Portugal. The Man, the rock band from Wasilla, Alaska, known for albums like The Satanic Satanist and Evil Friends, released the music video Modern Jesus on 7 August 2013. Complex and provocative in its tone, the film is assembled from seemingly mismatched candid footage from both cell phones and high definition cameras, capturing an American landscape in a manner that recalls Cormac McCarthy’s aesthetic: “We are come to a world within the world. In these interstitial wastes that the righteous see from car another life dreams.” Modern Jesus represents a commingling of Protestant culture with a particularly American flavor of antireligious egoism.
The music video opens with a graying man walking to in a rust belt city on a cloudy day while a younger man enters a church to sit contemplatively. An energetic synth riff and intricately arpeggiated acoustic guitar accompany the vocal welcome: “Come on in, Take a seat next to me, You know we got, We got what you need” (Rojas). The song swells with triumphant mellotron accompaniment to the hook: “Don’t pray for us, We don’t need no modern Jesus, To roll with us, The only rule we need is never, Giving up, The only faith we have is faith in us” (Rojas). The musical character recalls early prog rock or baroque rock like the Beatles’ White Album but incorporates rhythm and blues instrument timbres and percussion from groups like the Wu Tang Clan; this creates an notably transracial tone that is reflected in the video.
The initial contemplative scene in the church is interrupted by a twerk dance, known as carnality and irreverence, and the film proceeds to feature a candid cast of a wide variety of extremely memorable individuals – teenage punks, biplane pilots, a parade of Indian cowboys, rural southerners, a Wyoming cowboy, a Black crew, bayou dwellers, and a corpse-painted fight club – all engaged in equally memorable activities – training boxing, playing with and shooting assault weapons, performing ATV stunts, dancing to banjo, tending cattle during a blizzard, boating among cyprus, starting fires, and fighting.
Although the film may seem like a random assembly of footage, it was constructed with specific design intentions. The clips were filmed on a roadtrip by the director of everyday people who agreed with the song – that they don’t need a savior such as Jesus. An interview with the band reveals that the song is “a reminder real life is often more interesting than fiction — and that embarking on a creative journey without a plan can often lead to brilliantly unraveling realities” (Hua 1) The video’s composition itself speaks the themes presented in the lyrics.
The song addresses agency with the attitude of American egoism. The song ironically reminds us: “We know that we’re helpless, At least we always assume” but invokes imagery of autonomy and human empowerment – such as passersby saving people in crashed vehicles in a blizzard on I-80 – while lyrically rejecting Jesus, a symbol of savior, and thereby rejecting humanity’s need for salvation in general (Rojas). This theme is especially visible in the last lines of the chorus “The only faith we need is faith in us” (Rojas). While egoism has taken many forms in history, it has found a home with American Protestants, interpreting their Christianity through a bricolage lens of work-ethic mythology, American independance narratives, and hyper-rational philosophies like those of Ayn Rand. Any assertion of independence and self-empowerment in the American context will inevitably relate with this powerful Protestant cultural force.
Contrarily, the song presents objections to consumerism, modern medicine, and oil – in some ways cornerstones of 21st century America. “You don’t need sympathy, They got a pill for everything,” They sing in the a rainy and distressed urban landscape (Rojas). While climbing on oil rigs and filming the fires that burn atop refineries, they reassure the disenfranchised dwellers of the rust-belt ruins: “You don’t need to feel blue, Cause we won’t sell you nothing, You can’t use” (Rojas). However, upon the word “use” the fight club begins smashing construction materials on and with each-other’s bodies. Dissatisfaction with consumerism and oil-economy is something of a group trait for young American atheists – smashing the modern products of this industry is a fitting activity in broader the trend.
While the video contains rebellious elements, its existence is influenced by the Protestant worldview that shapes much of American culture; it still talks in terms of prayer, heaven, and hell, as well as addressing existential concerns that may be seen as deriving from the Protestant worldview, and addresses concerns from these influences in a similar framework to atheist philosophers like Nietzsche and Camus. Well-stated in the anti-Western perspective of Vine Deloria, “Nietzsche foresaw that a tragic breakdown in both vision and values was occurring in the psyche of [Christians]. [He] attempted to solve the problem of decay inherent with the passage of time within the Western vision of the world.” In spite of Modern Jesus’ purported anti-religion, it exhibits these concerns about temporality that may emerge from Christian worldview: “We’re the ones who start little fires, Yet they burn out, But when they’re on the rise, They can’t help but shine” (Rojas). Similarly, Modern Jesus approaches death anxiety by invoking imagery of oblivion rather than afterlife: “Just take that dark cloud, Ring it out to wash it down, And when the wave approaches, Take our ashes to the ocean” (Rojas). The song’s reference to having drinks at Heaven’s Gate, emphasizing religion as a suicide vehicle, is not unlike Camus’ understanding of religion as intellectual suicide to escape the fundamental challenges of existence.
Even when individuals do not ascribe to the mainstream cultural and religious framework of their time and place, they will often approach the concerns and questions of that framework in some way rather than reject the questions of the framework altogether. In this way, a song rejecting Jesus may be seen as maintaining a distinctly Protestant American perspective.
McCarthy, C. (1979). Suttree. Random House.
Deloria, V. (1973). God is red. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.
Hua, V. (2013, August 14). Portugal. The Man – Modern Jesus Music Video (MV of the Week Interview w/ Zach Carothers). Retrieved May 06, 2016, from http://www.redefinemag.com/2013/portugal-the-man-modern-jesus-music-video-zach-carothers-band-interview/
Rojas, A. (2013, August 07). Portugal.The Man – Modern Jesus [Official Music Video]. from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8e1sSNsf44