Monthly Archives: January 2009

Book Review: Body Piercing Saved My Life

body-piercing-saved-my-lifeBody Piercing Saved My Life, by Andrew Beaujon, a reporter for music magazine Spin, is a fascinating read for any music fan.

For the Christian who also likes “Christian music,” it provides history, context, and criticism to various aspects of the scene as it exists today, and raises questions that are worth wrestling through.

For the Christian who generally doesn’t like “Christian music,” it may cause some rethinking of opinion on some subjects as well as affirming others.

For the music fan who isn’t a Christian, it will probably be quite eye-opening, providing several glimpses into a different world, some of them quite surprising.

For all three, it may introduce you to some bands you just might like.

For the record, Beaujon is not a Christian–at best, he is a lazy agnostic.  He holds to the opinion that he doesn’t really know if there’s a God, but he probably wouldn’t live his life any differently if there was one.

He set out to examine what he considers a truly American phenomena, this music scene called “Christian music” that exists almost within its own bubble.  There is no comparable separate scene in Europe or elsewhere.  He spends time learning the history of modern Christian popular music, explores some of the contradictions inherent in the industry and issues artists wrestle with, and listens to a lot of music.  He goes to Cornerstone Festival, both the original in Illinois and its Florida offshoot, the Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College, and GMA Week and the Dove Awards in Nashville.  He interviews several Christian music “lifers”, and all through provides opinion and analysis on what he finds.

It may feel, to the believer, a bit intimidating to have someone who doesn’t believe in God at all analyze this scene.  But I was impressed.  Beaujon is extremely fair.  When something is bad or confusing, he says so, but never meanly.  He treats everything with a lot of respect, and says some surprising things.

These lines, from a section where the author shares what he believes and talks about what he feels about people sharing the Gospel with him, may put you at ease.  After confirming that he believes there is no afterlife, he says this:

This is the kind of talk that makes my Christian friends unbearably sad, and that’s what I love about them–they really, really, really don’t want anyone to die, and that’s why they can sometimes be such a raging pain…So next time a Christian tries to save you from the fate that awaits you, don’t get irritated–remember that it’s because they care about you.  Seriously.  If you take nothing else away from this book, remember that.

One of the main themes of the book, probably developed because so many artists talk about, is the wrestling of spirituality and commerce, expressing Truth without conforming to the Bubble.  Christian music’s propensity to award mediocrity is also at long length discussed.  On the other hand, is he also quick to agree that there can be a certain amount of prejudice on the other end–most music magazines won’t pay any attention to an artist associated with Christian music in anyway, and Beaujon feels that this is also unfair, as some of the artists he finds are, well, awesome.

Beaujon certainly likes some bands and artists more than others.  He interviews controversial figure David Bazan (formerly of Pedro the Lion) multiple times.  He falls in love with Mute Math’s live show (and rightly so.)  He gets into mewithoutYou pretty heavily as well, and shows Steve Taylor some admiration–again, on both counts, rightfully so.  Even the too-weird-for-me Danielson Familie gets some attention.

He grows tired of hearing derivative bands, but admits that even Stryper had some pretty good tunes.  

He conducts longer interviews with Doug Van Pelt, Steve Taylor, Jay Swartzendruber (editor of CCM Magazine), Bill Hearn, and Stavesacre’s Mark Salomon.  

One of the most interesting sections, to me, is a two chapter look at the phenomenon of Worship Music.  He struggles to understand it, and although he finds “Blessed Be the Name” by Matt Redman incredibly catchy, singing it for weeks, he finds the worship experience to be insular, unwelcoming to the outsider. Later, HM editor Doug Van Pelt challenges him on this point, saying that worship times weren’t meant to be for outsiders–just as you wouldn’t go to a club for expensive car enthusiasts and find them simplifying things so you understand.  So, Beaujon gives it another chance, going to several David Crowder Band concerts, including one of the shows DCB plays in the week after Kyle Lake’s tragic death.

