|ApologetiX lead singer and lyricist J. Jackson
started writing parodies as a kid, influenced by a steady diet of Mad Magazine, Wacky Packages, novelty records, and comic books. He became a born-again Christian in January 1988, and his newfound interest in the Bible had a profound influence on his parodies.
A journalism major in college, J. worked in the public relations field before going full time with ApologetiX. He started getting together with some other like-minded Christian musicians in 1990, and this loose-knit group eventually played its first concert as ApologetiX on March 27, 1992.
Like many other rock and rollers, J. is surrounded by beautiful women -- his wife, Lisa, and four daughters, Janna, Heather, Kelly, and Natalie. They also have a dog (Skippy), three mice (Gracie, Cookie, and Chocolate), and a fish (Diamond). They make their home in Pittsburgh PA.
Tell us a little about your family life ...
I was born and raised in Greensburg, Pa. I was the youngest of four children, the only boy, and six years younger than my closest sister, so I got to enjoy the benefits of a big family and the benefits of being an only child. My mom and my sisters loved Broadway shows, so I grew up listening to those albums.
What were your other early musical influences?
Dad had Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass on reel-to-reel tape. We also had some 45's like "Spill the Wine," "Cinnamon," and "Take a Letter Maria." The first song I remember liking was "Don't Sleep in the Subway" by Petula Clark. I remember listening to Elvis albums at some older lady's house and then coming home and singing "Don't Be Cruel" with a spoon as my microphone. I also used to sing for the other kids on the swing set, because I knew all the words to "Billy, Don't Be a Hero," "The Night Chicago Died," and "Seasons in the Sun." I started actively listening to the radio and buying 45's in 1977. I only had enough money for one when I first went to the store, and I was looking for "Arial," "Jet Airliner," or "Telephone Line." I had to settle for "Nobody Does it Better."
What was your first album?
My first hand-me-down album was "More of the Monkees," which I cherished until one day I was balancing it on my head, and it fell off and cracked a chip off the first three tracks on either side. But I could still play "I'm a Believer" and "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone." My sister bought me my first brand-new album, "Venus & Mars" by Wings, because it had a song called "Magneto and Titanium Man" on it, and I collected comic books. The first album I can remember wanting was "The Beach Boys 20 Greatest Hits." Then at the end of 1977, I saw a T.V. tribute to the Beatles. I remember seeing Tony Randall sing "Honey Pie!" Anyway, a month later, my friend Chris got "The Beatles 1967-70" for Christmas, and there was no looking back after that. I couldn't get enough Beatles music or information. From there it was a logical progression to the Stones, the Who, the Doors, Led Zep, etc.
I hear that you are a big rock and roll trivia nut ...
One of the things that triggered that was in 1979 when I heard a radio program that played all of the number one hits of the rock era in chronological order. It took a whole weekend, and at the end of the show, they played a medley of the songs in order. I ran and got a tape recorder and was able to record the medley from 1964 through 1978. I played it so often that I actually memorized the entire medley, which lasted about 20 minutes, without really even trying. I eventually learned all of the titles of the songs in the medley and the names of the artists who did them. I can still remember and sing the entire medley. It's a great party trick. I've also read lots of rock and roll biographies and trivia books, and top 40 charts, etc. For some reason, the information sticks in my head.
What kind of a religious background were you raised in?
I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church. I went to Catholic grade school and high school, and I had religion classes every day. As a matter of fact, my great aunt was a nun, and she was especially fond of me (as I was of her) because I was born on the anniversary of her entering the convent. I remember my first communion, she gave me a condensed children's Bible with really cool pictures in it, and I used to read it when I was in grade school. That was my first real exposure to the Bible. Then Sister Charlotte made us buy a Bible when we were freshmen in high school, and that was the first real Bible I ever really read - although not until almost 10 years after I bought it. She was a nun who definitely loved Jesus.
Any other early memories of God in your life?
When I was just a little kid I used to watch two famous evangelists, Kathryn Kuhlman and Rex Humbard, on Sunday morning T.V. I don't remember much, except Kathryn saying, "I belieeeeeve in miracles. In grade school, I sang in the choir. I have a vivid memory of two pictures on the wall in Sister Rose Barbara's class in fourth grade. One was Jesus talking with Nicodemus and the other was of the apostles on the day of Pentecost. Looking back, those are pretty symbolic, aren't they? Nicodemus was the man Jesus told about being "born again" and the apostles received the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. I remember taking confirmation really seriously, because I really believed we were going to be sealed with the Holy Spirit when the bishop laid hands on us.
How about high school and college?
