Category Archives: religion

“What a sad parade”: New Adventures in Hi-Fi after 25 Years

Like “Ignoreland” (an often under-appreciated, if not ignored, track from R.E.M.’s 1992 album, Automatic for the People), “New Test Leper” offers a powerful and disturbing commentary on the state of the U.S. in 2021, a country still trying to stay afloat in the wake of the Republican Party revealing its true self under the leadership of Donald Trump.

The 25th anniversary release of New Adventures in Hi-Fi provides fans new and old an opportunity to reconsider one of the band’s finest albums (I am leaning toward anointing NAIHF as its finest album).

Cover art for New Test Leper by R.E.M.

When the album was first released, I was drawn to several songs—”New Test Leper,” “Undertow,” “Leave,” “Be Mine,” and “Electrolite.” In fact, I have long included “Electrolite” among my favorite songs by R.E.M., lyrically as well as the performance of the song.

After the anniversary edition was announced, songs were slowly released in remastered and alternative version, including two of my favorites, “Leave” and “Be Mine.”

But what has struck me deepest is returning to “New Test Leper,” a narrative song that sits firmly in the talk-show era of the 1990s while also serving as not just a warning about but a prediction of the country the U.S. was becoming and now has become.

Michael Stipe, as the primary lyricist, has written a number of songs about gender and sexuality, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s, his own sexuality was often the focus of rumor and public debate (situations Stipe brushed off as not so provocative by noting he often performed in make up and skirts).

“New Test Leper” certainly represents Stipe’s deep awareness of Otherness, but the song also focuses on the consequences of being othered in the context of American religiosity and the lurid nature of sensationalistic talk shows of the late twentieth century (which morphed into equally lurid so-called reality TV).

The opening stanza establishes the narrative situation, the talk show, and the tension between religiosity (the false and often hypocritical realities of Christians) and the non-religious speaker who, ironically, quotes Jesus (a recurring move by notable humanist author Kurt Vonnegut):

I can’t say that I love Jesus
That would be a hollow claim
He did make some observations
And I’m quoting them today
“Judge not, lest ye be judged”
What a beautiful refrain
The studio audience disagrees
Have his lambs all gone astray?

“New Test Leper”

The reason the speaker is othered and on display remains ambiguous, a powerful decision by Stipe that allows the song to speak to the larger horrors of being judged by social norms, such as the superficial Christianity of the U.S. The speaker could be gay, trans, a racial minority, etc.

Two images of the song reinforce the negative consequences of being outside cultural norms: first, the allusion to David Lynch’s Elephant Man, “‘I am not an animal,'” and second, the haunting refrain as allusion to Biblical Jesus as the defender of outcasts, “Call me a leper.”

This public confrontation between the speaker and audience, made more tense by the Biblical and pop culture allusions, leaves the speaker deflated and questioning their efforts to be heard against the din of public opinion:

“You are lost and disillusioned”
What an awful thing to say
I know this show doesn’t flatter
It means nothing to me
I thought I might help them understand
What an ugly thing to see

“New Test Leper”

It is, however, the final verse that speaks to where the U.S. has found itself culturally and politically. While the song was released during the Clinton era, the U.S. was still under the weight of the Reagan/Bush years, a political movement that cemented the marriage of Christian conservatives to the Republican Party (see Buccola’s brilliant analysis of the debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, which outlines how that marriage developed decades before the Reagan revolution and the rise of the Moral Majority).

The final verse answers the question from the first verse, “Have his lambs all gone astray?”:

When I tried to tell my story
They cut me off to take a break
I sat silent five commercials
I had nothing left to say
The talk show host was index-carded
All organized and blank
The other guests were scared and hardened
What a sad parade
What a sad parade

“New Test Leper”

Yes, we must admit, Christian conservatives have strayed so far from Jesus as to be nearly unrecognizable as the ambassadors of kindness the words ascribed to Jesus implore over and over, and those of us who recognize that are left shaking our heads and concluding, “What a sad parade.”

