The Common Good
January 2007

Wealth, Fame, and Jesus

by John Potter | January 2007

Pop musician Moby on how his faith affects his lifestyle, art, and activism.

Watch your head,” Moby says thoughtfully as he guides me up the ladder that leads from his living room to his roof. The smallish loft we’ve just left is Ikea-like in its design and decor; the walls are a stark white, and there are few decorations. It’s been his home for years—since before he sold 15 million records, before his 1999 smash “Play” was named one of Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” and before he became one of the world’s most recognized electronic artists.

Richard Melville Hall—nicknamed Moby after family ancestor and Moby Dick author Herman Melville—hasn’t shaved for a while and is wearing an old T-shirt, faded jeans, and thick black glasses. It’s windy on the roof, which is decorated with plants. With a gorgeous view of the New York City skyline around us, and his Little Italy neighborhood directly below, the soft-spoken, courteous pop star settles down for an interview. Topic A? Jesus.

“When I was around 19 or 20, I read the New Testament, specifically the gospels, and I was just struck by their divinity—the feeling that humans could not have figured this out on our own. We’re just not bright enough,” he says. “I also was struck by how utterly difficult so many of the teachings were. I was expecting a pat on the head, like, you know, ‘Go be nice to people and be forgiving and friendly.’”

The gospel teachings were so overwhelming he didn’t think he could follow them. Then he came across Matthew 11:29: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” “That put it all into focus,” Moby said. “It’s not just arbitrary, harsh teachings; it’s harsh teachings with a purpose and motivated by divine love and compassion.”

He says he tried to be “a good conventional Christian” by teaching Bible studies and going to church every week, but he soon became frustrated. “A lot of the religion I was encountering didn’t want to talk about how nuanced and complicated the world is.” Now, he calls himself a “clueless” Christian. “You know something is true, but how do you live it? Do you become a snake handler? Do you read Kierkegaard? Do you go to Russian Orthodox churches? Do you move to Calcutta and bathe the wounds of the poor? Do you go to strip clubs and minister to strippers?”

They are questions anyone trying to follow Jesus grapples with. Throw in wealth and global celebrity, and it gets a little more complicated. So how does he reconcile his material success with trying to live like Jesus? “It’s incredibly uncomfortable. You sell a bunch of records and you make some money, and as a Christian, what do you do? Christ didn’t have such nice things to say about the accumulation of wealth and money. I’m relatively comfortable with simple living, but I do a lot of stupid, ostentatious things as well. It’s the hardest thing trying to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong, you know? Is flying business class wrong? I just don’t know.”

Playing the system’s own game is one strategy. When car companies have asked to license his songs for their advertisements, he agrees, but then donates part of the proceeds from the agreements to environmental groups. “There is sort of a perverse thrill in Robin Hood-style philanthropy,” he says. “Take money from a bad corporation and give it to an NGO or a charitable organization that actually works against the corporation who gave you the money.” But he’s quick to add, “I certainly don’t do it enough.”

It’s an example of how Moby’s views have softened over the years, the ways in which he embraces more of life’s grays. The title of his first major record, Everything is Wrong, released in 1995, reflected his adherence at that point in his life to hard and fast rules, his rigid veganism being one example. If he were to make a record today, he said, he’d call it “Everything is Complicated.” “I don’t think that everything is wrong, and a lot of things that are wrong lead to things that are right, you know?”

Like many, Moby’s relationship with the church is certainly complicated. He says he found his early experiences of church restrictive and set off on a self-directed learning campaign—which included studying quantum mechanics—to figure out how a life of faith fits with a complex world. He doesn’t currently belong to a home church or community—“unfortunately,” he says—and has mixed feelings about the church as an institution.

“I think there are a lot of faithful people working in churches doing remarkable things, creating genuine community, and ministering to the needs of the poor and really trying to do Christ’s work,” he said. “It also seems like there are a lot of churches that are missing the mark and have gone astray.”

One of his biggest frustrations is the tendency of many Christians to conflate immorality with what—or who—they might find different or unpleasant. “Jesus hung out with people who were egregiously distasteful, such as hookers and tax collectors,” he says. “The places where broken people congregate are the places where people are most likely to be receptive to the teachings of Christ. He knew that.”

