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Carman's R.I.O.T.: The Legendary Review Emerges
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Carman R.I.O.T. The CD & R.I.O.T. The Movie
(Sparrow Records, Tommy Sims, Brown Banister, Producers)
It started out harmlessly enough. The tall, dark and swarthy young artist wanted to be a Las Vegas lounge singer before his conversion, and his early ministry confirmed that as a Christian entertainer he could be one. His sing-speak patter evoked comparisons to Elvis, while his playful story songs had just enough irreverence to make them interesting. Besides, anyone who wrote a song called “Spirit-Filled Pizza” couldn’t be all bad, could he?
In the mid-80’s Carman announced that his concerts would be free. His fan base exploded, both in number and in devotion. Concerts became bigger-than-life pep rallies for God, packing venues like Texas Stadium and the Pontiac Silverdome for his mesmerizing multi-media concert crusades, in which the audience witnessed Carman’s John Wayne-like posturing against the forces of evil in America. Here, at a time when the biggest CCM artists are “flirting with the world” by singing “ungodly” songs about loving their husbands and children on mainstream radio, is an evangelical hero sticking up for the gospel, beating up on the devil, and saying the name of Jesus. A lot. What could be wrong with that?
Apparently plenty. Carman is one of the most routinely criticized artists in CCM. His detractors are surprisingly vocal (check out the CCM chatlines on the Net), especially in the usually overly polite world of CCM.
The truth is that it is hip to hate Carman. So easy in fact that this review is painfully difficult to write—the temptation to make sport of him is nearly overwhelming. But the criticism is necessary, if only because his immense popularity has made him much more than a pop singer. With the release of R.I.O.T. (Righteous Invasion Of Truth) Carman may be among the most influential religious leaders in America today, and the content of his gospel is, at least in large measure, troubling.
Aesthetics Carman traded artistic integrity for utility long ago—music is a distant third behind message and messenger. Assisted by extraordinary producers like Tommy Sims and Brown Bannister, Carman flirts with house and dance, country, pseudo-big band, pop and inspirational, creating sounds that, technically at least, hold their own. But the songs on R.I.O.T. are a cynical, incoherent concoction, whatever their individual merits. Their use (and that word is key) is so conspicuously contrived that it’s difficult not to imagine Carman gathering with his advisers and asking “What about house’ music? I hear the kids are hep’ to that these days?” In the final analysis, R.I.O.T. is pure propaganda.
This is troubling enough in its own right. Carman insisted this spring in an interview with Release magazine that “art for its own sake” is a "worldly" concept and that music therefore must and only be a tool.
Beauty, for Carman, is never enough. The Spirit, apparently, needs more.
But let’s admit that propaganda itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and leave aesthetics for the theology—the content of his propaganda —of Carman’s music, videos and “films.”
Theology It’s time for a disclaimer—I believe in spiritual warfare. I am fully out as a high-church, evangelical, charismatic Christian (tho’ of the less-demonstrative variety) who believes in a real Devil. But I also believe in real life of the day-to-day variety, and that the test of our discipleship isn’t found in the invisible realms but in the beautiful mundanity of ordinary living. I believe the Bible is clear that that mundanity is exactly what we were created for, and it was for its redemption that Jesus died. Plain and simple—God’s will for his creation is that it remain his creation. We are not “saved” in order to escape the material world—but to be part of its redemption.
In Carman’s rhetorical universe, however, there is no room for the sacredness of the mundane. Christian discipleship might be reflected in real life, but is in no way "of it." The material world is reduced (a la Frank Peretti or Tim LaHaye) to a reflection of the "real world" of spiritual warfare, and there the essential task of the Christian life is to, on a daily basis, bust on Satan through a “righteous invasion of truth.” In this world (and worldview), Satan is around every corner (trying, no doubt, to steal a parking spot), and every problem a Christian faces is essentially of sinister origins. There is no room for simple human weakness—or simple earthly ambiguity. Finally, in Carman’s spirituality, there is little room for earth.
In R.I.O.T.: The Movie, Vic Rizzo (the “two-fisted Chicago policeman” Carman portrays), after a confrontation with crack peddling gang members, tells his son that “fear” is a demonic spirit—based on what can most charitably be described as a clumsy reading of II Timothy 1:7.
