“Ode for O Joe”
I was saddened to learn this summer that Joey “O Joe” Taylor, the co-founder and driving force behind Undercover, one of the seminal early Contemporary Christian punk/rock bands, had renounced his Christian beliefs. Although this was news to me, he had left the faith a number of years ago.
Taylor left evangelical Christian circles in the late 1980s (at the height of Undercover’s popularity and influence) and had been a member of the Catholic Church for most of the 1990s and early 2000s. In the late 2000s, following a move to the east coast and James Madison University, he moved away from organized religion in favor of what he describes as “freethought,” “lovism,” and rational thought. He identifies himself as agnostic. He has spoken at Freedom From Religion Foundation events.
Taylor maintains a fairly comprehensive blog where he explains his decision and debates with readers about all things philosophical and religious. Among the vast entries on his site are explanations why hell does not exist, discussions about why Undercover’s music still carries import, and why the YMCA mission statement is wrong, among other things. He states that if an alien came to earth from another planet and told him that Jesus was God, he would reconvert in an instant as that would be definitive proof of a single God of the universe [an idea which brings Larry Norman’s song “UFO” to mind]. At times, he appears angry, especially when readers pose poorly worded questions or include strawman-like fallacies in their arguments. Reading more closely, reason seems to be the most powerful principle in Taylor’s life now. One can surmise that Christianity simply no longer seemed reasonable to him.
I was understandably bummed in reading all of this. O Joe Taylor was directly responsible for my wife converting to Christianity. He came to my hometown in 1985 when I was in high school and performed on the plaza at my school. [Imagine how hard that would be today…a religious band performing at a public high school.] And his music, like so many others readers have stated on his website, was instrumental in helping me navigate my budding faith as a youth. Undercover’s Devotion remains one of my favorite Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) albums of all time.
In reading all this (I spent several hours on his site the night I discovered it), I kept asking “why.” My question is not what you think. I found myself not necessarily asking, “Why did O Joe leave Christianity?” but rather, “Why is O Joe sharing all of this?” He seemed to make his theological purposes clear—he simply doesn’t find Christianity reasonable any longer. But the communication purposes make me wonder…why is he so open about this when it clearly upsets so many? Why go through the work of creating and maintaining a very expansive blog and web presence? Why continue to criticize the faith if you don’t want to have anything to do with it anymore?
Research on motives for human communication stems largely from uses and gratifications research. Just like we have specific reasons for consuming media (entertainment, information, escape, companionship), we have specific motives that drive our interpersonal communication behaviors. Some of the earliest work on communication motives identified inclusion, affection, and control as primary communication motives. Other researchers have examined these motives further. Rebecca Rubin and Matthew Martin argue that these three motives have both behavioral and emotional/cognitive dimensions. Might these motives explain the presence of Taylor’s blog?
Rubin and Martin explain that inclusion is “the need to establish and maintain satisfactory associations with others.” Emotionally, it is the need to “maintain an interest in others.” If so, inclusion seems to offer ironic insight to my questions. In leaving Christianity, Taylor clearly wants to distance himself from what could be called a social group—evangelicals. Yet so much of the content of the site seems directed toward those in Christian social circles. The site does not seem to be geared toward Taylor forging an association with other agnostics. Rather, comments and responses seem to be largely from fans and those within evangelical Christianity. His posts are far less likely to be read by, say, the Freedom From Religion Foundation. So, it seems he clearly has a lingering emotional attachment or interest in his evangelical fan base. Perhaps this demonstrates a lingering need for inclusion in a faith community. Indeed, Taylor still plays concert dates with Undercover and others from CCM circles. So, while he claims to no longer believe Christianity’s basic tenants, he seems to enjoy the company of its believers, even if it is to debate fiercely with them.
Affection as a motive is closely related to inclusion, but it tends to be viewed as more of a behavioral factor in dyadic relationships (we act upon personal desires for physical love or adoration for other individuals). However, as an emotional motive, affection generally seeks to “maintain mutual support of and connection with others.” As noted above, Taylor does seem to be maintaining his connection with the evangelical community via his website/blog and performances with his band. He could have gone “off the grid” and not shared his new conversion experience with the world, but he did. So perhaps he remains emotionally connected to evangelicalism.
Control is a curious motive. Rubin and Martin explain that control is a behavioral “need to initiate or preserve power over others.” This is readily understood generally. We simply like to be in control, not subservient to any other. To not be in control creates uncertainty, which Charles Berger has shown, we clearly don’t like. For this situation however, control might offer some solid explanations for Taylor’s blog.
