Sunday, September 25, 2016

Nickel Creek's "Twenty-first of May" to my #AtheistEar

If last week was an example of a great song with disturbing overtones, this week's song takes a tongue in cheek look at those overtones.

Nickel Creek included this song poking a bit of fun at the followers Harold Camping, who believed that Jesus would return on May 21, 2011, on their 2014 album, A Dotted Line:

While it may seem a bit cruel - not to mention shooting fish in a barrel easy - to poke fun at people like the late Mr. Camping, it's worth remembering that there is such a thing as Being Wrong. 

Too many people throw dumb ideas around that are painfully, obviously, and predictably wrong; and yet, they somehow defend themselves from criticism by claiming that you can't prove them wrong. Their sincerely held beliefs trump all of the facts, evidence, and rational reasoning you might bring to bear. Sometimes they wrap themselves in "different ways of knowing" or cast doubt on your credibility, ignoring everything - even previous errors of their own - for the sake of insisting that they have some mystical foreknowledge that you don't have.

Well, I've never been so sure
And I've never led no one astray
'Cept in the fall of '94
But Hallelujah, the 21st of May

They laughed while Noah built his boat
Then cried when came the rain
They mock me now but I will float on the 21st of May
They mock me now but I will float on the 21st of May

It's all harmless enough when they are just selling pamphlets and putting up billboards, but there are deeper, more insidious ways that people are wrong. They ignore evidence to cast doubt on the safety of vaccines, they ignore the body of science on global warming, and insist that economic austerity is necessary to "fix" our economy - all subjects on which the vast, overwhelming body of study contradicts them.

Still, people like me have a responsibility to remain civil. We can't force people to see reason; we can only explain it, sometimes repeatedly, and hope it sinks in. And yes, sometimes, we poke a bit too much fun at them, making them hunker down in their miserable wrongness and ignore us even harder.

Still, there remains the undeniable fact that the only appropriate response to ridiculous ideas is to ridicule them.

(If you haven't seen this, by the way, you owe yourself 20 minutes to see them perform four songs on their NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert - 21st of May is the 3rd song.)

Sunday, September 18, 2016

"I'll Fly Away" to an #AtheistEar

I loved this song when I was a kid, mainly because the congregation was familiar enough with it that I could rip out whatever harmonies I wanted without worrying that I'd throw anyone off.

Here's a more "traditional" version featured in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

 And since I couldn't choose, here's the version by Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch from the official soundtrack:

(Lyrics for the Kossoy Sisters version)

(Lyrics for the Krauss & Welch version)

Even when I was a Bible-believing kid, I noticed the problem with these words, and asked about them. "Some glad morning, when this life is o'er... so, I should be looking forward to death? That seems creepy!"

But as you grow up, and look around, you can see that same tension in every faith. It seems to go along with the notion of an afterlife that is better than this world. Certain groups - I'm thinking of Calvinists, but I'm sure there are others - don't believe the afterlife holds anything but punishment, but most seem to hold out hope of something heavenly.

It's actually very interesting to me to find out what people think would be eternally rewarding. In my younger, more obnoxious days, I used to joke that if heaven didn't involve eternal beers & blowjobs, I wasn't interested. That was a useful shield for deflecting well-intended attempts to save my soul, but these days, I'm more inclined to let people describe their vision of heaven for me. You can learn a lot about their psychology that way.

And I am not saying that to be snarky. It's very important to watch for danger signs, when someone might be considering harming themselves. An obsession with the afterlife, combined with a loathing for the world we live in could be a sign that someone needs help.

One thing I do sometimes get snarky about is the assumption believers make, saying that because I don't believe in "anything" I don't have anything to live for. I find that offensive, because of course I have a lot to live for! Rather than not believing in ANYTHING, I simply don't believe in the supernatural. That means that the world and everything in it is all I get. I don't have an escapist fantasy to look forward to, so I seek to enjoy my life here.

As a matter of fact, that's what I'm doing this weekend: enjoying my son, and our scout friends on a camping/bike-hike! (That's why this post is a bit less analytic than the others.)

I still fondly treasure this song, but for me, it's the harmony, and the memories associated with it that I love. The words are just plain creepy.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry Be Happy" to my #AtheistEar

I know what today is, and that's why I picked this song.

