Suspicious Minds

Remember when organized religion meant stately elders, imposing architecture, and a penchant for heavy-handed dignity? You can sum up Christianity's final plunge into embarrassment in two words: guitar mass. The last quarter-century's attempt to integrate scriptural dictates with pop life has often been as pathetic as it was humorous.

For instance, many a Christian child of the '70s asked for comic books, expecting Batman or Archie, and was handed instead things like the cartoon version of The Hiding Place, Dutch Protestant Corrie Ten Boom's narrative of how, with God's help, her family hid Jews from the Nazis. This one I remember because of the scene -- who knows why it was included -- in which a young Corrie asked her father about sex. For some reason, they used the Dutch word so that the little girl asks the old man, "Papa, what is sexen?" What that had to do with God or Nazis, I still don't know.

The best one of these Ben Day dot sermons was Tom Landry's inspirational biography comic. Maybe it was because Landry was then coaching America's team, but I must have read that thing 200 times, sitting in bed in my Dallas Cowboys pajamas all toasty and warm because Tom Landry was, like me and quarterback Roger Staubach, on God's team, too. But Landry doesn't just tell the story of how he "got saved" and end with his eyes looking heavenward. Each successful event of his life -- winning games and getting married -- was nonetheless unsatisfying because ... something was missing. No matter how good defeating an opposing team felt, it still couldn't get rid of the deep-down doubt he felt in his stomach, a gnawing angst that pushes some people toward the pursuit of happiness but others into the pursuit of Jesus. Looking back, Landry was probably better off seeking satisfaction in salvation, since his team couldn't win a Super Bowl to save its soul.

This existential hole-in-the-gut theme has gotten rocked up for the kids recently. The most insipid thing about the Christian-rock compilation ... Seltzer: Modern Rock to Settle Your Soul (Forefront) isn't the music. The fakey dumb grunge found here -- every group should just get it over with and call themselves Soundgarden of Gethsemane -- isn't that much worse than Bush or Stone Temple Pilots or like-minded radio rabble. In fact, DC Talk's "Jesus Freak" has a not unappealing second-rate catchiness. It's the album's condescending liner notes that might be the Tom Landry comic of the '90s, only worse.

The text introduces Helop, Shelop, and Kelop, who live on the tiny planet Seltzer. The inhabitants are Shalondras, who look alike and talk alike; the only thing that distinguishes families is the color of their fingernails. While most of the Shalondras are pretty happy and complacent, Helop, Shelop, and Kelop "felt like they were missing something, like they were incomplete." It's a long story, but the adventurous trio travels to Earth on an ice cream truck that has hitched a ride on a bubble and encounters a street singer who tells them "about a man named Jesus and this music he said 'Would Settle Your Soul.' " Sure enough, "They had found what they were looking for!! They felt complete!" To celebrate, the Shalondras decide to put an album together -- this one! -- with all their favorite songs by Jars of Clay and Third Day and Big Tent Revival.

I think maybe the Jews were right. It's the New Testament that's the root of all this queasy culturata. Back when God was relentless and all-powerful and mean, he was the kind of deity you could respect and fear. Maybe you'd make a nice candlestick in his honor or something, but the Old Testament God wasn't the sort of spirit who would inspire a "Honk if you love Yahweh" bumper sticker. Once Jesus started hanging around, things began getting all touchy-feely and Summer of Love-y. The Christians have been cranking out Tom Landry comic books and Shalondra stories ever since. Thus, it's kind of reassuring that a Genesis renaissance is afoot. As Edward Rothstein wrote recently in a New York Times editorial about this newfound passion for the Bible's first words, "The tales of Genesis are becoming an obsession in recent books because of what they seem to say about human beings: how morally ambiguous are all judgments, how questionable is all virtue, how utterly beyond definitive interpretation are our texts and our acts." Genesis might agree with Tom Landry and even the Shalondras that something's missing. Here's what Genesis says to that, if I may paraphrase: Get used to it. Amen.

By Sarah Vowell
svowell@aol.com

 
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