Friday, December 19, 2008

Advent Post: How I Almost Decided to Hate God, Authenticity, and why One Sufjan Stevens does More Good Than The Entire CCM Industry... Part 2

(and that's just the title!)

OK. They say well begun is half-done, so what does it mean that I’ve started this post five times now?

You can hit play and start reading...but I almost want to encourage you to just listen to the song without any interruptions once, and be moved by it before you hit replay, and THEN start reading. The song deserves it.

Holy Holy Holy, by Sufjan Stevens.

Sufjan Stevens is an artist. He makes music. He writes songs with a delicacy and creativity that stays constantly intriguing. He tells stories that are easy to care about. Whether the events he sings about are true or fiction, I don’t know, but he sings about them honestly. And I would, in a heartbeat, will the entire Christian Contemporary Music industry out of existence, in order for one other artist like him to come into being.

While I have other issues with the Christian Contemporary Music industry that I won’t get into here, one of the fatal flaws in it is, in my opinion, that it exists at all. See, by the sheer existence of a genre, a label, and even separate shops to sell Christian music, a very clear line has been drawn between Music For God and Music For Everything Else.

I have seen this same false binary drawn in the characters and philosophies of a number of religious people I’ve known. They seem to delineate the parts of their life into Things Of God and Things Of The World. Here: I’ll give you some examples: yeah, it’s a bit of a caricature, but what ya gonna do?

How Roboseyo Lived His Life Until 2002:

Things of God
Bible Study
My mind/spirit/soul
My friendship with John (who’s a good Christian)
My friendship with Janice (I’m trying to get her to come to Church with me)
1/3 of my music collection (the CCM stuff and the classical stuff by Bach, because he wrote “to the glory of God” at the end of his compositions)

Things of The World
The R-Rated Movies I own, including three with nudity
My coworker Jeff (who swears, and doesn’t believe in God)
My body (especially the parts that excrete things)
2/3 of my music collection (the devil music)
My job (money is Of This World, but you gotta eat)
The “dirty” pictures on my hard drive, which I periodically delete because I feel guilty, but then find more
My favorite restaurant (I should give that money to the poor, and it’s a fleshly indulgence, and I should fix my mind on higher things, not animal pleasures like food, but it’s just so darn good)

and the thing is, by drawing a circle around Things of God, and keeping them separate, Things of God are slowly painting themselves into a corner, a little niche so specific that it’s no longer relevant to anybody’s life. I wrote a poem once that described it as a leviathan trapped in a well. I mean, come on. Who except Christians listens to Christian Contemporary Music? And why do THEY listen to it? Because it’s comforting and comfortable, (usually) not because it’s making them think about new things or pushing the envelope, either musically or lyrically. Most praise songs are written to be easy for a near-novice to learn how to play on guitar, so that church bands can sing them without throwing the amateur praise leaders for a loop. The lyrics? Don’t get me started.

sidenote: please do not confuse Christian Contemporary Music with Sacred Music.

For a simple explanation:
Christian Contemporary Music, or my personal (un)favorite: "I could repeat this line forever"
Sacred Music:
(Ave Maria, by Shubert)

But the problem is this: the more I think about it, the more I reject this kind of reductionist view of the world. Compartmentalizing things might make them easier to manage, but it’s just not true to life. (and yeah, I know this is a bit of a straw man argument, and I’ve unfairly characterized/simplified the binary here. You don’t have to tell me that. There may even be some CCM artists worth their salt, but I’m just not ready to wade through the rest to find them. Sorry.)

Back to Sufjan Stevens. He sings about God. He drops a reference to bible study into his song, he met the girl after church one day. He also sings about serial killers, ex-presidents, leukemia, Santa Claus, and cities he’s visited, and lakes, and it’s all one. It’s all Sufjan, and the spiritual stuff is in contact with all the other topics he sings about, and when it does come into play, it’s all the more surprising for its appearance, like a flashbulb at midnight, or an unexpected hint of lemongrass in a stirfry, BECAUSE it’s in the mix with everything else, and not segregated, the way Elvis made Gospel Albums, and Rock Albums, and nary the two should mix. This means all Sufjan’s work shimmers with this sensitivity, everything is enhanced by his spirituality, and we end up with this feeling that the guy down the street is sacred, is just as sacred as the altar at the front of the church, even.  And it's not affected, there are no strings attached: he never stops singing and says, "Well, now that I've got your attention, I'd like to tell you a story about a man who lived a long time ago..." with that "I know what's best for you" tone that's so off-putting.

