A Look at the Progressive Nature of Western Christianity

I’ve been thinking lately about the concept of Progressive Christianity; not necessarily about any current person or group using the designation, but just about the concept. There are some Christians who proudly refer to themselves as Progressives, to distinguish themselves from the staid, Evangelical Status Quo. There are others, such as the aforementioned evangelical Status Quo, who use the word perjoratively in reference to the liberals who would destroy the SQ (Status Quo) and Christianity As We Know It.  

The truth of the matter is, western Christianity is progressive. Evangelicals, today’s SQ,  were once the progressives. Today’s progressives may be tomorrow’s SQ.  The fundamentalists, believe it or not, were once the progressives. Calvinists were progressives, Lutherans were progressives, and Roman Catholics were once progressives.

What this means is that Christianity As We Know It in the West includes many beliefs that are later inventions. I think it safe to say that the New Testament Christians would not recognize today’s church or it’s teachings. And, ironically, many contemporary progressives are merely rejecting many of these relatively late-breaking beliefs which were at one time rejected by the existing church. 

Here are a few examples of commonly-held beliefs which are later inventions & additions, which much of the contemporary evangelical church accepts as “orthodox”:

  1. Dispensationalism and the Rapture
  2. Biblical Innerancy
  3. Literal readings of Genesis, Revelation, and other passages
  4. Rejection of infant baptism
  5. Predestination
  6. Original sin & total depravity
  7. Penal Substitution theory of atonement
  8. Accepting Jesus as your personal savior

There are more, but as you can see, these represent many of the key tenets of contemporary Evangelicalism.  And yes, they can all be traced to a specific point in church history, although attempts are made to support some of these from snippets of writngs from the church fathers.  

Original sin, for example, was a concept developed by Augustine, who also laid the foundation for total depravity and predestination.  Augustine’s teachings were not accepted by the majority of the church at that time, and he is only considered to be a “saint” by the Roman Catholic church (which split from the Eastern church in 1054).  The Eastern church doesn’t consider him a heretic, but many of his new ideas were rejected.

Penal Substitution was developed by Anselm (11th Century).  John Calvin further developed Augustine’s ideas of total depravity and predestination, and also affirmed Anselm’s penal substitution theory.  Doctrines such as Dispensationalism and the Rapture originated sometime in the mid-1800’s and were popularized by Scofield who included the teaching in notes in his study Bible. (The concept that Revelation was about the future was first taught by a Jesuit priest in the 16th Century.) Biblical inerrancy and literalism are also later developments, being positions adopted by fundamentalists and evangelicals in the 19th and 20th centuries.

With Christianity (especially Protestant Christianity) being progressive in nature, it’s interesting to note the various time periods where certain groups have stopped progressing and become vaious “status quos.” My wife uses the phrase “leaving the conversation.”  The Amish, for example, left the conversation at some point in the 1800’s, both culturally and theologically.  There are some Lutheran groups who left the conversation theologically at the creation of the Book of Concord, the collection of early Lutheran works that establish Lutheran doctrine. 

Some fundamentalist groups and Pentecostal groups left the conversation theologically in the early 1900’s, and culturally about 1946.  And, contemporary Evangelical churches that I’ve been visiting seem to have left the conversation in the 1980’s, and culturally and musically in the 90’s.

Many contemporary “progressives” may only be progressive in that they are casting off dead conversations, rediscovering things like the christus victor concept of atonement, creedal statements, and reading the Bible like the 1st Century Jews read the Old Testament. The voices of the past – the “great cloud of witnesses” – are still a part of the conversation.  

When you look at how Christianity has evolved over the years (to me, a more accurate word than “progressed,” which implies getting better), you have to ask yourself who the real progressives are.  Perhaps the progressives are really the ones who simply refuse to leave the conversation.

The Fear of Doubt

It seems that one of the greatest fears of many religious people is the fear of doubt. There are many types of fear, and there are many kinds of doubt; most of us, I think, are familiar with both. However, I don’t think many people stop to recognize the fear of doubt, which is not uncommon among those identifying with strong ideological groups. They fear their own tendencies to doubt, but also fear doubt in others, because of the potential for awakening their own doubt. As I write this I am reminded of a song off Toad The Wet Sprocket’s Coil album, “Don’t Fade,” which deals head-on with this: 

How could you forsake the love of God that way?
Don’t fade, you’re staying here with me
Don’t fade, I need to know that someone still believes.

