The interview I did with Bert Montgomery earlier in the year ended up appearing in The Huffington Post, the Burnside Writers Collective, Faithlab, and on Bert’s own blog. He’s resourceful! The version that appeared in all these publications was about half the length of the whole interview. The unedited full version, done initially in two parts, appears below and includes a whole bunch of other important stuff on religion and faith, CCM, Undercover and even a bit on The Fugs! Now what interview would be complete without that?
OJO QUESTIONS: ROUND ONE
December 31, 2011
Who were some of your biggest musical influences growing up?
I didn’t grow up in a musically fluent household. My mother was born in Philadelphia and my father in Long Beach, CA but they met in a small rural town in Pennsylvania. My mother lived in a strict household and my father was reared by his Austrian grandmother. My mother always told me she liked Paul Anka and Perry Como growing up, but I still haven’t heard anything about my father’s tastes in music as a young man. Maybe I should ask him.
The only records I remember as a kid in the house were Sing Along With Mitch, The Jackie Gleason Orchestra, a record of ragtime piano songs and a few others, but I listened to them all. I remember when my father bought Herb Alpert’s record with the chick covered in whipped Cream. He played cornet in high school so I’m sure this was the appeal for him. I liked the record and like many other young boys, liked the record cover too.
My mother’s brother bought the first Beatles record when it came out and left it over at our house once. I was probably 7 years old. That was it for me. Most of the rest of the decade was all about the Beatles. That’s not a bad way to go, I suppose. Then towards the end of the 1960s it was CSNY, Led Zeppelin, and most of the other popular records high school aged boys liked. I won the first Jimi Hendrix album in a dance contest and that changed my life. I listened to the radio a lot. Although neither of my parents were big music consumers, they did love music and made sure I had piano lessons all the way through high school. We moved often so it was start and stop the whole way.
It was not till high school that I began buying records in earnest. I heard Reason To Believe by Rod Stewart on the radio and rushed right out to buy that one. James Gang Live at Madison Square Garden, Santana, more Beatles, then Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Jethro Tull, Yes was my first concert, Pink Floyd. I did not have very eclectic taste. Pretty much the run of the mill popular stuff, great as all that stuff may be. Lots of my friends can run circles around me with their collections and depth of knowledge of earlier music. By the end of high school I had a lot of records but had not even heard a note by Muddy Waters.
We both have a fondness for the Fugs. When did you “discover” them, and can you share some of the things about them that appeal to you?
I had heard of them when they formed in the 1960s but had not really been exposed to them, and as I mentioned, my tastes were pretty much mainstream rock. It really wasn’t until about 5 years ago or so after I began teaching full time that I really got a chance to revisit and study them. One of my classes is History of Rock which has between 200-300 students in one section and that’s what led to a deeper look not only into them but that whole era and sociology that gave birth to them.
It was the song Crystal Liaison that kind of hooked me. It has so many interesting angles. There is the title, a drug-themed distortion of Christe Eleison from the Catholic Mass (I grew up Catholic). That seemed to capture what that whole psychedelic thing was all about; drugs as the new religion. It’s reinforced by the music itself which is sung in a manner suggesting Gregorian Chant with open fifths in the vocals; just brilliant, really. The video of them that I show my class with that guy dancing and all also captures a lot of what they were about and the era they thrived in. I was too young to “get it” at the time.
Prior to forming Undercover, were you in any other bands? Were they distinctively “evangelical/christian” lyrically?
I didn’t start playing in bands until I was 18 and had just graduated from high school. I was invited to play in Jim Nicholson’s band (the guitarist in Undercover) because he had heard that I played piano. Having taken piano lessons is nothing like playing in a band though and there was a learning curve. We began playing covers, high school dances, backyard parties and stuff like that. We were not very good, but we were paying our dues. We went through a few iterations with different names and members, but Jim and I were always the constants.
We became evangelical Christians a couple years later in 1976 and almost immediately began writing our own songs for the first time, and those with religious lyrics. The rest, as they say, is history.