This is what Franny wanted to realize when she tried to Pray Without Ceasing in Franny and Zooey. It’s what Zooey was driving at when he said, “There isn’t anybody out there who isn’t the fat lady” and later, “Don’t you know who that fat lady is?. . . It’s Christ himself.”

And that’s what spirituality is like. Or should be like, I think: if I have to draw a line around what’s spiritual and what isn’t, then the sacred, the holy, well, yeah, it has a pretty space, when I go there, but for the rest, it kind of doesn’t affect my life, does it?

So I haven’t been to church in a year. I’ve been in churches. Some beautiful churches, churches built for God’s Glory, and been moved by the way the architect did his work as an act of worship. But not during a 9 a.m. church service, not with hymns, organs, announcements, a sermon, handshakes with strangers, and a closing song. Not where we orally read bible passages or creeds in call and response.

And saying this will cause a great deal of concern for some of my family back home. They might think I’m falling away from God, but they’d be wrong.

You see, I have met God this year, and spent time with her in a zillion places. In Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry and JD Salinger's books. In the laugh I unintentionally got out of an old lady while goofing off for girlfriendoseyo, in the mountainsides of Gyungsan province on the train to Andong, in the Korean fireworks and the jjim dalk. In the bamboo forest. In a Korean Traditional performance, and in Blue, by Joni Mitchell. In me and my best friend finishing each-other’s sentences, or making the same wise-crack at the same time, while our significant others watch, bemused. In this incredible meal at a two-person restaurant near Dongguk University. In a musical bliss-out, and a lot of caramel macchiatos. In cherry blossoms and fall colors and pigeons scattering as the kid runs out to catch them. In telling stories with a few old Canadian boys over beers. In a coffee shop near Inwang Mountain, in sunlight waking me up through my curtains, in a brilliant witticism from a level one student, in a little girl on the subway who became my friend in five seconds, in smooching with girlfriendoseyo.

I have found the community of God’s people and the exhilaration of minds meeting in truth in conversations with pastors’ wives, atheists, muslims, Christians (with a big c), christians (with a small c) pantheists and buddhists, in the bible, in books of poetry, in the Dalai Lama’s teaching, and in some photography that moved me. In watching a person make the friends she needed to survive in Korea, in seeing my best friend be goofy-in-love with his wife. And you can’t discount that. You can’t discount any of that: if that stuff’s not sacred, then nothing is, and if I’m not allowed to appreciate its sacredness, I don’t want to hear what else you have to say about what is and isn't holy and worthy of my startled wonder. Again, from JD Salinger’s “Seymour, An Introduction,” “Seymour once said that all we do our whole lives is go from one piece of holy ground to the next. Is he NEVER wrong?”

This is the world, this is life, and God made all of it, and it is wonderful, and seeing that and appreciating it is an act of worship, and an act of thanks, if ever there was one, and if you tell me it’s not, if you tell me I’m not as close to God as I once was, because I haven’t gone to Church, or if you ask me about my journey not to hear about it, but to evaluate it, and judge whether I'm checking the right boxes and will still get to heaven...

I’ll change the topic, dodge the questions, or say what you want to hear and move on, because frankly, you’re not God, and I don’t need anybody but her to approve my journey before I can be sure that me and the hep-cat upstairs are square.

So when I wanted to pray for Sally, instead of rejecting God altogether, sure, you can call that the Holy Spirit calling... I’ll accept that. And yeah, when people tell their stories in Church, about how God pulled them back to The Fold after they’d wandered far, they invoke the Holy Spirit too, but somehow, the Holy Spirit isn’t leading me to the place everyone expects, when somebody tells a story like that, and I'm not going to retroactively revise the story in order to fit the normal testimony arc.  Starting my spiritual narrative on a half-truth is pretty shaky, if you ask me.  I still don’t know just where I'm going, except that one: God ain't through with me yet, and I'm not through with God, and two: I’m still moving, and listening, and trying to become Who I Really Am (which is another way of saying Who God Created Me To Be, for those of you who prefer blogs to be written in Christianese). Honestly, if the journey keeps going like this, full of learning, growth, change, and spackles of beauty all over the place, I'd even argue that Getting Home is overrated.

