Tuesday, 21 August 2012

I Live Alone

(be sure to double-click on this video to full-screen it, as it doesn't quite fit (cuts off the right hand side of the screen) in blogger.)
People have been liking when I play this song of mine in bars lately. Thought it was time to do a recording of it. Of course I did it at home all by myself. (apart from going into the high school's music room and playing some drums).  I'm particularly proud of the little choir of girlie/gospel voices I did in there.
Note: for the video, I got Tyler King to redo my bass line, and Joel D'amour to video me.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

the Lennon/McCartney thing

  I grew up in a home which had never heard of contemporary Christian music artists (because modern music was wrong, too "jazzy," not okay for Christians, an irreverent medium to use to talk about spiritual things). We had heard of The Beatles alright, and admitted they were good, but didn't think it was okay to listen to them either (not Christian, rumours of drugs and the like).
  When I was a troubled teenager, I didn't have any troubled music to make me feel understood and part of the human race, despite the troubleness.  I had my parents' music, which was kind of the Lawrence Welk, Statler Brothers kind of thing.  Didn't suit the 80s one bit. And then I started trying out "worldly" music. Make no mistake, for most Christian kids, the experimenting with modern music went hand in hand with experimenting with smoking and alcohol, sex and drugs. It was widely viewed as a "gateway" activity.  I didn't experiment with the rest, but by the time I'd headed off to university, I'd been messing around, dabbling in modern(ish) music.
  I started in easy, with one toe in.  Any loud guitar, passion, aggression, swearing or talking about partying or having a good time was strictly verboten, and I'd been very successfully trained to turn my nose up at all of that.  So, stuff that was melodic and pretty and sappy, church music style, first.  But with a slightly more "jazzy" beat maybe.  John Denver.  Neil Diamond. Abba.  The Beatles.
  But then bands with a (slightly) more full-throated nod toward the primal scream, with perhaps more expression of stuff that wasn't just pretty, started to grab me.  Predictably, for someone with a church background, I readily grabbed hold of U2, who had an earnest, "Let's Fix The World" thing going on.  Also, The Police.  And oddly, Neil Young and The Northern Pikes.
  The Northern Pikes were a Canadian band known for a novelty hit called "She Ain't Pretty," which is more of a comedy song, but the group had three song-writers and frequently wrote about death and depression and substance abuse, often with kind of a sneer.  There was a real blackness to most of their stuff, behind what sounded at first listen like typical radio pop.
  But it was the late 80s, and I'd not really gotten into any loud guitar.  I mean, I could turn up CCR really loud, but they weren't actually very loud.  Fogerty's yowl is a soft, melodic one.  And I got into very angry, turmoil-filled moods sometimes, and that needed exorcised. 
  Pete, a (nonChristian) friend at University liked metal of all kinds, especially dark stuff, and that was too loud and too angry for me (RATT, Wasp, Mercyful Fate), but he kept playing me the hair ballad songs.  "Don't Fear The Reaper" by Blue Oyster (gasp!) Cult, "Don't Know What You've Got Until It's Gone" by Cinderella.  The Bon Jovi saccharine 80s hair metal ballad stuff.  And I loved it.
  And at a Christian camp around that time, two too wholesome Christian girls with puffy waterfall bangs and jean skirts put on their striped sweaters and went up and sang "Honestly" by a Christian metal band called Stryper. The combination of the wholesome, safe, Christian camp setting, with pouffy-haired girls, the 80s keyboard-heavy saccharine, vocal melody and harmony thing (and those BIG building-into-the-chorus drums and distorted-all-to-crap guitar pick scrapes and ringing power chords) emboldened me to check the band out.  Stryper were effetely noisy, but they weren't "just noise" as my parents thought.  I really grew to like them for a while, especially their biggest hit, "To Hell With The Devil."  Anthemic was a thing.  The writing of songs designed to make an entire stadium sing along with them like they were singing a national anthem.
  And if I ever expressed any liking for any music, in droves Christian people started handing me tapes of contemporary Christian artists.  Pete could listen to the chorus of the hit song from any one of these albums, and tell me EXACTLY who they were ripping off.  And they were ripping it all off.  Look, feel, style, sound.  And the lyrics were all about "us, we, we're all together, and we get along and love each other and it's so wonderful to be us that we need to always remember to never forget."  That high school pep rally stuff that just reminded me that I was really WASN'T one of  "us."
  Then there was the time I went to youth group and the married youth pastor who was having an affair with my married aunt (and we all knew it) showed me a chart which offered Christian substitutes for "worldly" bands.  "You like Pink Floyd?  Here's a Christian band who is trying their darnedest to sound like Pink Floyd, but without any yucky stuff."  I wanted to see what the yucky stuff was.  I wanted something original and real.  Not a copy.  I kept returning to songs that talked about dark stuff, about doubt, about death, about sadness.
