My first substantial brush with ‘atheism/agnosticism/I kinda wish I was a Taoist but I always collapse into nihilism instead’ did not come about via reading Nieztsche, Bakunin, God forbid, Dawkins (a little humor there). I was 14 and it occurred while I was in church singing a song composed by some ‘everyman’ from Contemporary Christian Nashville when I made the mistake of listening to the lyrics. I can’t quite remember the song (as I blocked it from my memory), I just remember thinking, “If this is really what we believe, then I’m out.” From them on, the troubles kept coming. I could no longer tolerate it. The devotions, the three chord choruses, the singing of ‘Sanctuary’ over and over again, because, suddenly, Christianity was trite, banal, mawkish, silly, and just flat-out embarrassing. From that point on it was not too large of a leap to start preying on all of those “absurdities” of the Christian faith that Tertullian teaches us to own.
That wasn’t the major issue, though I think it may go hand in hand.
Anyway, it was clear to me that such songs certainly were not going to be terrible formative on a group of people who should be resisting xenophobia, forced poverty, imperial lust and every other principality and power underwriting the religion of the empire. Now, I’m not sure all of our troubles stem from poor choice in hymn-selection, but it can’t be too far off. As Hauerwas once said, “One moment you’re singing stupid choruses and the next you’re banging the church secretary.”
The leap is not that huge (and thanks for always being so subtle, Stanley).
As aesthetics often play an integral role in shaping our convictions/habits/practices I struggle to find a few songs that make me think, “Hmm, now this is the kind of art that breeds hope. Maybe Bakunin and company are wrong . . . or, at least had no viable alternative to the idolatry that is state-favored ‘Jesus-following.'” Whatever it is, here are five songs that, perhaps, should be more formative on our “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” celebrations than they currently are.
That was a terrible sentence. I apologize.
Anyway. Here’s my top five (and I didn’t include links to all of them, go find ’em!). I’d like to add some more to the mix so, please feel free to share yours.
(Word of warning, as much as I wanted to include it . . . The Pogues ‘Fairytale of New York’ did not make the list. I know, I know. I’m a sellout. A horrible person even. If you like, you can dedicate the lyrical turn the song takes just after the two minute mark to me. I won’t be offended.)
#5-The Atheist Christmas Carol-Vienna Teng
Odd choice, right? Perhaps, even counter-intuitive. But not so much. Read the lyrics, listen to the melody, its too crafty for its own good. It’s a wreaks a bit of havoc in me.
#4-Silent Night-Over The Rhine (the duet version!!)
An obvious choice, yet one completely slammed and owned by the genius that is Over the Rhine. (I almost went with The Temptations version . . . well, actually, The Dickies (sorry Leonard), but once you hear this I think you’ll understand the decision made here.) Also, do I need to mention the duet version, again? Seriously. The duet version. I have no idea why they even bothered with the other recording.
#3-O Holy Night-Weezer
Again, no real surprise except that we North American Christians can actually sing it with a straight-face: “His name is love and his gospel is peace/chains shall he break for the slave is our brother/and in his name all oppression shall cease”–yeah . . . okay, right. Right.
#2-Happy Christmas/War is Over-John & Yoko/The Plastic Ono Band
I guess this really needs no explanation. It’s just one of the most subversive tunes we can sing at Christmas. Instead, I imagine the really religious folk will just protest people saying ‘Happy Holidays’ as they predictably gorge their credit cards on ephemeral products meant to turn their little brats into adult brats. (Suddenly, atheism seems beautiful again.)
#1-Little Drummer Boy-August Burns Red
First of all, this is an instrumental version. Freakin’ sick. Floor-punching my way to Christ and all that. Anyway, if you don’t like it, try Bob Seger’s version. No, seriously. It’s good stuff. Also, Bing Crosby & David Bowie’s version-until Bowie breaks into ‘Peace on Earth’–it’s just weird. Really weird. Also, Johnny Cash’s would be phenomenal if not for the horrid background vocals. The Slackers do a good job with it, oh, and, finally, The Cranberries do it, too–God, how I love Irish women. I mean Irish accents.
Lyrically, among other things, I really like the idea of God’s peaceable kingdom (Is. 11) getting a mention as the ox and lamb keep time to a gift that cannot be sold or purchased.
Aww, man . . . a bit of sap found its way in there (chalk that up to one too many whiskeys–thanks, Shane McGowan).
But, you know, then again . . . it is Christmas, after all.
About the Author
Tripp York teaches religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Virginia. He is the author of more than half a dozen books including, Third Way Allegiance, The Purple Crown, and Living on Hope While Living in Babylon. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming three-volume collection called the Peaceable Kingdom Series. An actor and a lighting designer, Tripp also surfs and spends his weekends shoveling elephant and giraffe poop.