In a sunlit, bookshelf-lined waiting room upstairs at Northwest Portland's Trinity Episcopal Church, the Rev. William Lupfer talks casually across a coffee table about the Beatles, Carl Jung and postmodernism. "You two are wearing glasses, so you see things through those lenses," the fleece-clad preacher says with a joyful smile, turning first to me and then to 42-year-old Joseph Rose, whose thick-rimmed spectacles and graying beard frame a face that looks a little lost in reflection. "God types see God everywhere."
Rose, a member of Lupfer's church who works as an Oregonian transportation reporter covering road rage and bus stop vandalism, keeps finding God in popular music. Since January 2010, he has led a series of "alternative liturgies," worship services based around the music of artists like the Decemberists, Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash. The series, which encourages donations to help Trinity's mission of feeding the hungry (it served around 26,000 meals last year), began with a U2charists—a musical service built around the music of U2, which offers churches free access to its catalog with the stipulation that they raise money to combat poverty—but Rose's presentations aren't the tearful, arm-waving rock revivals one often sees on television. Rose, whose service to the church began with "a really poorly attended Sunday School class," wants attendees to think deeply about what they're hearing.
"I'm not trying to appropriate Radiohead and say they're a Christian band," Rose says of Trinity's March 17 liturgy, "Give Up The Ghost: An Alternative Lenten Observance Set to the Music of Radiohead." "I would never do that. I'm such a big fan of theirs, and Iâd think it was disrespectful.â
Instead, the service focuses on issues that are as layered and subtext-rich as the music itself. For Radiohead, that means reflections on consumerism and the environment as well as the feeling of 21st-century isolation that the band captures so well on albums like OK Computer and Kid A—heady themes, but ones that Rose finds appropriate for Lent. "They're one of the few bands that is part of the consumer culture, but also encouraging their fans to take a hard look at the energy and the capital and the human resources that go into making cheap products," Rose says. "I think that's something we should be exploring more as Christians."
While the Radiohead service opens a bit predictably—with a choral version of "Creep" cribbed from The Social Network soundtrack set against some relevant hymns—it moves swiftly to less hummable numbers like "You and Whose Army" and "Pyramid Song," both contrasted with retellings of Jesus' grisly last 24 hours. Rose says he's considering a reading of "Fitter, Happier," a dark, robot-read meditation on modern man that ends by comparing him to "A pig/ in a cage/ on antibiotics."
"To me, that's a postmodern hymn," Rose says.
Navigating the space between rebellious pop culture and more traditional organized religion can be a little hairy, as 33-year-old Mike Wenrick, a multi-instrumentalist who will help perform Radiohead tunes this week, experienced during Rose's Bob Dylan liturgy in January.
"I had some songs in mind, and one of them was 'With God on Our Side.' It's a super-intense, edgy, political song that's essentially challenging Christians, like, look, you've been a part of the problem in a lot of history," Wenrick says from a pew at Trinity while members of his Radiohead band practice in the next room. "I wasn't sure it was going to fly." It did, though, and in front of 500 churchgoers, Wenrick sang Dylan's still-controversial Vietnam-era lyrics: "I can't think for you, you'll have to decide/ Whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side."
"Singing that song in a church, yeah, it was different than if I was singing it at an open-mic night somewhere," Wenrick says. "I had trouble, at the very end, getting the lyrics out of my mouth. This is a sacred space, and the majority of people here were Christians. I didn't know if they would applaud or boo."
They applauded. Then they stood up and applauded some more.
"We like to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," Rev. Lupfer laughs of his church's mission. "That's what we do."
Radiohead's Thom Yorke rarely writes the knife-twisting lyrics of an early Dylan (some of whose religious songs were also performed during the liturgy), so unless faithful servicegoers are familiar with the band's more subtle digs at religion, the music probably won't encourage them to question their faith. And anyway, Rose—who says he hasn't studied Yorke's faith—is less concerned with the lyrics' intent than what they mean in a religious context. "In 'Videotape,' he's talking about going to the pearly gates with the devil reaching at your heels, and having your life on a videotape," Rose explains excitedly. "That's a postmodern idea, taking this technology and putting it in a spiritual context."
"There is no meaning inherent in the text," Lupfer adds. "People bring and give meaning to it."
"Are we going to do a death-metal liturgy? Probably not," Rose continues. "But I think Radiohead gives a lot of openings for modern people of faith to think about something they may not get in their church."
Of course, many of those who attend alternative liturgies aren't Christians at all, and neither Rose nor Lupfer expect them to turn into Sunday regulars. "We get a lot of folks who come but really aren't connected to a church. They're part of the very secular Oregon. But they feel a spiritual connection to popular music," Rose says, noting the religious diversity even among the mostly young band playing Radiohead's songs (which includes Rose's daughter, Una). "A lot of Springsteen fans will talk about that."
To de-churchify things a bit, the services recently moved from Trinity's intimidatingly beautiful cathedral—where the crunch of an electric guitar drifts up to the rafters—to the nearby Kempton Hall, which feels more like a traditional music venue.
Rose talks about the Radiohead liturgy as Trinity's most ambitious service yet. "And who knows," he says. "People may walk away from it scratching their heads." He maintains, though, that Radiohead is fascinating grounds for religious study. "On 'Paranoid Android,' there's this whole idea of questioning whether God loves his children, and then it goes into 'Airbag,' about this interstellar burst, and 'I am born again' and finding hope. Within those two songs, to me, is gospel."
For musician Mike Wenrick, the challenge is more immediate. "Every time I've listened to 'Paranoid Android,' it comes to the end and they all cut out and the electric guitar is ringing and first I think, 'Wow, that's an amazing song,'" he says. "And then I think, 'How the hell are we going to pull this off?ââ
SEE IT: Give Up the Ghost: An Alternative Lenten Observance set to the Music of Radiohead is at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral's Kempton Hall, 147 NW 19th Ave., on Saturday, March 17. 6 pm. Free (donations benefit Trinity's Community Meal and Food Pantry programs). All ages.