Christian Culture’s Court Jester: A Note of Thanks to Steve Taylor

This reflection on the work of Steve Taylor was originally intended as part of the chapter on comedy in Through a Screen Darkly.

Directed by the Court Jester of Christian Rock
As a teenager, I was disillusioned with the relentless, unflinching solemnity and superficiality of most contemporary Christian music. A great deal of what I heard on Christian radio amounted to a tiresome program of redundant, shallow praises; disposable, simplistic choruses; sentimental appeals to emotion rather than challenging observations or provocative poetry. They were played with effusive piano flourishes, programmed keyboards, cheesy drum machines, and amateur electric guitars.

The Book of Psalms is constantly calling for “a new song” to be offered in praise of God’s greatness, but when I tuned in to the Christian radio station, I heard music that lacked passion, authenticity, and true musicianship. It wasn’t new at all. It was a cheap imitation of what had been popular on secular radio a year earlier. I heard people giving God mediocrity instead of excellence.

Along came a tall, somewhat gawky, mischievous clown named Steve Taylor, whose songs shocked and troubled many who heard them. He wrote songs that made fun of Christian culture, highlighting the tendency of churches to develop their own codes of conformity and judgmentalism like any other community.

“I Want to Be a Clone” became an anthem for frustrated Christian youth who knew that being a Christian meant more than learning the right answers to questions, feeling good about ourselves, and accepting whatever sermons were preached at us.

“Meltdown” was a song mocking pop culture’s obsession with fashion and surface details. Taylor used extreme metaphors to draw our attention to important unspoken truths.

In “Lifeboat,” children sang a shocking chorus about throwing the elderly, the injured, the weak, and the disabled out of a boat. In doing so, Taylor spotlighted society’s dangerous and arrogant progression toward the devaluation of certain lives. He emphasized, by implication, that it is sinful to reject those whose presence seems inconvenient or discomforting.

Come to think of it, Christ himself was rather fond of exaggeration for effect. To explain how important it is that we avoid sin, he said that if a part of our body is involved in misbehavior we should cut it off. The church has had very little trouble recognizing the exaggeration — I don’t know of any denominations in which the men actually gouge out their eyes if they find themselves momentarily distracted by a Victoria’s Secret commercial.

To explain just how difficult it was to surrender one’s pride and submit to God, Christ described salvation as a process of being born into the world all over again. Prone to offense, literal-minded Pharisees were bewildered at such talk. But Nicodemus was brave enough to inquire about the teacher’s extreme claim. He asked Jesus if this meant he would have to climb back inside his mother’s womb. Jesus patiently introduced Nicodemus to the idea of the Fanciful Metaphor, explaining that such colorful terms gave us a way of understanding something crucial.

But Steve Taylor did more than poke fun at Christian and secular culture. He also sang songs that were affirmations of true faith, confessions of doubt and failure. Because of his willingness to laugh at the folly of believers, his songs of praise to God resonated with integrity and authenticity. (And I must not forget to mention … these were powerful, excellent songs, full of specificity and personality.)

Many of us found great relief in his music because we knew that his vision was sharp enough to see the hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and power-plays happening in the name of Christ. And it bolstered our faith to learn that someone could see these things, laugh at them, reject them, and offer his praise and allegiance to God.

Did I mention that his melodies and music showed more ingenuity and craftsmanship than almost anything else on Christian radio? In fact, when Taylor formed a rock group called Chagall Guevara, their first album exhibited such vision and quality that even the mainstream press noticed – Rolling Stone heralded the band as the most exciting rock group since The Clash.

Steve Taylor is still courageously lifting up mirrors so that the church can see its flaws and learn from the experience. His first film, The Second Chance, is about the pastor of an inner-city church who struggles to meet the needs of the desperate and the despairing. The mega-church that oversees this smaller ministry decides to eliminate the facility in order to earn money for an expansion, proceeding with a blind eye to the damage this will do to those in serious need.

The film stars Michael W. Smith as the music minister of the mega-church, a man who comes to see just how far he has strayed from Christ’s teaching. Because he is the son of the mega-church’s pastor, he finds himself caught in the middle, trying to do the right thing.

The film received mixed responses by Christian culture, and the lack of enthusiasm from its intended audience and its studio doomed its theatrical release. I read more than one review in Christian publications in which the writer complained that Taylor should not have discussed the imperfections of the church in front of a secular audience.

And in this way, we reinforce the point – that we are too proud to admit our weaknesses, and the gross caricatures painted by mainstream culture which ridicule Christians as pious and condescending, well, they’re often right on the mark.

In Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton writes:

Teach me to bear a humility which shows me, without ceasing, that I am a liar and a fraud and that, even though this is so, I have an obligation to strive after truth, to be as true as I can, even though I will inevitably find all my truth half poisoned with deceit. This is the terrible thing about humility: that it is never fully successful. If it were only possible to be completely humble on this earth. But, no, that is the trouble.

It takes humility to do good comedy. It takes humility to receive it.

And for the gift of his insightful comedy, I want to thank Steve Taylor. He’s the real thing, and he’s made a huge difference in my life.

a conversation with Steve Taylor

I spoke with Steve Taylor in October 2006 about the DVD release of his film The Second Chance.

JO: First of all, a formal eruption of gratitude: When I was but a teenager, bewildered and be-pimpled, your songwriting had a great deal to do with my learning to think more carefully about my faith. You prevented me from blowing up any clinics or throwing anyone off lifeboats. And it gave me a lot of courage to question and challenge behavior within Christian circles that did not align with the teachings of Christ. Thank you. Thank you. And thank you again.

(Now’s your chance to deflect all of this praise and say, “I couldn’t have done it without…”)

ST: …couldn’t have done it without (in no particular order) The Clash, Francis Schaeffer, my parents, David Bowie, Randy Newman, Os Guinness, Elvis Costello, Tony Campolo…hmmm, the list needs more women…Flannery O’Connor, Mother Teresa…

JO: Let’s stroll back down memory lane a bit: It must have been challenging to deal with the range of responses that your early albums received, as they were rowdy and challenging compared to the norm? Do you have any scars from having the courage to introduce elements such as satire and irony into the arena of Christian music?

ST: For better or worse, it was all I knew how to do. The style of music I wanted to make seemed to demand that type of lyric. And there were enough absurdities going on within Christendom that I had no problem finding material – I recall some very large fish swimming in the proverbial barrel.

JO: How do you think the opportunities and challenges for Christians who are singers and songwriters have changed since you were starting out? Or have they?

ST: I look at someone like Sufjan Stevens as the best current example of what’s possible these days. If you’re undeniably good, being a Christian no longer seems to carry the same stigma that it did in past decades.

JO: Did you want to become a filmmaker all along the way? Were you dancing in the video to “Jim Morrison’s Grave” while thinking, “What I really want to do is direct?” Or is that a more recent development?

ST: It preceded my musical aspirations and dates all the way back to grade school. I’m sure it somehow tied in with my top priority from the day I entered kindergarten: Making girls laugh. I studied both music and filmmaking in college, but the opportunities came faster in music. I decided feature filmmaking could wait, and I was able to keep my toe in the filmmaking pond by directing music videos, promo pieces and documentaries.

JO: What have you learned from the experience of developing, filming, releasing, and marketing The Second Chance? What will you do differently on your next film projects?

ST: I’m not a mathematician, but coming from the world of music, the rough equation would be m=aX10 (movie = album X 10). If an album cost around $100,000 to make, then add another zero for the movie budget. If an album took 8-10 weeks, the movie took a couple of years. For every critical creative decision made daily on an album, there were ten times that many coming at me each day on the movie set. For every person in the recording studio, there were 10-20 on set. Maybe I’ll run this equation by Stephen Hawking for a proof.

The process of making the movie was pretty wonderful. I don’t want this to sound like an awards speech, but I had great creative collaborators including my longtime cinematographer and co-writer Ben Pearson, my other co-writer Chip Arnold, producers Coke Sams and Clarke Gallivan, and a really fine crew. I also loved working with the actors, many of whom were shooting their first movie. Michael W. Smith was a blast to work with as well as a great encourager, and his co-star jeff obafemi carr was superb.

It was a very tight budget, which affects everything, but I’m pleased with the way it turned out. I’d originally wanted my directorial debut to be a comedy, but that script wasn’t ready and this one was. In retrospect, it was probably for the best – the story in The Second Chance seems to pull people in, which helps make my rookie director mistakes a bit less obvious.

The marketing was a bit more problematic. I encountered a lot of the same attitudes that made me want to start my own record label, including some baffling decisions that I protested quite loudly at the time. But ultimately it wasn’t an area I could exert much influence over. And the nice thing about DVDs is that they provide their own second chance.

JO: Recently, I read an interview in which a Christian artist flinched at criticism of his work. He pointed to the money it was making, and the number of people who had testified that the work brought them to Christ, and he said that this was all the evidence he needed that he had fulfilled his role as an artist and a Christian. Personally, I’m skeptical that box office success and the number of souls saved have much to do with artistic excellence.