“It’s fascinating,” he continues. “Jesus’ only harsh words were for religious leaders. It’s some of the meanest, nastiest prose ever written.”

So he’s not going to enroll in seminary anytime soon? “Were I a religious leader, the fear and trembling I would have every day [when I] wake up, you know? How do you not become ‘a whitewashed tomb filled with the bones of the dead?’” he asks, referencing Matthew 23:27. “Contemporary Christianity could do with a little more fear and trembling.”

And, he says, it could also do with a little more love. He outlines his pet peeves—the usurping of what it means to be Christian by the Religious Right, the neglect of religion by those on the Left, for starters, and the acceptance of a kind of cultural Christianity that he believes has nothing to do with what Jesus preached. “If you look at the Western world, which is militaristic and capitalistic, decimating the environment, treating animals terribly, and running roughshod over the rights of the poor—how in the world is this possibly based on the teachings of Christ?” Moby asks. “It really is the equivalent of, like, a vegan owning a McDonald’s franchise and torturing animals in his basement.”

Turning to the topic of current events, he continues, “I want to ask President Bush a question: ‘Where’s the scriptural basis for what you’re trying to do?’ It’s hard to talk like that and not sound judgmental, but it’s a genuine question. Why isn’t there a press conference where one person would stand up and say, ‘How is invading Iraq consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ?’”

Moby says he’s hopeful that people will see the gospels as they are, independent of whatever messages our culture attaches to them. “No one doesn’t like Jesus. I think that makes our work a lot easier,” he says of working for biblically inspired justice. “A lot of people are just discovering the radicalism of Christ.” He also points out the potential appeal to punk rockers and organizers. “Jesus is more countercultural than any countercultural figure. No one in the last 2,000 years, as far as I can tell, has said anything even approaching the radicalism of the teachings of Christ.”

NOWADAYS, AFTER TRYING his hand at various entrepreneurial efforts—he co-owned the vegan restaurant “TeaNY” in Manhattan—Moby’s decided to stick with creating music, albeit with his own preference for eclecticism. He doesn’t know what type of music he’ll create in the future—punk rock, disco, classical music, jazz; the field is open.

So what continues to motivate him in his art? “To make music that affects me emotionally, in the hope that it might affect other people emotionally,” he says. “Music is the only art form you can’t actually touch. It fills space. The sound waves do actually penetrate your entire body. That’s one of the reasons I think it’s also particularly good at conveying spirit, because it is spirit, in that it’s unseen.”

And creating music is still as exciting for him now as when he started. “Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll wake up and the well will have run dry, and I’ll be bored of music, but, luckily, in 32 years that hasn’t happened.” His Go: The Very Best of Moby was recently released on Mute Records.

Most of the music he listens to, and sometimes samples in his music, is about 70 or 80 years old. He likes the honesty and directness of country, blues, and gospel music from the early 20th century; Blind Willie Johnson, a guitar player and preacher, is a particular favorite. “The recordings he made in the ’20s and ’30s—it’s just him and a microphone. It’s diametrically opposed to the way records are made now,” he says. “I’m guilty of making glossy, big production records, whereas you listen to one of his records [and there’s] such honesty. One man playing music and singing, being recorded by a cheap old microphone. And it sounds like a revelation.”

Moby says he doesn’t see much of this kind of music being produced these days, nor does he hear many conversations among his fellow musicians about Jesus and politics. Christianity’s been so negatively stigmatized by the Religious Right, he says, “that most of us are afraid. It’s not something you talk about in polite society.”

But he hangs on to his faith as he navigates the worlds of music, money, and celebrity, he says, “by having no idea what I’m doing and recognizing that I’m going to make tons of mistakes. And hoping that as much as I fear God’s will, I do invite it. Hoping that, for all of my mistakes and all my screw-ups, that somehow I won’t screw up too badly.”

His ultimate aspiration? “That God might somehow be able to use me in whatever capacity God sees fit.” Wrestling out loud—characteristically—he adds, “I hope that doesn’t sound like a wishy-washy answer.”

John Potter was interim executive scheduler at Sojourners when this article appeared.

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