In 1989, I was just stepping out of my sheltered Southern Baptist upbringing and beginning to explore pop culture and pop radio. My girl friends were still listening almost exclusively to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack; the Beach Boys "Kokomo" was everywhere; and a song called "Veronica" by some odd Englishman named Elvis made such an impression on me that I was willing to leave my radio tuned to our local Top 40 station, which insisted on playing such awful fare as "Pour Some Sugar On Me" and "Sweet Child o' Mine," in hopes that I could hear it again.

Then out of nowhere, a relatively unknown a cappella genius released a joyful, silly ditty that conquered the world for a few weeks.

A video featuring Robin Williams and the brilliant Bill Irwin didn't hurt, either:

(Lyrics are here - but you probably know them note for note.)

By itself, this song probably wouldn't count as being religious in nature, but Bobby McFerrin has always been associated in my mind with faith. He made a few casual references to "the Good Book," in his music and in interviews; he composed and performed Psalm 23 on his 1990 album Medicine Music; and his most recent album, 2013's Spirityouall consisted of arrangements of spirituals and traditional Americana, as well as "original songs which explore Bobby’s everyday search for grace, wisdom, and freedom."

McFerrin's spiritual character would have been important to me in 1989, because I was in the process of figuring out which secular pop culture phenomena were "acceptable" and which were not. I couldn't find anything particularly objectionable about Don't Worry Be Happy, even using the hyper-critical standards for judging pop culture I learned from my pastors and grandfather. I ended up buying Simple Pleasures and carried it around for years, playing it in my car or putting it on when I went to sleep.

Like most absurdly popular one-hit acts, Don't Worry Be Happy hit a saturation point, and became a joke for the hipper members of the cognoscenti. It became an easy punchline for late night hosts, and a cultural reference which, with an eyeroll, could show how sophisticated the speaker was. A lot of people "got over it" and McFerrin's career might have been declared "over" as well. Except that it wasn't. He kept making music, taking on interesting projects with jazz and classical greats, and he built a reputation among musicians as a true genius with a childlike sense of wonder to match his impressive vocal range and control.

As an adult, and as a young parent, I sometimes found it difficult to share music and stories from my childhood with my little children. Like I discussed last week, the hymns I grew up with seemed too wrapped up with ideas that I had not only rejected, but which seemed loaded with awful baggage. I didn't want my children to have their earliest memories tied to ideas that I felt I had outgrown and regretted.

I also had difficulty relating to the new choices welling up from the children's entertainment industry - I loathed Barney and the Wiggles, I was uneasy with the acid trip that was Teletubbies, and I struggled to find much depth in the songs that they were learning in school. I made my own "mixed tape" CDs for the car, and combined songs the kids liked with some of my own favorites - songs like Don't Worry Be Happy - which seemed to go over pretty well. We all survived our long car trips to and from our home base when we were stationed in the UK, at least.

The September 11 attacks on America affected my family deeply, though thankfully, indirectly (described in The Impact on My Faith). It was that period of my life, in the years after 9/11, that I really started thinking about the songs and tradition I had grown up in, and applying some critical thought to what I had been taught to believe from birth. As I did, many of the old hymns and songs I had loved growing up became problematic for me, because the things they say have been exposed as ugly and corrosive. But one of the earliest songs in my memory that had no baggage and still held up as an unabashed statement of joy in the face of adversity was... Don't Worry Be Happy.

I was somewhat embarrassed by this. I didn't want to be the guy telling 9/11 victims, "Hey, in every life we have some trouble... but when you worry, you make it double!" I didn't want to admit that my philosophical answer to It Is Well With My Soul has a music video featuring three clowns hopping around acting silly. But when things get dark, I have to admit that humming to-koo-koo, to-koo-koo and tapping out a rhythm on my sternum brings in a welcome bit of light.

When my son began to struggle in school, and we began to suspect that he was on the autism spectrum, we looked for ways to reach him and help him deal with the frustration and anger that was building up. He was too young to have a logical, rational discussion. We couldn't just talk him through his troubles. This was doubly difficult for me, because I try to confront problems rationally and head on, and because he had already formed a barrier against me - for some reason, he had decided to focus his rage on me, so I couldn't even get near him when he was in trouble.

