If Charles Dickens Wrote Contemporary Christian Music: or, God and the Grotesque

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My first day of high school in 2000, my pre-AP English teacher (and Sunday school teacher, and super-woman) Mrs. Pauley ran through the list of everything we’d be reading in the coming trimester. Then she asked us, “Have any of you read Great Expectations?”

One hand went slowly up into the air. Blushing, I could feel the stares of the rest of the class as they turned to look at me.

“Boze,” said Mrs. Pauley, in her usual droll voice, “I knew there was somethin’ wrong with you.”

It wasn’t the first time an English teacher had teased me for my Dickens obsession. Two years before, I had torn through Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities in short order. I’d begun speaking and writing in a pastiche of nineteenth-century Victorian writers. (“Magniloquence is a virtue much to be admired in a gentleman,” I would say, to the friends I did not have).

I found Dickens irresistibly fascinating; David and Pip and Joe Gargery and old Fezziwig were like old friends, in the same way Ali Baba and Sinbad befriended young Ebenezer Scrooge. As a poor boy growing up in an abusive home environment, I connected with the violence and destitution and rage and filth and gore of Dickens’ imagined England, with this gothic and grotesque world in which convicts leapt out from behind tombstones and frightened little boys out of their wits, in which stepmothers and stepfathers beat their kids until they bled and eccentric old women set themselves on fire.

Dickens was haunted by what Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor called “the grotesque”; it was the darker half of his Gothic imagination. His books were filled with wild, extravagant, deformed figures, twisted in soul and body. He got into a fair bit of trouble when a roguish, “ogling” dwarf woman in the not-yet-completed David Copperfield turned out to have been based on an actual person, who was so hurt by Dickens’ characterization that he was compelled to revise forthcoming installments of the novel, to portray her in a less appalling light.

Arguably, though, it was this gallery of grotesques that made Dickens so massively popular. They burned themselves onto your brain. Novelist Susanna Clarke once described him as “huge—like the sky,” and the same could be said of his characters, even the most minor ones, like the grinning, inebriated old robber David meets on the road to Dover who shouts, “Oh, my lungs and liver! Oh, goroo, goroo!” It is a dark, violent world Dickens builds for his characters, and heaven bless him for it.

At around the time I was beginning my freshman year of high school, and reading Great Expectations for the second time, the Christian contemporary musician Steven Curtis Chapman released the single “Great Expectations,” a track from his massively popular Speechless album. (If you attended Christian summer camp in the late ‘90s or early 2000s, it’s likely you were subjected to the song “Dive” off of that album).

I remember the curiosity and interest I felt when I learned that Chapman had a new single entitled “Great Expectations.” His previous songs, from “Lord of the Dance” to “More to This Life,” had not been found wanting. But, like a young orphan discovering that his mysterious benefactor is something less than he imagined him to be, I found myself disappointed by the sheer immateriality and vapidness of the song, which didn’t seem to be about anything.

We’ve been invited with the Son, sings Chapman:

We’ve been invited to come

And believe the unbelievable

Receive the inconceivable

And see beyond our wildest imaginations

So Lord, we come

Oh, Lord we come…

With great expectations

Now, musically the song isn’t bad. It has a subtle but wonderfully evocative piano intro and a stirring string section. And I’m willing to concede that my disappointment may have been a case of… well, misplaced expectations. When you title a song “Great Expectations,” I expect greatness. I expect gritty ballads about orphans and outlaws. What I got instead was another generically written worship song with some abstract lyrics about power and glory and the obligatory pun on “Sun / Son.”

Lest it seem like I’m picking on Mr. Chapman, I should add that this is a problem endemic to Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), both then and today. (“Your love never fails, it never gives up, it never runs out on me,” sings Passion on the most recent WOW album). So often Christian-brand music, and worship music in particular, sings ethereally of “approaching the throne room” to encounter God’s grace, compassion and mercy. But rarely do these songs give any indication of what this is actually supposed to look like, nor how God’s goodness and mercy manifest in our actual lives, the place where we live and move and breathe.

We’re left with uplifting platitudes that fuel a quasi-Gnostic spirituality divorced from the realities of time and place.

Yes, this is a long way from Dickens in the opening chapter of Great Expectations, describing Pip’s encounter with the runaway convict Magwitch: “A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared, and growled.” But it’s also a long way from the very best of which Christian music is capable.

Which brings me to this man:

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In January 1968, Christian, country-western musician and recovering drug addict Johnny Cash performed two shows at Folsom State Prison in California, one of the most notorious prisons in the country, a place where the most dangerous criminals were imprisoned, men who were just waiting around to die. Those two shows became the basis for one of Cash’s most celebrated albums, the live album At Folsom Prison.