Anyone who has kept up with you knows that you no longer adhere to Christianity or any religion for that matter. Do you consider yourself an atheist? Agnostic?
I try to dodge the labels because they are so arbitrary and misunderstood. I have no idea what I am. Or rather I am both or either of those things at one time or another. I don’t want to get into technical definitions and stuff, and life isn’t that way for me anyway. I know very few if any thoughtful atheists who insist that they know beyond any doubt that there is no god. Most atheists I know are also agnostic that way. Even Richard Dawkins says the same thing. We don’t know for sure. But neither do we know with 100% certainty whether or not there are teapots between the Earth and sun, as Bertrand Russell used to say. We can probably safely say there are none but we cannot prove that there are not. So it is with that distinction between atheism and agnosticism in some minds. We too often get stuck in the semantics.
Atheism among Christians is considered a religion. Many love to say that and yet nothing could be further from the truth. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in a supernatural god. There is nothing else that uniquely connects all atheists. Stephen Roberts summed it up (although there is some legitimate critique of the language he uses) when he said, “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” It is true though that we are all unbelievers with respect to all gods but our own if we assume that they are different gods rather than different versions of one God. The fact that I take it “one god further” in my inability to believe the Orthodox or evangelical Christian version of things is a big deal to many Christians. But let me put myself in some perspective if I may.
There was not a single moment when I woke up and “decided” I was now going to be an unbeliever. My faith was dismissed little by little over a number of years until at one point I realized there was just nothing left. I’ve documented some of those erosions on my blog and in other places. In the end, I am probably an atheist in that I don’t believe in a specific supernatural god nor do I have a coherent model for what that might look like nor a reason to embrace belief in one. It would be great if there was an all-loving God who would welcome us with life eternal at the end of our lives, but that wishful thinking is not enough to get me there. I am agnostic in that I don’t know. There just might be a god out there! It’s fluid, I am open and I find no compelling reason to join myself to one label or the other. I’ll leave that for others.
Can you identify a specific time period / event / etc. in your life when you knew you no longer fit into the packaged “Christian” mold? When you knew you were no longer interested in faith?
I’m not sure I ever did fit into the packaged Christian mold. I mentioned that I was born and raised Catholic. I loved all the imagery, the cultural and sensual aspects of my religion. I abandoned it as irrelevant when I was a teenager who knew everything. I took my detour through evangelical Protestantism when I went forward at an altar call at Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa in 1976 and stayed within evangelicalism for probably 15 years. But it was never comfortable and I always had questions, things that didn’t make sense, even from the beginning. Culturally I could never get it either and never could identify. The bible belt, the religious south, protestant hymns and music, the Gaithers and groups like that, PTL and all the televangelists, contemporary Christian culture seemed all very foreign to me and in some cases just damned weird.
I wrote liner notes on an album around 1988 or so to the effect that I was throwing out a whole bunch of bathwater and hopefully keeping the baby, which was the core of my faith. I returned to Catholicism in practice around that time, and officially around 1992. I was more comfortable there, but even when I returned I had told the priest working with me that there was no way I could believe some of the essential doctrines they held. He conferred with his superior and came back to me with the requirement that I at least stay open. That seemed fair enough.
There I sat until 2007. I had kids and we went to church. It was part of my practice, even going to Mass every day whenever I could. There is something really nice about a regular practice and routine like that, and I’m talking in natural terms here. The Buddhists know this. When I moved to Virginia to take the teaching position at James Madison University things came to a head and I was not expecting it. In many ways my faith had again become irrelevant just like it had when I was younger. I had rationalized so many central tenets of the faith, especially Hell, which needs rationalizing to be consistent with other tenets. Once Hell is on the block, lots of other questions follow. I had outright rejected other things as I mentioned above in the account with the priest (besides the untenable Catholic doctrines there are protestant gems like the rapture and many others). Science had falsified a good chunk of the narrative too. There was no worldwide flood or Exodus of the Jews from Egypt as it was written and as understood by literalists. I shrugged! What’s a man to do? One cannot force oneself to believe things one does not believe. It was the question of Hell that forced the crisis though, and I have documented that story here. There is more to say about all this.
