From RAPTURE READY! by Daniel Radosh
Copyright 2008 by Daniel Radosh. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
To hear an interview with the author, click here.
The Jesus Village tent was packed shoulder to shoulder in anticipation of Aaron Weiss, the mewithoutYou front man who would be speaking soon. No one could say exactly what the topic would be, but well over a thousand people were eager to hear it. The canvas flaps bulged, and I squeezed into an overflow crowd spilling out onto the road near the side of the stage.
Since being told that Aaron was “different,” I had learned that this reputation was largely based on his passion for environmentalism that bordered on—or crossed the border into—obsession. Everyone seemed to know two things about Aaron: He had transfigured his band’s tour bus so that it ran entirely on used cooking oil, and he ate food out of the garbage. Not just sometimes, but exclusively. Aaron believed that with so much food being wasted in America, he would rather go hungry than buy any. Not that he ever went hungry. MewithoutYou’s tour manager told me that Aaron kept track of the days that Trader Joe’s threw out stock that was past its sell-by date, and made a weekly “shopping” trip to find the food that would clearly still be edible for days or weeks. He saw the look on my face—half disgust, half amusement, half bewilderment—and laughed, “I know! But wait till you meet him. You’ll understand.”
Aaron sat down on a folding chair on the stage and the tent grew quiet as he adjusted a microphone. Dressed in a ratty T-shirt and jeans, he had a full, dark beard, flyaway hair, and piercing eyes. He looked a lot like the actor Jason Lee in one of his shaggy phases. When he began to speak, it was obvious why no one knew what the topic would be. He barely seemed to know himself. Yet as he jumped from subject to subject—music, the Iraq war, Jesus, charity—he addressed each with an almost stunning conviction and eloquence, as well as impressive doses of insight, self-awareness, and good humor. And it all sounded conversational and completely genuine. Within fifteen minutes, I’d decided that he was one of the most charismatic speakers I’d ever heard.
When he brought up the war, Aaron warned the audience first, saying he knew some people would rather not hear about it. But he told them it was his duty to talk about it—and theirs too. “Christianity in America has one voice in the media—of the religious right, that says our wars are justified by God.” As a result, non-Christians have been left with the impression that the mission of Christianity is to fight evil. “We’re not called to rid the world of evildoers,” he insisted. “There’d be no one left! We’re called to ask God for mercy and forgiveness.”
Someone asked Aaron how he had found God. “Ooh, testimony time,” he joked. The sharing of one’s testimony, that moment when a Christian becomes born again, is evangelicalism’s most sacred ritual. Usually. “I came to God through an old-fashioned fundamentalist church that said I was going to burn in hell if I didn’t accept Jesus. And I didn’t want to burn in hell.” The crowd laughed, and Aaron smiled with them. “It was very manipulative and cruel.” Eventually, Aaron said, he learned the true nature of God, but not before some terrible and emotionally draining fights with his Jewish father and Muslim mother. Now, he said, they treat each other with mutual respect and humility. “I can’t pretend to know everything that God knows,” he said. “I just have to trust his love. Are there gonna be Muslims in heaven? I don’t know. I sure hope so. I’ll go farther than that: I think so.”
This guy was different, all right. Aaron took a sip of Gatorade. “Someone just left this half full,” he said, and the crowd burst into cheers and laughter. Aaron cracked up. “I’m talking about peacemaking and honoring your parents, but when I talk about Dumpster diving everyone applauds! But that’s great. And there’s biblical basis for it. People ask, ‘What does it say in the Bible about Dumpster diving?’” He took a sip. “At least as much as it says about abortion and gay marriage.”*
After Aaron finished, he sat on the side of the stage for nearly an hour, talking with people. When the last fans dispersed he pulled a chair up to where I was waiting for him and plopped down wearily. “My throat’s really burning,” he said. “I had a hundred and two fever yesterday.” Then he apologized for being negative. “What did you want to talk about?”