And then Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath hit me hard.  My taste for "sweetness" in music started to really take a turn for the tart and tangy instead. I bought Ozzy Osbourne's Randy Rhoads Tribute album for the guitar, bracing myself to hear the satanism I'd been warned against.  It just wasn't there.  If God was mentioned in Ozzy or Sabbath songs, he was in charge, and to be pleased.  If Satan or Lucifer was mentioned, he was to be feared and dreaded.  "How is that satanist?" I wondered, outraged that the entire Christian community would shamelessly lie about Ozzy et al. like that.  It was just window dressing, for the most part.  They didn't warn against atheism.  AC/DC troubled them by Angus Young wearing horns, yet they didn't know to worry about a teenager asking "You know what?  Who DID make who?!"
  Someone on the Internet, perhaps because I have longish hair and sing songs and am a Christian (at least as far as Christ is concerned, though some would argue), compared me to dead Christian contemporary artist Larry Norman.  So I checked him out.  First the old Wikipedia.  This told me that Norman had that seemingly universal pall hanging over him.  The one with infidelity, children out of wedlock, financial misdeeds, fake showy crap, feigned health conditions and all the rest of it.  Like any televangelist.  And then I downloaded a recent documentary of the "let's see the bad side, now that the bastard's dead" variety. The Outlaw Larry Norman.  And I watched it this afternoon.
  It mainly featured Randy Stonehill, who is kind of a Christian James Taylor, musically.  Saccharine.  Very talented.  Just doesn't stop pouring the sugar on.  Ever.  There can't be too much in the way of backing strings, keyboard patches and harmony "woo"s.  The subject of the documentary, Larry Norman, was a blonde, blue-eyed, pretty boy frontman, like Robert Plant.  But he was very much a song-writer, and he could play guitar and sing like a trouper.  And his stuff was grating and edgy, quite often, at least for any exploration of Christianity, which is sort of supposed to be all feelgood and never mention things like murder and LSD.  I mean, it often presented the usual Christian "Have a question? Jesus is the answer!  Hoorah!" message, but it seemed to be more in touch with the darker side of life. It could be political.  Did mention sex and drugs, by name, like he knew about them.  Challenging.  Snarky.  Sarcastic. Dark.  Kind of like John Lennon, a contemporary of Norman's.
  And in the beginning, there was Randy Stonehill, working with him, making much sweeter, inoffensive stuff.  Not a pretty boy.  But a nice guy.  Turning out guaranteed, hummable, pretty, affirming crowdpleasers.  So Norman would be making people feel pressured to be better, to find answers, to change, and Stonehill would be celebrating the warmth, the togetherness, the "blessedness" of the Christian experience.
  But nobody shot Larry Norman in the 80s, once he'd reached the pinnacle of his artistic output and recognition.  So we got to see where his life went after that, and if he managed to live a life that showed some understanding of said questions, and offered some answers.
  Larry Norman died a couple of years ago.  And what you see is that the comparatively complacent, sugary Stonehill has had a happier, nicer, more "successful" life.  People like him.  He's not made enemies. He probably hasn't made anyone question much of anything, but he helps out in Africa and stuff.  He's still doing music.  He told the truth about Larry Norman, and he insisted on saying a lot of very nice things and trying to be fair and balanced, even though Norman ripped him off financially from the beginning.
  By contrast, Larry Norman eventually alienated everyone who ever worked with him, slept with Stonehill's wife, lied about being the first person to put out Christian pop music and to steal/parody the "One Way" Christian music symbol, faked health issues, made a career out of fundraising to collect money for said health issues (rather than going to Africa and helping children, where he'd once done photo shoots of himself with orphans, coming on like Jim Morrisson, posing, posing, posing), and lost his ability to create any good material after those initial few decades.
  Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison and John Lennon died before they really had a chance to fully screw their lives up, alienate their fan base and lose all artistic credibility.  And each of those gentlemen had the potential to have possibly done that in a way that would have made even Michael Jackson blush and giggle.
  But what seems to have happened is that Larry Norman's message: Insightful, Difficult Question?  Jesus is the Answer! didn't actually take him too far.  He got that message out there alright.  Others went perhaps further with it.  Maybe yes, Jesus is the answer.  But how much did the answer help Larry Norman?  How much was he able to use it and live a life that worked?  Once he found the answer, then what?
  And Randy Stonehill probably wasn't haunted by the questions, the darkness, the wrongness of human life on earth nearly as much.  Kept busy.  Was nice to people.  Went to Africa.  Thought the best of people.  Looked on the bright side.  And had a nice life.  But could you have taken Larry Norman aside and said "Hey, you need to be a lot more like Randy"?  Not any more than you could have taken John Lennon aside and said "Hey, you need to be a lot more like Paul."
  But we like those broken artists.  We like their hard questions.  We like that they understand that things aren't simple or easy, despite what we're being told.  But what happens when they have more money than they know what to do with, a world filled with women who'd have sex with them, and people clamouring for them to sign something, or sing a song or whatever?  What happens when they are confused to find that:

a) they can't write those inexplicably universally appealing, morbidly unhappy songs anymore.  People don't get them and they don't get people anymore.
b) they are profoundly unhappy still.  In a whole new way.
c) no one thinks they have "the right" to be unhappy.  Because of fame and their "success."  And no one wants them to write any new songs about still not being happy.
d) no one wants them to write songs about being happier either.  Hell, no.

So what happens to them then?

  We like the troubled, broken people.  We prefer their art.  We think the questions they ask so eloquently are ones we want to nod at, and be impressed by.  We like to quote them and delight in the fact that we, by contrast, need their art to point us at these questions, rather than being, as they are, haunted by them, and making art so they aren't alone in being haunted by them.
  I've just used "we" to put myself in kinda the wrong group there.  Fact is, I'm much more of a Lennon than a McCartney, and in many ways, more of a Norman than a Stonehill.  I don't think my life is full of narcissistic fakery, and screwing people over, but the combative, troubled, dark, searching, quarrelsome spikiness rings true.  And I don't know how much we get to choose who we are.

Saturday, 11 August 2012


  This is me expanding on something I wrote on Facebook, to object to the common misconceptions regarding faith:
  The bible has a definition of faith.  It says:
"faith is the substance (substantiation) of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."  
  This isn't what we're used to thinking about, when it comes to the word.  Here, in a book people object to on the grounds of not wanting to take 'blind leaps,' faith isn't spoken of as a vague feeling, or a belief or belief system. It's much more concrete. Faith is being presented as something which is connected with substance, reality and evidence.
    There is a whole chapter of the bible about people doing stuff "by faith."  It's an expression almost like "by the light of this candle." It talks about the various respected folk from the Old Testament, and how when they lived their lives and did those things that later made them famous, they really weren't taking blind leaps of belief.  They were seeing that something was afoot, and though everything had not yet become clear to them, they "knew which way the wind was blowing," as it were.  They obeyed God, trusted what they thought they were seeing, they went places, said and did and built things.  Because they were wired in to what was going on.  Faith is discernment.  It's like a sense of what's not yet manifest, but is coming.  Like Charlie Chaplin selling all of his stocks shortly before the stock market crashed in the 1920s, thereby preserving his fortune and his company, United Artists. The one thing faith isn't?  Blind.  It is about discerning real things.  Something else it isn't? Wishing stuff. 
  You can read the "faith" chapter ("by faith Abraham..") and think of it as if it were saying something more like "by moonlight," "by using his car's GPS system," or "by calculating the perimeter of the property." Faith discerns. And like wisdom it both comes from God, and is what happens before action, rather than being some kind of "act" on its own. Wisdom and faith are not verbs. And they are about what is real, not about imagining stuff there is no evidence of.  Faith is evidence.  It is an indication of something for which all the evidence one could want is just starting to trickle into the present.  (But we do like to gather to worship in temples erected to our capacity to believe the craziest things we're told, to choose things, to sacrifice joy to a god who apparently gets off on that.  We like to revere people who gamble and make leaps.)
   I am going to go walk down the stairs to go outside, in a bit. (I have to go sing to a street full of people at a festival) There won't be much gambling involved.  I am going to use my visual sense to discern where to put my feet. I am going to go down the stairs by looking, by memory and by the bright sunlight shining in the window at the bottom.  When it comes to matters spiritual (or ones which are about to happen, but which haven't happened quite yet) often faith is the sense that is used to find our way.

