“I wore black because I liked it. I still do, and wearing it still means something to me. It's still my symbol of rebellion ― against a stagnant status quo, against our hypocritical houses of God, against people whose minds are closed to others' ideas.” Johnny Cash
"Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols." Amos 5:23
What is gospel music? If a singer or musician comes to Christ, is it necessary to "repent" of creating art? Is the inability of an artist to restrict their work to one topic evidence of heresy, or a false conversion? Is it blasphemy to sing about something other than Jesus?
Do art and Christianity complement each other?
Judgmental, small-minded people have been tormenting me with this question for decades. More accurately, they have been tormenting me with their answer. Their answer to the question of whether or not art and Christianity complement each other is always a resounding, unquestioningly self-righteous, adamantine "NO." As long as the singer name-drops Jesus Christ, it doesn't matter if they actually believe what they're saying. The subjective, manipulated feeling of the listener that this fake sound product pretending to be art glorifies God, is the only thing that matters.
For people who claim to be opposed to being manipulated by others, it seems that Christians are not only open to being deceived by artless devils who wear crosses around their necks, but they celebrate the agents of their own deception! They think I have to repent of writing songs, because they don't know how to write songs, and therefore think..... It's evil?
Apparently. It would be like me listening to people who can't speak Russian sing bad songs in shaky Russian laced with Farsi in a weird Scottish accent, and then telling someone fluent in Russian to repent of speaking Russian. Because, "that's not how the non-fluent guy I listen to says it."
Not the best approach.
Almost every other article on this blog is about this topic, so I won't repeat myself any more than necessary. There are numerous articles about "artistic legalism" on my old blog. On this blog, the article What Is Devil's Music? is a good place to start.
Or here. You can start here if you like.
I'm going to post numerous examples from my own work that have "Christian overtones." I understand that strictly speaking, none of these are "gospel songs," and that this isn't gospel music. I also am a firm disbeliever in "my truth," and am not applying the tenets of moral relativism to these songs. The difference is that in my songs, I am asking questions in search of the truth. In moral relativism, no search is necessary. If "your truth" changes on a whim, and exists only to the degree to which it effortlessly crosses your mind at any given moment, like a tumbleweed across an empty highway, or a housefly, it's not necessary to go looking for it.
What I do is the opposite of that. Even in songs called "Tumbleweed."
Toward the end of the song, I sing,
"Pick up your Bible and pass the bong / this ain't no redemption song / but I see no conflict / and I feel no need"
Not counting Mexicans, who are always only one degree of separation from someone who sells weed (whether they believe in God or not), I can count the Christians I've met who appreciate God's gift of weed on one hand. In fact, it's just one other guy. Not counting Mexicans, the Christians I've met who appreciated weed were just one other guy. Neither of us has smoked weed for years, but we were into it for a long time. With a Christian appreciation of God's creative genius in thinking of it, all the while. How better else to smoke it, than with direct gratitude to God Himself? Why not?
"To make marijuana against the law is like saying God made a mistake." Bill Hicks
Is "Tumbleweed" gospel music? No. Is the sentiment in the lyric strictly accurate for every living moment of my life forever, starting from the moment I wrote it, never to be outgrown? No. Does it glorify God?
Maybe, maybe not. What it does do, hopefully, is cast a shadow of a doubt in the minds of people who believe the mainstream line that GOD HATES WEED, therefore it's cool to smoke it, or GOD HATES WEED, therefore we should never do it. Maybe the issue isn't as cut and dried as the brick of Mexican bud cured on the dashboard of a Hooptie in a bad neighborhood in Phoenix, Arizona in July. Hopefully, the lyric will create a small crack in the hardened shell around the minds of both parties, so that a seed can be planted.
A marijuana seed, perhaps. Because weed is the gateway drug. It's the gateway away from all the actual drug drugs, the actual deadly substances that will actually kill you, eventually. Regardless of what anybody says, that is my experience with it, and it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise.
The next example is a song I called "my favorite gospel song" for a long time. I played the song on a daily basis for at least 2 years after writing it. The song is a guttural plea for mercy from the bramble'd depths of my own myopic, self-inflicted nightmares, from which I saw no way out. All of the lyrics are dipped in fiery torment, and embrace the flames while refusing to believe in them. Isn't that where repentance starts? A brutal acknowledgment of the truth of the matter, while pleading with God to set you free? And even if it isn't, are we actually expected to not only listen, but magically relate, to fake "Christian" art performed by disingenuous, struggle-proof rich kids who are so distracted (blinded) by their own S.O.L. (standard of living) that they don't even see that they have anything to overcome?
Because, by all appearances, it really doesn't look like those people have ever overcome.... anything. And God help them, they maybe never have.
The song is all about bad relationships and drug problems, but the bridge rejects all that, and yearns for something better. The working title of the song was "Prison Days Are Over." A better title presented itself, but I used the line in the bridge, which states,
"I had it all, and it all had me. But my prison days are over, I'm finally free."
