Posted in God

Why People Don’t Keep Their Religions to Themselves

“Keep your religion to yourself.

“Religion is a private matter, something that is personal for you.

“Religion and politics don’t mix.”

These are common statements we hear, and fundamentalist Christians get a lot of grief for not adhering to such concepts. Today I would like to explain why these don’t make sense, and why, when religions, particularly Christianity, are done properly, these concepts actually can’t be respected.

It has been my observation that non-religious people see religion as sort of compartment in a person’s life. It is like a drawer in the mind that can be opened and closed when appropriate. The fundamentalist lacks manners because he or she does not understand, or respect the appropriate time to open the drawer. Such people feel annoyed or uncomfortable when religious topics surface in everyday conversation, and may even feel manipulated. Religion, to them, is something like sex—a very powerful, but very vulgar topic, best kept out of polite company. This is understandable but it is based on a flawed concept.

Religion, when done properly, is not like a mental drawer that can be opened or shut at will. It is something like…one’s culture or ethnicity. For me, as an American, I cannot “turn off” the American in me. I am American, and it influences everything I do. From the way I think, what I think about, what I want in life, down to the way I dress, the way I eat, the way I conduct myself…it all comes out of my culture. There are times, when I may be specifically “American,” such as during a national holiday, or when I act with the sort of capitalist entitlement for which we Americans are so wryly attributed. But myself and my culture are so intertwined that it is not possible for me to separate them. It is not possible for me to be “a-cultural.”

Religion is much the same way. Rather than being a separate drawer, it is strain that runs through life, and influences everything a person does. Christianity, for instance, teaches that we are all God’s creation, built for relationship with him, but that there are evil forces that vie for the souls of men. We are all locked in this epic battle of good and evil, and we each play a part in fighting the battle by helping others understand that they too can have a relationship with the Creator. This understanding under girds everything a Christian does…how they think, what they think about, what they pursue in life, down to how they conduct business, how they vote, and even how they dress and date.

So, when such a Christian is told to keep their religion to themselves, or that religion is a private matter, it doesn’t make sense. It is like asking them to rewire their thinking patterns. How do you do that? I can stop mentioning the words “Jesus” or “God,” or not quote Scripture, but they still float around in my head. I can refrain from explaining a Biblical concept, but you will not truly understand why I did what I did, or what I said or didn’t say.

Not to say that I can’t exist in a secular society. Of course I can. But sometimes I feel like I am undercover, trying to make an un-politically correct lifestyle politically correct. I sometimes treat it like a game. It’s a sort of a double-talk semantic game on how well I can secularize a Christian concept. Angels and devils, become “good and evil.” Concepts like deliverance and exorcism, become, “overcoming those mental and psychological barriers that keep you from being the best person you can be.” Tithing and offerings become, “charity donations.” Praying about a decision becomes, “thinking it over.” Christian schools become “private schools,” and homeschooling, a common practice in Christian families frequently attributed to neo-abusive Christian indoctrination, becomes “private tutoring.” And so it goes.. this is how life in a secular world must be conducted. (This is also why Katy Perry “cut a gospel record.”)

I imagine it must feel like that to be gay. Your sexuality is intrinsic to who you are, yet everyone you meet, you have to feel them out. Are they one to be trusted? Can I let my walls down? You throw out test comments, and read their faces and body language. When you get a negative response, you know you have gone too far and you back up. And then you know, that’s the depth that that relationship will have.

So this is why people can’t keep their religion to themselves. It’s not a lack of manners. It’s a cultural difference that will always be with us. This is why the apostle Paul wrote that Christians should be “in the world, but not of it.” We should be active in our culture and our world, but in a secular culture, like Paul’s Rome, there will always be a part of us that is misunderstood. But in an increasingly culturally-conscious world, I ask you, is it right to ask us to change? Or is it politically correct to let competing cultures co-exist?

Posted in Life

Lessons From the Theatre

I took theatre arts as a teenager. That is, in school I took a few classes and acted in a couple of plays. But, my main acting experience was in a teen drama group out of our church. We had little comedy-with-a-message sketches we would perform for youth groups within commuting distance. We rehearsed every single Sunday night, and our director tried to book us somewhere at least once or twice a month, most of the time more frequent than that.

In the summers, we would travel out of town, and a few times he even arranged national tours. (He was a self-employed graphic designer, so he would work on drama team stuff during the working hours when youth pastors and such were in office and ready to conduct business).

When our youth group’s worship team started getting good, and actually started calling themselves a band, the director teamed up with them, and marketed to churches that we could do an entire youth service. The band would open, and then then the drama group would do about forty-five minutes of sketches. (The youth pastor would later launch an entire career off that band, but that’s a whole different story).

