Undercover, Sky-Circles and Me

Sometimes, those we know and love throw us a curve ball so simple, innocent and innocuous on the face, but almost devastating in poignance. They can show up in the strangest of places, at the most unexpected times and perhaps they don’t even realize what they’ve done.  I got one yesterday from my friend, composer Steve Layton, (who has even more music available here) just moments after posting my essay, A Theology Sandwich.

You know Joe, there might come a time where you just let your new wings take you out and away to enjoy the new vistas, & not keep circling the old nest… 😉

It stopped me again yesterday.  It’s complicated. I’ve been asked similar questions, like this one, but this is different because I got the sense Steve was asking this question out of kindness, for my benefit rather than the benefit of some institution. The point of focus was not “Why are you picking on religion,” but  “Can you set yourself free?”  It is a question I’ve been asked before by close friends but not for a while, and I do wrestle with it from time to time.  It also reminded me of a poem by Rumi that I read every semester to my classes as they learn to create meaningful musical experiences.

The way of love is not a subtle argument.
The door there is devastation.
Birds make great sky-circles of their freedom.
How do they learn it?
They fall, and falling, they’re given wings.

Undercover is certainly one big issue now; not so much the band itself, but the sociology around the band. Except for the love I have for my bandmates and the fun we always have together, I really don’t care if we play anymore or not if it must be done in religious venues. After the church politics surrounding the last concert we did in January 2011, when the church itself almost cancelled the concert at the very last minute because of my beliefs, putting into jeopardy the huge personal investment of time, effort and all the money the promotion team had on this earth, risking turning people away who had already bought tickets, some of whom had traveled thousands of miles just for that show, something snapped in me.  I’ve lost my appetite for it and have kind of put my foot down.  It seemed as immoral in its consideration as it would have been if they had actually cancelled.  I’ve always loved our audience more than anything, and if we play again, it will be on our terms, for their sake, or fuck it.

I don’t want to overstate any importance we may have had or minimize what we’ve done at all.  Undercover was somewhat influential in christian music circles and meaningful to a number of people. I do feel I have some work to do, both internally and with people who actually (for some reason) give a shit about what I have to say or at least want answers.  I do my best I think, when I simply tell my story and ask my questions rather than debate and argue. This was another way the question was powerful. It was a good reminder for me.

So I wrote back.  With regard to new vistas right at this time, “As things would have it Steve, I think I’m doomed!“…

  • There are those who are still actively and publicly praying for and working towards my re-conversion. I tell them over and over that I am way better off now, that life is much better on this side, more loving, and makes much more sense, that this is a huge growth step forward.  They’re having none of that.
  • Then again there is also the idea that a substantial number of people in the U.S. still believe the world was created in six literal days just a few thousand years ago;
  • …and that this should be taught in the public school science classroom,
  • …and that religion and religious morals should govern foreign policy and federal court appointments.
  • …and that my gay friends should not be considered equal in every single aspect of the human meaning of the word.

For some reason all that kind of thing just bothers me a little.  I cannot seem to escape it or the public discourse on all these things.

Oh, to be indifferent! How can I psychically leave all this behind?  It is to some degree circling the old nest and I do have some working out of things still to do, perhaps more of interest and curiosity than anything else, but it’s bigger than that.

  • It’s also because I think I had some part earlier on in creating a monster in the trajectory and tone of the christian music biz and I would like to do my share to correct errors.
  • And because I have a number of friends (unbelieving mostly) who think I have a responsibility to do so. Sometimes I agree.
  • Because I care very much about the music I wrote and performed that was born from this era.
  • Because I deeply believe in the work during that time, focused on love, acceptance, forgiveness, grace, kindness, all human phenomena, and that it was worthwhile even when the doctrinal focus – raptures, hell, sin, eternal life, doctrines, devils and demons, trinities and transfigurations, revelations and redemption was not, except in its mythological sense and then only sometimes (as Isabel Allende asks, “What is truer than truth? The story.“)
  • Because I think children are being damaged every Sunday when they hear messages of sin and eternal torment at the hands of an apparently benevolent and all-merciful god and they are not equipped to process that (if we ever are at all).
  • Because my girlfriend’s mother’s funeral was overrun by a minister who put the family’s needs and preferences beneath the church’s and his own need to preach about many mansions in heaven, making it as much an evangelical event in his eyes rather than, or at least primarily, if not solely a celebration of her life and an opportunity to say goodbye in individually meaningful ways, which they managed to do anyway and still beautifully in spite of “Reverend Dingleberry.”
  • Because there are many believers who maintain that the dark days of their own religion’s evils are in the past.
  • Because there are many people somewhere on the continuum of doubt and unbelief who write to me privately for fear of retribution, ridicule or just plain fear who tell me it gives them hope and a voice when I write. They no longer have gods and much as they want to, they are not completely sure how to live with no gods, how to live free.
  • And because people write me publicly on Twitter, Facebook and here thanking me and telling me the same thing.
  • And because in the end, I have compassion for these people. I care for them. There is so much fear.

