Tag Archive: Christianity


Crash, Ride, Hi-Hat

Roberto is the drummer on the Worship Team at our church. Nowadays, that might not seem like a big thing; churches not only have drummers, but 3 loud guitars, smoke machines, complicated lightning schemes and the most cutting edge worship music available. Some worship bands look more like they’re performing a rock concert than leading people in actual worship. They have “Worship” in their name for a reason, and a lot of worship bands would do well to remember that more often.

But at our church, the fact that we have a regular drummer every week, and he’s an integral and fully accepted part of our Worship Team, is a big step forward for us. One of the biggest problems we’ve ever had at our church is the long-standing resistance to change in the music from the older members of the congregation. Folks who had been at this church 30 years were threatening to leave; first it was because we used choruses (some of which were written in the ‘70s) in addition to hymns. Then it was because we used some choruses that weren’t lifted directly from scripture. Then it was because we started incorporating a drum kit into our worship. Then it was the electric guitar. And worst of all, a few people thought our church shouldn’t do these things because they were somehow un-Christian or satanic.

hmm, maybe it really is satanic... ;-)

hmm, maybe it really is satanic… 😉

Roberto is the one and only drummer our Worship Team has. No backups. When he’s not there, we just don’t have any drums, and the music suffers. In one of his most candid and naked moments, he told me about how hard it is to be such a visible figure of what some members of our congregation (even still) didn’t want. When he got down to specifics, he said what people had the biggest problem with was cymbal crashes. He uses them sparingly, but occasionally in practice he’ll cut loose with some crazy cymbal-snare-tom freak-out, like a little storm that lasts 5 seconds, reminding me distinctly of Neil Peart.

It’s mystifying to me. Cymbals? Really? Why, out of all the features of drumming, do you pick out cymbals to be the top church-disturbing thing?

If I step outside myself for a moment, I can actually see the elder church members’ point, and it’s because my mom has a form of the same point. (You’re not an elder, mom – didn’t mean to imply that) My mom was an MK – Missionary Kid, that is – in Guatemala, so she grew up in a church that was largely cut off from the American Christian experience. In a way, that makes it purer, but it also makes it slower to change. To her, church music is all about hymns. She loves hymns, and I’ve learned to love hymns because I love her. And since her love of hymns reaches so deep, to the very depths of her childhood, it makes her profoundly sad to see our modern church society where hymns are all but forgotten, even disrespected. So it makes sense for her to have some angst directed at what has replaced them. I get it.

But God would not have us be stagnant and unmoving. God is all about our growth and forward motion, both in our individual lives and as a Church (that’s with a capital C). And this has been a hard lesson for me to learn, but for those in the grip of grace, for those who trust in the Lord, there isn’t anything to fear from change. Change is good.

So what about cymbals? Were it merely on a practical level, without all this “IT’S SATANIC!!!” garbage, I think I could at least understand it. Cymbals are, by their very nature, crashing. That’s why one type of them is called a crash. Crashes are typically played on the first beat of a four-measure or eight-measure figure, like at the beginning of a verse or a chorus. And their primary function is to add punctuation to the beat, piercing your consciousness in the process. And let’s face it – old people don’t like having their consciousnesses pierced (or their eardrums). Maybe the reason certain elders of our church’s congregation have objected to cymbals (and drums in general) in the past isn’t “it’s unholy” or “we must avoid the appearance of evil,” but that they simply don’t like them. That, at least, makes sense to me.

Melt by Peter Gabriel is a landmark album for him in many ways, but the most radical is this: it doesn’t contain any cymbals. Not a single crash, ride or hi-hat, not a single hit of the brass anywhere on the album. This was intentional – Gabriel, though he’s a multi-instrumentalist, doesn’t play the drums, so he instructed Phil Collins (who guested on a few tracks) and regular drummer Jerry Marotta that this was his concept for the album. This made the music more primitive, more elemental, and recalled images of jungle tribesmen in Africa with painted bodies and feathers on their clothes. And even though Melt deals with real world issues like no other previous Gabriel album, the inflection of the whole thing is one of elemental human reaction, of listening to your gut above all other things.

Maybe I should sit those elder members of our congregation down and make them listen to Melt. After all, they wanted no cymbals! I kid…

Next: September ’77, Port Elizabeth, weather fine…

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ATF

During my freshman year of high school, the leader of our youth group told us about something happening that year, called Acquire the Fire, ATF for short. It was a Christian youth conference put on by Teen Mania Ministries. President Ron Luce was touring the country with ATF trying to start a revolution in the hearts of teenagers everywhere, inspiring and equipping them to go out and take over the world for God. Teen Mania in general was focused on missions trips for teenagers, spreading the gospel to mostly third-world countries – ATF was focused on evangelism here in the US. It was coming to Worcestor in October of that year, and the Dwight Chapel youth group was going to go.

ATF was a trip, man. We walked into the Audi in Worcestor, MA at about 5:00 Friday night, and it was like a rock concert. All sorts of ministries were there in the lobby recruiting, like a trade show. We all took our seats among what must have been about 6,000 teenagers, youth leaders and chaperones. There had to of been over 100 youth groups there. Then the lights dimmed and the show started with a loud burst of intro music, epic and bombastic. Ron came out to thunderous applause wearing jeans, a button-up shirt and a microphone headset. He gave a welcome, and then led the whole crowd in a few energetic worship choruses. Then he got down to brass tacks and started taking us through a program. The book he was peddling that year, which he wrote, was called 10 Challenges of a World-Changer. He peddled a different one each year, all written by him. According to him, we could all change the world – every one of us. Among other things, we were told to “live holy lives,” which apparently means to break all of our CDs by secular artists and sign something that says we’re going to wait until we’re married to have sex.

