April 16

Religious Revisionism and The Good News

What is Ten Songs of Worship and Praise for Our Tumultuous Times? I would say first and foremost, it’s a religious revisionist record, one which roughly tracks the Great American Religious Drift of the 21st Century. When I speak of the Great American Religious Drift, you probably already know what I’m talking about even without looking it up. I myself didn’t find the term anywhere, and I don’t really have a clean-cut definition for it except to say that it has been part of the cosmic microwave background radiation of my growing up in America.

When I try to put it into words, I would say that Christianity took an increasingly ugly turn over the past few decades, and as a result of this, many American Christians started to lose their faith. Over time, the numbers of passionate American Christians slowly winnowed away and continues to do so year after year, and so on and so forth to this day. I myself am probably one of those people who left, but I don’t remember exactly how I got here from there. I just know that it happened, though I can’t really say exactly when or why or how.

Perhaps you find this concept of the Great American Religious Drift a bit suspect, after all I just said it’s a term that I made up on my own, and so maybe it’s merely an artifact of my own personal subjective experience. I might have thought so too, but this last week, I came upon an article which announced that for the first time in the history of the Gallup Poll, less than a majority of Americans who were polled belong to a house of worship, be it church, synagogue or mosque. Perhaps it isn’t merely a figment of my imagination then.

So I’ve mentioned something called the Great American Religious Drift, and it seems to fall out of it that there are a great many American Christians or American ex-Christians or what have you that have been put into drift by American Christianity. And I probably count myself among them. Perhaps you find yourself in a position such as myself. What then? On the one hand, maybe you are the type of person that feels comfortable dispensing with Christianity altogether. Then the answer is easy – you become an apostate, and put Christianity into the trash-heap of discarded archaic concepts such as horoscope, tarot and other sundry forms of soothsaying. But what if you’re not ready for that? I have to say that despite all the ugliness of the past few decades, I have some fond feelings for my time in the church. And I’m tempted to say that those fond feelings are not merely a form of nostalgia. There is something else in my brain, but what?

The thing I seem to remember most is not so much a particular memory but a general feeling of hope – one that I can’t seem to shake, and something that I can honestly say has colored how I’ve lived my life, despite my lack of involvement in the church for many years since leaving. As such, I and am now stuck in an unenviable state of limbo between American Christianity and apostasy. And what are we to do about this state of affairs? I suppose I could throw my hands up in futility at the situation – a sentiment that has I think generated many an anguished conflicted-Christian song or record, which I happen upon every now and again. On the other hand, I could just give up and return to the church. I suppose that would make me a “born again” Christian – though “born again” doesn’t sound quite right – perhaps “succumbed again” Christian is more apt.

Another option is one that I think comes most naturally to many – one could “fix” American Christianity by critiquing it into submission! American Christians are hypocrites after all, and there are a million delicious ironies about American Christianity that we can illustrate in a million different delicious ways. And I’m sure you’ve read or heard much ink spilled in this general direction. I personally think the strategy is misguided, not because the critiques are wrong, but more for motivational reasons. It turns out people just aren’t spiritually moved by charges of hypocrisy and stinging critique, and a look at religious texts bears this principle out. In both the Old and New Testament, God doesn’t just sit back on his divine cloud launching viciously accurate insults at the people down below. Instead – and I think this is important – God gives his people a positive vision, something with real punch and feeling. A promised land, or the good news of the possibility of salvation and everlasting life. Thinking about it this way, maybe the way to “fix” American Christianity isn’t through hilarious insult comedy or eviscerating satire. Maybe what you do is you give people a positive vision – something with real punch and feeling. I suppose this is what I mean by “religious revisionism”. A project in providing a different positive vision of what Christianity could be like – a vision with real punch and feeling, and in my case through the medium of music.

Perhaps you think the religious revisionist project is doomed from the start. After all, “revisionism” is the revision of an objective standard. And if the standard is Christianity, aren’t I not in fact providing an alternative Christianity but a non-Christianity? I mean, it is certainly possible that I’m providing a non-Christianity. But I ask you for a moment to put down your torches and pitchforks, and note that the history of Christianity is itself the history of a project in constant revision, and I’m sure there are religious historians who will be more than happy to point out the many splits and branches in the history of Christianity that have led it to become the many-variegated-river that it is today. I mean, while we’re at it, if you want a very classic example of religious revisionism that’s been sitting under your nose this whole time, a great example at the core of American Christianity is White Jesus.

