The Christmas season and turning of a calendar year might be a natural time for some to reflect on their faith and how it integrates with life, but Earl MacDonald says he believes there are many like him who started the process years ago.
“I do think we’re in a period of transition, hopefully in the country, but absolutely in Christian circles,” MacDonald says. “Church attendance is declining, and I think many are starting to ask questions. People are diving deeper into their faith and asking questions they suppressed or were discouraged from asking all their lives. In that sense, I’m hopeful. But I do think change is going to take some time and require more people to speak out and leave the institution.”
MacDonald, UConn music professor and director of jazz studies who was named Jazz Artist of the Year during last month’s 42nd Covenant Awards, describes himself as an “ex-vangelical” who grew up in the evangelical church but since has separated because of what he describes as political hijacking of the cross by Republicans who claim they represent Christian virtues but act to the contrary.
“That doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned my faith, I have not. But I will not be associated with those denominations and that party,” he says. “The callous act of chartering busloads of migrants north to send a political message should be cause enough for Christians to reconsider their party affiliation.”
His latest album, “Consecrated,” released in September 2021, features 10 hymns reimagined in his signature jazz style, including “By Our Love,” a reworking of the hymn “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love” and MacDonald’s effort to challenge the Christian right.
It’s a song he was commissioned to write, but later revised after that first audience’s reception included only polite applause – “I wanted people to be offended by it and go home thinking. I did not accomplish that goal in any way,” he says.
The next iteration added a visual component, one meant to stir listeners-turned-viewers to challenge, reflect, and consider their part in the politicization of religion.
MacDonald enlisted UConn illustration professor Cora Lynn Deibler and together they engaged the help of students and Greenhouse Studios to release a musical animation that shows circling schools of fish sometimes baring their teeth at one other – a metaphor for groups of people and a nod to the Greek ichthys, the symbolic Christian fish.
The hymn’s titular lyrics, “They will know we are Christians by our love,” float across the screen.
Micah 6:8 scrolls: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Then follows Leviticus 19:33: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land do not mistreat them.”
“For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me,” Matthew 25:42-43 notes.
Deibler was raised Lutheran and says faith and the principles of love, compassion, and unity are part of her life today, even as she’s turned off by white Christian nationalists and fundamentalists and their influence on the Republican Party.
“I’m sad that fundamentalists have taken over Christianity and made religion a bad thing,” Deibler says. “Christian fundamentalism is misguided and hurtful and dangerous. Fundamentalists in any major world religion make trouble, and I’m disappointed they’ve stolen the good things that faith practices can bring to societies.”
MacDonald is equally as upset: “The blinders were taken off during the 2016 election when I saw the church’s alignment with the Republican Party and its harsh humanitarian policies across the board, whether it is their stance on immigration, whether it is the marginalization of LGBTQ folks, whether it is not supporting commonsense gun reform.”
“By Our Love” has been screened publicly a handful of times since its release in January 2021, including as part of the Dodd Human Rights Impact Encounters Series that year and MacDonald’s CD release performance at a church in Glastonbury.
“It got a standing ovation, people loved it,” MacDonald says of that release with a sentiment of “finally” in his voice.
Since then, the project has drawn few views on YouTube and its website, concerning MacDonald and Deibler that it might be forgotten – especially as fallout from the Jan. 6 insurrection continues and another presidential campaign gets way.
During the fall campaign season, Deibler says she noticed one candidate’s signage that used a Biblical verse about freedom that was taken out of context and twisted into political text. This is precisely why the questions raised by the project are even more relevant now than in previous years, she says.
“There were white Christian nationalist candidates across the country who embody the things we are critiquing in the video,” Deibler says. “Those signs didn’t encourage my vote. They said to me of those who posted them, ‘I’m bigoted, I’m misogynistic, I’m xenophobic, I’m homophobic, and I’m OK with that.’ And a shockingly large number of people are ready to support that.”
As they continue to promote “By Our Love” in the face of an increasingly polarized society that is celebrating Christmas this month, MacDonald and Deibler point to the verses they chose for their project as something to consider this season.
“In doing this project, we started with a lot of Bible passages that we felt reflected certain themes of caring for the Earth, caring for each other, welcoming the stranger, things we thought were important pillars of Christianity, guideposts of the way you should be and how you should treat others,” Deibler says. “We had many verses that we pared down to just a handful that we featured in the animation.”
“But I don’t think those passages were necessarily cherry-picked verses. Those are overriding themes throughout the Scriptures,” MacDonald notes.
“At this time of year, how about you really read them,” Deibler suggests. “How about trying to live like that? I don’t think you have to be religious to see the good in those passages. I think the good in those passages is obvious.”