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Courtesy of Green Day

September 5, 2017

JONES | Lessons from my Time as a Pre-Teen Zealot

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As a child, I was fascinated by Christianity. The ritual aspect of it was, I think, what appealed to me most: the concept of slowly and constantly improving oneself through meticulous observation of holidays, prayers, communion, etc. Ironically, I went to fairly laid-back Presbyterian and Lutheran churches with my parents, so I was denied the liturgical, repetitious grandiosity of Catholicism, for which my young, faithful and perhaps even slightly bureaucratic soul was clearly hungering. In retrospect, I was more fascinated by the rituals themselves than what underpinned them: belief in a responsive and singular God. In general, I think I responded to church services on a formal level, rather than emotional or empathetic — although I do remember once being moved to tears by the pathos of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane during a Maundy Thursday service. And, as a very young child, I liked to tell my mom that the Roman guards who crucified Jesus had gotten a bad rap and were actually good guys. On the statement about the Romans, your interpretation is as good as mine as far as my motive; I’d guess a combination of admiration for soldier figures, and an interest in lightly testing the boundaries of heresy.

The music of church services always played a large part in my fascination, although I think that what I really wanted were the organs and chants of Catholic mass, rather than the jaunty praise songs of new-school Protestants. Church music wasn’t just something I enjoyed at church, but was almost the extent of my music taste at the time. A more accurate way to say this would be that I didn’t really listen to music outside of church at all. In fact, a 3rd-grade “time capsule” made in the school library lists “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” as my favorite song, period — though the devoutness of this choice is undercut a bit by the family tradition, of which I was definitely aware of by that time, of replacing the line “God and sinners reconciled” with “God-damn sinners reconciled” in honor of my grandmother’s childhood misunderstanding. (Side note: the time capsule also lists Return of the Jedi as my favorite movie, so my taste was not what you would call “discerning.”)

Anyway, I’ve been thinking recently about the ways that my church-going, and my purely voluntary devotion to it, shaped me. There is an obvious parallel between the interpretative approach that churches take towards the Bible, and my choice to major in English. And, certainly the early years of my music taste were defined by my church-going: besides digging church standards like the bland “Lead Me, Lord” and the bombastic, relentlessly cyclical “Our God is an Awesome God,” the music I listened to in elementary school consisted mostly of movie soundtracks from The Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean, which reflect the majesty and grandiose resolutions of spiritual music. By junior high, when my fascination with religion was disappearing and I had left behind the two-crosses-on-chains-outside-the-shirt look that I had unabashedly sported in sixth grade, my music taste took a sudden turn towards two artists that regularly mock organized religion and Christianity: Eminem and Green Day. It’s hard to say whether my disenchantment with Christianity was comforted by these artists, or whether it was instigated by them. Regardless, what appealed to me about them was their irreverence towards the culturally and religiously sacred. In fact, my fascination with American Idiot back then sprang largely from its use of Christian symbols and characters for blasphemous purposes. I was a disillusioned suburban kid, dealing with the existential vacuum of a loss of faith and the subsequent need for a new identity that affirmed my importance; how better to appeal to this kid than with a song about the “Jesus of Suburbia”?

Nowadays, I am neither a churchgoer nor a fan of biting musical critiques of organized religion. However, I think my music taste today is still, in subtle ways, shaped by my childhood fascination with religion and church music. My favorite singers — Van Morrison, Frank Ocean and Lucinda Williams — all tend towards existential, spiritual grandiosity that is balanced by the individual frailty and doubt that so moved me in the story of Jesus in the garden before his arrest. And the two artists that I’ve considered my favorites for years, Bob Dylan and Kanye West, both balance periods of faith in their musical output with provocative explorations of the characters and morality of Christianity.

I’ve retained my interest in the stories and sometimes perplexing lessons of the Bible, but I’ve left behind any faith or belief in a specific higher power. Still, I think some of what I absorbed during those years of Sunday worship was valuable; particularly the way I learned to approach music. Church music is exploration, not entertainment. The songs are not distractions or time-passers, but moments that ask you to pause and experience them completely. If my reverence for religion has in some ways been exchanged for reverence for literature and music, this is not a replacement so much as a graduation. I may not have retained the lessons, but in many ways church taught me how to read, and how to listen.

Jack Jones is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at jackjones@cornellsun.com. His column Despite All the Amputations runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.

  • Casey Jones

    You retained the lessons young man. Your spirit, and your engagement with the universal, is palpable.