An Ecumenical Chatter: When Rev Robert Hood Met Fr Alan Green
, June 6th, 2016 09:56
As well as being a true genius of Detroit techno, Robert Hood is an ordained pastor. Here, Luke Turner conducts a conversation on Christianity, politics and music between Hood and the Reverend Alan Green (NO NOT THAT REV AL GREEN) of St John On Bethnal Green Church, London.
Statistically, things are not looking good for Christianity in the UK. A recent report found that the number of people saying they have no religion has risen from 25% in 2011 to 48.5% in 2014, and only 1.4% of the population say they attend church on a Sunday. Although most denominations of the Christian church have been outspoken in criticism of Tory austerity policies, and lead many of the organisations and food banks working to alleviate the consequences, this hasn't saved them from a sense that they're out of step from contemporary liberal morality. In nearly 20 years writing about music, I've probably encountered so few musicians who profess any form of Christian faith that I can count them on one hand. In these troubling times, Church leaders might do well to have a chat with the two men (one in a dog collar, one in a Puma t-shirt) who, on a Tuesday morning back in May, sat down in a Clerkenwell hotel for a conversation about faith and music. Father Alan Green is vicar at St John On Bethnal Green, a church was built in 1826 by Sir John Soane. It's a stunning space that Green uses to his advantage in welcoming and spreading the word to non-Christian audience who might otherwise only enter a spiritual building for wedding or funeral. St John's is frequently a venue for gigs, with Stephen O'Malley of Sunn O))), Richard Skelton and Bohren Und Der Club Of Gore all recently playing sets. Behind the bar you'll always find Father Green, dog collar on, seeking inspiration from Himself at the wedding of Cana, pouring wine with an exceptionally generous tilt of the wrist. Every Good Friday, the series of Stations Of The Cross paintings (the work of a non-Christian artist) hung in the church are accompanied for meditation by music, which over the past few years has included Diamanda Galas, Michael Nyman and Joy Division. Next year, one of the pieces will come from Robert Hood, techno pioneer, founder of radical Detroit collective Underground Resistance, and ordained pastor who has just released the brilliant Victorious LP under his Floorplan alias. After reading an earlier Quietus interview where Hood spoke at length about how he sees his DJing as the Lord's work, I thought it'd be interesting to get him in conversation with one of his colleagues in Christ. Despite being separated by indescribably different backgrounds, the was an instant common ground, with a lot of 'mmms' and 'yes-ing' on the tape of the interview. The prayers of any techno enthusiasts at St John's were well and truly answered as after the chat Green offered to give a piece of music for next Easter's Stations Of The Cross.
Reverend Hood and Father Green, what was the first religious music that really spoke to you?
Robert Hood: My earliest memory was Aretha Franklin's 'How I Got Over', it was an anthem in Detroit, that's what really grabbed my soul and spoke to my spirit. God began to reveal that message on a personal level.
Alan Green: I've never really separated out the spiritual and the secular. I grew up in the church, with traditional hymns, but at the same time I was beginning to listen to pop music, the mid-60s, The Beatles, which had just as much influence on me as those hymns did. Then the hippy stuff like Pink Floyd started to raise questions about how I lived my life and the world in which I lived.
There was a connection between music and radicalism for you?
AG: As a teenager I was very clear that I wasn't in the church just to toe the line, but I saw there was a capacity within Christianity and the bible not to fall into line but to question the status quo, that's what kept me in the church. I was listening to the sort of music that did that questioning.
Robert, was that the same for you with the radicalism of Underground Resistance, were you questioning some of the orthodoxies of the Christian faith?
RH: Absolutely. I found myself addressing what I felt was the hypocrisy of the church, the spirit of condemnation that I felt coming from the church, and self-righteous attitudes that I saw from some of the church elders and how they viewed secular music, and the way we dressed, and what they thought of the typical musician such as myself in this new genre called techno music. I found myself wondering if this Christian culture is for me, but then I heard songs like Heaven 17s 'We're Going To Live For A Very Long Time' and Marvin Gaye's 'Holy Holy', and I became to relate to songs and messages like that and thinking these are just people like me. Christianity and the Holy Spirit is not just for a special group of people, it's for all of us. That's when I really began to seek God and his will for my life.
