I’m giving you a special insight into the mind of a talking tiger. That does not mean that this is the only way to find out about the nature of our fearsome and reclusive species. Observe the common housecat. You are on the Internet, so you are no doubt intimately familiar with felis catus, the common domestic cat. Truly, if you desire to discover the tiger way, the housecat is your field of study. For once, idly watching videos on the Web can be a genuinely educational experience. Tigers and housecats have a whole host of commonalities, from basic anatomy and genetics to irritability. Some would say, “Well, tigers are filthy and despicable man-killers while my cute cat Honorius wouldn’t hurt a fly.” Total nonsense. As a matter of fact, housecats probably have more of a taste for human flesh than I do. The only difference is that tigers can eat humans if we want. It’s a nice, if unpleasant, fallback to use instead of succumbing to starvation. Look, the point is this: nine and a half times out of ten, the demeanor and behavior of Li’l Snuffy is going to match up to that of a Bengal tiger. It’s only where our size and lack of social graces come in that we have much to dispute, and we can chalk most of that up to breeding and lack of education.
Sitting in my townhouse, I was pouring myself a hot Bengali drink–it was carbonated, which I found plain odd–and I came upon a perfect example. If you’re the religious type, watch your cat on holy days and worship days. Observe it all day and make careful notes and come back to me. Do this for at least a month of worship days and then send the results to the only townhouse in tiger heaven. Let me ask you something, since I believe this will be obvious: did your cat or cats show any interest in attending religious ceremonies? Did Tipsy raise her irate little paw and decry you as a heathen for using a pair of scissors on the Sabbath? Has your pious tabby lodged a complaint to your local religious leader because you broke a fast by eating instant ramen before the sun set, and you justified it by saying you were on vacation and home was a time zone ahead so it was technically still keeping fast? Does your cat go around door to door draped in holy vestments and proclaiming the sacred Word? No, the answer is no.
Not your cat.
Because I was a tiger, raised as a tiger in the wild before I learned how to speak and became literate, I too was raised as what one might call a natural tigerist. So forgive me if I am somewhat unqualified to offer my feline opinion on the Newsboys. The Newsboys is a group of fresh-faced Australian pop musicians who make what is called Contemporary Christian Music or CCM. In the wider music world, CCM has probably the worst reputation of any genre this side of American brostep or nu-metal.
When I invited a group of tiger acquaintances to my townhouse here in tiger heaven, I played them some records from the pile that could be connected to this genre¹. The reaction was muted. Most of the tiger simply shrugged and went back to sleeping or munching on flavored salmon eggs that I keep in a bowl. It’s difficult to say if they were bored, but they were certainly indifferent. Now, my human medium grew up thinking the Newsboys were pretty cool. They could put on a decent show and made infectious pop tunes that weren’t too offensive to the intellect and had a bit of class. It has been quite some time since either I or my human medium has had much chance to listen to them, though. Because my book is still young and vital, I wanted to make the first two reviews set the tone for most of the later entries. Most of what I’ll be reviewing will be fairly obscure and in genres that do not have enough of a following for tracks to get millions of views on Youtube.
The song in question today is “God’s Not Dead.” Normally, there would be no need to separate a song from its music video because good songs usually have good videos. That written, this is an average song with a video that might redefine my entire categorical understanding of terrible music videos. To be brief, it is a video so despicable it almost registers between my pointed ears as a satire of this sort of music. Some secular humanist with an acrid wit and a fondness for CNN produced it, or so this tiger is convinced.
First, the song. I have considerably less to say concerning it than the video. Newsboys has always occupied a neutral zone between rock and pop music, a place where both traditions surrender their sundry mutual grievances and play kickball together. This is an absurd way to state that Newsboys is bouncy but toothless, conventional but competent, Christian but not so much so as to not appeal to the generic market for inspirational music. Listen to “God’s Not Dead” while brushing your cat or cleaning her bowl and you might wonder how this isn’t a Coldplay song. The current incarnation of Newsboys share with those unfashionably popular Brits a certain expressive, pseudo-sacramental style of rock music that both happened to pillage from Bono’s closet on the same night in the mid-1990s. Vocalist Michael Tait also sings Coldplay-esque jumbled metaphors, squishy soaring choruses, and banalities that Chris Martin has turned into his bread and butter².