Following up on my prior post on Why I Am Not a Joiner, the fear of doubt challenges our perceived commitment to an ideological group such as a church, as well as to the ideology (such as belief in God) itself. I would hazard to guess it is more common among more conservative groups, which are conservative simply because they have laid down extraneous qualifications for belonging, such as a belief in inerrancy, literalist interpretations, and doctrines such as Calvinism or dispensationalism. The more fundamentalist a group gets, the number of extra qualifications for membership increases, as does the opportunities for the fear of doubt, which becomes the worst sin imaginable for the group.  Immorality, for example, can be tolerable and even forgiven. Doubt, however, is like a plague that must be eradicated. What’s worse is that these extraneous doctrines become so associated with faith itself, that when people do lose faith in, say, Creationism, or Biblical inerrancy, they will throw the baby out with the bath and walk away from Christianity altogether.  

This fear of doubt often becomes cyclical: The fear of doubt, and the need to maintain control, causes leaders to insitute more rules about belief, beleiving that setting up these rules will keep doubters and non-believers out of the group. This in turn results in a strong group-think, which then causes a fear of doubt among the members, because doubt is the greatest enemy of belonging. And belonging is important. It’s so important, in fact, that the fear of doubt even plagues those who self-identify with a particular group, even if they have no direct ties (an example would be someone who is a “follower” of a TV faith preacher).   

The fear of doubt can also keep people insulated from the outside world. Truth becomes secondary to the prescribed beliefs of the group, so any challange, no matter how well-reasoned or supported (like the earth rotating around the sun) is matter-of-factly rejected by the group. Truth, it would seem, should be everyone’s goal, and encourage everyone to work together to acheive that goal. However, tribal mentality puts the tribe before lofty goals like truth or the well-being of others, to the detriment of everyone. 

I’m a fan of truth. I’d rather not believe in something that isn’t true, especially if it matters. On the other hand, if I choose to believe that the Vikings could actually win the next Superbowl, there’s no real harm done, except to my eventual disappointment. Facing the truth when it conflicts with your current beliefs is often uncomfortable, especially if you’ve found some type of security in that belief. However, I believe that reality and truth are good things, especially where you will have to eventually face the truth anyway.

I have, at times, suffered from a secondary fear of doubt; that is, a fear of doubt in others. I would expect this is common for people who are parents or who have served in various pastoral roles. However, I’m getting over it.  After years in communities where doubt was a bad word, I find discussions of doubt now to be a breath of fresh air. Doubt is at least honest; proclamations of belief are not always.

The following is, I think, an amazingly honest treatment of faith and doubt, by Kasey Chambers. The video features her son, Talon, who inspired the song by telling her that he believes in God when he’s with her, but doesn’t when he’s at his dad’s house.  In some ways this whole post serves as an intro to the song:

Apparently there’s a problem in my embedding so here’s the link:  http://youtu.be/8Rh62aWp5Ow

Why I Am Not A Joiner: A Confession of Sorts

I say “of sorts” because my purpose here is not to discuss me; rather, I’m using myself as a jumping off point to discuss the larger issue of what it means to join a group, even informally.

I’ve never been what you could call a “joiner.”  (Cue quote from “PeeWee’s Big Adventure: “You don’t wanna get mixed up with a guy like me. I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.”)  I’m not one to rush after the latest fad, follow the crowd, or jump on bandwagons. If I do happen to find a parade going my way, it’s more of a synchronistic happening.

I usually haven’t taken “the road less traveled” with much forethought or design. Often, it’s just because I don’t like crowds. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, where I could see the horizon in all 4 directions. I still like to have a 360-degree view of things, even on the interweb. 

Another reason why I am not a joiner is that I usually find that I simply don’t fit in with many groups. Part of it is my natural tendancy toward introversion, but over the years I’ve discovered that I tend to think differently than other people. If there’s a different viewpoint in the room, it’s more than likely to be mine. I almost never agree completely with the general consensus on many issues, often to the bewilderment and frustration of more single-minded thinkers.  Unless it’s important, I often keep my opinions to myself, which is not that hard, being a man of few words anyway. 

One of the things I have begun to understand over the past few years as I have pulled away from some things that I had “joined,” is that joinging involves, to some extent, a loss of self.  If you are going to fit in and be a true part of a group, even only internally identifying with a group or ideology, there are things about yourself that you have to give up.  This can often be a very good thing; for example, learning to put others first involves putting some of your own interests aside. When I got married, and then we had children, this was essential.  Refusing to step out of the spotlight results in destruction of the family, etc. 

