Believe it or not, I was once a “rock star” (or at least, attempting to make it as one). I had four years of professional classical voice training (and even more “learning by experience,” which can often be a superior teacher in many ways) as well as a few years of Music Theory in Community College, although I applied it to the music I had grown up enjoying, and still enjoy. Many people were surprised to see videos or hear audio of the music I did (melodic hard rock and progressive “heavy metal”, for the most part), as it seemed to them a shade contrary to my gentle nature and often quiet demeanor. And I generally did not “harmonize” well with the crowd that played that type of music. I found a great many differences between my personality and the entire “scene.” For one, there was somewhat of a dichotomy when it came to most aspects of the person I am.
There is the fact that there was (at least at the time, and still some today) drug and alcohol use in that scene, and I am sober, but that was something I found to be a non-issue, as the level of musicians I opted to work with generally avoided mind altering substances as well, and if they did not, I usually did not end up staying in that situation for very long. In situations where drugs or alcohol were offered to me, I could always resist those temptations by knowing where they had led me before. But there were more key issues than that.
For one thing, very few people understood, or acknowledged my spirituality. Don’t get me wrong; there are a lot of Christians in the music scene to which I am referring. Unfortunately, most times there seemed to be a very harsh dividing line in regards to spiritual thinking: they were either Christians of the fundamentalist, conservative evangelical variety, or they were fundamentalist atheists. Of the former, most times they were merely using fundamentalist ideologies in order to defend their own fears and prejudices; homophobia, male dominion over women and patriarchy, greed, self righteousness, and demonizing of anyone different from what they considered to be normal and acceptable. With the latter, they seemed outright adamant that anyone who had any sort of a belief in God, let alone Christ was weak and had no place in the “metal scene” (One band even specifically requested that if I were asked in an interview what my beliefs were, to deny my faith completely and refused to allow me to thank God in the liner notes for our demo). I lost quite a few auditions from saying I was a Christian (and also from stating that I am a liberal Christian, as most of the Christians I met in the scene were all of the fundamentalist way of thinking). I don’t mind. If they were that opposed to and that threatened by my beliefs, it never would have worked.
Then there was the issue of my sexuality. While I did not advertise it to them when auditioning, or attempt to make it a part of the band, I did not make any efforts to hide it either. Many of the musicians who I worked with would be thrilled to discover that the woman I loved was bisexual and had a female partner (their whole take was, female bisexuals were fine, male bisexuals were not). But upon finding out that I too am bisexual and had a male partner, many rejected and cast me out the same way many conservative Christians and churches have. I found this particularly interesting and amusing in one instance, when a group of rather androgynous male musicians who often wore more makeup than any woman I have ever met (and who used machismo, homophobia, sexism and sometimes racism to compensate, “lest someone – gasp – think they were gay or bisexual”) cast me out upon finding this information out, even though they had liked me as well as the musical ideas I had to contribute and thought my vocal talents were ideally suited to what they were performing. Again, I am glad that one did not work out. I cannot work with musicians who cannot at least accept me for who I am.
And finally, there was the issue that although I did not always find it necessary to work my political views or views on sexuality into songs, I did always have a longing to be able to talk about my spirituality in the music I did, at least occasionally, for I am forever grateful to God for giving me a voice, a way to express myself musically, and the creativity to write what I am feeling in my heart and soul and meld those into a song.
I once proposed to a band I was with that since there were a lot of anti-Christian bands in the scene (although truth be told, the entire “satanic” thing in heavy metal is more of an act to sell records and incite controversy than it is an actual belief system they have) or bands focused on themes which were predominantly “evil,” violent or angry all the time (which while I respect the idea of getting out negative emotions through music, some seem to revel in negativity which I do not care for), and a lot of hardcore conservative Christian metal bands focused on preaching a narrow and exclusionary interpretation of the Bible, that we should try doing a progressive metal band with a liberal Christian slant. I argued that just as the media has stolen the term “Christian,” so has “Christian Music,” with only bands which adopt a fundamentalist evangelical view deemed worthy as being called “Christian.” Why not have a band that has songs that promote peace, compassion, hope, justice, and the idea that God loves everyone, not just those of a certain belief system? The idea was met with ridicule and resistance. (One might even say it sank like a “lead zeppelin,” to make a musical pun). They seemed to think that for the most part, people wish to think in black and white extremes and would not welcome something that would challenge that. Despite all of the challenges, I did manage to find open minded people (who also turned out to be better musicians than the others; I assume that was because rather than focus on personal prejudices and opinions and conforming to the ideology of others, they chose to focus on performance and artistry!) and was involved in more than a few band projects with some great people. Did all of them agree with my beliefs or understand my bisexuality, my uniqueness, or my unique relationships? No. Actually, none of them did, that I can recall.