One can expect that such a decision like this, to leave Christianity when one has had a long history in it (and exerted strong influence among Christians), would create some backlash. By creating the blog, Taylor has a place where he can maintain some control over the discussion about his decision. Rather than leaving social media sites like the Twitterverse to run unchecked, his blog allows him to regulate the conversation. He becomes the definitive word on the issue—not the rumor mill, not other media. The blog reveals that Taylor does keep a fairly tight hold on the conversation. There are times where he will write “that’s all I’m going to say about that” or “I will respond later after I have thought it through.”
As an emotional motive, control is the need to “maintain mutual respect of another’s competence.” Here is where the aforementioned anger comes into view. Reading the blog, Taylor very clearly holds little respect for those who communicate with him about his theological choices, readily dismantling reader’s comments and arguments. He seems to relish the opportunity to intellectually show up others. In 2014, he wrote the following after a series of “I’m praying for you” style comments/posts appeared on his Facebook wall, all of which he found manipulative and disingenuous (my word):
I confess I am always tempted to reply [to these posts] because I feel I can’t let people get away with this kind of stuff, intentional or not, and that these kinds of assertions simply must be answered. On the other hand, people that make such posts should understand that I do not feel compelled to attend every argument I am invited to. Silence should not be interpreted as capitulation, ceding the point or validating the arguments in any way. Sometimes it’s simply just too boring, mundane, pedestrian, over-worn or tired, already debunked in any number of places.
So, on the face of it, control seems to be the overwhelming motive for the blog. It allows Taylor to express himself in a way acceptable to him, maintaining the upper hand in the overall argument. But here’s why the motive of control is curious.
Other researchers have learned that control is the least satisfying of all interpersonal communication motives. In a large study that tested 18 potential communication motives, Rubin, Elizabeth Perse, and Carole Barbato found that “control was virtually unrelated to communication satisfaction.” This suggests that we may attempt to control interpersonal communication exchanges, but we actually don’t like to. Although the dialogue about Taylor and his new theology takes place in a mediated environment, perhaps the principle remains true. Maybe Taylor doesn’t enjoy this as much as he thinks. Taylor may win the argument, but the research suggests that perhaps there’s some post-argumentative dissonance at work which we can’t see. That suggests then that something else may be at work. Having met Taylor many years ago, I don’t see him as some maniacal madman, laughing fiendishly as he pounds the keyboard, muttering something about world domination. Far from it. I remember him as a quiet but intense gentle spirit. There must be some other motive.
At this point, I am tempted to think that perhaps Kenneth Burke’s guilt-redemption cycle may be at work. Burke famously suggested that human communication was motivated by the desire to purge ourselves of our own guilt at failing to measure up in our various social hierarchies. Perhaps Taylor recognizes his failure to live up to the expectations of the “evangelical hierarchy,” and the blog is a means of scapegoating and finding redemption. Given Taylor’s frequent claims about Christianity’s lack of coherence and inconsistent moral claims, perhaps he finds Christianity itself as his scapegoat. I admit my limited understanding of Burke hinders my ability to analyze this further, but a fuller Burkean/Dramatistic evaluation of Taylor’s website may be the next logical step in understanding his motives.
I have often thought of what I might say to Taylor, should I ever write to him. I have drafted various arguments about why Christianity is actually true, played them over in my mind, mentally sparring with Taylor. In the end, I find my motives begin to creep toward control. I desire to win the argument and prod Taylor back to the faith. I find myself fantasizing about presenting him the one argument he hadn’t thought of which would make him reconsider. Like Rubin and others discovered, in the end, I find little satisfaction in that. I guess I need to check my motives.
 William Shutze, The Interpersonal Underworld (Palo Alto, CA: Science Books, 1966).
 Rebecca Rubin and Matthew Martin, “Interpersonal Communication Motives,” in Communication and Personality: Trait Perspectives, ed. James McCroskey, pp. 287-307 (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 1998).
 Rebecca Rubin, Elizabeth Perse, and Carole Barbato, “Conceptualization and Measurement of Interpersonal Communication Motives,” Human Communication Research 14, no.4 (June 1988): 602-628.
 David Bobbit, The Rhetoric of Redemption: Kenneth Burke’s Redemption Drama and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2004), 34.