Is Guster a Christian Band?

(Hemant’s note: This is a guest post by JulietEcho. She has been the fantastic admin for the Friendly Atheist forums for over two and a half years!)

Some contemporary Christian artists write songs that are hard to distinguish from secular music. As South Park parodied so well, many secular songs can be interpreted (or re-written by changing only a word or two) to have Christian messages. What’s an artist to do when their work is mistaken for Christian music?

The band Guster has been patiently explaining for years that, no, they aren’t a Christian band. Although some of their songs contain religious imagery (songwriter and lead singer Ryan Miller has a religious studies degree), these certainly aren’t worship songs. On the contrary, their song “Two at a Time” is a satiric take on the Noah’s Ark story, highlighting the barbarity in a tale that’s often taught to children (and the point is accented by a group of children joining in the singing during parts of the song).

Guster’s newest album, Easy Wonderful, is being released in about a month, and the band has released several songs to promote it. The latest, complete with a clever music video, is called, “Stay With Me, Jesus.” Have a listen.

What do you think the song is about? I’ll admit that my first thought was: “Why is Guster singing a praise song?” I had to give it a second listen before I caught the dark humor, the riff on a theme that’s often covered here on the Friendly Atheist blog. Still, some disappointed fans (and some happy Christian fans) have mistaken it for a Christian rock song. Most of the time, Guster refrains from explaining what their songs mean — they leave it up to fans to interpret them. This time, however, they’re taking a few steps to correct the misconception. On Wednesday, they sent an e-mail to fans that started with:

We’re introducing you to another song in today’s email. Track 5, “Stay With Me Jesus” — sounds like a Christian Rock title on the surface, but it’s not. Guster is not Christian Rock. Guster had Bar Mitzvahs.

When a fan expressed disappointment that the song was “a bit too Christian” for him on twitter, the band responded, listen harder? #justsayin.

Long-time fans should already know that the members of Guster aren’t Christians. Their old website had a Q&A section that included:

Q: Are you guys a Christian band?

A: Rather than answer this one with a simple yes/no, we suggest you check the following sources for clues: 1) Brian’s last name — “Rosenworcel.” 2) Any photo of Ryan where you can see his profile. 3) The Guster Backstage Contract Rider, where we stipify that “the dressing room must be furnished with plenty of borscht, noodle kugels, potato latkes, gefilte fish and homemade rugulah for dessert.”

Still, potential fans who don’t know much about Guster might make assumptions. I’m sure they already have some fans who appreciate their “Christian” songs and some who aren’t thrilled about the “Christian” songs, when in fact none exist. It could cost them fans, although I suppose it could also attract some new Christian fans. It’s an interesting predicament — although not a new one for the band.

What would you do in Guster’s shoes? How would you feel if your work was interpreted as being Christian-oriented when it wasn’t?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    “Stay With Me Jesus” — sounds like a Christian Rock title on the surface, but it’s not.

    It sounds like a political piece attempting to personalize the debate on illegal immigration, as they attempt to save an undocumented Mexican worker from deportation.

  • http://www.flatlandthemovie.com Dano

    I think it is smart for the band to announce their intentions once and then let the fans interpret it anyway they like. I think people misinterpret and misappropriate their art at their own risk since the evidence is out there (and only a few clicks away). Lots of people have interpreted my animation ‘Flatland: The Movie’ as a ‘Christian’ story, while others think it’s a story that shows math/science/reason triumph over superstition. All I can do is let the conversation go and hope that people with differing ideas continue to discuss what it means to them.

  • ash

    They’re not a Christian band? Who cares when they appear to be falling over themselves in the given quotes to point out they’re a Jewish band…

  • http://amillionwordstogo.blogspot.com AynSavoy

    Dano has it right. Artists (not just musicians) ultimately cannot control how their work is interpreted. I believe that trying can only lead to frustration.