We needed to draw him out of himself and make him care about something, so we got him a hermit crab. We knew he loved animals, and that he found it easier to relate to them than to people. Our hope was that if something depended on him, he would take care of it, and this would help him see his own worth and teach him to be responsible for something outside of himself.

He loved that crab. He named it Dedrick, and he kept Dedrick's terrarium spotlessly clean and well stocked with water and food. It wasn't a magic wand that suddenly made everything better, but he did start to make progress and he came out of the dark place he had been making for himself. He even grudgingly started sharing more time with me, proudly showing off the new shell he had picked out for his crab or talking about research he had done online.

I still couldn't relate to him the way I could to my other kids. He wasn't openly hostile any more, but he was still guarded. I sometimes felt like he would never let me in, and I would never be able to repair whatever was wrong. I felt like I had nothing to offer him. But one day, my wife came and got me. She excitedly took my hand, and indicated I should be quiet. She took me to where the boy and his crab were sitting in a sunny corner of the living room. Dedrick was exploring a freshly cleaned cage, and my son - the boy who didn't even like to talk around me - was singing.

He was singing Don't Worry Be Happy.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Horatio Spafford's "It Is Well With My Soul" to an #AtheistEar

For long time readers of this blog, or fans of the book, you might recognize this song from my post, Going to Pet the Rabbits. (A much better, edited version appears in my book, which you can find on Amazon.)

To quote myself:

Being a memorial service...Amazing Grace and It Is Well With My Soul were featured. The first verse of the latter one is particularly appropriate, and I was struck today by how Zen it is: 
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
- by Horatio Spafford

That part, at least, is a universal comfort; attaining peace in the tempest is a skill that everyone should learn - and the elemental imagery of the water here is striking. As I listened, I thought about how important that Idea was to me growing up, and how I've held onto it. That, at least, was something good and honest that could help my friend grieve, I thought.
But there is a lot more going on in this song than the first verse. Here's a modern version of the full song you might enjoy (with some historical background included):

(Full lyrics are available here.)

As a kid, I thought this song was beautiful, and because I was a music nerd who spent most of his time by himself, the chorus is one that I would hum to myself on a continuous loop, putting a swell into the harmony parts, or improvising alternate melodies to complement the one composed by Philip Bliss. The music captured my mind, and the words of the chorus made it a song that I could still treasure after I stopped being a Christian, because they were and are comforting:

It is well, (it is well)
With my soul, (with my soul)
It is well, it is well, with my soul

Psychologically, the first verse and chorus use a combination of stirring imagery and call-and-response repetition to create a calming effect. And if, like me, you don't believe in the mystical idea of a soul, you can certainly appreciate the poetic sense of self here. The sentiment is a common one in human tradition; the ladies in my church would often say, "Let go, and let God," and as I noted in my introduction, there is resonance here with the Zen tradition of letting go of concerns about the physical world.

Of course, the other verses of this song are very clearly rooted in Christian theology - and those roots are more disturbing to me now that I am an adult. They say, "Though Satan should buffet..." you'll be okay because "Christ has regarded my helpless estate/And hath shed His own blood for my soul" - a common theme based in the ancient concept of ritual sacrifice. In the same vein (pun intended), "My sin, not in part but the whole/Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more" - again, building on the idea that because Jesus was tortured to death to "pay for" your sins, you won't have to suffer a worse fate later.

There is a lot to unpack in there.

Being a kid raised in a Christian tradition, most of these concepts were taught to me from the earliest moments of my life. Songs, including this one, are tied into my first memories, so that even though as a toddler I certainly had no grasp of what "sin" was supposed to mean, I remember the hearing the songs and the music drags what I know now about the words into the memories and impressions I have of my earliest days. This has the effect of making things I was taught feel like they were always part of my make-up.

This is not magic; neurologists are continually adding to what we know about how the brain works, and studying the way our memories are constantly recreated and overwritten. (This RadioLab episode on Memory and Forgetting talks a lot about the science behind that.) Using that mechanism of re-writing memories, music acts as a vehicle for carrying ideas "back in time" so to speak, so that even ideas that I learned about later (probably as I approached double digits, and became self-aware and self-conscious) my brain naturally recalled the music and retroactively tied the words to that memory.

