Segment 17 – Christian Chiptune

What happens when 80s video games meet Christianity? Here us chat about it here:

Songs we played: ‘Mystic Quest‘ from the Retro Pylits; and an 8-bit remix of ‘Jesus Paid it All.’

Chiptune is synthesised electronic music that either uses or is inspired by the sounds of old-school computers and 8-bit video game consoles. True chiptune actually uses the sound cards from these ageing devices, but these days it’s also done through emulators. The heyday of chiptune was in the 1980s when these games were kicking off – the music was lo-fi, single channel, used white noise for percussion, and so on. But it’s had a resurgence in the last decade, with chiptune sounds being mixed with pop and house aesthetics. It’s a wonderful combination of dance music culture and computer game culture. As the Retro Pylits once tweeted: “Dance it up and geek it out!”

The Retro Pylits, from New Mexico, are one of the few chiptune outfits out there who explicitly identify as Christian. They cite God as one of their ‘Influences’ and have songs and albums titled Crucifixion, Spirit, and other Christian-inspired names. While Christianity is not exactly evident in their music – chiptune does not tend to have lyrics, and their music is pretty consistently like a retro video game – they frequently refer to their faith elsewhere. A quote from their Twitter profile summarises the mash-up that we covered today: “We kill Nintendos and Segas. Music paying tribute to salvation.” So chiptune can be prayerful. Ah, the modern world is brilliant.

I also tracked down an 8-bit remix of the popular Christian hymn, ‘Jesus Paid it All,’ from the YouTube profile of Halo44327. The above image comes from the video for the track. The hymn was originally written by Elvina Hall in 1865 in Baltimore, Maryland. The refrain is, “Jesus paid it all / All to him I owe / Sin had left a crimson stain / He washed it white as snow.” It became very popular and covers have been made in many many styles. Just imagine what good Ms Hall would be thinking if she heard the chiptune remix – makes you wonder what twists and turns will be exacted upon today’s cultural products in the centuries to come.

I’m sure the god Shiva is thinking the same thing about next week’s topic: Hindu rap. Remember to click follow in the right margin if you want to keep in touch with Rad Religion!

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Christian Spoken Word

Recently we’ve seen a bunch of Christian spoken word (that is, performance poetry, soft rap) videos on YouTube go viral. They often speak to the ‘cutting-edge’ of Christian theological and social developments – or at least, what is popular among some tech-savvy, plugged-in younger Christians. Our first one is called “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.”

This video caused a huge stir when it was released in January this year (2012). At time of writing it has 22,167,394 views on YouTube and has garnered 123,580 comments, showcasing all the normal vitriol and passion that YouTube seems to draw out of people. The poem was written by Jeff Bethke and produced by Christ is King Productions, a Christian hip-hop production house.

In the video Bethke expresses his disdain for something he titles ‘religion,’ claiming that Jesus represents its opposite. Unfortunately it is not entirely clear what Bethke means by ‘religion.’ Although many would take it as meaning organised, institutionalised religion, Bethke denies this was his intention. “If you are using my video to bash ‘the church’ be careful. I was in no way intending to do that,” he wrote. “The Church is Jesus’ bride so be careful how you speak of His wife.”

Instead, ‘religion’ comes to have a very specific meaning in Bethke’s theology. “I meant religion equals any work of righteousness that has someone hoping to earn favour with God,” he told HuffPost in an interview. “Religion is man performing for God. Grace is Jesus performing for man. That fact humbled me, broke my heart, and changed my life.”

However convoluted Bethke’s own word usages are, the sentiment ties into a long historical development of evangelical Christianity in the United States. Bethke wasn’t the first to say Jesus Hates Religion. From the Reformation onwards, as Western society has become steadily more individualised, we’ve seen Christian theology take the same route. It’s not about following a priest, you don’t need any mediator, you only need the Bible and your own faith, it’s all about a personal relationship with Jesus – this has been the message of Protestant Christianity from the moment Martin Luther rejected the structures of Catholicism. Bethke is ultimately repackaging radical Protestant theology for a new, YouTube-connected audience.

