Jonathan Rundman has developed a very specific niche: indie but earnest instead of ironic; Christian but expansive; devout but terribly smart; Evangelical but respectful of others’ traditions. He is clever without being precious.
You can hear that pin-sharp cleverness in “Waiting for Nixon,” a song about meeting the ex-president in heaven that becomes a parable about grace and the mechanics of being saved. You can also see Rundman’s wit in “Dialysis Carpool,” a jaunty number about everyone going to the doctor’s office together, about the life-affirming possibility of communion in ordinary places.
Rundman’s faith comes from a middle-of-the road, Midwestern ethic that foregrounds reliance, trust, grace, and being close to one’s neighbors. He grew up on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and is now living in Minnesota. Over the last twenty years, he has completed over a dozen albums and played hundreds of live shows.
Rundman has recorded songs in favor of gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender (GLBT) ordination and sung on the same stages as people who believe in the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ.
Rundman is the only musician I can imagine writing 52 songs about the Christian church calendar, with indie rock lyrics about the ecclesiastical implications of committee work in relation to the Advent. How many people could write something called “A Heartland Liturgy,” with rock and roll remakes of the Sanctus, Gloria, and Agnus Dei? This is not eccentricity though, not a shtick to hang album sales on. It is a genuine and holy need to update and still maintain the traditions of Christendom—all Christendom. (Rundman is as ecumenical as he is proudly Lutheran, in the best liberal tradition.) Or to put it another way, he says what he means and means what he says.
Rundman’s songs speak to a third rail in contemporary musical criticism—a third way between work that is so personal or cryptic that meanings cannot be universalized (like Sufjan Stevens) or music that becomes pure schmaltz (like Celine Dion). In “What We Talk About When We Talk about Love,” Carl Wilson diagnoses an aversion to earnestness in contemporary culture: “a certain species of emotions, ones involved with attachment, duty, family relationships and so on are particularly treated as icky.” This has “generally to do with the modern elite ideal of being free agents who aren’t going to be deterred from their pleasures and ambitions by such conventional and mundane ties.”
Rundman’s attachments—to his faith, to his family and to a larger community, are unfashionable. His earnestness, however, does not default to sentimentality. Rundman refuses to bathe in the marshmallow flush of current evangelicalism. He interlaces an earthbound solidity with his intelligence, his love of community, family and God. That integration is the radical quality of his songwriting. He trusts his head, his heart, and his traditions.
I was going to say that Rundman should be more famous. Perhaps more people should listen to Rundman as much for his jangly energy and excellent guitar work as for the tenderness of his words—his openness and his willingness to engage with the divine. But I wonder if he is just happy enough to record, tour on occasion, and live his vocation, regardless of who is listening. He’s kind of prophetic that way.
How do you make people more earnest, less cynical, less angry, more aware of grace? How do you explain the miracle of grace, to those exhausted and frustrated by the current constructions of Christian thought?
This is really really tricky, too. American Christians don’t want to hear about grace. They want to work to earn something. I listen to conservative talk radio every day to try to understand their side of things, and because it’s plain old entertaining radio. The hosts are constantly talking about personal responsibility, and “this is my money, I worked for it,” and “Americans build up their own lives and careers with hard work and dedication.” Whenever I read the parable of the workers in the vineyard, I realize how radical the idea of grace sounds in the USA today. I’ve never seen a televangelist preach on the parable of the workers in the vineyard. How would they do it? I tried to communicate this idea of God’s unreasonable and free wheeling generosity in my song “Forgiveness Waltz.” Maybe the best way to talk about grace is to do it with art and images. It’s like a dance. It’s less like math. Another good way to communicate about Grace is to live like a realist, but with joy. Lutherans love paradox—saint/sinner, lost/found, law/Gospel, and somewhere in those messy areas God’s grace is revealed.
Can you talk a bit about your relationship with the technical languages of faith, the intensity of your commitment to things like the Kyrie, the liturgical calendar, or even technical terms for the church building itself like the Narthex.
