Track 9: Faithless
I’ve got my own moral compass to steer by
A guiding star beats a spirit in the sky
And all the preaching voices
Empty vessels ring so loud
As they move among the crowd
Fools and thieves are well disguised
In the temple and marketplace
Like a stone in the river
Against the floods of spring
I will quietly resist
Like the willows in the wind
Or the cliffs along the ocean
I will quietly resist
I don’t have faith in faith
I don’t believe in belief
You can call me faithless
But I still cling to hope
And I believe in love
And that’s faith enough for me
I’ve got my own spirit level for balance
To tell if my choice is leading up or down
And all the shouting voices
Try to throw me off my course
Some by sermons, some by force
Fools and thieves are dangerous
In the temple and marketplace
Like a forest bows to winter
Beneath the deep white silence
I will quietly resist
Like a flower in the desert
That only blooms at night
I will quietly resist
From a purely literary standpoint, these lyrics are the most descriptive and poetic on the album. Neil’s bookish side is really coming out here, I believe. He employs a number of metaphors and similes that work really, really well to illustrate his message. “Like a forest bows to winter beneath the deep white silence, I will quietly resist.” Absolutely sublime.
As for the substance of the lyrics, this is clearly a reaction to the inundation of evangelical Christianity that seems to have blossomed in the years since 9/11 and encouraged by our pseudo-pious president. While I do consider myself a spiritual and even religious person, I find the lyrics to this song to be deeply relevant and meaningful.
In this day and age (and, honestly, even before 9/11), it is not okay to be an atheist, or even an agnostic, as far as mainstream culture is concerned. When something like 90% of the population professes a belief in some sort of higher power/god, I suppose this isn’t hard to imagine. That number, of course, is deceptive, because many of those who profess belief in God don’t necessarily practice organized religion, and even fewer practice evangelical religion. Still, there seems to be a distinct undercurrent of general suspicion and distrust aimed at anyone who claims not to believe in gods.
This is encouraged by many things within society. When we step onto the stand in a courtroom, we swear on a bible, as if that somehow makes our oath more rock solid (actually, I think courts may have ended this practice, but either way, it certainly has been done in the past). Our Pledge of Allegiance, and many of our patriotic songs, mention God. Our money has God’s name on it. We use phrases like “I swear to God I didn’t do it” and “What in God’s name were you thinking?” Even though most evangelicals, and even many mainstream Christians, would frown on “using God’s name in vain,” such phrases still help to reinforce the idea of an existent, theistic God in the mind of the mainstream culture.
Politicians, athletes, and other prominent people routinely bandy God’s name about. In the case of politicians in particular, it has almost become a necessity to chalk your faith in God up on your resume. It’s not only acceptable, it’s actually encouraged. I can’t tell you how many political commercials I have seen over the last few years where the candidate touts his devotion to family and faith even more than his successes in office. Can you imagine if a major candidate were to openly profess atheism? I don’t know of any who have done that, because to do so – with the possible exception of a strongly liberal district here or there – would be political suicide. I’m sure there are plenty of atheist/agnostic politicians, but they have to either ignore issues of personal faith completely, or lie. Again, mainstream culture, despite its obsession with all things materialistic, greedy, and worldly, seems to have an underlying suspicion of atheists, and would never – not in this day and age – elect an openly atheist candidate to a major office.
Is this fair? Is an atheist somehow less qualified to run the country than a person of faith? Of course not. Personal religious convictions are utterly, and in every way, irrelevant. But try telling that to the 60% of Republicans who still support Bush.
When was the last time you heard of an atheist politician, athlete, or movie star getting into trouble with the law, or committing some other act of indecency? Yet how many openly pious starlets, politicians, and athletes have we watched fall into the cesspool of immorality, not to mention countless preachers, priests, and religious leaders? Mel Gibson, that bastion of Catholic piety, comes immediately to mind, as does the guy in Denver who was the head of the national Evangelical association, and got caught whoring around with MEN. The examples, of course, could go on and on. Yet, despite that, we tend to think of atheists and agnostics as the immoral ones, the ones with no ethical code, the unscrupulous ones who live only for themselves. It’s a gross distortion of reality, and a willful attempt to discredit a perfectly creditable way of life. I am not an atheist, but I can find no fault with someone who looks at the world around them, sees a world that looks exactly as one would expect a godless world to look, sees no other evidence for gods, and therefore chooses not to have faith.
We tend to talk about atheism with “no holds barred,” but if we’re discussing religion, we are supposed to afford religious people a certain level of respect that those same religious people frequently don’t afford atheists. For instance, it’s not okay for an atheist to tell a religious person that their beliefs are akin to beliefs in fairies and genies, but evangelical religious people don’t have a problem “ministering” to the “unchurched” through an array of missionary work, from employing full time missionaries to encouraging members to “share the Good News” with people they encounter in their daily lives. Many Christian denominations even produce literature aimed at teaching members how to effectively spread the message of Jesus to the unwashed masses. I wonder how an evangelical would react if an atheist went door-to-door, attempting to convert believers to atheism by pointing out the depravity of their beliefs?