It was probably 2008 that I realized I could no longer call myself a Christian. The funny thing was that I felt no different inside, but just had that realization that I no longer could believe what I was being asked to believe. I still had some questions about things like the resurrection of Jesus and stuff like that, but I read and read and studied as much as I could. In the end, it was more a shift in the way I chose to evaluate claims than in choosing not to be a Christian anymore and to start living in some other way. I still was the same person, still committed to love, my family, to doing good, to making a positive impact in my world with the time I have. I just could not force myself to believe many of the objective claims that Christianity makes, and as I said at the beginning of this, once the doctrines are gone then what’s left? It is only love that is left for me. Some will say that’s what Jesus was all about, but Jesus was about lots of other things too if we are to believe what is said about him in the scriptures.
In addition to all of the beliefs and doctrines most of which are based on scientific and objective claims about events in the real world we all live in (the virgin birth, the resurrection, the fall of man and nature; almost all beliefs are rooted in objective claims somewhere), it is also true that people are expected to adhere to a worldview that comes along with those doctrines. That has major repercussions downstream. If we believe that mankind and even the whole world or universe has suffered a fall and is inherently evil or sinful, that will have an impact on the way we live and on the way we treat others. There are many such aspects of the religious life and worldview or in this case the Christian worldview, that I find no reason to accept, that I find cynical, objectively wrong, or in some cases just downright immoral. It’s also a very good question to ask why religious faith should be considered virtuous in any way at all in the first place! I suspect it’s only because faith is required to buy into and get past all the things that otherwise make little or no sense or that have no corroborating evidence. Mark Twain said as much; “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”
So contrary to what this question assumes, I am interested in faith. I am interested in it because it is a human phenomenon that has global consequences. We may not survive this century and religion and its various worldviews will have a lot to do with that. I am interested in knowing more about it because I feel like I gave so much of my own life and time to it. How did that happen? Why? How does it work? What are the mechanisms? I am interested in it because I am interested in the universe and all that is real within it, visible or not visible, but real in any case.
I am not interested however in living a life of faith (except as Thomas Talbott defines it, which I address in a later question), where I define what’s real only by what some ancient text, tradition or religious authority says. What I believe must now be earned and I will put that bar for evidence as high as the seriousness of the claim and in direct proportion to the likelihood that those claims are true or not. Thomas Huxley said it better:
“Trust a witness in all matters in which neither his self-interest, his passions, his prejudices, nor the love of the marvelous is strongly concerned. When they are involved, require corroborative evidence in exact proportion to the contravention of probability by the thing testified.”
Why should this be a controversial proposition to the religious? I believe it is only because it throws down the gauntlet and for so many it calls into question the veracity of what they believe regarding objective claims about our universe in time-space. And then what, after the evidential house of cards falls?
What classes do you teach at James Madison?
It’s a great gig. At James Madison University my classes are History of Rock, Songwriting, Artist Management, Music Publishing, Entrepreneurship in the Music Industry, Legal Aspects of the Music Industry, and Marketing of Recorded Music. These classes are all in the music department. In the summers I also teach at Cal State University, Fullerton in the Business School. The class last summer was Music Marketing: Distribution and Retail.
OJO QUESTIONS: ROUND TWO
January 15, 2012
During your journey through evangelicalism back to Catholicism and finally outside the realm of belief, how were your Undercover bandmates reacting? The band as a whole certainly matured toward the end when compared to the catchy simplicity of the first two albums.
Well, yes, it’s been a journey for all of us and we did kind of “grow up in public” as has been said of us before. A few punches in the gut in the course of one’s life will have a tendency to do that, to grow you up pretty quickly. I would say that the fundamentalism of our earliest days just didn’t last that long, maybe the first three records, but by the third it was already becoming obvious to us all under the surface that we were going to be asking some questions rather than simply spitting out answers.
