Pearl Jam & American Religiosity: Why Pearl Jam?

From “Release” on the Ten Album:

I am myself
Like you somehow
I’ll ride the wave
Where it takes me
I’ll hold the pain
Release me

To investigate religiosity in the United States, it might seem odd to start with the lyrics from a mainstream rock band.  Yet, I’m arguing that Pearl Jam’s newest album, Lightning Bolt, offers insight into current religious trends.  Thus the question could be posed, why Pearl Jam?To answer that question, I would like to propose three reasons.

First, Pearl Jam rocketed into prominence by giving voice to an iconoclastic generation frustrated with their available options and resources.  Reacting to glam rock bands like Poison and Def Leopard which relied on exaggerated guitar riffs, amplified hair styles, and unauthentic lyrical compositions, the angst and authenticity revealed by Pearl Jam’s lyrics, especially in their initial albums, resonated with a generation of no labels and philosophical deconstruction.

Second, and closely related to the first, the voice that Pearl Jam gave the generation emerging in the 1990s has continued as the band has proven its marketable longevity.  As other bands of the 1990s like Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, and Stone Temple Pilots dissolved and others like Nirvana and Alice in Chains ceased to exist for obvious reasons, Pearl Jam has retained most of its original members (with the exception of the drummer), produced multiple albums, and continues to tour around the globe.  Moreover, the lead singer of Pearl Jam, Eddie Vedder, persists as a political voice expressing his opinions on American wars, gun control, and environmental issues.

Additionally, Pearl Jam arises from the Seattle, Washington area.  The Northwest of the United States has been labeled the “None Zone” by scholars.  The label of Religious None describes a person who refuses to affiliate religiously.  Thus, the None Zone denotes a high concentration of Religious Nones.

Thus, Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam continue to be relevant especially for thirty and forty-somethings who are still seeking meaning and purpose, constructing values, and attempting to reclaim, repurpose, and refashion the “world” which they inherited.

Pearl Jam & American Religiosity

ImagePearl Jam successfully released their tenth album in October of last year.  The album, Lightning Bolt, reached the top of the charts in the United States and Canada.  Additionally, the album was well-received in Europe and Australia. 

At the end of October, I was fortunate enough to attend a Pearl Jam concert in Charlotte, North Carolina with my brother.  The seven hour drive was completely worth watching Eddie Vedder and the rest of the band perform for almost three hours.  The setlist included new tracks, but also incorporated songs from their previous albums. 

Because much of my recent research has focused on the changing religiosity in the United States, I cannot help but notice the lyrical composition regarding religiosity within the Lightning Bolt album.  For the next few posts, I want to examine Lightning Bolt vis-a-vis current research of the Religious Nones. 

Some of the forthcoming themes will be distrust of organized religion, non-systematic theological formations, and engagement with existential questions.  

The Warmth Returns…Yet Again

The cold dissipates,
The warmth can’t be late
To assume its place.

The birds return with playful glee,
Simultaneously working deliberately.
All the while, implicitly announcing nature’s decree.

The sky yields a richer blue,
The grasses a greener hue,
Rebirth proclaims a successful coup.

The soul is restored.
Energy reborn.
Vitality implored.

Mother Earth…Weber’s Long Awaited Prophet?

Max Weber’s famous The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has been long debated since its publication.  For the most part, Weber offers a cultural archaeology of current attitudes regarding work, capitalism, and religiosity.  But, the weakness is the lack of empirical evidence. Many have attempted to prove or disprove his ideas, but the Protestant ethos still seems strong in the United States. 

But Weber did speculate concerning the end of the Protestant Ethic. At the conclusion of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber made some astounding predictions.  As noted, he speculated that Protestant influenced countries were stuck in an “iron cage” and were cognitively compelled to work as a calling.  As a consequence, Weber foresaw no way out of the iron cage of a rationalized and institutionalized form of capitalism except the emergence of a prophetic figure or a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals.  He even suggested that the iron cage might last until all fossil fuel resources had been consumed.  This perspective is greatly insightful since he was writing in the very early 1900s. 

Combining these two predictions, the manifestation of an increasing ecological awareness could be an impediment for the continuation of the Protestant Ethic.  Is Mother Earth’s groans and pains the prophetic voice that Weber predicted? With Americans less concerned about environmental issues today than in 1971 (see recent poll), Mother Nature will have to proclaim her message more boldly and loudly. 

May we hear the prophetic voice.

