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.

Advertisements

Segment 21 – Sikh Rock

Christians aren’t the only ones rockin’ in God’s name – today we looked at the Sikh bands who are doing the same thing. Listen to some tracks and our discussion here:

We listened to ‘Tu Kaun Hai‘ by The Roving Sikhs, and ‘Ik Ongkar‘ by Anhad.

Sikhism isn’t very well known, but it’s actually the fifth largest organised religion in the world, with about 30 million adherents globally. Most Sikhs live in Punjab, a region split between Pakistan and India which is the historical birthplace and homeland of the Sikh community. The religion was founded in the 15th Century CE by Guru Nanak Dev. The dominant religious traditions of the area at the time were Islam and Hinduism, and the guru preached a new, distinct faith which drew on elements from both. Sikhism is monotheistic – meaning there is only one God, like in Islam – and yet they also believe in the cycle of reincarnation and the notion of karma – both Hindu concepts. There were ten living gurus, the last of which was Guru Gobind Singh, pictured. He declared the holy scripture of the Sikhs to be the eleventh guru, to remain so in perpetuity.

The Sikh community was militarised early on, and has had to fight for its independence (or regional dominance, depending on the century we’re talking about) throughout its history. They felt badly treated by the Partition of the British Raj into two states of India (secular) and Pakistan (Islamic) in 1947. Sikhs demanded their own state, however this was not awarded them, and their homeland was split between the two new countries. Subsequent political agitation led to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh guards. All Sikh boys are given the surname Singh, and all Sikh girls are given the surname Kaur. The capital of Indian Punjab, Amritsar, is home to the Golden Temple – the major temple of Sikhism. From personal experience, it’s absolutely beautiful.

To my knowledge there are a total of about five Sikh rock bands in the world, and today we looked at two of them. The Roving Sikhs are from Jammu, and claim to be India’s first all-Sikh rock band, while Anhad are from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Both bands are devoutly Sikh, wearing their turbans on stage and drawing on their faith explicitly in their music. The Roving Sikhs feel that “God gave us music itself, that we might pray beyond words.” Similarly Anhad “believe that God is a part of every breath, every moment of our every day” – even during rock concerts and YouTube videos. The word ‘anhad’ itself means the ‘unstruck melody’ – the primordial sound from which all others have descended. (The word ‘om’ takes this role in Hinduism.) Anhad use mantras from the Sikh holy text – from their eleventh guru – for their lyrics, making their music explicitly devotional and even meditative.

I’m taking a break next week, but I’ll be back on the radio on October 18, joining 2SER’s Subscriber Drive (themed ‘Share the Love’) to talk about the religious nature of the Western myth of romantic love. It’s going to be great.

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.

Contemporary Mosque Architecture

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Photos: 1-2 Al-Irsyad Mosque, Indonesia; 3 Faisal Mosque, Pakistan; 4 Kinaliada Mosque, Turkey; 5-6 Assyafaah Mosque, Singapore; 7-8 Dubai Mosque, UAE; 9 Floating Mosque, Dubai, UAE; 10 Ibn Bunnieh Mosque, Baghdad (a more ‘traditional’ mosque for comparison)

When you think mosque, you think domes and minarets, right? (Minarets are the tall thin cylindrical towers usually on the corners of mosques.) But checking out the above slideshow of mosques designed within the last twenty years or so, you’ll find that contemporary mosque architecture is playing creatively with those traditional forms – or scrapping them altogether.

According to the very core, early message of Islam, mosques are not strictly necessary. The whole world is God’s creation, after all, so a Muslim may fulfil their obligations by praying anywhere – under a tree, in their office, on the side of the road, etc – as long as they face Mecca (and yes, there’s an app for that). But people like to do these things together, so the first mosques were built to be places for Muslims to pray together; remembering that priests/imams/leaders are not strictly necessary in Islam either, any person may approach God and achieve paradise on their own. These early Arab-style mosques were fairly plain, square-shaped affairs, and it wasn’t until the Muslim conquest of Persia in the mid-7th Century that designs began to change. Under the influence of the opulent Persian architectural heritage, mosques began to incorporate domes and large archways. Minarets were introduced at about the same time – the muezzin would sit at the top and call the Muslims of the town to prayer. These days speakers aid him in the task; although in some European countries it has been banned as a kind of noise pollution.