Ron Luce

Ron Luce

Ron Luce is an incredibly charismatic figure. When he comes out on the stage, he commands a power and sway like a religious leader – because actually, he is one, small potatoes though he may be. But the power Ron had, if in less scrupulous hands, could have been incredibly destructive. I fear that to some, it was. After the spiritual high of ATF (I use “high” as a drug reference, because that’s what it was), I was talking on the phone to a Teen Mania Ministries rep because I had filled out something while there, a little postcard, saying I was interested in doing a Teen Mania discipleship. Things are different in the haze and smoke of a teen conference than in the cold light of day. I said a lot of things and made a lot of promises I might not have made under normal circumstances, and some of them were foolish – this was one of those.

This rep tried to convince me to go through with the discipleship, even to abandon my dreams of college and a writing career to devote myself to Teen Mania (“the service of God through Teen Mania,” he called it). Don’t mistake: this wasn’t a putting off of my college plans for a few years – what he was saying was not going to college – at all.

The Teen Mania strategy seemed to be to put on a conference that temporarily puts impressionable teens into a different state of mind, hook them then while they’re in that slightly weakened state, and then seal the deal later. It kinda made me sick.

Luckily, this guy that I was talking to was not anywhere near as charismatic as Ron Luce was at ATF. I ultimately decided on college, and I’m where I am today partly because of that decision. There wasn’t even any danger of me going with Teen Mania instead of college. It’s just that the huge and overwhelming experience of ATF put me in a different, confused and spinning-about state of mind.

All this is not to say Teen Mania doesn’t do good work through ATF. It changes the lives of many a teen, and sets them on a more positive path than the one they were going down. I just find the strategy of weakening people into agreeing with you to be a pretty rotten tactic. Teen Mania’s aim is probably not to nefariously snatch people into their cause when they’re teenagers because they’re more pliable… but that’s what happens.

When I watched the movie version of The Wall in college, I had a physical reaction to the scene when Pink holds the rally at the rock concert. The epic music, the lights, the fawning and cheering crowd, the thunderous applause when Pink makes his appearance… My God, it’s Acquire the Fire all over again!

Pink in full-on Hitler mode

Pink in full-on Hitler mode

The disc 2 appearance of “In the Flesh” details Pink’s fascist, racist, homophobic plan to rid the world of degenerates and weaklings, or “riff-raff” as he calls them. And he’s gonna use the crowd gathered at his rock concert to carry out this plan, like a totalitarian puppet master. And immediately after in “Run Like Hell” and “Waiting For the Worms,” the world is in the thick of Pink’s reign of terror. “Run Like Hell,” another high-highlight of The Wall, features a driving, relentless rhythm that literally makes you feel like you’re running for your life. The lyrics speak of not only totalitarian control, but of the squashing of very human impulses and the attitude of “put even a toe out of line and so help me God…” And “Waiting For the Worms” shows Pink at his Nazi-like worst.

Ron Luce and ATF’s message was obviously different from that of Pink and his fascist regime, most notably that ATF’s is one of spreading light and Pink’s is of crushing it. But whatever the message, they both start with a rock concert. A rock concert is not at all dissimilar to a huge worship rally – turn the sound off, and they look exactly the same. Same thing with a Nazi rally – just the decorations are a little different. At modern Christian worship rallies, you get a lot of people raising both arms. At Nazi rallies of times past, they were raising just one.

Food for thought.

Next: Worm, Your Honor.

Doomsday

I was living in New York the spring of 2011. I was riding the subway one day when I saw a poster inside a train saying the Rapture would happen on May 21st of that year. It was a warning to all the heathens and pagans to repent of their sinful ways and be saved from total annihilation. Looking into it a little more revealed that not only would the Rapture be on May 21st, but the entire universe would be utterly destroyed five months later.

My first thought: “Cool, now I don’t need to figure out my retirement fund.”

My second thought: “Wait, are they actually serious?”

Serious they were, and what defies logic even more than the actual prediction is that thousands of other people across the country took it seriously as well. It was well-publicized, as the NYC subway poster told. For a few months, some people appeared to have lost their minds.

Harold Camping with Bible in hand

This whole thing was started by Harold Camping, head of the Family Radio Christian network. He came to the date of May 21st, 2011 using no sources other than the Bible. He said, “I know it’s absolutely true, because the Bible is always absolutely true.” I guess he skipped over the part in Matthew where Jesus says, “No man knows the hour.”

People bought into it, and then some. There were reports of people just giving stuff away because they wouldn’t need it once the rapture came. And I’m not talking iPods or ab-rollers or commemorative beer mugs. One guy sold his house and gave away his life savings, all because some guy with zero authority on the subject said the world would end on one particular day. Camping didn’t even have a good track record – he’d been wrong about this very thing before, saying in ’92 that the Rapture would occur in September of 1994.

I remember seeing a news item on TV about some believers who had gathered in Times Square to await 6pm (the exact moment  Camping said Christians would be taken up to heaven). I can hear the question before you ask it. “But what about 6pm in New York being 3pm in LA?” Not to worry; the Rapture would go time zone by time zone! Christians were going to stagger into heaven by the hour; I guess there wasn’t room on the Heaven Bus for us all. Anyway, 6pm came and went, no Rapture, and Robert Fitzpatrick, the guy who organized the Times Square event, looked like the most colossal of morons.

