In the summer of 1984 a friend gave me a tape with Undercover’s self-titled debut on side one, and their second album, God Rules, on the other. I was hooked immediately.
As I finished high school and entered college, my personal faith began to deepen, and to make room for questions, doubts, and grace in the world. Interestingly, the guys in Undercover were maturing and also leaving behind the simplicity of their early lyrics. Today, I listen to those early Undercover albums with fondness and joy, and though I no longer believe in their simplistic and legalist-easy-answers lyrics, I am thankful that those albums came along in my life when they did. Neither Ojo nor I are the same as we were almost thirty years ago (thankfully!). While I still consider myself a Christian, Ojo, on the other hand, is an agnostic.
Today, Ojo is a professor at James Madison University. He teaches classes like History of Rock, Songwriting, Artist Management, Legal Aspects of the Music Industry, and Music Marketing. A few months ago Ojo agreed to an email interview: I’d email him him questions and he’d reply. Here are the highlights of our email exchanges in which Ojo addresses musical influences, Undercover, and his own spiritual journey.
Who were some of your biggest musical influences growing up?
The only records I remember as a kid in the house were Sing Along With Mitch, The Jackie Gleason Orchestra, a record of ragtime piano songs, and a few others, but I listened to them all. I remember when my father bought Herb Alpert’s record with the chick covered in whipped cream… I liked the record and, like many other young boys, liked the record cover too.
My mother’s brother bought the first Beatles record when it came out and left it over at our house once. I was probably seven years old. That was it for me. Most of the rest of the decade was all about the Beatles. That’s not a bad way to go, I suppose.
Then towards the end of the 1960s it was CSNY, Led Zeppelin, and most of the other popular records high school-aged boys liked. I won the first Jimi Hendrix album in a dance contest and that changed my life… Although neither of my parents were big music consumers, they did love music and made sure I had piano lessons all the way through high school.
It was not till high school that I began buying records in earnest… James Gang; Santana; more Beatles; Black Sabbath; Deep Purple; Jethro Tull; Yes; Pink Floyd… Pretty much the run-of-the-mill popular stuff, great as all that stuff may be. By the end of high school I had a lot of records but had not even heard a note by Muddy Waters.
Prior to forming Undercover, were you in any other bands? Were they distinctively “evangelical/Christian” lyrically?
I didn’t start playing in bands until I was eighteen and had just graduated from high school. I was invited to play in Jim Nicholson’s band (the guitarist in Undercover) because he had heard that I played piano. Having taken piano lessons is nothing like playing in a band though and there was a learning curve. We began playing covers, high school dances, backyard parties and stuff like that. We were not very good, but we were paying our dues. We went through a few iterations with different names and members, but Jim and I were always the constants.
We became evangelical Christians a couple years later in 1976 and almost immediately began writing our own songs for the first time, and those with religious lyrics. The rest, as they say, is history.
Anyone who has kept up with you knows that you no longer adhere to Christianity or any religion for that matter. Do you consider yourself an atheist? Agnostic?
I try to dodge the labels because they are so arbitrary and misunderstood. I have no idea what I am. Or rather I am both or either of those things at one time or another. I don’t want to get into technical definitions and stuff, and life isn’t that way for me anyway. I know very few if any thoughtful atheists who insist that they know beyond any doubt that there is no god. Most atheists I know are also agnostic that way. Even Richard Dawkins says the same thing. We don’t know for sure. But neither do we know with 100% certainty whether or not there are teapots between the Earth and sun, as Bertrand Russell used to say. We can probably safely say there are none but we cannot prove that there are not. So it is with that distinction between atheism and agnosticism in some minds. We too often get stuck in the semantics.
Stephen Roberts summed it up (although there is some legitimate critique of the language he uses) when he said, “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” It is true, though, that we are all unbelievers with respect to all gods but our own if we assume that they are different gods rather than different versions of one God. The fact that I take it “one god further” in my inability to believe the Orthodox or evangelical Christian version of things is a big deal to many Christians. But let me put myself in some perspective if I may.