The band leader was also our youth pastor, so he would close out the night with a mini-sermon and an invitation for prayer. All the drama members would come out and pray our awkward teenage prayers in one-on-one altar ministry. (Which, was essentially, anytime a kid would naturally say “like or “umm,” it was replaced with “Lord,”or “God.” I’m sure God was pleased, but, man, sometimes it was hard to watch!). I did this all through junior and senior high, a total of six years.

We had scripts, written by the drama director, but the team was largely based on improv. The general understanding was, “anything for a laugh.” Inexperienced team members stuck to the scripts, but the more experienced members saw them as sort of a plot outline. Get to the key points, with as many laughs as you can throw in. In the drama team there were only about two real rules: be funny, and for God’s sake BE ON TIME (or we’re leaving your lazy bum!)

For most people, it didn’t matter if you could act or not. It was all about hanging out at drama practice every week. As for the director, it was all about giving apathetic teens the a chance to do ministry, so he didn’t care if you could act or not either. The so-called “audition,” was simply a diagnostic for the director. (And yet, somehow, we were actually pretty good…)

I was never the best actress. But when the best actress married the youth pastor and quit the team, I was proclaimed a good enough mimic to inherit all her lead female roles. This was great fun, and my technique was just to get out there and be stupid and silly and respond in kind to whatever the better, funnier actors threw at me.

As an awkward, shy teen, I remember there was such a rush to having an entire room of people laugh at my jokes. The first time I got a laugh on stage I just stood there in shock for a few seconds. They actually thought what I said was funny!

This anything goes mentality, however, got me banned from the high school theatre. In a rush of drama team success, I auditioned for a high school production of I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a play about the Jewish ghettos during the World World II.

As a newbie to the scene, I was given a three-line bit part as a Holocaust victim. For the better part of the semester, we had after-school rehearsals for three hours every weekday. I delivered my three lines probably once a rehearsal and then spent the rest of the time backstage playing cards or engaging in teenage shenanigans with the other Holocaust victims who didn’t even have speaking parts. On opening night, I wanted to prove to the theatre director that I had talent, or at least experience, and I could do so much more than my three lines. So, I gave myself one extra line. The director heard it and muttered with disdain, “IMROV!” The next play he cast me as a deaf/mute.

Then, as a college freshman, I responded to an open audition casting call for The Crucible, thinking that even a three line bit part would be a great way to meet new people. I sat in the auditions and watched the other performers, and I realized that these weren’t horny teenagers trying to hook up with each other while playing cards backstage. These were all the university’s theater majors, who were learning to make this a profession, and they were all vying for the same seven roles. I didn’t have a chance. I quietly slipped out of the auditorium, and that was the end of my acting career.

But, the lessons I learned in acting have been very valuable tools in life. The first time I consciously used my acting skills in life, I was 16 in my first job. I was obsessed with Christian music at the time, so my first job as a sales associate in a Christian bookstore, was the absolute perfect fit for me. Except I was very shy, and preferred being behind the counter. Being out on the sales floor working with customers scared the daylights out of me.

One day I sat and watched a more experienced cashier ring up customers, for about an hour. (I don’t remember why I didn’t help her, I probably should have…). But I watched how this girl moved, what she said, how she smiled, made eye contact, how she engaged the customers, even in the simple act of ringing up a sale. Drawing from my drama training, I created a character.

I called her Rachel, I don’t know why. She just seemed like she should be named Rachel. Rachel was this cheerleader-esque, bubbly, friendly, sweet church girl who laughed a lot, complimented everyone, oozed empathy for everyone and imbibed positive energy almost to a cliche. Walking into work, I decided, was like walking out onto stage. I had to “get into character.”

I was shocked as the customers laughed and smiled with me. I was actually out there, talking to people and working with customers! And, there was a certain safety in being in character. If people didn’t respond well to me, that was okay, because I wasn’t me. I was Rachel. So, I could live with no inhibitions.

In those first few broke-after-college years, I had a handful of weird jobs that were terrible fits. I knew they were, but I needed the work. So, I learned how to turn on a character for a job interview. I knew how to convince a manager that this shy, nerdy writer was an outgoing, super-friendly, fun loving receptionist type. I channeled the sort of collective stereotype of the young, trendy upwardly mobile college grad from every chick-lit book and movie of the mid 2000’s. I would feel a twinge of guilt as their eyes lit up, knowing I couldn’t keep up the charade longer than a week or so, and then they would be stuck with me. What could I say? It was all about the Benjamins.

I could go on, describing how acting has helped me “fake it till you make it,” when working with children, or even attending an intimidating party of event. But, my point is, life requires a certain amount of bullshit. A little bit of acting skill just makes it go down a little bit easier.

Posted in God

The Little Drummer Boy

The Christmas season is in full swing, and the full-on assault of Christmas music has begun. So, it is no surprise, when today I found myself thinking about the story of the Little Drummer Boy. Of course, his story is fiction, but I think it’s a beautiful legend.