“Religion’s like spraying perfume on a casket,” Bethke says in his video, it’s just “a long list of chores,” like decorating a mummy while “the corpse rots underneath.” There’s something eerily similar in these images to one presented in this next video: “This is us: heap up your good deeds. Chant. Pray. Meditate. Well all of that of course is spraying cologne on a corpse.” Check out “Life in Six Words: The GOSPEL.”

The artist here is rapper Propaganda, in a video produced by Dare 2 Share Ministries, a Colorado-based organisation dedicated to “sparking the fire of evangelism” among young people.

The video ostensibly summarises the message of the Gospels into a six-word acrostic poem. But, of course, no act of summarising is passive: what is ultimately produced is a particular interpretation of Jesus’ message, one that draws on particular historical streams of Christian thought. The primary thrust of the video is that “sin cannot be removed by good deeds,” only by faith in Jesus. This is the doctrine of sola fide, or grace by faith alone, and it is one of the major points of difference between most Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church (thanks again to our old friend Luther).

So don’t strive to be a good person, say our contemporary YouTube preachers. That’s not what Christianity is about. It’s only putting on a mask. After all, Jesus has done everything for you already – you just need to believe that. I just hope the good deeds sneak back in somewhere.

Segment 11 – Christian J-Pop

There may not be many Christians in Japan, but thankfully they’re making music:

We played ‘Mo Hitotsu No Shinjitsu Umareta‘ by Matsumoto Yuuka, and ‘Stain‘ by Night de Light

Japan is one of the most secularised nations on Earth – only 30% of the population professes to have a religion. Estimates vary on the number of Christians in the country, but it’s somewhere between 1% and 6% of the population. Of course, in heavily populated Japan, that’s still quite a few people! Christianity first arrived on the islands in 1549 when Portuguese Catholics came in the roles of traders and missionaries. Christianity is thus closely tied to ‘the West’ for Japanese, and to the struggle against possible colonial domination. Japanese Christians were thus persecuted under the Tokugawa Shogunate of the 17th Century, but since the 19th Century we have seen the number of Japanese Christians slowly and steadily increasing. There are organisations that are now openly trying to expand Christianity’s influence and base in the country.

In addition to its political connotations, Christianity may also seem intrinsically foreign to a Japanese audience due to its fundamental tenets. In Buddhism, the dominant religious tradition in Japan, the ‘self’ is a burden, something which must be minimised and ultimately thrown away in order to achieve nirvana, or a kind of absorption in the divine. This clashes significantly with the Christian perspective, in which the individual soul is discrete and preserved, indeed perfected, in order to reach Heaven. These notions spill out beyond the religions themselves however, and become diffuse understandings in whole societies. This could partially explain the lack of headway Christianity has made in Japan.

Having said all of the above however, there is also a sense in which Western things and Christianity hold a kind of exotic appeal for some Japanese. One of the clearest manifestations of this is the phenomenon of the ‘Christian’ or Western-style wedding, which has become incredibly popular in Japan. Brides don huge white dresses,  wedding chapels have popped up everywhere that mimic church architecture, and employees officiate over the ceremonies dressed like priests.

Pop music is another Western cultural product that has been picked up by the Japanese, who have succeeded in truly making it their own. Japanese pop, or J-Pop, has developed its own distinct character. And considering that Christians are most common among younger age groups, it is perhaps not surprising that Christian J-Pop would appear. For many it is explicitly evangelistic. One website asks, “Please pray for non-Christians who are attracted to their music to know Christ, the source of the message of love and hope in these songs.” Night de Light are one such band who are trying to be a “ray of hope” in a dark world, spreading the word of Jesus.

Some other artists that I found include: Hide-c (these songs actually sound great, but they don’t distribute in Australia!); the Imari Tones (who play Christian metal in English); Kokia (a classical singer whose answer to ‘Why do I Sing?‘ evokes Christianity); and Yesung (who tells the ‘Greatest Story of the World‘).

If you know of other Christian J-Pop artists, make a comment and help anyone else who might be searching!