However, occasionally joining a group, especially when it’s centered around a certain ideology, requires a sacrifice of a part of yourself (unless you’re already bent in that direction).  You can’t maintain a “solo-think” and at the same time adopt the “group-think.”  And let’s face it – it’s so much easier to just adopt the group-think, especially if you already lean that way and respect other people in the group.  

All over the web, there are sites which preach to the choir, reaffirming the extremist group-think. Pretty soon, those who take up residence in these tribal territories begin to see the world in such a way that the extreme appears to be centrist and “balanced.” They may even believe they are the free-thinkers, but in reality they are only free from the gravitational pull of the other point of view. Politically, theologically, and socially, I have some basic conservative views that I’ve held since I was young. I also have some basic liberal views that I’ve held as well. This tension has caused even more tension, at times, but it has served me well by protecting me from becomeing sucked into one vortex or another. 

I am not free from the need to belong, even if I am something of a recluse. There are times I have wanted to belong, and found for one reason or another that I just can’t, at least for an extended period of time. And at times I’ve occasionally immersed myself in a group that I later realized was just wacko, and to be honest, I’m fairly embarrassed that I let myself be sucked in. Not wanting to be embarrassed in the future is a good motivator to look before I leap. So who knows – my reluctance to be a joiner may be a little wisdom layered on top of a personality defect.  However, I am blessed to belong to a wonderful family, and that’s a tribe that I can give myself whole-heartedly to, and which in turn I find satisfying. 

The point of all of this, again, is to say that becoming a true part of a tribe involves a real loss of a part of yourself. Joining a tribe is not something to be taken lightly (unless it’s something just for amusement, like playing music or joining a sport). It’s good to be sure that what you are gaining is both valid and is more valuable than what you are sacrificing.

Why the Supreme Court is Right about Same-Sex Marriage

Over the past couple of days I’ve read a lot of stuff about Friday’s Supreme Court decision on the Obergefell case. Some of what I’ve read has been thoughtful, but to be honest, much of it hasn’t.  I understand that there are people who have strong feelings on the issue, and will react one way or another without any actual understanding or opinions on the legal issues involved, and that’s okay.  Everyone is entitled to their opinion.  The Obergefell decision actual makes this point:

“Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.”

However, I’ve also read some things that are positively wacko, claiming things like the Supreme Court didn’t have the right to make this decision, or that it will result in the end of the world as we know it.

The Supreme Court’s job – when they do it properly – is to rule on the constitutionality of an issue. They are not to make moral or emotional decisions based on their own whims or feelings, but to look at the specific issues that are sent to them, and apply the Constitution to those issues.

In this case, I believe the Supreme Court not only made the correct decision, but that they made the only reasonable decision.  They were looking at 2 issues: Whether a state could deny marriage rights to same-sex couples, and if same-sex marriages would be recognized in states where same-sex marriage was not legal.  The court looked at the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal rights to all citizens.

It should be noted that the Supreme Court is not a religious institution, and looks at marriage from a legal persepctive, not a spiritual or religious one. And the Constitution doesn’t care how your religion defines marriage (or we would have to ask, “which religion?”). It is a legal definition, not a spiritual one.  And marriage, from a legal standpoint, means having certain rights relating to things like insurance coverage, taxation, citizenship, and estate issues.  Equal rights to marry essentially means that these various legal benefits are now available to everyone involved in a committed relationship.

The ruling is not going to result in more same-sex couples cohabitatng. It simply meand that they can’t be denied the same legal rights as other couples. And, under the 14th Amendment, that is correct. Basically, there is no Constitutional basis for denying same-sex couples these rights. The decision also means that the confusion created by marriages in one state not being recognized in another state will not be an issue.  Under the Constitution, and by simple common sense, it would seem that this is the only reasonable decision the Supreme Court could have made.  If we still believe in equality under the law. Some may not like it, but equal rights are equal rights.

Endnote: I am making no comments here about whether same-sex marriage is right or wrong or how the Bible is to be interpreted. I am only saying that according to the Constitution and the laws of the land, I believe the SC decision was the correct one, and it is a civil rights victory for the LGBT community.

