The Gospel According to Karaoke

A warm Thank You to the folks at the Mennonite Worker and Church Of All Nations for inviting me to participate last weekend in their Broken Table Conference.

Saturday night after the conference had concluded attendees were invited to meet up at a local bar for some fellowship and Karaoke.

The Karaoke, I found out, was Mark Van Steenwyk's idea. Mark is the founder of the Mennonite Worker and an editor of Jesus Radicals, the online hub for conversation about radical Christianity and Christian anarchism. If you're interested in that conversation be sure to check out Mark's new book The unKingdom of God.

I loved getting to spend time with Mark, talking about his community and the theory and practice of Christian anarchism.

And Mark is, interestingly, also a bit of a theologian when it comes to Karaoke.

Karaoke, according to Mark, is a practice of vulnerability and community. You take a risk when you get up in front of strangers to sing a song. And yet, the quality of your singing doesn't matter. What matters is jumping in and taking a risk. Being exposed and vulnerable is what is welcomed. That's what gets you the embrace, just getting up there and participating. Being an exposed and vulnerable human being.

According to Mark, that's the gospel according to Karaoke. That's how Karaoke becomes a model for the Kingdom of God.

Church, according to Mark, should look more like a Karaoke night at a bar. We should be willing to be exposed and vulnerable in the church. Being the "best"--being all cleaned up and put together--isn't what it is supposed to be about. You're not expected to be a great singer at a Karaoke night. Being "good" doesn't matter. What matters is sharing in the communal vulnerability and solidarity.

You don't get much of that shared vulnerability and embrace in the church. But you do in bars on a Karaoke night.

And so it was that Mark and I and others gathered at a local bar in Minneapolis for some Karaoke.

Mark had never been to this particular bar. But it was close to the church and had Karaoke that night. Plus, it was a dive bar, which is what Mark likes, because dive bars are "third places" that tend to be local, neighborhood establishments that cater to regulars.

When we got there the place was fairly empty, but as the night worn on the crowd grew.

I'd never done Karaoke before so I took some time to see how it all worked. Many among our crew jumped right in. They had some standard songs they liked to sing. I kept flipping through the big binders on the table to find a song I knew.

Finally, after about an hour or so I figured it was either now or never. Time to step up to the microphone in front of a packed house. Time to be an exposed and vulnerable human being.

I wrote down the name of the song I wanted to sing along with my name. I took the request slip up to the lady DJing the Karaoke. Eventually my name got called and I took the stage. My song started and I began to sing...

And you know what? Mark was right. I don't think I sang particularly well. But it didn't matter. Why? Well, you really couldn't hear me sing. Because everyone else was singing along. The whole bar sang. And not just for my song, for every song. It was a shared singing experience.

And I thought to myself. This is where people sing communally when they don't go to church. These big binders are hymnbooks. And just like at church the shared singing creates fellowship and community.

It's also possible that people didn't mind my singing because they were a bit drunk. That's one advantage for waiting a bit before taking the stage.

Anyway, after my song was over, basking in the applause and high fives from strangers on the way back to my table, I knew that Mark was on to something with this Karaoke.

Standing on the outside looking in Karaoke had seemed kind of weird and strange. But on the other side of it Karaoke was found to be fun, communal and very, very human.

The Gospel According to Karaoke.

I told Mark that should be his next book. I hope he writes it.

Oh, before I go, some of you might be curious.

What song did I sing?

After pouring over title and titles of songs in that huge binder I finally landed on one of my all-time favorites.

I sang "Sweet Child of Mine" by Guns & Roses.

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27 thoughts on “The Gospel According to Karaoke”

  1. That song came out a couple of years before my family left South Dakota for Ohio and Minnesota. When I hear it, I'm a kid in Yankton, wanting to play Super Mario Bros. 3 while visiting the apartment of my brothers 'grown up' 19-year-old friends. I'm standing n the only place I've ever known, afraid, overwhelmed and without any way of expressing this sense of the vast possibilities folding open and folding shut around me. So maybe karaoke also involves a bit of participation in eternity.

    Still, I'm not so sure about the center of the body formed around karaoke. How well does karaoke perform in the face of tyranny? Does it have some role to play in liberating North Korea? (Actually...maybe...) But it is a pretty profound indictment of plenty of churches that karaoke, at least, forms some kind of body. It is an even more profound indictment if this body looks more like Jesus than plenty of churches.

  2. Karaoke as a metaphor of the church vulnerable resonates with me.
    I probably would have chosen "Somebody To Love" and done my best Grace Slick imitation ;o)

  3. Interestingly, when non-violent resistance takes on a celebratory, carnival-like atmosphere the Powers can become a bit flummoxed.

    Singing in the streets might actually be pretty effective.

  4. I have to say this is a twist I did not see coming. Had no idea what the connection was but it is a wonderful illustration. And it may be a great idea for small group activity.

  5. Sure you sang Guns & Roses in a bar, but were you wearing your overalls? That would really cause my respect for you to rise! ;0) This said by someone who would have been in khakis and a golf shirt singing "Somebody to Love" by Queen, so take from it what you will.

    Actually I think the theme from Cheers got it right: Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came, ....

