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  • R. Scott Okamoto

I Don't Miss Worship Services: Great Music Helped Me Ditch My Faith

Given the daily and sometimes hourly apocalyptic news happening (fall, 2019) these days, it’s almost comforting to think back to simpler times. My journey out of christian faith had lots of steps, some more significant than others. I’ve already written about how great sex helped me ditch faith. This week, a look back at music’s role in my liberation from christianity.

Every year in Sunday school, at least one pastor, staff, or guest speaker would tell us about the evils of “secular” music. Our very souls were in danger of falling into the pit of hell if we weren’t careful about our music choices. But even at age 12, I had a sneaky suspicion that these adults, whom I generally respected, were full of shit.

It took a lot of thinking and processing, and even prayer, to navigate the music of my youth. I knew some of the lyrics I heard were problematic, if not downright anti-christian. My music existed outside of my faith. “Just a small town girl…” sung by Steve Perry of Journey might have been rather innocuous, but keen Christian leaders could always pull the “it doesn’t glorify God” card. That was always the ace up the sleeve of any Christian to argue against anything secular they didn’t like. It only went one way, though. I knew I couldn’t or shouldn’t play that card against a pastor who liked the Glenn Miller orchestra or Barbara Streisand.

More cringey were the lyrics to songs like, “Runnin’ With the Devil” by Van Halen. Yeah, not much wiggle room there. But, if I were honest with my youthful self, I recognized a sense of purpose and strength in those lyrics that was much more compelling than the “give-everything-to-Jesus" lyrics in church. In the end, I just loved that song, despite feeling like I shouldn’t.

But still, what I learned about myself was that my soul was at ease listening to Van Halen as much as it was listening to Amy Grant. Sure, there was some apprehension in whom I let know I listened to secular music, but the feeling of euphoria was the same across the board, regardless of what music I loved and listened to. The playing, the sounds, the drums, the melodies, the guitar solos, all seemed beautiful to me, and before I ever read Keats, I instinctively knew that beauty was truth, and for my young Christian ass, truth was God. The bible said so, goddammit.

And still, yet, I assumed the feeling of the holy spirit moving during a particularly intense worship service had to be more intense than any high provided by secular music. Until I went to see Rush for the first time in 1984. As they launched into “Spirit of Radio,” I began to cry. Hearing that music performed live right before my eyes and ears, I was moved at how amazingly beautiful it was. Every note by guitarist Alex Lifeson, every hit by drummer Neil Peart, and every sincerely sung lyric from Geddy Lee filled my heart to overflowing. I had never shed a tear during a worship service. I had felt what I assumed was god’s presence and felt warm and fuzzy. I had never felt anything as intense as what I felt at my first Rush concert. I never felt comfortable putting my hands up or being demonstrative in worship. I just worshipped inwardly. But once Geddy yelled, "Concert hall!" and the lights lit up the audience, I threw my hands into the air and shouted, a tear rolling down my cheek. (You can see the moment in the clip below at 3:50.)

Naturally, this confused me. It didn’t make sense to my 14 year-old evangelical mind. But it makes sense to me now. It wasn’t that I didn’t love worship songs and intense worship experiences. I did. Very much. I looked forward to those experiences anticipating the songs we’d sing, or the guitar riffs, or piano licks played by the worship team. But it was the aspect of live music being performed that really excited me. Sure, I bought into the notion that I was pleasing god and reaching out to him through the music, but I found I could do that with any music I liked.

On Exvangelical social media threads, there are always people who have recently deconstructed or begun deconstructing. And they are always missing worship and the sense of community they felt during worship. And to them, I say: It’s out there. Find your jam, your bands, your singers. Find your song. Marvel at your favorite guitarists or drummers. Be inspired by your favorite vocalists. Be sure to notice the bass players, too. I play bass, myself.

I don’t believe in god. But I believe in things bigger than myself and bigger than my understanding of existence. An act of kindness. A beautiful song. Breathtaking art. Stevie Wonder singing. The Yankees losing. If god exists, he/she/they surely exists in these things. After a U2 concert years ago, a friend who is still christian shook her head and said, "You know, that was the best church service I've ever been to."

A couple of years ago, I was at a small music club, listening to a good friend play music. I was leaning against a wall behind people sitting in chairs, and I noticed a big, bearded, biker dude across the room staring at me intensely. I looked around me, wondering if he was mad-dogging one of the people near me, but he seemed to be staring right at me. I just focused on the music, reveling in my friend’s amazing voice as she sung.

And then the set ended, and people started milling around. I looked over to where the big dude had been, and he was gone. I had a few seconds of relief before I saw him walking towards me. He was picking his way through the crowded room, looking right at me, and I started to wonder if I could pretend to be a kung fu master to talk my way out of fighting. It had worked in Jr. High.

But as he got closer, I saw that he was smiling broadly and pointing at my t-shirt. I was wearing an old-school Rush shirt that was black with big white block letters.

Before he even got to me, his booming voice said, “Hey man! I saw your shirt from over there, and I had to come over and shake your hand.”

Not many people like Rush, but we Rush fans share a special bond. We, a nerdy asian ex-English prof and an oversized leather-clad, bearded biker dude, ended up talking about our beloved band, talking about our favorite lyrics and songs and memories of seeing them in concert. The next band was about to play, and the dude gave me a bear hug before returning to his friends.

I still smile when I remember that night. And I think of how awkward every church service was when the pastor told us to turn to the people around us and greet one another in the name of the lord. I didn’t know a goddamn thing about those people, and they didn’t know me, despite worshipping in the same house. I never felt a bond with those people as we sheepishly shook hands and said stupid shit like, “blessings to you,” or “Praise the lord.” But, if they had been wearing Rush t-shirts...

A man who died on a cross for us and was raised from the dead for our sins should instill an incredible sense of community, and often he does. Christians have gathered every Sunday to worship together for centuries with their own kind. They have sung songs, listened to sermons, and had lynchings, all in the name of the lord.

No thanks.

Of course, I have found a few different communities to give me a sense of purpose. I don't just go around wearing rock t-shirts hoping to meet a fellow fan. But, today, I am putting on my Vampire Weekend shirt and going to the grocery store. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Related links: My first post about not missing God.

Video of the Rush concert in 1984.

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