Dayton, Ohio, 1988
We waited in the hotel lobby for our church bus to pull up for the trip home. The television was tuned to MTV. We’d been here for a youth convention, a gathering of church groups for Christian inspiration, training, and soul-winning. We’d all been thoroughly schooled regarding the evils of MTV—sex, drugs, Satan worship, the works—so most of us just ignored the videos that played, while a few made a show of regurgitating the scorn that had been fed to us for so long.
I was seventeen, and in between worlds. For awhile I’d been, as they say, “on fire” for Jesus. In past years, these conventions had inspired me to become stronger in my convictions and faith. This 1988 convention was more or less the same as in previous years, but I was different. I had begun to question things. At the convention, I kept seeing fault lines: holes in dogma, hypocrisy all around me, platitudes inadequate to the complexity of reality. I listened in on a heated argument about the legitimacy or inherent evil of Christian rock music, and I remember thinking how petty the points of argument were. By the time I packed my bag to head home, I felt decidedly underwhelmed by the entire thing.
As we stood waiting for our bus in the lobby, George Harrison’s When We Was Fab came on.
I had heard the song before, and I liked it. Musically, it was flights above most of the Christian rock I’d been listening to for the past several years. Lyrically, it seemed harmless. Harrison was waxing nostalgic about his days in the Beatles: Back then long time ago when grass was green, woke up in a daze. If I’d tried hard enough, I could surely have found some insidious aspects to criticize. Caresses fleeced you in the morning light, for instance, was surely a reference (I might have said) to the lascivious lifestyle the stars had engaged in with their groupies. I’d been trained to find evil in the most innocuous-seeming detail. When it came to music, nothing non-Christian was ever innocent. But I didn’t want to think that way anymore, and certainly not about Harrison’s song.
Others did. As the song played, one of the kids next to me started picking at it. The inherent evil of the song was already a given just for the fact that it was playing on MTV, but the kid felt inclined to point out additional offences. The song didn’t make any sense. It probably had backward masking. There was that reference to a false religion at the end of the video, in which George grows six additional arms and floats Hindu god-like in the air. And what was this word fab, anyway? “Fab,” the kid sneered, in the way of a bully repeating and mocking another’s words. It was stupid, it didn’t make any sense, there were hidden meanings in the video, etc.
The kid clearly had no idea what he was talking about. Did he know that the Beatles had been referred to as The Fab Four? Did he even know that George Harrison had been a Beatle? These were basic details about the culture that surrounded us. I wanted to explain this to the kid, but I couldn’t. Any explanation would reveal that I knew these things, and how could I know these things if I had been keeping separate from the sinful ways of the world?
I would be judged for the simple fact of knowing. Judged because I wasn’t ignorant.
The kid’s derision of the song held a mirror up to us, our youth group. I was shaken by what I saw. Is this how we view the world? We look at something and have no context for what we’re looking at, and we don’t try to understand it. But we see nothing wrong with passing judgment based solely on a first glance, on assumptions. Is this who we are? Is that what we do?
I would come to understand, over time, that the question had no easy answer that would encompass the behavior of all Christians. But that day, as Harrison evoked Dylan and sang It’s all over now, baby blue, I couldn’t help feeling that something was coming to an end. The bus gonna come and take you away, he sang, dream-like. He was singing about death (probably, particularly, Lennon’s). I boarded our church bus with all this in my head. It was taking me away in a different sense. I wouldn’t be coming back.