Steve Taylor Helped Me Grow Up (and he used humor to do it)

Today the legendary Steve Taylor released his long-gestating new album Goliath with his something of a supergroup backing band The Perfect Foil (Peter Furler, Jimmy Abegg, and John Mark Painter) [you can purchase it here on itunes and Amazon]. Thus, it's obviously time to do some reflecting on Taylor's past work.

As a kid Rich Mullins taught me how to lose myself in the wonder of God but Steve Taylor forced me to grow into a mature Christian. And the funny thing is he usually did so by making me laugh.

Growing up as an idealistic little boy immersed in church culture I thought Christianity was all about the spiritual stuff, about having a relationship with God, and being a good person. What I did not realize was the spiritual side of life is inextricably connected to the ethical side of life; to politics and economics and societal systems.

So, in a strange way—and I am only just now realizing it—Steve Taylor helped me connect the spiritual and moral aspects of my faith to the ethical and political. It may seem like an obvious connection to make, but believe me, it didn't come natural to the church community in which I was raised. By using humor and satire Taylor helped me to see that my faith which is universal to all believers (that of believing in the Lordship and saving work of Jesus Christ) existed in a specific culture (both Midwestern America and the conservative American Evangelical church) and that that culture was not always a positive force for good, a subject he lambasts in the bitingly satirical "I Want to Be a Clone".

At the same time that he acted as a corrective for the specific brand of Christianity I found myself in he also helped me differentiate from "the world", as Christians often like to put it. To Taylor "the world" was not something to be afraid of but he did show us its ideology was just as harmful. It would seem Taylor saw the follower of Christ as continually having to navigate between competing and conflicting voices, that of a corrupt and small-minded church culture and a narcissistic and consumeristic general culture (Or should it be "the narcissistic and consumeristic church culture and the corrupt and small-minded general culture"? Take your pick, really). And the protagonist or "voice" of nearly every one of his songs seems to live in the midst of that tension.

Take this as an example, from "Guilty By Association" off of 1984's Meltdown:
So you need a new car?
Let your fingers take a walk
Through the business guide
For the "born again" flock

You'll be keeping all your money
In the kingdom now
And you'll only drink milk
From a Christian cow

Don't you go casting your bread
To keep the heathen well-fed
Line Christian pockets instead
Avoid temptation...Guilty by association!

I always thought the line "you'll only drink milk from a Christian cow" was hilarious but I didn't understand why. It took me years to make connections to the political and economical and even ecclesiastical implications in such a line. Growing up I went to a church that had an endless supply of "The Shepherd's Guide" in the foyer. These were "Yellow Pages" type books that had listings of all the area businesses that were owned by Christians and supposedly operated with Christian principles. This in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but "Guilty By Association" seeks to points to something devious, which is that often we use the name of Christ or a concept like "family values" as a marketing term to make money for ourselves. Or even worse that sheisters like tele-evangelists have pulled the wool over the sheep's eyes to literally fleece them out of their money in order to make money for their "Kingdom":

It's a Telethon Tuesday
For "The Gospel Club"
"Send your money in now
Or they're gonna pull the plug!"...

...You could be smelling a crook

You should be checking The Book
But you'd rather listen than look
The implication...Guilty by association

The "implication" at the end of the song turns the meaning of the tagline "guilty by association" on its head. At first Taylor pokes fun of the general Christian fear of being associated with "heathens" or of listening to rock music, but in the last verse he warns us if we're not careful we might end up being associated with church leaders who have manipulated God's people for their own gains. He's satirizing Christian culture in a humorous way while also making incredibly incisive points about it. On the surface he acts the part of the clown while really he has stepped into the role of the prophet. 

Another deeply and scathingly political song in his inappropriately controversial "I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good" from I Predict 1990:

I grew up being taught about the evils of abortion but I never thought that those against abortion could be guilty of the same evils themselves. I grew up thinking abortion was merely a moral issue, but this song situates the "abortion debate" within the political sphere. Abortion, though still a great blight on our society, had now become a more complex issue.

But like I said above, he wasn't only critical towards the Church, he also had a few fingers pointing at the great wide world out there, as in the songs "Whatcha Gonna Do When Your Number's Up?" from I Want to be a Clone ("You say humanist philosophy is what it's all about/You're so open-minded that your brain leaked out") and "Since I Gave Up Hope I Feel a Lot Better" from I Predict 1990: 

"While the world winds down to a final prayer
Nothing soothes quicker than complete despair
I predict by dinner I won't even care
Since I gave up hope I feel a lot better"

And so as much as he liked to be critical of the Christian subculture he also liked to poke holes in the narcissistic nihilism of our times. If there was one thing it seemed Steve Taylor couldn't stomach it was people who tried to pretend there was no morality or truth or Maker of our world.

Steve Taylor seemed to treat the "secular" and "Christian" worlds like a football game where they were always trying to "win" against each other but he came in streaking across the field trying to steal their ball and interrupt play.

Never was this skill on display more than in his masterwork, 1993's Squint, his last solo work until his current album Goliath (2014). From skewering the self-help industry in "The Lament of Desmond R.G. Underwood-Frederick IV", to deconstructing our societies vain, status seeking consumerism in "Smug" and "Cash Cow", to vacuousness of Christian radio in "Easy Listening", to the plight of the "Christian" artist seeking to simply "be understood" in "Sock Heaven". These songs contained profuse amounts of uncomfortable humor. I was laughing the whole time, while also being worried that he might be singing about me, that his fingers were pointed in my direction. Taylor's humor always came with conviction, and the onus was always on us as listeners to actually heed the rebuke and live differently.

Taylor's ethic was simple: you can't be a religious God-seeking person and be self-righteous and self-centered too. To follow God means you have to give yourself and your desires over to God. And to love and believe in God means to live out that love and belief. Good intentions were not enough.

Oddly enough, Taylor was probably at his most powerful when he just wrote a straightforward convicting song, as on "The Finished Line", a long time fan favorite.

Though still containing his incisive wordplay, the song is a gut-wrenching depiction of the Christian journey, from a powerful conversion, to self-righteous pride, to an indulgent falling away from the faith, to hitting rock bottom, to desperately seeking God again for the right reasons, finally falling into his arms at the end of the race. 

So needless to say I'm really looking forward to Steve Taylor's new record. I hoping it will make me laugh and be filled with some great tunes, but as he's done in the past, I'm still hoping he will again challenge me to become a little bit more of a grownup than I already am.

You can purchase Steve Taylor & the Perfect Foil's Goliath on November 18th on 
itunes and Amazon.

Related articles:
PostHumous Record Review: This Train's Mimes of the Old West and The Emperor's New Band 
Record Review: Peter Furler's Sun and Shield
Wake Up!—Uncovering Arcade Fire's Grand Narrative
Yes, there is such a thing as "Christian" music—a response to Derek Webb
I've Been Thinking of Getting Into Politics: N.T. Wright's understanding of the Kingdom of God

No comments: