like the popular worship song, ‘I’m trading my sorrows,’ to be unhelpful and even harmful, neglecting the rock-bottom truth that we are all fundamentally broken.

I, personally, didn’t become disillusioned with Christianity when I started to become disillusioned with Christian rock. My personal disillusionment was a twofold cynicism, no doubt with a certain amount of personal pride. As an undergrad, I was actually exposed to a lot more contemporary mainstream music than as a teenager. And a lot of Christan music didn’t add up. On top of that, I felt what I’ve expressed above — that very little was engaging me at a deeper level.

I want either to be entertained — so VeggieTales’ ‘The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything’ poses no problems for me — or challenged/engaged a deep level. There is a lot in the evangelical subculture that leaves me unsatisfied on both counts, from Left Behind novels to most Christian films.

This disillusionment really began when I bought a Third Day album and didn’t like it. At all. I don’t know why it took so long for the disillusionment to set in — I’d bought a few disappointing albums as a teenager. But no, it was this particular encounter with Third Day.

Instead of questioning my own faith or Christianity, rather than rejecting the Christian religion as an easy-answer faith for people who don’t really know what they’re doing, two things happened. One, I started to become a bit proud. I — I told myself — was more sophisticated than a lot of other Christians. I didn’t enjoy Left Behind (although I read the first). I read Godric by Frederick Buechner. I read Aeschylus and Homer. I read St John of the Cross. I didn’t listen to Five Iron Frenzy (I don’t even know if they’re any good, that’s how little I listened to them). I listened to opera and symphonies. I prayed the Prayer Book. Well done me. I was a deep Christian. Sophisticated.

On the flip side, because of this alleged ‘sophistication’ (I think John Cassian calls it ‘vainglory’), when I became disillusioned with the Christian culture I met around me, it was not Christ with whom I became disillusioned. It was not Christianity I found wanting. Christ and the faith founded in His Name are more than rock’n’roll, more than cheap novels, more than poorly-acted films, more than shallow platitudes. I already knew that.

And I knew where to look. I had my Prayer Book. I had heard of devotional masters like St John of the Cross. I really got into St Francis at this time as well. My faith was multifaceted, by the grace of God. Disillusionment with one expression of Christianity did not mean either a rejection of the faith on the one hand or a need to move beyond orthodoxy on the other. With companions like C S Lewis, G K Chesterton, Martin Luther, John Calvin, St John of the Cross, St Francis of Assisi — as well as a few living folks like my immediately family and friends, and John Michael Talbot — I was prepared to stay with Christ.

Perhaps this is what makes my siblings and me different?

People often ask how it is that the four of us are all active, professing Christians who attend church regularly and even identify as Anglican, dwelling within the bounds of 39-Articles orthodoxy, to boot. Perhaps it’s because our exposure to the Great Tradition kept us safe. Our household was, indeed, steeped in Christian music when we were youths — but we did have a share of classic rock and classical music. But we were given opportunities to lead in worship, ministry, mission. We were given Prayer Books. We were exposed to church history in all its glorious and gorey variety. Our household was equally friendly to Baptists and to Catholics.

By the time any of us was old enough to become disillusioned with Christian pop culture, we had already lived through a certain amount of pain, anyway. And we had met Christians of a wide variety of traditions. We had sung traditional music in choirs. We had prayed Compline in the dark hours of the night. We had raised our hands to Graham Kendrick songs (or not — we’d certainly sung them). We had had long conversations with our parents about life, about orthodoxy, about Anglicanism, about the central truths of the faith. Learning that people thought our music was bad would have little effect on a faith filled with such variety and open to the Great Tradition.

Perhaps that’s the problem with filling our youth with fluff to keep them coming back to youth group and church?

When their faith is tested, where can they turn for something heavy enough to ground them?

What Good Has ‘Religion’ Ever Done?

In an age where Westboro Baptist stages its “God Hates the World” and “God Hates Fags” demonstrations, where terrorists crash airplanes into buildings (or blow them up), where Pastor Terry Jones threatens to burn the Qu’ran, where people sometimes destroy property and human life in their anti-abortion stance, where Christians who have converted from Islam are systematically tortured or executed in some countries, where former President G W Bush used biblical rhetoric to underlie engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Hindus in India attack Christian minority groups, where Christians and Muslims in Nigeria often turn to violence against one another — in such a world, many people have a hard time seeing what good “religion” and, frequently, Christianity in particular, has to offer.

