by Charles McCrary
Last month the band Being as an Ocean released their second album, How We Both Wondrously Perish, which reached the second-highest spot on Billboard’s “Hard Rock” chart. The band was formed only three years ago, yet they now have released two albums and toured the world. (as I write this they’re in Australia) As is increasingly common, their extensive touring was more the effect of their popularity than its cause. They garnered a fan base especially on Tumblr, where they post their own photos and videos, and, perhaps more importantly, where fans create and share images with the band’s lyrics on them. (as pictured above) The band’s appeal, then, is about more than just the music; they’re cultivating a certain aesthetic. Of course, everyone does this. But Being as an Ocean, through their imagery, lyrical content, and interviews provide a particularly apt case study for studying classification and the label “religious” in our secular age.
The band’s name is from a quotation attributed to Mohandas Gandhi. Their first album is titled Dear G-d, with “G-d” stylized that way because they like the Jewish tradition of doing so. A track from Dear G-d titled “It’s Really Not As Complicated As You’re Making It Out To Be” features a 1931 recording of Gandhi reading aloud his essay “On God.” How We Both Wondrously Perish is a line from a Rilke poem. Lyrics include direct quotations from Pauline epistles.
So, to quote a YouTube commenter, “are they a religious band or not at all?”
But first, what would it mean to be not at all religious? Amid the discussion around disaffiliation and the “rise of the ‘Nones,’” mostly sparked by Pew polling data that showed a rise in those claiming no religious affiliation, Steven Ramey pointed out that “the label has basically no content, arising from a negative answer to one question.” How, then, could this group be a group at all? Furthermore, does this “rise” really signal what it’s supposed to signal—“secularization”? In The Unintended Reformation, Brad Gregory argues that this century is marked by “a hyperpluralism of religious and secular commitments, not any shared or even convergent view about what ‘we’ think is true or right or good” (11). Is hyperpluralism secularization? What does it mean that most Nones believe in God? Last week Gallup released a poll showing, according the Religion News Service, “the rise of secularism in one chart.” Whereas in 1984, 37% of Americans agreed that “The Bible is the ACTUAL word of God and should be taken literally, word for word,” now that number is only 28%. The dubious assumption, then, is that it is somehow more religious and, thus, less secular to read the Bible in this way—as the “ACTUAL word of God.” (“ACTUAL” is juxtaposed to the all-caps words in the other two options, “INSPIRED” and “FABLE”) How many of the FABLE-believers are Nones? Can one affirm the literal reading and still identity as a None?
The label Nones doesn’t really tell us anything about how we should classify people or what groups “really” exist. But it might tell us something about how they classify themselves, specifically how they respond to the word “religious.”
Being as an Ocean’s lead singer, Joel Quartuccio, identifies as a Christian. On Twitter he self-describes as “God-Filled. Hate Free.” During an interview, Quartuccio was asked to discuss how the new album compares to the previous one “from a religious standpoint.” He began by saying, “The band has never been a Christian band. I myself am a Christian.” After that parsing, he went on to say,
[The album] deals with God, but even though I’m a Christian I don’t want to force anything on anyone, man. I just want to love people, play music, so if anyone gets a theme out of it that’s religious—if it’s positive, that’s cool, but I just try to be a humble, spiritual person in my day-to-day and the album itself is not religious. It’s more just me trying to be completely honest with myself.
What is the operative definition of “religious” here? It seems like the statement that the album “deals with God” is at least a partial admission that it might be called a “religious” album. Also, religious themes can be “positive,” but they are not necessarily positive. The album itself, though, is not religious. When Quartuccio calls himself a Christian but says the album itself is not religious, I want to know, like Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner asked about a certain boy’s rumored straightness, “what does that mean in this context?” In this comment Quartuccio indicates some features of what people might consider religious—something that deals with God, is made by a spiritual person, has a positive message—but then insists that, despite having these features, the album is not in fact religious. It seems to me that the essential component the album lacks, the sine qua non for religious-ness, is the intent to convert.
Whether young Americans are becoming more or less religious is neither a good nor interesting question, since it relies on so much curious definitional scaffolding even to make sense, much less be answerable. However, how and why young Americans identify as “religious” or not, and what that word means in various contexts, might tell us something. Perhaps many are uninterested the modern (secular) impulse to categorize and classify and are more. (Whether this is the same as Gregory’s “hyperpluralism” I’m not sure) That might be true to some extent, but that doesn’t explain or Quartuccio’s careful identity politics. Citing Robert Putnam and David Campbell, Pew’s first theory for explaining the “rise of the Nones” suggests that Nones, especially the younger among them, find religion “judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical, and too political.” If my reading of Quartuccio above is correct, he probably fits this description. However, there’s a more local version of this negative definition, as his own self-description as “God-filled” identifies him with other Christian hardcore artists while he also distances himself from the more intolerant and/or conversionist among them. While many Christian hardcore/metal bands employ violent and militaristic imagery, Being as an Ocean sells pillowcases with lyrics and shirts with nature photography on them and films music videos at sunset on the beach.
As religious studies scholars, we often tire of questions of what count as religious and not. I think to myself, is this a dissertation topic that will get me a job in a religious studies department? Do I need to “add more” “religion” to my exams list? What am I going to talk about in my World Religions class? More importantly, what am I not going to talk about? And on and on. And while, as I’ve written on this blog before, I think the word “religious” has no analytic value for scholars whatsoever, clearly the word does work in culture. It means something to people as a way of ordering, classifying, and categorizing their own lives. It’s those subtle acts of definition, differentiation, and identification that we study. The reason that a focus on “religion” is important for me is not because religion itself, whatever that is, is worth studying. It’s because the word, its uses, its meanings, and its associations provide insight into group formation, epistemology, and other aspects of culture. What can we say about the episteme of a culture where inquiring minds want to know, “are they a religious band or not at all?”
Charles McCrary is a PhD student in American religious history at Florida State University. His research interests center on nineteenth-century American cultural and intellectual history. His most recent work is on antebellum public schools and religious disestablishment. He can be found on Twitter @CharlesMcCrary.