Occupy Religion

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Images: 1, Occupy Catholics by Mary Valle; 2, Jesus as OWS protestor; 3, the Fiddler on the Roof on the Wall Street bull; 4, Interfaith Tent at Occupy Oakland; 5, Occupy Judaism; 6, Protest Chaplains

Occupy may seem a little passé – having been evicted from most of their protest sites, Occupy now exists primarily in exile, or in the diaspora – but it remains a fascinating subject. Various religions crossed paths with Occupy, and in various ways:

Religion in Occupy

A number of religious groups and faith traditions were present at the protests themselves. A group of liberal Christians called the Protest Chaplains played a role in the Boston and New York camps. They stated firmly that they were not there to proselytise – only to express solidarity and provide support. Their presence was largely symbolic, tying the concerns of Occupy to something far greater. In Boston they had a multi-faith chapel, where people came for Bible study groups, services, reiki, yoga, or quiet meditation. Crosses mingled with Tibetan coloured flags on the cacophonous front wall of this small blue tent. Muslim groups also held ‘prayer rallies’ on Wall Street, as well as joining in the demonstrations. At this protest we hear call and response chants of “Tell me what democracy looks like – this is what democracy looks like” blending smoothly with “takbir – allahu akbar.” At Occupy Oakland, they had an Interfaith Tent that preached nonviolence, compassion and justice; in the words of the Director of the Seminary of the Street, it aimed to “provide a critical spiritual presence that honored and welcomed all religious traditions and people who were non-religious.” Furthermore, the Tent continues to exist metaphorically – they held an interfaith conference a couple of months ago. On a more abstract level, Occupy itself could be construed as religious – through ritualised protest practices, a collective vision for a better world, a passionate social ethic, and a sense of transcendence generated through collective, emotionally-intense experience.

Religion and Occupy

Nathan Schneider has argued that Occupy needs religion – “the more organised the better” – if it is to truly transform society. Religious institutions have indeed often interacted with the Occupy movement. We all remember the Vatican releasing its call for major global economic reform, which came out last October. It was not ostensibly a reaction to Occupy, but clearly dealt with the same issues, calling for a focus on the common good and ending economic inequalities. Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury (the highest post, after the Queen, in the Church of England), followed the Vatican’s lead with a similar call for a reinvigoration of common values and ethical behaviour in the context of global, selfish capitalism. The situation of the Occupy London protests in front of St Paul’s Cathedral is brimming with symbolism. Obviously a ‘religion’ does not exist as some kind of abstract entity with a unitary opinion. People of all faiths can be found arguing fervently on both sides. While some might argue that Jesus would be there with the protestors in Zuccotti Park fighting corporate greed, others argued that he would be there to save them from their folly.

Occupy Religion

Finally, there have been moves to take the Occupy ethos and practice to religion itself, calling for the reform of religious institutions and dogmas to refocus on the ‘99%’ – the average person of faith for whom the elite structures may seem to serve little purpose. Jewish rituals held at Zuccotti Park gave rise to Occupy Judaism. There are a bunch of Facebook groups out there too, such as Occupy Religion, which has as its byline, “Religion for the rest of us.” The Occupy Church is an ecumenical Christian movement that demonstrates how a shared purpose – in this case, against excessive corporate power – can bring together people from a variety of religious denominations, thus facilitating change within the religion as well.

In the end, religions simply provide symbolic resources that individuals may draw on. Re-telling religious stories (such as Jesus overturning the tables), seeing religious garb, crosses and other symbols (such as the Jewish Fiddler on the Roof on the Wall Street bull), or performing rituals in a new context (such as the Muslim prayer rallies), are all ways to sacralise the cause. In the process both entities are transformed: the religious symbolism is reconfigured, and the cause is deepened and given transcendent meaning and affirmation. Whether this is seen as appropriation or application is irrelevant. Humans require meaning to function in their daily lives, and the use of symbols is fundamental to this. Religions have been symbolic resources for centuries, and the process of reconfiguration and alteration will never cease.

Segment 4 – Christian Yodeling

From the city to the country, from grinding synthesisers to plucking guitars; we may have stuck to the same religion as last week, but you probably couldn’t get much further from dubstep than yodeling.

Here’s the audio from today. I can’t include the songs on these podcasts for legal reasons, but they’re all up on the interwebs so just follow the links in this post. 