So I was tempted to say I’m taking the long way home... and that phrase gives me an excuse to put this lovely, lovely Tom Waits song, which had a lot of meaning for me in 2006, into the post. (Soundtrack: hit play and keep reading: The Long Way Home, by Tom Waits [later covered by Norah Jones. He did it first.])

but I don’t think it’s about getting home anymore: as I said in last year's advent post, when I wrote about recovering from grief:  
Maybe some honest stumbling about in the woods IS an act of worship, and by being OK with that, or even celebrating that, it might even become a celebration of the fact we need never cease our search for meaning, that every part of our life can continue being deepened and enriched, long after we stop feeling sad.
So, you know, I haven’t turned my back on God. I just don’t think that’s how things work. See, saying I’ve switched from Christianity to Buddhism (as I did on April Fools’ Day) doesn’t really wash to me either, because that’s just a label, and my label can’t change the way my mind has been wired for 29 years now, how my character has been put together. It seems to me, switching which book I read for my morning meditation and which building I visit to worship, balanced against the sheer mass and inertia of my 29 years of life and thought and choice-making, is about as fundamental a change as painting my black car red, and saying it’s a new one. I’ll still be the same guy, either way, I’ll still treat strangers the same way, and follow the same steps to solve a problem, and be moved to a place of sacredness, meditation, or elevation by the same things. I don’t even think it’s possible to turn my back on God: she’s been woven into my cloth too intricately, and I wouldn’t want her out anyway. Instead, I think it’s more accurate to say that God has spilled out of The Church Space, and started making every part of my life shine, exalted and transubstantiated entire tracts of what used to be The World, and soaked them with holiness. Jeez, guys, God is way bigger now than she used to be...and quite a bit awesomer, too, to be honest.

This song was also on Sufjan Stevens' Christmas album.  (Seriously, go and buy it.  You can download it for free, but you should buy it, so that you're supporting the artist.)  I'd listened through the album a few times, but then one night I was walking around Gyungbok Palace with girlfriendoseyo, and we were sharing the MP3 player in that cheesy way couples do in Korea, and this song came on, and in the dark and cold, walking with my lady, the gentle beauty of Sufjan Stevens' songs, about all kinds of holiday topics, led us to a point where I was finally ready to be moved by this song again.

Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing

And the a cappella verse moved me to tears that night: somehow the bottom dropped out of this Christmas album, and it went from some very nice Christmas music to a moving experience.  It has stayed in that wonderful place since, and I've been listening to it like an addict.

O to grace how great a debtor
daily I'm constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here's my heart, O take and seal it,
seal it for thy courts above.

I went home after that night, and watched the Youtube video of "Holy Holy Holy" before bed (the same one that started out this post), and again, was moved right to tears, and God was absolutely in the room, saying, "Our story's not finished yet, pal." There's no way I can walk away from that. Absolutely no way. Yeah, the way I worship now looks way different from how it looked five or seven years ago, but more places shine now than then, more of the world is sacred and beautiful now than then, and God is way, way bigger now. Where we go from here, I don't know. Whether I talk about it with a single soul in the universe remains to be seen...though I wouldn't be surprised if God and I saw fit to keep it mum, it being only between us anyway.

To the people who are missing me and thinking of me this Christmas: merry Christmas. I miss you too.

To everybody else who was patient enough to read this whole thing. . . wow. Good on ya. And merry Christmas to you, too.



Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
t-HYPE said...

Dang Rob, why haven't we met yet? I live for conversations like these. People so rarely examine their faith and those who wrestle with it are even less likely to talk about it. All the good stuff is in the struggle! I've been in Seoul just 4 months and I'm going through my own at he moment...

This post is so serious but your cracks on CCM (from which I used to make a living) are amusing and mostly deserved. That first link is definitely a WTF?! on so many levels. (I'm desperately hoping that was some kind of elaborate prank.) And true, as one of my friends once pointed out, the guy who wrote "I could sing...forever" gets a 'C-' in songwriting for these lines alone: "Oh, I feel like dancing. It's foolishness I know. But when the world has seen the light, they will dance with joy like we're dancing now." *boo.* 진짜?

Anyhoo, I know CCM wasn't the point of this post but I find it interesting how different our views of Christian music are. I think of artists like these as CCM and the Hillsong type people as worship bands. Both are prone to varying levels of randomness but the audience/purpose is a little different. I'm rambling. And I know we've had different experiences. I'll save the rest for my own blog. ;)

If you haven't though, you really should check out Derek Webb. Like Sufjan, his stuff is very scaled down and he sometimes gives his tracks away for free. And then there are wonderful artists like Andy Hunter who spends most of his time doing soundtracks for video games, etc. in part because no one can figure out how to market a techno-rave guy with outbursts of Christian lyrics.