It is there that worship music finally clicks for him.  He tells how, during DCB’s closing number, Crowder disappears to the floor, as he uses his various pedals and instruments to make all these noises.  The audience stays enraptured, even though the frontman isn’t in view–nothing visual is happening.  “And that, my friends, marked my conversion to, or at least my enmity to, worship music.  Here’s a guy surrounded by rabid fans who’d have done anything to get close to their worship leader, consciously removing himself from the spotlight.  There was only one star at that evening’s show, and he hadn’t been onstage at all.”

Not everyone comes out looking great.  He is finds Switchfoot’s attempts to pretend they’re not associated with Christian music to be a bit off-putting.  And his time at GMA Week and the Dove Awards make the idea of a Christian Music Industry look a bit silly (which it is, imho).  He sees a lot of mediocrity and hypocrisy there, and even a bit of racism.  (Some of the worst examples include the horrid rewording of the Dove eligibility requirements that occurred when the Association didn’t want to give the song “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer any recognition, and the fact that the majority of the “Best Rap” awards at the Dove’s have been won by white guys.)  

Another somewhat telling thing from that week is that one of the rappers he meets decides to give him a tract and share the gospel, and he realizes that in all the time he was working with Christians on this book, that was the first (and I think only) time that happened.

Only one chapter seems a waste of time to me, and that is a late chapter where he goes around Washington with several abortion protestors.  It seems a bit random and out of place, and not as well written or as gripping as other sections.

Jesus calls us to be in the world, but not of it.  It seems with the somewhat accidental creation of a “Christian music industry”, we have gotten that backwards. Getting out of that trap will take boldness from artists with originality.  Body Piercing Saved My Life gives an outsiders perspective on this curious aspect of American culture , looking at it from all angles, asking important questions and highlighting artists who have been unfairly shunned because of their worldview.  It’s a great read, and I recommend it.

My Thoughts on Our Outgoing President

Ooh…controversial.

We’re at the very end of the Bush years.  I don’t see Jeb stepping into the Presidency anytime soon.  Obama is about take office, and for all intents and purposes, he’s already leading the country.  Meanwhile, George W. steps out with one of the lowest approval ratings a President has ever left office with.

And I don’t think it’s justified.

Now, before we jump into this, I want to say that I have friends on both side of the political fence.  I have friends who have stuck by the President from the 2000 Supreme Court Election through Abu Ghraib to today.  And I have friends who never quite trusted or agreed with the guys, and have intelligent reasons for doing so.

There are people on both sides who have thought through their opinions on Bush, who have listened to facts and reasoned why they have liked or not liked the policies or persona of President Bush.  And that is as it should be.

But I don’t think that’s the case for most people.

I would say that most Americans base their political opinions on a few emotional things.  They don’t pay much attention to the real news, or if they do, it’s to only a select few sound bites selected to sway their opinion.  At the risk of sounding arrogant myself, I think most people haven’t taken the time to educate themselves on the facts.  

Many of the people who disapprove of President Bush don’t know why.  (I would say the same for many who like or dislike Obama.)

Maybe they don’t like the way he talks or where he’s from.  Maybe they’ve heard a couple of things, or noticed that everyone else dislikes him.  But for them, there’s no real reason.

Now, before you jump all over me, I will say I do not think by any stretch that George has has a perfect Presidency.  Some of the bad points:

1. Our entrance to the Iraq War was with a great amount of naivety at best, and at worst a sinister and badly planned foray designed to, I don’t know, get control of oil, oust Saddam Hussein as revenge for his attempt to kill George Sr., give contracts to weapons manufacturers, or something else.  The first several years were mishandled.

2. Afghanistan–on the other hand, not enough attention was given to completing the job in Afghanistan, which has put the country in the precarious position it is in now.

3. Obviously, many of the abuses connected with POWs in the Iraq War have been pretty atrocious.

4. I’ve watched the whole Spike Lee documentary on Hurricane Katrina, and while I don’t believe that the government’s handling of that situation was intentionally racist, it was completely bungled and showed how unprepared Bush and FEMA were and how out-of-touch he was with what was happening.

And I’m sure numerous other things could be added to the list.

That would seem like enough to permanently tarnish anyone’s Presidency.  But is it the whole story?

No.

There is a lot more to the story than that.  There are some things that, regardless of what the rest of the world says, Americans can hold their head up high about when talking about President George W. Bush.

