Sunday, October 30, 2016

"When the Saints Go Marching In" to my #AtheistEar

I have been wracking my brains all month, trying to think of the ultimate "Halloween hymn" to talk about today, and it hit me: for all that Halloween has been (literally) demonized by evangelical Christians, the actual Christian holiday - All Hallows' Day, or All Saints' Day - already has an almost universally recognized theme:

(Lyrics available if you needed them!)

 This version is by two of the most New Orleans-ian of New Orleans artists: Dirty Dozen Brass Band with a guest appearance by Trombone Shorty. The video is a bit sea-sickness-inducing, but the audio isn't bad, and the band is phenomenal under any conditions.

As a kid, I picked up on unspoken levels of discomfort whenever this song was brought up in my rural, white, evangelical church or around my family. On one hand, this song expresses the same sentiment as "I'll Fly Away" does:

O when the saints go marching in,
O when the saints go marching in,
O Lord, I want to be in that number
when the saints go marching in.

As a Southern Baptist kid, I noticed that two lines of questions would lead to uncomfortable conversations: "What exactly are 'saints' supposed to be?" and "This song is so exciting; why don't we sing it more often?"

According to what I was taught by adults in my Southern Baptist church, "Saints" refers to anyone who has accepted Jesus as their savior. It's just a word for those who are Saved in the Baptist sense of the word. What I didn't learn until years later was that the catholic churches had developed their own mythology around the idea of "saints" which Baptists considered to be non-Biblical, and therefore, evil.

(As an atheist, whenever I run across the stories about these Catholic saints, I marvel at what horrible people they were, and at the way their horribleness was turned into mythology... but that's fodder for another series of posts.)

In high school, I began dating a girl who was Catholic, and I got to learn all over again from my church how Baptists are supposed to feel about Catholics - while at the same time I had my girlfriend as a resource for sorting out Baptist myth from Catholic reality. Baptists told me that Catholics prayed to dead people; my girlfriend explained about the Catholic concept of "intercessory prayer." Baptists told me that Catholic "saints" were not usually Saved, and therefore were actually un-redeemed and not truly Christian - which meant they were, in fact, following Satan. My girlfriend balked at that twisted logic coming from people who reject orthodoxy.

And yes, there were Bible verses about false prophets produced as "clobber texts" on both sides, which were meant to prove that one side or the other was Right(eous), but only served to confuse the issue. Looking back at all of this controversy as an atheist, I recognize that I was stuck in an impossible position between groups that were in violent disagreement over bullshit.

Each side believed they were right, and by maintaining their disagreement, they were making themselves part of a tradition that dated back to the First Century, and a schism that developed between the earliest Christians; a schism between those who believe in orthodoxy, and those who believe in personal revelation. In other words, it was the religious equivalent of arguing over the superiority of Star Wars vs. Star Trek - and no one wins an argument like that.

As to my other question - "Why don't we sing this exciting song more often?" - that turns out to have a very simple explanation that no one wants to admit out loud: Race.

The very similar song, "I'll Fly Away," was written by a man named Albert E. Brumley in 1929. It was one of those songs recorded by dozens of groups and performed frequently on the AM radio stations which grew up across the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. In contrast, "When the Saints..." was not credited to a composer; instead, it was included in our Baptist Hymnals as a Negro spiritual.

Of course, as written, there is nothing in the text of "When the Saints..." that is overtly controversial. "When the sun refuse to shine/I want to be in that number" and "When they crown Him Lord of all/I want to be in that number" are essentially the other two verses of the song. The implicit core desire expressed by the lyrics are a yearning to be included. I think that was the source of discomfort that no one wanted to discuss, because the origin of the Southern Baptists is rooted firmly in exclusion. They split from their Northern brothers before the Civil War in a disagreement over whether black pastors could be ordained as missionaries.

Growing up in a post-Civil Rights era version of the Southern Baptist church, I was surrounded by adults who had not yet figured out where their traditional beliefs fit in America's new political reality. And hearing "When the Saints Go Marching In" apparently reminded them, even if it was on a remote, subconscious level, that they belonged to a community built on excluding fellow saints... saints who wanted nothing more than to be included in that number.

