I’m reading Sarah Vowell‘s book Unfamiliar Fishes which was recommended to me by a college friend. He and his wife (also a college friend) and daughter spent the weekend with us at Bonnaroo. The book is a brief history of the evangelization and annexation of Hawaii and its eventual adoption as a state. I haven’t read or even heard of Vowell before but she’s evidently on the Daily Show a good bit and also on NPR. I love the way she writes (very dry sarcastic humor as well as very interesting historian).
The book spends some time on the missionary enterprise spawned from the revivals at Yale in the early 1800s and the “haystack prayer meeting“. Vowell is pretty cynical toward religion (from what little I know about her background, that would be understandable). Take this gem of a quote about the spread of Christianity around the Pacific:
Mills, Dwight, and the other men of faith who founded the [American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions] would use the empirical data and maps of European explorers like Cook and LaPerouse to fan out evangelists across the Pacific to spread the fear of God as far and wide as Cook’s men had spread the clap.
So…to my actual point and question…Vowell tells the story of Henry Obookiah’s journey from Hawaii to New York and his eventual conversion to Christianity and subsequent call to return to his home to win his people to Christ. She writes about his arrival in New York like this:
In New York, Obookiah disembarked with Thomas Hopu, a Hawaiian shipmate he had met on board. As the missionary Hiram Bingham described their first night in Manhattan, “Like the mass of foreign seamen who then visited our cities without being improved in their morals, [they] were for a time exposed to the evil of being confirmed in vice and ignorance, and in utter contempt of the claims of Christianity.” That is how a missionary describes the fact that the Hawaiians went to the theater.
She goes on to talk about the differences between western enlightenment understandings of truth vs. a more respectful approach of some of her encounters with Hawaiian culture (which might have led to their openness to conversion when the missionaries finally arrived…but I haven’t read that far yet). The black vs. white approach of western Christianity comes firmly out of the enlightenment…absolute truth can be known and/or observed. Armed with the arrogant notion that they knew absolute truth, off the missionaries went. Vowell has a great line about this arrogant and myopic view of other cultures:
In America, on the ordinate plane of faith versus reason, the x axis of faith intersects with the y axis of reason at the zero point of “I don’t give a damn what you think.”
So…I found myself at Bonnaroo this past weekend. On Saturday, I drove by some descendants of the very missionaries who had “spread the fear of God as far and wide as Cook’s men had spread the clap.” I was heading home for a “real” shower and these missionaries were heading into Bonnaroo dragging crosses and [what I assumed to be] King James Bibles and sandwich signs condemning the satanic rock-n-roll being spewed out of Satan’s Hell there on that little farm in Manchester, TN. Upon my return, my camp-mates confirmed my fears and recounted their experiences of being preached at.
Later that afternoon, we found ourselves at the Mumford and Sons show at the Which Stage along with 50,000+ others who were drawn to their sincere and fresh brand of folky rock-n-roll. What we witnessed was a group of very serious lyricists who were almost uncomfortably humbled by the prospects of performing for such a crowd. They returned for an encore with a good number of musician friends and led the gathered throng in a deeply moving and spiritual rendition of Amazing Grace. I saw one young woman projected on the video screen beside the stage weeping. As a follower of Jesus, I absolutely sensed God moving among those people. And I was at church. More precisely, I was with the Church.
Meanwhile, those other more obvious followers of Jesus were driving people away from Christ with their brand of condemnation and hate completely missing the gospel being proclaimed by some of the very profane musicians they were denouncing. How do we (the church claiming the name of Jesus) totally fail to “get it”?
It’s very easy for me to cast stones at this judgmental and hateful brand of religion. But, upon reflection, I need to try to recognize when I’m guilty of the same in the name of my own particular brand of “absolute truth”. That’s what I’ve been thinking about this morning… Peace!
