Religion and rock ‘n roll once existed in opposition to one another. Of course, those days are gone: they eventually intersected, maybe merged, and definitely borrowed from one another. Gods, saints, devils, sacred hymns, purity, temptation, gluttony, worshiping openly, arenas, mega-churches, communion of the flesh, falling from grace, sacrifice, redemption, creation, destruction, love, immortality… where one ends, the other begins.
As it happens, two of the most iconic figures from religion and rock ‘n roll have roots in Grand Rapids: Mars Hill Pastor Rob Bell, and Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan. Pastor Bell is openly referred to as a rock star; Maynard’s lyrics and performances are nothing short of religious.
While Christianity and rock ‘n roll suffer institutional stagnancy, Pastor Bell and Maynard have – each in his own way – challenged established norms and evolved his respective framework.
I submit for your consideration two of the most defining contributions each has made to our culture.
Maynard: Back From The Fore
I’ve always found it odd that lead singers would automatically get to stand in the foreground, get the spotlight(s) and get all the attention. I know, I know, they “front” the band. But it feels disproportional: all the musicians seem equally important.
Almost inevitably, the lead singer would develop a big ego. Maybe leave the band. Then – bam – no more band.
I sometimes wondered what it’d be like if a singer stood upstage (back) of the other bands members.
Then, out of nowhere, Tool “frontman” Maynard James Keenan began doing this: intentionally refusing to set himself in front of the band. It started out with body paint (i.e. navy blue) and blue lighting, which gave him nearly zero contrast. By declining to set himself apart from the background, he changed the focus by design – restoring balance, in a sense, and allowing all elements of the performance to have more authentic proportion with one another.
Then he began standing in shadows, an absence of light. Other musicians were lighted, but not him.
And then he took it further – I’ve seen Tool shows where he was positioned behind a scrim, nothing more than a silhouette, which allowed other band members to get noticed more (although this probably wasn’t the specific goal.)
Simultaneously, as Maynard divested himself of the spotlight, Tool guitarist Adam Jones’ brilliant animation work began to take its rightful place as part of the performance. This strengthened the rendition.
So this was significant. To me. It marked a shift. If you read the reviews from the time of this transition, many fans’ reactions ranged from confusion to frustration. But he stuck with it. Ego can be ravenous; letting go can be impossible. I think Maynard evolved rock ‘n roll (by doing so).
Pastor Bell: Out Of The Fire And…
Fast forward to present, similar gripe about something disproportional: hell. Actions (or thoughts of actions) occurring during one’s relatively brief existence… carried eternal consequences. Even people who didn’t accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior (would burn in hell forever.)
This meant – for example – generations of indigenous Amazonian tribes would be condemned to damnation without any malice, having done nothing against God. Except for being born inside a jungle that wasn’t Westernized yet. I’m not saying people ought to go into these jungles and create missions. I just thought that was pretty harsh, to say so many people would go to hell for what was – in effect – an accident of birth.
Which leads to another question, about a different “accident of birth” – sexual orientation. Straight, gay or even asexual: many rational people would agree it’s not a ‘choice.’ Additionally, its manifestations between consenting adults do not hurt anyone. Love is love is love.
Nevertheless, I’ve heard people tell me, to my face, that my gay friends were going to hell (unless they became celibate.) This damning judgment – issued by people not necessarily pure in their own hearts – was the fundamental reason I’ve drifted from openly referring to myself as a Christian. Because fuck that. Please.
And specifically, several years ago, I began to question the entire notion of hell. It seemed ridiculous, sadistic to the point of sociopathic. Eternity? As Prince said so famously in the song “Let’s Go Crazy,” it means forever and that’s a mighty long time.
But then Rob Bell comes along and finishes the lyric: I’m here to tell you there’s something else. The possibility there is no such thing as hell? Controversy!
To be fair, Pastor Bell has been laying the framework for years, to offer these definitive views about hell. If a recent NOOMA video (embedded, bottom) can be counted as an accurate preview, he spells it out definitively in writing, with the March, 2011 release of his latest publication: “A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”
The outcry of righteous indignation by traditional and fundamentalist Christians has been almost overwhelming – it’s as if they expect the worst to ensue, absent the threat of eternal punishment. As if we had no moral compass, and cannot exist lovingly, if at all, without the “stick.”
I certainly didn’t take the proposition (by Pastor Bell, questioning the existence of hell) as a slippery slope to chaos. I don’t imagine people to be so subject to their compulsions. “Original sin” aside… I think we’re basically good.
In fact, I think you could almost take what Pastor Bell implied as a challenge to rise to a higher standard: love wins, as he says. Be loving. Even if you don’t believe in what Pastor Bell has said about hell, or like me you don’t attend Mars Hill or otherwise follow his teachings… maybe we could simply agree to get ourselves to this standard (practice love). And then we go from there. It’s a good place to start, and imagine how different things could be.
