smashing assumptions: billy corgan talks god

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Monday, September 14th, 2009

smashing assumptions: billy corgan talks god

this appeared on the eikon blog yesterday and i thought i would repost it here. enjoy.

billy corgan

last week, billy corgan—of smashing pumpkins fame—launched a new website, everything from here to there. in his first post, corgan expresses the purpose of the site, stating,

The purpose of this website is to discuss openly and without fear concepts of Mind-Body-Soul integration. If you are drawn to the Hidden Truths, drawn to God as something beyond limitation, and drawn to Love as the greatest force in the Universe, then you have come to the right place at the right time. This is a place of Love.

in essence, corgan has started a spiritual website that offers a safe and honest place to explore concepts of spirituality and the idea of something more. while it’s very clear that the site isn’t an overtly christian stream of thought (corgan states, “we promote no religion, and if we speak of any belief or faith system it won’t be at the expense of another”), certainly corgan is expressing themes that help to inform a broader conversation regarding religion, spirituality and ulitmately, jesus. he states,

There is God, and then there are gods, idols along the way that may convince us that the One God can be replaced by a lesser thought. To me, when I say One God, I mean One Truth, One Love, One Destination.

for billy corgan, though, these aren’t new themes. over the last 10 years or so, fans have increasingly become attune to corgan’s themes of faith and spirituality. what many are surprised by, though, is that corgan’s writing has shown his ups and downs with god ever since the beginning of the smashing pumpkins.

in 1991, the smashing pumpkins released their critically acclaimed debut album, gish. on the opening track, i am one (listen here), and in the opening line, it’s clear that corgan is someone thinking through his relationship to and with god, singing,

I am one as you are three
Trying to find a messiah in your trinity

corgan’s search for something more turned more and more into what sounded like angst and despair several years later at the release of their epic 2-disc set, mellon collie and the infinite sadness. one of the storylines that came from this album and still lingers today is that corgan’s anger and isolation was directed toward god, leading him to a place of hopelessness. while certainly there was plenty of cathartic raging aimed upward, corgan expresses that it wasn’t as dark as it might seem on the surface. in an interview with paste magazine, corgan adds some persepective to his state-of-mind during the writing of mellon collie:

It wasn’t a demonstrable need to say, ‘I’m so miserable, look at me.’ It was, ‘look at me, I’m miserable, but I’m trying to figure out a way to get out of the hole.’ That, even in and of itself, has a positivity to it because it’s hopeful, it’s not death, it isn’t nihilism. There’s actually a light at the end of the tunnel.

i don’t want to overstate corgan’s intentions, but his lyrics throughout the album sound like some of the great lamentations throughout scripture: the desperation of the songs of david or the distressed weeping of job when his world collapses or the angered cries of hosea when the bride he bought turns her back on him.

in zero, one of the breakout tracks from that album, corgan famously screams,

emptiness is loneliness
and loneliness is cleanliness
and cleanliness is godliness
and god is empty just like me

in an interview years after penning the track, corgan clarified his feelings about god as expressed in the song. he asserted that instead of the song suggesting he thinks god is not present, he means, rather, that god experiences deep loneliness much like he perceived himself to be experiencing.

continuing after mellon collie and the pumpkins’ declaration that “god is empty,” corgan only amplified his themes of faith, but making them even more overt. with the collapse of the pumpkins in the early 2000s, corgan formed the one-album wonder, zwan. on their lone 2003 album, corgan chose to include an interpretation of a gospel standard, jesus, i my cross have taken (you can hear the traditional version here and read the lyrics here). what strikes me most about this track selection is the directness of the lyrics and the fact that it takes a lot of guts to record a song like this. not only do you have to have some well of knowledge to even know this song, but you have to be willing to make an overt statement of spirituality. here’s corgan and zwan’s interpretation.

so, did billy corgan find jesus? in the aforementioned paste interview, he answers the question, saying,

No, I didn’t find Jesus. He’s been there the whole time.

no doubt, this statement is much a deeper and richer theology than a lot of christian music or christian musicians bring to the conversation.

now, to be clear, corgan has fairly definitively stated several times that he doesn’t call himself a christian, but it’s worth saying that it doesn’t diminish the truth of his words and music.

again, to be clear, it’s also worth stating that there are certainly things that corgan has presented thus far on his new website that aren’t intrinsically jesus-centered, but that’s almost the point.

one of the values that we hold very near and dear at eikon is to say that truth is everywhere. to borrow a phrase from rob bell, truth is “under every nook and cranny.” billy corgan doesn’t blatantly utter the name of jesus on his new website. he doesn’t speak in ways that evoke a strict parallel with the language of scripture. he doesn’t express a linear depiction of the arc of judeo-christian narrative.

but what he does do, though, is broaden the conversation in which all people are welcome. he helps those who follow in the way of jesus see that there’s many ways of expressing faith and truth and god. it isn’t overtly christian, but it is overtly christ-like in nature.

when corgan describes god as “One Truth, One Love, One Destination,” i think that is deeply christ-like, but is certainly spoken in a much broader set of idioms than how we may instinctively speak as people pursuing life like jesus. if there is, indeed, only one god, then corgan, in his own manner of communicating, is speaking our this god.

beginning this week, corgan plans to open the site up to others as contributors and collaborators and he says he is working on a spiritual memoir that shares the site’s name. so, we’ll be hearing more from corgan. it’s hard to say exactly where’s he headed, but it’s something worth following and engaging as he continues to smash assumptions and talk god.