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.

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