Squares, domes, archways and minarets are the building blocks, then, of traditional mosque architecture, and have dominated mosque design for centuries. In the past 50 years, however, there has been a renaissance of creativity in mosque architecture, producing various interesting designs like those in the above slideshow. I have only included designs from predominantly Muslim countries, however there is also a lot of creative and sympathetic mosque design going on in Europe.

Al-Irsyad Mosque was built in 2010 in Indonesia, and its principal architect was M. Ridwan Kamil. He rejected the dome-and-archway model as irrelevant in the Indonesian context, instead opting for a solid-looking, stacked stone square. The mosque is designed, apparently, to blend in with nature, with the stones allowing natural ventilation. Those patterns you can see on the sides of the building are (very) stylised Arabic calligraphy – a traditional element of mosque architecture, radically re-imagined. Check out the designs here.

The Faisal Mosque from Pakistan is one of the largest in the world. It’s design, from Vedat Dalokay, fuses the look of an Arab Bedouin’s tent with elegant Turkish minarets and an overall contemporary feel. At the same time it sharply abandons traditional forms while remaining ‘recognisably’ a mosque. It was constructed in the late 1980s. Kinaliada Mosque in Turkey was built in the 1960s and has a similar feel.

Assyafaah Mosque in Singapore, designed by Tan Kok Hiang and completed in 2004, proves that even places of worship can be made to look like office blocks. Apparently this was an attempt to create an “aesthetically neutral space,” allowing for both Chinese and Malay Muslims to feel at home. Once again the domes and archways have been jettisoned in favour of a very ‘modern’ look, reminiscent of those skyscrapers that try to get beyond bauhaus by chucking in some crazy angles and lots of glass. The interior continues the theme, with lots of concrete and sloped walls. It’s got a certain elegance, but it’s hard to imagine anyone feeling at home here.

As usual in the Muslim world, however, the craziest stuff is happening in Dubai. Fari Hatam was born in Iran and raised in Australia, and made the designs for the Dubai Mosque in an attempt to bring a completely contemporary aesthetic to mosque design. He still uses the traditional elements – curved domes and minarets – but pushes them to their limits. Even the calligraphy is uniquely stylised. Unfortunately it is yet to be built; instead of prior investment and a strict brief, Hatam says, “This mosque came from the heart.”

There have been mosques before that are metaphorically referred to as ‘floating.’ In Dubai, however, metaphors are made real. Instead of building new islands, there are plans now to construct actually floating buildings, set on foam and concrete platforms. Two Dutchmen are behind the idea, Paul van de Kamp and Koen Olthuis, and one of their suggestions is for floating mosques, the designs of which look like something out of a Star Trek set. Mosque architecture has been slowly evolving for centuries – surely tethered prayer rooms that go up and down with the tide is the next step in a natural progression? Surely?

If you’re interested in the interplay between these designs and cultural/religious concerns, check out this Time article focusing on mosques in Europe. This article by Hasan-Uddin Khan talks about the importance of traditional design for carrying forward collective meanings over time. The tension between traditional concerns and contemporary whims is felt by all artists, but perhaps especially so by architects, whose work is both more visible during their lifetimes and more likely to remain so into the future. Add a religious function and the pressure must be immense.

“What are we going to leave behind?” Fari Hatam asks about the majority of contemporary design, “Glass boxes? Let’s be realistic, they’ll be gone in 100 years.” It’s creative designs like these that will help our generation to leave a legacy worth keeping.

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.