I don’t mean this observation as a stinging critique of American Christianity. (I mean, it is a stinging critique of American Christianity). Instead, I sort of mean the observation in the reverse sense. I think it’s natural when trying to make religion meaningful to you, that you take the bones of what people tell you religion is, and put it together into something that has meaning in your life. And I guess I can see how Romans and Europeans over the years, who had a deep need for religion in their lives, did what they could to make God meaningful to them, and ended up with a vision of the divine that had a Jesus who looked a lot like them. And even if it’s factually incorrect, I can see how this was a byproduct of what was at its center a deeply religious act – the act of making religion real and meaningful to oneself. I suppose what I’m suggesting is that religious revisionism shouldn’t be looked at as the revision of a pre-existing objective standard, but rather a constitutive part of what it is to be a religious person. After all, what is a religious person but a person for whom their religion is real and meaningful to them? And come to think of it, religious revisionism sounds an awful lot like what people call “faith” – an activity that is, at its most basic, described as one whose intended causal result is that a person ends up being religious.

Of course, the Romans and Europeans were wrong about (at least) one aspect of their religion, because White Jesus isn’t real. And if we’re honest, White Jesus is a pretty on-the-nose symbol for at least one version of what happened to American Christianity over the last few decades. Which is just to say that religious revisionism isn’t ever going to be perfect, even if it starts out coming from a good place. In this case, American Christianity veered off into some unfortunate territory over the last few decades and so we have what I am calling the Great American Religious Drift. And American Christianity continues to veer off into unfortunate territory – the aftermath being something that feels virtually impossible to avoid these days.

You know, one of the things that really stuck out at me after reading about the shooting spree in Atlanta this last month was the news reports noting how religious the murderer was. Not even that he just was a very religious person, but he was a pastor’s son, and would often walk around carrying a Bible. When asked about the church services, a former congregant of the church noted that the church had never had a sermon delivered on the topic of racism. Which sounded about exactly right. I’m not suggesting here that American Christianity ordered the murderer to go on a shooting spree targeting Asian women. What I am suggesting is that American Christianity does a fairly shit job at talking about race. Forget my personal experiences in the past with race and the church growing up – everyone can now see the relatively limp response to the Atlanta shooting by church members online. Nobody is surprised that modern American Christianity lacks the language to talk about race. And things are much the same when we move to other topics like sex positivity and queer issues.

Now say that you’re me. A person of color who is sometimes prone to bouts of religious feeling. Rather, a gay person of color who is sometimes prone to bouts of religious feeling – and confronted with this incarnation of American Christianity. What then? You can see how you would probably start to drift away over the decades. Actually say that you’re not me, but just someone who knows and likes someone like me. You can see how you might also probably start to drift away over the decades too.

When I speak of the record being an exercise in religious revisionism, I think I mean that the record is an attempt at making religion real to me, in the aftermath of the Great American Religious Drift. I suppose you might say that I went off into the conceptual wilderness, as it were, and had something like a vision, and this record is a reflection of that. Looking at the record now, after everything’s been sent off to the factory, I would say that it’s a vision of Christianity that is more fully harmonious with the idea of queer love and alternative families as a part of the divine order, a vision that has more people of color, and also sees modern conceptions of social justice as a constitutive part of what it means to be a good Christian. At least that’s the best schematic description I can give you for the vision I had. Though, you won’t get the full experience of it by just reading this description. It is a vision, and you won’t get the full brunt of it from a description anymore than you can get the full brunt of a movie by reading the synopsis. You will just have to give the record a spin.

Of course, I just told you earlier that the record is an act of religious revisionism, and that religious revisionism is an act of faith whose intended result is one’s becoming religious – and so you might ask yourself, did the author St. Lenox succeed in becoming a religious person? I do not know the answer to that question. I’ve been thinking about the answer to that question a lot over the past few weeks, and I’m suddenly reminded of when I was a teenager and trying to discern what it felt like to be in love. Is the feeling of being in love a hot feeling on the back of the neck? Or is it having clammy hands when a woman is near? After many years, and taking a very different path than the one I was expecting, I did eventually come to know what it is like to be in love. So now I sit here in front of the computer and turn my mind’s eye inwards looking for religious feeling – is being religious a warm glow in the chest area? Or is it a vibration emanating from the space between my ears? Is it what galaxy brain looks like? I do not know the answer to that question. Much like when I was a teenager, I am apparently off on a different path than the one I expected. I don’t know how or even if I will reach my intended destination, but my uncertain hope is that if I continue on as the happy warrior and maybe try my best to be a good person, at some point in the future, probably when I least expect it, I will once again be able to hear the sound of someone proclaiming the good news.