5 thoughts on “Mumford and Sons and the Gospel”
Thought-provoking piece — I would comment that folks “dragging crosses and King James Bibles and sandwich signs condemning the satanic rock-n-roll being spewed out ….” doesn’t mean they were Christian (that is followers of Christ). “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” …. It’s important to be careful not to lump “religion” with true Christianity. “by their fruit you will know them.” It’s also important not to think there is no such thing as [absolute] truth just because so many in the name of religion twist it beyond recognition. Christ did say “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” We back away from truth at our own (and others’) peril — often for fear of being considered by others as “judgmental.” It is on truth that we must judge and discern things to the best of our ability — it is because of the truth of Christ that we hopefully love as He did and thus become “the aroma of Christ to those who are saved and those who are perishing…” which makes seeking Christ that much more important.
I think what I didn’t communicate very clearly (or maybe not at all) but have been thinking about lately is the how we define what’s Christian pretty much by what we’ve experienced “Christianity” to be and then we elevate that to absolute and leave no room for what God is actually doing. I’ve been doing a lot of reflection on Luke 10 after reading some Alan Roxburgh (check out particularly, “Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood”). Luke 10 tells about Jesus sending out the 70, instructing them to leave all their stuff behind (no bag, no supplies) and enter into the strangers turf and pronounce peace on that house (What does a ministry of “shalom” look like in this place?). I’ll not exegete that here. But what came to mind in my Bonnaroo experience that I wrote about above was how the cross-draggers were going out but they were armed with all of their power and baggage and stuff (I’d say their version of “absolute truth”). Rather than sitting down at the table of the other and eating what was set before them, they paraded through the other’s turf condemning and judging without every entering into any sort of relationship with them. In contrast, I saw a group of guys (Mumford and Sons) who were obviously “rock stars”…50,000+ folk crammed into that field to hear them…but they appeared totally humbled by the crowd. In the moment of their triumph…an encore to an adoring crowd…they presented the gospel: Amazing Grace. I’m not implying their motives were to proselytize. I’m not even saying they would call themselves “followers of Jesus”. But there in the middle of that throng, I sensed God’s presence in a way I haven’t felt while sequestered with “church” people in “church” in quite some time. It was a “let those with ears to hear” sort of moment. We as “the church” miss these moments often because we come armed with our version of absolute truth and on the defensive. What I saw on the faces of many in the crowd was recognition of something very true…amazing…godly…grace.
The Message (MSG)
8-11″I don’t think the way you think.
The way you work isn’t the way I work.”
“For as the sky soars high above earth,
so the way I work surpasses the way you work,
and the way I think is beyond the way you think.
Just as rain and snow descend from the skies
and don’t go back until they’ve watered the earth,
Doing their work of making things grow and blossom,
producing seed for farmers and food for the hungry,
So will the words that come out of my mouth
not come back empty-handed.
They’ll do the work I sent them to do,
they’ll complete the assignment I gave them.
It was beyond a cool moment…wish you could have been there with us!
Some wonderful thoughts. I think it is called Amazing Grace for a reason. Well thought out Jeff. Special moment Mike. I’d love to hear what Keith and Laura have to say about this event.
Not being there, it is hard to comment outside of, I’ve seen similar or I’ve had similar feelings. I keep coming back to Col 3:15. Somehow, if you can put on that peace of Christ, you can let the lttile things go. And then the cross draggers don’t seem like a big deal. Assuming of course you are wearing love. Then people get that glimpse of the Christ in you. I know I like seeing that jacket on you.
It was a truly amazing moment. Although I was already seriously enjoying the concert of soulful songs soulfully sung, it was very unexpected for them to do Amazing Grace as an encore. I was trying to take it all in. First, the different verses played on different instruments like harmonica and banjo and electric guitar, then the crowd singing along, and all the while recording it on my phone.
Did I mention that 99.9% of the kids at Bonnaroo were extremely nice?
So, like Mike, I struggled a little with the contrast of this extraordinary moment just hours after the preachers came to camp proclaiming the evils of rock and roll. It was particularly hard to hear them say that John Lennon is burning in hell.
Although I wouldn’t be the judge of whether they are Christians or not, I’ll just assume they are because they say they are. Obviously, their version of Christianity differs from mine. Their truth is different from my truth. It is possible they were there because they love all humanity and want to see us “saved”. Nonetheless, I wasn’t feeling the love. Love is the thing, the theme that is a common thread in all that Jesus said and did.
I’m still looking for a “LIKE” button.