Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Book Reflection: Save Me From Myself by Brian "Head" Welch

I heard about Brian "Head" Welch's conversion back in 2005 when I was visiting my parents in Medicine Hat. There was an article in the Medicine Hat news titled something to the effect of Guitarist for Metal Band finds Jesus or something equally accessible to the largely senior citizen population of my home town. My mom asked if I knew "this band," and I recall being a mix of emotions. I was shocked because I couldn't have guessed the "Metal Band" would end up being Korn, a group I was marginally into: I loved their music, and hated Jonathan Davis' lyrics, with the exception of Falling Away from Me and Make me Bad. What I had most appreciated about their music was the haunting, spooky guitar lines and the big fat sound of layered low-tuned 7 string guitars, both Korn guitar trademarks. I couldn't tell you if that was due to Head's influence (although his solo release single "Flush" would lead one to conclude thusly), but my reaction at the time was the result of years of listening to Christian rock when I was a teenager and praying bands like Metallica would get saved. I was excited Head might work on a solo project which would have elements of the Korn sound without Jonathan Davis' lyrics. I would have been excited about his conversion if I'd known all the reasons, but the article didn't go that far. Head's autobiography, Save Me From Myself: How I Found God, Quit Korn, Kicked Drugs, and Lived to Tell My Story, goes that far, and beyond.

I'm not a big fan of autobiographies. I like to read about people's experiences, such as Bruce Feiler's Walking the Bible, or Touching the Void by Joe Simpson, or in the vein of life-changing spiritual experiences, Bruce Marciano's In the Footsteps of Jesus. I'm interested in the moment of crisis, not necessarily the life that leads to it, at least not told in excruciating detail. I like Christian autobiographies even less because they often seem to fall into the same trap the popular evangelistic testimonies did in the 80's: "I used to do drugs/drink too much/have wild sex and then I found Jesus and it was all good." Or the equally popular "I could have been a millionaire/a rock star/a famous actor but I gave it up for Jesus so I could be here speaking to you." So why would I be interested in Welch's book? One, because as I've already stated, I liked Korn's sound and was genuinely interested in finding out what had happened to Welch. Second, because Brian Welch wasn't saying he could have been somebody. From a success perspective, he was somebody, which is why his conversion was so shocking. I wanted to know why a person would leave the fame and money behind. And third, I was badly in need of a good testimony. It's been too long since I've warmed my hands at the flame of a new Christian's fervor and zeal. I was looking for a little inspiration I guess.

It takes a long time to get to the inspiration in Save Me From Myself, but I found myself engaged in Welch's journey for the simple fact that he's roughly my age, and had similar goals. I wanted to be a rock star as well, though obviously not nearly as bad. Nevertheless, I had no trouble picturing his youthful years, the hairstyles and guitar bodies, the sound of the music and the reasons Korn was different in their sound. The first portion of the book is mainly concerned with Welch's addiction to drugs and alchohol and the cyclical nature of his attempts to come clean. It serves well as a memoir of his days of rock and roll debauchery, but gets redundant at times with a near grocery-list accounting of the types of drugs Welch was using. It also deals largely with the fractured relationship he had with his daughter's mother, and the difficulties they faced. And it deals with these events in all their awful glory, not edited for television. This book is not for those who like their Christian autobiographies stripped of sex, substance abuse, and the seven words you can't say on television. I can speed-read, and did so for this portion of the book, simply due to the spiralling repetition of the events, the 'Groundhog Day' nature of Welch's lifestyle. I wanted to get to the moment of crisis, when the change occurred.
I'm glad to say that while the press has framed Welch's conversion as sudden, and media for the book purports his religious experience as leaving him clean from substance abuse without any repurcussions, Welch's journey is much like everyone else's: one step at a time. I have never personally known anyone whose conversion experience was a complete 180 moral turn, even if it seems that way initially. I'm also glad that Welch had no such expectations, or he'd likely have given up early on. He speaks of regressions into drug use, old patterns of behaving, and how Christ is making him into something new. There is no sense of complete arrival. We can tell he's in process, a work in progress, not finished yet. But this is clearly a man whose life has been changed.

I was uncomfortable that it was a seemingly Charismatic group who brought Welch to Christ, since I myself am uncomfortable with Charismatic churches. Not Charismatics mind you. I have some good friends who are Charismatic or Pentecostal. I just don't like it when they get together in large groups. However, I'm thankful for the mental stretch this required of me. If Head had gotten saved by a bunch of Baptists, I wouldn't have a growing edge off the book. I need to be reminded that God works through all his children, not just the ones I'm theologically comfortable with. All that said, I like Welch's take on denominationalism, in that he's "not into it." I'm not really sure we can ever truly not be into denominationalism; our Christianity bears the imprint of the groups we worship with, but I'm a fan of what Lewis called Mere Christianity and what Dinesh D'Souza calls traditional Christianty, and it seems that Brian Welch is too.

I wouldn't say I finished the book and felt inspired. Not in the way I'd hoped. But I did feel challenged in a few areas, primarily to get back to reading my Bible more often. That's what I mean about warming my hands at the flame of new zeal. New Christians often devour the Bible. I nibble and pick at it these days, and it's nice to have a reminder that spiritual health is directly related to our mental diet. On that note, the statement which most impacted me concerned Welch's choice of music in the wake of his conversion. He effectively said that he wasn't precluding the option to listen to mainstream music, but that he wanted to fill his head with things which pointed him toward Christ.