    Personally, I can’t listen to this song and hear it as a praise song–the irony is too obvious to me–but of course, I’m biased by my world view. Enjoyed the song.

  • JulietEcho

    @ ash – If they take their Judaism seriously in a religious sense (rather than as only a part of their cultural heritage, as many American Jews do), then they certainly interpret it very liberally. I’ve never read an interview where they were explicitly asked if they considered themselves religious, but all my money would be on “no.” I mean, the Noah’s Ark story is in the Torah, and they wrote a song that essentially points out how messed up that story really is.

    The point of the article though, is that their work is sometimes interpreted as being from a specific religious perspective (pro-Christian) when it’s not meant as such. That’s something that artists can face whether they’re atheists, Jews, Muslims, etc.

  • phira

    I went to Tufts, where is where Guster got started, so I find the idea that they might be mistaken for a Christian band somewhat laughable. I’m actually really familiar with “Two at a Time,” and I thought it was a weird song, but an interesting take on Noah’s Ark. I can’t listen to the new song (I’m at work), but knowing Guster, I wouldn’t have thought it was a praise song.

    Anyway, I don’t think it was a bad idea for Guster to try to debunk the stupid misconception that they’re a Christian band, or that they wrote a Christian song. I think maybe it’s because I’m Jewish, and even on my best days, I’m offended and annoyed when people assume that I celebrate Christmas or Easter. So I don’t blame the band for saying something.

    I do blame them for talking about kugel, though, because now I’m really hungry.

  • http://journeyofaperpetualstudent.blogspot.com/ perpetualstudent

    The fact that we are having this discussion, just points to how pathetic the Christian “music” industry is. I used to work in a Christian Radio Station and I have heard quite a few songs. This one would fit right in the mix. Satire is truely dead.

    The irony is Christian “music” is a business. It is not about praise to some caring God; it is about dollars. And the more money the recording studios can extract from the fans the better, just like any other genre.

  • LesleMora

    I think it points out how narcissistic some Christians can be. They believe God focused on them and let others perish. This just confirms what they already believe…they are special and are destined to do something great in God’s name/honor.

    I really liked the graphics in this video. And the tune is pretty cool too.

  • ckitching

    You can control how your work is to be interpreted, but it involves creating your work in such a way that you bludgeon your audience with your exact message repeatedly. Many bands do this (Offspring, Rage Against the Machine, Green Day, etc just to name a few) and it can be a little annoying. Someone can always find a way to misinterpret, but give your audience some credit.

    See also: Anvilicious (Warning: TV Tropes link. I am not responsible for lost hours clicking on random entries.)

  • Aguz

    So, if I sing about Santa does that make me a Santanist?

  • CypherSD

    The problem is just about any satiric or sarcastic song about religion is virtually indistinguishable from an actual religious praise song. If this exact same song had been sung by a Christian band, it would be a praise song. Remember, we are dealing with people who think slaughtering children is ethical (See William Lane Craig: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5767 ), that wine and crackers are flesh and blood (do you really need a reference?), that the first two humans’ children interbred (the masterful Ken Ham: http://www.icr.org/article/cains-wife-it-really-does-matter/ ), etc. This is like Roger Ebert’s satiric piece on creationism: satire doesn’t work if what you are saying is seriously proposed by a large group of people. Swifts Modest Proposal only works if no one is actually calling for the consumption of Irish babies. In the case where they are, you don’t look like a reasonable person poking fun at bad ideas – you look like the instigator of bad ideas!

  • Gauldar

    Brian: I’m not the Messiah! Will you please listen? I am not the Messiah, do you understand? Honestly!
    Girl: Only the true Messiah denies His divinity.
    Brian: What? Well, what sort of chance does that give me? All right! I am the Messiah!
    Followers: He is! He is the Messiah!
    Brian: Now, fuck off!
    [silence]
    Arthur: How shall we fuck off, O Lord?