I started with how much I’d enjoyed his band the other day and asked if he made a conscious effort to write in a style—poetic, ambiguous—that was so at odds with the clear, propositional statements of a certain variety of Christian rock.
“I don’t like either tendency, actually,” he said. “To me, there shouldn’t be an attempt either to sell more records in the Christian bookstores by saying the name Jesus a certain amount of times or to shy away from clear, declarative lyrics. Because as far from the fundamentalist spirit as the east is from the west, I do believe in truth, and I would want to declare firmly, ‘If we follow Jesus, we need to love our enemies, and we do need to care for the poor and visit the sick and stand up for peace in the world.’ Somebody else who has a different perspective, and thinks, ‘As a follower of Jesus, I need to fly this fighter plane and drop a bomb on this market,’ I would definitively declare, ‘I think that’s wrong.’ So I am not a moral relativist.”
What he concentrates on, he said, is not saying anything just for the sake of pleasing an audience. “If you say the word Jesus and you don’t say the word shit, everybody’s going, ‘Okay, he’s one of us; he’s telling us what we want to hear.’ That’s a real easy way to get popular in the Christian sphere. Then of course, there will be many nonreligious people who hear the word Jesus is in our lyrics, and: ‘Oh, Christian band—screw this.’ So I’ve come to a point where I just don’t care about it.” He thought for a second. “The thing is, I do care. There’s part of me that still wrestles with: How do I appeal to the most people? Then I realize it’s not a valid concern. I try to keep it at bay, and so I keep my eyes on speaking what my heart says is true. I fall short of that, but that’s where I fix my eyes.”
“How much of a problem have you found with secular audiences writing you off because of Jesus in your lyrics?”
“Well, it’s hard to say, because most of the people who come up to talk to me like my band, and haven’t written us off. So I get the unfair impression that everybody likes us.” He laughed again. “If we have been written off, most of the time I would assume it’s because of the quality of our music. I don’t feel particularly persecuted or neglected. Something that’s hard to deny is beauty. Not many people look at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and say, ‘Yeah, but he was a Christian; that’s not very beautiful.’”
He continued, “Anyway, it’s not my goal to convert people. It’s not my duty to convert people. I feel like my duty is to love people. If they convert to the Christian faith—okay. If they don’t—okay.” In fact, he added, it’s in some ways better not to win converts because of the dangers of filling the ranks of the church without actually spreading the true message of the gospel. “I don’t want to pat someone on the back and say, ‘Go and be Christian now,’ whatever that means, and affirm people’s strength in it—and then they go and protest abortion clinics with violence in their heart. That brand of fundamentalist Christianity that most Americans have encountered is the most hurtful possible worldview—the most destructive to the soul. To use the name of Jesus in absolute, complete contradiction to the teachings of Jesus—I think we would be much better off just saying, ‘Well, we want this oil; we want this power; we want this economic status; we want to feel better about ourselves by saying this about homosexuals,’ or whatever it is than to have violence and hatred in the name of God.”
“In your talk just now, you mentioned a few times the majesty of God. That’s language I haven’t heard a lot of. Are you aware that it sounds out of synch with at least the pop forms of Christianity?”
“Yeah. I’d say Christian pop culture errs on that side of Jesus is my best friend. It’s almost become a joke, Christianity’s attempt to make Jesus so palatable or attractive. Whatever you want, Jesus will do for you. The problem is that when Jesus demands that we sell our possessions and give to the poor—Well, if that were your best friend, I’m guessing you’d say, ‘Nah, that’s probably bad advice.’ If that’s the person of God, the spirit of God incarnate telling you to sell your possessions and give to the poor, I think we would take that more seriously.” Then he added quickly, “But I’m a hypocrite. ‘Quit using your thousand-dollar guitars to play songs about how you don’t need material possessions.’ Believe me, I think about quitting so often.”