I'll tell you what I was thinking when I wrote it, because I know. Even though the lyric was very far from true at the time I wrote it, I knew it would be true. More desperately than that, I was hoping it would be true. It had to be true. If it wasn't true, I was doomed. Please God, let it be true. Let me make it beyond the burnt-out cars and dirty needles, away from these people who confine and imprison me (including myself, if necessary), and into the arms of mercy and forgiveness. Please God, grant me the grace to get the hell out of here. Tomorrow, if not sooner. Just let me get out of here. Alive, if possible. Not condemned, at least. Please.
I know it isn't gospel. It's a dirty song for dirty people. But there was gospel in my heart when I wrote it. Isn't that what counts?
It's way beyond (or below) "manifesting" a way out. Nothing was "manifesting" itself for future use, decades after the fact. If you're 2 seconds from dying on a steel table in the emergency room, you don't manifest a way out, you plead for one.
That's what "A Beautiful Place" is. A shallow interpretation of it will say that I'm "reveling" or "wallowing" in the mire. But on closer inspection, especially considering the "prison days are over" declaration in the bridge, it's clear that there's more to it than that. At least, it's clear to me.
Am I supposed to "repent" of that?
Because I can't. It's like repenting of speaking English. Repenting of begging the heavens for a victory, in any language.
Here's one the Puritans and Calvinists really hate. I recorded it while drunk, which explains the soaring, operatic flawlessness of the vocal performance. But the cracked vocal is right for the song, pickled in puke though it be. Far more importantly, it's true for the time in which the song was written and recorded. In the second verse, I ask,
"There's a Bible in a bottle at the bottom of a well. After everything you've been through, how can you not believe in hell?"
I don't care what anybody says, I still think it's a good question. I can't repent of asking it.
Not being able to repent of asking the question doesn't mean I can ever play this song again. I wouldn't play this song live if I had 4 hours to fill. I could take out the gratuitous "F'n" language at the beginning, but then I'd realize the line loses something without the bad word. Not being able to rehash the surly, drunken sentiment that is the chassis of this song without either editing it or lying, I'd have no choice but to abandon it on the side of the road like a beloved-but-junky car with a cracked head gasket. It simply isn't driveable any more. It's okay, the paint job was peeled and the upholstery looked like the bottom of a tiger cage anyway.
Does it matter if the song ends with a statement straight from the gospel mouth of truth itself?
"Here lies the bitch who reached for the rich. Here flies the bird who lived by the Word."
It doesn't matter. The song is still wasted beyond repair. But I'm not going to pretend I didn't write it. I'm not going to "repent" of it. I repented of it by not writing it twice. But I still knew that I had to "live by the Word," even while I was stuffed in the trunk of the mafia clown car careening through the desert, driven by demons who were looking for a place to bury me. I was banging out my freedom from the depths of my own self-induced captivity.
Would you have preferred it if I'd killed myself?
The title of "My Church Is In The Trees" has pagan connotations, but that's not where my heart was when I wrote it. I meant it literally. My church is literally in the trees. Not in a heathen, earthly sense, but in the basic, literal sense of, I'd rather worship God like a songbird in the trees. Not Gaia, not "Mother Earth," not Lilith. God. And, if possible, I'd rather not have church with the uptight control freaks who are going to tell me to repent of being a writer and musician. I'd rather have church with the "broken birds" and "burning bees" who might be working out their own salvation with fear and trembling, to the point of maybe even still having a bottle in their hand, or a needle in their arm. As I sing in the last verse,
"My church is in the trees / with the broken birds and the burning bees / your sycophantic prophecies / exhaust my heart and mind."
It doesn't mean I'm going to hang out with the drunks and drug users, many of whom will have no time for church of any kind, pagan, Christian, or otherwise. They "exhaust my heart and mind" at least as much as the Calvinists and restriction-zealots. But the broken birds are the people I relate to best. I even named an album after them. Or us. Whoever we are.
The last and best example is "Certain Stratospheres," which appears on the Broken Bird album. The meaning of the title "Certain Stratospheres" is still unknown to me, I am happy to admit. I have never understood it. And yet it remains one of the best titles I will probably ever give to a piece of music. Probably for reason of me not understanding it, at all.
Whatever and wherever the "certain stratospheres" are, and however clunky our attempts to soar through them, I think we should give it a go.
In the chorus, I sing,
"Oh how to tell the sheep from the goats? Toasts are for assholes with castles and moats. No I won't raise my glass, not to nothing at all; I'll keep my head down so I can stand tall."
Uh-oh. More bad language. Is it as bad as "blowing your f'n brains out" in "Diamonds in the Dust?"
But I'm afraid I can't tell you why. You just have to know.
So, how do you tell the sheep from the goats? In artistic terms, the sheep are in search of the answers, and the goats already have them. This, of course, is not a strict rule in and of itself, but rather a guideline. It's not a commandment etched in stone, but rather an arrow in the desert, pointed toward the sky. A roadsign in the mud, that teaches you to fly. Hopefully. The results aren't etched in stone either. It's entirely within the realm of possibility that you will crash and burn for all eternity. Especially if you look in the wrong place, or open the wrong door, or mistake the burning rage of the bonfire for the light of the moon.