By their nature, Baptists occupy an uncomfortable eschatology. (They try to believe literally in what the most allegorical of books says about the End of Times; so that leads to a lot of cognitive dissonance.) The core of their belief system is inherently prone to heresy, which they can't combat, because they consider personal revelation and conscience to be the basis of spiritual salvation. That means that their own core beliefs don't allow for an "authority" in the church to determine who is or is not a "real, true Christian." They do claim to follow the literal, inerrant text of the Bible, but as I pointed out above, that doesn't allow them to authoritatively resolve even the most central and basic arguments stemming back to the earliest Christian churches. And that means that they have no foundational, scriptural basis for excluding anyone who claims to have come to their faith through personal revelation.

In other words, anyone who says they are a saint, is a saint. That causes a problem for Baptists who don't want to count someone as a saint. Rather than deal with the discomfort of including people they have long worked to exclude, they have a history of projecting their discomfort on the music itself.

"When the Saints..." is a very deeply black song. Being a negro spiritual, it was forged in a community of oral history by people who were being deprived of inclusion in humanity itself. As simple as the text is, it speaks very powerfully of people who want a promise fulfilled - the promise that if they work hard and follow the rules, they will someday be free. It's morbid to consider now how many of them only had death to look forward to. And whether white evangelicals want to admit it or not, this song is a painful reminder of their historic role in maintaining the system that put those people into that forge.

Sadly, I've seen how the discomfort from that painful reminder gets transformed into a reason to continue to exclude. They don't want to be called racists... but they can't seem to square inclusion with the things they do and teach.

White evangelical culture has a long history of demonizing black culture - and pretending that this has nothing to do with race. Consider the example of Sketch Erickson, as the Slacktivist describes here. Then watch that Dirty Dozen/Trombone Shorty performance again, and connect the cultural dots. I think now that the awkward relationship my church family had with this particular song had a lot to do with where they drew their personal line between what is divine and what is not.

And demonizing is what Halloween is all about, isn't it?

This was always the most uncomfortable time of year for my church community. On one hand, you have the unavoidable historic fact that All Hallows' Eve is a Christian feast day... for the wrong kinds of Christians. On the other hand, you have the celebration of evil spirits being glorified in the secular culture, especially when it uses that historically black music.

As modern Americans, we weren't supposed to believe in evil spirits anymore, which always added to the confusion. (I'm still confused by the logic that Christians use that, "There are real witches ... real because they believe in magic, even though I don't, because magic isn't real.")

So our churches would attempt to reclaim the holiday by refusing to have Halloween celebrations, and instead have Harvest Night, or some similarly innocuous sounding alternative... which accidentally imitated the pagan festivals they were trying to distance themselves from in the first place.

As an atheist adult, I look at this holiday with a mix of amusement and pity. I feel bad for the people who work themselves into a frenzy over the "Satanic" nature of the holiday - which seems pointless, considering there is no Satan. And I feel some sense of schadenfreude that the people who are most worked up over the whole thing are battling demons of their own making.

But mostly, I feel like dwelling on the afterlife is a huge waste of time and energy - especially if we can't swallow our pride and address the schisms that we've created for ourselves out of all of these misinterpreted myths.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Michael Jackson's "Thriller" to my #AtheistEar

(Apologies for the mix-up in posting earlier; and apologies if you didn't see this one coming, but...)

Those who have read my book know my personal connection to this song, and the violent act it drove me to commit. Here is the full 13:47 minute experience for those of you who may have missed it:

(Lyrics are available here - but, wow, they're silly.)

And if you'll promise to go read the much improved version in the book, I'll share this excerpt from the original blog post recounting the 6th grade field trip in which this song was my downfall:

One of the girls in my class was the daughter of an extremely wealthy construction mogul in the area, and he sponsored a field trip to his house for our class, complete with a fleet of limousines for the students. Looking back, this makes no sense; I have no idea what the educational value was in tramping about on his huge estate looking at his antique car collection and his enormous pool. But, there we were, and on the way back to the school, someone discovered the radio.
There were several of us in the car: my friends Robert and Scott, and the class bully, Todd. Upon discovering the controls for the radio, they promptly tuned in a Top 40 station. I protested... arguments flew... and I accused them all of loving Satan. This may be where the break-down in civility occurred.
Somehow I ended up pinned to the back seat by Scott, while Robert cranked the volume. "I love this song," he crowed. It was "Thriller". You have to understand that in my mind "Thriller" represented everything that was wrong with our society at that time. It was about zombies (the undead, a tool of Satan), it encouraged dancing (think "Church Lady"), and worst of all: Michael Jackson was a Jehovah's Witness!!!
Yeah, lame. But I was so mad that I leaned up and bit a chunk out of Scott's sternum.
In retrospect, it was extremely stupid, and for so many reasons. But until it happened, I didn't realize what a completely unreasoning dogmatic prick I was growing into. Receiving four swats from the principal of the school (I pleaded with him that I was defending the faith while he tried valiantly not to laugh at me) was a wake-up call.