“This is where the real change happens: art and creativity and beauty. And people are drawn to hear what I have to say more than if I worked in a retail store. Or in politics. I heard where Bono, from U2, was asked, ‘Did you ever want to take up politics?’ He said, ‘Why move into a smaller house?’ I could play guitar in my room. If it were just a matter of expressing myself with art or singing to God, I can do that anywhere. I don’t need to be on the stage. But when I have the attention of people who otherwise would not pay any attention to me, I’m going to have the ability to be a voice for something.”
He shook his head. “My main question is if I in particular am having a good influence. I don’t know. I suspect that to use CDs to say ‘We don’t need CDs’ is . . . backwards. But then, you have to operate within the system. Or do you? People buy books, so you have to print books. That’s going to cost money that could feed people who are hungry. And the books are going to say, ‘Feed people who are hungry.’ Tricky. That’s why more than anything else, I come back to God being merciful, and I say, ‘Thank you, that I don’t have to be perfect.’ I don’t have to figure everything out. I can strive to be perfect, and insomuch as I fall short, I just walk humbly and say, ‘I’m sorry, please forgive me, please guide me to a better place.’”
“You know, I’ve been to Christian bookstores. I don’t think most Christians agonize quite so much about printing books.”
“Or bumper stickers or T-shirts or coffee mugs,” Aaron agreed. “It’s something I wish didn’t go on. Because it’s not even necessary. Jesus said how we’ll be recognized, how people would know we’re Christian, and it wasn’t because we’d be wearing a T-shirt. It’s our actions that identify us. People ask, are we a Christian band or Christians in a band? Increasingly, lately, I’ve been saying ‘neither.’ I hope I’m a Christian. I hope we’re all Christians. I hope we all follow Jesus. But look at our lives: I don’t see it. I’m not ashamed of Jesus. I’m ashamed of myself.
“It’s really a question of what do you do when rebellion becomes the norm, when you’re wearing a stylish new shirt with a cross on it, where the cross represents a dying to all things of the world, and a rejection of all the powers and the comforts and luxuries and values of the world? I’m not sure it can be done. At the same time, if you go about two hundred feet that way, you can find our T-shirts for sale for something like twelve dollars, and it’s something I wrestle with and something I don’t feel content about. Does the world need more T-shirts? Well, maybe somewhere. Not in America. But yet, we print them. When we started five or six years ago, I had no problem with T-shirts. In fact, my main concern was how do we get the biggest profit margin. So we got the cheapest shirts we could and sold them for the most we could respectably and reasonably sell them for, just to make the most money. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I started to think, Maybe that’s not what we should be doing, is trying to make the most money.”
“The elements of Christianity that you emphasize, at least when you talk, and I think in your music, too, are different from the elements that are often emphasized in mainstream Christian pop culture,” I said. “Is that intentional?”
“Sure. Sometimes I see it like a ship that we’re all trying to steer together. You set your course for truth, and if you see it going to one side, maybe it’s your job to turn right. If you see it going to the other side, it’s your job to turn left. I think if there were an overabundance of Christian culture emphasis on giving to the poor, serving the needy, visiting the prisoner and the orphan and the widow, and peacemaking, and so on, and there was never any mention of the need for prayer, the need for meditation, contemplation, fasting, the humility of confessing that ultimately it’s not my efforts that are going to bring peace to the world—if the emphasis was flipped, I would probably be preaching more of that, about God’s goodness in mysterious and esoteric ways. Whereas what I see is overemphasis on holy talk and I don’t see any holy action, so I’ve got to try and put feet to our prayers, I’ve got to try to put hands and fingers to language.”
“Well there are some things Christian pop culture demands action on,” I pointed out. “Premarital sex and abortion and gay marriage.”
“Why is that so overemphasized?”