As I’ve considered my vocation as a songwriter, I’ve realized that my creative role is to say the thing that nobody else has said before in a rock and roll song. It’s been my motivation with old songs like “Front Row at the Fashion Show,” brand new songs like “Dialysis Carpool,” and all my faith-based songs too. Before I wrote and recorded “Sound Theology,” I had a creative epiphany when I realized that nobody had ever used rock music to explore the mainline Protestant experience. There are 5 million ELCA Lutherans, plus all the many millions of other Lutherans around the globe, plus all the Methodists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and whoever else. It’s the daily life experience of scores and scores of people everywhere, but nobody had ever sung about it. So that’s the reason I focus on the Kyrie, and church architecture, committees, vocation, and the liturgical calendar. I think it’s interesting material. It’s the reality for millions of people, and Neil Young, Gwen Stefani, Steven Curtis Chapman, or Casting Crowns aren’t writing about it. It’s worth writing about and singing about, so I’m gonna do it.
How do the twin forces of feeling and knowing interlace themselves? How do they gird your personal Christian life?
I find that most American Christians have a pretty emotional faith life. They like sensitive, heart-tugging praise songs, and they like to be moved to tears, and sing, and raise their hands. Hey, if that’s where you’re at, God bless you. Luckily for folks like this, there are zillions of congregations for them to attend where their needs can be met. For me, ever since I was a kid, I’ve been more attracted to the nerdier aspects of faith. Old stuff, quiet stuff, wordier stuff, candles, symbols, images. My style is less popular, but there are quite a few of us out there in the world, and we need to go to church, too. Of course, I feel great emotion and passion in my faith, but it just expresses itself in a different way.
In songs like “Looking for Connection,” do you find yourself called to ecumenism as an example of larger community building, or as one example of community building. For example, in other songs, you mention that carpooling to dialysis is holy, and that working on a committee is for the Lord.
I really am ecumenical. And I am because I love denominations. And I love organized religion. I’m always annoyed when Christian bands say, “We’re a non-denominational band, we don’t want to be so divisive.” I think denominations are fantastic. I think every Christian should know about the church they attend, who they’re affiliated with, figure out how that connects with their own values and their own spiritual journey, and they should get involved. I think almost every denomination has something valuable to teach the others in the Christian community. It’s that whole thing of “the hand can’t say to the foot I don’t need you.” I think personal spirituality is overrated, and I think organized religion is underrated.
How does one become liturgically conservative and socially liberal? What do you think of the Sojourners mission of reconnecting economic justice with the practice of Christianity, especially with regard to the irony you have talked about, in how the gospel requires a radical simplicity and the culture of the current Christian church does not seem to?
I don’t know how that happens, but the most socially liberal church people that I know are usually the most liturgically conservative. And yes, it’s funny for me to see the Christian Right, evangelical community getting all hyper and excited about the environment, and poverty, and liturgy, ‘cause for me in the ELCA Lutheran realm since the ‘80s, that’s what we’ve been working on the entire time. It’s a drag how we mainline groups never get any media attention, and now all of a sudden when Rick Warren starts hanging out with Bono, the press says, “Finally, the Christians are caring about the poor!” We mainline Protestants are the Rodney Dangerfield of the church.
Do you really know people who “fight about the six-day earth, or the second birth”?
Yes, that song is true, drawn from numerous examples. It was initially inspired by a presenter I heard at a youth gathering who did a workshop about how the eruption of Mount St. Helens proved that the earth was only a few thousand years old. The “second birth” issue is something that all Lutherans are faced with when they meet an evangelical who asks, “So, when did you get saved?” Of course, the questioner is looking for a specific date, time, and location. There are a bunch of fun answers that will really send the asker into a tizzy, something like, “When I was four months old, at my baptism,” or, “This morning, when I woke up and washed my face, looked in the mirror, and remembered God’s love for me,” or, “Two thousand years ago on Calvary.”
Do you see any parallels between the ordination of women in 1970s and the ordaining of gay men and lesbians now? If so, what are they?
I was in diapers when Lutheran women first got ordained, so I don’t remember what it was like before, but yes, I think there are some parallels. The key thing is this: I think all it takes for those unsure people in the pews is for them to meet and know about somebody—a real, actual, human pastor. I think that’s the secret to getting over this homophobia in the church. People need to meet, visit with, eat with, and work with wonderful, kind, loving, responsible, gay Christians. Once it stops being about an idea, and starts being about people, it’s much more difficult to turn them away. The church where I grew up called their first woman pastor in the last few years, and they’re a pretty old-fashioned congregation. When she got the call, there was some hesitation, but once the parishioners met her and got to know her, there were no problems. So many folks who oppose gay ordination would tell you that they’ve never met or talked to a gay person (that they knew of), and when you’re living in a small rural town, that’s not hard for me to believe. That’s why I offered one of my songs for inclusion on an Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries benefit CD. The more I can do to support GLBT leaders in the church, ordained or not, then the more clueless people in the pews will have a chance to know and care about a real, out gay Christian.