Robert Fitzpatrick checks his watch at 6:01

Every eye went to Camping at that point, but he responded with a “My bad! The Rapture is REALLY gonna happen on October 21st, simultaneous with the end of all existence.” I don’t have to tell you how THAT worked out.

This seems like comic book stuff, the kind of thing you would read in a H.G. Wells novel. But one thing forces me away from laughing derisively about it and makes me very sad, and that’s the damage it does to Christians in the eyes of the world. When a guy like Harold Camping makes a ridiculous and laughable statement like this wearing the label “Christian” on his forehead while he’s doing it, it’s we Christians who pay for it. It’s like a few radical Muslims who crashed some planes and blew up some buildings ruining everything for every Muslim on the planet. Immediately after 9/11 and for a few years, there was so much anger in the American culture against Muslims and Islam in general, blind hate born out of ignorance.

The same thing happens all the time for Christians, only it’s not hate; it’s derision. “Those crazy Christians don’t know anything, and I can feel comfortable rejecting every last thing they profess because one guy said the world was gonna end this afternoon.” After May 21st passed without even so much as stubbed toe, there was a series of billboards that said things like “Fool me once…” and “Every day is judgment day. Use yours. Use reason.” Those are sentiments I agree with, but the billboards were put up by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization dedicated to making all religions and their adherents look like idiots.

My own feelings about the matter are complicated. First, I laugh mockingly that Family Radio could make such an insane and obviously wrong claim. Then, when people lump nuts like Camping in with all other Christians (including me), my defenses go up and I say “Hey! …I’m not like Harold Camping!” It’s tragic in this case, but the loudest voices are usually also the most extreme, most inflammatory, least educated and least logical.

But I like the reaction from some Christians. A church in Milpitas, CA held a service on Sunday, May 22nd to comfort Camping’s true believers. A deacon there said, “It’s easy to mock [these people]. You can go kick puppies, too; but why?” Even though people fooled by Camping were stupid and gullible, they’re still human beings who deserve our compassion. And they got enough kicking from the non-Christian world. More than 830,000 Facebook users registered for a country-wide “Post Rapture Looting” event. In a practical form of mocking, the Seattle Atheists formed a Rapture Relief Fund, “to help survivors of any Armageddon-sized disaster in the Puget Sound area.” When no such disaster occurred (what a surprise), they fund instead financed a camp for kids that teaches about critical thinking.

And, of course, we may go through this all again in the coming months, since December 2012 is approaching and the Mayan calendar end there, suggesting the Mayans thought the world would end there, too. If you want my opinion, they just ran out of room…

Next: The end of the world means the beginning of Ziggy Stardust.

God, religion and spirituality in all their piety seem very far away from where the Rolling Stones are, but are they really? The church and rock and roll are actually more married than one might think. After all, the church is a place for sinners, broken and fractured people with problems, hang-ups and unanswerable questions. The church is no place for folks who have got it all figured out, much as it may seem like a collection of sanctimonious, self-righteous prigs, or too holy for someone who’s screwed up as badly as you have. Just the opposite. Jesus came to perfect the imperfect, not save those who were already saved.

Rock and roll, in the same fashion, is a forum for people to share and commiserate with – and sometimes enjoy – their problems. It points out what’s wrong and says, “let’s fix this,” and also what’s right and says, “isn’t this great?”

Christianity has produced some great music over time. Indeed, it was some Catholic monks who first thought up the idea of writing music down and came up with a language to do so. In more modern times, black churches used their culture, heritage and personality to develop a form of worshiping God in song, and it was called gospel music. The most prominent feature of gospel is the sense of laying it all down and being completely sold out for God. It’s been regurgitated by thousands of white musicians, including the Rolling Stones on Exile. They too use their personality to present it in a true Stones fashion in a completely authentic way.

“Tumbling Dice” is a prototypical slice of gospel-tinged blues-rock, and using gambling and dice games to illustrate the desire for freedom from commitments, particularly troubles concerning women.  It features a background chorus of female singers who inject the song with heart and soul, and a lilting guitar part that sways smoothly with incredible flow. It doesn’t rock as hard as some other songs on Exile, but it stands up better for that sense of head-nodding, foot-tapping joy that gospel owns for all its own.

“Loving Cup” is another gospel-tinged song, this time utilizing the spirituality and inherent holiness of the piano. Long-time Stones session pianist Nicky Hopkins shows brilliance here, giving the Stones that extra push they needed to rocket off into musical ecstasy. “Loving Cup” is a desperate love song, beautiful and extremely poetic in its discourse about how much the narrator loves and depends on his subject. It reminds me of “Thank You” by Led Zeppelin in its honesty and grace, but has the added element of the music supporting the lyrical theme in a greater way. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Stones love song without a sexual reference or two. “I’d love to spill the beans with you ‘til dawn.” I see what ya did there…

On the second side, things slow down a bit after the frenetic pace of “Happy” and “Turd On the Run” and the danger of “Ventilator Blues.” That lowering pace comes first in the form of “I Just Want to See His Face.” The feel of this song is completely one of a gospel jam, people sitting around with instruments and not knowing where this will go or when it will end. Sometimes that produces the most soulful and spiritual music. “Face,” though, sounds sloppy and directionless, like the spirit is simply not with them. It could be due to the production, which makes you think you’re hearing what’s going on one floor above you. You’re not part of it, not down in the musicians pit with everyone else. As a result, you don’t feel the same “holy ghost power” that the musicians probably do.

