More than a decade after sneaking off campus at Cedarville College to go hear Over the Rhine play in smoky bars, I would actually discover there are churches who do use their music in worship.
But the Cedarville deans were never able to see beyond the “appearance of evil” to the beautiful treasures that lay within. They didn’t associate a place like Dayton’s Canal Street Tavern with anything but tobacco, drugs, and alcohol. Needless to say, we didn’t publicize the OTR concerts on campus any more than the band did, telling only the right people at the right time. Our shroud of secrecy couldn’t last forever, though.
In the spring of my junior year, 1998, I got back to my dorm room to find a surprising message on my answering machine. It was Long-Haired Lover Boy, this guy who had tried to seduce my crush Heloise at a party a few months earlier. Now he needed my help. His alcohol consumption was the stuff of legend. The deans knew about his partying, but could never quite catch him in the act or follow through with the mandatory expulsion. Finally, his drinking had caught up with him, but in an unexpected way.
He explained to my answering machine that he and a group of friends had gone to a local bar, W.O. Wright’s, named for the flying brothers Wilber and Orville, to see a band of Cedarville grads, called One Tree Hill for the U2 song. Lover Boy’s story was that he had not been drinking, but one of his companions had gotten drunk, gotten caught and gotten expelled, and not before she’d ratted out everyone else who had been at the bar. Lover Boy was on his way out, too, unless an appeals board made up of faculty and students could convince the deans otherwise. He couldn’t expect much mercy, since he had made a college career of defying authority, but he was asking for my help, so I had to think about it.
Of course, the defendant did not fail to point out that I, an RA and junior class chaplain, as well as other student leaders like the student body vice president, was a big OTR fan and didn’t miss a show at Canal Street. I was just busy enough with studies and other responsibilities not to feel too bad about ignoring Lover-Boy’s recorded message. Two weeks later, he left me another one saying this was Judgment Day.
I tag-teamed with a couple of my favorite trouble-making professors in telling the board that the rulebook was very unclear on the matter and that I myself had gone to bars to see bands play, arguing that music was “the main focus of the activity.” Carl Ruby, the dean responsible for off-campus students, had been pulling for Lover Boy throughout the process. Whenever Dean Ruby and I would pass each other on campus after my appearance at the disciplinary hearing, he’d smile and call me “the renegade RA.” Relations with my boss were less friendly, as the Dean of Men told me that I could not serve as resident director in charge of my whole dorm the next year because he couldn’t have an employee who would ambush him in a disciplinary hearing. This stung, because I had put in two years as an RA in Bethel Hall, and I had lived there longer than the current RD, a carpetbagger who was one of the few to transfer from another dorm and take charge of Bethel, which had a long history of internal promotion. Lover Boy got a three-day suspension, and I got labeled a subversive — all in a day’s work.
Should I have been proud of what I’d done? Was this singing for the meek? The truth is, I had no idea what I was doing. I had stalled in agreeing to help because I wasn’t so sure Lover Boy shouldn’t have been expelled. Let’s face it: They weren’t kicking him out for going to a bar to see his friends play music. Years of trespasses were coming home to roost. A few months later he got his girlfriend pregnant, and neither one could return to school the following year. I blamed myself for this, thinking that maybe if he had gone home, she wouldn’t have had to drop out of school to care for a baby, and he might have straightened up, which, to be fair, was the deans’ goal all along. But in time they would end up with their degrees and married with a flock of children. What could Cedarville have given them that they didn’t have? The truth is, I had no idea what would happen to me or to Lover Boy if I spoke up. All I knew was I couldn’t let him pay the price for a crime I’d also committed. I had to help the rule-makers see that life was messier than they wanted it to be, and they shouldn’t punish him for the mess they had made worse with their vague rules. That might have beenan arrogant validation for my choice that made trouble for so many different people. I’d heard rumors, but I didn’t know Lover Boy’s history like my bosses did. I didn’t know what was best for him. I didn’t even know what was best for me. I didn’t have any answers, but I had to speak, nonetheless.
A couple of years later, after I had graduated and left Ohio, Over the Rhine put out Films for Radio. The album opened with Karin’s desperate wail, “The World Can Wait.” The lyrics are full of fear: What if we’ve got this all wrong? What if we’re selling the world a false gospel?
Tomorrow, I can’t imagine.
How am I supposed to know what’s yet to go down?
Is there any one religion,
the kind that whispers when nobody comes around?
Haven’t I said enough, haven’t I said far too much?
Haven’t I done enough, haven’t I done far too much?
Linford and Karin had Methodist and Presbyterian and Quaker roots. They were Christian college kids, and these were dangerous questions. And, yet, looking back on my adolescence, the judgments I’d made on other people, my theological wonderings on the pages of the student newspaper, deemed heresy by a member of the Bible faculty, my ignorance of what Lover Boy really needed, hadn’t I said far too much? Maybe I should just admit I don’t know anything and shut the hell up!
But Over the Rhine didn’t do that. For them, these doubts were part of being true believers. Holding up those lyrics were a marching drum beat, soaring harmonies, staccato strings, and Linford’s plodding, persistent piano: a courageous battle song about storming God’s throneroom in prayer:
I want to drink the water from your well
I want to tell you things I’ll never tell
The world can wait, the world can wait
I’m wide awake, and the world can wait
Later on the disc, ripping a page straight from a Southern Baptist hymnal, the eight-minute epic “Little Blue River” suddenly turns into the old hymn-sing favorite, “In the Garden,” urging the listener never to separate a simple faith from honest doubt. “I seldom think of my faith in terms of statements,” Linford wrote in an “Over the Rhine Statement of Faith” distributed at the Cornerstone Music Festival in Illinois. “I speak a faltering language that at best consists primarily of questions, asides, and whispered midnight prayers.”
It’s not as though Over the Rhine had nothing to say. Like Caedmon’s Call’s bus driver, Over the Rhine’s next record, Ohio, would come to honor Appalachian coal miners and a woman in a tattered coat in a New Orleans saloon. That’s saying something about who’s important in the Kingdom of God. Linford himself wrote that his music “speaks of a desire to know the Man of Sorrows, the Friend of Sinners.” They recognized how little they knew this man, Jesus, and chose to spend their songwriting energy searching for more instead of rehashing what had already been said. “This music was my way of trying to find new ways of expressing gratitude for the sometimes frightening freedom to discover what I believed to be true,” Linford continued. “As often as not, a journey of faith is a special state in which we struggle to ask the right questions, and not just a question of stating special right answers.” They couldn’t concoct a spiritual panacea or peddle it through the medium of music. They weren’t out to change the world with some Gnostic vision that rendered all previous thoughts meaningless. Instead, they had a ravenous hunger to learn, to grow, to seek out truth in the cracks and crevices of a complicated world.
Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham, N.C. He’s posting a series of music videos that go along with excerpts from his spiritual memoir, This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World. This pairing is part of a sub-series drawn from his chapter, “I Will Sing for the Meek,” which explores what he learned from Christian musicians Caedmon’s Call, Rich Mullins and Over the Rhine about how to live out faith in a public vocation. These excerpts appeared each Monday in August 2014.