Searching For Sunday

I just finished reading Rachel Held Evans’ book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.  I know, this goes against my typical bias against reading anything too trendy. However, I really didn’t know much Ms. Evans, only that I’ve really appreciated a few snippets I’ve read over the past few months, so she stood out as someone – like Nadia Bolz-Weber – who might have something unique to contribute.

I liked it.

Evans is first and foremost a writer. She is not a theologian, or a professor, or a pastor. She writes about life, often her own life, from her perspective, and she doesn’t attempt to do anything else. She is also intelligent, insightful, and honest, which again, makes her a pretty decent writer.

Searching for Sunday is a collection of essays about life in and outside of the church, organized around seven oft-recognized sacraments. Some bits are historical, some are 3rd person narrative, and some share her own life story as it relates to church. While seeming a bit disjointed at times, as a collection of essays often does, I realized that what she is doing is painting a mural of the church from her perspective. You don’t see the point if you look at the individual brush strokes, although you can find a lot to appreciate in those strokes and the colors used. But once you stand back and take it in as a whole, you see what she has created.

In her individual strokes she deals with many hot-button topics, like women in the church, GLBT issues, legalism, etc., but she deals with them as a story-teller, not as an apologist. Again, this is her perspective. And again, she has a lot of insights, and I would guess that anyone who doesn’t just simply shut her out will find a lot to think about, whether you agree with her perspective or not.

If you can back away from the individual brush-strokes enough to see her full picture, I think many – especially those who have only known the contemporary evangelical church – will be faced with a portrait of the church they’ve not really considered prior. For the “dones” – those who have declared themselves done with the church – the book may present a way back in. Or not.  But in any event, I think Evans has painted a portrait of the church worth appreciating.

This I Know 2.0 – An Unapologetic Apologetic 

Over my nearly 60 years of life, I have had only a handful of revelations that have had a lasting impact on me. I can recall specific details about each experience and by and large they were fairly mundane, but the specific epiphanies would change how I saw things from that point on. I mention this only to provide a little background on one I had perhaps 5 years ago.

As with the others, this was not a Damascus Road experience; rather, it was more of an Emmaus Road revelation, like having a mist lifted so that you see more clearly where you are already walking. And, as much of my brilliant thoughts do, it came while I was thinking about something entirely unrelated.

My revelation was simply this: I still believed in the same God I believed in as a child.  

That’s it. 

It may seem underwhelming to you, but 5 years or so later, I am still aware of this reality. It is now foundational to who I am. 

Now, this doesn’t mean that I have simply maintained my death-grip on my childhood beliefs, because that’s not true. My theology has changed over the years – several times, in fact. I have been around the block, so to speak, more laps than most. While I, out of youth and ignorance, was impacted by various pop theologies and trends over the years, I have maintained my simple belief in God, and that Jesus loves me, this I know. I have rejected more doctrines and beliefs throughout my life than many people have ever encountered. Many were illogical in some form or other, some were stupid, and a few were just bat-shit crazy (that’s a common theological term). 

In spite of traveling in and out of various evangelical, charismatic, sometimes wacky, ancient liturgical, emergent, and often boring intellectual Christian churches and groups, in spite of moving from moderate to conservative to something else, and in spite of being led through a morass of theological trends, I believe in the same God I believed in as a child. 

I’ve had many, many people try to talk me out of it. I’ve been dispensationalized, fundamentalated, legalized, charismatized, jeopardized, and tribulated. I’ve gutted my library of trash theology more than once. And in the end, I believe in the same God I believed in as a child. 

Now, smart atheists will tell me this proves that religion is a product of our environment, that if I grew up believing in Some Other God, that’s who I’d believe in today. Granted, exposure is an obvious factor in belief. Paul says this himself in Romans 10:14, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” However, I know many, many people who believe differently today than they did as children. Tons. So, I’d have to say that while I truly appreciate the fact that I was raised a Christian, I’d have to say that what I believe today is not because of what I believed as a child (I believed in Santa Claus then, too).  

Now, I have heard and read many testimonies of people who have rejected the beliefs they were raised with, and as a result they have concluded that they don’t believe in God. Some of them even have blogs where they love to talk about what they no longer believe. This unbelief in God is an understandable leap of logic, I guess, but generally I find that it’s lazy as well as illogical. I hear these stories and think, So what? I reject those things, too, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in God. You don’t reject all pizza because you don’t like anchovies.  