There was not a single moment when I woke up and “decided” I was now going to be an unbeliever. My faith was dismissed little by little over a number of years until at one point I realized there was just nothing left. I’ve documented some of those erosions on my blog and in other places. In the end, I am probably an atheist in that I don’t believe in a specific supernatural god nor do I have a coherent model for what that might look like nor a reason to embrace belief in one. It would be great if there was an all-loving God who would welcome us with life eternal at the end of our lives, but that wishful thinking is not enough to get me there. I am agnostic in that I don’t know. There just might be a god out there! It’s fluid, I am open and I find no compelling reason to join myself to one label or the other. I’ll leave that for others.
It was probably 2008 that I realized I could no longer call myself a Christian. The funny thing was that I felt no different inside, but just had that realization that I no longer could believe what I was being asked to believe. I still had some questions about things like the resurrection of Jesus and stuff like that, but I read and read and studied as much as I could. In the end, it was more a shift in the way I chose to evaluate claims than in choosing not to be a Christian anymore and to start living in some other way. I still was the same person, still committed to love, my family, to doing good, to making a positive impact in my world with the time I have. I just could not force myself to believe many of the objective claims that Christianity makes, and… once the doctrines are gone then what’s left? It is only love that is left for me. Some will say that’s what Jesus was all about, but Jesus was about lots of other things too if we are to believe what is said about him in the scriptures.
I am interested in faith. I am interested in it because it is a human phenomenon that has global consequences. We may not survive this century and religion and its various worldviews will have a lot to do with that. I am interested in knowing more about it because I feel like I gave so much of my own life and time to it. How did that happen? Why? How does it work? What are the mechanisms? I am interested in it because I am interested in the universe and all that is real within it, visible or not visible, but real in any case.
I am not interested, however, in living a life of faith where I define what’s real only by what some ancient text, tradition or religious authority says. What I believe must now be earned and I will put that bar for evidence as high as the seriousness of the claim and in direct proportion to the likelihood that those claims are true or not. Thomas Huxley said it better: “Trust a witness in all matters in which neither his self-interest, his passions, his prejudices, nor the love of the marvelous is strongly concerned. When they are involved, require corroborative evidence in exact proportion to the contravention of probability by the thing testified.” Why should this be a controversial proposition to the religious? I believe it is only because it throws down the gauntlet and for so many it calls into question the veracity of what they believe regarding objective claims about our universe in time-space. And then what, after the evidentiary house of cards falls?
During your journey … how were your Undercover bandmates reacting? The band as a whole certainly matured toward the end when compared to the catchy simplicity of the first two albums.
Well, yes, it’s been a journey for all of us and we did kind of “grow up in public” as has been said of us before. A few punches in the gut in the course of one’s life will have a tendency to do that, to grow you up pretty quickly. I would say that the fundamentalism of our earliest days just didn’t last that long, maybe the first three records, but by the third it was already becoming obvious to us all under the surface that we were going to be asking some questions rather than simply spitting out answers.
Over the years, we’ve all ended up in different places. It’s pretty clear to me, and I don’t even think about this that much, that our relationships with each other are not based on the band or on what we believe or not. It is very much like family. Our acceptance and affection for each other just “is.” Having said that, I think my dismissal of faith has had an impact.
My skepticism has had the biggest impact probably on our two singers, Bill Walden and Sim Wilson. Bill is a pastor in Napa, California, and Sim is a pastor’s son and is very active in his church in Cleveland, Tennessee, so I suppose that stands to reason. It has not negatively impacted anything in practice, as far as I can tell, but I think it does cause Sim some grief at least. To the others it has simply not been much of an issue at all.
What kind of “reception” have you received from other “Christian” musicians with whom you may have toured, played with, etc. Have you lost any “friends”?
True friends are true friends so anyone I’ve lost I have to think was lost before they were lost. I’ll say this, and I hope it doesn’t get me in too much trouble – there are a good many artists at various stages of doubt in their lives. Some are open about it, some are not. Some cannot be open because their livelihoods are connected to their religion. That’s an awful place to be, but I guess it’s inevitable and is probably the same for pastors. Where does a pastor with a family go once he or she has lost belief? For some artists it’s simply a private matter and they don’t feel compelled to talk about it openly.
