I grew up with music in my life. At first, it was a combination of my dad’s Willie Nelson and Ray Charles with my mom’s old southern Gospel hymns. I’d sit under the piano, feeling the vibrations as she played “Blessed Assurance,” and then lie on the floor in front of the speakers as Ike and Tina belted out “Proud Mary.”
And then I discovered my own music, in the form of rock. Eventually, I sang lead in several hard rock bands around Dallas hitting all the local hot spots and singing until I was hoarse and exhausted. It was during my decade away from church that I did most of this, but I didn’t realize until recently that, despite the pretense of countercultural rebellion the music offered, it actually gave me some of the same things I experienced as part of organized religion.
Of course, only the most uneducated would think of rock music as some monolithic think that was barely held together by the pursuit of sex, drugs, and fame. There were rules. There were codes. And my lord, there were categories.
Any time you asked a band what style they were, inevitably they’d sigh and equivocate, finally listing off a handful of bands they most certainly were not like. No one wanted to be categorized, and yet we were more than ready to label all others and fit them in to their neat little musical denominations.
And within the hundreds of subdivisions of rock there were various perceptions of prestige. For example, within the subset of metal bands, the “hair bands” (described as such because they all had long hair, generally styled each with a can or so of hairspray) were certain to attract the cutest girls, but their music was considered to be too “poser” for the more ardent rockers. The true metal heads were hardcore; they cared more about the music than the attention of women or widespread popularity. And beyond that were the speed metal subset, thrash, death metal, and so on. Those were the extreme fringe dwellers: the metal fundamentalists.
Each sub-genre had fairly particular rules too. The hair bands could parade around like Broadway chorus line dancers, while the mainstream metal heads could wear anything, as long as it was black. The really extreme guys rarely, if ever, wore shirts, and were recognizable by their low-hanging cargo shorts.
And on and on it went. From guitar models to slang, each subculture worked breathlessly to define itself from the others, while the rest of the world neither understood nor cared much about their uniqueness among themselves. What was so critically important within the larger clan was immaterial to everyone else, and though we recognized their indifference, it was more than obvious to us that their lack of interest clearly was because they simply didn’t get it.
Looking back, after having recently written a book about the imminent decline and likely dissolution of institutional Christianity as we know it in the western world, I realized how easily this same cultural metaphor could be applied to church. The way we define, distinguish, and conduct ourselves, though of utmost importance to many of us, is of little or no interest to those beyond the walls. We are sure we have something that is precious and worth preserving, though the rest of the world tends to respond with an indifferent shrug.
What this suggests to me is that many of the things we identify as worth our time, money, and energy — the buildings, creeds, vestments, doctrines, and traditions — are more likely relics of fundamental to all of human nature, rather than a divinely inspired gift from God. As such, it can only go as far as human hands can take it. And perhaps, like some of the musical genres that have fallen out of popular favor, it’s time for us to set such superficialities aside and revisit what about our faith is truly life-giving, and worth living or dying for, in the first place.
It’s easy to get caught up in the trim and trappings of what we sometimes mistakenly identify as our faith. Fortunately, for us more so than for God, what is essential and vital at the heart of the Christian faith transcends such temporal and fairly superficial things that tend to distract us from what really matters.
Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus . His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.
Image: Rock guitar, Sinelyov / Shutterstock.com