Do you think that the rebellious nature and radicalism of Christianity is ignored in the secular world?
AG: I DJ once a month in a local pub with a colleague from the next church down from me, and we always wear our collars, and we have the same conversations every time 'you're not really a vicar, why are you dressed like that?' That level of expectation that I'm going to be conservative is really disappointing, but it is how many people think about clergy and the church. It is about a proper engagement with the world and how Jesus relates to the world around us, and at times that makes us out of step because we're more conservative, and at others because we're more radical. In the time of Mrs Thatcher the church, to give it its due, spoke out and was an enemy of the Conservative government.
RH: I live in rural Alabama, and it's very conservative. I've had one guy say 'you can't be a minister and a DJ at the same time'. I thought 'how does someone get to choose what God has assigned me to do - God has given me a ministry. It's about reaching as many souls as I can through techno, speaking God's truth and his gospel to as many ears as I can, taking the message to the street. Jesus sent his disciples so spread his message of love and grace throughout the world. People get so religious in their beliefs that you can't do this and that, but this music emanates from God, this is God's vision.
Father Green, are you DJ sets a similar outreach?
AG: Very much so. I'd signed up not just for Christianity but the established Church of England. That has a particular history and I think we rather lost it in the 19th Century, we became so much part of empire and colonialism, the language of the Church Of England still reflects that Victorian time. As the 20th Century developed, not surprisingly people left the church and I can see the church's role in losing people. I want to be able to open up the really good treasures of the Church and Christianity to people, and that's not going to be achieved by shouting at them to convert or they'll go to hell. It's about giving them an opportunity to reimagine Christianity. Spirituality is a natural part of ourselves, as natural as emotions, but we've got all the language wrong and made this divide between secularism and spirituality, whereas instead it's about being human. I want to make use of the resources that I have to allow that mixing to happen, and I'm very much blessed with a rather beautiful 19th century church that is a really good performance space [for gigs]. So we want to let people in and rub up against faith and spirituality and see what it does to them, and to see what it does to us. It's the questions more than the answers that are important, and music is really good for that.
Questions are a huge part of faith
RH: As Father Green just said, we are spirit, and God is a spirit. I ask God in spirit and in truth 'what are we?'. It's the questions first. As I was listening to Father Green...
RH: Alan... there's certainly a similarity there, spirituality and the secular world are not that far apart. I remember seeing a documentary on Rosetta Tharpe, on how she's blended secular music with gospel music, the same with Ray Charles and Sam Cooke and so many others. I remember a group from Detroit called The Clark Sisters, they mixed disco with gospel and were very popular on the club circuit, but the church was so religious that they did not want The Clark Sisters to go to the Grammys. The message has to go to the streets, it's imperative that we reach those who may not get to a church. We receive their questions, it's important that the world asks questions.
It's like what Alan was saying, what people need to see is this openness, not this church that is so built on structure and religious order that you can't be free and worship God and have a good time because we're so caught up in condemnation, 'I can't say this I can't wear this I can't do this because of this perception of what a Christian is and is not'. It's not about that. God says 'come as you are'.
I remember as a kid those American anti-music campaigns, and when you get school shootings religious groups blame 'devil music'. That pushes people away.
RH: That's where the church has failed, because the church is so big on law but not on the love. Jesus is all about inclusion not exclusion, and when in Arizona they try and say homosexuals can't come into this place, is that was Jesus would have us to do? Why not have people come in and we minister and embrace people, not push them away, and love them and win them to Christ.
The church can be a lot more obsessed with sex than Christ's teachings on caring for the poor.
RH: Abortion and gay marriage are the political hot-buttons of the day. There are lot of things going wrong in the world, hate is running amok, so why just focus on these two hot-buttons and not everything else? There are a lot of issues that the church has failed to address, and the church is failing to be open to talk about all these issues
AG: I think what we're really bad at doing is recognising that it is possible to have lost of different views within the church. Being a Christian does not mean that there is one way of living a Christian life, people do it differently in different cultures because they have different interpretations, that's how it should be. The disciples had arguments with Jesus! It is about listening to one another, and respecting one another with those differences. The bible is not a blueprint for every day of your life, it is an inspiration not a blueprint. That requires that we listen to one another and get challenged and grow by living with difference within the body of the church.