The song is about exactly what I thought it would be about, and communicates it predictably. True to the chorus, the band asserts that their “God’s not dead, he is surely alive/He’s living on the inside/Roaring like a lion.” This is problematic in a few ways, but there is nothing egregious about it. The cadences and melody sound mellow over the gently chiming guitars and marginally rocking rhythm section. It offers reassurance to believers in God and tries to mount a revolution. As a call to generic revival, it does a serviceable job. Newsboys has written better, and the CCM world is full of songs like this that are leagues more offensively brainless. For a tiger, it’s far from wild enough to be charming, fascinating, or conducive to tiger-jamming on the dance floor. Nor does it have any pretensions of being anything other than emotional fodder for Christian youth rallies or pleasant road-trip material for the contentedly square among us. If that assessment reads as condescending, then that is because I am a tiger, and come by my imperious arrogance by birthright³.
We reach a transitional point in this review. So far, the song looks competent but only barely interesting enough to merit comment. Without the charming and affecting illustration of your cat wandering around in priestly garb, this might as well be a wasted post. Mistake me not: this review is about to metastasize. Not only do I have nothing positive to write about the music video for “God’s Not Dead,” but it calls into question every solitary ounce of respect I have ever had for Newsboys. Because I am a pacific and meditative cat, I will use my claws to dissect this video in as much detail as possible to expose the rest of the world the viscera, the mortified innards of this soulless production.
The video begins with a few shots of New York City. You see the Empire State Building, and then cut to the streets of what looks like Manhattan judging by the sheer volume of shiny glass and the Mamma Mia! billboard ad smiling from the background of one shot. An unseen female news announcer then intones with deadened professionalism that “Scientists have announced that, based on their research, they have concluded that God is a myth.” As she speak this last phrase, the lower body of a hip teenager walks by, and in his hands is a newspaper (First blatantly nonsensical shot.) whose headline blares GOD IS A MYTH.
Our editor, evidently enraged by the very thought of a young person reading such a headline, cuts to a black background onto which slams the title of the song in enormous bold red letters. This is the first time watching the video that I purred with humorous delight. This is because these bold red letters are nearly identical to the bold red letters Kanye West has been using to market preview tracks for his vanity label collaboration album Cruel Summer. This is no idle jest. Please deign to compare the two below. The shadowing is even suspiciously similar.
Who knew that hip-hop’s reigning emperor of artistic glitz and a CCM group could have such similar tastes? However, I might be making too much of this; the lyrics haven’t even kicked in yet.
After the letters fade away we cut to the interior of a coffee shop frequented by numerous youth all reading–and I smile again–newspapers. Luckily, however, the GOD IS A MYTH crowd is being watched over by the man in the foreground. Who could he be other than our leading man Michael Tait. As the electric guitars rev up in the background, he gives them a look not of disapproval but of total confusion. he holds this quizzical countenance for several seconds until we cut to Newsboys’ drummer Duncan Phillips banging on a kit. Locations are difficult to discern in the video, but it seems as though Tait and the rest of the band are playing a gig at the café. This is only my humble tigerly assumption, though. For all I know they could be playing in a totally separate time-space pocket where only the laws of music video editing and gravity apply.
More location shots of Manhattan’s skyline and hurried pedestrians whiz by interspersed with footage of the band playing and Duncan Phillips making goofy faces while playing the drums. Now comes the meat of the video, which purports to give us a taste of cosmic information and psychological warfare. Arrayed on the battlefield are, on one side, the dark forces of rationalism, the secular media, and questions. On the other side is the stalwart Newsboys and their army of sympathetic bloggers and Twitter members spreading the good news by hook and by crook to disperse the cloud of confusion.
I have a feeling this will not go well.
Firing the opening salvo in this war of words is the army of doubt. We get our noses rubbed in some more atheist newsprint before cutting to a billboard that states, in the same Kanye bold print, that there is “NO EVIDENCE THAT GOD EXISTS.” Let us interpret that for a moment. Since I live in a literal subjective afterlife, I can hardly agree with the statement that there is no evidence for God or the supernatural. For you humans however, it has to be conceded that there is no empirical evidence for the existence of anything that operates contrary to the laws of nature. Science cannot and never will find God. Despite what some on both sides of this debate claim, science is simply not equipped to find the divine, nor to conclusively disprove it. I would say that not accepting God because of a lack of empirical evidence is, sadly to me, completely reasonable. I believe in God, as does my human interpreter, but not based on any facts or objective knowledge. Faith is a cliff dive into fog, a valiant but frustrating embrace of the absurd and uncertain. There are certainly aspects of life on Earth, especially subjective experience, that defy rational explanations, but this particular thread will be resolved in the video in the most superficial and, to be honest, insulting way possible. Keep that billboard in mind as we proceed.