The Cherry Picking Nature of Libertarianism

After reading David Graeber’s book Debt, I have political economics on the brain.  As such, many critiques of free-market economies and, more specifically, libertarianism have been developing in my thought processes.  Admittedly, I am not an economist and am usually antagonistic toward capitalistic economic theories, but libertarianism seems ultra hypocritical to me. 

I have a few libertarian friends who are always touting the phrase “limited government.”  These friends usually support a political Paul, stress the inefficiency of government, and sacralize a free-market. [Although none of these friends have read Sarah Posner’s wonderful piece connecting Ron Paul & Christian Fundamentalism.] What really upsets me about libertarian theories is the “cherry picking nature” of most libertarians.

First, many of the libertarians that I know are economic libertarians, but not moral/social libertarians.  These people are usually very religious, and therefore, beg the government to regulate moral issues like abortion, civil unions, and religious freedom.  However, they see no role for government as it pertains to welfare, equality issues, or economic regulations. Those following this line of thought are truly some of the most hypocritical in my opinion. 

Secondly, for those who are more truly libertarian, they maintain that the government should remain out of private industry and moral issues (which in some ways is less hypocritical than the first).  However, what I have discovered is that these libertarians only want the government to intervene where their experience (or an experience of a close friend or loved one) has taught them that the government should intervene.  For instance, I have a friend who is a “limited government” champion but had an aunt who had worked her entire life, lacked sufficient means to afford health care, and therefore lost her battle with cancer due to a health services.  Hence, a self-described “moderate libertarian” chooses to accept universal healthcare as a legitimate role for government.  Additionally, another friend maintains a “limited government” stance, but supports the government subsidization of food industries (because a close relative benefits from these subsidies). 

It has been noted that the families of the political Paul’s have benefited from government subsidy (another name for welfare?) especially during their medical practices (see here).  Rand has stated that he would not have voted for the Civil Rights Act, but why would he? He has never needed the government to step in and secure his voting rights.  The Paul families have benefited from farm subsidy programs in the past, so they have done little to lobby against these forms of governmental assistance (except to propose farm subsidies to extremely wealthy farmers).

To the point: most libertarians are wealthier, white males who have had very little need for the United States government to ensure their freedoms, assist in developing opportunities for individual progress, or provide assistance during difficult economic times.  Hence, they ideologically reduce the need for government…except in instances where they have benefited.


By only accounting for a narrow minded perspective, this view seems self-centered and less than compassionate. Additionally, this perspective is dangerous for anyone not within the network of those that maintain this position.

Faith, Public Conversations, & Conversation Stoppers

Richard Rorty discussed the idea that when people of faith employ their religious language in public conversations, it inhibits the conversation from progressing. Or in his terminology, religious language and reasoning was a conversation stopper.  As an example, if a religious devotee stated that they were opposed to civil unions due to biblical proscriptions or the Garden of Eden narrative, then they have, in essence, failed to provide sufficient evidence for their argument while simultaneously prohibiting any reasonable response. 

I am reminded of this frequently as my friends engage with people of faith in the American South.  By utilizing religious language, faithful people introduce a strain on the conversation which is overwhelming and many nonreligious people simply choose to opt out.  I am not sure that religious people (especially those that see themselves as a “defender of the faith”) realize the stress that can be created by employing only religious arguments (which are circular or lack sufficient evidence).

This also seems to be problematic for our society as a whole as it pertains to disconnectedness.  As we all chose our own small clusters developing our own languages and communicative formations, this only serves to increase the divide.  Hence, a space for interfaith dialogue has the potential to serve as a corrective for this pattern. Religious leaders could do our society well by encouraging their congregants to step into the interfaith sphere.

The Agony of Decoversion (A Quote)

Just some food for thought this Monday morning.  From the book Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious:

I wanted to believe in God.  I wanted to love Jesus and participate in his fellowship of believers.  I looked to many Christians as pillars of goodness, and I wanted to emulate their compassion and social justice ethic…I earnestly believe that, to be like them, I needed to believe in their God. It seemed to be a package deal, but I was much more invested in the positive, human-affirming ethics and the community aspect of it than I was in that theism…It was kind of heartbreaking, then, when I realized that I no longer believed in God…It was if I had come home from an especially long week at work to find out that God had packed up His things and moved out days before without leaving a forwarding address, and I’d just been too busy to notice His absence…Letting go of God was difficult.  Even as I began to step up my antireligious rhetoric at college, I privately mourned God.  I wanted to believe and was disappointed in my inability to do so.  I missed Him – and the community and ethical commitments that came along with Him.