In high school, I was on the liturgy committee that planned church services for the school and was even a eucharistic minister for a short time. And in college, I was a member of the choir and a cantor. I also was in a production of "Godspell" and a revue of Amy Grant songs when I was in college. Furthermore, in my freshman year in college, my buddy Tom and I consented to have this guy named Pete from the Navigators (an evangelical Christian group) do Bible studies with us. I remember feeling really good after one of those Bible studies - like I had a new commitment to God. For all I know, Pete may have led me in a sinner's prayer way back then. But the next day, I had a big run in with temptation. I remember thinking, "Are you going to stick with your commitment to God or are you going to give in to temptation? Well, I gave in. And that was the last I thought about a commitment to God for quite some time.
Why did you become a born again Christian?
First of all, the important thing to realize is that born again Christians aren't a denomination. There are "born again Christians" in every denomination in Christianity - it's not about keeping a bunch of laws or doing specific good deeds or abstaining from things - it's about coming to a point in your life where you say, "I realize that I am a sinner and that I need forgiven for these sins by God, and I realize that Jesus Christ said that He is the only way to get forgiven. Nothing religious that I can do will save me. I can't balance the scales with my good works." Then you ask Jesus Christ into your life. That's what I did, and He changed me forever.
Was it really that easy?
Well, it was easy when I finally did it, but it took a long time to lead up to that. One of the things that discouraged me from coming to Christ was the thought of having to forsake everything and go out and preach the gospel, having no possessions other than sackcloth and ashes. Furthermore, I didn't quite understand the gospel. The way I had been taught, it seemed to me, it was like, "Obey the commandments, participate in the sacraments, live a good life, confess your sins, pray to God, believe in Jesus, but even if that all fails you could still get into heaven, because people will pray for you after you died, and certainly a merciful God wouldn't condemn anybody, right?" It didn't make sense to me. If what you did in this life didn't matter, than why should we bother trying to do the right thing? And the older I got, the more people I ran into who were atheists or agnostics.
And that made things even more complicated?
Yes. And then one day in high school I walked into world cultures class and there was a display of all the world's religions on the bulletin board. I had never heard of Islam before. This was before the Iran hostage crisis. And what about Hinduism and Buddhism? I was amazed that billions of people believed in something totally different than I did. I also remember the Mormons coming to visit our house to show us a slide show. My parents weren't seriously considering Mormonism, but they were just curious and polite. I remember thinking, "If Jesus really did come to America like the Mormons say he did, and if Joseph Smith really did get new messages from God, then we should convert from our beliefs and believe them. But if it's not true, these people shouldn't be in our house. It's got to be one way or the other.
So the idea of other religions influenced you, too?
Oh yeah. When I was a senior in college, I dated a girl who was studying with the Jehovah's Witnesses. She told me that Jehovah's Witnesses were the only people who had ever been able to give her answers to all the religious questions she had. At the time, I mistakenly thought they were just some fundamentalist Christian group, but I soon learned they had some pretty strange doctrines. One day I started reading some of the books she was studying. I could tell that some of the stuff inside wasn't true, but I had no basis for proving it, because I didn't know what was in the Bible. I remember her telling me once, "J., I don't want what they're saying to be true. Prove to me they're wrong." Unfortunately, I realized that I would have to read the whole Bible and really learn it to prove them wrong, and it was too much of a hassle. We broke up, but it left an impression on me.
Is that why you got involved in apologetics?
That's one of the reasons. Once I realized the Bible was true, I never wanted to be ignorant about it again. But before all that, another thing happened my senior year in college. I was a fledging reporter for the school newspaper. My second assignment was to cover a man named Josh McDowell. He was coming for a two-day speaking engagement, and there were all sorts of teaser ads. The night I saw him, his topic was "The Great Resurrection - Hoax?" Josh was certainly no fire-breathing preacher; I described him in my article as a cross between Pat Boone and Dick Van Dyke. He had supposedly written about 30 books by that time - but I'd never heard of them and therefore didn't consider them to be "real" books.
Did he convert you?
No, I think "affect" is the appropriate word. He talked about the Biblical account of Jesus as though it were a genuine historical fact, recorded accurately and preserved throughout the ages. He talked about a Bible that had a veracity that was being proven increasingly as archeological evidence was being unearthed in our modern day. Of course, he talked about his changed life and how he started his "pilgrimage", too. How he had been an atheist who set out to disprove the Christians at his college. How he had been converted by the evidence, and how, later, his worst enemy - his alcoholic father - was converted by the change in Josh's life. I had never heard anybody present the Bible as historically verifiable and reliable before. I thought it was thought-provoking, although not life-changing for me at the time.