“I can only say something to the effect of, most people aren’t homosexual. So it’s a really easy one to pick out and say, ‘That’s the problem! That’s the degeneration of our moral values, it’s them.’ Most people probably never had an abortion. So you can look at that sort of murder and say, ‘That’s the murder that I want to draw attention to.’” He looked uncomfortable. “By murder—I even hesitate to use that language without all these disclaimers, because it’s so, in my opinion, overemphasized. I’m much, much more prone to say murder in regard to the killing in a war, or even state-sanctioned killing in the death penalty, or the death that comes as a result of us failing to share our abundance with those who are starving to death. All this is the same sort of human failure to defend the right of human life.”
He continued. “Jesus never mentioned homosexuality once. How has it become such an issue? Strange. Strange how all the things that Jesus actually did talk about fail to become issues. I mean, you start talking about war, and conservative Christians say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be political and protest the war.’ Or you talk about poverty and the causes of poverty: ‘Oh, that’s a political issue; Jesus wasn’t political.’ Why don’t these people deal with the issues that Jesus did? It shouldn’t surprise me. If you look at the Gospels, the most respected religious people were the furthest from the spirit of what Jesus was saying. It’s just the same thing all over again. But I am surprised. I really do continually expect Christians to be the most willing to accept pacifism, peacemaking, or redistribution of wealth, and care for the poor, and rethinking our prison systems and all that. But we end up being the most belligerent and hard-hearted and self-righteous and all the rest. Scary.”
“So the conservative bent of Christian pop culture comes from people picking out certain pieces of the scripture and ignoring others,” I suggested. “There have been studies that show that the majority of evangelical Christians don’t actually know what’s in the Bible. I guess they get their information from the Left Behind books instead. A guy like Tim LaHaye takes what he finds important in the Bible, much in the way that everyone should do for themselves, and puts his version out there in forms that sell sixty-five million copies and become, in a way, more important than the Bible.”
“Did you say sixty-five million?” Aaron gasped. “Wow.” He drew his legs up under him. “Sometimes it seems to me that what lies deep in all of us is a sleeping—or maybe a caged—giant of fear and of doubt and of isolation. Deep down I think we all have this suspicion that really none of this makes any sense. I mean, honestly, come on! Nothing matters! There’s no God. But there’s also this small point of hope or of faith or of purpose or meaning—I guess love is the best way for me to put it. It transcends any of the material or scientific or philosophical doubts about our existence, but those doubts seem so much larger, so we have to keep them confined. My guess is, to actually open the Bible and read what it says is to force yourself to come face-to-face with those doubts. Like: Do I really believe this? It’s easier to just show up once a week at a building and have somebody tell you what you need to hear. Particularly things like, ‘When it all goes down, you’re going to be taken in a warp zone or something, lifted out of here; a whole bunch of bad stuff is going to go down, and you’ll be in heaven.’ Comforting people with something like, as lousy as their life may feel today, Well, one day I’ll be in heaven.
“Again, an easy way to become popular is telling people what they want to hear. Telling people there’s a different side of things—that of giving to the poor—is just asking to be ignored. If Jesus is going to tell you to give to the poor, Tim LaHaye is not, so you might as well go with Tim LaHaye, because he’s going to tell me the good stuff without the hard stuff. I know I would sure love to have everybody tell me for the rest of my life things that sound good and feel good, and encourage me and comfort me. But I think we often reach a point where we decide, from whatever forces are compelling us, No, what I want is not to be comforted; what I want is not to be encouraged in whatever I’ve already decided or affirmed in my current beliefs—what I want is the truth. And I’m not going to be afraid, whatever that may be. If the truth is that I go into the ground six feet and rot and get eaten by worms, so be it. The truth is the truth. If the truth is that fundamentalist Christians go to heaven and everybody else goes to hell, that’s the truth.
“Personally, I don’t believe either one of those. And the unfortunate thing to me is that it almost seems like people are forced to pick one or the other. So what you’re seeing here is my best effort at providing a third way, at saying, No, it’s not meaningless, but it ain’t this either.”
To hear an interview with author Daniel Radosh, click here.