Sometimes I have a hard time believing myself that I no longer believe.  It is not that I am sad about it, remorseful or afraid.  It’s been a big leap forward in my life.  There is no turning back, anymore than I can return to Dick and Jane.  I am certain of that, but the moment I realized “there is no there there” was cataclysmic for me in the way that it must feel for a captive to have his cell door blown wide open with one simple devastating breath.  And perhaps like in the midst of any wreckage of creative destruction, there is a time when one picks oneself up and surveys the landscape, looks around at all the debris and asks, “Now what?

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30 thoughts on “Undercover, Sky-Circles and Me

  1. I still circle the nest. How can you not? How can you not revisit such a huge part of your life and wonder what the hell you were thinking? I still listen to christian talk radio now and then and I’m just floored by the insular and illogical reasoning. How did I ever buy into all of that?

    Realizing my most prized beliefs were untrue was the single most difficult struggle I’ve had in life thus far. It took me probably 10 years of struggling and questioning and really trying my hardest to hold on to what I wanted to be true (sometimes just the smallest bits and pieces) before I could be completely honest with myself. In reference to what you said in another post, those who insist we who’ve “fallen away” were probably never real christians in the first place have absolutely no idea how hard we fought to believe. How much we wanted the things we believed to BE truth. If there was a god who valued sincerity, I think our struggles to believe would be worth ten times the belief of those who blithely accept everything without question.

    It was all worth it, though. No, I don’t (now) “know” what happens when we die. Probably nothing. But I am free to really LIVE now! And, unlike when I was spoon-fed all the “answers” from an ancient book of writings, I actually have to think about what that means and how I plan to do it. I am responsible for my life now. That is both a little scary and terrifically freeing.

    • Ojo, I enjoy your writings. I appreciate your honesty and willingness to be so open especially considering where you came from (Undercover, etc) and the influence you and your band had on me growing up. I always felt y’all were coming from a different place (love rather than religion) and that is why I latched on to Undercover. However I too have struggled for YEARS with the church and Christianity over all and what it was and has become. I still do. While I can’t go as far the “other way” as you I do believe that you are onto some very good things. I can’t let go of God or Jesus and probably never will but I just know in my heart they have been done wrong and misrepresented tremendously.

    • I can’t circle the nest. I find that too painful and kind of like just viewing my biggest flaw over and over again. It embarrasses me the views I had at that point and it makes me miss some of the non-religious aspects of the life I had then. I took my wife to a church a few years back, just to peer at it and show her what an American evangelical church is like, in comparison to the Catholic church she was raised in back in Australia. I found the songs painful to listen too, probably a lot like a recovering alcoholic is around drinking. I missed the social aspects of
      the event, but also recognized the pure brainwashing that was taking place.
      When I learned that you had changed your views so dramatically, I was
      amazed and also enthused in many ways. Amazed that such a hard-core propagator of the beliefs I used to hold was also so turned around as I was. Enthused that perhaps it wasn’t as crazy a change as I thought it was. It helped me a lot to know that I was not alone in my lack of previous convictions. It also helped to see so many others had found the new way in life. So obviously on that angle it has been a lot like you just explained your reasons for doing what you now do.
      As for the band, as much as I loved your music in that day, I can not listen to it anymore for any length of time. But what really amazes me is that Christian people would even allow you to play it in their churches considering their beliefs. It stunned me that with your current views you could play those old songs without laughing out loud at the lyrical content, and feeling also that you were contributing to strengthen the views that you previously preached. Of course I have not seen your shows to know what playlists you are using and what sort of discourse you have with the audience, and perhaps that somehow puts it into context more appropriately. I totally understand the politics of a church that would not want you on their pulpit, and I am sure you do as well. I will say that at this point if you DO play anywhere near my home, I want to make a point of seeing the show for a great many reasons.
      I do miss the good old days of Undercover, you guys meant a lot to me and everyone of you still does to this day.

      • Thanks, Dan.

        I certainly understand the views of those who no longer want to circle the nest. If so much of my life had not been part of it, I’d probably have simply moved on as well. I have lots of friends who simply never even give it another thought. Some, like Steve Layton who asked the question to being with, having been lifelong atheists obviously don’t wrestle with the same issue. I met a number of people like this at the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s convention where I was one of the speakers. Some were second and third-generation unbelievers who give Christianity no more thought or concern that Christians give any other. They simply lose no sleep over it.