I think it’s this anti-atheist/agnostic undercurrent within mainstream society that spurred the writing of this song. “I have my own moral compass to steer by” and “I have my own spirit level for balance” are great contrasts to traditional Christian ideas of needing God to help you get through the ups and downs of life. When people suggest that they are so weak and useless that they must rely on a supernatural being that they can’t prove exists in order to face the trials of life, it really saddens me. I think this neediness that so many religious people display is strong evidence that our God is more manmade than we like to imagine. Of course, not all religious people are like this, but when you listen to televangelists and to the songs sung in church and played on Christian radio, one would think that Christians are all a bunch of emotionally needy, weak-willed individuals in dire need of some good counseling.
A Christian rock group called Caedmon’s Call has a song with the lyrics “I am thankful, that I’m incapable of doing any good on my own.” Amy Grant, during her Christian music days, had a song that included the lyrics, “I have decided that being good is just a fable. I just can’t ‘cuz I’m not able. I’m gonna leave it to the Lord.”
What?? What sort of belief system is that? I realize, of course, that it is classic Calvinist theology. But the point is: why are people drawn to religious beliefs that teach them that they are good-for-nothing, snivelling, needy sinners? And what does that say about the emotional and mental state of those people? Furthermore, what does it say about the legitimacy of their religious beliefs?
When it comes to Christian-oriented music, I think children’s songs are the worst. Even among some of the “classics,” if you really listen to what the words are saying, it’s pretty disturbing:
1. “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so.” Nothing like teaching our children that they can “know” Jesus loves them simply because the bible tells them so. No wonder so many adults fall back to that “it says so in the bible” argument when faced with tough questions.
2. “They are weak but he is strong.” Balderdash. What a despicable thing to teach a child. But again, little wonder that so many adults end up with belief systems like the ones espoused in the above-referenced Amy Grant and Caedmon’s Call songs, when they are taught as children that they are weak and must turn to Jesus for strength.
3. “Father Abraham had many sons. I am one of them and so are you. So let’s all praise the Lord.” What?? I’m sorry, but you’re little white-ass, Mid-Western brat is NOT a son of “Father Abraham!” In fact, if you’re like many evangelicals, you believe that “Father Abraham’s” sons are all bound for hell for rejecting Jesus!! But either way, these lyrics help perpetuate the myth that we – us white-ass honky Caucasians living in North America – are somehow the “legitimate” descendents of the Jewish tradition, because the Jews rejected Jesus, and so God named us his “chosen ones” instead.
4. And then there’s the worst one of all. The following song is on a video of Bible Songs that my daughter has, and if I’m around when she’s watching it, I fast forward through it. I’m not sure what the title of the song is, but the lyrics go a little somethin’ like this: “Be careful little eyes what you see. Be careful little eyes what you see. ‘Cuz the Father up above is looking down with love, so be careful little eyes what you see.” And then “ears what you hear” and “feet where you go,” etc., etc. The contradictions and contemptible messages are rife within these verses. It’s basically “see no evil, hear no evil, otherwise God will punish you.” But it’s couched in the deceptive language of “the Father up above is looking down with love.” Yet, clearly the message of the lyrics portrays this so-called god as anything but “loving.” A sergeant-at-arms ready to pistol whip anyone who steps out of line is more like it. And, of course, there’s also the fact that the lyrics perpetuate a myth that died for most of humankind 500 years ago – that is, the idea that we live in a 3-tiered universe. Since the time of the Renaissance, we have known that heaven isn’t above us, with earth in the middle, and hell down below. We live on a round rock, circling a star, in a corner of a universe more vast than we can comprehend. If the Father is “above” and “looking down” on us, then children are forced to image God as an astronaut, in orbit around earth. I wonder if he has to use an oxygen tank? It’s amazing that despite 500 years of knowing that heaven isn’t just beyond the sky, concepts such as this can still remain so prevalent, even among many mainstream Christians who otherwise recognize that God isn’t an astronaut.
I suppose the image of God portrayed in these lyrics strikes such a negative chord with me because I grew up with a concept of God as a stern headmaster and punishing parent. I was always told “God is love,” but the image of God that I picked up from years of Sunday School and private schooling was that God was up there, watching us at every moment of our lives, ready to mark it down in his little black book if we screwed up. For that reason, I grew up a goody-goody, feeling like a sinful little wretch when I did what I thought were sinful things, like masturbating or cussing or any number of other bland, normal, and harmless actions. I went through a period when I was about 10 where I got the idea in my mind that it was a sin to look at advertisements for alcohol or cigarettes. Since our church was downtown, we took the Interstate through Louisville from the suburbs, and, of course, the Interstate was lined with billboards for liquor, beer, and every brand of cigarette known to humankind. So, during this period, I would keep my head either looking down, or looking only at the road, so as to avoid seeing the alcohol and cigarette billboards. And if I did accidentally catch a glimpse of the Marlboro Man or Jack Daniels, I would whisper a prayer of forgiveness.
Yes, this is a true story.
Getting back to the lyrics of Faithless, the chorus, I think, is the best part of the song. “You can call me faithless, but I still cling to hope. And I believe in love.” As a post-modern Christian who recognizes that medieval theology is increasingly irrelevant in this changing world, these lyrics are deeply meaningful for me. I image God as the essence of love, the force that opens the door to abundant life, and the ground of all being – the undercurrent from which all life arises. So in that sense, I definitely believe in love, and I also still cling to hope that there is more to our universe than can be observed empirically.
And that’s faith enough for me.