In 2021, we are faced with a disturbing 30-40% of Americans just like the imagined studio audience of this song, and Fox News along with several podcasts attracting millions of listeners are driven by “talk show host[s]…index carded/All organized and blank” (from Tucker Carlson to Joe Rogan).

Imagine the speaker as a teacher accused of teaching Critical Race Theory and the audience filled with conservatives shouting faux outrage over something they know nothing about—except we do not have to imagine.

Art often has the capacity to step back and criticize the Now of the creation; exceptional art also serves as warnings, even predictions—although by the time we realize that, we failed to heed the warning and may be too late.

I feel resigned and deflated, like the speaker in “New Test Leper,” and it has become harder and harder to cling to Vonnegut’s belief if humans would just listen to Jesus (and not Christianity or the church) we could save humanity:

For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.

“Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break!

“Cold Turkey”

What a sad parade.

Misunderstanding Prayer, Religion, and Public Education Again and Again

Poet e.e. cummings understood a foundational combination of approaches common in U.S. politicians; his satirical political speech as poem begins: “‘next to of course god america i/ love you.’”

Patriotism and religiosity are effective political rhetorical strategies, but they also should be red flags to anyone concerned about their nation or their religion (or lack there of).

Current POTUS Trump has matched the buffoonery of cummings’ cartoonish politician, and in keeping with that theater, Trump has grabbed some low-hanging fruit by once again igniting the prayer in public school debate.

The tension between prayer/religion and public spaces such as schools has a long and complicated history. But since the early 1960s, one fact has existed that almost everyone who joins this debate misunderstands or misrepresents: All adults and students in public schools are free to pray, or not, and all types of religious texts can be read and assigned as literature (but not to proselytize).

Here is what people misunderstand: The Supreme Court ruled against coercion by the state in terms of religious practices. The ruling is not about anyone being religious or not, anyone practicing religion or not, but about the role of the state in coercion of religious belief and practice.

In other words, anyone who is religious should welcome this clarification because it protects religious freedom from the potential of anyone in authority abusing that role for religious purposes.

Students, for example, are free to pray at breakfast or lunch each day in school; but also free from any school authorities forcing that behavior or denying those practices.

Also, when I was a public high school English department chair, we purchased a class set of Bibles to use during literature study; for example, students used those Bibles in activities designed to identify Biblical allusions in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. This is a secular and academic activity in which a religious text is perfectly appropriate.

Sections of the King James version of the Bible were also in the British literature survey textbook as an example of British literature.

Beyond understanding what the current legal status of prayer and religious texts are in the U.S., we should also consider that private spaces can be religiously hostile, legally demanding or denying religious practice. It is our public spaces that must remain vigilant about preserving religious liberty.

Public education is not simply lessons about reading, writing, and arithmetic; every policy and every practice in daily schooling teaches students not only who they are but how the world works, what is valued and what is mere rhetoric.

As another example from my public school teaching career, I was also a coach for many of the years I taught. Since prayer is a common part of the sports ritual, I had to confront my role as an agent of the state while coaching.

Traditionally, coaches gather teams for prayer and then some sort of pre-game chant; however, just as I would never (and should never by law) call a class of students to prayer, I did not ask my players to gather for prayer before matches.

Instead, I gave the team space before the game to gather if they wished (and not to do so if they did not) and pray as a team (I was not involved) before we then gathered as a team and did our pre-game chant.

While this was unusual and caused some concern among parents (most of whom wanted me to follow tradition and lead a team prayer), I was modeling proper professional behavior for a public school employee and honoring all of my players’ diverse religious and non-religious beliefs and practices.

Several players over the years who were not formally religious thanked me for the respect this process showed.

No one forced or coerced to be religious, no one denied their religious identities—this is the current law governing all public spaces in the U.S., including public schools, and it is the law that the deeply religious and the non-religious should vigorously support and protect as one.

Just as the Supreme Court ruling was more about coercion than about religion, political rhetoric about patriotism and religion are likely (as cummings’ first line shows—ending as it does with “i,” “god america i”) more about the interests of the politician than any commitment to a people or a faith.

Regardless of your religious affiliation, however, be wary of voting for anyone who cannot accurately describe the concept they claim to be defending.