Historically, it is easy to see the good that religion has done (thus giving the lie to Hitchens’ subtitle, “How Religion Poisons Everything”).  We need look no further than the hospitals of the city of Toronto, one, St. Michael’s, founded by Roman Catholics and another, Mount Sinai, by Jews.  Historically, religious people have been on the front lines of providing healthcare.  Livingstone brought both the Bible and medicine to Africa.  The first hospitals of the Byzantine and mediaeval worlds were church organisations.

Historically, the arts show us to what heights religion can take man, even if today’s “Christian Art”, be it music, novels, or trashy Jesus paintings, makes me shudder.  We have the glories of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, of Bach’s St. John Passion, of Handel’s Messiah, of Haydn’s Creation (my post on that last one here).

I have posted previously about Christian fiction — there is great narrative art from the pens of Christians, from the Anglo-Saxons to Dante to Spenser, Milton, and Bunyan to Chesterton, Waugh, Lewis, Tolkien, Buechner.  The Christian faith has produced some consummate storytellers.

Any cathedral with its stained glass intact can tell you that in no way is religion an entirely bad force.  Behold the Sistine Chapel!  Gape at the illuminated Winchester Bible!  Stand in awe before Michelangelo’s Pieta!  (Sorry I used Buonarroti twice.)  Any history of art that covers the Middle Ages and Renaissance will give a good hearty drink of what good religion can produce.

Winchester Cathedral

If you watch the video Palestrina’s link takes you to, you will see some of the architecture of the Church.  Christianity has produced some amazing architecture over the centuries.  So have Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.  When a person is striving for the highest good, when striving for something greater than one’s own petty self, beauty can be achieved.

But what good does religion do today?  A lot of people think that it has outlived its usefulness, that it has become nothing more than a source of strife and division, that our society has evolved beyond needing religion.

Well, in purely “practical” terms (ie. beyond what I see as the spiritual benefits), religion has built at least one hospital in Angola and a nursing school with it and another nursing school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  These are recent foundations.  Religion has brought many a person off the street, out of addiction, and into the workforce through organisations like the Salvation Army, Shelter House, Bethany Christian Trust.

In Toronto, I spent a good number of Saturdays at Toronto Alliance Church, the “Upper Room”.  This church is in the upper level of a storefront on Queen St. near Bathurst.  If you know Toronto, you have visions of that area with the intersecting streetcar lines, the street-health clinic, the street people, the community housing, the nifty shops, the closed down shops, the Starbucks on one corner, a mission to street people on another, Pizza Pizza the third, and a bar (now closed) on the fourth.

Every Saturday night at Toronto Alliance is “Community Night.”  There is a meal — soup & sandwich or something more filling, always warm — a clothing room full of donations people have brought, a nurse who can look after people’s feet (this is a real problem for a lot of people who live on the street), and a food bank.

Part-way through the night, the eclectic group of people who has gathered for food and friendship has a church service gathered around the tables.  There are always some of those old “revival” hymns, like “Just As I Am,” and frequently a lot of the people present know and love these hymns.  Then there is a message from someone on the church’s ministry staff; when I went, usually Bill or Doug.  The message was simple and always focussed on Jesus and the hope he brings and the change he can make.

These church services are sometimes raucous affairs.  I’ve never seen banter during an Anglican sermon, but there would be banter here.  People would often still mill about, but not many.  Some people looked uninterested, but others took a keen interest in the hymns, prayers, and sermon.

Bill, the pastor of Toronto Alliance, knows a lot of the people who come out to Community Night.  He’ll chat with them, see how they’re doing, show real concern for them and their welfare.  We often think that helping out that vague, amorphous group “the unfortunate” is a matter simply of food, shelter, clothing.  It is also very much a matter of love, as I witnessed in Cyprus, of love for the lonely, friendship for the friendless, and light for the lost.

Saturday nights at Toronto Alliance Church provide for the whole person.  That alone tells me that religion is of much good in this world, in spite of Westboro Baptist and Islamist terrorism.