Things get even slower with “Let It Loose,” which ends the third side of the record on a very soulful note, if very long in the tooth. The song is over 5 minutes long, the longest on the entire record. It also takes quite some time to really get going, and the good parts don’t last long enough. It makes the experience pretty boring; soulful, but boring.

Near the end of the record, however, is the penultimate statement of spiritual good will, “Shine a Light.” This song is a show-stopper, fantastically epic and emotional. That same chorus of female singers does wonders, as they inject attitude and authenticity to what’s really a white English boy trying to be a Macon, GA gospel preacher. Mick Jagger, for his part, acquits himself with remarkable aplomb, selling completely out to his role as the rock and roll saver of souls. He hoots and hollers like a Pentecostal church member , punctuating his singing style with impassioned cries of joy.

I can visually imagine “Shine a Light” in no other way than a southern Baptist church with a big stained glass window, a choir in robes of white, maroon and gold, the congregation on their feet and dancing despite the 100 degree heat, and Mick in a black pastoral robe losing control of his voice and his limbs.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that Exile On Main St. is the last great album the Rolling Stones ever made. After that came Goats Head Soup, and that began a downward slope that took almost 20 years to break out of, punctuated by a bright spot or two (Some Girls wasn’t that bad). But suffice to say, after Exile, they started being a parody of rock and roll and eventually were a parody of themselves. They exist now as a reminder of a past age, inspiration for all the aged rockers to pick up their guitars again, and the most arthritic band still making music. I guess that’s pretty good.

Jesus People

According to my dad, my parents were NOT hippies – they were Jesus People. Hippies and Jesus People have a lot in common, like a mellow and positive attitude, a fashion sense that included bright colors, long tassels and hemp, and a liking for patchouli, most likely to cover up the odor of an unwashed body. But while hippies were very loose and open about spirituality, they were generally opposed to organized religion; they saw it as a way to keep people down.

Jesus People, on the other hand, found true freedom and liberation in Jesus Christ, something they didn’t find in the hippie culture, despite the advertisement of it. Hippies were wary of Jesus because of his association with Christianity, a thing of oppression (as they saw it). But Jesus People were much more interested in Christ as a person than they were in Christianity as a religion. They loved him. It is possible to be in love with someone who’s been dead for 2000 years, because to Jesus People (and to Christians in general) he’s not dead. He lives within each one of us, growing and improving us from the inside out. It’s like The Matrix – the concept can’t be fully explained; you have to see it for yourself.

Jesus People used to wear these buttons that said “One Way.” It refers to following Jesus as being the only way to heaven. When a member of the Jesus Movement saw a stranger that they thought might be a fellow Jesus Person, they would hold up their index finger (“one”). If the stranger did the same, they both knew that they had something in common, and that they would see each other again in heaven. It was like they shared a little secret, something the rest of the world wasn’t in on. It’s like when I was living in New York, regularly wearing my Red Sox cap on the streets of Manhattan. Most people didn’t care, but one time I saw another guy wearing the same cap and caught his eye. We exchanged no words, but gave each other a little nod and smile as I passed by.

It may seem like Jesus People were some exclusive organization with a rigorous membership process to weed out the fakers, but that’s not how it was. It’s important for us of this pluralistic generation to understand that Jesus People weren’t enforcing their individuality, or proclaiming their distinction from everybody else. They weren’t saying, “I’m different and I like that.” They were saying, “I’m saved, and you can be too!!!” The message of Jesus People was what the message of modern Christian evangelicalism should be: the more the merrier. And that should come without exceptions, addendums or provisos. This is an invitation regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation; if you have lungs and a beating heart, you can join this club.

As for Jesus People themselves, most of them grew up, got married and had kids, and generally settled down into a typical American existence. However, most of them (including both of my parents) never lost that zeal and passion for the word of God, or that all-or-nothing mentality that’s an essential part of their Christianity. And since both of my parents are such freakishly awesome people, it must not be a bad thing.

Even so, Jesus People are part of a bygone age, and their way of thinking about things is just different that ours today. They touted the “one way” philosophy, a thing that’s not only stuck around in Christianity but gotten more intense. While I’m certain that there’s only one road, Jesus’ road, I think that road might be a lot wider than a lot of Christians believe it is, or maybe than they want it to be.

I’m completely aware that people are gonna quote the “way is straight and narrow” verse from the Bible to me. Here’s my response. Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel, “…narrow [is] the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” I posit that certain Christians would prefer it to be “only YOU guys find it, and screw everyone else.” It’s narrow, yes, but only in comparison to the other road, the one that leads to destruction, and the number of people who choose it. Perhaps another way of putting it is that those people aren’t even on a road; they’re lost in the forest being eaten by the bears. The only way for us to find them is to go into the forest and risk getting eaten by the bears ourselves.

Oh jeez. I try to write about Led Zeppelin and I end up preaching about evangelism. Sigh… more about IV next time.

I spent the first 10 to 15 years of my life with a pretty black and white idea of Christianity and the world in which it exists. Christianity was completely true and all other religions, paths, practices and philosophies were completely false. In high school, I started to perceive a few shades of grey; my mind started wandering into things that ended in question marks and ellipses rather than periods. That made me curious but uncomfortable, so I confined my search for answers to my own internal logic, what I could figure out on my own. It was a bad move.