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    My impression of “Stay with me Jesus” is that it points out the absurdity of the Christian belief that Jesus stays with and protects the people who love Him and allows the rest to suffer and die. In each example he gave, there were probably individuals more “in love with Jesus” who nevertheless died a horrible death. I think Guster just took a common Christian belief and made it a bit ridiculous by applying it over and over again. Of course, Christians who have bought into that belief (Of Jesus as their protector) will probably fail to see the hidden meaning.

  • «bønez_brigade»

    I agree with Jeff P. Good song (and good band), btw.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    I also liked the shark swimming back and forth (instead of the iconic Christian fish) in the middle of the song :)

    I also liked “super J”, cape and all :)

  • Mr Z

    Better than their predicament, how many songs have you heard on popular radio that are atheist themed songs which do not overtly mention atheism?

    Rush – Free Will as an example
    Incubus – Drive is another example

    oh, if only the fundies were listening to the lyrics!!

  • Ron in Houston

    Talk about slaughtering sacred cows – South Park!

  • http://www.anthonyrmiller.com Tony

    What would I do? I would keep the fans guessing!

    The more people don’t know the more they talk about it. The more they talk about the more free advertising I get.

    This post is proof. :-)

  • JSug

    I got the message with one listen. It isn’t subtle. One person thanking Jesus for saving him from death without acknowledging all the people who Jesus apparently didn’t see as fit to live. Yet, I can totally see how some Christians would mistake it for a worship song. When done properly, irony is often misunderstood.

    And as an aside, I really like the song. I’m not familiar with the band, and may have to check them out now.

  • http://carrionluggage.com Adam

    Who cares? They are a garbage band.

  • Dan

    Art is free to be interpreted by anyone. If my non-Christian music was interpreted as Christian music, I wouldn’t mind – so long as I sold records.

    But the atheist side of me wants everyone to know where I stand on that issue, so I would never hide the fact that I was an atheist. I’d love for a Church to invite my band to play so I can say “I’m an atheist” to them.

  • Nathan (not the Christian Nathan)

    If I wanted people to stop thinking we were a Christian band, I would stop singing songs that sounded like praise songs. That’s not that hard.

    Stop using words like hallelujah and Jesus and heaven.

    Simple.

  • walkamungus

    What would you do in Guster’s shoes? Well, continuing to make a fuss about it in the press would almost certainly sell a few more records and make them a few new fans; this is an opportunity for media attention, but the window is *very* small.

    How would you feel if your work was interpreted as being Christian-oriented when it wasn’t? That’s the hell of creating art and letting it loose in the world: Once it’s out there, you can’t control how people will respond to it. Listening to music is rich, contextual, and personal, and you can’t control how people “hear” it. And if you make a habit of combining religious imagery with satire, you’ve got to accept that some listeners are going to miss the satiric part.

  • WishinItWas

    There are Christian bands out there I will listen to, and im sure they are mistaken for NOT being a christian band a lot..

    The Devil Wears Prada
    Norma Jean
    Underoath

    Few that come to mind, check them out :P

  • Joan

    I agree with JSug. It’s a good song and the irony is not particularly subtle, but people aren’t used to listening for irony in pop songs, particularly songs that use words like “Jesus” and “Hallelujah” a lot. Randy Newman uses this device a lot, which he describes as singing from the point of view of an “unreliable narrator” — that is, someone who understands less about the situation than the listener (assuming the listener is getting it). Newman, of course, has had trouble with people *not* getting it, such as when his concerts got picketed in 1977 when people didn’t get the irony in “Short People.”

    I do like this song. The lead singer’s voice reminds me a bit like Ray Davies.

  • JulietEcho

    @ JSug & Joan – I think the reason I didn’t catch the irony on first listen (despite being a big Guster fan who should have known better than to suspect they’d all secretly converted!) is that I was raised in a conservative, Evangelical home. I was raised hearing family and church members praise Jesus all the time for keeping them safe. I never realized how twisted and horrible the logical follow-through was until a few years ago.