  Of course, I am going to 'believe' my eyes. But that's not the point. The point is that there ARE stairs, and that I also have eyes to discern them with. Same with faith. The point isn't whether or not I believe what faith makes discernible to me. It's that there IS something that I am discerning with faith. You can believe any number of stupid, wrong, silly things. Faith isn't like that. I'm not going to wish for (or imagine) stairs, and then create them with magic. 
  (I know some people believe that we do create things by perceiving them, that if no one was there to perceive stairs, there wouldn't be any, and if you are there and perceive them, you bring them into being.  I am not one of those people.  Guess I'm just not that spiritual.)

  Imagine if a small explosive has destroyed the stairs. My eyes might tell me that those stairs aren't there to walk down now. I can believe that the stairs are still there all I want, but that's blindness, and not discernment.

  When it comes to the relationships which make 'spiritual' things practical, faith is about seeing what's going on, seeing God's workings and dealings in things, and then working insightfully with Him and being part of what's going on. It's knowing which side your bread's buttered on.  Think of any important juncture in history: the stock market is about to collapse, the British are going to try to quell the American rebellion, the allies are attacking Normandy beach, or whatever.  Something big is coming.  Even though everything isn't fully clear, and even though many people don't actually have forensic photographs or anything, if they discern what is going on to some degree, they often make very important choices. And to call these choices "blind" is unfair.  They were the opposite.  That synchronicity, collaboration, cooperation, clued-inness, is what makes us "look magic" when faith is telling us stuff. But it isn't magic.
 We don't move mountains with happy thoughts, or fly under nothing but the power of our own euphoria, as a handy plot device, like Peter, Michael and Wendy in Peter Pan, sprinkled in fairy dust. Our lord didn't say "oh ye of little optimism." When he criticized people for lacking faith, what those lacking faith actually lacked was discerning what was going on, what God was doing and is capable of, and what could be done about it all. It was that they actually didn't see and understand, not just that they didn't believe
  It was Australian rockers AC/DC who so memorably asked the question (about God) "who made who?"  That's an important one.  If there is a God and we live according to that, then we're being smart.  If we've made him up, then we're bullshit artists (which is what we stand accused of by many.)  When we live by faith (discerning something real), things make sense.  But if we ever are just believing what we imagine and would like to believe, then that's not faith at all, even though it's belief.  It's bullshit.  At that moment, we are imagining our own reality and our own god and the like, and we are worshipping our own work.  That's idolatry.  We have to let God be, or not, on His own merits.  (He's a big lad. He can stand on his own two feet.  If he can't, he's not worth even discussing.  We don't make him exist by belief. He doesn't need our belief.  We do.  We need to believe in something real, though.)  Same with reality.  It isn't up to us to make it up.

  In the modern world, we would like to think that "positivity" is what makes magic happen. We misquote the verse about having 'faith like a mustard seed' so we can think that belief, optimism, imagination are kinda like magic fuel that allow us to do whatever we want, including move mountains, just 'cause.

  We aren't able to do whatever we want. We don't routinely do the impossible, for no good reason.  Not even Jesus did that, and he had stuff to prove.  We discern what's going on and what is possible, wise and practical, and act according to it. If God wants someone helped or healed or dead (or the rain to stop or whatever), it is our discerning this that is an act of faith, not us saying "I am going to imagine I can walk on water, and my positive, optimistic, unshakeable belief in this notion will power me." We are Christians. We deal in reality, not make-believe.  We can make ourselves believe a whole lot of stupid things, to be sure.  But that's not why we're here.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Talking About the Bible (with more italics than ever!)