How does being involved in a church that actively welcomes GLBT voices jibe with being involved with or being paid by organizations that are actively homophobic? How does allowing women ministers jibe with sharing resources with organizations that do not allow women to speak?
This has been a real struggle for me. For example, a few months ago I was asked to play at a big gathering sponsored by a very conservative youth outreach organization. I knew that they’d probably have a really psychologically manipulative altar call, and that they’d be mortified if they knew what was going on at the church where I attend. I almost turned down the gig. But I sort of knew one of the organizers, and I knew that he himself was a cool, reasonable, and not-insane guy. So I said yes, hoping that at the very least I could bring a fresh voice and attitude to event. So, I played the event, and much to my surprise, they handled everything pretty well. They had an altar call, but it was done as respectfully as one could hope. There were some weirdos around, but they didn’t rule the roost, and in general it was a positive experience. Ultimately though, I didn’t really connect. My attempt to teach the crowd some liturgical songs, some traditional hymns, and my performing of rock songs about church committees and vocation, just wasn’t where they were at. I talked to a few people, sold about four CDs, and that was it. I try to be a breath of fresh air for the Christian Right, but they just don’t get it. It’s like I’m up there playing the koto and singing in Japanese.
You speak against keeping score in “Forgiveness Waltz,” but isn’t the liturgical calendar’s central goal keeping track of time, being obsessive about time?
I think if anything in the church gets obsessive, it’s probably not being utilized properly. The liturgical calendar is just a tool, and it’s supposed to be helpful. It’s supposed to be beautiful and functional. When it becomes an idol in and of itself, then it’s time to re-evaluate the situation. That’s the danger that comes with a high-church faith practice. The churchy stuff can get idolized. In that line of the song “keeping score, keeping track, keeping time, while the hours keep turning” is exactly the obsession that people get stuck in. Christians get so paranoid about everything: who is watching, who’s saved or not, who said the wrong or right thing. If our salvation depended on us keeping all those balls in the air, we’d certainly all be screwed forever. One of the things I like best about being a Lutheran is our commitment to constant Reformation. It’s a great way to be sure that our churchy obsessions don’t drag us down. We will change and rebel and reform to insure that God’s gracious love for the universe is the focus, rather than all our churchy hoo-ha.
What do you tell your own children about God? What will you tell them as they grow older? What happens if they fail to share the faith of their parents?
I think sometimes Christian parents get too obsessed with immersing their kids in the faith, and in the end it backfires on them. My wife and I are trying to chill out, and naturally involve our kids in our family faith—life in joyful, relaxed, flexible and organic ways. I don’t stress out over things like “What if my kids leave the church when they’re 18?!” When my wife and I were growing up, our parents were faithful and cool and loving, and for us it was obvious. That’s the kind of home I want to provide, too.
How does your wife’s position at Augsburg Fortress, the country’s biggest Lutheran publisher, function in relationship with your work? Before bed do you read sections of the Wittenberg Confession tenderly to each other?
When we got married, neither of us were doing professional church work, but over the years our careers have really evolved into an overlapping situation. Now sometimes we even get gigs together where my wife is the keynote speaker and I’m the band. She’s got a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology, and she’s done some very interesting research on faith development in the brains of infants and toddlers. We have a ton of fun together working as church resource people. We both like to be up front at the microphone, but obviously our content is totally different. My wife is also a very gifted classical musician, and she’s been known to sit in with me occasionally on drums. We do kind of standing-snare with cymbal and brushes drum kit, like the Violent Femmes would use.
Rundman has an album out called Isnomoniaccomplishments on Salt Lady Record and is touring to support it. You can find his MP3s. tour dates, blog and online store at http://www.jonathanrundman.com/.
Anthony Easton is a writer, artist, and curator from Toronto, Ontario. He is interested in issues of popular culture, American faith, earnestness and the intersections between secular and social life.