What is your involvement in Street Level Artists Agency?
I'm not involved in Street Level Artists Agency. I used to be. I started it when I had a vision of how a Booking agency, which is usually a business, could really be much more Christian. It could be much more free of financial motives and goals. So I started it in 1974. Now it is running itself, and I have pulled out of it. Now I'm just one of the artists with Street Level, just as Randy Stonehill and Tom Howard are.
What about Solid Rock? What's your function there?
Producer and director. I let some of the artists produce or direct or guide their own projects.
Have you got your own studios?
Not what you'd think of as a recording studio, no.
You've been singing 'Jesus Rock' for a few years now. As you look back, are there any things that you would have done differently, or changes that you would have made?
Yes, I think so. But given the fact that when I was about nine I started writing songs, it would be a little unfair to myself to say I would have re-written most of the songs had I known better. You see, I wrote Moses when I was about thirteen or fourteen. Now there's a line in that song that says Never borrow money needlessly, see H.F.C. H.F.C. was an American company during the fifties that used to advertise heavily on the radio, so I was cross-cutting into their financial philosophy which said whenever you're in trouble, come to us ... I felt that too many people try to replace faith with other securities. They think the more money they have saved, the more secure their life can be.
But I would not write it the same way I did when I was fourteen. I attached a part of the song that was culturally only a part of America, and ephemerally only part of the fifties. I mean, in the sixties, H.F.C. may still have been in existence but they didn't have radio or television advertisements which said, Never borrow money needlessly, just when you must, borrow from folks that you can trust. So the less familiar people became with H.F.C., the less sense the ending of the song made. I think a lot of my songs have stayed tied to one period of time, one period of American sub-cultural history and teenage lifestyle, in the same way that when you hear the Beach Boys, you always think of a certain period in California, or a certain period of your life. I think I would have been more specific about spiritual concepts, and less specific about cultural situations if I had understood my music as I understand it now. But when you're nine, you think like a nine year old.
How do you feel about 'love offerings' as opposed to a set fee for a concert?
Paul didn't take love offerings, except apparently at the church at Corinth. He felt it was best for his ministry to them if he came totally free. But he told them that he was making other churches around Corinth support his time there so that he could survive and live. He didn't want Corinth saying Yes, you came to us Paul, but we paid for you. You've got your money, so we're even.
Apparently they had a real spiritual problem at Corinth that Paul had a very difficult time dealing with. But to other churches he wrote in advance saying Take up a collection before I come. I don't know why he insisted on his money in advance, except that maybe he had the same experience in churches that some preachers have no doubt had. If you preach a very definite sermon which challenges and accuses the congregation of being sinful and far from God, you may not get anything in the offering. But if you make the sermon really warm and enthusiastic and effusively congratulatory or polite, which edifies the congregation, they might give a big tip, so to speak; an emotional offering. So perhaps that's the reason he said, Take it up before I come ... because when I get there I want to say what I have to say, and I don't want you getting mad at me, or trying to starve me out or compromise my message.
Now as far as our current church body, the universal church of today, I think it's alright if somebody wants to come and sing for absolutely nothing, if somehow they're backed by a congregation at home who sponsors them, and says to them, We will send you out as a missionary, you don't need to collect any money anywhere, we'll fully support you, pay your air fares and your hotel lodgings and your food and your travel in foreign countries, then they can come for free. I don't think they need to tell anyone that they're getting another kind of reward, like the Pharisees who prayed in public and of whom Jesus said, Truly I tell you, they have their reward. Their reward was of another coin stamped vanity on one side, and presumption on the other. I think it is unnecessary and perhaps wrong for anyone to say that taking an offering at a concert is the only RIGHT way to do it. That if you ask for your money in advance, as Paul did, or if you say honestly, This is the price I will come for, you are being unspiritual.