When I got to college, the number of my questions just exploded. Uncertainties were coming at me from all sides and I couldn’t keep it to myself anymore. My only recourse was to dispense with the uncomfortable feeling and barrel on ahead. It got to the point where I was questioning just about everything. When I was young, all things were certain; now, very few things were.

A couple of things stayed true: God was real, love was real, and God loved me. I’ve always been certain of that. But every other thing was up in the air, and they’ve slowly been coming down to a more graspable height ever since college. They still fly away sometimes, but I know I’ve got a firm hold on the really important stuff.

The most important thing I’ve learned since high school is that there’s not a lot of difference between Christians and non-Christians. I used to think there was this thick black line dividing them, and that line ran along who treated you well and who didn’t. What, little Ben cut in front of me in the line for the drinking fountain? He must be going to hell! But who treats you well has to do with their own battle with their sin nature, not whether or not they carry the label “Christian.” Christians can be just as vile as other people, and they even have a corner on the market of certain types of vileness. And quite often some deep truths about God, love and the nature of both come from seemingly “heathen” sources.

Since their first record and for about 10 years after, Black Sabbath had been fighting against insinuations and outright statements that they were Satanists. Every time the question came up in an interview, they flatly denied it. Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler made no secret of the fact that they were brought up Catholic. The image was brought on by their dark, doomy music and references to Satan in their lyrics, but the public took it several steps further. Sabbath eventually learned to live with it, and then to use it to their own advantage, but it had to be frustrating. And around the time of their third album, they decided to fire back.

Master of Reality contains some pretty bold statements about the goodness of God, the evils of Satan, and some unabashed references to love. The songs “After Forever” and “Lord of This World” lay the groundwork for Christian metal, even if no Christian artist under the sun will admit that it’s true. “After Forever” takes an incredibly direct approach to God and the question of his existence, even having the narrator (which would most likely be Geezer himself) say “I’ve seen the light and I’ve changed my ways.” Furthermore, he warns the person he’s addressing against denying God in front of their friends, and  says “God is the only way to love.” Gospel message? Maybe. Something a Satanist would say? Definitely not.

“Lord of This World” takes the opposite tack, being a letter from Satan to a hapless victim whom he deceived. But rather than laughing in victory, Satan seems a little sad, like taking the person’s soul was a little too easy. There’s no longer any need for deception on Satan’s part, so he just lays it bare. His victim chose “evil ways instead of love” and made him the “master of the world where [he] exist[s].” Satan might as well be saying, “Why did you follow me instead of God? I’m freakin’ evil, dude! Get a clue!” Christian ministers who preach hellfire and damnation can’t even do it as effectively as this.

At the cap there’s “Into the Void,” a futuristic account of the few people who know the truth leaving the earth in spaceships forever because it’s too corrupt, and searching the galaxy for a place to start anew. The earth is filled with hatred, evil, misery and death, and it’s all Satan’s fault. I have a feeling those who left the planet did so because they were looking for heaven, and Earth too closely resembled hell.

There is a very important distinction to draw here, one that could make or break your decision on Black Sabbath, if you haven’t already made up your mind. Sabbath’s message on Master of Reality is pro-God and pro-love, but not necessarily pro-Christianity. Jesus is never mentioned explicitly, though God is. The principles Sabbath presents here are found in an undiluted form in Christianity, but they’re careful to avoid throwing their hat in with the Christian crowd (or any crowd).

And I can’t talk about Master of Reality and its Christian themes without also talking about a track from their very next album Vol. 4, called “Under the Sun.” It’s a cover, but it captures BS’s spirit very well. It’s a call to not let anyone’s philosophy intrude on your own, to make your own path. This is stupid, of course; everyone’s philosophy is a collection of things they’ve heard and have chosen to hang onto. The reason I mention it is that they make a reference to “Jesus freaks” in the first line, where the narrator is laying out all the people groups he doesn’t want telling him what to believe. That list also includes “black magicians,” but the slap in the face to Christians remains. “Under the Sun” basically says the singer already has it all figured out, and doesn’t want anybody telling him what’s what; a revelation of arrogance, naivety, and plain old stupidity.

Black Sabbath eventually came to accept their slightly demonic image, and in 1980 they started fostering it. Ozzy had been fired, and an essential part of Black Sabbath’s image was gone. Nature abhors a vacuum, but rather than replace Ozzy, they shifted their image and musical direction, hiring Ronnie James Dio as the new lead belter. With the addition of Dio, they started leaning into the suggestions of Satanism, or at least started embracing the devilish side of their public face.

Ronnie James Dio

The Dio Sabbath always made me uncomfortable. With Ozzy, the suggestions of Satanism were a hysterical joke, made tragic by that some people took the joke seriously. With Dio, though, they seemed somehow authentic. I fear they started dabbling with things they shouldn’t. All in all, Black Sabbath’s Lucifer influences are a lot of bluster without any substance, but they came dangerously close to making them real in the early 80s. For that reason, I’ve always preferred the Ozzy years to Dio. After Dio… well, it’s not worth mentioning.

Master of Reality – Black Sabbath – 7/21/1971

You’ve probably already had an inkling that I’m a Christian. While I’m very much aggrieved at the misunderstanding the use of that term causes (people assume all sorts of stuff they shouldn’t…), I’m also not ashamed of it, and I can’t change that I’m a Christian any more than a bumblebee can change that it makes honey. So of course, my Christianity plays a big role in what I see through my Coke bottle glasses.

