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Twenty One Pilots: Masters of the Culture of Encounter

January 7, 2014


Of all the surprisingly wonderful things that Pope Francis said last year, this was my favorite: “Be servants of communion and of the culture of encounter! I would like you to be almost obsessed about this.” The pope preached these words to the three million young people that gathered on Copacabana beach in Rio for World Youth Day. His point was simple – just as God came to encounter us in the person of Jesus, so too must we go and share what we have received and encounter the world.

Christianity is not a Gnostic religion, which keeps the secrets of salvation guarded among a select few. Nor is Christianity a maintenance religion, which, once established simply stands back and allows others to find their way to it. (Unfortunately, many Catholic parishes unknowingly operate according to this model.) No, by its very nature, Christianity is a missionary religion – it is constantly going out, encountering the world and proclaiming that Jesus Christ is Lord.

In Catholic Christianity in particular, God encounters us in Word and Sacrament in order to literally make us other Christs by the power of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus tells us that he wants us to be salt, light, and leaven, he means that we need to go encounter a world which is bland, dark, and flat and to bring his healing love to it. At the end of every Mass, we are told to “Go” and encounter the world, to bring Christ to the world through our very flesh. Christianity, like its founder, is constantly about going out and encountering people where they are and inviting them into the life of grace. And like the mystery of martyrdom, Christianity only really flourishes when it gives itself away. When Christianity refuses to encounter, it stops being what it is.

The tricky thing about Christianity and the culture of encounter today is that many people think that they already know what Christianity is and they choose to avoid those who speak in its name. Or if they do allow a Christian to speak, the voice is usually qualified somehow by a category – “The Religion Section” in a newspaper, “Safe for the Whole Family” in radio, and “Christian” in the music industry. Christians may have a voice, but that voice is rarely welcome in the public square. For the culture to label something “Christian” is to somehow neuter it, or at least sentimentalize it, so that people won’t take it too seriously.

So here’s the real problem: How do you encounter a culture that is already suspicious of and hostile to the Gospel? How do you propose the Gospel to a culture that wants to keep Christianity innocuous by restrictive categories? How do you become salt, light, and leaven to a world that thinks our fallen nature is all there is? Well, you become cunning as serpents, and like the founder of Christianity Himself, you sneak behind enemy lines like a clandestine warrior and surprise the hell out of them. And if you’re a band, you become Twenty One Pilots. Tyler Joseph and Josh Dunn are the lone members of Twenty One Pilots, yet you’d never guess it by their sound. Imagine that Tool, Eminem, and Ben Folds Five somehow had a musical baby – that’s the vibe of Twenty One Pilots. And that’s why it’s difficult to confine them to a particular genre. Dunn pounds his drum kit with a unique mix of violence and virtue, while Joseph raps, sings, plays keys, piano, and occasionally even a ukulele.

I first saw Twenty One Pilots as an opening act two summers ago at the Orange Peel in Asheville, and they scared me. Dressed head-to-toe in skeleton outfits, they tore onto the stage with such ferocious and hypnotic energy that by the end of their first song, they had the entire sold-out crowd in a trance. (Mind you, most of the crowd was there to see Neon Trees, and a few folks came out for the second opener Walk the Moon, but I don’t think anyone in the club that night came to see Twenty One Pilots.) Until that evening I had never heard of Twenty One Pilots, even though they were already making a name for themselves in their hometown of Columbus, Ohio, which is just two hours south of my hometown of Cleveland.

I bought their album that night after the show, which is ironically entitled, Regional at Best. It’s ironic because in the last two years Twenty One Pilots has become a global band – currently they’re touring Australia. A year ago this week, they released their major label debut, Vessel, which was one of the finest records of 2013.

So what does Twenty One Pilots have to do with Pope Francis and “the culture of encounter?” At first glance, it may seem that there is no relation. And that’s good. If you could catch everything upon a first glance, that would mean that there isn’t much there. But that’s not the case with the culture of encounter nor is it the case with Twenty One Pilots. Remember, when I first saw Twenty One Pilots, they scared me. There was something about them that I liked, something that drew me in, but I wasn’t sure what it was or if it was okay to like them. I had to spend some significant time listening to their records, studying their lyrics, reading interviews, talking to other fans, and seeing another one of their live shows before I could offer the following take.

There has been an appropriately heavy emphasis over the last two decades on the New Evangelization, a term coined by Blessed John Paul II, which has also been a major inspiration to the work done by Word on Fire. In a word, the New Evangelization is the activity of re-presenting the Gospel to traditionally Christian parts of the world that need to be re-evangelized.