Listening to the opening and most famous track, “Folsom Prison Blues,” you can hear and practically feel the exhilaration of Cash’s audience as he states his name and launches into his dark, hopeless and morbidly funny ballad about desperate men in desperate places:

When I was just a baby

My mamma told me, “Son

Always be a good boy

Don’t ever play with guns”

But I shot a man in Reno

Just to watch him die…

 And when you hear the loud howl of recognition that one guy yells out right at that moment, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that here was a musician with a preternatural gift for connecting with people in their deepest pains and regrets, a man who descended into caves of guilt and despair and emerged out of them again like the apostle Paul with a burning revelation of grace, a revelation that made him almost irresistibly compelling to the Magwitches and Havishams of the world—freaks, outcasts, thieves, murderers—life’s grotesques. The people whom ordinary church music could never reach.

This aspect of Cash’s legacy, and the controversy it raised among regular suburban churchgoers, is perfectly captured in a scene from the 2006 movie Walk the Line:

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The best Christian music, the most truly “Christian” music, whether it’s performed by outsiders like Dylan, Bono, or Cash, or by artists in the Evangelical mainstream like Jars of Clay, Rich Mullins, or Gungor, never loses sight of this world in search of the next one. Unlike the disembodied worship songs of so much CCM, with their vague descriptions of a personal, mystical experience, they remain fixed in their own time and place, in the reality of original sin, in the rhythms of liturgy, in the simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying beauty of nature, in real situations that real people face.

The best Christian music sings about actual things: an open field of wild flowers; a mudslide in Decatur, Illinois; the moon spilling laughter on the cold Dakota hills.

And Christian-brand music will never be relevant until it follows the examples of its best and most talented artists, and embraces this crooked world.

 

 

We Need to Talk About Charisma

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Not long ago I watched the film We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), a bleak tragedy starring Tilda Swindon as a mom who suspects that her adolescent son has some serious behavioral and mental issues. Her husband shrugs it off, thinking it’s just a phase he’ll grow out of. She watches with an increasingly helpless feeling as he becomes more and more dangerous, ultimately shooting up his high school, and killing most of his family, with a bow-and-arrow set.

That’s how I’ve been feeling for much of the summer as I read CharismaNews.com every morning and scanned the comments. I understand that the magazine was once the flagship publication of the Charismatic / Pentecostal movement, and that there are still many sincere, good-hearted people who work there. This is not a judgment on them.

That being said, we need to address what Charisma is turning into. Something has gone dangerously awry inside the once-venerated institution. It is not healthy. It is not good. And, more and more, it is not safe.

First, as I read, I saw that many of the articles were beginning to sport sensational headlines that prominently targeted a hated group or individual and offered them up as rage-bait for Christian viewers:

“President Obama, You Have Crossed a Dangerous, Unprecedented Line.”

“Some Honest Questions for Professing ‘Gay Christians.’”

“Vicki Beeching and the Reason So Many ‘Christians’ are Coming Out as Gay.”

“A Shameful Day in Christian Publishing” (accompanied by a picture of young Evangelical author Matt Vines).

Second, based on the comments section it became clear that the site was attracting a toxic demographic: people who were willing to believe any slander, embrace any accusation, as long as it was directed at someone they were predisposed to hate. I watched them arguing with non-believers and less extreme Christians (who were invariably labeled “trolls” and “atheists” and told they were going to hell because the Bible says so). They were immune to reason, immune to all appeals for compassion, immune to any scriptures that contradicted their preferred narrative of fear and demonization.

Terrifyingly, their endless diatribes against—you name it: gays, blacks, refugee children, pop stars, Christian entertainers, Democrats, evolutionists, filmmakers, conservative pastors—were routinely interspersed with the insistence that their venomous hate speech was “loving” and “holy.” Love tells the truth. Love judges. Love hates what is evil. Etc., etc.

The following comment is typical:
PlantationAs is this one:
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And, with a few exceptions, it felt like the broader Christian community was unaware of the evils being promoted and perpetuated at Charisma. But two things happened last week to change that.

First, the magazine ran an article with a shamelessly slanderous headline questioning the faith (and, by implication, the salvation) of Christian musician Michael Gungor. Gungor re-tweeted the headline, along with a plea for help:


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Following a public backlash, Charisma changed the headline (but kept the URL). Weirdly, the article itself barely mentions the divinity of Jesus.

And then on Friday—I don’t know how else to put this—it ran an article by Gary Cass, founder of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission, calling for the sterilization, deportation, and killing of all Muslims.