So back to the profundity of my revelation, specifically related to current belief and unbelief trends. When people are leaving the church and faith in droves, is it perhaps because they were never taught the truth about God in the first place? When the illogic and absurdity and hype and the control-freakism of religious traditions come crashing down, is there anything left to believe in?  

For me, there was. I rejected dispensationalism and God was the same. I rejected legalism and God was the same. I rejected penal substitutionary atonement and God was the same. I rejected literalism and God was the same. I rejected wacko-ism and God was the same. And in fact, not only was God the same, but it was specifically because God was the same that I rejected these errant beliefs.   

If I had to pick a theme song, I think it would be Sting’s If I Ever Lose My Faith. My faith is not in science or progress, or in a church, or theology, or, as odd as it sounds, even in the Bible. My faith is not in a political system or the definition of marriage. I don’t care if evolution is true or if there’s life on other planets. My faith is in God and the truth of the Gospel, that Jesus loves me, this I know. The same God, and same Gospel, I was taught as a child.   

How FoxNews is ruining conservatism

I probably shouldn’t single out FoxNews here, but they are the most well-known bastion of the uber-conservatist media.  And yes, I think the collective conservative “Fauxnews” media is destroying conservatism, resulting in incredible snafus like we are seeing in Indiana, and the fact that Hilary Clinton (who has a less than 50% approval rating) has a substantial lead in current polls over any Republican presidential hopeful.

Here’s the problem: Fauxnews is not presenting a “fair and balanced” view of anything.  They do provide one very good service, and that is to highlight stories that are typically ignored by other media outlets. However, it is a mistake to take any of these stories at face value, because what is being presented is a nice, conservative fairy tale meant to either motivate well-meaning conservatives, or to pacify them.

The conservative Fauxnews media is simply preaching to the choir, without really educating on the issues. I see a number of posts on Facebook where a conservative site has an outrageous headline about something Obama or Clinton have supposedly said, only to find that when you read the actual quote, they didn’t really say that at all.  The fauxnews retelling is more than spin; it’s misleading, and occasionally bordering on fraudulent.  But well-meaning conservatives trust many of these fauxnews sources, and don’t bother to fact-check.

Conservatives (as well as liberals), develop a kind of group-think.  It’s a form of tribalism, a subject I’ve been thinking a lot about, and which I’ll talk about in the future. There is a very strong need for many people to share the same opinions as the tribe, and will willingly adopt them without any real critical thinking (even if they think critical thinking is happening). The tribal presuppositions are such that everything becomes colored and conclusions are almost predetermined.

The danger is that conservatives will become more and more ignorant, and are in danger of becoming completely marginalized, even if they are the majority.  It’s so easy to embarrass a conservative right now that it’s – well – embarrassing.

The best way for conservatives to hold their own politically is not to create a conservative virtual reality to exist in, but to take the red pill (Matrix reference) and see what reality looks like.  Take a look at the issues the conservative media is reporting, then go to the sources, and find out what is really going on.  Analyze, and develop your own opinions. I almost never read or watch conservative news; at most, I read the bottom of the screen when I’m on the elliptical at the gym (Fox is always on).  Instead, I look at WaPo, CNN, etc., and then Google stories I’m interested in for varying opinions.

Will Rogers identified this problem years ago when he said, “All I know is what I read in the papers.”  Fauxnews isn’t helping the problem, it unfortunately is the problem, and it is ruining conservatism.

 

Book Review: The Promise of Despair

The Promise of Despair may not be the best title.  It probably won’t attract the same crowd that bought any of those “stories my kid made up about heaven” books, and some will assume it’s another “you’re not suffering enough for the Kingdom” teaching.

Then, there’s the “emergent village” logo on the back, which is another red flag for many people (including me).

I probably wouldn’t have given the book a second look if it weren’t for the fact that it was so highly recommended.

A Life-Changer

Contrary to any preconceptions I could have formed, The Promise of Despair has the potential to be the most life-changing book I’ve read in a long, long time.  I say potentially because I’ve only just finished it—a year or 2 down the road, and I can better assess what impact it is having. But, there are strong indications that it has that kind of potential, at least for me.  And, it’s a great book to read during Lent, as a primary focus is Luther’s theology of the Cross.

Death

One of the reasons this book is a potential life-changer for me is that this is a book about death.  Not about dealing with death, or grief, necessarily, but about death itself.  I have had a life-long fear of death, and have developed a pretty decent hatred of it.  I’ve seen it too many times as family and friends have been taken through disease, accidents, suicides, and simply oldness, and I live with death on a day to day basis.  So, it’s a subject close to my heart.