Why aren’t these things (which I will discuss below) more talked about?  Well…I have a theory about that.

Yup: the liberal media theory.

Of course, this isn’t a theory that applies or across the board or isn’t even that provable.  But I need to give you some background as to why I believe it.

I went to a high school (U-32 Jr/Sr High) in Vermont that was started by former hippies in the early 70s.  It is a pretty “liberal” school, even for a public school in Vermont.  For the first year of the school’s existence, there was a “no homework” policy.  They soon realized that was a bit silly.

But we called all the teachers by their first names.  And instead of “study halls” when you didn’t have class, you had “free periods” where you could wander around or sit in the student lounge and play cards or whatever.  My senior year, two days a week I had 3 classes and 6 free periods.

I took journalism there and even acted as co-editor of the school’s paper.  It was a serious program, with a regularly released newspaper that won its share of awards. Our teacher, Joanne, a die-hard liberal democrat who sometimes got a bit tipsy on field trips, drilled into us one thing that I remember about journalism to this day: 

Unless you are specifically assigned commentary, reporting had to be completely free of bias.  That meant that quotes and facts were needed on both sides of an issue.  That meant that our own opinions were not to enter into it.

And I mean it was drilled into us.  Later, I worked as a stringer for a news radio station in Vermont.  That meant that I was basically assigned a story a week that I could do at my leisure.  My biggest moment came when I was assigned to go get some sound bites from a press conference being held by Congressional candidate Bernard Sanders, the socialist mayor of Burlington.  It was his first press conference after a nasty incident in which he yelled at some reporters he felt were being unfair to him.  When he saw me, a 17 year old kid who went to high school with the son of his opponent, he made sure I knew that I had to report things fairly. But for me, it was a no-brainer.  That’s what reporters did.  (Sanders is still in Congress, incidentally.)

My co-editor for part of that year was my best friend Dan.  It is somewhat odd that Dan and I were so close, as we are polar opposites in almost all of our values.  But we talked on the phone recently, and one thing we agreed on was how very bias the media was–some to the left, some to the right.

But let’s not kid ourselves.  “Some” to the left is an understatement.  Statistics show that somewhere between 80-90% of the reporters working in prominent news media lean to the left.  This is disproportional with the way American leans.

And here’s what I think happened.  Bush’s victory in 2000 was a strange one at best, and although many (but not all) of the post-Supreme Court recounts suggest Bush really would have won, the whole thing felt a bit tainted from the start.  And many of the press immediately disliked the President.

He had a grace period after 9/11 where even Saturday Night Live made a short-lived pledge to no longer mock him, but that quickly ended and the reports about the President focused on mistakes, with very little of his successes (and there are many–see below) emphasized.  

Anecdotal evidence: someone I know was in Iraq shortly after Saddam was driven out of Baghdad.  The military had taken up posts at some of his opulent palaces, and this person happened to be at a press conference where a high ranking officer was updating the press on things happening in the country.  The officer was reporting on some of the good things happening at the time–public services that were going up, people being helped (including–bet you didn’t know this–the 130 or so children freed from a prison, where they had been held for months or years for not participating in Saddam’s youth Baath Party activities, and returned to parents).  

The reporters sat, bored, not writing much down.  When the officer finished, the reporters came to life, immediately asking questions about some of the bad things that had happened, or rumors they had heard.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with presenting the bad with the good.  But when the bad is all that is reported, something is wrong.  It’s not the whole picture.

And so the press, who mostly live under a different value system than the President or others who may support him, focused on the bad.  And the country, hearing only the bad, started believing that only bad was happening, until the fact that the country disapproved became the news story, causing more people to disapprove without actual, factual reasons.

So what has the President done right, if I am so convinced?  Let me mention a couple of things, all of which can be summed up by this quote: “We are a better nation when we save lives.”  That’s Bush speaking in an interview about item #1 below.

1. President Bush has done more than any President before him, and more than almost any world leader, to help turn back the tide of AIDS in Africa and bring treatment to those suffering.  The main program he pushed forward  is called PEPFAR (The President’s Emergency Plan For Aids Relief), that has brought help to over 10 million in Africa since its inception.  Countries like Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania will never be the seem, and in those places the President is a very popular man, as the effects of his work are seen everywhere.  There’s a great article here: http://relevantmagazine.com/releblog/cameronsqa/president-bushs-unexpected-legacy/ that includes an interview with the President.  