If you haven’t actually read the article, that’s going to sound like the same sort of gratuitous hyperbole that Charisma traffics in. It is not hyperbole. Cass begins by laying out the arguments for enforced sterilization and deportation. But these measures will not work, because according to the Bible “Arab Muslims are God’s sworn enemies and are ordained by God to be against everyone.” Muslims, he goes on to say, can never be saved in large numbers. They are doomed in their billions to perdition.

And what’s worse, they’re creating a hell on earth for Christian believers right now. “ISIS is doing . . . what every true follower of Muhammad wants to do to you and yours—subjugate or murder you. They believe they have been given a mandate by Allah (Satan) to dominate the world.”

Which is why, in the end, only his last solution will be effective:

3. Violence. The only thing that is biblical and that 1,400 years of history has shown to work is overwhelming Christian just war and overwhelming self defense . . . This is not irrational, but the loving thing we must do for our children and neighbors. First trust in God, then obtain a gun(s), learn to shoot, teach your kids the Christian doctrines of just war and self defense, create small cells of family and friends that you can rely on if some thing catastrophic happens and civil society suddenly melts down . . .

“Militant Muslims cannot live in a society based on Christian ideals of equality and liberty. They will always seek to harm us. Now the only question is how many more dead bodies will have to pile up at home and abroad before we crush the vicious seed of Ishmael in Jesus’ Name?”

 Where to begin?

 I’ve been holding my own emotions in check for much of this post because I wanted to be careful. Anger in the pursuit of justice can so easily turn us into the monsters we fight against. But this is not the kind of article that calls for a cautious response. A mainstream Christian publication, a magazine that hundreds of thousands of Christians read and respect, published a call for the killing of over a billion people. It was not subtle. It’s not like you had to read between the lines to realize the full horror of what he was advocating—he came right out and said it. You’d have to be in massive denial (as so many were in the comments) to not see that he was saying what he frankly and explicitly said.

And that scares me. Not just because my father was Muslim. But because, as an Irish-Pakistani-American with a bronze complexion, I don’t have any faith in the ability of Cass or his followers to distinguish between different groups of brown people.

Because, given his ignorance of the fact that only about 20 percent of the world’s Muslims are Arab, I wouldn’t expect Cass to know the difference between a radical Islamist, a Sikh, a Hindu, and a Palestinian Christian.

Because it would not stop at Muslims. Because the commenters who lapped up that article, who overwhelmingly applauded Cass’s call to violent action against their Muslim neighbors, like the crowd that demanded the death of Jesus, have already made clear that they have no tolerance for anyone who rejects their white fundamentalist culture and their extreme interpretation of Scripture. And a call for the death of all Muslims, printed on the front page of a widely-read Christian website, is a shot fired across the bow warning that none of the rest of us—Arabs and blacks, the university-educated, liberals, gays and lesbians, artists and entertainers, women, Catholics—are safe.

But in a way, I’m grateful. Because even though the post was taken down following a massive public outcry on Sunday afternoon, the murderous spirit that was already operating at Charisma, even before last Friday, has been openly manifest.

I’ve written before on this blog about the pyramid of violence. The thing we have to realize is that the mindsets that make genocide and other acts of violence possible are already in place before the call to violence is given. It begins on the lowest levels with name-calling, false accusations, slander, rumors, and verbal aggression. If you’re in a community where people are constantly shaming you, refusing to acknowledge your preferred identity (“You may think you’re gay, but we know better”), subjecting you to de-humanizing jokes and vicious insults, and refusing to listen when you tell them to stop, you are already in danger. You are being subjected to violence, even if no punches have yet been thrown.

And, as I’ve said before, if they’re already not listening when you tell them to stop verbally abusing you, if the Bible is already powerless to stop them, they will not listen when you’re insisting that you have a right not to be physically assaulted and murdered.

And that’s why Charisma is out of control, and that’s why it needs to be held to account.

Because “Why I am Absolutely Islamaphobic” was not an isolated column, but only the latest and most glaring manifestation of a much larger problem. “Malice eats it like a cancer,” in the words of Faramir, “and the cancer is growing.”

Because if you go back and read the snippets from the comments that I posted earlier, and the hundreds of comments in response to Cass’s article, it’s clear that the site has become a beacon for bullies and extremists, for those who don’t listen, those who despise anything “different” or “weird” and would not be averse to using violence to be rid of it.

I realize that Internet comboxes are often cesspools of hatred and villainy. But until this weekend I’d never seen a commenter advocate the mass extermination of millions of people. The fact that this idea was first given voice by one of the site’s writers, in an article apparently read, reviewed, and printed with the editor’s stamp of approval, says everything you need to know about how dangerous Charisma has become.

Of all the tweets I read on Sunday, this is the one that probably best expresses what I’ve been feeling these last couple of days:Natalie

Reading the Gospels would be a good start.