        I talked about why I still play in Undercover in the post about Undercover and Beating Dragons. I still like the musical and social aspects of it, and I do like lots of the music, and the fact that it is meaningful to a number of people is also fine with me. I am not out to destroy anything or anybody. I just want the truth to speak for itself. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. It’s nice to be in touch again. ~J

  2. Fly and be free, Joe.

    When my father (a lifelong atheist) died, I faced a choice. Travel 2,000 miles to attend a Catholic ceremony (my mom must have had to cash in a lot of her “frequent prayer” miles with the church to pull that off) surrounded by people who basically hate me for following in my father’s footsteps.

    When I shared my dilemma with a friend, he simply replied: “It sounds like there’s nothing there for you anymore.” That statement hit me like a ton of bricks – probably the way your friend’s words struck you. I literally burst in tears when he said that (and am shedding a few right now as I write this). It was so simple and so true. There was nothing there for me anymore.

    In regards to Undercover and Christianity in general, there is nothing there for you anymore. Staying in that place will only continue to fill your life with arguments, judgement, condemnation, and all of the other “blessings” that organized religion brings. It will also keep you tied to your god-damn computer trying to keep up with all of it. Fuck that. You don’t owe them anything.

    I don’t know you personally but I know that you’ve got a girlfriend, you’re a hell of a musician, and an intelligent man. Go live your life, spend time with your girl, make music that you love with people who aren’t dragging you down, use your intelligence to make the world a better place for all of us.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your story Tim. I think Amy’s “playground” comment sums it up for me. I don’t feel attached to it anymore emotionally, but it’s more like the idea that as long as I can help others with doubts, then I’m ok with putting up with all the other noise. It does not seem to be intrusive to what I want to do in my life, and in some sense, I do like the opportunity to get the stuff in writing if for no other reason than being able to point people to those answers instead of answering them over and over. Hope things are well with you. As always, I appreciate your thoughts and comments. ~J

  3. I still circle the nest… there are multiple reasons for that. Of thier de-converts Mormons say, “They can leave the church but they can’t leave the church alone.” Evangelicals often say the same kind of thing to me.

    For myself, I think it is because there are a lot of things that they claim as “Christian”, which are not their’s solely. They often seem to think they are the only ones who can extol about morality or worldviews, and often act if others are tresspassing on their territories if they address such issues.

    Also, my past is this ball of threads that religion has been wound throughout. It is not a simple matter of cutting it out. It has to be undone. Also, there are many parts I have no desire to eject, and I will be the arbitar of which threads those are.

    Of course, I am new to being on the outside of faith… I may feel differently years from now.

  4. …Because there are many people somewhere on the continuum of doubt and unbelief who write to me privately for fear of retribution, ridicule or just plain fear who tell me it gives them hope and a voice when I write. They no longer have gods and much as they want to, they are not completely sure how to live with no gods, how to live free…

    I am one of those people who reached out to you, and for your kindness and response I am grateful.

  5. Joe,

    Enjoyed reading the perspective you have on the dilemma you face. You have jettisoned both “belief” and “system”. ( I, on the other hand, reject the latter while fully embracing the former.)

    Your friend’s question to you summed up some of the question’s I’ve had of others who have “left” namely;

    What is it about the old playground, where you were constantly getting your knees scraped and your shins bruised, where the playground “mother” continually yelled at you to stop doing something that seemed a little fun, that continues to draw you back?

    Thanks for sharing an eloquent and heart felt post

    • Thanks, Steve.

      If you have embraced the former, then perhaps I should address yesterday’s blog entry to you! Take a shot at that one?
      In answering your question… there is nothing about the playground that I like other than perhaps wanting to walk around it, like one would a corpse or an old childhood home, to see what all the fuss was about, to know that it is not about the old home, it is about the horror that went on inside. That and the that fact some I love insist on still playing there. 🙂
      Thanks for reading and for your comment.


  6. A couple questions came to my mind…

    -What is your interpretation of the Rumi poem? You quote it, but I don’t think I understand WHY it impacts you so deeply.
    -What errors would you want to correct in the Christian music biz?

    • Kurt – thanks for the questions.

