Segment 22 – Romantic Love

Today we looked at what might be the most widespread myth in Western culture: the myth of romantic love. Hear us chat about it here:

We played ‘This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)’ by Natalie Cole – which my girlfriend reliably informs me is featured in at least five rom-coms – and ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth‘ by Belinda Carlisle – a track that exposes the religious nature of romantic love in no uncertain terms.

So what is the myth of romantic love? It’s a kind of narrative, a group of ideas that guide people’s lives and imbue them with meaning. Some of the central tenets of the myth include: that we each have ‘the One’, the single person who will be perfect for us, our soulmate; that we can fall in love at first sight, just by clapping eyes on the right person; that the love will be everlasting; and that “I love you” is a sacred phrase, that should only ever be uttered with absolute sincerity. Pretty much all of these are consistent elements of rom-coms.

Love is not a universal, essential experience inherent in humanity. Of course there are biological aspects to attachment and eroticism, but different cultures differ on the rules of how people should relate to one another. The idea of romantic love – an intense, personal relationship with an idealised other – is a peculiarly Western construct, and one that developed slowly since the eleventh century. It really took off with the increase in rampant individualism in the modern West: the idea that we should be free to choose our own partners based on personal bonds is central to this idea of romantic love.

Also with modernity (we’re talking seventeenth, eighteenth centuries here) we saw the breaking of the hegemony of Christianity in defining how people should interpret the world and give meaning to their lives. Both the institutional power of Christian churches and personal belief in God have declined, more or less steadily, since then (this is not to say that it will die out entirely, there have been signs of revival in certain sectors of the West in the last couple of decades). What early modern philosophers were rejecting in the Christian God were his authoritative roles, his power in controlling the individual’s life. This assault on Christian symbolism left behind, however, the idea of having a personal relationship with the ultimate. That desire was relocated to other systems and ideologies in the West – most strongly, perhaps, to the myth of romantic love.

So we’ve seen the shift of religious qualities from God and Christ to personal human relationships and the idealised ‘lover.’ Romantic love becomes a source for mystical experience – being lifted out of yourself and being absorbed in something greater (an idea prevalent in mystic thought worldwide, from Sufis to Buddhist monks). The lover is also given a salvific quality, meaning that they have the power to ‘save’ the individual. We see this throughout rom-coms. At the start the individual is waylaid, disenchanted, unhappy, and through the discovery of their love with their soulmate, they are transformed, authenticated, they discover their true self, they become self-actualised. This is often tied into a whole host of other things that the West attributes to successful people: once they fall in love, they get the house, they get the promotion, they’re popular, they’re happy, and so on. In this we see the qualities of the heavenly afterlife relocated to the secular sphere, to having a perfected life. The lover can attain, as Belinda Carlisle sung, heaven on earth.

And people believe this. I believe it too, to a certain degree. This is the myth of romantic love, and it has a good claim to being the undeclared religion of the modern West.

P.S. The ideas presented in this post are a simplification and butchery of a thesis written by Sarah Balstrup. Anything worthwhile comes from her; anything else, from me.

P.P.S. I do this segment as a volunteer on 2ser, community radio in Sydney. At the moment its our Supporter Drive, themed ‘Share the Love’ (thus this topic). In Australia, community radio has a crucial role in providing an independent voice in the media landscape. Please consider supporting the station, which literally needs your help to survive. So head to their website and chuck ’em a few dollars.


Segment 20 – Day of the Dead

Today we tried to get ourselves immersed in Mexican culture with the quirky traditions of la Día de los Muertos. Hear us chat about it here:

We played a couple of traditional Mexican tunes to get in the mood: ‘Cruz Olviada‘ by Dorance Ospina and ‘Vamonos‘ by Lila Downs.

The Day of the Dead is a national holiday in Mexico that goes for two days, 1-2 November. The basic idea is celebrating the deceased. People make altars in their homes or visit the graves of their loved ones and conduct various ritual practices to attract their spirits and commune with them. A big part of it is offerings: people leave sugar skulls with the deceased’s name inscribed on their forehead; they cook the deceased’s favourite food; they print pictures and write message to the deceased. Other little idiosyncratic items are also left, like toys for children or little bottles of tequila for adults. Then they play music, dance, have picnics and so on around the graves. It’s sad, but celebratory at the same time.

The tradition can be traced back to the indigenous practices of the Aztecs and other native peoples of central America. These people did not see death in the same way as Europeans – it was just another stage of life. The Spanish invaders had a different reaction, thinking that they were mocking the dead with their use of skulls and so on. They saw it as inimical to the Catholicism they were trying to evangelise and attempted to suppress the celebration, which at that time went for a whole month in about August. Ultimately they gave in and decided to appropriate it instead, moving the holiday to November 1-2, the dates of the Catholic All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days (known in popular Western culture as Halloween). These holidays are also about communing with the dead, so the move was successful. Now, Catholic elements are spread through the celebrations: masses, prayer vigils, rosaries, images of the Virgin Mary, and so on.

