Call and Response: Religious Songs

As we come to the high frenzy of this holiday season, I’d like to turn to one of my favorite exchanges from the past year, when my brother and I stopped being silly and got a little serious about, you know, religion and stuff. It seems that this is the season for that sort of thing, right? So, this is a re-post, but updated and just right for the longer nights and the colder days.

In last year’s honest, and soul-baring post, my brother daringly ventured into one of the two subjects verboten at dinner tables and water-coolers throughout the country—religion (we crossed the politics line a few times in the past few months, so why not get this one over with?). I responded with an ambling, sometimes senseless, and mostly unclear comment.

My brother’s moment of clarity and its relation to music, however, deserves more thought. It deserves more time. It deserves a weighted and patient consideration. Yet, I fear, I may not be the right person to do this. As I said in response to my brother, music is the one thing that has made me feel a sense of something greater (unlike writing, music can be powerfully communal). Despite these feelings, I remain skeptical and unsure whether feeling something beyond yourself has anything to do with the divine.

“Down to the River to Pray”, Alison Krause

This beautiful song has been in my head off and on since I first heard it on the soundtrack to O, Brother Where art Thou. The fact that the “Sirens” sing this song in the movie points to an uncomfortable connection between Homer’s seductive and dangerous creatures and religious music…

Like my brother I was raised in a fairly religious environment, but not in the way some might respect. We went to church every Sunday and during Lent on Wednesdays too (during the core of my youth we went to an Episcopal mission because the Lutheran church was too far away). This religiousness, however, was tempered by a thorough old-school protestant reluctance to dictate belief (faith is between you and god) and a sense of humor about things (I used to be an acolyte: my father spent every church service trying to make me laugh) along with the recognition that religion was dangerous in the wrong hands.

We left a Lutheran church in the 1980s after my father tried to lead the church through a ministry change. While he was president, the AIDS crisis was just starting to impact our lives in minor ways. Members of the congregation didn’t want a shared chalice any longer for fear of disease. Older members agreed with the heinous proposition that AIDS was a punitive plague sent by god.

One of the first things I remember my father saying about religion? Opiate of the masses.

“Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for”, U2

I talked about hearing this song in St. John’s the Divine Cathedral in response to my brother’s post. I have always loved the ambiguity of this song—it could be about a lover, yourself or god. It expresses a pervasive and essential dissatisfaction that can be either a reason to leave a faith or a strong motivation for embracing faith more firmly.

Our religious experiences growing up were limited in large part by where we were raised. In southern Maine the dominant religious sect was Roman Catholicism (due to predominantly Irish and French ancestry). We were the minority as protestants—if people weren’t Catholic, they were probably Baptist. There may have been two Jewish kids in my high school, a Mormon, and a handful of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It wasn’t until I was almost done with school that I started to get to know evangelical Christians. My experience paralleled a general growth in evangelical denominations in the US and much wider exposure in the media with the rise of the new religious right in the mid 1990s. The specter of religion in politics—something which had been more subtle in the 1980s—made me even more skeptical of public religious expression. Hearing the literalist and inflexible views of some evangelicals made me reflect on the more intellectual nature of my own upbringing. But not really in a good way.

“By the Rivers of Babylon”, Bob Marley

This has always been one of my favorite religious songs. I actually remember the James Taylor cover first. Favorite James Taylor song? “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”. I sang this song on several occasions

To meet my brother’s earnestness with weight: One of my earliest memories is the loss of faith. Before I even remember my brother being born, I remember lying awake at night wondering what it would be like not to exist. I know this is simplistic, but when I was in kindergarten and the whole Santa Claus deception came to light, I wasn’t so much angry as despondent. Privately (and regretfully) I made the immediate connection between “story that makes you behave” and religion.

I think that I stayed in church and semi-religious for a few reasons. First, the church was part of our lives, it was an issue of community. Second, we were told that doubt was not only ok but a part of religious and spiritual growth. When I took exception to lines from the Nicene creed, our minister told me I could recite only what I felt to be true. When I said that the resurrection seemed like magic and like something out of a Greek myth, another minister told me that it was, and that figuring out how that could be the case and also be true was part of the message (or something like that).

“Thy Kingdom Come”, Toots and the Maytals

If I had heard this song when I was young, I might have been inspired by it. I certainly find it inspiring now.

I was also inspired to keep trying out faith over the long haul by the model of my father. My father never told us what to believe. When I decided to read the Bible in entirety in elementary school, he supported me, but didn’t hassle or preen. He spent his life, in part, in search of some way to connect, of something definite to believe. He always read passages from the bible in the morning. By the last years of his life, he was sampling from the Talmud and Qu’ran as well.