RH: Just to add to that, when you think about police officers and what they have to go through, dealing with PTSD, dealing with their partners being murdered, going into a crack house, and how that affects their thinking, and how on the other side of it there's a black kid who grew up in let's say Detroit and he became a gangbanger, and the PTSD that deals with, seeing someone who he grew up with murdered. You've got these two people growing up on either side of the fence with unaddressed mental issues and how they perceive each other. It's so important that we say 'I can see his point of view and I can see his point of view'. What we need to do from God's perspective is that we need to reach out and understand each other, not lock up that 12-year-old black kid because we think all he'll be is a statistic.
I wanted to ask you both about the inner city, from Detroit to Bethnal Green, how does faith and music work in these tough places.
AG: For me it's about living in a multi-faith community, Tower Hamlets is the first Muslim majority borough in the country, and engaging with that is important. As a parish priest of the Church Of England I promise to look after everyone in the community, not just those who come to church, not just white people, not just the Christians. How do we allow ourselves to live together harmoniously, particularly when there is an increasingly Islamophobic attitude within the country, from the establishment on. We've become the focus of extremists, both Islamists and the far right, who don't want to see somewhere like Tower Hamlets working, they want it to fall apart. That's the environment in which I'm working, and music doesn't help very much because it's quite a conservative Muslim population who don't listen to music. Finding an environment in which to meet with them is about working on their agenda, and being available. When Britain First come and want to cause mayhem by inciting young people to attack them so they can have pictures of militant Muslims hitting poor white people it's really important that we are there in solidarity and we're standing together.
RH: That feeling of hopelessness and racism has been looming over Detroit ever since I was a kid. Today with it declaring bankruptcy and the city not being sustainable people have lost their way, crack having invaded Detroit in the Regan era, it's having to rise up from the ashes. A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to preach a revival in Detroit, and my message was all about using the tools that Jesus has afforded. You've got so much fear throughout the world, and in American with this election. When there's fear people act out in desperate ways. We're connected to God through faith and Satan through fear.
When you're preaching in a church environment do you feel the same as when you're Djing?
RH: Absolutely. Just the same as I mix each track to connect them together to build a story, it's the same with the message, each scripture and passage is building up a story and a testimony in a way that's going to connect with people.
The music world is atheist, often militantly so. It's rare to find a Christian musician. How do you deal with faith within that context?
RH: A few years ago I sat down with a guy before I was going to play. He was an atheist, he thought it was all about religious order and these rules and regulations of the law. It's about planting seeds, saying 'this is not what you thought God had intended, it's about following Christ, not about religious order'. By the end of the night he tapped me on the shoulder he came and said 'you got me thinking'. I'm not there to impose my religious beliefs on anybody, or say 'this is the only way you should think'. It's up to you to decide, and God is a God of free will.
AG: Absolutely. In the 80s when I was first ordained I was working on a very poor estate in Liverpool. I became very involved with grass root politics, and I found quite a tension. People in my church didn't particularly like me to be involved in that. The people in Kirkby Unemployed Centre, which was the big grass roots organisation, many of them were ex-Roman Catholic, and part of their commitment to a radical politics was letting go of a very radical Roman Catholicism that they'd banged into them as young people. They couldn't understand me, they thought I was a do-gooder Christian who comes along and says nice things. But on a couple of occasions when the chips were down I didn't go away and stayed with them and got into trouble with them. They didn't understand how I could be in the church, but we'd talk after the work and have a beer. One of those militant atheists eventually went back to the church. In order that he could get over that awful, hierarchical, nasty, authoritarian understanding of the church that he grew up with he needed some time to realise that there were some good things.
RH: Again it's about planting that seed. Like Alan said, he's there for them, just to be available. That's what we do in the church. We don't want to be folks that just administer to one another inside these church walls, we want to go out and reach a dying world, and a misunderstood people.
Do you have a favourite musical passage of the Bible?
AG: The [book of the bible] Song Of Songs is an amazing erotic love poem that the church has tried very hard not to notice. It is really beautiful, and musical in its poetry.
RH: All I know is "make a joyful noise unto the Lord", and I do that whatever opportunity I get.
Robert Hood's new LP as Floorplan is out now, and he plays Mixmag Live at Village Underground on July 14th - for more information go here. For more information on Father Alan Green's church and work, go here