Friday, April 5, 2013

It Gets Personal, Part II: Music, Movies, and Faith on Two Wheels

Welcome back. Earlier this week, I talked about about how it affects me to have a song stuck in my head and then find out it's got religious/Christian themes in it. My inner reactions, though slightly varied, tend to coalesce around No Sir, I don't like it. Today, I'll explain a bit about why I think that might be.

I've encountered situations like this many times over the years. I would find bands like The Rocker Summer, Needtobreathe, Switchfoot, or even Paramore, grow to sort of like them, and then realize that their music was often faith-driven. I suppose it makes sense that this kind of music would be attractive. After all, it's impossible to completely divorce overall sonic quality of a given song from its lyrical content, and "CCM" often contains compelling themes like persistence despite adversity, the search for deeper meaning, struggling with a sense of alienation, and maintaining a positive outlook when things inevitably start looking bleak. Depending on how I feel at the time, those could be very useful devices.

So I can't really say for sure why discovering the band or artist's Christianity frustrates me so much! I suspect it's because I have struggled with my own faith/religion/spirituality for roughly the last 15 years, ever since I began to perceive that part of myself as distinct from the culture I was raised in and around. When, at 12 years old, I suggested that my family start going to church again, it wasn't out of any deep thirst for religion or faith. The truth is, it came from watching "Home Alone" with my family for the gazillionth time.

It was the scene where Kevin McAllister's elderly neighbor, Old Man Marley, who has been presented as creepy and possibly homicidal for the entire movie, is discovered (!) to be kind, wise, a good member of the community, and excellent at relating to children. He's basically Santa's more introverted brother who just looks gruff (due to taking his style cues from Civil War generals) and feels lonely and isolated after a falling-out with his own family some time ago.

"You can be too old for a lot of things-- you're never too old to be afraid."

Old Man Marley reassures Kevin on several fronts- fear is not something he needs to grow out of, his furnace probably isn't trying to eat him, and that they're sitting in a place where both of them (and by extension we) will always be welcome. Kevin, precocious prankster that he is, brings a childlike simplicity to Marley's internal conflict over whether to reach out to his estranged son. That all felt so powerful to me in that moment. In the popular mind, the scene tends to take a backseat to images of Kevin lip-syncing to a mobster movie while firecrackers go off like a Tommy gun, or Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern being continually jacked in the face by a paint can or whatever. Obviously that's a lot of fun, but I think the messages sent in the church scene are ultimately of much more value. 12-year-old me wanted to feel that sense of positiveness and warmth, so the following week we started attending the West Auburn Congregational Church/ United Church of Christ, which I remain a member of today.

For me, it was never really about God, who remained more a symbol or cultural reference point than anything truly active in my life. Much like a song getting stuck in my head, church was about capturing a feeling I had, then and there. Have I gone to a single non-Christmas, marriage, or baptism-related service in the last five years? No. Do I miss it? Rarely. But hearing that type of song or being reminded of those symbols and images brings my own internal conflict over spirituality rapidly to the fore, making me wonder if I ought to find religiosity for real.

It's not as though I haven't tried. Multiple times throughout my adult life, I've made a sincere effort to put religious faith into my heart. Of course, I never actually went back to church, since I considered it to be essentially separate from faith, and it somehow didn't seem right without my family and the people I knew. Maybe that was the missing piece, who knows. Either way, it hasn't worked, and approaching the end of my third decade I still oscillate between agnostic and "secular humanist." Frankly, even secular humanism bothers me, because those guys seem so adamant about the ridiculousness of being religious- they dismiss spirits and souls as constructed, almost immature inventions of humanity. By contrast, though those things do not play a huge role in my life, I do not doubt their importance or value to other human beings, whether constructed or not. We all need some form of mysticism or ritual to help us make sense of the world.

For me, singing songs helps, but I never feel more connected, clear-headed, or capable than when I'm riding a bike. Sure, it's fun to move fast(er,) feel the wind pushing back against me, and play fast and loose with the occasional stop sign, but there's more to it than that. My worries and issues seem to blow away on the wind, my reflexes sharpen, and I begin to feel my consciousness expand beyond my immediate physical body as I become part of a hybrid organic/mechanical form and feel the contours of the city as my wheels connect with the road. It's an incredibly liberating experience, and I don't suppose it's coincidence that an activity which makes me feel so connected to the world is often afforded a somewhat environmentalist bent. This is already sounding incredibly pretentious, so instead of continuing I'll just pose a question. If someone gets a similar feeling from a relationship with a god or similar entity as I do from cycling, who am I to decry that? But that question cuts both ways, and I have trouble with any system of beliefs in which so many of the faithful seem to be trying to force it on others. The idea of being religious feels so tied up in wanting other people to adhere to the same doctrines and mores as I do, and that's just so completely at odds with the kind of person I am.

Next time, I'll explore how that attitude relates (maybe) to my past, and its possible implications for my future. Stick around!


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