Way back in 1993 when I was a student, the band Arrested Development released their first album 3 years, 5 months and 2 days in the Life of… It sold 4 million copies and was pretty much the only hip hop album I ever bought.
Part of what I liked was how spiritual many of the songs were. The album began with these lines:
‘Space ain’t Man’s Final Frontier. Man’s Final Frontier is the Soul. Guided by someone more powerful than any human being. Someone felt but never seen. You will be surprised, of what resides, in your insides’
As well as the singles, People Everyday and Tennessee, it included the brilliant Mr Wendal (about friendship with a homeless man) and others like Washed Away which were overtly theological. The songs really spoke to me.
Shortly after buying it, I took the album along on my University Christian Union weekend away. My attempts to interest some of the more conservative CU members in the songs did not go well. ‘Doesn’t sound very Christian to me’ was the general response.
Almost 30 years on though, my favourite track on the album is Fishin’ 4 Religion. It is a critique of religious activity, which though vocal and loud, doesn’t actually transform or change anything. It speaks into the context of a Baptist/Pentecostal experience in the US South but actually is relevant to any form of Christian religion.
In many ways the song captures the ambivalence that I still have about church services:
The reason I’m fishin’ 4 a new religion
Is my church makes me fall asleep
They’re praising a God that watches you weep
And doesn’t want you to do a damn thing about it
When they want change the preacher says “shout it”
Does shouting bring about change ? I doubt it
All shouting does is make you lose your voice
The song criticises a focus too much on heaven and the afterlife rather than empowering people for change in the here and now:
Pastor tells the lady it’ll be alright
Just pray so you can see the pearly gates so white
The lady prays and prays and prays and prays
And prays and prays and prays and prays…it’s everlasting
There’s nothing wrong with praying.. it’s what she’s asking
She’s asking the Lord to let her cope
So one day she can see the golden ropes…
….the word “cope” and the word “change”
Is directly opposite, not the same
She should have been praying to change her woes
But pastor said “Pray to cope with those”
The song ends with a rousing challenge for churches to reject passivity and to shake the status-quo:
The government is happy with most Baptist churches
Coz they don’t do a damn thing to try to nurture
Brothers and sisters on a revolution
Baptist teaches dying is the only solution
Passiveness causes others to pass us by
I throw my line till I’ve made my decision
Until then, I’m still fishin’ 4 religion
The word ‘revolution’ is a good reminder to me (especially now I have reached middle-age) that the Christian message is radical and transformative. As Dave Andrews reminds us, the Christmas story involves a revolutionary message of personal change and social justice.
Authentic faith is not simply about religious activity. It is a commitment being part of God’s work of redemption and renewal, hope and transformation right now. Fishin’ 4 Religion may have been written 30 years ago but in 2020, its message is more relevant than ever.