How do you measure the success of a project? What is it that tells you that a film, or a song, is as good as it should be?

ST: I’m sure he and I wouldn’t get on very well, because that attitude drives me nuts.

Filmmaking is a particularly bad career choice if you’re afraid of criticism, because when it comes to movies, everyone’s a critic. Since I knew The Second Chance had scenes and themes that some could find offensive or controversial, a lot of the final editing process involved showing it to audiences and seeing if it was controversial for the right reasons. I wasn’t willing to stop editing until I was reasonably sure the movie was hitting the right notes with its intended audience.

I looked forward to reading the reviews, and I thought for the most part the critics were pretty fair and the critical consensus was about right. Since I’ve still got so much to learn as a filmmaker, any advice from seasoned experts is a blessing.

There are various artifacts from my creative past that make me wince, but it wasn’t for lack of trying at the time. My goal is to not to let anything go out the door until it’s as good as I can make it.

JO: What has been the most gratifying outcome of making The Second Chance?

ST: With the country so polarized at the moment, I was happy that a movie coming from an “orthodox” Christian perspective could cross so many lines. People on all sides of the various divides felt like this was “their” movie.

And, of course, I was happy that our little movie got picked up by Sony Pictures Releasing. Since I’d taken out a second mortgage on my house to make it, that part felt a bit like a non-gambler winning the lottery.

JO: You’ve said that you chose this project because it was about “what you know”… pastors, churches, and church culture. Filmmakers do frequently misrepresent what pastors and churches are really like, so it’s good that you took this on. Have you had much feedback from pastors about The Second Chance? Have they been pleased or challenged by the film?

ST: It’s ultimately a movie made for the church, and it’s meant to make people uncomfortable, as it deals with issues we as a church don’t necessarily want to address. The reaction from most pastors I spoke to was very favorable, but it did make some of them nervous. One of my favorite scenes is early on in a restaurant when the senior pastor won’t send his steak back – the server knows who he is, and he just doesn’t feel comfortable causing extra trouble. My dad was like that, and it’s one of many things I admire about him. When you’re a pastor, you’re reminded daily that your life is not your own.

A constant challenge in crafting the story was to keep enough dramatic tension so the plot moves forward without drifting into simplistic propaganda of the “Big White Church Bad/Little Black Church Good” variety. Audiences have been conditioned by Hollywood to think in simplistic terms, especially when it comes to matters of faith and race, and we tend to view such conflicts as The Man vs. The Underdog. We worked hard to give everyone their reasons – even the head of The Rock’s board believes his job is all about stewardship.

I thought Michael W. Smith made a particularly gutsy decision in playing his role – his public profile made the part more relatable to a church audience, and he wasn’t afraid to play a very flawed character. That particular bit of casting still feels to me like an appropriately subversive way to get people to watch a movie that’s meant to make them squirm.

JO: If you could set up a film course for aspiring filmmakers, what films would you have them watch, and why?

ST: I’d start with a double feature of The Bicycle Thief and Raising Arizona. Then I’d ask anyone who didn’t like either of the movies to please leave and never come back.

JO: What kind of preconceptions would you most like to see artists within the church start to overcome in the next decade?

ST: Steve Turner’s book “Imagine” has already made the case. The Amazon link is here.

JO: If the next generation’s Steve Taylor were to show up in Christian music right now, what kinds of things would he be singing to rattle the cages and shake up the status quo? (And, I know you’re sick of this, but I promised someone that I’d ask… Is there any chance of another rock album from the Fritz-master?)

ST: If I thought too hard about that question, it would just make me want to get back into the recording studio. And I certainly haven’t ruled that out for some future date, but for now I’m itching to make more movies.

JO: What have you heard recently, out there on the open sea of music, that’s made you go berserk with joy like the dudes in those iPod commercials?

ST: It’s a long list – now that I’m no longer in the music business, I actually enjoy listening to music again: Sufjan, Arcade Fire, clean versions of Kanye West, the Danielson “Ships” album, various L.A. Symphony tracks, a Nashville band called Umbrella Tree…hmmm, the list needs more women – did Mother Teresa ever record anything?

JO: In “Harrowdown Hill,” when Thom Yorke sings, “Did I fall or was I pushed?”, is he referring to your accident at Cornerstone 1984?

ST: The festival’s name was no accident – anything of musical value in the last twenty-five years can somehow be traced back to Cornerstone.