Everybody has Coke bottle glasses. They’re why two people can get completely different things out of a piece of art, why there’s such a thing as political parties, and why historical events look different the more time that’s passed. Some things look the same through everyone’s, but art isn’t one of them. Art, in some cases, can have as many interpretations as there are people interacting with it.

Suffice to say, my own Coke bottle glasses usually look at a thing and see God reflected in it, however he may be disguised. So what do they see when I look at the Black Sabbath song “Sweet Leaf?”

“Sweet Leaf” is an ode to the wonders and miracles of the ganja, though you might not know it at first due to the sappy sentiments the lyrics put forth. They’re downright gushing, like a teenage girl in love with her first boyfriend. Its squishy romanticism would be touching were the love it portrays not for an inanimate object, and an illegal one at that. As such, it’s pretty unabashed. It stops just short of actually mentioning marijuana by name.

The music is in deep contrast to the lyrics, however. Ozzy sings about his romance with weed with the same snarling intensity he would have if he were describing a witches’ coven. The guitars are slow, sludgy, unyielding and repetitive; the perfect soundtrack for getting completely stoned.

There is, however, an alternate interpretation (my own), one that doesn’t involve pot at all. Keep in mind this is absolutely not what the author intended when he wrote “Sweet Leaf.” There are few songs that are more obviously about a thing (and likewise not another), but I can’t help but think about Jesus when I hear it, just like I can’t help but chuckle at that thought.

That’s right, I said Jesus. Why couldn’t “Sweet Leaf” be about how much the singer loves Jesus? The rhetoric in the song is strikingly similar to what new believers say about their new-found love of Christ (“my life is free now” and “you gave to me a new belief”). The gushing adoration “Sweet Leaf” shows could easily be transferred to Christ. Heck, it even has biblical support. Consider this line:

You introduced me to my mind

 Hebrews 8 says, “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Also, consider this:

 Straight people don’t know what you’re about / they put you down and shut you out

 In Acts 19, some of the people Paul was telling about God “became obstinate,” “refused to believe,” and “maligned the Way.” Then there’s this:

 You gave to me a new belief / And soon the world will love you, sweet leaf

 God had this to say, speaking through the prophet Isaiah: “Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will confess.”

Remember what I said awhile ago about Christians who use the bible as a means to support what they already think, and how you shouldn’t do it? Pretty ironic, huh? It’s okay, though; I’m wearing my self-awareness hat.

It’s almost silly how blinding and obvious the parallels are between the love of pot and the love of Christ. Or at least, they’re obvious to someone with my Coke bottle glasses. So why not? Why can’t “Sweet Leaf” be about Jesus?

I’ll answer my own question, if you don’t mind. There are some very glaring inconsistencies within the text of “Sweet Leaf,” things that simply don’t make sense under this interpretation. Here they are:

You introduced me to my mind / and left me wanting you and your kind

I love you, sweet leaf / though you can’t hear

hey, don’t let me stop ya

The “you and your kind” line is enough to kill it right there. There’s no way for that to make any sense if the song is about Christ. “Your kind” would be who? Buddah? Mohammad? Vishnu? The Flying Spaghetti Monster? In addition, the “you can’t hear” line doesn’t even make sense if the song’s about pot. Of course marijuana can’t hear; it’s a plant. The most intelligent thing I can come up with is, “duh.”

Of course, I’m not saying “Sweet Leaf” is really about Jesus Christ. I’m only saying, “Wouldn’t it be weird/ironic/hysterical if it was?” I do this to illustrate two things. The first is that with art, truly nothing is off-limits. The second is this: where’s the fun in art if you’re not allowed to come up with outlandish and indefensible  theories from time to time?

Tomorrow: what is “stoner rock?”

From their genesis, the Rolling Stones have been putting a white spin on a very black form of music, almost a parody were it not for their complete earnestness about themselves. They developed a tongue-in-cheek approach to the music they played later, but as much as they made fun of different genres, there was always a bit of admiration and tribute in their spoofs.

In “Dead Flowers,” that sense of spoofing is at its highest, and the source material is ripe for ridicule. The song is a send-up of the country-western genre from fingertips to toes, dripping with subtle sarcasm. Mick even tries to imitate an American cowboy accent, sounding like Johnny Cash if he were doing an impression of himself. “Dead Flowers” is supposed to make you laugh, but it ends up sounding strangely authentic. It proves that the Stones’ wicked sense of humor is still intact, even if the weariness of sex, drugs and rock and roll are taking their toll.

“You Gotta Move,” in the opposite way, isn’t even close to being meant as a joke, yet I can’t listen to it without it seeming like a plastic, showroom parody of the blues and gospel. Every element of the song is played completely straight, or at least that’s what the Stones were going for. But by the time it gets to Mick singing in a near-falsetto to match the guitar riff, my laughter breaks. Maybe it’s the fact that Mick tries to do another voice imitation, this time of a black Southern Baptist preacher. Since I find southern people (particularly Christians) to be slightly ridiculous, it’s hard for me to get completely serious about a song like “You Gotta Move.”

these are hillbillies, and not exactly representative of southerners…

Southern Americans have a particular mindset and package of social standards. But being a New Englander through and through, I often forget that I have my own mindset and package of social standards. Too much I think of myself as the default, and anyone different is just weird. This is one of the problems with being human. The biggest place I face this is in my thought process about those from the American south. I’ve tried to combat this (to little or no avail), but one of my hang-ups is that when a person talks in a southern accent, I automatically assume they are of extremely substandard intelligence. “Yoo shoor doo gaat purty teeth…”

Combine that with my high-minded, northern sensibilities about Christianity, and you get some dangerous snobbery on my part. The fact that I am a Christian and yet am comfortable with women in the ministry, am open to ideas about the sin status of homosexuality, and think evolution is a million times more plausible than 7-day-creationism puts me at odds with a lot of Christians that live in the south. But at all times I need to remember (and they do, too…) that no matter the size of our disagreements and differences in mindset, we still have the most important thing in common, and that is that we are children of the Most Holy God. That trumps everything else.

