What is My Life if I Don’t Believe?

Willa: Joie, the recent tensions between Russia and Ukraine have me thinking a lot lately about the buildup to the war with Iraq, that unsettling period of time when the U.S. was working itself into a mindset where we as a nation felt justified invading a foreign country that had not attacked us. And that has me thinking about “All in Your Name,” a song Michael Jackson wrote during that deeply disturbing time when we were on the brink of war.

To me, it’s a powerful but complicated call for peace, a song filled with intense internal conflict as he questions his own deeply held beliefs – the things “the wise men” have told us that he was raised to believe. It’s so poignant and heartfelt to me, but I don’t think we’ve even mentioned it before, have we?

Joie: No, I don’t think we have, Willa, and that’s probably because this song really only came to light about a year or so ago when it was rumored that Barry Gibb, Michael’s friend and collaborator on this song, was thinking about releasing it. And for a long time, there were small snippets of the video to be found online before the entire thing finally surfaced. And I’ll admit, Willa, I actually don’t know a whole lot about this particular song, except that you have fallen in love with it.

Willa: Well, I guess that’s true, Joie – I guess I have fallen in love with it. I’ve certainly been kind of obsessed with it lately, haven’t I? By the way, here’s a clip of the full video, for those who haven’t seen it:

This song seems to have been inspired by the looming war. As The Guardian reported when Barry Gibb released the first one of those snippets you mentioned, “Apparently, Jackson showed up at Gibb’s doorstep with the unfinished song … about three months before the United States invaded Iraq.” And we can see allusions to that conflict in the lyrics, like in these lines: “it burns like a flame / Any ground that I claim.”

But to me, “All in Your Name” is about so much more than that. To me, this song is addressed to God, and it’s directly questioning all the things that have been done “in Your Name” – not just religious wars but all the things we do in God’s name that hurt one another. For example, “the wise men” have told us,

There’s just one religion
One family of love
We suffer the children
As God cries above

And that “family of love” can be interpreted many different ways, such as a religion or a nation. Or it could mean the typical heterosexual family – for example, in the opening verse he says we’ve been told “that a woman and a man / Should go by the plan.” But now he’s questioning the things he was raised to believe.

It feels to me, listening to the opening verses of this song, that he’s having a crisis of faith. He’s questioning beliefs that have guided him since childhood and formed the bedrock of his life. He was raised in the church, and his deeply held religious beliefs helped him find his way through some very difficult times. I mean, just think of all the incredibly talented singer-songwriters who’ve become successful and then destroyed themselves in some way, from Hank Williams to Amy Winehouse. And Michael Jackson rose higher than any of them, but his religious faith helped keep him grounded and productive.

But now he sees that some of those religious teachings are being used as justification to harm or even kill others, and he’s deeply troubled by that. So he’s asking why God allows these terrible things to happen – or more specifically, why God allows them to be done “in Your Name.”

Joie: Hmm. I see your point, Willa, and I understand where you’re coming from. When you look at the lyrics in that way it does sort of sound like a “crisis of faith” situation may be going on here. But I’m not so sure that’s what it is. Looking at these lyrics in a different way, it occurs to me that maybe he’s not so much questioning his beliefs as he is reaffirming them. As he says in that first verse you mentioned,

Now I got a mission
The story unfolds
What the wise men have told you
Is already known
That a woman and a man
Should go by the plan
And we find out
How high we can fly

To me, he’s not questioning those teachings, he’s stating them as fact. “His mission” is to follow those teachings and to “find out how high we can fly.” He goes on to say in the second verse,

There’s just one religion
One family of love
We suffer the children
As God cries above

Again, he says these things like they are statements of fact, not as though they’re meaningless platitudes in which he no longer believes.

Willa: So … I think I see what you’re saying, Joie. So when he says “There’s just one religion,” you don’t think he’s expressing the idea that there’s just one true religion – mine – and all other religions are wrong? That’s how I interpreted it, and that he disagreed with it. Instead, you think it’s more a Unitarian idea – that all religions are simply different aspects of the same thing?

Joie: I wouldn’t say different aspects of the same thing. I’m just referencing the idea that all religions lead to God. And I sort of think that’s what he means by the chorus when he says,

Follow me through the gates of paradise
They’re the same
They’re the same

Basically, I think he’s saying that all those roads may be different – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, etc. – but the path eventually leads to the “gates of paradise,” or heaven. But the paths we take to get there are all the same, so why are we fighting so-called religious wars in the name of God when we are all “one family of love”?

Willa: That makes a lot of sense, Joie. And the idea that we’re all “one family of love” sounds very Michael Jackson, doesn’t it? But if he’s presenting this idea in a positive way, why is God weeping?

