Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Computer Brains

I was reading a post about thoughtcrime as it relates to Christianity over at A Counter Apologist's blog when it dawned on me that one of my favorite Christian rock bands had engaged in some unintentional irony related to this issue back in the day.

First some background.

It seems obvious that CCM is highly derivative, and the Christian rock band Petra was certainly no exception. In 1984 (the year, not the book) the young people were all tuning in to keyboard-driven techno pop, so there was a natural inclination for a Christian rock band like Petra to veer away from their rock roots and produce a techno pop album. 1985's Beat the System was that album. It was the first ever CCM recording I was introduced to outside of Amy Grant, Keith Green and Truth.

Admittedly, the album blew me away. I didn't know Christian music could sound that awesome and it certainly wasn't what I had been used to hearing in church or on the local Christian radio station. To this day I think this album (and especially More Power to Ya) represents some of the best the genre ever offered. I was shocked, of course, when I went to my local Christian bookstore to pick up a more recently released Petra tape only to find that with new producers and a new lead singer the band sounded way more like Def Leppard and way less like a synth pop band (this would've been around '87-'88 when Hysteria was smashing through the charts). I also discovered that when I went backwards in time to recordings from the early '80s they had more of an arena rock sound like Journey. I'll let the reader draw whatever conclusions they wish from that observation.

Even though the album was released in 1985 the themes present in the title track "Beat the System" along with it's video and the album's cover art showed clear references to Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. The second track, "Computer Brains" also played on this theme a bit and included some carryover from the Mac vs. IBM sentiment along with the now-famous Superbowl commercial. The rest of the album, while still musically excellent IMO, was largely filled with typical Christianese cliches. The notable exceptions were the tracks "Witch Hunt" and "Hollow Eyes" which both presented some interesting challenges to Evangelicalism at a time in the '80s when the church seemed to be steadily running away from things like interest in helping the poor (a theme explored in "Hollow Eyes") and running headlong into the utter silliness of trying to expose all the satanic influence found in rock music, cartoons, etc (humorously addressed in "Witch Hunt"). Kudos to Bob Hartman for rightly subverting mainstream Evangelicalism on both counts. It's no wonder Star Song had those tracks pushed to the B side.

The unintentional irony that I'm thinking of comes in on the second track, "Computer Brains". As it turns out, the song is about thoughtcrime. But in spite of the Nineteen Eighty-Four themes on the cover art and the title track, the song isn't advocating critical thought, much less free thought. Rather it actually seems to promote the practice of crimestop.

Here's a relevant passage from Nineteen Eighty-Four that deals with the notion of crimestop as it pertains to thoughtcrime:
The mind should develop a blind spot whenever a dangerous thought presented itself. The process should be automatic, instinctive. Crimestop, they called it in Newspeak.

He set to work to exercise himself in crimestop. He presented himself with propositions—‘the Party says the earth is flat’, ‘the party says that ice is heavier than water’—and trained himself in not seeing or not understanding the arguments that contradicted them. It was not easy. It needed great powers of reasoning and improvisation. The arithmetical problems raised, for instance, by such a statement as ‘two and two make five’ were beyond his intellectual grasp. It needed also a sort of athleticism of mind, an ability at one moment to make the most delicate use of logic and at the next to be unconscious of the crudest logical errors. [apologetics, anyone?] Stupidity was as necessary as intelligence, and as difficult to attain.
 Now, here are some of the lyrics from "Computer Brains": 
Everything that you do and see, one more event in your memory.  
Every bit takes another bite without control over wrong or right.  
You must screen every entry made, the consequences must be weighed
The only way to security is every thought in captivity [2 Cor. 10:4-6].

You can clear all your memory
And be transformed [Rom 12:2] when you find the key. 
Think on the things that will bring you peace [Phil 4:6-8 & Is 26:3].
Confusing data soon will cease.
I have to wonder if Bob Hartman's biases just simply would not allow him to make the connection. Maybe the whole Nineteen Eighty-Four theme wasn't his idea? Maybe he never really read this passage of the book? Maybe he misinterpreted it? Maybe I'm misunderstanding the lyrics? I'm at a loss for explanation here. Except...I never saw the dissonance either. That is, until I read Counter Apologist's blog post this morning. As a Christian I thought I was the one bucking the trend and beating the system. I was the one who wouldn't allow myself to be programmed by the world. All the while I was feeling convicted of thoughtcrime and being told how to rid myself of it. This is just one more of many "Holy crap! how did I not see that?" moments in my experience of life after Christianity. Apparently I was a master at crimestop.

I see Christians on my Facebook news feed make references to Orwell all the time, and so often this kind of thing is completely lost on them. For example, Orwell was a socialist (and may have been an atheist), but since most conservative Christians conflate socialism with totalitarianism that bit of information must usually be either ignored, forgotten or washed away with their own brand of crimestop.

Finally, before anyone wants to try to accuse me of being the one who's really got the computer brain because I'm allowing myself to be programmed by the secular mindset, yadda, yadda, yadda; keep in mind (pun intended) that I'm not the one who believes some powerful entity is currently reading my thoughts and judging me for them all the time. I don't believe there is such a thing as thoughtcrime. The comparison has no correspondence to my view. Until some totalitarian government develops and employs some kind of new mind-reading technology, as far as I can tell, my thoughts remain my own and that is truly liberating.

 More 1984 irony anyone?


  1. "As a Christian I thought I was the one bucking the trend and beating the system. I was the one who wouldn't allow myself to be programmed by the world. All the while I was feeling convicted of thoughtcrime and being told how to rid myself of it. This is just one more of many "Holy crap! how did I not see that?" moments in my experience of life after Christianity. Apparently I was a master at crimestop."

    Isn't that almost the sickest part? One of the things that came up for me over and over, was how any concept of "I am my own master" was inherently evil.

    Given that so much in Evangelical culture is about being "Slaves to Christ" (Rom. 6:16-18), the concept of being one's own "master" was something that was taught as being one of the worst things possible.

    Looking back, the entire idea is sickening.

  2. I was an Amy Grant/Keith Green enthusiast who avoided Petra like the plague my church said it was. But yeah, amazing how I also bought into the same Newspeak modes of thought even while thinking I was rejecting them.

    The last couple paragraphs reminds me of a Hitchens quote comparing Christianity to North Korea, and ending with (paraphrased) "But as horrific as NK is, at least you can escape its claws through death, which is more than you could say for Christianity." That shook me up pretty badly to think about and I was decades out of the religion!

    Another awesome entry :)