Sticky Fingers enjoys a dual nature, as do other Stones albums before and after it. It shifts between hard and soft, though some albums do it more gracefully than others. That’s why you have a song like “Wild Horses” right next to “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’.” While “Wild Horses” is a sedate and kinda weepy number, “Knockin’” segues from it beautifully with a bluesy distorted guitar and Keith playing a monster of a riff. The song itself is fairly standard except for that savage riff, but the real gem starts halfway through.

Guitarist Mick Taylor says that the band finished the song after 3 and a half minutes and started putting down their instruments, but Taylor kept right on playing. I imagine he was in a sort of blues trance, subconsciously wanting the haze to go on longer. The rest of the band followed suit and started playing again, including Bobby Keys on saxophone. They didn’t even know the tape was still rolling, but they got another 4 minutes of footage. It’s pure blues gold.

After the slight pause of “You Gotta Move,” the vinyl flips and we start the second side with “Bitch.” Like Led Zep’s “The Lemon Song,” it details how a man is entirely sexually beholden to a woman. At the mere sound of her voice, he “salivate[s] like a Pavolv dog.” It’s ironic that most of human history has seen the subjugation of women, sometimes being crushed on the male boot. Yet women, I think, have always had this avenue of power over men.

Lysistrata is a play by classical Greek playwright Aristophanes, first performed in Athens in 411 BC, and the plot of this comedy revolves around a group of women who withhold sexual privileges to their husbands in an effort to get them to negotiate an end to the Peloponnesian War. This careful wielding of the power of sex by women can’t sit well with men, who are used to being top dog. This might be why it’s described as a “bitch” in this song.

It makes me wonder: as women are gaining more of an equal share in the arenas of the workplace, the home and politics, will they find that their trump card of sex is decreasing in value? Might men eventually no longer view sex as the most important thing in the universe?

Ba-dum-bum! Thanks, folks, you’ve been great! I’ll be here all week!

New Year’s Eve, 1968. In the hills above L.A., some people are gathered around a campfire when a bearded man among them explains that a war between blacks and whites in America is coming. More than that, the people around the campfire are going to start that war. More than that, the people around the campfire will not only be saved from this war, but will come out on top once the war is over. More than that, this war has been prophesied, and the prophets are speaking directly to the people around the campfire in a coded message.

The bearded man: Charles Manson. The people around the campfire: the Manson Family. The prophets: the Beatles. The coded message: The White Album.

Manson called this race war “Helter Skelter,” after the Beatles song. It’s quite appropriate, because a “helter skelter,” in British slang, is a descent, usually pretty rapid and dramatic. Under Manson’s prediction, the whites would have a descent (being exterminated by the blacks), and then the blacks (being exterminated by the Manson family). In a larger sense, Manson meant “helter skelter” to mean that (pardon my French), “shit was gonna go down” – and Manson and his followers were going to start it.

But the most bizarre, freak-out thing in this entire scenario – aside from the brutal and devilish murders of Sharon Tate and company – is that Manson took his walking orders from The White Album. Manson believed – and his followers believed – that the Beatles were speaking directly and exclusively to them in subtle messages laced all over The White Album. Every song had a significance that applied only to Manson and his “family.” Among the more interesting ones:

“Blackbird” – Black people are going to “arise” and slaughter the whites.

“Rocky Raccoon” – “Coon” is a pejorative term for a black person, so Rocky is black. Rocky’s “revival” meant that black people were going to come into power soon. Further, the prominence of “Gideon’s Bible” in the song – more specifically the line “Gideon checked out” – meant that the entire scenario was told about in the book of Revelation.

“Revolution 1” – In the lyric “When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out,” John includes a subtle “in” right after he sings the word “out.” This indicates – in reality – that John was actually undecided whether revolution was needed or not. In Manson’s mind, this indicated that the Beatles all favored violent revolution, but had to keep silent because they were on a “peace-and-love trip.”

“Happiness is a Warm Gun” – Black people are supposed to arm themselves with guns for violent revolution.

Linda Kasabian, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Susan “Sadie Mae” Atkins

“Sexy Sadie” – A reference to Manson follower Susan Atkins, who had been redubbed Sadie Mae Glutz even before The White Album had come out.

“Revolution 9” – Many things. Despite the fact that it’s a musical collage and thus has no lyrics, Manson thought he heard John shout “rise!” in several places (John was actually saying “right!”). The repeated words “number 9” are a reference to the ninth chapter of Revelation, which is when the “locusts” are released to torment mankind for five months. Also, Manson believed George was saying “Charlie, Charlie, send us a telegram,” which Manson and the other family members tried to do. In one section of the track, George actually does say something about a telegram.

