There are so many posts I’m not sure if I should write. Usually they center around religion or decisions I’ve made about parenting…definitely not around Jesus.
This post is about Jesus. I mean, it’s not, but it sort of is.
I frequent a large chain craft store here in Los Angeles. It’s the kind of store where you can get stickers and beads to make necklaces but also picture frames and candy molds and everything you would need to make candles or soap from scratch – a giant craft store. (I’m intentionally leaving out their name – if I named them, maybe they’d be mad. And I don’t want people to be mad. And I don’t think I want my experience to impact their business, but honestly I’m not entirely sure.)
Last week, I needed some stickers for my son’s 8th birthday party favors, so I walked into this store. I wasn’t 10 feet into the store when I was distracted by the music playing from the speakers. A woman with a beautiful voice sang, “Lord, you are the answer. Jesus Christ you are the answer…” or something roughly like that. I absolutely know that “Jesus Christ” was in the lyrics, because if I just heard the word “Lord” I might have intellectually understood that the artist probably meant Jesus since musicians writing about the “Lord” in songs with a country/gospel twang typically mean Jesus. But emotionally, I had a different reaction. More on that later.
I was dumbfounded. I wandered aimlessly about for a second, not knowing what to do, and I finally found my way to the front counter where I asked for the manager. Through what must have looked like an unstable woman’s smile/grimace, I asked her why they were playing Christian music. She said to me, in the most unfortunate and uncomfortable misunderstanding of my week, “Why aren’t we playing Christian music?”
I laughed with tremendous awkwardness and said, “No – you are playing Christian music. This song playing right now is about Jesus Christ; she’s singing about Jesus Christ.” She didn’t look at all pleased and said, “This is our playlist. This is what we play at our stores.” I was shocked. I couldn’t stop my mouth from saying the words, “I don’t want to shop here,” and I stumbled out the door.
I know that at Christmas time, a lot of Christian music gets played in all sorts of places; one of the radio stations I normally listen to here in Los Angeles switches to all Christmas music 24/7 starting in November; I get it. I know to expect this around the holiday season because it relates to a holiday. In the middle of August, I definitely did not expect this.
I would like to take this opportunity to state that I have no problem with Christians, Christianity, Jesus, or the right of private stores to play whatever the heck kind of music they want. Yes, as a Jew, I am always aware of Jews’ history of being converted to Christianity by force, the accusations of blood libel, and the ongoing problems many Jews experience as needing to be saved from damnation because we do not accept Jesus as our savior, but I also know and love many Christians and have no doubt that there many Jesus-loving good humans in the world. I do not begrudge people their beliefs and their faith. I don’t fear Christianity. So why did I react so emotionally to hearing this music in the store?
Here is what I can gather are the outstanding issues for me.
Let’s get general
While many people in this country are religious, the use of the word “God” in a song – even if it is of Christian origin – is general enough that it technically could appeal to Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and Moslems alike, as well as a variety of other religions that have a concept of God. Jesus is a God (or son of God) specific to Christianity, so by definition, a song about him is a song about only a certain percentage of society. (I am not necessarily concerned with how atheists or agnostics would feel about a song with the word “God” in it because most atheists or agnostics I know don’t really have a lot invested in what they see as the futility of the notion of God, much less the use of any such God in a song in a craft store.)
And it’s not all songs that use the word “God,” or even the word “Jesus” that cause this reaction…many publicly secular artists invoke religious terminology or references to make a larger point, but their music isn’t the same as Christian music that was created to inspire other Christians in their faith. For instance, take “My Sweet Lord,” from George Harrison. He was a Beatle, one of the most recognizable musicians in the world, who publicly and in his music was exploring hare krishna. But the rest of the album was not religious. Regina Spektor’s “No one Laughs at God” is a beautiful song that people of all faiths or no faith at all listen to; while Spektor is Jewish, the “God” referred to isn’t specifically so. In addition, her song directly addresses people who claim to not believe in God, challenging them to “laugh at God” when they are near death or fearing for their life. (See other songs in the “Grok With Us” questions – and let us know how those songs make you feel or impact your faith…)
Many people – especially those who are from the Midwest or the south – have told me that they feel like Jews are “everywhere” in Los Angeles, but we aren’t. Jews make up 2% of the US population and closer to 7% of the Los Angeles population (https://www.brandeis.edu/ssri/pdfs/AmJewishPopEst2012.pdf), so while we aren’t “everywhere”, I certainly feel like “less” of a minority here than I do elsewhere in the country, such as the Midwest or the south. I am still dumbfounded that a secular store in a highly-diverse and multi-ethnic city would be playing this kind of music. I understand that most people in this country are Christian. But I’m not. I didn’t feel welcome at a store that was playing music so specifically tailored to a religion I am not. I felt like it was not a store for me.