      1) The Rumi poem affirms that love is devastating. It is not passive, it is not coincidental or arbitrary. I do not mean devastating in a harmful way, although there are some things about love that necessarily will fall away. It’s a game-changer. I apply that same logic to music with my students. My own composition teacher used to say there is only one rule in composition: “Thou Shalt Not Bore.” It is our job as artists to be salient, poignant, relevant. The only thing worse than being hated is being ignored and if we are ignored it is because we are irrelevant. We expect to be “devastated” in the music we spend time and money on. It is as close a concept to “sacred” that I know, to be invited into someone’s inner terrain and squander the opportunity.

      The second part of the poem speaks more to me about my path, about learning. Before I even knew this poem or much about Rumi at all we had recorded “I Rose Falling.” Those two things, rising by falling and being given wings by falling seem to be saying the same thing to me. Of course, I am not addressing the more mystical elements here that Rumi always so beautifully embodied. My takeaway at least for these purposes is more practical.

      2) I can’t really get into a full discourse of the problems with christian music here, but I can draw attention to a couple of ideas. First, I think Terry Taylor had a lot of important things to say in his chapter of the Jerry Wilson book that many of the artists in my circle appeared in. I would refer you to that if you can find it. He talks a lot about the Calvary Chapel model of utilitarianism in music, as a tool for evangelism more than anything else. So that’s one error I’d like to correct.

      Another was the methodology itself… the use of an emotionally powerful tool like music to manipulate people along with the more powerful elements of the passion story or whatever biblical reference to get people to respond and make a commitment. Seems like an infomercial or political ad or something.

      Third is the infrastructure of a christian music industry itself. I would not deny a music market around church needs, but a market and industry that are set up as a parallel or substitute alternative universe to “regular” or secular music is as stupid an idea as I’ve ever run across. It whores music and it whores the message and I’ve always been against it. It is the only style of music that is not a style of music. It insulates itself from critique and discussion because it is partitioned off, it is assumed it is in a different class because it is “christian music.” It’s improved some over the years as artists who are christians have integrated into the rest of the mainstream music industry, but it is still a problem. Anyway, lots more to say about all that, but hopefully that gives you an idea of the trees I was barking up in the essay. Thanks. ~J

  7. “What is it about the old playground, where you were constantly getting your knees scraped and your shins bruised, where the playground “mother” continually yelled at you to stop doing something that seemed a little fun, that continues to draw you back?”

    If I may, this is a very weak analogy. It wasn’t just a playground with a cranky “father” (when has christianity ever let an authority be female?). It was supposed to be the essence of who you were, the ultimate truth of the universe. When you spend so many of your formative years believing there is something inherently sinful about you and believing there is a god who cares about your every movement, it profoundly affects who you are. That doesn’t just stop when you realize everything you thought you knew about the world and how it works is wrong. You can’t just walk away (or at least some of us can’t). It takes years of figuring out who you are now, what you do believe, what your life means. That’s hard to do without revisiting who you’ve been.

    Add to that a public ministry and it complicates things even further. Those of us who actually went into full time ministry have a whole other set of feelings to work through. It’s much harder to just divorce yourself completely when you believed enough you put literally everything out there for god. There is a feeling that you need to somehow atone for propagating the madness.

  8. I gotta say, when I re-discovered you via FB, I “Squee’d” like a 13-year-old to learn that we’re in a similar mental and social place. (out of Church, that is) I really appreciate you speaking for us to the audience that you accumulated in another life. The love and grace that you employ in these conversations is especially inspiring. Having said that, if you chose to stop circling this nest, I’d wish you well, and accept it like a grown-up.
    But on the subject of Undercover, Devotion sounds like you approached it with a fresh appreciation for your bass and the role it can play in a song (like the title track, Man, oh Man and All That I Am). Am I hearing that right? As may be obvious, I like to slap a fat bottom myself.

    • Hey Will,

      Yes, who knows where we’re going to end up, and who we’re going to end up there with, eh? Thank you for the kind comment. I think Amy’s comment above on the playground, or the nest, whatever metaphor works best, is probably a good answer for why I still hang around. That, plus it seems to really help some people.

      On the Devotion question… that was the first album we did where I played bass guitar instead of keyboard bass (with the exception of So Wonderful, which was done with the keyboard). It did seem to fundamentally change the sound of the record which is what we were looking for. Some of those songs were actually written on bass guitar and so had to played that way. I don’t think I’d have those songs if I hadn’t written them on the guitar rather than keyboard. Attempts at playing them on keyboard bass live just didn’t seem to work. So you’re right, it was a more bass-driven, and actually bass guitar driven album than the others. There are still some things I can do on the keyboard bass that really can’t be done well on bass guitar so I’ve kind of since swung back to the other direction. But all in all, yes, there’s nothing like a massive low end. Thanks. ~J

  9. “the process of belief is an elixir when you’re weak, I must confess sometimes I indulge it on the sneak” -bad religion

  10. “I talked about why I still play in Undercover in the post about Undercover and Beating Dragons. I still like the musical and social aspects of it, and I do like lots of the music, and the fact that it is meaningful to a number of people is also fine with me. I am not out to destroy anything or anybody. I just want the truth to speak for itself.”