I imagine him, about nine or ten. He’s dirty and his life is hard. His family barely survives by herding sheep or goats. But he has this drum. It’s battered and nicked, and probably homemade. I imagine him something like David. He learned to play out of boredom sitting in the fields.

He hears about the Messiah’s birth . He hears the grown-ups talk in hushed tones and he feels the quickened heartbeat of the longing Jewish nation. This baby is the king. He is going to save his people. The boy thinks about this long and hard, and his heart is moved. This king should be honored. Thank you, for what you will do, his heart sings. Thank you for the hope you bring to our people. Thank you. We have been waiting for you. And we are so grateful you have come.

He decides that this king should have a gift. But what has he to give a king? He looks around at his tiny collection of things. A rock? A game to play with pebbles and sticks? He is embarrassed. No, none of that will do. Then, he thinks of his little drum. He shrugs. I can offer that, he thinks.

So he packs a few figs and some cold meat and sets out on foot. For days, he travels to the nativity, drumming the whole way. He drums through the desert, practicing his beats. He drums through the hills, playing his song. His feet swell and his biscuits are cold, but his resolve stays strong. He drums down the long dusty road into Bethlehem. The Messiah has brought hope to our people. I must go to him and honor him.

When he arrives, he is not alone. Wise men bring expensive gifts worth more than the little boy will ever see in his lifetime. He feels intimidated, but he doesn’t let that stop him. He thinks of his mother, whose step is lightened by the Messiah’s coming. He thinks of the people in the village who now laugh deeper and quicker. He thinks of the people in his temple who are just a bit nicer and a bit more giving. He thinks of his own life just a little bit easier, a little bit lighter. The Messiah has finally come. He must say thanks to this child. For what he has done and what he will do.

Joseph and Mary look at this bedraggled boy wondering who he is and why he has come. Being of humble means themselves, they relate a little more to him than the wise men. But, it is a stable and they have just gone through an excruciating ordeal.

Mary is exhausted and wrestling with ideas of motherhood and marriage, while wondering if she’s technically still a virgin. She had always been a simple girl, but her pregnancy had turned even her friends against her and she had been feeling very much alone lately. All she had was Joseph. But he was her father’s age, and the relationship scared her. She didn’t understand men, and the way he looked at her sometimes made her insides freeze with fear. She knew what a wife’s duty was and she saw the expectation in his eyes and she felt helpless against it. She could barely even speak to him. She missed her mother.

Joseph was still in shock. It had taken way too long to find a midwife, and even then she didn’t speak Hebrew. Then Mary bled too much and now she’s not doing well. Now, how is he going to get them home and then keep them all fed? There’s only so much carpentry work in Nazareth. Besides, Mary wasn’t a woman. She was a girl playing wife. He knew he was too harsh with her sometimes, and he knew he was killing her inside. But, life was hard and he needed a strong woman to help carry the burden. Right now, it was clear she didn’t have what it took. He felt very alone in a foreign country, responsible for two children.

And then it is the drummer boy’s turn. He takes a deep breath and unleashes everything he has. Everything he has rehearsed in the desert. His heart breaks with the passion of knowing that this was the moment he was born for. Barump-ump-ump-um.

Joseph and Mary sit in the stable, their eyes welling with tears, as they release all the tension, all the emotion of the last several days. Barump-ump-ump-um…As the drumbeat rises, Joseph and Mary lean their heads back and just let the music heal their souls. Heal their bodies. And for a moment it is well.

The drum rises to a final crescendo, and Mary falls on her face, and weeps as she babbles prayer in Hebrew. And Joseph takes her hand and says nothing, for it is not good for strong Jewish men to feel. But inside his heart is breaking. All the doubt, suspicion and fear between them, and all the shame heaped upon them, begins to fade and they are one.

I have no gift fit to give a king…And the baby Jesus smiles. But don’t you see? But don’t you see who you are? And finally the drummer boy stops. He nods his head, and says a simple goodbye and promptly leaves the stable. It is done. He has given all he has to the new king. And his heart swells knowing he has said his piece to the Messiah.

I think the little drummer boy is an excellent picture of every Christian artist. We have a talent, an art, and it is all we have to offer him. We have no gift fit to give a king. We have nothing that Christ wants, other than ourselves. I believe God is so pleased when we humbly offer what we have to him. Like the baby in the story, he sees our hears as we pour them out, in the talent he gave us to begin with.

I also believe that when we offer our art in its purity and integrity, we have no idea what he will do with it. We must be obedient to our calling as artists, and let God take care of the rest. It may do something we had never imagined.