Thanks for doing the post. Your struggle is the fight of faith. If people aren’t struggling, they probably aren’t thinking enough. ;)
"For now we see through a glass, darkly,.." ref

elizabeth said...

thanks for the follow up post. i recognize things in it that i have heard others also struggle with; it is funny what brings people in and out of where they were and where they are going.

take care.

Roboseyo said...

hey tiff. just so you know, I took your comment down because it had your e-mail address in it, and I don't want your e-mail address on my page to be the reason you suddenly start getting hundreds of viagara ads in your inbox every day.

T-HYPE: you're right about worship/CCM music. I didn't want to spend too much time on CCM just because it'd take over the post, but you're right that there's a difference between CCM and Worship music.

However, I'd argue that the fact remains that CCM is mostly preaching to the choir, and as such, a guy like Sufjan, who has a diverse audience, does more good than CCM artists, because he exists outside the CCM label, and is heard by people who would never ever, EVER browse the CCM rack at a record store.

Finally: heck yeah, we can hang out sometime, but it'll have to wait until I get back from my trip to China.

melissa v. said...

miss you too, robo. more all the time. suf. stev. is now on my 'must acquire' list...
my spiritual journey these last three years has been an expansion and an implosion all at once. I've had to expand it, in order to ensure it still included Bad Sinners such as myself. (tongue in cheek, but not really, as you know). I've had to force myself to look inward and learn to live with some sabre toothed monsters I just can't kill (and am learning perhaps that obliteration is NOT God's will for them? But my coexisting with them? Why? Not for me to know, I guess, but it does add leagues of depth to my experience of life and my ability to lend grace to others...). No matter how much I dye their fur, those teeth just don't disappear.

I'm learning, and learned more today in my therapist's office, about stepping inside Grace. Forgiveness and love, for me. Because I did the best I could. The best I could. The best I could. It wasn't very good, but it was the best I knew how to do at the time. So.
If He can do it,
maybe I can, too.

Miss you.

melissa v. said...

p.s. can i link you on my blog?

Roboseyo said...

go right ahead, mel.

Anonymous said...

Excellent. Thanks for sharing. I've had similar experiences, and left the church when I was 20. I have gone back to churches, but never my old church, and then only in passing. I haven't stepped inside one for very long now. I've been to Buddhist temples. I've read books by the mystics from all backgrounds, religions, philosophies. And I still come back to Christian imagery and the figure of Christ as incredibly meaningful and significant to my spirituality. I've had some inclination lately to find a church full of open, questioning individuals...but I'm okay if I'm never able to find one. Though my doubts characterized my faith before I left the church, my absolute awe of the Divine is now the main attribute...

The Korean said...

Hey Robo,

Have you heard of pastor Tim Keller? He is the pastor of my church in New York, and his sermons are very famous. Some of them are available online. Link

I think you would like his sermons. Your post reminds me a lot of last Sunday's sermon, about Genesis and how God really loves the material world.

tamie marie said...

Over on my blog, Jon commented on your post. XO.

Anonymous said...

I came to your blog site via Google because I hoped to discover daily blogs of someone living in Korea (I'm contemplating moving to Korea in the future). And I'm glad I found your site!
Awesome post. Very profound. Thank you for sharing.
It reminded me of St. Irenaeus' quote, "Man fully alive is the glory of God". I'm not sure if I'm taking this quote out of context but I interpret it as the fullness of God's glory is revealed thru man's journey thru his God-given life in its entirety...not just his "spiritual" part of life.

Keep your great posts coming! :)
Have a very merry Christmas by the way!

Anonymous said...

Haha, I'm sorry that I'm leaving 2 comments when I could've just added this to my original comment but I just listened to Sufjan Steven's (is that how to spell his name?) version of Holy, Holy, Holy. All I can say is BEAUTIFUL!! I've heard many versions of that hymn but wow, I love this one. This is actually my favorite hymn. Again, thanks for sharing!

t-HYPE said...

he he. i feel very cool to have a seoul super blogger say we can hang out. very cool. i'll hollar at you in a few weeks.

Roboseyo said...

Hi, everyone. Thanks so much for your comments: I appreciate them all, and have thought carefully about each of them as well.