Over the years, we’ve all ended up in different places. It’s pretty clear to me, and I don’t even think about this that much, that our relationships with each other are not based on the band or on what we believe or not. It is very much like family. Our acceptance and affection for each other just “is.” Having said that, I think my dismissal of faith has had an impact. I have to be careful here, because I just read a brilliant piece by Thomas Talbott who beautifully defined “faith” quite a bit differently than most evangelicals or even most people might, in the Hebrews sense of the word, and in his sense, even skeptics and unbelievers of all types can be said to have faith, but not in the way Evangelicals think:
“But then, for my own part, I would never dream of using the term ‘faith’ in this way. For as I and a substantial minority of religious writers use the term, the opposite of faith is faithlessness, disloyalty, or even hypocrisy, not intellectual doubt. In fact, faith is not essentially a matter of believing something at all; much less is it a matter of generating belief in oneself by means of an heroic act of will. It is instead a matter of owning up to whatever knowledge one has, of allowing one’s settled beliefs about the world and one’s deepest moral convictions (or whatever light one has acquired, as a religious person might call it) to transform one’s life and to reflect itself in one’s actions. In a word, it is just the opposite of what Sartre would have called “bad faith.”
My skepticism has had the biggest impact probably on our two singers, Bill Walden and Sim Wilson. Bill is a pastor in Napa, CA and Sim is a pastor’s son and is very active in his church in Cleveland, TN so I suppose that stands to reason. It has not negatively impacted anything in practice, as far as I can tell, but I think it does cause Sim some grief at least. To the others it has simply not been much of an issue at all. Neither has it been an issue in my adopted band, Dead Artist Syndrome. We like to tease Brian Healy, up till now quite a controversial figure, that he is now the biggest bible thumper in DAS.
What kind of “reception” have you received from other “Christian” musicians with whom you may have toured, played with, etc. Have you lost any “friends”?
True friends are true friends so anyone I’ve lost I have to think was lost before they were lost. I’ll say this, and I hope it doesn’t get me in too much trouble. There are a good many artists at various stages of doubt in their lives. Some are open about it, some are not. Some cannot be open because their livelihoods are connected to their religion. That’s an awful place to be, but I guess it’s inevitable and is probably the same for pastors. Where does a pastor with a family go once he or she has lost belief? For some artists it’s simply a private matter and they don’t feel compelled to talk about it openly.
I have had all kinds of comments, from the very nasty (although those are mostly from disgruntled fans) to threats to follow me around virtually and oppose things I say (this from a member of another band who I did not know well, but who had looked up to us), but most frequently, they express a sense of sadness and disappointment. I find that a very strange response indeed and it’s hard for me not to interpret it as a projection of a response to their own doubt onto me that somehow threatens their own faith. I have a blog post about that brewing. Some have encouraged me, and that mostly from other artists who also doubt at one level or another. But really, isn’t every bit of growth we experience as human beings a result of doubt and skepticism? We leave things behind because we find they don’t fit anymore, and often it’s painful. Why should doctrinal tenets or objective claims made by religions be any different?
I have been having some really great dialog with Michael Pritzl of The Violet Burning, a lifelong and very dear friend who has been completely accepting and respectfully curious. We learn from each other and he has had his own journey from Catholicism to Evangelicalism and then to Anglicanism (I hope I am representing him correctly).
It’s difficult to generalize. I know lots of people and have many friends. I’m very lucky that way. Some simply don’t talk about it, I’m sure some are worried for the fate of my eternal soul (I’ve been told that too), some encourage me, some are Universalist so it doesn’t matter what anyone believes or doesn’t believe, some are too busy working out their own thing to worry about mine. I’ve heard it all. The bottom line though is that for the most part, my dearest and closest friends are not going to throw our friendship away over something like doubt.
You mentioned Calvary Chapel in the mid-seventies. A lot a folks were connected in some way with Calvary Chapel in those days. It would be interesting to see how many are still spiritually, theologically, and philosophically in “the same place” as they were back then.