Also, what's deceptive is to distort the substance of what a freewill love offering really is. If you do a concert, and for half an hour or even fifteen minutes you talk about money, and you try to whip the audience into either a guilty state or make them dig a little deeper into their allowances, then it's not a freewill offering. It's a collection, and it's a collection with a sermon behind the collection. I would rather see Christ talked about for that fifteen minutes than money talked about. Another deception is when somebody tells an audience they have come for 'FREE', when really they have signed a contract with the sponsor for a guarantee of air fares, lodging and food, plus seventy-five percent of the offering. This is wrong. If they really want to come for free, and if they want to boast of their sacrifice in the Lord onstage during the concert, they should instead tell the sponsor, I will come, and you pay me what the Lord leads you to pay. Now that's living on faith, but coming for seventy-five percent of the collection, lodging and air fares is not 'freewill' and is not living on faith at all, and these people are boasting with a great lie behind that boast. And furthermore, anyone who preaches that a love offering is more spiritual than a simple ticket price, and then says that all who have a different opinion are totally wrong, is just causing the believers to split in two. I'm not going to say that it's wrong to come for 'FREE', but neither should those people who boast about coming on faith attack people who charge a set fee. It is expensive to travel to England, America or Australia. It's unfortunate that some people are trying to turn a very peripheral issue into one of the articles of faith in Christianity. It is unwise for them to say that all people who do not believe as they believe are not truly responding to the Spirit of God.
Tell us something about your world tour. I've seen some of the shots and it looks pretty exciting.
I don't know if exciting is the right word. It was stimulating intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. I was often depressed and completely at a loss, not knowing how to help certain people. I was in India and Lebanon and Israel. It excited part of me. It further excited my social and moral and ethical conscience. First of all, I guess the tour, the way it was set up, was almost as perfect as you could plan if you wanted to take somebody gradually into the depths of poverty.
I started off in the richer western countries: Australia, America, Scandinavia, Sweden, Switzerland, England, Ireland, Scotland, and I was paid for the concerts. Then I went to the Third World countries and I paid my own way. That was one of the things that I really felt I should do - not charge in Saudi Arabia, Israel, Lebanon, India or any place like that, because I wasn't really doing the concerts to make a killing. I had made money in the western civilisation, and I really wanted to give myself to the Third World, so I paid all my own expenses. I also found the places I could give my money to. I've always thought, How can we really help the orphans? How can we help the poor and dying. Whenever I get something in the mail from an organisation that helps little orphans or starving families, the children always look so cute that I can't believe they're starving to death. They always have a little decorative smudge of dirt on their face, and their hair is cutely disarrayed, and they're holding onto a terribly torn rag doll, and they look so longingly at the camera that they don't seem to be real. They seem to be just cute little sketches of poverty, and I've wondered if I were being taken for an emotional ride by calculating organisations who are trying to elicit funds from me on the basis of a western mental perspective of what poverty is. The poverty displayed in mail-outs seems to be very gauche, classic poverty, and yet when I saw poverty in India it wasn't cute at all. It was terrible! I saw people dead on the sidewalks. I saw people that were too undernourished to move. But this was the last stop in my descent into the Third World.
First I experienced the wilful political climate in Ireland. There were the tanks in Belfast, and all the military men checking your luggage at the airport, and checking your pockets and satchels every time you went to a store. You can't leave a suitcase unattended anywhere. You can't lay down a briefcase, or leave a car in certain areas of the streets, because they'll assume that a bomb is in the briefcase or car, and that you've gotten out, walked into a building, taken an exit out the back and run off to join your cohorts, to let the car in the front blow up and kill a lot of people. It's very frightening to live in the midst of terrorism. Then I went to other places like Italy, where leftist political factions have torn the country into an unreliable mess. There are strikes all the time, and the attendant violence that comes with the strikes. That is another kind of terrorism, organised, structured dissent.
Then off to Lebanon where, when we checked in into the one floor of the hospital that hadn't been evacuated, there were bullet holes all over the walls, there were rats in the rooms and spiders on the walls. It wasn't really what you would call a five-star hospital. There was a machine gun chattering away outside when we checked in and at first I didn't know what it was. I asked the man in the hospital what the noise was, and he said, It's a machine gun, but don't stick your head out the window to see. So there we were in the middle of gunfire in Lebanon; in Beirut. When it was temporarily safe to explore, we travelled around and saw all of the buildings that had been blown up, including a Holiday Inn, which had been destroyed by all three sides that are fighting because, although they disagree on religion and everything else, they apparently agree on one thing. They hate American intervention, and so they completely blew away the Holiday Inn. So Lebanon was another kind of experience, and the people there were a bit poorer because of unavailable supplies, although it's not a terribly poor country.