"I am a moth, always going towards the light, even the flames in search of the moon." Izzy Cox
Speaking of flames, I hope my fans have noticed by now that the last chorus of "The Heart I Know By Heart" says that, "off to hell we'll never go," as opposed to "off to hell we'll probably go," like every other chorus. I had to end the song with the declaration that we're NEVER going to hell, even if we flirt with the idea throughout the rest of the song (our lives?). I'm not going to get into my theory of how love songs that don't compare the act of falling in love to the feeling of falling down the elevator shaft of flames to an eternity of torment are disingenuous pap with no substance, and how love songs without infernal imagery are saccharine, cotton-candy fluff that will rot your teeth and deposit synthetic worms of sugar in your heart. I'm not going to explain how "The Heart I Know By Heart" is a love song, and therefore bound to this rule. But I am going to point out that I change the line in the last chorus, for reasons that you can probably guess by now.
And I'd like to direct anyone who doubts my theory of the importance of infernal imagery in love songs to nothing less mainstream or timeless than "Ring of Fire." "Love is a burning thing?" "I fell into a burning ring of fire?" "I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher?"
Not very Christian of you Johnny (or June, who actually wrote it). It's almost like there's more to songwriting than pretending it's about something it's not, because you can't do it. Thanks for the info.
The ecstasy of the hellfire of love is even in the title, for the sake of all things crazy.
So, anyway. Y'know. There is no guarantee. In spite of the opinions of "religious" people, this isn't a divine act we're talking about. It's a trade. A human act of linguistic and sonical craftsmanship, which can be idolized, but which should not. You don't worship at the altar of car mechanics, electricians, or plumbers, do you? Neither should you worship at the altar of music. In like manner as it's possible to be a car mechanic and a Christian without making every job an act of abject heresy, or strict gospel husbandry, it's also possible to be a songwriter and a Christian without making every song about one single topic. All the time, every time, 100 hours a day. I'm sure it will be different in Heaven (even better!), but down here, some songs are hotrods, others are built for carrying groceries. Some songs are painted red, others blue. Some have 12 cylinders, others are hardly strong enough to pull a lawnmower across a teflon green.
It isn't sacred. It's just something you do if you can. There's nothing better (or worse) about it than any other trade. Nothing more (or less) important than anything else. It isn't more (or less) deserving of compensation than any other trade. If it isn't a trade for you, you can't do it. Welcome to the club. I'm not mechanically inclined, have no capacity for advanced math, and am not the world's greatest teacher. So what. Weren't we created to do different things, and help each other out in different ways, so none of us are lacking? Not every trade has the same earning potential, but you don't expect the car mechanic to repair your car for free, do you? You don't walk into a restaurant and expect the chef to perform his trade without compensation, do you? Do you walk into the restaurant grabbing your crotch screaming, "Feed me now, you filthy untouchable, you serf? Aren't you glad I'm here? Well here I am. You're welcome. SSSSSEEEEERRRRRRVE MEEEE!!!!"
Do you do your job for free? Not necessarily your job job, but the job you were created for. The thing your talents draw you to, as unequivocally as some are drawn to cooking, or singing. I don't care who you are, you have something. There are people who are mechanically inclined. Some get a real inspired kick out of moving numbers around on physics sheets. Others like to teach. And a million other things. Whatever they are, do you throw your God-given skills and talents out the window of other peoples' entitlement?
Neither should you take your music for free. Not paying for music is an inverse act of worship, of putting it on a pedestal by saying it's so sacrosanct, so incredibly high and haughty, no one should be allowed to do it professionally. It would be "arrogant" of anyone to presume to make an actual living at this priestly, divine activity. That's how great and important it is. I'm a jealous control freak with an inferiority complex, so it stands to reason that I get paid, but anyone who can sing is engaging in an automatic act of worship, and therefore should perform it as an act of servility. To me, if not God Himself.
Many people are engaged in this unwittingly, since the culture has been trained to think this way. It isn't necessarily a willful sin. Of course, being unaware of the law doesn't make one innocent of breaking it. It's okay. There is still hope. You can't repent of something if you're not aware you're guilty of it, but, hopefully, you're open to the possibility of change. You're either a sheep or a goat; you're either willing to change, to consider the possibility you're wrong and/or have room for improvement, or you subjugate everything around you to the iron will of your own entitled appetites. You don't have to make a show of it. But stop it already. Please start buying your art and music again. Some of us are dying out here.
If, however, you're one of the thieving pirates who bullies people into accepting your entitled attitude, who believes you are entitled to tell regular working people to "shut up and take it," you are engaged in an abhorrent act of abuse. You will receive the compensation due to you. You will be repaid in kind, for the neglect you have shown. It will come in the form of an artless wasteland, in which nothing beautiful will ever be heard again. It is only the beginning of your sorrows. I pray you heed the warning and decide to join us "Broken Birds" in Heaven, if not sooner.
Thanks for listening.