I think a good number of them are. There is an annual Calvary Chapel picnic that I have not yet attended, but hope to this summer. I saw the photos online from last year and all the familiar faces were there. I’ve had debates and disagreements with a few of them, and it has gotten ugly at times. No matter how controlled and reasonable I try to be, no matter how hard I try to keep it from not being a personal thing (rejection of religious claims is not the same as rejection of the person), it is still difficult for people to have ideas challenged, and fundamentalists are sort of at the front of that line. They tend to get their feathers ruffled easier and faster than most.
On the other hand, I just received an email from a man who was a worship leader at a Calvary Chapel for a long time, who is now coming out as a skeptic also. It’s probably a lot like the rest of life – some stay, some don’t. Some move on from what I would consider a very simplistic view of the world and life to a more mature view, but some dismiss the faith altogether.
I love your list of musical influences growing up. Did you feel the need at any point after you got into the evangelical movement to “give up” your records on love for all those “satanic” bands? In the 70s and 80s there was a big emphasis on giving up the “secular” music if you really want to be a good Christian. Surely you felt some pressure even if you didn’t go along …. (comment: I tried and tried hard, but no matter what anybody told me Petra’s first few albums just did not even come close to filling my need for Zeppelin II or Sabbath’s Paranoid. )
I probably went through about a three-month period early in my born again experience where I thought secular music was demonic. I was raised Catholic remember, so lots of the protestant, evangelical and fundamentalist mindset was very foreign to me. I reasoned my way out of that pretty quickly and never looked back. So much of it is just off-the-scale silly. That mindset is still out there too! Anyway, like you, I listened to my Zeppelin and Sabbath with abandon, and later as music changed in the late 1970s, to all those new punk and new wave artists. It was a great time musically, especially where we lived, in Fullerton, where a good number of bands came from. As an aside, maybe there are those who would say, “See? If you had not listened to secular music, you would probably still be a believer!”
Were you (or are you) ever embarrassed by the 70s and 80s evangelical stage of your journey? Do your students research Undercover and ask you about “Talk to God” or “Jesus Girl” or “Slaughter of the Innocents”?
At one level, I can look back on all that and simply chalk it up to youth. That’s where things were back then, and it would be a mistake to look at those songs outside the context of where the church was culturally and what they were able to accept and stomach at that time. The lyrics had to be overt and the simpler, the better. By the time Branded came around, I didn’t care about that anymore. I needed to make the statement that album made. Today, everything in Christian music has pretty much been worked out. Christian bands can have careers outside of the Christian music industry, can have infidels as co-members, and can sing about whatever they want. In 1980 it wasn’t that way.
I do not mean to rationalize or explain away those early days though. Those songs and lyrics did represent where we were at that time, and what Christian life for young people was like in Orange County, CA and it does look awfully immature and shallow. In some ways that was really good for young people who attended church. They were able to break free of artificial cultural fetters within a lyrical framework of pretty conservative cheerleading that made things more acceptable for church leaders. That was a consequence, but the bottom line is that we did write those lyrics.
My students do look me up. It’s impossible to hide. The song they most often want to hear is God Rules and I rarely indulge them, but then I don’t need to really. It’s all out there. They got a particular kick out of the version of God Rules set to Family Guy footage. I still don’t know where that came from, but it’s out there.
Occasionally you still get together with the other guys to play an Undercover show … how do you feel about singing those songs today? Are their any from your Undercover catalog you simply will not do? Why or why not?
I really think those days are winding down. I wrote an essay on my blog that had this little bit in it:
“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 (all without having made any attempt to talk to me directly), 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.”
So it’s not the songs themselves, it’s the politics and sociology around it. Yes, there are early lyrics I wrote and that we wrote and performed for years that I cringe to think about. Slaughter of the Innocents should be fully retracted and erased from the face of the earth. In Classical music, the composer can recall a piece and that’s the end of it; it’s gone from the repertoire. Not so in popular music. We still get asked to play those songs and sometimes people ask where they can buy those early records. I take it on a case-by-case basis. There are some songs I simply will not play anymore because I think the lyrics are harmful, discriminatory or just plain silly. There are others I won’t play because they are not musically consistent with anything we’ve done lately, and there are some we won’t play because they have little value beyond nostalgia and I’m not really into that.