But there was a mutual respect despite the differences that allowed us to work together and create good music. My bisexuality, my relationships with the woman and the man in my life, and private life, politics, or my views which were different than theirs were a non-issue, and not discussed as having any relevance to my abilities as a musician, my belonging to the band, or being a good person who they liked and respected as one of the group. While many did not agree with all of my spiritual ideas, I found more than a few who respected my spirituality and my belief in God, even if they did not always share the same ideas I did when it came to specifics.
While my idea of doing a Liberal Christian progressive metal band never flew, and no one ever liked the idea, I did find an openness to some of my lyrics where God and the Spirit of Christ always managed to find a way to show up (and that makes sense, as there is no part of life to me that God cannot be a part, and God always shows up in places we might not initially expect!) In several songs, I would attack religious hypocrisy and the use of God’s Name to sanction prejudice, greed, war, hate and violence. I would be critical of judging others. I would offer that there is hope in love and that we should examine our lives and make sure that we are sowing hope instead of hatred, and acknowledge the importance of respecting and affirming diversity in all people. I would not be afraid of using the name of God or Jesus in lyrical content, and not as part of a swear. I found that more often than not it was generally accepted by most listeners.
I did have the opportunity to make some good music, and actually touched people with some of the lyrics I wrote, the passion of performing them, and even found that there were more than a few who could relate. Performing as a lead singer or “fronting” a band is a huge task and more often than not, you are the conduit for connecting the audience with the music. Yet you sort of become one with everything – the music, the band, the audience. Singing for me was a very spiritual experience, whether I was singing to a few people or a crowd (the largest being about 500 people) and for those who have not done it, the closest thing I can relate performing to is sort of an emotional nakedness, an exposing your heart and soul completely. It takes faith in what you are doing, and I cannot recall one performance I ever made where I did not pray for strength beforehand, as well as ask that if someone needed hope from something I had to say, that they would find it. And I often had those prayers answered.
When I had a song which someone was touched, or moved by, or someone heard it or read the lyrics and after a show would approach me and say “I can relate to that,” or “That gave me some hope,” or “Thanks so much,” it made all of the struggles so worth the while. When I would touch someone with the gift of song, voice, or lyric that God gave me, it really gave me a sense of joy doing what I was doing. I could feel God flowing through me at those times, and it truly was a blessing. It was a form of ministry in a way, definitely not an expected one by what many of us think of when we hear the term “ministry,” but since when has there been any limitation on how and where God can show up? I think the correct answer to that question would be only when we are not open to such happening and we allow such limitations to be placed on God’s reach.
But with the good, came the bad at times. I found myself leaving the bands that I was with as they moved on, or I moved on. This was not always due to differences in personality or any type of conflict, or an inability to find common ground. I often found that the reason I was leaving bands had to do with their desire to assimilate to whatever music was “popular” as opposed to what they felt and loved, and I kept telling them, “If you don’t do what you believe in, people will know. Even if they don’t, you will know inside that rather than be appreciated for doing something you love you sold out. Would you rather be liked for who you are, or because you conformed to what other people thought you should be so they would like you?” Most times, unfortunately, they chose the latter rather than maintaining artistic integrity and letting it flow from their heart and soul. I chose to march to the beat of a different drummer, and would stay with bands for as long as I could until they eventually would choose to do “what was trendy and acceptable” rather than what they felt.
Quite frequently, the reason cited for conformity chosen over creativity was that of making money. While I can understand why they might do that, it did not resonate with me as I never pursued the passion of music to make money, or be “famous” or for any other reason other than the pure joy it brought me and the hope that the unique visions I had might bring joy to others.