Yodeling refers to a certain kind of singing, involving extended notes that rapidly and repeatedly change in pitch by alternating one’s normal voice with falsetto. It originated in Central Europe in the Middle Ages, but most of us today know about it via the USA, where it was picked up in the 20s and was incredibly popular through to the end of the 40s.

It was, and is, mainly used as a vocal technique within the broader genre of country music. Now country music is most popular in rural areas, and rural people tend to be more religious than urban folk, so it didn’t take long for American country-yodeling songs to appear espousing explicitly Christian themes. Wanda Jackson – the Queen of Rock herself, who once dated Elvis – went through a country gospel phase in the 60s and 70s, and we played a song of hers named ‘Jesus put a Yodel in my Soul‘ on the show today. (She is still around, and at 74 is still doing the concert circuit – last year she appeared on Letterman with Jack White). That song has been covered many a time, and has even made it back to Europe, bending the direction of cultural influence back upon itself.

But some Christian country singers today are still letting rip with the yodels, despite its lack of mainstream popularity. Much like the Christian dubstep producers, they see their yodeling as praising and worshipping the Lord. OpenBible.info has a page of verses related to yodeling, including Ephesians 5:19, “Address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” In such a way these singers can link yodeling directly to Christian worship. In the lyrics of Betty Orshaw and The Lonesome Road Ramblers, “He’ll make you feel like yodeling and he’ll fill your heart with love.”

Beth Williams is a Christian singer-songwriter from Texas, and today we played her song ‘Yodelin’ in Heaven.’ She sees her career as a Music Ministry, spreading the message of Jesus Christ through her songs. She plays in churches as well as normal venues, blending preaching and personal anecdotes with her music. On her most recent album, a deep male voice reads out Bible passages between each song, which act as introductions to the themes that she explores in her lyrics. ‘Yodelin’ in Heaven’ was written in dedication to Beth’s deceased mother, and the verse beforehand (1 Corinthians 15: 51-52) discusses how the dead shall be raised at the end of time; this motivates the subsequent lyrics which showcase Beth’s happy anticipation at the prospect of meeting her mother again, such as “There’ll be huggin’ in heaven.” Referring to Bible verses similar to that quoted above, she says on her website that “yodeling done unto the Lord is yet another form of praising God.”

Another song I really wanted to play today was a Disco Saints cover of ‘Range in the Sky’ by The English Brothers. The original is fairly middle-of-the-road country music, but the Disco Saints (a Christian electronic group) really emphasise the yodeling to create something incredibly catchy. The main lyric is “I can yodel with my friend Jesus.” To quote the video description, WWJY? Check it out!

I also found this blog post, which uses the up-and-down oscillations of yodeling as a metaphor for the oscillations that Christians experience in their own faith. Just as yodelers alternate between their ‘chest’ and ‘head’ voices, this Christian ‘yodel effect’ refers to the “reality of our own frequent alternation between the flesh and the Spirit on so many of our personal decisions, dictations and directions.” I’m not sure if the analogy will catch on in a big way, but it is certainly novel.

Finally, just to ensure I am presenting a near-complete image of the cross-overs between Christianity and yodeling, I have to link to this disturbing video taken from a German film, wherein an animated crucified Jesus dances and yodels. Please don’t watch it.

Islamic hip-hop next week! 10.30am on 2SER 107.3.

Segment 3 – Christian Dubstep

I had a lot of fun researching this one. I have an inexplicable soft spot for dubstep and these songs really got into my head; I think my girlfriend got very sick of hearing me constantly singing, “our GOD is an AWEsome god, he reigns…”

Here’s the audio from today: 

Dubstep is an electronic genre that grew out of the South London underground music scene in the late 1990s, but it’s only made an emergence in mainstream culture globally in the last few years. It’s a mix of the heavy drums and bass from DnB with the syncopated rhythms of 2-step. (Thanks Wikipedia). The style is characterised by sparse rhytms, omnipresent sub-bass, wobble bass – wub wub wub – and, of course, the bass drop: that amazing moment when the song crashes into sublime, insane bass wobbles and freaky ear-splitting screeches.