On the other hand, there are some songs I enjoy playing because I like the music even though lyrically it may not be consistent with what I believe. They are not harmful and the songs are often meaningful to people. There are some songs we play that we play because we love the music and the lyrics. Build a Castle and So Wonderful would be good examples of that last kind, and there are others. Some songs, like Way of the Rose are renderings of biblical events with no underlying message or doctrinal proposition. I’m ok with those too. There are also times where another band member might feel strongly about playing or not playing a song. It’s not all about me, and I am happy to support them too. It’s a case-by-case thing. I think we’re all on the same page roughly though. There are some songs we simply will not play. The older the song, the more likely it is we’ve left it behind, although that is not always true.
Who are some of your favorite musicians / bands you are listening to these days?
I don’t listen to music the same way I did when I was younger. I think that’s a function of having spent the biggest part of my working life in a band and owning a record label, then getting a graduate degree in music where I analyzed and listened to so much music over five years that I really needed to detox. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older too. Since I teach in the music school here at JMU, I am surrounded by music all the time, in my classes and on the periphery. Silence is the most beautiful sound to me of late. Because of the shifts in the way music is delivered, I have not actually bought music in years. I do not pirate it, but it’s readily available legally and legitimately for free by streaming from one place or another (emphasis is on “legally and legitimately”).
In my Songwriting classes, I ask the students to submit a list of 3-5 songs they would like to study over the course of the semester. That helps me keep a finger on the pulse of what they might be listening to, and it’s always a good mix of new and old music. We listen a lot in that class alone. I also hear their songs which vary in terms of quality. At the end of the day, there’s just not much space left for me to want to listen to more music, and if there is, it’s usually to listen to stuff I happen to be working on myself.
I do go through phases though where I do listen, and I go through stages where I am more fixed on one artist or style over another. There are some artists I used to love that I simply have lost all interest in since. They were more important perhaps as rites of passage for me than anything else. Sometimes it will be nothing but Classical music, and even within that there are certain composers I will focus on for a while or certain periods, or maybe even certain pieces. Sometimes I just go through a Radiohead or Sigur Ros thing. Sometimes I go exploring for new art music, which is one of the great things about streaming. I like My Brightest Diamond a lot, and the various artists Shara Worden works with in different capacities. I keep my eye on NPR because they offer first listens of new albums by great artists like Paul Simon and Robbie Robertson. I would probably not have otherwise heard their albums.
I also am connected to a network of composers whose music I listen to. This is stuff the general public will never hear, but lots of it is really good (and lots of it isn’t). So I hear a lot of stuff, a lot of great stuff, but I really don’t “listen” like I used to listen. I don’t have a television and never listen to the radio either so I’m not always right on top of the latest and greatest sensations. I have a lot of respect for artists who are focused, work hard, are persistent and have become really good at what they do. That almost always shows up somehow and I find that moving in itself.
1 – I am indebted to Daniel Batt for our exchanges, including an article he sent me by Thomas Talbott from where the quote comes, and for our diaog, which led to my tempering the Stephen Roberts quote.
2 – Here is a sweet and beautiful version of Build A Castle performed live by Michael Pritzl.
3 – DAS is supposedly releasing an album hopefully in this lifetime. We’ve been working on it for almost three years now, with Ric Alba, Gym Nicholson, John Piccari, Michele Bunch Palmer and of course Brian Healy.
4 – Bert is working on an interview with Ric Alba which will also appear in a number of rags, presumably Huff Po too. Ric is a brilliant and thoughtful guy so I’m sure it will be a must-read. I’ll link to it when it shows up.
5 – Photo at the top by Susan Ann Luce. Photo of Undercover by Rich Brimer.