  It's weird talking to people about the bible. They don't really treat it as a book.  It sells far more copies than a normal book.  And a MUCH smaller percentage of people who purchase it read the whole thing from cover to cover than any other book (including 50 Shades of Grey).  And people will feel quite comfortable, having not read much of it, to tell you (even if you've read all of it) that things are in there (three wise men, with their names, the Lord helps them that help themselves etc. etc. etc.) or are not (taking women as sex slaves, hills of foreskins, cooking bread over a dung fire) like there's no real way to prove that a thing is in there or not.  Because of "interpretation" and "translation" making it impossible to prove some fact is or isn't in there.
  When I was about 20, I really, really longed to have an open discussion about the bible. This was not allowed.  We got lectured on the bible many times weekly, but there were o discussions.  We didn't get to wonder, or talk, or make distinctions or draw connections.  I suggested to a 21 year old peer that maybe we should have one, he, I and some others. He was all religious and stuff, so I thought he'd be into the idea.  He was terrified.  He would only agree that it was anything other than a really bad idea if we made sure we did it with an older person there to tell us about the bible instead of us discussing it. In other words, what he was used to.  Another lecture. Not a discussion.  Listening to someone tell us how awesome it was, rather than talking about what's in there and what's going on.
  Jehovah's Witnesses will give you The Watchtower, but if you want a free copy of the bible, no one wants to give you one without a study guide, or else they want to give you an expurgated (only certain books included) version, with a bunch of additional interpretative, categorizing and study guide material in it.  It is artificially divided into chapters and has headings and summaries that simply don't belong in it.  They don't want to allow you to just read it, like it were a book.  They'd rather give you a book or pamphlet or thingie written about the book itself.  People are weird about the bible.
  And I've tried going to bible discussions groups.  They haven't gone well.  So I had this odd idea flash, pretty much fully formed, and then had to spend two days making it into the YouTube cartoon that I have now made:

Friday, 3 August 2012

Fight! Fight! Red vs. Blue (another Us and Them story)

  So, I grew up in Canada.  We were quite hardcore traditional conservative fundamentalist, but then again we weren't.  We were pretty conservative in that we thought that rock and roll music was of the devil, that people shouldn't drink alcohol or swear, we were quite progressive in thinking no one should smoke, but yet... when we heard a woman at our church had had an abortion because the child wasn't going to live, we thought maybe that was okay.  We knew there were gay people around, and we thought being gay was kind of funny, but we didn't think they were a threat or anything.  If they got the right to marry around these parts (and they did) we certainly didn't feel it was our business. We certainly didn't feel it affected us one way or t'other.
  And we knew some of our counterparts in America. They were really different from us.  Where we were taught that the whole world was condemned by God, under the rule of Satan since the garden, and bound to burn up one day, and that our country and its best attempts at charity and doing good was cute at best, the Americans were fiercely proud of their country, and didn't include it as part of "the world" in any of the bible verses about that. And where we saw the whole world as messed right up, by Satan and human beings working together, they saw America as somehow a "Christian country."  The fact that they took the land for the Christian country by killing the people God gave it to, and then abducted and enslaved the citizens of various parts of Africa didn't make it any less Christian, and it was very bad form to bring that stuff up.  Not only did they think their country was "Christian" ("How did that work," I wondered.  I grew up understanding that we were Christian, and that was defined by being something other than the people, country and world around us.) but they also felt that they had to "fight to keep it that way," which again made no sense to my fundamentalist Canadian ears.  "You're country's not Christian," I thought.  "It never has been.  You can't 'keep' it that way because it isn't."
  And they fought. They fought wars across the planet because people were being communists (or even just socialists, which to them was just as bad).  They fought wars on hunger, poverty, drugs and rape.  That didn't do much harm.  But there were these little civil wars going on too.  They called them "fighting to keep the American family sacred" and "fighting for the biblical definition of marriage."  I never understood why if someone else disagreed with you about how they defined something, that this hurt you.  I am an inveterate correcter of people, as to grammar and facts and things, but I've never felt that if someone disagrees, they should be legally sanctioned.  (well, maybe for saying things like "I seen youse yesterday when yuz were at the mall.")
  And I made this video with me dressed a bit like Chuck Norris in Walker: Texas Ranger to kind of express my distaste for something British theologian N.T. Wright identified: he said that in England, if you tell someone your religion, they certainly don't feel qualified to know how you're going to vote, nor would you be handed a "beliefs package" as to how you will all be standing on sensitive issues like abortion, gay marriage, gay priests and so on.   I was sick of worrying that if someone found out that I was a Christian, they would assume that I was a simple-minded bigot who was going to give anyone gay nearby a hard time.
  And just like clockwork, the Chik-Fil-A thing hit the 'net.  (to pronounce the "illiteracy is good marketing" title, think of someone filleting baby chicks.  Chick Fillet.  To keep Americans from saying the "t", they left it out.)
  Right when I put up my video, suddenly I found out about this thing.  It had been going on for a few months prior, and I had been wondering why RepubliAmeriChristians were posting about 'being at Chik-Fil-A like they were planning a revolution of some kind.  This guy who owns Chik-Fil-A, this low-rent KFC in America has been quoted as saying he doesn't think gay people can be described as, nor should be allowed to marry.  Whatever, right?  But then his funding of "pro-family" groups starts to come out, and officials start (unfairly) trying to block these chicken restaurants from expanding up toward our fair border.  Chicago was a problem, I think.  And harsh words start getting tossed around:
"Chik-Fil-A are hateful bigots like the KKK." 
"We're being attacked for our God-given, American civil right to have our own traditional beliefs!" 
"You hate gay people! Nazis!" 
"We don't hate gay people. We just don't think they should have any rights we don't have.  Every American man has the right to marry a woman, and every American woman has the right to marry a man. Now why should anyone get special rights?"
"Go put on your pointy hood, KKKristians!  There won't be a Shit-Fil-A (clever, heh?!) sandwich up in Boise anytime soon!"

