Excerpts > Fall 2005
Jenn McKee reviews Jesus Sound Explosion by Mark Curtis Anderson

Mark Curtis Anderson, Jesus Sound Explosion, University of Georgia Press Reviewed by Jenn McKee

As a person who actually does, in fact, feel uncomfortable saying “under God” during the Pledge of Allegiance, I hardly expected Mark Curtis Anderson’s memoir, Jesus Sound Explosion, to engage me. But in its own, quirky way – like all good memoirs – it allowed me an all-access pass to a world wholly foreign and fascinating: that of a Baptist minister’s family.

Being part of such a family, of course, meant Anderson was constantly subjected to close scrutiny by his father’s congregation, a fact that haunted him as he grew up and battled fierce desires to be a part of the world around him instead of a mere spectator. The most powerful temptation, perhaps, came in the form of rock and roll, which Anderson’s mother broadly, hilariously labeled as “jazzy music.”

When the Fab Four’s sound began to lure Anderson as a child, his mother explained that John Lennon once said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Anderson writes, “That’s all I needed to hear. Case closed, deal done. Still, whenever I heard a song by The Beatles at a school friend’s house, I wanted to hear it over and over, so I’d be able to play it in my head later.” Already, it seemed, the struggle for Anderson’s soul was on.

But what the memoir makes clear is that rock and roll did not contribute to Anderson dismissing his faith so much as it provided him a vehicle with which to root out and question Christianity’s contradictions. In one instance, he held fast to his affection for Bruce Springsteen’s music as a sixteen year old in California, despite pressure from his Baptist friends.

Church taught me about a darkness called sin that originated with Satan, the King of Darkness. The one way to overcome darkness: become born again by asking for forgiveness of sin, by accepting Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior. As I listened to Darkness on the Edge of Town, though, I couldn’t call this darkness “sin,” I couldn’t call the people who lived in the darkness “sinners” or “degenerates,” and I couldn’t positively say that they needed Jesus. I hadn’t yet lost my desire to proselytize, but I knew that I didn’t have the words to save these people, and they didn’t need anything that I had to offer.

In an age of religious extremism, it’s refreshing to hear a rational voice combing through the knotty difficulties of faith; and though the book concentrates on how and why Anderson ultimately left the fold, despite his family and upbringing, such moments demonstrate just how deeply he cleaved to, and how closely he examined, his Christianity.

Anderson informs readers in the introduction, though, that he has indeed fallen away from the church. When we first meet him, he’s smoking on the porch of his house in Minneapolis. He ponders his crumbling marriage, waiting to work a shift at a record store called “Electric Fetus,” when his sixth grade Sunday school teacher suddenly pedals by on a bike. This man, along with everyone else in the area Anderson had known as a child, had seemed to stop existing for Anderson, so he’s shocked at the sight. “There I was then, here I am now, and now looks nothing like I pictured. The straight and narrow way has been abandoned, the way to get home has been lost, but Wally Johnson, it seems, has been riding by all this time.” The quiet, resonant power of the anecdote frames Anderson’s story perfectly, articulating a sense of wistful loss regarding the past, despite its difficulties, while also demonstrating that the seemingly less restrictive present has its share of challenges and heartache, too.

And while rock and roll played a part in Anderson’s departure from organized religion, girls and beer (not surprisingly) also offered pleasures he found hard to resist as a teenager. In one hilarious passage, Anderson explains how he used his Biblical training and learning as a means of beating the system within his strict family. When his mother questions Anderson’s attendance at a party where there’s beer, he quotes a passage from Corinthians that reads: “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” Anderson’s mother, of course, beams with pride and lets him go to the party, and Anderson asks: “Did she think I’d be the party evangelist?” Anderson is brutally honest throughout the memoir about his past wrongs, confessing to actions and words that make him look less than heroic – in this instance, he writes, “I can’t believe how deceptive, how plain old bad I was to use a Bible verse as a means of lying more effectively to my very own mother” – and this makes him all the more endearing. He’s one of us, an imperfect being, struggling hard to be something better.

Anderson’s sense of humor is one of the memoir’s strongest, most consistent attractions, as when Anderson describes a motorcycle-riding youth pastor who visits at summer camp:

Larry, a late-twenties man who wore shoulder-length blond hair and earth shoes, had two pet adages that gave us different impressions of God. God as jovial buddy: “Go ahead and laugh about it – God has a sense of humor too”; or, God as dictator: “Hey! When God says ‘jump’ all we can ask is, ‘how high, Lord?’” No one thought to ask Larry, “What if God tells a joke that just isn’t funny?” Or “What if God says ‘jump’ and we think ‘He’s gotta be joking’?”

Only occasionally does Anderson’s quest to make readers laugh become self-conscious. When the topic of Lutherans arises, for example, Anderson speaks in the arrogant, condescending voice of his childhood perspective, describing them as “Catholics in disguise.” He uses this exaggerated voice to send up the petty competitiveness and harsh judgment that exists among different sects of Protestantism, which are by and large interchangeable, but he spends three pages hammering the point, making it seem more of a rant than a commentary.

Another problem is the way the memoir becomes highly spotty in regard to Anderson’s later life – we hear, in bits and pieces, about Anderson’s first marriage going awry, but we’re kept at arm’s length about it, and its exclusion feels like a palpable gap in the narrative. For this and other reasons, Anderson’s story seems to fade out rather than leading us to a satisfying examination of hard-earned truths, learned through one young man’s conflicted double-life as a secular American citizen and a practicing Baptist.

Nonetheless, Anderson succeeds marvelously in breathing life into the complexities of being a teenage Christian in America. The idea of moral “backsliding,” and the constant guilt it entails, makes it seem as though it’s less daunting to sin than to try to be good. In one section, Anderson recounts how he and his friends would plan to re-dedicate themselves to God each summer, and how this time, they swore they’d stick to it. But even this was a thorny, complex undertaking:

Opportunities for covenant renewal were infinite. You could renew, rededicate, repent whenever you needed to – although, if you did so publicly more than once a year, people would begin to doubt the sincerity of the rededication and say among themselves that you only went forward so that everyone would look at you, or you only went forward to win the heart of that devoutly Christian girl you had the crush on.

Thus, even the process of declaring good intentions might be interpreted as vanity, making clear the difficulty that inherently lies between our spiritual and democratic natures. And while this is the subject of many a book and film this past year, few have hit the nail on the head so squarely as Anderson does in this funny, thoughtful memoir.

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