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Crossing borders with Orphaned Land

Their complex and dramatic blend of musical cultures is popular with young Christians, Muslims, and Jews - so who are Orphaned Land? By Mark Craig

Five young Israelis – on a mission to tell Christianity (and also Islam and Judaism, just for good measure) to get over itself and start believing its own propaganda.

OK, but who’s listening to Orphaned Land anyway? Well, that’s where it gets interesting. Thousands of them actually, from across the three faiths and from across the world, with a concert schedule covering Europe, South America, Australia and the Middle East. In each case focused on those in the 18-35 age bracket, the holy grail demographic for the Church.

And watching them live, you just can’t avoid the sneaking suspicion that the demographic is getting as much cause for thought from them than they’ve ever got from the established structures of any of the three religions. Paul from Wolverhampton is a case in point: ‘If all the big-name politicians can’t get their act together to solve their issues, maybe they should come here and see Palestinians, Israelis and Brits sharing music together’. He points to his neighbour; ‘and he’s a Muslim!’

So if they’re getting a serious listening-to from the young people who make up the target audience for so many of our churches, what are they saying? And more importantly, should churches and their leaders be listening too?

Chen Balbus, guitarist and arranger with Orphaned Land, cuts an almost academic figure. He looks very young (he’s actually 21), is wearing small, round glasses, his hair is in a ponytail and he’s wearing a jersey so sensible an elderly organist would approve. His softly-spoken tones deepen the sense that this just can’t be a great rock guitarist.

I explain that I’m curious as to how Orphaned Land see their role, as they call for the Abrahamic traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam to find a better way forward than ‘sharing their faiths at the barrel of a gun’ (from All Is One). Chen thinks for a while, then whispers; ‘for us it doesn’t matter what a person’s religion is, because people, no matter where they are from, what they are, what they believe in, should respect the simple message that we shouldn’t kill or hate each other just because we’re a bit different’.

Some of the band’s material challenges our lazy cultural viewpoints. One track, Brother, on their new album All Is One, tells how the battle between Judaism and Islam can be traced back to an understanding not widely shared in the West. The story of Isaac and Ishmael having the same father, but different mothers, is a key moment in dividing the Abrahamic faiths, with Arabs seeing themselves as the sons of Ishmael and the Jews the sons of Isaac; there’s a perspective you don’t often hear in our churches. Chen responds: ‘Usually, that story gets taken in a bad way. We’re gladly showing it in the way it is. We are brothers, and we don’t have anything to fight about. We have always been brothers’.

I wonder whether the band, as they play to Christians, Muslims, Jews and others, finds that people actually agree that there’s nothing that excuses violence between faiths. ‘The hype around us is because of the strong message we represent. Orphaned Land, as an Israeli band, has huge numbers of Muslim fans all over the world. I think that speaks for itself’.

The only Arab country the band are currently allowed to play in is Turkey, and Muslim fans come from all over the Middle East to hear them play there; indeed, the band’s website proudly proclaims ‘as Israelis, we adore our Muslim fans’. ‘To tell you the truth’ Chen says ‘on this tour I came to realise how sad that is. We’ve played all over Europe, and I see how easily our fans can cross borders. For me as an Israeli, I can’t cross any border without a plane - that’s very sad’.

So what would the band’s message be to Christians in the UK? ‘Our message is the simplest, yet the strongest we can provide to any human being. It is that you have to learn to respect the other. If he’s different, it doesn’t matter, just respect him.’

And with that, he’s gone for his bowl of soup, nice boy that he is. Of course, three hours later, he’s transformed on stage into a monster of a guitarist, but you still rather feel that many grandmas in the pews would love him to bits.

Related: Orphaned Land live - a review

Mark Craig is Communications Director at BMS World Mission

Baptist Times, 16/01/2014
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