I cannot think of a better comparison for the way I approach my life. So many times in life, I have been faced with that same dilemma – choose to be “popular” and “widely accepted” even if that means being untrue to who God Created me to be, contrary to my ethics and beliefs, and against the very fabric of what I believe in, or to be true to myself, to be happy and find my own unique place in Creation. I am grateful to God that I have chosen the latter. Just as the corporate music scene seems to choose to “play it safe” and opt to give attention to what will be accepted in the mainstream rather than uniqueness or individuality, so do many churches or religious organizations, and so does (to a large extent) society in general. Those who are too “out there” or “inaccessible” are often “left out” in order to appeal to a wider range of people. However, the Christianity I know, and the Jesus I know, do not make these distinctions. There is room enough for everyone, a place for all the players in the grand Orchestra of life. And when I was in band situations where I found that individuality and uniqueness as well as artistic integrity and passion was being deliberately sacrificed in favor of mass appeal and profit, well, it struck a sour note with me. Eventually, I decided to move on from the entire scene, at least at this juncture in my life.
I’m still a singer (although I am currently no longer performing professionally, I still sing for the pure enjoyment of it), and I still look the part, with the long hair (although I guess that is not associated with rock as it once was). I still enjoy the music, go to a good concert once in a while (just had the wonderful opportunity to see my favorite progressive metal band, Queensryche, recently and enjoyed hearing them live as much as I did years ago), will break into passionate singing once in a while or sing a solo at church, and was doubling on both baritone and tenor in choir for some time, and given the right opportunity, would gladly join a band again.
But my lack of any solid involvement with a music related project does not stop me from realizing how profoundly God can speak to us, connect to us, or help us to see God in one another through music. Music is yet another reminder that there is always something out there God puts to remind us that we are all in some ways connected and not alone, even if we suffer from the illusion that we are. First there are the instances where we may be dealing with a difficult issue in our lives, and we may find ourselves praying within, seeking some sort of reassurance, or asking God to help us find the reassurance to make it through a trying time. I cannot count the times when I have been dealing with some issue and suddenly I would turn on the radio or hear a song that seemed to offer some kind of “message,” be it a hymn or a pop song on the radio? I can recall many times when this has happened, be it something direct (a time when I was struggling with issues and reconciling spirituality and sexuality, thinking, “How can I know God Loves me as I am?” and suddenly turned on the radio to hear “Just The Way You Are,” the verses saying, “Don’t go changing to try to please me” and the refrain being, “I love you just the way you are”) and more obscure ways, such as hearing a song that gave me hope or let me know that I was not alone in feeling sadness at times. In one of the books in the “Conversations With God” series, the author, Neale Donald Walsch, believes that God speaks to us through music in this way. I liked his opinion on how to discern which times God speaking to us in this way: that those messages are always those of joy, truth, and love. I can agree with that, although I would say that God speaks to us most profoundly when we listen to our hearts.
Then there are instances where I will hear a hymn in church that will somehow relate to things I may be having a difficult time with. I recall once being in a new church and having a difficult time deciding if this was, in fact the right church for me to be in. Was this a place that would help me feel closer to God, and to follow the teachings of Jesus as I understood them; that would accept me for who I was as a child of God without all of the dogma and the rhetoric I had experienced from some churches in the past? Would this bring me closer to God? And then the solo for that day began, with one of the most beautiful songs I had ever heard: “Surely the Presence of the Lord is in this Place; I feel God’s mighty Power and God’s Grace; I can hear the rush of angels’ wings and see Glory on each face; Surely the Presence of the Lord is in this Place.” It touched my heart deeply. The Lord’s Prayer, which is probably my favorite of all prayers, was sung as part of the service. Later in the service, another hymn which has always brought me peace, “Be Still and Know” played. On top of that, I noticed that the hymns were being sung with more inclusive language and there seemed to be a focus on hope and joy in all of them, which made me feel even more at home. And finally, there was the refrain to another hymn I turned to in the program: “Where there is love, there surely is God, where there is love.” The whole experience was quite amazing to me. And it was not just a matter of me seeing or hearing these things, I actually felt them, through the music, as strange as it may sound. These did not feel like hymns to me, but rather love songs connecting us with God. I knew then that I had found my “place in the choir” so to speak, a church that would be a place for me to grow spiritually and stay close to God, which it still remains.