  6. Fair enough. I'm interested in it as an actual embodied practice, and I think your post is helpful in that respect as well. Karaoke can make a nice metaphor ... but it also happens to be an actual embodied practice that creates social cohesion. As such, it really can pose a certain kind of challenge to other social bodies...even if it is primarily engaged in an existential struggle the discotheque ;)

  7. A few observations from my own (admittedly limited) experiences with karaoke...

    1. First, great choice of songs!!

    2. You're spot on that karaoke can leave the singer in an exposed and vulnerable position and this can be a great metaphor for the church. It's not a connection I've considered, but will keep in mind from now on. This leads me to the third point...

    3. In my experience as singer and audience member, karaoke is entertaining to the crowd so long as it's not too serious. The best "crowd-pleasers" are people who pick songs everyone in the bar knows and enjoys (i.e. communal), people who are not self-conscious about stepping up there and sharing (i.e. human), and by anyone willing to put on a show (i.e. fun/entertaining). Those who are timid, or take it too seriously (i.e. think it's an audition for a music contract) are sometimes cheered or supported, but can often be ignored and sometimes even ridiculed. Nevertheless, there can occasionally be a judgment by the audience of the motives behind the singer. This can be highly discouraging at times, but I've seen it in karaoke clubs from Madison, WI to New Orleans.

    The reaction and response of the audience can be encouraging or devastating....perhaps like the church?

  8. First off, the karaoke DJ is a "KJ," just for the record.
    Second, is it kingdom work/gospel to also be the very obvious (even if reluctant or scared) center of attention?
    And, sure, you're out there, vulnerable and sharing and joining in a bit o' the common chorus - but, truth be told, you might not be very good at it. So I guess grace is a solid foundational component of this, too.
    And, finally, I always try to worship a bit drunk. It's good for the participatory aspects of a worship service...

  9. I am actually hoping to become a KJ as a PT gig. I'm hoping to experiment from there into bring a liturgical sensibility into conversation with karaoke as a practice. It seems to make more sense to bring elements of the sacred (liturgy) into the profane (karaoke) rather than vice versa (seeker service). And the thing isn't just that the singer is the center of is that it is vulnerable and participatory.

  10. Maybe the book could be co-written. I'm sure your expertise could bring a lot of insights to how vulnerability works in relationship to cohesion, the sociology of singing, etc.

  11. It seems that the church has missed this basic point about Christianity. We want visitors who come in the church door to look like us, speak our language, and already have basically the same values we have. Thus, what is ultimately important about our mission is lost. Once while teaching at a Christian college in the 1970s, which had a strict dress code for faculty and students, I was approached by a colleague after Wednesday service. He said that the administration had met and had decided to ask him to approach me about an important matter. That sounded quite serious, and I was anxious to know the problem. He apologized and stated that this was not his feelings; he was only passing along to me what the administration wanted me to know. I eagerly awaited to learn what egregious act I had committed that would cause the administration to meet on the matter. Reluctantly, he said their concern was that at the bottom of my sideburns, they flared out a little across my face, which was seen as an extreme look and unbecoming of a faculty member at that college. Obviously, that Christian administration would be offended at your analogy.

  12. Given how much time I was spending with anarchists I almost packed the overalls. Had them in my hand and asked Jana, "Do you think anarchists would mind the overalls?" We decided not, but we figured the church people coming to the conference might find it weird.

    Along these lines, depending upon when you see me, I can look very, very different. I can look like a college professor, a homeless person, a hick in overalls or who knows what.

    I'm tempted to add to my speaking engagement page a series of pictures so that people can select which look they want when I come to speak...

  13. A friend just sent me this.

    Two in one day?

  14. He said son can you play me a memory
    I'm not really sure how it goes
    But it's sad and it's sweet and I knew it complete
    When I wore a younger man's clothes...
    Oh la dee dee dah dee dee dah dah....

  15. YES! Absolutely amazing, Richard. What a wonderful insight into an area that we Churchy people may frown upon. And, for some legitimate reasons (drunkenness, for example). But, we miss the why of the thing, don't we? My confession is that, sometimes I go to clubs with my "secular" friends. I love that we hang out and dance together and laugh. The last time I went, though, I threw my back out...I got teased for months afterwards! It was awesome!

  16. Nuthin like folks claiming to be christians... have a few alcoholic beverages watching their christian brother sing satanic music by guns and roses, eh?

    I could see going to a bar to witness, but to partake of the darkness??? Now you understand why most of the church has no power and no respect from the world seeing that some enjoy being worldly.

    Ya think they got anybody born again?

  17. i Agree to a point. Let's not be Uptight Christians here but always remember this solemn fact.

    A Bar is Enemy Territory. It's primary function is to make money by selling people Alcohol. By encouraging drunkenness.

    Now aside from going into a Bar for Christ, that is to say, to further his Kingdom (In which case you have the utmost protection of the Spirit) Willingly walking into a Bar to sing secular music and drink alcohol with other alcoholics, troubled people, unsaved....

    You are Opening yourself up to the enemy, Satan.

    You may not be an alcoholic, you may not be tempted to become an alcoholic or do drugs or any of those obvious things, but the spirit behind a Karaoke Bar and really, any Bar, is depression, destruction, and evil. take a good look around you next time you decide to put your spiritman in danger and go there. You'll see some desperate alcoholic people, some lost youth looking to have some fun as tey get more and more drunk, some middle aged men looking for an escape from teir lives in a bottle.

    Go wit te best intentions and drink Pepsi all night if you want.... But your spirit is still under attack, te BEST you can hope for by putting yourself into that scenario is for NOTHING to happen, cause no good can come of it for a christian, i'm reminded of a quote.

    "When you dance with the devil, the devil don't change... The Devil changes you..."

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