Then I went to Israel. I wanted to see Israel, but arrived there at the height of the tourist Christmas season. I had a difficult time finding Christ there because of all the commercialism. But I was surprised that things were a little better than I had imagined. The Bible says that when Christ was born in a manger, there were a bunch of animals. I imagined it would be a rather smelly barn, but I went and saw where He was born and it wasn't that bad at all. It had marble floors, and a gold Star of David in the wall, and red velvet curtains and stuff. It wasn't bad at all. Then I went to the two tombs where He was buried. One tomb was inside the city and the other was outside. They were pretty nice tombs and He had His choice of accommodations! I'm joking, but really at first I didn't know what was going on. I thought, Two tombs! Which one is real? And the driver, the guide, swore up and down that both of them were the authentic tombs of Christ, and said that he didn't want to be involved in any discussions about whether it was the Catholic tomb or the Protestant tomb that was the true tomb. He said they were both authentic. I said How can you believe such a thing? He said I believe everything. I said Do you believe that Christ ascended? He said Yes, it was from right up there, and from right over here is where Mohamed ascended. Then we drove past the rock where the Virgin Mary spilled some of her milk when she was breast feeding Christ. Her milk escaped his lips and fell on the rock, and the rock turned entirely white. Then the guy pointed out the exact tree that Zacchaeus had climbed. So you can imagine how much spiritual inspiration we came away with.
Then we went out into the real Israel, into the desert, and saw how the Bedouins live, and ate with a Bedouin family, which was very unlike eating at a hotel. They scraped aside some dirt and pulled the food out of the ground from where it had been cooking, and it was covered in ashes and dirt, and they offered us some. The smelly old camel was standing right next to the food, and the children and the cats and the wild goats were running around. The poor are a testimony to God's great creation of the human body. Afraid of germs in Western society, we wash before every meal, and have great rituals of pill taking and aspirin swallowing, and have all kinds of medicines, yet the Bedouins seem to be physically stronger than we western weaklings. We also went and had dinner at a Muslim house, and that was quite an experience. I've always thought of the Muslims as being militant enemies with scimitars and sabres; very dangerous people who hate the enemies of their religion. But these were just poor people. They had a lot of children, they had animals living in their house, they had goats and chickens right in their house in one room. In fact, I think that Christ might have been born in a situation like this, not a little barn set behind the house in the back forty near the corn shed and tractors, but right in a little side room at the inn that really wasn't for the hotel guests, a little room that was for the cows to be milked, and the hens to lay eggs.
From there we went to India. I was a stranger in a strange land not really knowing what to do, except observe and feel terribly guilty about having been well off for so much of my life. I'd been to countries where areas of poverty existed, but I'd never undergone such an intense encounter with the realities of most people's daily lives. In Taiwan, when someone curses you, they don't say Go to hell. They say. Go to India, because India is the worst place on earth, especially Calcutta. Taiwan is pretty destitute itself, but when they think of Calcutta as the worst place on earth, they're exactly right. People are born, reared and die on the same sidewalk. They have no home. They're born on the sidewalk. I saw people dead on the street that no-one had taken away. I saw children who were starving sitting on the concrete making little round, flat pancakes of animal manure and putting them all over the walls to dry in the sun, so that later they could take them down and burn them for fuel, which doesn't smell very pleasant at night. They sat there hungry while sacred cows walked all round them, and yet they can't eat a cow because a cow is sacred. And apparently there's enough grain grown in India each year to feed the entire population, but the rats destroy three quarters of the grain, yet you can't kill a rat because a rat is sacred - it's a living thing. You mustn't kill a mosquito even if it carries malaria, because a mosquito is also a living thing. It's sacred and it may be your grandmother reincarnated from her last few lives. Their beliefs keep them in ignorance, and their ignorance keeps them in poverty, and their poverty keeps them close to death. Many of them are afraid to die, but they're not supposed to be because their religion says if you die and you've been good, you evolve to a higher state, and you become closer to God much quicker. If you're bad, your death will merely throw you back into a previous incarnation of a lower life form, and you'll have to keep on going until you eventually become God. If you're good in every life you will become one with God very quickly. Though this is their religion, they still fear death.