Then there are the times that God would work through music to help me bring hope to another that were not related to my band days, but were of a different note. There were several instances where I would sing a solo in church and someone would tell me that it had moved them in some way, or when I would sing in the choir, or a very special time I recall when myself and another singer from the same church made a Christmas visit to a nursing home just to song the Lord’s Prayer to someone whose sole Christmas wish that was, at the request of our friend who ministered there. All she wanted for a gift was for someone to sing the Lord’s Prayer to her. It was only myself and another singer with no music other than our voices, but the way in which she was touched by it was one of the most powerful experiences, if not the most powerful, I have ever had as a singer and I thanked God for letting me be a part of that.
But when it comes to how I think about God and music, there is one particular experience from my days in the music scene that has stuck with me, and it is one of those wonderful reminders from God that no matter how much we may feel out of place or “out of tune” as those who are both Christian and LGBT, there is still a place and a purpose for each and every one of us.
There was a certain guitarist I worked with back in my band days. He and I were working on some songs to demo for a band, and he was blessed with an amazing vocal ability in addition to being a gifted guitarist and songwriter. We had decided that the hook to the songs we were going to present to the drummer, bassist, and keyboardist that we hoped would join us in the project were going to be some elaborate vocal harmonies.
We started out with standard thirds and fifths, and then he came up with a new idea – he gave me a note to sing that sounded out of place. When he sang his notes solo and I sang mine solo, it seemed as if they just would not fit together. Keep in mind that this was while I was still taking Music Theory in college, and while I had an ear and a voice, I did not possess the knowledge he did of harmonies and how they worked. It sounded to me as if the note he was telling me to sing would not fit the melody at all, but rather that it would create dissonance or cacophony. However, eager to learn and having confidence in his knowledge and ability as a musician, I tried it.
I was amazed. What seemed to be two notes and a melodies that were totally out of place and unrelated blended to create an absolutely beautiful harmony. Working in bands, I would also see the same type of thing when two guitar parts or elements of a song did not seem to work alone, but blended wonderfully together. Even later, I experienced the same thing when singing in choir, hearing the individual parts but not really having any idea how they were going to work until I heard them together.
All of this served to remind me of something about God, and especially the God of Love Jesus taught about. God often seems to have these strange and mysterious ways of reminding those of us who are different that we do in fact belong and fit into the symphony of Creation. Just as seemingly incompatible notes and tones can blend together to create beautiful harmonies, those of us who are unashamedly LGBT and Christian can do so as well as we can understand that we too are part of the symphony of Creation. Just as the two notes in the harmony in my story, which seemed as if they would create discord and disharmony together blended beautifully to create a perfect harmony, I am forever grateful to God that living the truth of the unique individual I was created to be and living as a bisexual man in committed, honest, and intimate relationships with both a woman and a man, embracing diversity in life in myself and others, maintaining my unique understanding of God, and being a Christian are also compatible. On a personal level, it reminds me that no matter how far out of tune society and some others may feel I am. I am in harmony with God. But there is more to it than that simple analogy referring to my own life. I think of it like this: each one of us, regardless of our race, color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, sexuality, belief system, political stance, interests, tastes or whatever other factor are all like “notes,” “parts,” or “sections” in God’s Grand Symphony of Creation. Yes, we are meant to have our own unique pitch, timbre, color, sound and place, but at the same time, we are all part of the same ensemble. We may each sing our own song, and each of us has our own unique place, yet at the same time, we are all part of a greater piece of work. We are all notes in God’s Magnum Opus, each with our own special part, from major to minor, different octaves and modes, and many different keys and frequencies that are all connected by the fact that for all of our diversity, we are all still children of the same God of Love Who has a purpose for each and every one of us.
And it is in taking heed of the teachings of Jesus, Who reminded us that in working together and for and with one another, that brings us all into tune, and ultimately harmony. It is to me only through His teachings that we can find the one key that will resonate with all of us. All of us, with our different ideas and individualities and lives that can find a common chord in the concept of showing our thanks to God for all we have through love and respect and compassion for one another. It is God’s Love that can bring a collective mass of voices into tune as one. When we take Jesus’ teachings to heart, we find that no matter how different we may be, we are all still part of the same orchestra, each with our own individual part to play, and somehow it all works as long as we remember that love is the backbone that holds it all together.
All of God’s Creation to me is very much like a song in and of itself, and it is in respecting and affirming each others’ unique and original tune, yet still seeking God’s guidance in working together, with one heart and one voice guided by Love despite whatever tunes we may sing individually, that we can create even more beautiful music when we allow God’s Love to help us work together – in perfect harmony.
John Campbell is a native of Alabama.