This is a model I took seriously enough that when I went to geek camp in the summers of fifth and sixth grade, I took classes on Arabic and world religions. None of this helped me, of course. The connections and common ground among the world religions only undermined my faith in what I had been taught growing up. By the time I was in high school, I was as ready to believe in aliens as I was in god.

“Lonely Life of a UFO researcher”, Tullycraft

This is probably the most beautiful song by Tullycraft. The lyrics are just ambigious enough that the search for extraterrestrials is easily assimilated to a search for divinity.

In high school, I continued to go to church but I was slowly beginning to dread it. I early on adopted a version of Pascal’s wager—essentially that living a Christian life wasn’t a bad way to live: if there is no god, you won’t have been hurt; if there is, maybe he will forgive the lack of belief—but I couldn’t truly sign on to the idea that belief was optional. I felt hypocritical saying (and singing things that I didn’t believe).

Of course the irony that my brother will find in all of this is that I really did want to believe. I always found and still find the idea of god attractive. It is that whole belief thing that gives me a rough time.

 “Counting Blue Cars”, Dishwalla

I used really to enjoy having conversations about religion. I actually talked about this song and about god while sitting in a blue Ford Tempo late on a winter’s evening. Of course, the discussion was with a young lady I had a crush on. She was one (of a group!) of girls who liked me but found my attitude about the divine, well, repugnant.

My studies in college and graduate school didn’t help this matter at all. A good deal of my research and teaching has taken me to examine the beliefs and stories of peoples one, two and three millennia prior to our own. While belief and practice have changed a good deal, there have always just been too many commonalities for me to be comfortable with any one view of religion.

(And the polarization of belief in the US since 9/11 hasn’t helped matters much. I went to a pluralistic, but primarily Jewish undergraduate institution where I actually helped start a gospel choir, became engaged to marry a Muslim and taught Latin at a private Jewish high school. Confused? Maybe.)

“Theologians”, Wilco

It is the intellectual component of belief that is most ridiculous. I think. Tell me more, Wilco.

I can’t say that later experiences in life have changed my mind much. I know that many people are inspired with religious feelings at seeing the birth of their children. I was filled with awe at seeing the true animation occur with my son’s and daughter’s first breaths. Witnessing this changed me. But not the way you might expect.

I’ve seen cats, dogs and horses born. My main thought upon touching my children for the first time (apart from, the overwhelming affection and absolute shock that this creature was somehow from me) was that human birth isn’t that different. It is amazing and humbling but it made me feel more an animal than a spiritual being. And watching my children grow up—as they acquire bits and pieces of human beings as they grow—has only made me see how complex yet incomplete we are at birth.

(My wife, watching the same process, feels exactly the opposite).

“Godless”, The Dandy Warhols

Is this me? I love and hate this band.

My brother and I have also had diametrically different experiences since the passing of our father. My brother feels his presence all the time and has also had a roughly unshaken faith that our father’s spirit continues on elsewhere. I have felt only absence and silence. When I saw my father’s corpse in the hospital morgue it was certainly not him—the living force was gone. Yet, I didn’t feel it had gone elsewhere.

What my brother knows, however, is that even though I will identify myself as an atheist and will happily have nothing to do with religion, I think about god all the time. In this, I am an extremely reluctant atheist and one who others expect to change his mind.  I shudder at the arguments of the proselytizing new atheists who try to disabuse others of their faiths. I am perplexed by colleagues who raise their children as atheists because not believing has brought me only fear and remorse. I claim none of the self-righteous superiority often associated with our ‘enlightened’ sect.

The truth is that my weak beliefs are hard-won and private. I live in doubt and a fear of death that I know my brother and wife do not feel because they believe in something. When they close their eyes and listen to the music of the universe they hear an artist’s hands on its strings and feel comforted. I hear an accidental break in cacophony and feel alone.

So, my brother, I will always listen to your songs and hear your words and wait to feel something different. I am an atheist who prays to be wrong, envious of certainty, and always surprised at the thought that I may only be what I am.

There is one consolation, though. I have people like you and my wife to wait for me, patient at my disbelief and unconditionally loving me no matter what I believe.

“Sweet Lord in Heaven”, Mike Doughty

This is a beautiful song about addiction, faith, and salvation. Is there an Atheist’s Anonymous? How does one surrender to a higher power he does not concede? Don Gately from Infinite Jest knows the answer. My brother, should I tell the world more stories related to Infinite Jest?

3 comments on “Call and Response: Religious Songs

  1. mary christensen says:

    Joel, Your mother also loves you unconditionally and love never ends-no matter how you feel it or “see” it.

  2. […] brother and I have different views on religion, polar opposite in some respects. However, I think that we could both agree that if angels did […]

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