    If you enjoy the musical and social aspects, then form a new band that resonates with your current beliefs(or lack thereof). Openly denouncing the very words you still sing makes you a hypocrite, Mr. Taylor.

    • And saying things this way makes you an ass, Mr. Metzger. First, mind your own business. If you don’t like the music, then don’t listen. If you do not accept my reasoning for why I do what I do with my band mates, then don’t read. You have no right or authority to sit in judgment of my motives. What I have said about the songs is sincere and legitimate. You might as well suggest that nobody read stories to their children if they don’t believe those literally happened either.

      • There is the free-thinking loving attitude that you claim to possess. If you really are the free-thinking, free-speech advocate you claim to be, then a dissenting opnion would not rankle you. The truth is rarely an easy thing to hear, let alone accept, but it remains the truth. Your very own words are not corresponding to your actions. You are educated, as well as I, so neither one of us needs to remind the other of the definition of hypocrite.

      • There is nothing at all unloving about my reply to you. The rebuke is warranted and accurate. What rankles me is not a dissenting opinion, as perusal of the blog comments show, but rudeness, misuse and misunderstanding of the word “hypocrite” in the employment of rudeness, and presumption to direct other peoples’ actions and assign motivation where it is clearly not possible to do so accurately. You do it all again in this reply. I don’t care if you’re educated or not, you misuse the word and also misunderstand freethought which has nothing to do with this, but is rather the evaluation of opinions based on reason independently of tradition, authority or religious belief.

      • I merely reminded you of your own admissions and the inaccuracy between them. You sing songs of faith in a God whom you openly have no faith in. Living one way and singing songs that are in direct opposition to that lifestyle makes you a hypocrite. That is as clear as glass and requires no education to recognize. If you are uncomfortable with what I am saying, then maybe there is a grain of truth to it.

      • What you merely did was promote your own bias and inability to understand the dictionary and the nuances of musical delivery and what it means to perform songs, especially with others in an ensemble. In standard fundamentalist form you overly reduce a number of facts and circumstances to incorrectly conclude that I am a hypocrite because the alternative is just too threatening to you. You have gotten the meaning of the word wrong, and have failed to look at the other points I’ve made explicitly. You are in no position to comment on my lifestyle and motives anymore than I am on yours. Your comment was rude. You also clearly do not understand the arts either. Should any symphony member refuse to perform The St. Matthew’s Passion because of her unbelief too? Note that it is you getting rankled on my blog. I assure you I will not lose a minute’s sleep on your opinion of me. I am happy to let my words and actions stand or fall on their own merits. And your comments have nothing to do with the merits of the argument. If anything is clear it is that.

    • I know exactly what the word means and I used it in a correct manner, thank you. No amount of rationalization will change the fact that what you say and what you do are in conflict. If you do not want me or anyone else to comment on your posts, then make them private, thereby ensuring you will only receive praise for your views, and no criticism. I fed you back your own words and that made you react the way you have. If you choose to break away from Christianity and a belef in God, thats your own personal decision. Then, make a clean break of it and go your own way.

      • No, you did not use the word in a correct manner at all and I showed exactly how and why. But really, you just cannot help yourself from telling other people how to conduct themselves, can you?! I leave the comments public specifically so people can see them and my response to them so they can come to their own conclusions and evaluate the merits on their own. You do come dangerously close to being deleted though because of your name-calling and disrespect. I don’t really have a stake in whether people agree or not, but to the extent that any of this helps anyone out of any of the many religious quagmires, I am grateful.

    • You can delete me, Im not bothered in the least. I did point your discrepancy- your response is not up to me. You know that my observation and use of the word was correct. Your replies have shown me that. And name calling? I believe I did use the word hypocrite, but I do recall seeing some of that in your response as well. Pot. Kettle. Black.

      • You still do not get the meaning of the word. If you are to suppose that because I sing songs that I wrote, that contain lyrics that have to do with religious themes, and that because I no longer embrace the literal meaning of those themes, that I am a hypocrite, then I suppose anyone who songs Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer at Christmas and does not believe in Santa Claus is a hypocrite too. Or anyone who plays a Wagner piece and does not embrace Nazism. Your use of the word is both incorrect and pedestrian. There is no way out of that for you.

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