Joie: Well, I didn’t say he’s presenting this in a positive way. I actually don’t really think there’s anything too positive about this song. But I would think the meaning of that line would be obvious. God is weeping for the same reason Michael Jackson is. He never intended for his children – us – to fight and kill one another. And he certainly didn’t want it to happen “in His name.”

Willa: Well, I agree with that. I definitely get the sense in these opening verses that Michael Jackson is saying we’ve gone astray – that he’s asking why terrible things are being done in God’s name, or rather “in Your name.” He’s speaking to God directly. And to be honest, I think my reading of those opening verses is strongly influenced by the knowledge that they were written during the buildup to the Iraq war.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq was a response to September 11th. The men who hijacked those airplanes and drove them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were Muslim, and many of them seem to have been motivated by religious reasons. I was living in the Arab District of Singapore when those attacks happened, and the people in that neighborhood were horrified by it. And they could not have been kinder. I would be out walking with my son, who was only 3 then, and total strangers would come up and say, Are you American? We are so sorry for what’s happened in your country. This is not what Islam is about.

We were living right by the big Sultan Mosque – you could see it from our apartment – and I loved going out on the balcony and listening to the call to prayers. My son and I would walk by it almost every day, and after the attacks they immediately put up kiosks of information, and religious leaders would stand outside and answer questions. Mainly, they were explaining what Islam meant to them – that it is a religion of peace, and love, and respect for yourself and others. They were appalled that those attacks may have been carried out in the name of Islam. To them, that was a perversion of what Islam is all about.

And then President Bush, an evangelical Christian, led us to war against Iraq, which had nothing to do with September 11th. None of the 19 hijackers was from Iraq. The only connection is that it’s an Arab country with a predominantly Muslim population. But that’s ridiculous – I mean, imagine the U.S. invading Korea after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, or invading Sweden after Germany sank the Lusitania. It would make no sense. It’s the wrong country. I mean, you shouldn’t invade another country for any reason, but especially when it’s not even the country that attacked you …

But I think we invaded Iraq because President Bush didn’t see it as a war against a country so much as a religious war – a war against Islam, or what he called “Islamic extremists.” He even called it a “crusade” a couple of times, and of course the Crusades were a series of medieval invasions by Christians against “the Infidels,” meaning Muslims.

This is the context for Michael Jackson writing “All in Your Name,” and that really shapes how I interpret it. He’s protesting a religious war, and all the terrible things that have been done “in Your name.” As the song says,

Where is the peace
We’re searching for
Under the shadows of war?

Joie: Well, Willa … I almost feel like I’m the wrong person for you to be having this conversation with, because I have never been a political person. I can’t tell you my thoughts on why Bush led us into war against Iraq, because I honestly don’t have any. And I certainly can’t even speculate on whether he saw it as a war against a country or a war against a certain religion. And maybe the fact that I don’t have that context when approaching this song helps me to see it in a more objective, less political light.

But getting back to the song itself, I still feel like he’s reaffirming his faith rather than suffering a crisis of faith. For example, in the first part of the chorus when he goes on to ask,

So what is my life
If I don’t believe
There is someone to watch me?
Follow my dreams
Take all my chances
Like those who dare?
And what of our world
What does it become
When the damage is done?

I get the feeling he’s saying that even though there are such horrible things going on around the world that are all being done “in Your name,” he’s still going to believe in God and in the teachings he was raised with. Because if he doesn’t, then “what is his life”? If there’s no one to watch over him, if God is not even real, then what happens to his life? What happens to our world, for that matter? What does it become when the damage of not believing is done? As he says in the chorus when he attempts to answer his own questions – “only God knows.”

Willa: Oh, I agree, Joie. I agree that in the first chorus he is asking himself, “What is my life / If I don’t believe?” That’s why I said I see him working through an intense personal struggle – a spiritual struggle – in these opening verses and choruses. (And I think there are actually two distinct choruses in this song – one sung by Barry Gibb and the other by Michael Jackson. They’re labeled Chorus A and Chorus B in the lyrics we recently added to the Lyrics Library.)

The way I interpret it, in the two opening verses he’s thinking about September 11th and the looming war in Iraq and rejecting all the violent, militaristic things being done in God’s name. But then in the first chorus, the one sung by Barry Gibb, he turns the questions on himself, and asks himself if that means he’s willing to reject his religious faith. As we’ve talked about before, he was a deeply spiritual person, and his faith sustained him through trials most of us can’t even imagine. Is he really willing to abandon his faith? To me, he’s in deep conflict about that – he’s really torn by it.

And then that beautiful bridge comes in. And Joie, this may sound crazy, but I interpret this section as the voice of God. To my mind, Michael Jackson is in terrible conflict – he’s asking first God and then himself some extremely difficult questions, questions that go to the heart of his beliefs and his worldview – and then he imagines God’s voice coming in and responding to his questions:

Realize I’ll be there
To love you and understand you
To leave the light on and understand
Until we all know
It’s over
Til we all know
It’s over

I’m not a religious person but, Joie, this is so moving to me. I see this song as a journey: he begins by questioning God, then undergoes a deep internal struggle as he questions himself and his beliefs, and then he imagines God coming to him and reassuring him that “I’ll be there / To love you and understand you.” And with that, he emerges from his inner conflict with a renewed faith in a loving God.