I can relate to that statement. I've had many conversations with people about why I don't listen to Tool an awful lot, despite my love for their sound. I just can't bring myself to listen to Maynard's lyrics repeatedly. As the man himself said, when he sang "fuck your God" in "Judith" (a Perfect Circle song, but indicative of most of Maynard's lyrical propensity), he wasn't referring to some made-up God. So for me, listening to Tool is the faith analogue of hanging around with someone who constantly and vehemently bad-mouths my wife, to the extent of making overt statements that I should never have married her. That's why I love Chevelle, especially when they sound most like a Tool knock-off. I get the sound without the invective.

I realize that some of my past posts might lead someone to assume I don't like "Christian music" but that's not necessarily true. I don't like subculture music. I love music that encourages and uplifts, which teaches and instructs, which acts as prophecy and prayer. When I was in my teens I was a huge fan of pre-John-Schlitt Petra, Rez Band, Undercover, Daniel Amos, The Choir and Michael W. Smith, just to name a few. I still try my best to stay informed as to the latest and hottest acts in the Christian or "Christian by association" scene. My current faves are P.O.D., Skillet, Flyleaf, Mute Math, and Project 86. Sometimes I force myself to take a break from the likes of Rammstein and Nine Inch Nails, just to make sure I'm getting intake of music that lifts my soul up to Christ. Its not that I find the other music drags me down into hell mind you, just that the intention of the lyrics in bands which are unabashedly Christian is less ambiguous, and in my experience, lends me a better footing in my faith when I need it.

But I like quality as much as I like content. I want the music to have integrity on its own. Good lyrics with bad music doesn't strike me as a serious sacrifice of praise. So I'm glad that someone with Head's musical chops will soon be adding his stamp to the category of sacred music. Admittedly, from what I've heard so far, his lyrics will leave something to be desired in terms of maturity and growth, but I'm cool to listen to a baby Christian find his way in the world, given that he'll be playing music with a 30-something ability. In a way, it seems to me like this will be the sequel to Make Me Bad, which admitted the Christian view of the human condition without the Christian view of a Cosmos with a Savior who could give you a hand up. Having read Save Me From Myself, I'm clear that Head has a firm grasp of that Savior-filled Cosmos, and it's a good place to be living, loving and playing music that will eat through concrete. After all, why should the devil have all the good music?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Movie Review: The Hulk 7/10

In a year awash with superhero movies, it is likely that the second cinematic attempt at bringing Marvel Comics' Incredible Hulk to the screen will be the least well remembered, despite a pre-final-credit-roll tie-in to Robert Downey Jr.'s highly successful portrayal of Iron Man. Which is too bad, since The Incredible Hulk is a far better movie than its Ang Lee channeling Freud predecessor. While I liked Eric Bana as Bruce Banner (hell, their last names even sound the same) and I enjoy watching Jennifer Connelly in the worst of films (okay, I enjoy watching Jennifer Connelly period), 2003's Hulk was all angst and no fun. Or to put it another way, too much Ang Lee and not enough Stan Lee. As I am wont to do with comic book movies, I'll be using my comic book movie criteria, but loosely throughout instead of item by item.

Louis Leterrier's direction, coupled with Zak Penn's screenplay, and an all-star cast turning in great performances makes for a great film. But it's the way in which the film stays true to its source material which really makes The Incredible Hulk as an excellent comic book film, something the first attempt never properly achieved. And when I say source material, I mean both the comic book, as well as the popular 70's television show.

First of all, Hulk Smashes. This is key. If the Hulk doesn't smash, it's just a big green dude who is somewhat tremulous. The Hulk must smash. And in a CGI filmmaking world, the Hulk can smash like he's never smashed before. The mayhem in this film gives Godzilla a run for his money. And Hulk doesn't just smash buildings, cars, or other inanimate objects. He also smashes people. He even says "Hulk Smash!" And it works.

Second, the movie nods its head to both the comic-book and the television series on many occasions, the most successfully with Lou Ferrigno's presence, both seen and heard. Seen as a security guard who can be bribed with pizza, and also as the Hulk's voice, which works really well. There's also a moment where the haunting piano music from the television series is employed in a scene where Banner is destitute in a South American city. There are others, and the comic book references abound, which is a fanboy plus. In addition, as was evidenced in Jackson's immersive Lord of the Rings sets and prop-work, those invisible layers of mythology add to a film, even if it isn't seen onscreen.

Third, Ed Norton is great as Banner. I read a few reviews that stated his performance was flat, to which I must reply, "he's playing a guy who needs to keep his heart rate down. How else would you play such a character, but flat?" If Bana's Banner had been given similar heart-rate rules, he'd have turned into the Hulk every 20 seconds. On that note, the film follows my "superheroes don't shag everything that comes their way" rule, but for very different reasons than say, Iron Man.

Fourth, Hulk smashes. That's really all I want to see when I go to a movie about the big green superhero with anger management issues. I want to see something get smashed. And I wasn't disappointed.