Over time the holiday has changed shape, and it is celebrated uniquely in different regions across Mexico. In 1910 a cartoonist named Jose Guadalupe Posada made an etching of a rich woman as a skeleton, named La Calavera Catrina (displayed). She has gone on to become one of the defining images of the Day of the Dead. In fact, depicting people as skeletons is a common cultural practice associated with the festival. Cartoonists regularly depict public figures as skeletons, for example. People also write tongue-in-cheek, mocking epitaphs for their friends or other public figures, as if they were already dead. This kind of open, irreverent approach to death is sorely lacking in contemporary Western societies.

(P.S. If you’re in Sydney, check out the Holy Kitsch stores in Newtown and Surry Hills for all manner of brilliant and surprising Day of the Dead-related paraphernalia!)

Next week we’re going somewhere very different – Punjab – and looking at Sikhism. Surely some of them make rock music, right?

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!

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 6 – Pagan Fusion

Before starting, I would like to admit that I have felt pretty drowned by the wealth of pagan musical material out there. The cultural sphere that we could broadly label ‘contemporary neo-paganism’ is full of overlapping, confused and vague boundaries, syncretism, and a distinct sense of playfulness. I make some pretty crass generalisations here, and freely admit it: we’ve got to start somewhere! I do hope we can return to the neo-pagan world in future.

Hear me get lost in a mess of historical periods and re-interpreted symbols: 

And here are the songs we played on air: ‘Elemental Chant’ by Wendy Rule; ‘Hymn to Herne’ by S. J. Tucker

Paganism is a disputed term, but for our purposes here it can refer to the pre-Christian religious traditions of Europe. It was not a single, unitary religion by any means; there was a patchwork of slowly overlapping systems of gods and rituals and folklore, each of which was unique to its own local area. Some broad tendencies can be identified, however, including: polytheism (many gods and goddesses), nature worship (being connected to the land and attuned to natural cycles), and magical ritual (invoking the gods in times of need through symbols and incantations).

The pre-Christian religion of the Romans was also ‘pagan.’ Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire until the Emperor Constantine converted in 312; Theodosius declared it a Christian Empire in 380. Over the next 700 years the rest of Europe was ‘Christianised’ in a long and confusing series of missions, conquests and political intrigue. The rest, as they say, was history, with Christian hegemony dominating Europe more or less ever since – although things have been changing over the last hundred years or so.

In the mid 20th Century, especially after WWII, disillusionment with the traditionally dominant European cultural modes – be they Christian or Enlightenment-rational – was on the rise. Some people looked East (triggering a chain of events which has led to Buddhist Death Metal, among other things) while other people looked to the past: to paganism. They picked up ancient texts, looked to archaeological evidence, and reconstructed something approximating the old pagan religions. Thus, neo-paganism.

Neo-paganism takes many forms, and there is a real acceptance of individuality in neo-pagan circles, of the form, “I’m a witch, but if being a druid works for you, go for it.” Witchcraft is a specific subset with its own particular history. The dominant source of inspiration for contemporary witches is the Wiccan tradition, with its duotheism of the female (the Earth Mother) and male (the Horned God) divinities. Perhaps we can explore that in detail some other time.

Wendy Rule, born in Sydney but now a resident of Melbourne, identifies as a witch. She plays music for a spiritual purpose, to “bring us in contact with the Divine.” The song we played, ‘Elemental Chant,’ draws on ritual language to evoke a sense of mystical energy and power; when she intones the names of the four elements and says “I stand at the centre and acknowledge each quarter” she is drawing on imagery of the ritual circle that witches draw in order to make their spells efficacious. Wendy explicitly says, in fact, “My live performance is ritual.” She also brings a peculiarly Australian flavour to these ancient European traditions: she is pictured on her website with Uluru in the background, and in one song refers to “Artemis of the Eucalypts.”

S. J. Tucker seems to engage with the neo-pagan community more generally with some fascinating genre-confused music. In the song ‘Hymn to Herne’ she evokes the tradition of the horned hunter named Herne, who haunted (phew alliteration) a certain forest in England. (Here is another story about a man trying to find Herne’s Hollow.) In referring to him as the Horned God, however, she links Herne to a whole panoply of other pagan horned figures, from the Celtic Cernunnos to the Greco-Roman Pan, to the Horned God of today’s Wiccans. Unfortunately, many people today (Christians and non-Christians) tend to associate horned men with Satan; however the pagan imageries actually predate the depiction of Satan as a horned man. The ignorant accusation that neo-pagans are Satanists is, therefore, erroneous and offensive.

There is much much more pagan music out there than these two singer-songwriters can allude to. Perhaps in future we can explore the pagan metal of Inkubus Sukkubus, the syncretic magic of Faith and the Muse, or the electronic medieval sounds of Qntal. Until then, blessed be!

EXCITING NOTE: Steph Liong, my host on 2SER, is taking a much-deserved study break for two weeks, so I will not be on air again until June 14 (when we’ll be looking at Rastafarianism and reggae). Rad Religion will, however, continue unabated! Taking a break from music, we’ll be doing something visual – perhaps some experimental modernist church architecture. Same spot, next Thursday! And remember you can subscribe to the blog on the right –>