Burn it into your brain.
Shift now to a series of people with downcast faces staring at blank screens. For our benefit, the editor has plastered the screens with mocked up images of news websites declaring things like “God is Dead,” “Man is just another animal,” “Everything came from nothing,” and “How Can A Good God Allow Evil?” The last message is particularly disturbing to the man viewing it, who is so shocked by the question of theodicy existing that he whips off the sunglasses he was wearing indoors.
Before covering the inevitable counterattack, let’s go through these one by one. First for scrutiny is “God is Dead.” In the video, this is juxtaposed with an old print of Jesus carrying the cross on the way to his crucifixion. I am not sure if the creator of the video was referring to the twentieth century “death of God” debate or just to Jews and others who deny that Jesus was resurrected. The “death of God” debate took place from the 1960s and later and from my knowledge of human history seemed mainly to centre around whether the secularizing West was losing a sense of the sacred and transcendent in life. Many theologians abandoned a transcendent God and, like J.J. Alitzer, redefined theology as theopoetics, and redefined religion as an encounter with an immanent God in a community of believers. These ideas of God owed more to Hegel than Augustine.
Why do I write this down? Of what value is this exposition of somewhat obscure theological and philosophical debate? Well, it’s mostly to show that this video has no business throwing around terminology like “death of God” because it’s a music video for a danceable pop song, not a doctoral thesis or even a serious blog post. It’s fluff. Spiritual fluff, but fluff nonetheless, and while the song itself plays in generalities and goes for the heart, the video throws caution to the wind and turns the song into a cure-all for doubters of all stripes. Clearly, someone was not taking this seriously enough. More likely, they just used the phrase to refer to those who deny the resurrection of Jesus, which is a more simple but still fairly touchy subject outside of a Christian market.
Next we have “Man is just another animal.” Well, from a taxonomical standpoint, that statement is totally sound. We are able to move, we reproduce sexually, we are consumers who metabolize nutrition that we have to find and imbibe. Nothing would prevent a Christian, at least a reasonable one, from assenting to the fact that we are animals. The real rub comes in at the word just. From a traditional Christian perspective, we are not just animals but are animals with a special access to the divine. We are self-aware and God-aware, the crown of creation and the stewards of the Earth. There is a special role and responsibility for humans beyond our role as consuming animals. Secular humanists would certainly agree on many of those points, though from a non-theist perspective. The video’s answer to this statement is also forthcoming, and is much the same response it gives to the first question.
Third is the quotation that made me gag on my dining room table, which I was chopping up and eating out of sheer boredom. It gave me splinters I was laughing so hard. “Everything came from nothing.” Read Genesis, video director. You know what ex nihilo means? God created everything from nothing in the most dominant interpretation of that account! A non-theistic idea of the creation of the universe depends on there being, in some sense, something from which the universe emerged, even if that something was unclassifiable as energy or matter as we now know it. I am not sure what the video is even getting at here. I suppose it’s questioning the idea that whatever was in existence before the Big Bang did not come from anywhere and was not guided by anyone. It just was. The way it’s worded, however, it comes off as the worst thing a CCM song can be: Scripturally ignorant or at the very least gravely confused.
How can you call yourself a Christian without knowing Genesis?
The last question is possibly in the top three most debated questions in the history of thought. Everyone questions why people suffer at some point. Faithful people in the Bible were fraught over this idea. Several books of the Bible are defined by angst over this, including Psalms and Job. One problem I have with inspirational music of all persuasions is that it often papers over the big questions–hell, any questions at all–and presents whatever it has to sell as certain and individually comforting. Christians can have a kind of claim to certainty, sort of, but the religion of Jesus is neither comforting or soft. To live in faith is to live in doubt. What infuriates me is that the target audience of this video is Christians who are living in uncertainty, who have perhaps asked these questions to God or to others. People with real doubts are not swayed by inspirational songs. This video is more a soft pillow for those who are already certain, or who play with doubt but don’t really feel it. That means that this video is totally without purpose except as a sleepytime tonic for people who have never even met an atheist much less sit perched on the edge of becoming one because of the news media.