That wake up call I referred to was the beginning of many years of growing realization that the people who were filling my head with their religious dogma, trying to keep me on the so-called straight and narrow, didn't really believe all of the things they told me.

Sure, they said I should gird my loins with the Sword of Righteousness... but if you actually try to cut anyone with a sword, you will be the one who is wrong. If I follow through and violently defend what I have been told is a core tenet of my faith, I will be in the wrong.

Think about the implications of this, not just for a confused middle school kid who thinks he's standing up for his beliefs in a silly scuffle, but for people who do much more serious things in the name of their faith. People like Eric Rudolph, or Shelley Shannon and Scott Roeder - people motivated to commit infamously violent acts, which church communities like mine frantically denounced after they occurred. I see those people following what they see as the logical, defensible action demanded by what they believe is right.

I can't blame their church for their choices, any more than I can blame my church for the bite on my friend Scott's chest - but I also didn't arrive in that limo on that day fresh out of the ether, with no influences and no teaching.

The lesson I eventually derived from this experience was that I couldn't trust people who tried to tell me that without their message of "peace" I would have no moral compass. I couldn't rely on the Bible as a rule book, because that's not what it is. I learned to listen to my own conscience, and eventually tested my own moral code, keeping only the parts which were sound.

It would be too easy to claim that learning this is what made me an atheist - but that's not actually true. If anything, it made me a Baptist in the tradition of Roger Williams (you know, the guy so opposed to organized religion that as soon as he founded the First Baptist Church*, he left it because his conscience wouldn't let him stay in an organized religion). Biting Scott because of a Michael Jackson song forced me to re-examine my conscience, and put that in the center of my moral code.

Of course, following my conscience meant always being honest with myself, and following evidence instead of wishful thinking, no matter how uncomfortable it made me or those who cared about me. That's why I eventually had to admit to being an atheist. But the way I see it, my intentions are the same as the people who unwittingly set me on the the path that lead to violence. They didn't intend that, and I learned the lesson.

In the end, we all have to struggle to find our way, keep our head, and do the right thing. As the song says:
'Cause it's a thriller, thriller night
And no one's gonna save you from the beast about to strike
You know it's thriller, thriller night
You're fighting for your life inside a, killer, thriller tonight, yeah

*Fun fact: I'm descended from one of the original members of that church. See my post on Mightier Acorns about him!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Satanic Panic to my #AtheistEar

I really wanted to show you something that would convey to you just how bad we evangelical Christians thought things were in the 1980s when it came to the occult. I remember the figures on our local Family Life Radio station excoriating the popular trends of horror films and heavy metal music, and I remember hearing parodies and take-downs that I thought (at the time) were really sticking it to those heathens.

But for today's post, this is the best I could find:

(Lyrics are... probably available somewhere. I'll let you Google this one if you really want to.)

I'm truly sorry for that, but it was honestly the best video I could find to represent what I wanted to talk about today. And by "best," I mean that it's almost listenable.

That was Carman, one of those artists I thought was pretty cool and entertaining in the mid-1980s. He apparently went on to re-imagine Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a wild west showdown. He made several videos like this in the early 1990s, and they tend to be longer and less entertaining. I guess a career is a career.

But I remember there were a lot of smaller-time artists out there doing similar things at the time. I can't remember their names, and clearly, they aren't easy to find on YouTube. But what I wanted to talk about was the way they went so over the top in portraying their Enemy.

There is no denying that a lot of the things that rural Christian communities like mine saw coming out of pop culture in the late-1970s and early-1980s were terrifying. John Carpenter's Halloween, the Exorcist, and the slasher movies they inspired; Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and the increasingly cacophonous and increasingly depraved bands they inspired seemed to confirm that demons and Dark Powers had taken over our land, and were intent on convincing kids (like me!) to ignore their upbringing and sin, sin, sin.

Unfortunately for their message, the people behind the Satanic Panic went too far in building up the Enemy. What do I mean by that?

First, a lot of the panic was based on lies. A man named Mike Warnke was one of the more famous, but there were several people who made a living touring the country and telling stories of their lives as "high priests" in Satanic cults. They described awful rituals, murders, baby-killing, and rapes occurring, and then spoke about how Jesus had saved them, and told them to spread the word. Spoiler alert, Mike Warnke, and those like him, turned out to be frauds.