It seems to me that Pope Francis has offered a important contribution to efforts of the New Evangelization: before one can evangelize others effectively, one must first encounter others effectively. In other words, an often overlooked step in the activity of evangelization is simply meeting people where they are, and loving them where they are, and understanding what it means to be where they are, and then working to understand how they got there. This sort of encounter is disarming, as it first speaks “I love you and I want to understand you” rather than “I have the truth and I want to change you.” I’m not saying that John Paul II somehow failed to recognize the importance of encounter – after all, he named Cyril and Methodius co-patrons of Europe for this very reason – but I am saying that Francis is offering an important nuance that is easy to miss: encounter precedes evangelization.

Twenty One Pilots played a sold-out show at the House of Blues in Cleveland the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. Due to our faculty pre-Thanksgiving dinner, I arrived late and had to stand in the back of the club, which was packed with a mostly high school and college-aged crowd, the same demographic of a World Youth Day. The place erupted when duo took the stage, and the majority of the crowd seemed to know every word to every song and they weren’t shy about singing. That they were singing was great, but what they were singing was even better.

An inordinate number of Twenty One Pilots songs are directed toward an unidentified “You.” Joseph sings, “I do not know why I would go/ In front of you and hide my soul/ ‘Cause you’re the only one who knows it/ Yeah the only one who knows it.” At first one might think that Joseph is singing to a best friend or a lover, and one would be right. But as the song unfolds the listener realizes that Joseph is actually standing before God (although God’s name is never mentioned) and that he’s been attempting to save himself, “trying to be so cool/ Everything together, trying to be so cool,” but it doesn’t work. The song concludes with a contemporary penitential rite: “We’re broken people.” And although those three words are only listed once on the lyrics page, the phrase is actually repeated over and over in the song itself. To hear a wall-to-wall crowd of Millennials at the House of Blues singing, “We’re broken, we’re broken, we’re broken, we’re broken people, Oh-Oh, we’re broken people, Oh-Oh” was surprisingly encouraging.

In the liner notes of Vessel, the band thanks “their supportive family at Five Fourteen Church” and they also “thank God for sending His Son and being a part of this even before we were.” Twenty One Pilots is not a Christian band, but Tyler Joseph and Josh Dunn are both believers. A quick internet search discovers the mission statement of Five Fourteen Church: “to lead you into or further along in a relationship with Christ by creating a dynamic worship experience for all ages using modern technology and relevant language.” On their own website, Twenty One Pilots state their mission: “we want to make people think.” They never mention what they want people to think about, and that seems intentional.

But if Joseph and Dunn are both believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, why don’t they just “come out” as a Christian band? Why don’t they make their belief more explicit in their lyrics? Why don’t they do some preaching in between songs? Moreover, why do they insist on dressing up in skeleton outfits or gorilla costumes, and then halfway through their show not wear any shirts at all? Why does Joseph jump off amplifiers and why does Dunn do back-flips off the piano? Why? Because it works – it’s all part of the encounter.

Twenty One Pilots know their audience. They know that young people are lonely, hurting, depressed, confused, searching, distracted, and restless. And they know that when young people turn to music, either live or recorded, they are looking for something more. Joseph and Dunn know what it is – or better yet – Who it is that young people are looking for, but because of the culture’s hostility to the Gospel, they’ve got to be cunning in leading their audience toward the answer. If they came right out and said it, they’d lose their audience. Remember, Twenty One Pilots play music to make people think. They want to lead their audience to the answer, but they don’t want to force the answer upon them – they want their audience to discover the answer for themselves. (Of course, the answer is God, and Joseph and Dunn want their audience to have their own personal and communal experience of Him.)

Twenty One Pilots close their set with “Trees,” which embodies the mission of the band. The song is about finally building up the courage to come before God, but not knowing what to do or how to be: “I know where you stand/ Silent in the trees/ And that’s where I am/ Standing cowardly.” Then the music shifts from a slow, frustrated lament to a big melodic, drawn-out burst of consolation: “I can feel your breath/ I can feel my death/ I want to know you/ I want to see you/ I want to say, hello.” That’s it – “hello.”

I know that Twenty One Pilots is only a rock band. And I’m not saying that they are the future of the New Evangelization or that the Church needs to somehow “modernize” to be more effective. That’s not my point. What I am saying is that Twenty One Pilots has offered a masterful incarnation of the culture of encounter. They meet their audience where they are, as they are, and they let them know that they “get them.” Once their audience trusts them, then they can slowly challenge them to consider a new way of seeing, a new way of living, and a new way of being. Is it evangelization? Maybe not exactly, but it is encounter, which is a prerequisite for authentic evangelization. They’ve accomplished the important work of preparing the soil for seeds to be sown, which isn’t easy. And, if by the end of the night, Twenty One Pilots can get some young people to say “Hello” to God for the first time, or for the first time in a long time, well, that’s better than most.