The film then awkwardly segues into the video for “Monsters” in which demons haunt a child who has watched a “scary movie.” Carman’s response is to take “authority in Christ” over this “little punk demon”—by which he apparently means shouting the name of Jesus at it, believing really hard, and claiming our “victory.”
Without discounting the possibility that a demon might frighten a child, reflect a little on the implications of this song/video and movie narrative. A child’s overactive imagination is literally demonized. All phobias are cast as demonic in nature. And those who “claim authority” over fears and are still afraid?—well, they must somehow be weak in their faith.
As you might suspect, a warfare-centered faith eventually descends into simple machismo. The faithful Christian is the muscular one, and the faithful life becomes only about battling with the devil, coarsely boiled down to celestial locker room one-upmanship. (Mine's bigger than the devil's!) R.I.O.T: The Movie ends with a literal fist fight between Rizzo and the gang lord, the cop betting his future (and ministry calling) on victory. In his video “Great God” (from The Standard), Carman’s medieval saint fights demons in hand to hand combat (actually, they’re medieval priests who morph into demons when Carman lifts a Bible in their presence), and in “Satan, Bite The Dust” (from Addicted To Jesus) Carman is a swaggering western gunslinger aiming for the Devil.
Further complicating Carman's macho theology is the inevitably blurred image of the Jesus of scripture. It’s hard to imagine the Jesus who washed feet, cried at Lazarus’ grave (why cry?--he knew he was going to raise him in just a few moments!), or surrendered to the cross getting equal billing with the dragon-killing knight, gunslinger or gangbanger at a Carman show. The Christ of Carman’s concerts and videos is a tough guy, plain and simple, who solves his disputes by kickin’ butt. “This is the Christ that the Pharisees wanted to come,” said an ESA staff member to me of Carman’s Jesus. “This Christ would have kicked the Romans out.”
Missionary or Mercenary? If it is difficult to find vulnerability in Carman’s music, it is even more difficult to discern who our enemies actually are. In the video montage of “(God in) America Again” (from the Standard), images of homosexual activists, “radical” feminists, urban decay and homeless people are juxtaposed against a lyrical diatribe against “the spirit of Sodom and Gomorrah.” Are the images shown the result of godlessness, or acts thereof? Are they equivalent? We are unsure. In his book (also called The Standard), Carman advocates an amalgam of culture wars and spiritual warfare in which the enemies (the Devil? Humanists? the ACLU? Those SOBs who took prayer out of schools?) are to be boldly and actively resisted. While the language is that of spiritual warfare, the enemies are often conspicuously earthly.
If the identity of our enemies is unclear, so too is the nature of the victory we seek. Some of Carman’s music might convince us that the secret to “victory” is in spiritual escape (“God Is Exalted” uses the metaphor of an airline flight—when faced with turbulence the Christian is to fly higher!), while some of his ministry suggests seeking after cultural hegemony (his “Raising The Standard” tour included a petition drive to pass a constitutional amendment to allow prayer in public schools, and the book The Standard included a list of forty categories documenting the increase in our “national immorality” since 1962’s prayer ban and found Carman pining for the good old days when "acting up" meant snapping your gum in class). On one hand, faithful Christianity knows that nothing worldly matters, while on the other hand, the faithful Christian conquers the world for civil religion. Either way, the victory doesn’t feel much like grace.
This confusion is not, however, a concession to the historic Christian notions of mystery and spiritual paradox; there is little to suggest the “now and not yet” nature of our faith in R.I.O.T.. Rather, Carman’s world is one where lines are drawn clearly, where the wheat and the tares have been clearly distinguished, and where there are only good guys and bad guys. Christian mission is reduced to prayer and worship, and a high public morality.
While this vision of faith may offer some (albeit convoluted) comfort for the besieged Christian, it fails to deal effectively with the difficult and glorious prospect of following Jesus. Carman’s Christ is personal, to be sure, but he is not grounded in the mundanity of our daily grind. He is not a “friend that sticks closer than a brother” through trouble, but our ticket to “the friendly skies.” And while I would be the last to quibble with the praise and worship music that represents fully half of Carman’s songs, there is nothing in Carman’s gospel that commends the Christian to serve his neighbor humbly (or do anything humbly for that matter), or that demands a broken heart rather than indignation when faced with our world’s brokenness. And so, while it may convince us Christians that we are in fact different from the world, it erodes much of the biblical basis for that difference.