    I also agree that people don’t usually expect to encounter irony in music. Which makes it that much better, IMO, when it hits you.

  • liz

    I’m with JSug.
    And this is one of the things that pisses me off about religious people too! They can justify any injury done to them and to other people just by saying ‘it could have been worse’

  • Roxane

    I think Nathan Not the Christian Nathan has it right. Irony is wasted on people who listen to Christian rock–especially SUBTLE irony. I don’t think they “have a prayer” of getting it unless they happen to be listening hard and watching the video.

    Pardon my cynicism, but it occurs to me that toeing the line this closely works for them commercially because it makes them a “crossover” act.

  • http://www.gametaco.net/ DexX

    I think it’s brilliant, perfectly lampooning the cold-hearted narcissism of those horrible people who say “Oh, Jesus is so great, he saved me when hundreds of others died…”

    Seriously, fuck those people.

  • http://vancouvermoose.livejournal.com/ VancouverMoose

    Doesn’t this happen with all forms of music? Music that has lyrics that is.

    It’s amazing how some people can have the lyrics to a song memorized, and yet it seems that they’ve never listened to them.

    Sometimes at karaoke you can see a strange look on the face of a person who is reading a song for the first time.

    I remember one woman who once abruptly stopped singing in the middle of Mac The Knife and said, “this song is about somebody being murdered!”

  • keystothekid

    All this talk about christian music, now I’ve gotta go listen to Slayer. JESUS SAVES!

  • Alan E.

    I love the line

    Everywhere I go they run in fear

    Everyone else recognizes this person as a harbinger of death and destruction, but the delusion keep the main character blind to that fact.

  • Angela

    Yeah, the problem is that fundamentalist Christian beliefs like that are already a parody of themselves, so an ironic song is pretty much the same as the real thing.

  • Simon

    It’s a dig at those who claim miracles, isn’t it? e.g., “A plane crashed in Wisconsin today. All 272 people on board died… except for one young boy. It’s a miracle! Praise the Lord!”

  • http://robheaton.com Rob

    What this song is really complaining about is bad, devoid-of-logical-thought Christianity, rather than all people of faith. And as a Christian, that’s something I can get behind as well.

    In that sense, it could become a praise song… if someone chose to use it in that fashion. I wouldn’t personally, but hopefully everyone can at least remember that non-Christians haven’t cornered the market on thinking.

  • Dan

    I think it is a good thing to leave it up to the listener to interpret songs their own way. Artists write and perform songs that they want to write and perform. If it speaks to them, they don’t really care if it doesn’t speak to others the same way. I happen to think their “Christiany” songs are great and have spiritual undertones. But that’s the way I take it. When I sing along with them in my car I don’t think to myself, “This is an atheistic song that makes light of Christianity.” I see it the way I want to see it. It is beautiful music with great lyrics. I love ‘Two At A Time’. Just the fact that most Christians try to convert non-believers by painting them a picture of Christianity as love, peace, and happiness. That is a big part of it, but there is a dark side when God has taken vengeance on those who repeatedly ignore His calls and warnings. “I can see the rains a comin’ to wash away the filth and vermin —- two at a time…do what you’re told”

  • Mason

    Listen to “Empire State”. They say “I’ve been talking to Jesus, he’s not talking to me”. Do you really think that a band with such a quote is Christian?

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  • alan

    Ryan is an educated elitist and has decided that he cannot waste his time explaining to those who can’t figure it out. I can’t say I disagree when you listen to other titles like ‘barrell of a gun’ with very unchristian subjects.

  • Korb

    This song portraits Christian arrogance! Christians are self-righteous and tend to think they got God on speed dial.

  • Wheresmelissas

    I like it.  When I sing it it’s a praise song.   And Judiasm may not be Christian but Christianity IS Jewish.   :)


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