Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

What makes an atheist love religious music?

Illustration for article titled What makes an atheist love religious music?

Years ago a cute girl walked into the record store where I worked. That was not remarkable. What was remarkable was this: She started talking to me. Not only that, but when I rang her up, she asked me out. This sort of thing simply did not happen to me. I was giddy. She suggested we go to a punk show that some of her friends were playing that weekend. I couldn’t say yes fast enough. We exchanged numbers, and she said she’d pick me up Friday night. If I’d been a religious person, I would have thanked God for the stroke of good luck.


As it turned out, God did not deserve my thanks. After we arrived at the venue that Friday, an odd feeling crept over me. Why was a punk show being held in a well-lit unit of a suburban office park? Why were there so many parents hanging around? And why the hell was someone serving slices of cake? When my date led me deeper into the venue, it all became clear. Against the nearest wall leaned a smiling teenager with a foot-high Mohawk and a T-shirt that proudly proclaimed, “JESUS WAS A PUNK.”

Being suckered into attending a Christian-punk show isn’t the lamest thing I’ve ever had to endure—but it’s close. As far as I’m concerned, such a thing is reverse blasphemy. I am not agnostic, undecided, or otherwise straddling the fence about the existence of God; I am an atheist. I also came of age in the punk scene, and one of the first things you figure out is that God and punk mix about as well as funk and metal. Sure, there are Christian punk bands. But why listen to peppy crap like MxPx when you can crank up Amebix’s scathing “No Gods No Masters” or Dayglo Abortions’ snotty “I’m My Own God”?

In addition to being an atheist, I am a hypocrite. I love religious music. For as long as I’ve been a serious music listener, I’ve been drawn to all kinds of devotional artists and songs—just not Christian punk, with which I have a personal beef that may or may not have been aggravated by a certain young woman and a certain bad date. My first dilemma came when I was 15. A huge fan of The Smiths, I’d gotten into a vaguely similar band called The Housemartins. Jangly and chirpy in that ’80s-British kind of way, The Housemartins are remembered mostly because the group’s singer, Paul Heaton, went on to form the far more successful outfit The Beautiful South—and its bassist, Norman Cook, took up DJing and became Fatboy Slim. But The Housemartins did have one chart-topping hit in England: the 1986 Christmas single “Caravan Of Love.”

An a cappella cover of the 1985 gospel-R&B crossover hit by Isley-Jasper-Isley, “Caravan Of Love” is not sung sarcastically. At the time, Heaton was a devout Christian, and “Caravan Of Love” is only one of many gospel songs the band recorded. In the liner notes of The Housemartins’ 1986 debut, London 0 Hull 4, Heaton even goes so far as to include the motto, “Take Jesus - Take Marx - Take Hope.” That Marx famously called religion the opium of the people could not have been lost on Heaton—but seeing as how other Housemartins songs like “Get Up Off Our Knees” and “The World’s On Fire” are critical of organized religion, Heaton seemed fine with embracing paradox. And so was I. The Housemartins were a great band, and although Morrissey wouldn’t be caught dead praising Jesus, I was fine with Heaton doing it. In a way, it was endearing. I was raised in a mostly secular household, and I can count on two hands the number of times I went to church as a kid. I have no lingering nostalgia for religion. But the cheery twee-gospel of The Housemartins felt brave in a subversive kind of way. And maybe even a little punk. After all, it took guts for a warbly indie-pop band to tackle a deeply funky gospel track.

I just received a copy of a new four-disc box set of gospel music called I Heard The Angels Singing. It’s a collection of songs recorded for Nashville’s legendary Nashboro label between 1951 and 1983. The collection is excellent; from the jaunty doo-wop of Silver Bells’ “My Love For Jesus” to the lush, sophisticated balladry of Willie Neal Johnson And The Gospel Keynotes’ “Bless Me,” I Heard The Angels Singing outlines the evolution of gospel in the late 20th century—a path that parallels the arc of R&B during that time, only hidden away from the mainstream. In America, Judeo-Christian belief is the default setting. But in recorded music, gospel is a subculture—and as an admirer of many forms of marginalized music, from jazz to reggae to punk, I could relate.