Posted in God

Katy Perry and “Gospel” Music

I remember when Katy Perry did Christian music. I never bought her album, but I was a huge fan of her label head and fellow artist, Jennifer Knapp. I remember hanging out on Jennifer Knapp’s online fan forum (haha… remember message boards?!) and seeing ads for Katy Hudson. I remember thinking that I should try her out. Of course, Katy came and went….as did Jennifer Knapp for that matter, and message boards as well.

Somewhere about half a decade later, I found myself curiously drawn to this odd girl singing, “I Kissed a Girl (and I Liked It).” Something about her intrigued me. Her style, her manner of dress, her saucy, taunting demeanor. I instantly liked her. And for no real reason I could think of.

I’d never kissed a girl, and I was sure I wouldn’t like it. I didn’t have a boyfriend to mind, or not mind. And I may have had some cherry chapstick around, but it was the dead of summer. Who needs that?!

So I Googled her.

When I found she had had a short career in “gospel” music under her former name, I immediately remembered her. I was mystified. Granted, I never heard her album, but I knew Jennifer Knapp. And I knew the sleepy choir sounds associated with the term “gospel music” were…uh…well…not her shtick.

Over the next several years,  I would see Katy Perry interviews, where she talked about how she “cut a gospel record,” as if she were Johnny Cash doing a collection of spirituals and hymns on vinyl. It was a Christian pop CD ! Pretty much the same stuff she’s doing now, just minus the cupcake bra and songs about genitals!

I would hear that she was raised to only listen to “gospel” music and I would roll my eyes. Because  I knew what she was doing. What was she doing? Well, here’s the cheap marketing trick her publicist used.

The entire professional Christian music industry, a multi-billion dollar operation, legally falls under the Gospel Music Association (GMA). In 1998, GMA defined gospel music as:

“Gospel music is music in any style whose lyric is substantially based upon historically orthodox Christian truth contained in, or derived from, the Holy Bible; and/or an expression of worship of God or praise for His works, and/or testimony of relationship with God through Christ; and/or obviously prompted and informed by a Christian world view.”

Read again in the first clause, “in any style.” This means everything from Amy Grant, to POD, Switchfoot, to early Chevelle and Underoath,legally are all “gospel” music. I highly doubt the tatted up guys from POD would appreciate being called “gospel” musicians.

Furthermore, read the last clause, “prompted and informed by a Christian worldview.” Hymns and church music fall under another clause. But this clause means  that a “gospel” song can be about anything the artist wants, as long as they do it from a Christian viewpoint.

They can also play any instrument they want in any style they choose. Within the genre of “gospel” music, there is pop, rock, metal, country, rap, swing, hardcore/screamo, and even rasta. Gospel music is only defined by lyrics. It’s right there in the first clause “music whose lyrics…” (And, yes, this is how it plays out in practice as well).

But, when secular artists with a Christian background refer to their Christian music roots, they are urged to call it by its legal name. This makes them sound oppressed and like they have finally gotten free from sleepy, outdated choir music and found “real” music.

They did this with Creed’s Scott Stapp. According to his marketing, growing up, he was only allowed to listen to “gospel” music. This made him sound abused and oppressed by his super religious parents. In reality, not only was this a fairly common rule in Christian households, but when Scott was growing up, Christian music was growing and changing rapidly.

Katy Perry had the same “oppressive” childhood. She too, was only allowed to “gospel” music. She grew up in the 1990’s, the same decade I did. This was a very exciting time in Christian music. It was a huge, burgeoning industry that was actually getting noticed by mainstream music, albeit reluctantly. While these days it can be argued that Christian music is imploding, at that time, it was in its golden age.

In the 1990’s, Christian music was exploding with celebrities, tabloids, and underground hipster labels within underground hipster labels. There were national tours, and huge names some of which were being played on secular stations. There were Woodstock-style festivals held every summer all over the country, some catered toward the indie crowd. There were even a couple of cable channels dedicated to only Christian music videos. Some of those videos even got on regular MTV rotation. So, growing up only on “gospel music” was hardly this Hairspray-esque childhood of being forced to listen to Jimmy Swaggart sing “How Great Thou Art,” on LP records.

So, then, why are they using this terminology? Well other than anti-religious bias, I have another idea.

I read one time about Jon Foreman (Switchfoot) being reluctant to call himself a “Christian musician.” Once you’re in that genre, he reasoned, it’s almost impossible to get out. I can see that actually. Christians think you’re a backsliding sellout and call you a hypocrite. Non-Christians think you’re a religious Trojan horse, trying to sneak up on them so you can beat them with a Bible. And you’re stuck in the middle with no fan base, when all you ever wanted to do is play guitar. I get it.

Perhaps Christian music is such a recognized part of our culture, that to dissociate from it, you have to invent another terminology. But really, do you have to be so eager to get out of what’s been termed the “Christian music ghetto,” that you’re ashamed of it? Eh, what do I know? I’m just an innocent girl, who grew up obsessed with Gospel music.