Aside from fundamentalist condemnation of Pastor Bell’s book (despite the fact nobody has read it) there is also an outcry from “contemporary” churches. Suddenly the word “heretic” is trending on Twitter. There seems to be a lot of cross-generational agreement on this: Pastor Bell’s views on hell are heresy. Christians interpreting the Bible… determining nothing shall be added or removed from Scripture. This contradiction among many others leaves me flummoxed but – nevertheless – for the first time in years I feel excited about the concept of belief.
I’ve met Pastor Bell several times where I work (Wealthy Theatre). I haven’t attended any church since I left NYC over ten years ago, but I know a lot of smart people who attend Mars Hill. And amongst my own close friends, who may be less admiring of Pastor Bell… I’ve opined openly that I feel he’s uniquely qualified to challenge stubborn and perhaps false paradigms within the overall “church” of Christianity. It is an interesting moment in time. He is indisputably gifted.
And this thing he’s saying about hell… it’s absolutely a paradigm shift. Just for the fact that he said it. The implications are immense: without hell, the fire & brimstone crowd loses its ability to judge and condemn their fellow man. That one dickhead who goes to military funerals will be out of business. The ‘stick’ of damnation is something we’ll have to pry from their dead hands. But when I think of the many Christians I know who relish judgment a bit too much… the trade-off, even on speculation, seems to outweigh any costs. And yes I know what I’m saying there.
And again, there always seemed to be a huge crevasse between “practice” and “preach.” Many fire/brimstone preachers have been caught in torrid affairs, some with same sex partners. I’m not saying any of that is good or bad, because mine is not to judge; however, it bears pointing out that Pastor Bell appears to be in a committed, loving and long-term monogamous relationship, raising lovely children, and being a father and a husband of the highest order. All without the fear of eternal damnation – a fear which that apparently had little influence on other major figures in the Christian church.
And let’s not forget how quickly believers were able to forgive those fire & brimstone preachers, after their transgressions. As they cried in front of us, in their veluptuous studios, wearing their immaculate clothes and jewelry.
Again using gay people as an example: you can’t say they’re going to hell (without a hell.) Which works out logically, as no commandment explicitly says it’s a sin. The whole conversation is academic, unless you can find me a living Greek person from 11 B.C. who can explain the word “malakoi.”
Basically, here’s my interpretation of Pastor Bell’s interpretation (which I feel entitled to draw): if you’re saying there’s no hell, at least in the fundamentalist sense of the word, ipso facto you accept same-sex relationships.
And going back to the add/remove thing, heresy, all that. I sincerely ask anyone who admonishes adding/removing Biblical law… how do you manage most of Leviticus? Really, I need to know. If you eat lobster, or ham… how do you reconcile these things? Leviticus is only the tip of the iceberg. But using that as an example, if you wear two different types of cloth (cotton and wool, for example) on the same day… do you not have a plank in your eye, as you cast stones against two men (for example) in a loving, committed relationship, harming no one?
If there’s any sin to “adding or removing” from the law of Scripture, let’s be consistent, at least. It appears these pro-hell Christians are taking an “all or nothing” view, so let’s see more walk and less talk.
Or here’s a third option: let’s consider the possibility that we’re all interpreting, adding, removing… and for now, maybe we just set our sights on something universally achievable: be loving.
I feel like Pastor Bell has moved a number of people to be more loving. I’ve always been intrigued by his abilities as a communicator. Honestly, the main thing that kept me away from his church was the betrayal I would feel, in participating in a belief structure that portrayed my gay friends as having only one fate: burn in hell. There’s no grey area there, for me: I can’t be part of that sort of lunacy.
Admittedly, I hoped for a long time that Pastor Bell would come out and say gays are welcome in his church. Not “welcome” in the sense a fur trapper might welcome a fox; but rather, accepted, wholesale, as loving souls. He hasn’t done that, per se. He has done something much more comprehensive, calling into the question the concept of hell – the supposed destiny of Ghandi and gay people. Pastor Bell has gone beyond “do not judge,” and removed the canopy underneath judgment. Which is a holy relief because so many “declarers of damnation” exhibited convenience selectivity… and it reeked to high heaven. Farewell to the refuge of hateful people.
So what Pastor Bell has done – in my (admittedly selective) interpretation – is much more than simply endorsing something as good. He has perhaps eliminated something that was illogical, sadistic and subjective. Much better. Much more effective. I was narrow minded to expect anyone to go around saying “x, y and z” are good. Instead, Pastor Bell said much more.
I’m really interested in this, now.
Here’s a video I made after the a State of Michigan ballot proposal failed, that would have allowed partner benefits for same-sex couples – much of the objection stemmed from religious-liberty complaints by fundamentalist Christians. Which is ironic. The inaction by Christians who are supposed to “get it” on social justice issues… is a hell of a lot more than ironic.