Regardless of context, gospel music is simply beautiful. The fervor, the earnestness, the call-and-response of yearning and ache: It all made for astounding songs. I first became interested in gospel records a couple years after my reconciliation with The Housemartins, when I began to dig heavily into old soul and R&B. I quickly learned that a large percentage of my favorite artists, from Sam Cooke to Aretha Franklin to Marvin Gaye, started out as gospel singers before going secular. And even non-gospel legends like Curtis Mayfield—who eventually testified to the apocalypse on seething, epic fuck anthems like “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go” —made huge inroads with songs like “Amen,” an early hit by his ’60s group The Impressions that harnessed gospel in a marching, almost martial way.

Perversely, one of the things that drew me to gospel was the sense that “Jesus music” was forbidden fruit. Along with punk, I grew up on metal—and there is no more hallowed tradition in the metal scene than making fun of Christian metal acts like Stryper. In hindsight, though, Stryper’s 1986 breakthrough, To Hell With The Devil, sounds pretty damn solid—at least as solid as the album it’s partially a response to, Mötley Crüe’s Shout At The Devil. In fact, at least Stryper’s Michael Sweet sings with the strength of his convictions, something Vince Neil could only really accomplish on “Girls, Girls, Girls.” In a blind taste test, I’d probably take zealous faith over half-assed Satanic dabbling every time—musically, anyway. And it’s not as though legitimately great metal bands, like the legendary Chicago doom outfit Trouble, couldn’t be heavy as fuck and in love with the Lord at the same time.

Trouble embraced the tag “white metal”—which was meant as a reaction against the rising black metal movement centered in Scandinavia around devil-centric bands like Bathory and church-burners like the infamous Varg Vikernes of Mayhem and Burzum. Black metal isn’t always satanic; sometimes, as in the case of In The Woods… and Primordial, it’s more pagan in nature. Even current black-metal bands like Wolves In The Throne Room, from Olympia, Washington, evoke a sense of Earth-worshipping awe that’s every inch as reverent as gospel. I don’t believe in Satan or Odin any more than I believe in Jehovah—but that intense desire to transcend everyday perception and reality through spiritual music attracts me far more than confessional, conversational singer-songwriters. The more specific and concrete a song is, the more it becomes tied to a particular time, place, and emotional framework. At their best, songs of faith resonate across cultures and ages—even among us heathens.

Punk rock has more similarities to religion than I’d like to admit. Both come with orthodox beliefs, heretics, and rival sects. Shows are our churches; moshing is our holy rolling. It’s the same with any other subculture—only organized religion is dominant, and it’s responsible for innumerable atrocities throughout history as well as today. But even when I listen to mellower songs about religion that tap into the hymnal element of gospel—say, The Velvet Underground’s chant-like “Jesus” or Spiritualized’s heady “No God Only Religion”—I pick up on a sincere desire to sympathize with the religious impulse, if not the religion itself. If punk rock can accommodate something as ostensibly bizarre as Krishnacore, an admittedly tiny sliver of hardcore that mixes the abstemious, straight-edge lifestyle with the mantra-driven meditation of Hare Krishna, anything is possible. One of the leading bands of the Krishnacore movement, 108, was founded by Vic DiCara, guitarist of Zack De La Rocha’s pre-Rage Against The Machine project Inside Out. Maybe my definition of gospel music is too broad, but I consider 108 to be gospel in the most positive sense.

Bad Religion has long been one of the most outspoken groups when it comes to debunking organized religion—but the group just released an EP of Christmas songs called, pointedly enough, Christmas Songs. The most surprising thing about the album isn’t its concept, but its execution: When played with blinding speed, distorted guitars, and soaring vocal harmonies, Jesus-happy carols like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” don’t sound that different from Bad Religion’s typical output. If nothing else, it’s something that me and my Bible-thumping bad date probably could have bonded on.