Back up to heaven all alone.

August 28, 2009



Joan Osborne – One of Us
From: Relish

I was raised as a Catholic. I never had to do time as an altar boy growing up, but church was pretty much an unspoken requirement on Sunday mornings throughout my adolescence. Of course, my attitude toward Mass today isn’t very much different from what it was when I was about 8 years old — kind of a waste of my Sunday morning.

I know that’s not a nice thing to say, and I’m almost certain my mother will read that and the next time we talk on the phone it’ll be a topic of discussion, but I’ve never really gotten the religious charge I’m apparently supposed to get by going on Sunday mornings. Or Saturday nights.

And it’s not just Catholicism — I’ve been to Vineyard masses, those great big Christian super mall places, I’ve been to a Buddhist mass and a Lutheran one. I’m still not too sure about the idea of the big man upstairs, but it’s not out of any need to be different or controversial — I honestly believe religion is one of the most divisive things ever put upon mankind and we’d all be best not to judge or question the next guy over. Belief is a pretty strong thing, and it’s something people don’t take being questioned about lightly. You look at most major wars throughout history, and religion has a pretty big hand in most of ’em.

Of course, having passed through the sacraments one does when one is young and being brought up in the Catholic tradition, my mother especially didn’t take my ambivalence toward God and the Church too well. One year as a Christmas gift from an aunt and uncle I received a subscriptions to a teen Christian magazine, that — like youth fests and WWJD? wristbands — was designed to make Christianity seem like the coolest thing since sliced bread.

Suffice to say, it didn’t really sell me, but every month they had a music review segment in the magazine where they’d basically say that all the popular music out there was pretty evil and they’d also let readers write in and ask writers’ opinions on popular artists, songs or albums that didn’t fall in the review’s pages. At 13 years of age and already grossly obsessed with music, I found this fascinating. Someone could wax a bit with me about tunes I was digging. I remember sending in letters requesting thoughts on Beatles and Oasis records. The letters or responses never made it to print, but the writer was always nice enough to send me a letter back telling me that while there was worse music out there than the Beatles and Oasis, there were also plenty of evil messages lurking in their lyrics and I might be better off getting the new DC Talk album.

When Joan Osborne released Relish in 1995, and “One of Us” became an almost hourly fix on MTV and VH1, obviously I had to write this Christian magazine to garner its thoughts on the record — something with a significant amount of religious heft that was also dominating popular radio and music television. Not an often occurrence at any time, but certainly not in the liberal and decadent 1990s.

That letter never got published either, but it elicited the longest reply ever from the music writer, who basically said the song was deceiving, because while it says things like, “Yeah, yeah, God is good, yeah, yeah, God is great” it also posits Him as a slob.

The general idea was that this song was bad news — one should never question God for a start, but if we were all so lucky to experience His presence on Earth, why the devil would we think he’d be as horrible as the everyday people that ride the bus?

See, the idea is that questioning simply doesn’t jive with believing. Believing is about having faith. Questioning is about being skeptical. Faith and skepticism are a bit like oil and water… as your suspicious ex-lover can attest.

The fact that kids are simultaneously taught to learn as much as they can and the human mind has an unquenchable desire to know why things are the way they are is going to present problems with religious beliefs at some point. Are all the animals walking the Earth today really here because some old dude managed to get a male and female each of ’em on board a wooden boat thousands of years ago? It seems to me to beg a little more questioning.

But when it comes to Christianity, a lot of Christians have big problems with that kind of questioning. While it seems fair enough to me to ask what would it be like if God actually hopped on the #30 in downtown Milwaukee (and may I say I think the comedic possibilities are endless), you might want to ask Joan Osborne how far that question got her.

A lot of airplay? Yeah. A lot of tickets sold? Yeah. An audience with Pope John Paul II? Yep, that too.

Also got her a few death threats, the ire of the Catholic league president (who termed it “awfully close to the line of Catholic baiting”) and general resentment from a whole league of church-goin’ Americans that didn’t like the fact that the Big Guy was being theoretically brought down to their crummy level — much less by a blonde with a nose-ring whose album also included song titles ranging from “St. Teresa” to “Let’s Just Get Naked.”

Of course, if you make the catchiest song on your album about God, it’s also kind of asking for a bit of flak. I suppose Osborne shouldn’t have been singled out the way she was — lord knows her guitarist Erik Bazilian (who actually wrote the song) probably didn’t get the same heat in the spotlight that Joan did, but my problem with the song was it seemed like a very open call for a stir of holy furor.

One Sunday during my teenage years, I got particularly annoyed by having to accompany my mother to church — my resistance toward something she’s always viewed as one of life’s necessities immediately raised tempers between the two of us that morning, and while I’ve very seldom sang Catholic hymns, I kind of decided to air my displeasure at being at church by making it obvious to Mom that I would not sing and also sulking about like a typical teenage idiot.

Mom grew increasingly agitated, and turned to me and said, “If you don’t want to be here, then you shouldn’t be here.”

All I needed to hear — stood up and walked right out of church. My mom gave chase — we had a big screaming match in the parking lot and I ended up getting grounded for a week or two.

I knew I was risking some trouble when I did what I did. And surely Joan and Erik knew what they were doing with “One of Us.” Sure, it’s always a laugh to point out the hypocrisy of Christians that preach about brotherhood and loving all as God would until one of ’em questions whether, if in human form, God would be a slob, and they come at you with some fire and brimstone.

But the thing is, “St. Teresa” was the other big single from that album, and I’ll bet you don’t even really remember how that one goes, do you? And what has Joan done since? Rerecord “One of Us” for a television series? OK.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d almost think someone might’ve sold their soul for a popular song in 1995…

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