Thursday, June 16, 2016

Equal Time

An interesting aspect of the Godless society that existentialism exemplifies is that, since free will (an exceedingly Christian principle) is a tenet of Kant's ideology, it is equally free to immerse itself in faith. Some 2,000,000 souls congregating this past September to see the Pope in Philadelphia suggest that God isn't done yet, and from Copeland to U2 to Tom Waits, Jesus was/is a badass singer in a rock 'n' roll band. Being a man of faith means - if movies, TV, and your local Christian soft-rock radio station are correct - being a chickenshit who smiles and talks too much, is easily offended, has never ogled Kate Upton in a swimsuit and exudes a white bread predictability that's bone-deep. It means prudishness, sanctimoniousness, and oh-no, here-comes-so-and-so, don't-make-eye-contact obnoxiousness. It means being the insufferable inverse of a badass.

But talk about badass, how about The White Stripes' "Cannon"? Here Jack White, channeling Blind Willie Johnson, wails about "John the Revelator" and the book of Revelation. White was raised Catholic, and "still feels an affinity for the martyrs and saints." That doesn't make The White Stripes a Christian band by any means, but that "affinity" is apparent in much of the Jack White canon (no pun intended).

The New York Times described Tom Waits' voice as something that was "soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, then taken outside and run over with a car." That badass voice has also given rise to some beautiful songs about faith in God, like "Come Up to the House," "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet" and the gospel cover, "Lord I Been Changed." There is no doubt that White and Waits are far from evangelical choir boys, but the spirituality is there; call it an existential spirituality if you will, but it's there, it's explicit; what it's not is chickenshit.

At times different takes about God and the value of faith can be reflected in the work of the same artist; Andy Partridge comes to mind. His 1986 song "Dear God" (later added to pressings of the band's Skylarking LP) deals disappointment in spades . It's an ironic prayer to a God uninterested in the state of a world He created; a pissed off dirge about throwing down ones graven images and moving on. It caused quite a stir when released, yet, it's an enduring and compelling view: that free will is one thing, but evil has become more than just an alternative to good. Children are dying of hunger, wars have started because of conflicting views about sacred texts, and we're left to wonder what it all means. It's a theme mimicking Depeche Mode's anthem of teen angst and perplexity "Blasphemous Rumours." The idea that a loving God could possible turn a cold heart on His people, laughing on the day of judgment, is beyond contemptible. But six years later Partridge wrote another song about Peter Pumpkinhead on XTC’s 1992 disc Nonsuch; Peter is a Christ-like figure who doesn't adhere to the rules of conduct because they get in the way of doing what really matters: feeding the hungry, housing the poor, loving ones enemies. It's a story about how Christianity and faith should work systematically – that the crucified Christ looks like you and me, that we should also feed the starving, house the poor, and love those we despise. 

That XTC theme of absurdity, when it comes to the world and the God who purportedly made it, is common in rock music. On Elvis Costello's "God's Comic," the best track from Spike, God is a misrepresented figure who scratches his head at humanity, making him wonder whether he "should have given the world to the monkeys." Costello frames this quite well with a parallel between metaphysics and show business that shows how humanity's image of God has been reduced to that of a celebrity, at very least a confusion with Santa Claus: "it’s the big white beard, I suppose," says a beleaguered God.

Allusions to God often have an arbitrary or cursory bent, but in songs like George Michael's "Jesus to a Child" and The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows," the name of God is reserved as an analogy of good. That's not badass at all; that's sentimental, even pious, and once again, I'm not convinced that God's done yet.

"I have three dads; my biological father, God and Dylan."    - Jack White