Incidentally, I have a couple of friends who were in the national limelight a few years back, and in addition to the weirdness of being on the View and Larry King, they got to meet the President.  He gave them a tour of the historical objects he had chosen for his Oval Office, and the President they met along, face-to-face, is very much the man you never see in the press (is it a great crime to be a poor public speaker?), but it is the man you see in the interview I linked to above.

2. In May of 2006 I saw a piece in The New York Times of all places (not exactly a friend to the Bushes) that asserted that some of Bush’s positive contributions were being overlooked.  It took time to highlight that he had, again more than any other President, done a lot to combat modern slavery (human trafficking), pushing forward money and programs to fight it worldwide.  As there are currently more slaves on the planet than there have ever been at one time previously, this is a thing to be proud of.

3. This isn’t a positive, but rather a correction of a misperceived negative: it is not primarily Bush’s fault that the economy is in the state it is currently in.  The whole mess, which I can’t begin to understand fully, began with the deregulation of several industries, including the home mortgage industry (you’ve heard the term “sub-prime mortgages”).  This happened in the waning years of Clinton’s administration.  Just a few years ago the Republicans of the House warned something like this mess might happen, but it fell on deaf ears.

4. The Kurds are free.  Whatever the motivation for the Iraq War–and I’m sure it was mixed–one thing that came out of it is that a tyrant who–let’s be honest–wasn’t going anywhere through diplomatic channels was overthrown.  This is especially good news for the Kurds, an ethnic group focused in southern Turkey and northern Iraq and targeted for genocide by Saddam Hussein.  In the early 90s the Iraqi military received orders to wipe them out gradually, and villages were gassed with chemical weapons.  They say that not a single Kurdish family went through this time without at least one loss.  And this is why, after the invasion and overthrow, Kurdish women were naming their babies “Bush” and Americans were celebrated in the streets.  The region has remained mostly free of the violence that has plagued the Sunni triangle.  And the Kurds are free.

Speaking of Iraq, it is going much better today.  “The Surge” has largely worked, as well as the recruitment and training of many former insurgents to police and keep safe their own neighborhoods.  

Bush operated under a policy I agree with.  America is the richest, most powerful nation that has ever existed, and it is our calling to use that not to keep our 401Ks stocked and our lives comfortable and fridges overstocked, but to bless and help the unfortunate all over the earth.  And though this has not happened perfectly–and won’t under any human leader–I applaud our President for helping the unfortunate of Africa, the trapped women of East Asia, the targeted of the Middle East, and even the homeless of America.  

And though the rest of the world hate him and look at the very real negatives, I say, thank you Mr. Bush, for these things.  Thank you for not letting another Rwanda happened because it doesn’t look popular on TV to have our soldiers killed.  Thank you for using your time to do good where others would use their time to do what wins points.

Thank you.

BONUS THOUGHTS: Real quick–I’ve been watching, over the past two years, the first 4 seasons of Saturday Night Live on DVD.  Well, watching is an overstatement. Skimming is more like it.  And guess what: they stink as bad as SNL has ever stunk!

I know its popular to consider the first five years the greatest of the show’s history, but that’s looking at it through rose-colored glasses.  There are great characters, actors, and classic skits.  As there are almost every year.  But there are also skits that drag on WAY too long (many pass the 8 minute mark, unheard of today), recurring characters that have one note and recur way too often (like today), and lots of laughless moments.  There are missteps, like letting the then-very-arrogant Chevy Chase mug his way to dominance in the first year, and like doing what seems like 23 different “Cheeseburger” sketches long after they aren’t funny, and…just the endless repetition.  Not to mention that I know fully believe that Jane Curtin and Bill Murray are the worst Weekend Update hosts in the show’s run.  No timing, more vulgar than the show is today, believe it or not, and worst of all, just not funny.  Plus, can we draw the line at 20 identical Roseanne Roseannadanna commentaries?  It’s awful.  As good and as bad as SNL ever was.  Thus ends the killing of a sacred cow.  

Thank you.