Finally, we are ready to move on. After the montage of doubters has gone by we get yet more shots of the band and New York until we get to the response. And this is where I stopped laughing at the video and became totally enraged. I admit the rage was fleeting and shallow but it was not the response the video was calibrated to elicit. If “God’s Not Dead” the video left the questions hanging, and called the people to trust in God and persevere in their calling despite their stumbling blocks, I would give it a pass. I would congratulate it for its willingness to grapple with issues and acknowledge their significance. I might purr on it a few times (Strictly exhalation. Only small cats can purr while inhaling.) but we save that for special occasions. The video instead attempts to give pat, clear answers to these questions. Now, let us record their responses and see how much pandering the director and his crew managed to wedge into this abomination.
Initially, the counterattack is vague, taking the form of a blogger writing a post entitled “WE ARE MADE IN THE IMAGE OF GOD.” Fine sentiment, I’m sure. Then the man who read “Everything came from nothing” replies with a tweet of his own. Cleverly, he writes, “everything came from SOMETHING!” (sic), leading us all to imagine the kindergarten-level back-and-forth “Yes he did, no he didn’t” tone of the ensuing online debate. So far, the Christian reply has been weak, even when bolstered by the Newsboys’ watered-down rock and roll. Let’s move on and see what else is happening on the front lines.
In response to the theodicy question we get sunglasses man, confusingly, reading an article on the same news site that reads, “God Gave Us Freedom To Choose, Man Chose To Do Evil.” A Calvinist would complicate that by saying that God planned the Fall and uses suffering as a part of his whole plan for the universe, that God’s reasons for doing so are a mystery, and that our only proper response as humans is to cope with and assuage God’s suffering while accepting his grace. Social and cognitive science, meanwhile, cast significant doubt on any claim that humans have free will that is not determined by genetics, social circumstances, and a million other forces that act on us every day. Also, how does the position that suffering was caused by our free choice to sin square with the fact that humans were suffering and dying for hundreds of thousands of years before civilization sprang up? But such nuances are difficult to shoehorn into a headline, begging the question once again: why did they do this?
At last, Michael Tait engages the enemy in battle, striding over to an unsuspecting youth and throwing down a newspaper that is identical to the one’s we’ve been seeing but has the song’s title printed as a headline instead. Aside from the logistical and logical problems with this, which are not actually problems because it’s meant to be more poetic and generalized than plot-driven or logical, what does this solve? So far, the video is putting forth the notion that the best response to doubt is to simply proclaim the opposite of doubt as loudly as possible. That changes nothing and solves nothing. It’s less a clever riposte and more a loudmouthed denial that the question matters or that it might be hard to solve.
I was telling you to keep the billboard in mind. Right now, you can recall it and the “man is just an animal” quotation, because it’s time for the answer. Unfortunately for the quality of the debate it’s another bromide. Some seconds after the newspaper gauntlet throwing, we cut to a group of people watching television somewhere. Another newscast, of course, this time one that is reporting “Complexity Of Life Points to Design.” Although not the absolute worst bit of creationist nonsense it could have (mainly because there is so much to choose from) this is still noxious. Complexity is easily understood without the need for an instantaneous creation of all species simultaneously. Darwinian evolution accounts for the complexity, similarity, and diversity of life far better than intelligent design. Further, this says nothing about whether humans are just animals or not, or whether God is personal or triune or whether God even cares about us. A designer merely implies Deism or even some kind of extraterrestrial intervention. It takes a leap to get from that to Christianity. We still have nearly two minutes left, friends. Tigers, for all their faults, are patient and thorough.
What’s this? I see that the rest of the video is totally non-objectionable. That is correct. The great cosmic war of ideas has resolved itself, leaving nearly two minutes of filler content featuring a Christian rock concert and more shots of Manhattan. I suppose that means there is no more prey to digest. What have we learned from this? Mostly that music video producers, and people in general, should stop assuming that we can throw out cliches and half-truths and expect to stand up to any level of scrutiny. No one has all the answers, no not one. As a tiger, I’m the first to admit to loving my own self-aggrandizement and hubris. It is one thing to have faith; quite another to think that because you have faith it gets you off the hook for thinking.
1. This included dcTalk, Audio Adrenaline, Avalon, Amy Grant, and even a few early Newsboys records.
2. Though I did not meant that literally, I want to clear up the confusion. We all know that bread and butter is far too bold and spicy for any Coldplay member. They normally subsist on frozen dough and celery gruel with all the salt extracted from it.
3. Tigers receive a special commendation through their mother’s bloodline that allows them to claim superiority over all other beings. One of the many advantages of being a tiger.