  And I kept getting sucked into stupid arguments on Facebook.  There was plenty of evading points, not answering people's questions, talking past rather that to people, colossal lapses in argumentation and all the smugness and bitchiness one could ask for. Gay atheists, gay Christians, straight atheists and straight Christians all acting the same stupid way.  And it took me a week of this crap before I really got sick enough of it to see what was really going on, and what was actually bugging me.  They were pretending it was a "hate," issue.  They were pretending it was about rights. But very clearly, the old American "put one colour jerseys on the left side of the field, and another colour jerseys on the right side of the field, and the more fighting the better!  Red vs. Blue.  We'll soon see who's right, based on who can put down the chicken sandwich, get off the couch and overcome their native apathy to be more aggressive than the others!"
  The smugness annoyed me.  I was ignoring it on the "leave gay people alone" side, and getting inflamed by it on the "fight to keep America Christian and preserve the sanctity of marriage" ones I am pressured to take a solid stand next to.  But eventually I realized that I was hating the behaviour of all of them.  And mine too.  It was a bunch of stupid fighting.  Now I am not a typical Canadian, in that I love controversy, debate, gentle argument and other social perversions of that sort. Not for me the passive aggressive smugness and silent that screams vitriol.  Yet this was leaving me... cold?  The opposite, but you understand what I mean.
  I think the thing which actually caused me to turn the corner was the point at which this "made for being blown out of proportion by the rabid media" shitshow resulted in the "tolerate" side being unaware of the irony in what they were videoing. If anything is to believed, the CFO (now ex-CFO) of a large medical supply company specializing in catheters got pissed off at the whole Chik-Fil-A thing, and hating haters as he claimed to, went into a Chik-Fil-A and camera phoned himself taking a giant chicken strip off an unassuming little teenaged girl working the counter there. That's the sort of behaviour, the sort of lack of an irony sense, the sort of self-centred meanspiritedness that makes me cringe when Christians try to get me to join in.  But this showed me more clearly than if it had been a Christian doing it, that everybody's acting the fool here.
  It was embarrassing.  The usual fight as to who got to wear the white hats and who had to wear the black hats, of who was a traitor to their country and who was a noble patriot fighting to preserve it rag(g)ed on. And I was, typically, obstinately, playing devil's advocate, being contrary, swimming against the current, breaking the mold prepared for me and generally trying to shovel shit uphill, when at this point I suddenly felt stupid.  Simple reason: I was being stupid. I was getting sucked into the same stupid game of Red Rover as everyone else.  
  Which was no doubt the point of the game all along. To make us fight. Shame on us.  All of us.