When the word theology is mentioned people either have no idea what you are talking about or they think you’re talking about something religious. This week I listened to the new album by A Perfect Circle and their songs TalkTalk and The Doomed spoke to me. Theologically! This band illustrates some aspects of what I mean by public theology.
Among many characteristics it is supposed to exhibit, theology is supposed to be public. It must have a public nature or else it fails to fulfill its purpose namely to address people in their existence, where they are at, in a way that communicates to them and in a way that is relevant to them. While public theology is a special branch of theology, theology, in general, must have a public function in order to avoid slipping into irrelevance.
Some people actually like the irrelevance of the self-chosen marginality of a subculture with its own jargon that caters to the religious feelings of its members. The religious discourse produced by such communities, however, does very little to change the world, resist evil, spread love, or walk the talk. Again, for some—perhaps for many—this is not a problem. However, for those who take the Christian tradition and what it stands for seriously, and who are intent to heed the words of Christ, such discourse should be a problem.
The Christian life is about a true transformation that not only sets believers at odds with the evils of society but also sets them at odds with themselves, with their own tendencies, their own vices. Ultimately they are the them who stand to be corrected. So for those who like the irrelevance and the jargon and the lack of transformation, but at the same time want to be called Christian, there is always a moral chasm. One needs to find ways to ignore this chasm. The most well-known of these ways is called hypocrisy. It requires great effort to hide one’s moral failure and to pretend the chasm isn’t there. Yet, many prefer the great effort of hypocrisy over the demands of the gospel for transformation.
A Perfect Circle
Enter A Perfect Circle, an American rock supergroup formed in 1999. After their 2004 album, Emotive, the group was dormant for 14 years. Now they have emerged with a new album Eat the Elephant which offers an eclectic sound that is at the same time melodious and progressive. Influence of wave and metal are clearly present plus plenty of other influences that I’m probably not aware of. Delicate piano playing and solid metal guitar vie for the listener’s attention as they combine to create a temporary musical space where the mind is invited to dwell.
But there’s more. Especially their lyrics really got me interested. Their song TalkTalk addresses the very issue of walking the talk, of hypocrisy, while their song Doomed addresses the systems of power and greed that lead to the destruction of the poor and the humble.
“You’re waiting / On miracles / We’re bleeding out.” These are the words TalkTalk opens with. It is as if the destitute of the earth address those religious people who, caught up in their religiosity, have no eye for the suffering that is going on around them. The criticism extends to the many who employ politically correct language in times of crisis but stay aloof: “Thoughts / And prayers / Adorable…crisis / Like cake in a crisis / We’re bleeding out / While you deliberate / Bodies accumulate.”
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The Relevance of Religious Language
“Sit and talk like jesus / Try walking like jesus / Sit and talk like jesus / Talk like jesus / Talk, talk, talk, talk / Get the fuck out of my way.” The dialectic of sitting and talking like Jesus versus walking like Jesus can easily be applied to both religious hypocrites and a complacent political establishment. Both talk about solutions without offering them: “Don’t be the problem, be the solution / Problem, problem, problem, problem.”
Faith and ethical engagement blend into one with the words: “Faith without works is / Talk without works is / Faith without works is / Dead, dead, dead, dead.” If your faith does not lead to action it means nothing. If your political program is not backed up by honest and self-giving self-involvement, it is worthless. Hypocrisy!
There is no better way to show the relevance of religious language that by applying it to real lived contexts. A theologian might want to object that faith and ethical self-involvement are not the same, and this could be a useful distinction in a more technical discourse.
In the practical environment of the public sphere, however, faith and ethics ought to be the same. Faith ought to visibly lead to the selfless love of Christ. If they are not, they expose the hypocrisy that covers up the mere religiosity of faith in those who don’t walk the talk. It is sobering to realize that the Church more often than not has betrayed by the very people who profess Christ as Lord.
A Perfect Circle is a prophet who exposes such hypocrisy, yet without becoming anti-Christian warmongers. They point to what Jesus was indeed about. “Try walking like jesus / Try braving the rain / Try lifting the stone / Try extending a hand / Try walking your talk or get the fuck out of my way.”
Blessed are the Rich
Things turn decidedly darker in the song The Doomed. The gospel is inverted with a “New Christ” whose “word is death” and “without light.” This Christ comes with his own beatitudes: “Good luck, you’re on your own.” We are not told who this Antichrist is, but it is not hard to see in these words the specter of rampant hyper-capitalism and the greed, gluttony, vanity, and exploitation that comes in its wake:
Blessed are the fornicates
May we bend down to be their whores
Blessed are the rich
May we labor, deliver them more
Blessed are the envious
Bless the slothful, the wrathful, the vain
Blessed are the gluttonous
May they feast us to famine and war
The song finishes with the lament:
What of the pious, the pure of heart, the peaceful?
What of the meek, the mourning, and the merciful?
The Relevance of Religious Discourse
This is what I consider to be relevant religious discourse. Of course, it is easy for a band of this stature to reach a wide audience. Music is a powerful medium and the band members are great musicians. A theologian will never reach such a large group of people as does this band. Yet, a theologian should always strive to construct and communicate theology that is stripped of hypocrisy and vain religiosity. She should be focusing on producing work that instead is relevant, publicly meaningful, contextual in addressing the real issues that are going on, ethical in response to the transformation wrought by Christ, as well as self-involved.
A Perfect Circle gives evidence of understanding the ethical implications of the message of Christ. They call out the hypocrisy that is going on in religion and politics. They actually address people where they are at. They creatively rework Christian themes and apply them to issues that matter. And they may not even identify as Christian! Yet they get it!
When theologians (and all Christians for that matter) manage to do that, there is a chance that religious discourse will once again be heard. There is still a future for theology, I think, but we better take bands like A Perfect Circle as our example.