“Honey Pie,” “I Will,” “Don’t Pass Me By,” and “Yer Blues” – The Beatles were searching and calling for Jesus Christ (because they love him). Manson had a huge Jesus Christ complex, believing himself to be the second coming of the man. Thus, the Beatles were calling for Charles Manson himself to join them in London. Manson family members were trying to get a message to the Beatles telling them to join Manson in Death Valley.

“Helter Skelter” – The whole thing in miniature. In the lyric “she’s comin’ down fast,” “she” would be America, and the “comin’ down” refers to the race war that the country will soon descend into. The song also contains a reference to the Manson family emerging from their supposed Death Valley underground hideout, which Manson called the Bottomless Pit (a reference to Revelation chapter 9).

 With his “The White Album is forecasting the future” thing, Manson is creating what’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy. He wants it to be true, so he’s going to make it true. Fortunately for everyone except Sharon Tate and the others who happened to be there the night of August 8th, he never got to. Manson, like the true megalomaniac he is, also thought the entire White Album was directed exclusively at him, that the Beatles were purposefully trying to tell him something in code. Once again, because he wanted it to be true, it was.

Let’s hope I can make this next comparison without being drawn and quartered by my fellow Christians.

Charles Manson started with a supposition and then found support for it in The White Album, despite the fact that support simply wasn’t there. Through creative arranging and sheer force of will, he made it say something that it just doesn’t say. He did the opposite of what scholars and seekers of truth do. He arrogantly supposed that his truth was more important than the truth his source (in this case The White Album) was trying to convey.

Is this not very similar to what we sometimes do with the Bible? The Bible, by the admission of the apostle Paul, was meant to teach us, rebuke us, correct us and train us (2 Timothy 3:16). It is NOT meant to be used as an irrational justification for what we already think. Yet this is what so many Christians do. They start with a firmly held belief that comes from themselves, search the Bible for a verse or passage that seems, without context, to support it, and then claim that that firmly held belief is biblical. This is NOT how we should read the Bible; we should actually do the opposite, as in start with the text, then earnestly seek the truth contained therein, and let your firmly held beliefs be formed and shaped by that truth.

We’ve seen it over and over again. “Hey, it’s not me; it’s the Bible.” The subjugation of women has “biblical” support, according to some complemetarians. Creationism has “biblical” support (and evolution suffers “biblical” refutation), according to hardline fundamentalists. And countless pastors have written books saying they have the key to a “biblical” marriage. You can find support in the Bible for any opinion you want.

In my mind, this is very similar to what Charles Manson did with The White Album. However, there are two notable differences. One is that Christians don’t use the Bible to support murder. Another – and one that makes what some Christians do even worse than what Charles Manson did – is that it’s easy to argue with The White Album. It’s much more perilous to argue with the Bible.

I’ll leave you with that.

Our Parents’ Vinyl

Ruthanne and I lived in New York for 2 years. We often joke that our potential kids won’t believe that we actually existed in that fast-paced, un-Mom-and-Dad-like environment. There’s probably a moment in every kid’s life when they have to look at their parents in a new light.

In that scant 2 years, we found a fantastic church and made some incredible friends. It seemed there were a strange number of late 20s, childless married couples at that church, and we found our place rather quickly. It was like putting on clothes you’ve never worn before that fit eerily perfectly. It was in New York that I found a different kind of intimacy with peers that I haven’t been able to duplicate. I always felt like a bit of a misfit among Massachusetts Christians. Most MA denizens are pretty liberal in their politics, so a lot of Christians feel they need to dig in their heels in response to what’s around them. But for Christians like me who don’t feel there’s a 1-to-1 connection between Christian faith and the Republican Party, Massachusetts can be a sometimes uncomfortable place. What I really liked about New York City was there was so much diversity that Christians of any stripe could have room to breathe. I felt comfortable enough to just be myself.

After we left New York, the friendships remained. Every time we come back into the city, we’re welcomed with open arms and a warm spare bed by a pair of friends. One such couple had us over for a weekend, and it was the first time we stayed with them. Sitting in their living room shortly after we arrived, my wife and Sonja were happily catching up when my eye was drawn to their stereo cabinet. Among the various electronics that were there, I saw a turntable and a one-shelf collection of vinyl. I couldn’t resist taking a look.

Sonja told me that her and Blake’s LP collection was a combined effort; they were too young to have any vinyl of their own, but they each pillaged their parents’ collections and then culled their findings together. What they came up with was downright impressive. Among the most notable were several Johnny Cash records, Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road and The White Album, as well as Led Zeppelin’s entire studio discography.

the first vinyl copies of The White Album had serial numbers on the cover to make each copy unique.

I had never seen an actual vinyl copy of The White Album. Blake and Sonja’s was incredibly faded and well-loved, and it had its original serial number in the bottom right corner, something the CD copies didn’t have. It may seem like a small thing, but it was a kind of mythological experience for me.; there I was, seeing with my own eyes what I had only read about. It’s like an amateur painter going to the Louvre for the first time, or a Poli-Sci student taking a tour of the White House.

I don’t think we really appreciate things about our parents lives when we’re younger; in a larger sense, we don’t appreciate our parents themselves. It’s only when we’re older that we sometimes feel a melancholy fondness for them. We had access to them anytime we wanted, but we didn’t want it until the access was no longer there. The good thing is that engenders a desire to create access whenever possible. Like it or not, we need our parents… and parents like to be needed.