An outstanding concern many non-Christians have is that Christianity is a religion that supports and encourages conversion to their faith. Jews as a rule do not proselytize, and it is considered against our religion to try to get people to convert; partly because we are an ethnic group but partly because we don’t believe we have found the “one way” to worship God. The pervasive experience many non-Christians have is that no matter how accepting of our faith the Christian is whom we may encounter, there remains a notion of a desire to have us join their “team.” Hearing music about Jesus is yet another reminder that I’m not on what Christians perceive as the right “team,” even when I’m just trying to buy some stickers!
Black and White
A black friend of mine noted that she is used to feeling out of place in most places in the country; that she has many instances of feeling like she doesn’t belong, like I did when I heard that song. She and I discussed how white privilege (the fact that I am a minority whose skin is white) shields me from a lot of these kinds of experiences, as does growing up in a world much less affected by anti-Semitism than, say, my parents’ generation (my father was once legitimately asked where his horns were in the 1950s) or my grandparents’ generation (my grandparents fled war-torn Eastern Europe, leaving behind family among the 6 million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust of World War II.) So I’m safer by a long shot than my family has been historically, but I still feel a tad…unsafe.
So where does this leave me? I don’t know. This presence of Christian music isn’t an assertion of Christian conservatism, as it was with the Hobby Lobby issue (denying women workers contraception) or Chick-fil-A’s anti-LGBTQ position. But it does create an atmosphere that I perceive as Christian, and therefore, not welcoming to me or other people who do not identify as Christian.
I am curious if all of these stores of this chain play such specifically Christian music and I wonder who determines the “playlist” for stores. I wonder if anyone else has noticed. I wonder if anyone else has complained. I wonder if anyone else has felt uncomfortable and, like I did, just left.
I don’t want to feel I don’t belong at a store, and I suppose there are things I can do to get my head around it, but I simply don’t want to shop there anymore. I just don’t. I think secular stores should play secular music. I don’t know that it matters to me if the owners are Christian. If Jewish owners played music about the supremacy of the Jewish Torah in a secular store, I’d imagine people might get upset. I think it’s only because Christianity is the majority religion that this can happen.
Maybe I should send a polite message to the local store and to corporate headquarters, and consider writing letters to the editors of local newspapers and doing posts on social media to let other secular shoppers know. But I already fear the kinds of reactions that this post will bring.
And I get that I’m just one person, and I am a member of a community that represents a very small percentage of people in the United States. Many they won’t miss my business. I just want to buy my stickers. Is that too much to ask?
Grok With Us
- Have you ever heard music in a store that had a negative emotional impact on you? How did it make you feel?
- Do any of the songs you enjoy mention Jesus, God, or anything else that is outside your faith system?
- Listen to these songs – do the references to Jesus, God, Lord or Krishna make you more or less comfortable with the songs? Is the reference to Jesus or a deity meant to be serious or an analogy/joke? Do these references impact your faith in any way?
- My Sweet Lord (George Harrison) – “Hm, my lord (hallelujah)/My, my, my lord (hare krishna)/My sweet lord (hare krishna)/My sweet lord (krishna krishna)”
- One of Us (Joan Osborne) – “What if God was one of us/just a slob like one of us/just a stranger on the bus/trying to make his way home…”
- Personal Jesus (Depeche Mode) – “I’m your own personal Jesus/someone who hears your prayers/someone who cares…reach out and touch faith.”
- Shame on You (The Indigo Girls) – “Me and Jesus, we have the same heart/the only thing that makes us different is that I keep f*cking up…”
- Jesus Walks (Kanye West) – “God show me the way because the Devil’s tryin’ to break me down/(Jesus Walks with me, with me, with me, with me, with me)”
- Tiny Dancer (Elton John) – “Jesus freaks out in the street/Handing tickets out for God”