Author's Note: My apologies for the lack of updates; I was in New York and Virginia for the last week with scant Internet access. I should have posted as such before leaving, and I offer apologies to those of you that subscribe and have been waiting for the newest post.
Let's face it - short of your political stance, it's hard to think of an issue that pushes more hot buttons and raises more heated discussions than religion. People have fought over it, even killed over it. The search for God, if God does exist, and the role that any higher power may play over our lives has confounded generation after generation, including countless minds more brilliant and sophisticated than my own. So, in the course of listening to the song and racking my own mind for an issue I could write about to lead things off, I was led to an offshoot of the Christian faith that most of us don't bother thinking about - Christian music. "With God On Our Side" is not a Christian song - far from it - but the notion of God in a popular song led me to think about God in a different kind of popular song.
Have any of you seen the commercials for that mail-order Christian rock compilation? 2 CDs, 24 songs or whatever, just like the Time-Life '60s compilations we all remember that basically had the same damn hits on them (look, there's "Time of the Season" again!). And the commercials are, if you're not a Christian yourself, somewhat discomfiting - clips of earnest musicians expounding on their love for the Lord, matched with audience shots of people rapt in devotion, eyes closed, occasionally singing along. There's some humor in this, but not too much; I'm not one to mock the faith of others, although I'm not fully convinced these people would know the lyrics to these songs without prior rehearsing. But what strikes me about the music being offered is just how - there's no other way to say it - bland it is.
Christian music is big business these days; considering the massive base of fans it can draw from, especially in what's been charmingly nicknamed "flyover country", this shouldn't come as any surprise. And, like good old secular music, you get all sorts of subgenres within, from country (always a place you can find Jesus in, Christian country or no) to metalcore (which I'll admit to not having listened to - anybody that has, feel free to offer your thoughts). I have heard a Christian rap album in my lifetime, and the rapper certainly meant well and obviously had Jesus to thank for turning his life around, but this isn't Fear of a Black Planet we're talking about here. But of all the subgenres contained in "Christian music" as a whole, none of them match the Christian pop genre, which you'll probably remember from Amy Grant, and possibly from Jars of Clay (who had a mainstream hit in the 90s). Once again, this is big business we're talking about - platinum albums, stadium tours, etc.
But, and this might just be me here, the actual music itself is the equivalent of Wonder bread. I might be casting a wide net with that statement, but I can safely say that if that compilation was any real guide to what's popular in Christian contemporary music, we're getting stuff your local coffee house would be embarrassed to air on a singer-songwriter night. The musical arrangements are boring, light, and geared entirely to make a melody easy enough to sing along to, and the lyrics (while, granted, generally hampered by the narrow subject matter) can barely stand up to the treacliest of the "sensitive guy with an acoustic" set. If it were just one thing and not the other, I wouldn't be so bothered, but together it makes for a painful listening experience. Think of a song like Ted Leo & The Pharmacists' "Parallel Or Together?", where the guitars are strummed at double-time and the rhythm pounds at Usain Bolt-like speed. You'd think that in Christian music, where the artists so very much want the listener to feel how much they love Jesus Christ, that there'd be that kind of spark and passion in the musicianship. If there is, it's entirely rare.
I'm not picking on Christian music - I mean, these faults have been noted for decades, and I don't believe that God has no place in popular music. After all, take "Jesus Walks", as thrilling a song about belief as you could possibly imagine. Not only is the beat tremendous, but Kanye West practically bends over backwards illustrating how deep and powerful his belief in Christ is, as well as the fact that he will not allow his beliefs to be compromised for the sake of making money. That's a bold statement, and one worthy of praise. It's funny, though, that West talks about how he hopes that "next time I'm in the club/everybody's screaming out" the chorus of his song - people probably have, but are they really thinking about Jesus when they do? Maybe West erred by making his song too catchy, a song you could dance to but might not always pay attention to the lyrics being rapped. Then again, if you ARE paying attention to the lyrics, you might just be forced to think about what he's saying. And that's a good thing, believe me.
If all Christian music, or even some of it, sounded like "Jesus Walks", who knows how much further the CCM movement could go? That sounds like a tall order - not much secular music sounds like "Jesus Walks" - but one certainly worth thinking about. I know that I'd listen to more Christian music if it had that kind of drive, that unadulterated passion, and an energy to match that of the Lord himself delivering the Sermon on the Mount. I tell you what - 24 songs like that, and you wouldn't have to hawk a Christian compilation in cheesy TV commercials. That shit would sell like "Now That's What I Call Music!" does.
What I will say is that Dylan, by virtue of his rewriting of the tune and casting it in a wider scope, has managed to improve on Behan's original and make the melody as much his own (Behan's tune has the same kind of ironic wink that Dylan's song has, and Dylan surely kept that in mind with his own little satire). Dylan basically offers us a verbal history of war, death, atrocity, and annihilation, all with that same ironic epitath of "with God on our side". What makes the song work especially well, though, is the everyman stance that Dylan takes. He talks about reading his history books, wondering about how God could be with the post-war Germans, and his doubts about one of the Bible's most famous stories. The lyrics helps draw the listener in, successfully couching big issues in plain language.
Basically, the major point of the song is one that has been grappled with for centuries - if the Lord is good and just, why does he allow bad and evil things to happen? Dylan doesn't come straight out and ask that question, but basically lets his examples do the talking; the strongest would be how the Germans, after the horrors of the Holocaust, could have God back on their sides by virtue of being our allies after the war. Christianity has had to deal with those questions forever, and have struggled to come up with anything resembling a good answer; the closest would be "well, the Lord is testing us through suffering like Job, and if we pass that test, we are true and good Christians", which seems a bit insulting if you really think about it. I suppose this is where the idea of Deism comes from, and still holds so much weight - it's a way of believing in God without having to deal with all those little niggling idiosyncrasies that would lead you to believe God doesn't exist.
At the same time, I don't think Dylan's writing an anti-God song, although you could very easily believe that. What it seems like he's doing is attacking the concept of God that gets used in our nationalistic fervors, when we suggest that because we're good and moral Christians we have the evangelical high road, whereas the filthy heathens that practice Islam or Buddhism are condemned to the fiery pit. This is not to be confused with the Personal God; i.e. the one that athletes thank for their sporting accomplishments, or politicians thank when they're voted into office. Those kinds of statements reveal a lot more about the speaker than about the Lord; mainly, the fact that they have enough ego to think that God cares about them hitting a walkoff homer or being a Senator than, say, the populace of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. Of course, God has been also used by those with the complete lack of tact to suggest that the wickedness of the city (whatever THAT means) caused the storm to demolish it - proof that the Old Testament Angry Jerk God still exists (no disrespect to God, but he had a Stanley Kowalski-like temper in those days). What that suggests, then, is that God, our Lord and Savior, the Creator and Divine Leader, is meant to be exactly whatever we want our God to be at that particular time. That doesn't really seem right to me.
I'm wandering off track here, so I think it'd be best to close here with something everybody loves - a YouTube video. Here's Dylan performing "With God On Our Side" during his MTV Unplugged taping (I thought about trying to find a duet with Joan Baez, but thought better of it). Dylan, for whatever reason, omits the verse about the Germans - an interesting omission in itself, because it's a very pertinent point, and still emotionally charged today. Now that I think about it, that's probably why it was edited out - MTV didn't need the hassle. Dylan can sing all he wants about how we slaughtered Indians and how he hated those damned Reds, but to sing about the Nazis - screw that!
Sadly, embedding is not enabled for the video, so the link will have to suffice. Enjoy!
With God On Our Side - MTV Unplugged