It was in India, upon meeting Mark Buntain and going with him at four o'clock in the morning to feed about three thousand people who lined up for milk and paratta bread, that I really realised that this was the place to be sending money. These children were not adorably poor; these children were destitute and dying, and it was not easy to look at. They were still beautiful, because children have so much life within them. It's only normal for a child to be responsive to his mother's love, and to be creative in his play no matter how poor he is. A child's ability for invention is amazing. I was very touched by Mark Buntain's missionary work, and I'm really grateful to God that I met him when I wasn't scheduled to; I met him accidentally.
I experienced quite a lot in seven months, and I came back to America rather disoriented. I had been warned by some friends that I might experience culture shock in going to countries like Lebanon or India, but it wasn't until I returned to Los Angeles that I experienced any real culture shock. I ended up feeling that India was the normal state of most people's lives, and that western society was the abnormal. India was more honest in its simplicity and its poverty than Los Angeles, with its super-structured freeways and its upper middle class lifestyle. And I was amazed at how noisy it was in Los Angeles. I've lived in big cities all my life first in San Francisco and then in Los Angeles, but I could not believe how my head hurt from all the noise of the traffic. Just the sound of the cars going by in the street, not honking their horns, not sirens or anything. I also felt out of phase with my old life. I wondered why I had a certain pair of shoes in the closet. I bought them and I wore them, but I don't wear them very often at all, and I realised how my life had been unnecessarily duplicated in different areas. I owned little things I really had no need for. In fact, I realised that I needed very little. To survive, you hardly need anything. You need to sleep, you need to eat, you need shelter from the storms ... but that's about all. If you're stuck on an island and you survive for a month, then obviously everything that you didn't have with you on that island is not necessary for survival. So you don't really need music, you don't need television, you don't need newspapers ... we especially don't need newspapers. We don't need to kill millions of trees every year just to keep up with irrelevant news.
I guess my world tour affected me in other areas too. Things that I always believed theoretically I now believe very deeply. Like the more material things we possess, the less we trust in God. I'm not even sure we need so much Christian music. When we become a Christian and have adequately been encouraged by listening to Christian artists, and buying Christian records and tapes, shouldn't we outgrow that and get to the point where we don't need to hear gospel music any more? Shouldn't we mature beyond the stage of being so reliant upon music? To some people it becomes a habit, an addiction to 'pop' Christianity. But shouldn't we get past all this pleasant sounding milk of encouragement and go on to the meat of the scriptures, the other things which Paul apparently thought were basics, like raising people from the dead, you know, easy things like that? Shouldn't we get beyond these first interests like Christian concerts and Jesus music records, and go on to the real substance of the scriptures? For two thousand years we have been practising Christianity, but instead of coming to understand more and more of the significance of the scriptures, it seems like we are moving further away from understanding the profound revelation of what it means to follow Christ. And I don't think we have evolved as a civilisation. I think we are going backwards. I think there must have been a high period several centuries ago, during which the summit of man's spiritual awareness and the summit of his scientific understanding and his respect for humanity also blended with his technology. There must have been a point where all of man's perceptions peaked, and that must have been a golden era for man's spirit and his soul, and I think we've long passed that moment. Our technology has now greatly overtaken our spiritual perceptions, which is something I tried to get at when I wrote If God Is My Father. I said,
Once we were happy
Once in the garden
But then a lie broke the stillness
And our hearts began to harden.
And hoping to be wiser man has reached too far
Sometimes I think that we've advanced
But then I look at where we are!
In hoping to be wiser, Adam reached out to Eve and also took the apple. But modern Adam, hoping also to be wiser, has reached out to things like the moon, abandoning God to put his faith in science; abandoning God's balance in nature by raping the earth's natural resources for financial profit. If you look simply to human technology for proof of man's wisdom and spiritual growth, you would probably say that mankind is 'improving'. But I look at where we are and I realize that we're just going backwards. Society is dissolving, culture is crumbling. If the universe is expanding as Einstein believed, maybe it's going to snap apart at some moment, and perhaps Christ is going to come right through that broken space. God says He stretches the heavens over the empty place in the north. Maybe that's the place where scientists have just discovered the little black star, the dark star, you know, the negative stars or whatever they ... Yes. Maybe that's where Christ is going to pop out and say, Surprise! I can't let mankind go on much longer because, although you didn't evolve from monkeys and cave men, if I let you go on much longer you might just end up not knowing whether you are human or animal!