Do you think God put Josh McDowell in your life?
Yes, and another funny thing happened while I was working as an intern reporter later that summer at the town newspaper. My editor knew I liked music, so he assigned me to cover a Christian rock band that was to perform at the annual street fair - one of which was a Christian band, the Watchman, who had just changed their name to Abraham. It seemed like everybody in town had heard of them but me. It was a Friday, and I had big plans to go to a bar that night with my roommates, so I felt kind of nervous as I drove to the interview. I knew these guys were going to make me feel guilty with their presence. They were predictably super-nice and they even gave me a free tape of their stuff. Of course, it made me feel guilty the one time I played it - while I was driving home and later while I was typing the story. Then it was assigned to the catacombs of my record and cassette library.
So God used music in your life before you became a Christian?
Sure, in plenty of ways. For example, I grew up loving "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Godspell," and "Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." It seemed like I'd dig those albums out every couple years and get into them all over again even when I was in college. I used to think, "How cool it would be to actually be alive when Jesus was performing His miracles - to actually be chosen as one of His disciples!" I thought "Superstar" definitely captured some of that excitement, although it's not totally Biblically accurate. "Godspell" captures the spirit of the gospel better.
Did those plays have an impact on your own lyrics?
Definitely. When I was in college, I watched "Superstar" at the library a couple of times. Then, as a junior, I got a role in our church's production of "Godspell." Being in that play touched all of us; we definitely felt closer to God, although we obviously didn't totally understand it. The same thing happened in my senior year, when the church did a revue of Amy Grant songs. I sang solo on the song "Wise Up," which is about avoiding temptation. What a hypocrite! One of the things I do remember at the time, though, is all of us singing the words to "I Have Decided": "I have decided being good is just a fable. I just can't 'cause I'm not able. I'm gonna leave it to the Lord." At the time, I just didn't understand what that meant.
So what finally made it all make sense to you?
Almost a year after I graduated, I was driving down the highway on my way to work, and instead of listening to regular rock tapes, I put in the tape of us doing those Amy Grant songs from the previous year. Something happened while I was listening to the song "Angels." I just got this incredible feeling of excitement and it was like something inside of me said "Read the Bible" -- not in an audible voice, but you know what I mean. So I dug out my old Good News Bible from Sister Charlotte's religion class when I was a freshman in high school, and I started reading it.
Where you surprised at what was in the Bible?
I was amazed at how much I was enjoying it, but there were parts in there that shook me up like when Jesus says if your eye or hand causes you to stumble, pluck it out or cut it off. And when He said, if you even look at a woman to lust at her, you've already committed adultery with her. Or if you call somebody an idiot, you've already committed murder. If that was all true, I knew I was in big trouble. So I started looking for loopholes in Paul's letters and Peter's letters. I figured they'd made mistakes in their lives, so maybe their letters would tell me I was O.K. the way I was. But that's not what their letters seemed to say, and for some reason, I just didn't get it.
What else was going on in your life at the time?
Well, it was Lent, and I got this guilty feeling that if I really wanted to "give up" something for God, I should stop buying music for those 40 days - a feat I considered noble, yet impossible. Music was my LIFE. I was addicted. I think I got more of a high buying albums then I did actually playing them. Worse still, I got this really nagging voice deep within me asking, "Could you give up all your records for God?"
Did you tell other people about what was happening to you?
I had gone to some people who I thought would be happy to find out that I was reading the Bible and actually believing it. They must have thought it was either a fad or I was being too extreme. Instead of encouraging me, they tried to discourage me from taking the Bible too literally or seriously. Well, I was having enough trouble resisting temptation in my life at the time, so I finally decided, "Look, if the Bible isn't going to encourage me, and my friends and family aren't going to encourage me, and God isn't keeping this temptation out of my life, then I'm not going to fight; I'm just going to live my life like there is no God.
What do you mean by that?
I decided to ignore God and immerse myself in the things I enjoyed. I bought more and more music ... and it wasn't Amy Grant, either. It was self-centered, depressing stuff. I stopped going to church, which was a drastic thing for me as a Roman Catholic, because I don't think I'd ever deliberately missed church in my entire life. I remember once when I was a boy, I told my mom, "You know, if I didn't believe there was a God, I wouldn't really have any reason to be good." Well, that's exactly what ended up happening. I just did whatever I felt like for the next eight months or so ... but I do remember saying something like, "God, if you're really up there, have mercy on me while I do all this." And as much as I tried, I couldn't bring myself to totally reject God. I remember looking at other books for answers in science and knowledge, but that just left me empty, too.