Root begins by discussing Nietzche’s assessment that modernism has essentially declared that God is dead, and the despair that results from our faith in progress and hope for the wrong future. It’s a brilliant assessment of modern culture, postmodern modern culture (postmodernism is just a branch of modernism),  and what has resulted to the church as it has attempted to cover over the reality of death and despair instead of dealing with it.  This is not your typical cultural critique; this is an analysis of a society’s failure to deal with death and it’s impact on Christian theology and practice.

Luther

The second reason for me is that I finally think I grasp Luther’s theology of the cross. I was raised in a Lutheran church that was not really all that Lutheran. I went through Confirmation classes and all, but I don’t think I ever saw a Book of Concord until I bought one a couple of years ago, and I had never heard the phrase “Law and Gospel” that I can recall.  But, I watched “Here I Stand” several times.

So, over the last few years I have tried to get a grasp on the basics of Lutheran theology that other Lutherans all seem to know, and this book clarified a number of things. Now I am more sure than ever that the Lutheran understanding of man and God is far superior (i.e. Biblical, or perhaps “correct”) to the Calvinism that permeates most evangelical theology.  In other words, the book is not a Lutheran book, but it uses some of Luther’s language to express Biblical truth about what death really is, and that—as the author puts it—”we do not suck,” but that we are all victims, as it were, of sin and death, which were defeated at the Cross.  Only by coming to grips with “the monster” do we get to see the true victory of the resurrection; if we don’t embrace death, we don’t get to embrace life.

As I read through this I thought of a fitting quote that I heard years ago that was attributed to Camus (though I have not been able to track it down): “Life begins when you come face to face with death and realize that anything is possible.”  I have understood this, but didn’t realize that this in fact was a kind of restatement of Luther’s doctrine of the Cross. Kind of.  Resurrection life is only possible through Christ taking on death head-on.

 The Problem with the book

The big problem I had with the last portion of the book was that the author seemed to lose his way a bit, trying to create practical applications.  He starts using questions his son asks as chapter themes, which is kind of cute, but didn’t really help make his point, causing him to stretch a bit too much to keep the analogy going.  This was especially true with the last chapter, “The Christian faith is a secret that must be kept.”  Here, he completely lost me. I never figured out why it was supposed to be a secret.  I don’t think he really knew how to end the book.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that the essence of the book is life-changing. As he explains in the book, all of Western culture has issues with death that keep us from really grasping the essence of the Cross and the power of the Gospel.

Conclusion

Buy the book, read the book. It’s that simple. Skip the intro if you want, and skim where you need to.  It’s short but powerful.

 

 

 

Rediscovering the Banjo, Clawhammer Style

So, this is my 2nd post ever about banjos, even though they have been my primary hobby for the last 3 years. That’s restraint. If you like the banjo and want to learn a little history (very little), you might find this interesting.

Rediscovering the banjo for the first time

Even though I had owned a cheapo banjo about 30 years earlier, I knew so little about banjos when I started researching them about 3 years ago, I was shocked to find that the most popular style of banjo did not have the large resonator that the bluegrass guys played. And, I was also shocked to find that there was a common style of playing called clawhammer or frailing, that didn’t involve the use of picks. I was even more surprised to find that one of my all-time favorite banjo songs was in clawhammer style…

 

This, by the way, was the song that first got the banjo on Top-40 radio.

A little banjo history

Clawhammer style, where you strike the main strings with the back of the fingernail and pluck the 5th string with your thumb in a syncopated beat, has been around for hundreds of years. The 3-finger bluegrass style was more or less invented and popularized by Earl Scruggs. It was flashy and noisy (and new and exciting), so it caught on. The clawhammer style of playing actually dates back hundreds of years to Africa where 3- or 4-stringed instruments—always with a short drone string on top—were played in much the same fashion. This style of instrument and playing was brought over by African slaves, which explains the syncopation of the clawhammer playing style.

Sometime around 1830, the 5-stringed banjo was developed by a minstrel performer named Joel Walker Sweeney. By the civil war, 5-string banjos were getting to be popular; in fact, Stephen Foster’s famous song Oh, Susanna with it’s line “with a banjo on my knee” was published in 1848. An interesting historical sidenote is that in the early days of slavery, both African and Irish slaves were often housed together, where African rhythms were added to Irish folk tunes, giving us Appalachian or “old-time” fiddle and banjo music.

