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Monday, December 27, 2004

Culture, Christianity, and Clay Aiken

We kinda "spread out" the Christmas gifts in our family instead of unloading them all in one shot: everyone gets something Christmas Eve night (usually the more thoughtful stuff). Then next morning the REAL toys - like Dad's new recliner, or my LEGO Star Wars Millennium Falcon set, or the Xbox that "Weird" Ed and I tore Greensboro all to pieces inside-out trying to find for Lisa - get doled out. That's when Lisa found the new Clay Aiken "Merry Christmas with Love" CD in her stocking.

And the night before, prior to us turning in for a long winter's nap (among other things) she received my first gift to her for the season: Clay Aiken's book (co-written with Allison Glock) Learning to Sing: Hearing the Music in Your Life. Yeah, she's been an Aiken-aholic since that first night he showed up looking like Opie Taylor's illegit son on "American Idol" but I must admit: I've a lot of admiration for the guy too. So it was that yesterday morning while resting from the long drive to her parents' house (I may not have gotten Lisa back home for Christmas... but I came within a half-hour of it ;-) I wound up perusing through Aiken's book. Then started reading. Then got hooked and ended up finishing a few hours later.

And to the surprise of some who might consider it a mere "puff piece" or some other schlock meant to capitalize on Aiken's moment of glory, it's definitely not an ego-trip by any stretch. In fact, it's a darned good read that I've no problem whatsoever recommending to anyone.

Oh sure, Aiken fills most of the book with accounts of his life from childhood up through "American Idol" and beyond... but wasn't that the point of doing this book anyway? Except that in Learning to Sing Aiken uses vignettes from his life to pass along the many lessons that he's picked up along the way. But where the book REALLY stands out is that Aiken does so with an objective eye cast upon himself that is candid to the point of brutal. He admits to making mistakes: like when he was 15 and he "borrowed" his step-dad's car to drive around with a girl he was trying to impress... among many other acts that he's up-front about. The relationship he had with his natural father is delved into with a lot of detail, which is certain to interest Aiken's fans who have wondered about the mystery between father and son. Before reading this book I had no idea that Clay Aiken had known so much turmoil and heartache prior to "American Idol". Some of it (hint: it's the chapter about what happened between Aiken and his half-sister) went further than bringing me just damned nearly to tears, if you catch my drift. But Aiken weathered it all, for two reasons: his simple yet profound faith, and his mother... toward whom he proudly confesses on the first page to being a "mama's boy". After reading the book, you'll understand why.

Jim Valvano - the legendary N.C. State basketball coach - told a crowd of fans shortly before he died of bone cancer that every day "you should laugh, you should think, and you should cry... that's a helluva good day!" That's what I went through in 240-some short pages of Aiken's book: it'll make you laugh. It'll make you cry. And it'll make you think: Aiken shares some profound thoughts on the society that we life in, and its focus on celebrity in particular. He wants his fame to contribute toward something useful to everyone instead of his own fame for fame's sake, which he writes he will gladly surrender when God ordains it and finally lets him become a teacher. And though it only comes toward the end of the book, all of this - including his life's lessons - are made to point toward his faith in and journey with Jesus Christ. Which is what led me to write this review to begin with: Clay Aiken takes a stance that runs against the grain of what passes for "Christian culture" in America today. "There was a church south of town that posted a neon sign every week that said things like 'Twenty-nine people saved on Sunday!'", Aiken says before asking "Are we keeping score now? Has church become McDonald's - billions and billions served?" Instead of preaching hellfire-and-brimstone or using his talent to browbeat his faith onto others - as some have suggested - Aiken believes that showing more love and less aggression is the key to showing the world that Christ is real. But he also makes no bones about being a believer - however flawed - who will talk about his faith whenever the opportunity arises.

After reading this, I'm led to think that Clay Aiken is not only a great singer with a genuine heart toward helping people: he's also - and I may be going out on a limb here but here goes anyway - going to be on the forefront of what I seriously believe is THE revolution of modern Christianity. There is coming up to be a generation that looks at the falsehoods and illusions of their elders and they've decided that they're tired of that. They want something real, something that fills a void in the spirit and they're going to seek it out. But they will also adamantly refuse to let themselves be exploited - by political grandstanders and the "Talibornagain"-types - for wanting that satiation. There is arising a new breed of Christians in America and they want nothing less than to yield their lives - all of it - to God instead of man. And it's going to be people like Clay Aiken, I'm really inclined to believe, that God will use to serve Him this way.

Well, what else can be said: I came away from this book with a lot more appreciation for Clay Aiken than I had before (and I had plenty already). Also a lot more faith about some things, which don't have to be gone into here. So if you want a lil' refreshing reading that is both culturally relevant (read as: "hip") and some thoughtful theology that can be taken in during a single afternoon, reach for the money that Aunt Tilly from Akron put in that Christmas card and go spring for Learning to Sing.