What finally changed you?
It was on Super Bowl Sunday in 1988 - the Redskins vs. the Broncos, and I was at a party at my girlfriend's apartment. For some reason, I felt compelled to go next door to the Catholic Church, which was dark and empty but unlocked. I got down on my knees and started praying to God. Kind of like, "God, if you're up there, I know I'm a sinner, and I really need you to change my life." I can't remember everything I said, and I didn't even know if anybody was up there listening. I didn't feel different that very moment - in fact, I think I forgot about it - but within two weeks I got the desire to start reading the Bible again. I was thinking, "Are you crazy? Remember how messed up you got the last time you started reading this book!" But something inside of me was changing.
After the discouragement before, did you tell anybody this time?
There was a salesman named Tim Hart who called on me at work. I knew he was a Christian, and I asked him if he had any Amy Grant tapes or other Christian music I could borrow. It was really my cry for him to help me out. He was a backslidden Christian who had just turned things around, so we fed off of each other's hunger for God. I started sharing with him the things God was putting on my heart, and I was amazed to find out how many similar experiences we'd had. He plugged me into a great interdenominational Bible study where people really believed the Bible was true. And we saw so many miraculous things in that year! We met a lot of other young Christians, who are still some of my closest friends to this day. And Tim ended up as my permanent big brother in Christ (like Jonathan and David). And he always encouraged my singing, guitar-playing and songwriting abilities.
So he hooked you up with some Christian music and encouraged you to make your own?
Yep. And speaking of music, another thing that was happening is that I actually had started getting rid of my record albums, cassettes, eight-tracks, and 45's. Not for religious reasons this time; I just had too many of them!. I think the final blow was when I went on a date with some girl from my high school reunion. She made a humorous remark about how many albums I owned, and I blurted out, "Well, I've been thinking about getting rid of them, anyway." So she said, "Oh, don't do that. I had a friend who sold all his records to buy a motorcycle and move to Colorado to find God. Don't space out." That was the last I saw of her, and it was also the beginning of the end for my music collection.
What happened then?
I had always secretly envied my friends who had very small music collections. I had records I hadn't even listened to the whole way through yet. One day I just decided I'd start to trade in my old albums for compact disks. A local record store would trade me 1 CD for every 10 or 15 albums. That would give me my small collection of only the "very finest in album rock." At first I only got rid of the albums I never listened to. Then, I started trading in borderline albums. Next thing I knew, I had traded in all my tradable albums, and I had about 100 compact disks and no compact disk player. Well, at least my roommate at the time had one.
What did your roommate think about all this?
He thought I was crazy, because as I started getting rid of the old music collection. I ended up giving him a lot of my old records and tapes, in clumps at a time. The more I got rid of, the clearer my head got. After a while he wouldn't even take any more of them. Eventually I traded my CDs to him as part of a deal for an electric guitar, I think. The only thing I regret is that I started going on a witch hunt and playing records backwards and reading all these books that said rock and roll was a conspiracy by the devil, etc., etc. That really alienated my roommate and my friends. I should have just stuck with telling them about what God was doing in my life and what the Bible said.
How does that relate to what you do with music now?
I learned a lot from that experience. Also, when I was a sophomore in college, I went to a seminar on backward masking and rock and roll being satanic. They got us all worked up, and I walked out. A year later, somebody convinced me to see another Christian presentation on rock and roll. But that one was totally different. Some guy with a guitar did a one-man show in which he told the whole story of rock and roll while performing songs from each era, everything from Bill Haley to Boy George - the latest rage at the time - even the Sex Pistols! At the end, he tied it into the fact that the times were changing and that music was a reflection of our times, and that we needed Christ. I didn't walk out of that show. He was a great performer, and I respected what he said, even though I wasn't a born again Christian at the time. Hopefully, we can get people to respect what we say, even if they don't agree with it.
What do you want people to get out of your music?
I want to make them realize that there's more to the Bible than Adam, Noah, David & Goliath and Jonah. I want them to realize that there's nothing inherently bad about music or anything else that God created. I want them to realize that the Bible is an interesting book, and I want to inspire them to read it for themselves. I want them to discover how simple salvation is, according to the Bible. I want them to remember verses and stories from the Bible. And I want them to learn what I've learned, to feel what I've felt - to laugh, to cry and to get chills sometimes. But most of all, I want them to see that God is real, and that He cares enough to speak to them in their own language, whether that be English or rock and roll. And I want them to give Him a chance, because He's offering them a chance, and they need to take it.