Banjo Mythbuster

buckbee copyMany people assume that when Sweeny added the 5th string to create the modern banjo, this means he added the short 5th string. However, that is not the case. As stated above, the banjo and its predecessors always had one short string. The 4-string Tenor banjo that became popular in the 20’s was a later invention—first appearing around 1910—that was developed to be strummed with a pick. The resonator was also developed to add volume so the banjo could be heard on early orchestral recordings, as guitars were, as this was pre-amplification, not loud enough.

By contrast (and for example), my oldest 5-string banjo is a Buckbee, dating back to around 1880-1890. (It is nearly identical to the banjo played by Taj Mahal in the movie Songcatcher.) The Buckbee Banjo Co. began manufacturing banjos during the Civil War and went out of business in 1896 or ’97.

One more tune…

Here’s another example of clawhammer playing: another old Stephen Foster song, Angeline The Baker, played on a banjo built by Doc Huff of Dallas, Oregon, who makes some of the most beautiful and unique banjos I’ve ever seen:

Okay, 2 more tunes. This is from the Honey Dewdrops, one of my favorite folk duos. Laura Wortman is a great example of a modern folk clawhammer banjoist.

Not All Banjo Music Is Created Equal

3banjosMy first banjo post

As my friends are all too aware, I’ve become something of a banjo addict since buying my first banjo not quite 3 years ago.  I play (old-time or clawhammer style), restore and collect banjos, and listen to a whole lot of banjo music of different genres. (Yes, there are distinct genres of banjo music.) So far, I have avoided posting anything about banjos on this blog, but have finally decided that it’s probably time to include the occasional post related to banjos and banjo music.

Surprise! I don’t like all kinds of banjo music

The more I listen to banjo music, the more opinionated I have become about the different banjo styles. While I have always thought I loved bluegrass music, I come to discover that I really don’t care for a lot of it, mainly due to the banjo playing. I recall something I once heard about the key to jazz music being knowing what notes not to play. With much of bluegrass, there is no such concept. To be honest, a lot of bluegrass banjo playing is just noise—too many notes unceremoniously crammed into too small of a space. When played with discretion, the banjo can add rhythm and drive, and even melody and counter-melody. The problem is, discretion seems to be in short supply with many bluegrass players.

Another complaint I have with bluegrass banjo is that many times the focus is on speed and dexterity. While I appreciate the abilities of folks like Béla Fleck or Jonny Mizzone (who’s like 10 years old), to me, I might as well be listening to a machine. There are a lot of fast, perfect notes, but it seems too clinical much of the time.

I do like some bluegrass banjo playing

I do really like some bluegrass players.  My favorite has to be Ron Block, who plays most often with Alison Krauss & Union Station. Block is a great player, and has a very good sense of melody and balance.  I appreciate his playing whether he’s playing on a pop song or a traditional bluegrass number. I liked Earl Scruggs, who invented the style. I’ve also liked a number of other players, like Doug Dillard, John Hartford, and of course John McEuen (of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band fame).  I’m also a big Steve Martin fan.

The infamous “G lick”

I’ve discovered one of the things that drives me nuts about a lot of bluegrass players, and that is the overuse of the infamous “G lick.”  It is probably the most recognizable lick in bluegrass banjo, as you’ll discover if you Google it. I’ve heard many bluegrass tunes where the G lick is used in nearly every phrase. It’s enough to drive you crazy, once you recognize it.  It’s one of the first things banjo players learn, and it seems like often it’s the only thing they’ve learned.  It belongs in “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” but not in much else.

I was curious, so the other day I listened to 3 or 4 Alison Krause & Union Station albums. I didn’t hear the standard G Lick once. Ron seems to avoid it like the plague. There are times he does something similar, but he always varies it so there’s no obnoxious repetition. Here’s a recent example of what 3-finger playing should sound like (again, my opinion):

Here’s one more favorite recording of mine, which goes back many, many years:


Notice how the banjo approaches the song almost classically, with an awareness of each note being played (as well as each note not being played).  This kind of playing is what first attracted me to the banjo, not that racket that appears on 90% of the bluegrass I hear.

Good banjo, bad banjo

So, there’s good banjo, and then there’s bad banjo.  I like good banjo.