But not only were these people lying about things that Christians find scary, the truth is that those scary things - like demons and the Devil, and Hell - don't actually exist. I don't just say that as an atheist who does not believe in the supernatural - I also say that as a former Christian who is quite familiar with the Bible. The very concept of Hell, as these people teach it, is not Biblical.

As the Slacktivist said a few years ago, after controversy flared up over a book by Rob Bell:
"Dante teaches this. Jack Chick teaches this. Iron Maiden and countless B movies teach this. But the Bible does not. The doctrine of Hell can be, with only partial success, taken from Dante and Chick and Iron Maiden and grafted onto the Bible. But it cannot be derived from the Bible...
"The Hebrew scriptures offer no support for Team Hell. None. The pages of the Old Testament mention “sheol,” or “the grave,” but not Hell...The gospel as Paul preached it, as he described it in his epistles, does not include the doctrine of Hell."  (from Team Hell gets loud)
The point is that none of these supernatural beings exist, either in reality, or in the scriptures that those perpetuating the Satanic Panic claim to follow.

So why were evangelical Christians like me motivated to buy into the lurid stories we were being told? Why did we want to believe those stories were true? For the answer to that, I'll refer you to another incredible Slacktivist essay, this one about the Anti-Kitten-Burning Coalition. (Spoiler: it comes from a deep need to feel superior to others that becomes more important that combating actual evil.)

At the end of the day, it's important to remember that the vast majority of Christians want to help make the world better. They see the problems that come from drug use, alcoholism, poverty, and crime, and they want to share what they think is a simple solution. If only solving real problems were as easy as shooting a demon with a magic pistol.

But, since you put up with that Carman video, I thought I'd share this gem: it's Steve Taylor's  live performance from 1984 of his song criticizing Bob Jones University and its racist policies. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" to my #AtheistEar

Back when I was an evangelical kid growing up in the 1980s, there was a general reaction among evangelicals against modern rock music - in particular "heavy metal," and bands that played up their anti-establishment, anti-Christian identities. After the drug- and sex-fueled hedonism of the 1970s, and bitter losses in the culture wars, our evangelical communities considered the descent into chaos to be self-evident.

But they believed they did have ample evidence.

Ozzy Osbourne's 1980 solo record, The Blizzard of Ozz, was an easy target for those looking to find evil in the culture of rock. Give a listen to his hit Crazy Train, and see how many elements of evil you can spot in it:

(Lyrics are available here.)

Since we didn't have music video culture quite yet, the only visual we would have had to go by would have been the album cover, seen above. Ozzy, holding a crucifix, and surrounded by smoke, a skull, and crawling towards the camera. We had all heard about his antics as a member of Black Sabbath - an evil sounding band if ever there was one - and about his gruesome adventures on stage. (Like much of the stuff we were told during the "Satanic Panic" of the 1980s, we would have done well to have had Snopes to clear up those rumors!)

And since Ozzy is notorious for being incomprehensible, we can probably forgive the upright fathers of the elder councils for not looking too deeply into the words of his songs - just listen to the evil on display in the music. The menacing bass; the creepy guitar glissando at the beginning; and the wailing vocals - those can't be wholesome!

Then there is the prominent bit of understandable vocal from the second verse:

I've listened to preachers
I've listened to fools
I've watched all the dropouts
Who make their own rules

That first couplet sounds insulting enough, perhaps we can render a verdict. Of course, if one approached the lyrics without the baggage of Ozzy and the motivated reasoning required to interpret this song as "evil," one could quite reasonably arrive at a different conclusion.

But that's how it goes
Millions of people
Living as foes
It's not too late
To learn how to love
And forget how to hate

A deep analysis is not required to see that this song has little or nothing to do with the supernatural, or with Satan, or any of the things typically associated with heavy metal tropes. It's really an anti-war song inspired by the growing realization that human being were pointing enough atomic weaponry at each other to destroy the planet several times over.

And while I know better - having lived through this period - it should be easy to connect the plea for sanity and peace in Crazy Train to the same sentiment that many of us who were being told to fear this music felt. Instead, we chose to pretend that Ozzy was celebrating insanity and exhorting us to go off the rails.

