Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Band Concert or Religious Service?

I went to a band concert a few weeks ago. The Massanutten Brass Band played on the lawn at James Madison University. They were awesome. They played some good tunes, and they were good at it. My son and I loved the "Imperial March" from Star Wars, and all of it was top notch. But this post is not intended to be a review of the concert so much as a critique of the culture that the band concert took place in. Of course, they opened with "The Star-Spangled Banner" (that was the opening prayer). Most civic events do. And, of course, some people in attendance sang along and a few even placed their hands over their hearts. Many of the songs were patriotic marches with one or two Christian hymns sprinkled in as a perfunctory nod to the role Christianity plays in our culture - as a support to the greater, overriding ideology of America.

It would appear that America is a highly religious nation, but its dominant religion is not biblical
Christianity. Its dominant religion is America. In the concert, the overwhelming theme was the greatness of America. The hymns were brought almost as a sub-theme.

It's interesting to think about the heated debates about the appropriateness of religion (or maybe faith is the current buzzword) in politics. I'm thinking that that discussion completely misses the elephant in the room that I've been talking about - Americanism. People kill for it, people die for it, they sing its praises, they want it to rescue them from terror or poverty, they give large chunks of their lives to serve it. Liberals and conservatives alike. Christian and anti-Christian alike.

America is its own god. Now where's my John Philip Sousa record?


Saturday, June 9, 2007

Charles E. Fuller and R.E.M.

Here's what can happen when you load up your MP3 player (actually a PDA, but I couldn't call it an MP3 player when I was buying it) with recorded broadcasts of the 1930's thru 1950's radio show called the Old Fashioned Revival Hour and the R.E.M. albums from "Out of Time" to "Around The Sun", and then listen to them all intermixed and in a loop while staining the outside of your house for three weeks: you start thinking that the one might be talking about the other.

I did anyway, and something jumped out at me after hearing the choir on the OFRH sing the song "Heavenly Sunshine" for the 13th time followed by R.E.M.'s "Shiny Happy People." I thought to myself: "Michael Stipe is taking a jab at the Christians who are caught up in a heavenly, sunshiny faith which makes them care less about life in the dirt of the planet Earth, forgetting that the Word became flesh."

I grew up hearing rebroadcasts of the OFRH on the local Christian radio station. Both of my parents heard it in their conservative Mennonite homes. The founder, fundamentalist pastor Charles E. Fuller was a gifted preacher who had a good command of his tone of voice and diction. He could string parts of different Bible verses together and come up with a coherent sentence, and finally punctuate it with a self-assured "Thus saith the Lord." Very inspiring..., but sometimes (too frequently) untrue to the original verses which were strung together. Maybe that's why the Christian faith he preached was mostly about how to comfort oneself with the knowledge that their ticket to heaven was secure and that one didn't need to be troubled by wars, strife and sorrows in this life. The United States of America was (pre-)destined to win all her wars anyway.

Sometime in the 1980's, I started listening to R.E.M. After a few albums, I caught on to Michael Stipe's riffs on Christianity. And I think that he has some pretty valid critiques that serious Christians need to pay attention to. Fuller's otherworldly flavor of Christian faith wasn't invented by him. He came from a stream which was reacting to the postmillenial liberalism of the Social Gospelers. To him, faith was not intended to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. It was meant to save souls from eternal damnation.

Stipe's response is reactionary also, but in it we can see a call to reclaim some of what the Social Gospelers were after - the Kingdom of God must be visible on earth through the actions of the church. A faith that can only witness to premillennial hope is usually one that also rejects the connected gospel calls to love God and love neighbor - including those neighbors who are our enemy. It preaches a Jesus who can't be followed. Following might look too much like attempts to earn our salvation. In truth, following Jesus is simply working out one's salvation.

Thanks for the reminder, R.E.M.