Knowing this about how the mind works means that things placed into my earliest memories are things that I find disturbing now. Take sin just as a general concept. The Christian ideas about sin are not uniform. No matter how I define the term here in this tiny blog post, I won't be using "the" definition of it that all Christians use. In fact, one of the main reasons that there are so many different kinds of Christian is that they each have a unique set of ideas about what sin is, and what one must do about their sins.

The simplified version of the concept that I was raised to believe was that sin is what occurs when you "miss the mark" - you, as an individual, must make moral decisions all the time, and when you make the wrong decision, that is a sin. Building off of that idea, you, as an individual, will make a lot of poor choices in your life. Every poor choice you make adds to your suffering and the suffering of others. (Don't call that karma, though, because we don't go for that mystical Eastern stuff!) So, once you reach an age where you become aware of all of the countless mistakes you've made, how do you fix them?

That's where the idea of Christ's sacrifice enters the picture. Building on those ancient traditions of ritual sacrifice, and playing to the very common human desire to restore "balance" to things, the story about Jesus being crucified is meant to give everyone a way to restore that balance. Again, every different kind of Christian will have a different explanation for how that is supposed to work. But thanks to the magic of poetry, every one of them can project their explanation onto a song.

If you watched the video, you have already read the story behind the writing of "It Is Well With My Soul," but if you skipped the video, here is the gist: Horatio Spafford was a prominent Chicago lawyer with a large family. He and his wife were close friends of the evangelist Dwight L. Moody. The Spaffords lost most of their wealth in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, lost their son to scarlet fever, and then in 1873, lost their four daughters at sea when the ship they were on collided with another ship.

Spafford wrote this song as his own ship passed the spot in the ocean where his daughters died, on his way to England to retrieve his wife.

His story reminds me of another story. The Story of Job, in which Satan wagers that a man named Job will stay loyal to God even if God allows Satan to kill his family, destroy his wealth, and ruin his health. (Spoiler Alert: Job fails, because he yells at God. This is his only sin, at least in the version of the story I was taught.)

Spafford would have been well familiar with the story of Job. There's a pretty good chance that he was thinking about that story when he decided to pen this song. I don't know what Spafford's sins might have been - he was a lawyer, so that's one, amirite? - but the beauty of a concept as loosely defined as sin is that it applies to any mistake you make. So he was certainly contemplating all of the reasons why God might have decided to take away everything he had while he was on that ship and in that place. If I had been in his place, the song I might have been composing might have been a bit angrier, especially if I thought that the only reason I was suffering was because a sadistic God had placed a wager on me, to see how I would hold up.

But Spafford penned a song of praise, instead.

If you're a believer, and you want to be inspired by that, then by all means, please stop reading and go about your day. But if you are like me, you may recognize something else in Spafford's decision, and you won't find this inspiring at all.

Because Spafford's reaction strikes me as being identical to the reaction of an abuse victim. When an abuser victimizes a spouse or a child, they do a number of things. They convince the victim that they deserve the punishment they are receiving. They convince the victim that the only way to prevent further abuse is to appease the abuser. They convince the victim that only the abuser can make them better. And even if an outside observer can get to the victim and try to convince them to leave, they rarely do, because they've bought into that narrative built by the abuser.

I went forward in my church at age 11, and followed the Southern Baptist pathway to salvation. I was convinced that all of my sins were piling up already, and I had been told from birth that they were all my fault. I deserved to suffer for them; and the only way to escape my punishment would be to be Saved.

My Christian friends and family not only believe this, but they find it beautiful. They don't see the abusive nature of the relationship they imagine they have with their god, and they are convinced that without him, they are worthless (at best), and capable of the most hideous sins imaginable.

For the five or six years after I was saved, I lived that life. But at some point, something broke the cycle of abuse, and I started on my path to where I am now. Along the way, I had to learn to let go of a lot of baggage, and at some points along my journey, this song soothed me, with its apparent message that it's okay to let go. If there were a God, and I was given a brain and a conscience, I would have those things even if I walked away from the abuser and the threats. And as it turned out, I was okay.

Now, to my Atheist Ear, this song sounds very different than it did when I was younger. It's a dark reminder that life is hard enough without punishing ourselves for the sake of an imaginary abuser. Sometimes, we have to ride out rough times. Sometimes, we suffer consequences for things we weren't responsible for. We certainly miss the mark when it comes to making choices - and we should own our mistakes - but we make good decisions, too, and most of us don't deserve to be punished.