We have seen that same cycle play out several times, now. The shock rock of the 1980s gave way to punk, and saw a resurgence in the 1990s with bands like Marilyn Manson. There is always someone out there hoping to provoke a backlash, and ride to success on the Streisand Effect. And there is always someone out there looking for a reason to be afraid of them.

It usually pays to look at what they're saying before you judge them, rather than how they are saying it.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

"There Is Power In the Blood" to my #AtheistEar

Like "I'll Fly Away," this is one of those rollicking favorites I remember from revivals in my youth.

I settled on this version by Dolly Parton, because I've always liked her as a performer, and she really captures the spirited delivery of this song.

(Lyrics are available here.)

When I went looking for an example of this song, I listened to a few other versions, but couldn't find one where the bass crams the word "power" into the chorus in a hyperactive flourish. Just imagine someone under the mix singing "There is power-power-power-power-power-power-power-power wonder working power..." and you'll see what I mean. It was that kind of boisterous interpretation that fueled my enjoyment of revivals.

But when we talk about songs that have lost their appeal since losing my religion, there are few that can rival this one for sheer tone-deafness and creepiness in its disregard for anyone who is not a lifelong evangelical Christian.

Even when you are raised from early childhood with stories that rely on the idea of a blood sacrifice being the way to set right one's moral and ethical failings, a song which revels in blood ought to be at least mildly disturbing. I'll be honest; as a kid, I found these lyrics to be downright gross. Even if you are completely comfortable with that concept of sacrifice, and you believe that a man (actually, an incarnate deity) was actually brutally tortured and murdered so that you could be allowed to "Fly Away" someday, you ought to recognize that singing about it is going to seem really bizarre to those who don't believe that and aren't comfortable with it. After all, "Blood" is in the title, and it sloshes through every verse.

Now, I'm not saying that if you are a believer, you don't have a right to enjoy a song like this. I'm just saying that it is jarring to realize that the same adults who freaked out over the on-stage antics of people like Ozzy Osbourne and Alice Cooper during the great Satanist Panic of the 1980s were perfectly happy to teach this song of washing in blood to their children.

Being outside of the bubble makes the cognitive dissonance a lot easier to spot.

Also, since I was a Southern Baptist kid, I feel a particular discomfort with verses like this one, now that I know the history of my childhood faith:

Would you be whiter much whiter than snow
There's power in the blood power in the blood
Sin's stains are lost in its life giving flow
There's wonderful power in the blood

The Southern Baptist convention, as is distinct from the main body of Baptist churches, was formed in 1845 after a split over the issue of whether slave owners could serve as missionaries. As a rule, Baptists don't believe in orthodoxy - meaning that there is no central "authority" in a Baptist church. The conscience of the individual is considered to be paramount, and personal revelation is given more weight than in traditions where a leader or council of leaders decides for the followers how to interpret the Will of God. So, for there to have been a "split," there had to have been enough individuals involved whose consciences did not bother them when it came to the question of whether slavery was moral or not.

Throughout the post-Civil War era, and through the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, the churches in this Convention tried to thread a needle between avoiding overt racism and avoiding the appearance of siding with progressives in the culture wars. The argument could be made - and I have heard it made - that a verse like this one, equating whiteness with purity and redemption, is not a comment on race. This is not talking about race, but about sin; and yet, every kid I knew who noticed that verse thought the same thing I did. They thought the same thing you probably did - and the thing that you have been bracing yourself for since you read the verse two paragraphs ago.

But I'm not going to accuse fans of this song of racism. I don't believe that was the intent of the hymn's writer, or of the thousands of people who have loved the song over the past 117 years. I'm just going to point out that the discomfort you feel when a song you love is attacked for its subtext and associations with things that you don't even believe is something we have in common.

Because there are a number of songs which evangelicals frequently attack because of the way they interpret them. Songs which they consider to have evil messages, and which contain disturbing themes and imagery, have been a target for moralizing and for "non-believer shaming" if you will.

Since it's October, I'm going to talk about a few songs like that this month and explore their reputation, their imagery, and their messaging. As I talk about how I interpret them through my #AtheistEar, I want you to remember the outsiders' view of songs like "There Is Power In the Blood" and "I'll Fly Away." Think about them and about other songs that you think have a "good message," but which those outside your shared faith tradition might think are shocking, if not outright wrong. Or gross.

The important thing to keep in mind here is that we all find inspiration in different places. Sometimes, you have to accept that something you love will be horrible to someone else. Perhaps if you take the time to examine why, you might find that your core beliefs are closer than you think.