Most dubstep is pretty light on lyrics, but it’s possible to make a dubstep remix of basically anything (if you click on one link in this post, make it this one). This is where the Christianity comes in. Christian dubstep – let’s call it Godstep – is basically producers making dubstep remixes of Christian worship music.

Awesome God, which we played on air, was originally a pop worship song written in 1988 by Rich Mullins. With its simple, catchy melody it’s been picked up by heaps of people since then, and Robert DeLong was really only fulfilling the inevitable when he made the dubstep remix. The word ‘awesome’ was originally intended in its traditional, Biblical sense of ‘awe-inspiring,’ but setting it to the epitome of 21st Century pop culture makes it hard not to think of it as just plain awesome. DeLong’s music does not generally display a strong Christian influence; it seems his foray into Christian music was limited to this song. But it displays all the hallmarks of dubstep so I just had to play it; that first bass drop is incredible.

Plenty of other producers out there, however, do draw explicitly on their Christianity in crafting their dubstep. As with Buddhist Death Metal, there’s a whole series of websites that act as gathering spaces for Christian electronic dance music culture: christianremix.comGodsDJs.com, and so on. The logo for the latter is a crucifix with headphones on. A frequent comment is that most dubstep deals with ‘bad things’ or dirty themes, with numerous people calling for or thanking people for creating clean dubstep devoted to ‘the good.’ We see throughout these websites that independent producers situate their music creation firmly within their religious journey; they are “worshipping God through the music,” and celebrating each other’s “dubstep for Christ.” According to one forum poster, it is a “serious blessing to hear the dubstep sound represented with Christ as the focus.” “Jesus wubs you,” others say.

Now the most popular Christian rock right now – especially in Sydney but it’s booming globally – is coming out of the Hillsong Church. Hillsong music has gone far beyond its own church’s walls, being picked up by, played in and sung along to in a wide variety of Protestant churches. Hillsong itself is a Pentecostal megachurch in Sydney’s north-west suburbs, and one of their ‘ministries’ is Hillsong UNITED – a pop-rock band. Its official aim is evangelical and theological – to “create music that reveals the truth of who Jesus is” – and this is done using contemporary music styles. In the words of the band’s Creative Director, “The message of Jesus Christ is eternal, yet He continues to reveal Himself in new ways … giving us what we need to be followers and disciples of Christ for this time in history.” The band clearly sees itself as directly enacting God’s will, using the God-given tools of contemporary music.

It’s not clear if Hillsong would include dubstep among God’s tools, but Jon Bulack – a young producer from Philadelphia, USA who has done remixes of Hillsong tracks – definitely does. He’s known by many names, including THREE:SIXTEEN, DevoShun, and Poppin’ Jon (in his incarnation as a hip-hop dancer). His adoption of the name THREE:SIXTEEN is clearly a reference to John 3:16, perhaps the most frequently cited summary of the Christian faith: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Jon comments prolifically on his YouTube channel and videos and makes it clear that his Christianity deeply inspires his artistic expression and his relations with other people, frequently warmly thanking positive commenters and saying “God bless you.” Some quotes that demonstrate how fundamental the union of dubstep and Christianity is for Jon include:

  • I pray that this video blesses you and expresses to you a fraction of how much Jesus adores you!
  • Jesus Christ is Lord and this page is dedicated to Him.
  • I just made a remix as the LORD lead me to!
  • Let’s obey Jesus, and walk as He walked! Or else we have no assurance of salvation!
  • Whatever is good in this song is directly from God the Father!

Check out Jon’s remixes of Hillsong UNITED’s tracks Father and Like an Avalanche. I also wish I had a chance to play some stuff by WaveDude on air, he’s another producer dedicated to making worship dubstep. Check out some of his tracks here, including a Switchfoot remix.

But I’ve got to finish with another quote from THREE:SIXTEEN, which just sums up everything about Rad Religion: God created Dubstep, and He wants to use it for His kingdom!

Edit 22/6/12 – thank you to whoever found this post by Googling the phrase, ‘for god so loved the world that he gave his only son dubstep’. Amazing.