I have had all kinds of comments, from the very nasty (although those are mostly from disgruntled fans) to threats to follow me around virtually and oppose things I say (this from a member of another band who I did not know well, but who had looked up to us), but most frequently, they express a sense of sadness and disappointment. I find that a very strange response indeed and it’s hard for me not to interpret it as a projection of a response to their own doubt onto me that somehow threatens their own faith. Some have encouraged me, and that mostly from other artists who also doubt at one level or another. But really, isn’t every bit of growth we experience as human beings a result of doubt and skepticism? We leave things behind because we find they don’t fit anymore, and often it’s painful. Why should doctrinal tenets or objective claims made by religions be any different?
I have been having some really great dialog with Michael Pritzl of The Violet Burning, a lifelong and very dear friend who has been completely accepting and respectfully curious. We learn from each other and he has had his own journey from Catholicism to Evangelicalism and then to Anglicanism (I hope I am representing him correctly).
It’s difficult to generalize. I know lots of people and have many friends. I’m very lucky that way. Some simply don’t talk about it, I’m sure some are worried for the fate of my eternal soul (I’ve been told that too), some encourage me, some are Universalist so it doesn’t matter what anyone believes or doesn’t believe, some are too busy working out their own thing to worry about mine. I’ve heard it all. The bottom line though is that for the most part, my dearest and closest friends are not going to throw our friendship away over something like doubt.
Were you (or are you) ever embarrassed by the 70s and 80s evangelical stage of your journey? Do your students research Undercover and ask you about “Talk to God” or “Jesus Girl” or “Slaughter of the Innocents”?
At one level, I can look back on all that and simply chalk it up to youth. That’s where things were back then, and it would be a mistake to look at those songs outside the context of where the church was culturally and what they were able to accept and stomach at that time. The lyrics had to be overt and the simpler, the better. By the time (our fourth album) Branded came around, I didn’t care about that anymore. I needed to make the statement that album made. Today, everything in Christian music has pretty much been worked out. Christian bands can have careers outside of the Christian music industry, can have infidels as co-members, and can sing about whatever they want. In 1980 it wasn’t that way.
I do not mean to rationalize or explain away those early days though. Those songs and lyrics did represent where we were at that time, and what Christian life for young people was like in Orange County, California, and it does look awfully immature and shallow. In some ways that was really good for young people who attended church. They were able to break free of artificial cultural fetters within a lyrical framework of pretty conservative cheerleading that made things more acceptable for church leaders. That was a consequence, but the bottom line is that we did write those lyrics.
My students do look me up. It’s impossible to hide. The song they most often want to hear is “God Rules” and I rarely indulge them, but then I don’t need to really. It’s all out there. They got a particular kick out of the version of “God Rules” set to Family Guy footage. I still don’t know where that came from, but it’s out there.
Occasionally you still get together with the other guys to play an Undercover show … how do you feel about singing those songs today? Are there any from your Undercover catalog you simply will not do? Why or why not?
I really think those days are winding down… It’s not the songs themselves, it’s the politics and sociology around it. Yes, there are early lyrics I wrote and that we wrote and performed for years that I cringe to think about. “Slaughter of the Innocents” should be fully retracted and erased from the face of the earth. In Classical music, the composer can recall a piece and that’s the end of it; it’s gone from the repertoire. Not so in popular music. There are some songs I simply will not play anymore because I think the lyrics are harmful, discriminatory or just plain silly. There are others I won’t play because they are not musically consistent with anything we’ve done lately, and there are some we won’t play because they have little value beyond nostalgia and I’m not really into that.
On the other hand, there are some songs I enjoy playing because I like the music even though lyrically it may not be consistent with what I believe. They are not harmful and the songs are often meaningful to people. There are some songs we play that we play because we love the music and the lyrics. “Build a Castle” and “So Wonderful” would be good examples of that last kind, and there are others. Some songs, like “Way of the Rose” are renderings of biblical events with no underlying message or doctrinal proposition. I’m OK with those, too. There are also times where another band member might feel strongly about playing or not playing a song. It’s not all about me, and I am happy to support them too. It’s a case-by-case thing. I think we’re all on the same page roughly though. There are some songs we simply will not play. The older the song, the more likely it is we’ve left it behind, although that is not always true.
Learn more about Bert Montgomery at his website.