Joie: I don’t think that sounds crazy at all, Willa. In fact, I think you may have just explained this whole song. I think somehow we have ended up at the same place on this one.

Willa: I think you’re right, Joie. We interpret the opening verses pretty differently – even opposite ways – but by the end we both see him recommitting himself to his beliefs. But even though he has reaffirmed his faith, I don’t think his beliefs are the same as they were before. He’s no longer a Jehovah’s Witness – no longer believes the doctrine of any particular church – nor is he going to blindly accept what “the wise men” have told him.

Joie: Well, that’s true too.

Willa: Instead I see him moving more toward that idea you mentioned earlier, Joie, when you quoted the second chorus – the one he sings over and over in the outro:

It’s all in the game
It’s all in your name
Follow me through the gates of paradise
They’re the same

As you said earlier, he seems to be saying that many different religions offer a path to their vision of paradise, but “They’re the same.” In other words, they are simply different paths to the same place.

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About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on March 27, 2014, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Hi, Willa and Joie, and thank you for yet another provocative and enlightening discussion. This was the last thing I read and listened to last night, and one of the first things I did again this morning, accompanied by about 10 more listens. Much to think about, but what most stands out for me is Michael’s tortured struggle, and his beckoning us to follow him – I believe that Michael came to believe that God IS that transcendent connectivity that we are capable of.

    Time for work, so more later- my head is racing! – but I didn’t want to leave without stopping by to tell you how much I appreciate your thoughtful discussion about one of Michael’s most compellingly beautiful songs, and one that I really hadn’t paid that much attention to before last night.

    Thank you again for this wonderful forum – we’re just another part of him…

    • “what most stands out for me is Michael’s tortured struggle, and his beckoning us to follow him”

      Hi Monica. Thanks for the kind words. We really appreciate it. And I agree about his “tortured struggle, and his beckoning us to follow him.” We didn’t mention the final lines of Chorus A in the post (that’s the one Barry Gibb sings) and to me they are some of the most important of the song:

      Can we hold out
      And stand up
      And say no?

      As these lyrics show, this song really is a call to action – a call “to follow him,” as you said, both in resisting the coming war and in preventing religious beliefs from being twisted and used to wrong ends, such as an excuse for war.

  2. Thanks again ladies. This is certainly a song that wasn’t much on my radar either having only heard it a few times. Thanks for bringing it up.

  3. Beautiful song. Here is some more background, from an article in the Guardian:
    “Michael Jackson and I were the dearest of friends,” wrote Gibb, 64, alongside this week’s YouTube video post. “We gravitated towards the same kind of music and we loved collaborating and he was the easiest person to write with. The more we got to know each other the more those ideas entwined, and it all came to this song … I hope and pray that we all get to hear it in its entirety.”

    Gibb first wrote about the track in February, posting an audio clip to his website. But with this week’s video, the song begins to come alive: there’s the late King of Pop singing in a way the public rarely saw. Gibb claims there’s more than two hours of footage, shot on Hi8 video by his son, Ashley. “This experience I will treasure forever,” Barry said.

    Jackson fans have long speculated about All in Your Name. Apparently, Jackson showed up at Gibb’s doorstep with the unfinished song; they recorded at Miami’s Middle Ear Studio in December 2002, about three months before the United States invaded Iraq. Both musicians opposed the invasion, according to a 2002 Billboard report, but this week Gibb downplayed the protest element of the track. “[All in Your Name is] the message that Michael wanted to send out to all of his fans all over the world,” Gibb wrote. “That he did it all for them and for the pure love of music.”

    • Hi sfaikus. Thanks for the background info. I forgot to mention in the post that Barry Gibb has released some other short video clips of them working on this song. The second one below is an a cappeala clip, and the third one shows them working out lyrics. btw, I think the first three were uploaded by Barry Gibb himself (barrygibbunplugged) …

      Part 1:

      Part 2:

      Part 3:

      Part 4:

  4. I was looking at some of the websites that analyze lyrics, and one comment was that the woman and man referenced in the first verse might be Adam and Eve. Later in that verse there is the phrase “and it looks like we fall”, perhaps referencing the fall from grace by Adam and Eve?

  5. Again an amazing post. Morphine stunned me and I have kept it. You always make me see something I hadn’t seen in Michael’s music. MHO, is that this song REAFFIRMED Michael’s belief in God rather than questioning it. However, that doesn’t mean that he never questioned as all reasoning people do at some point in their journey.

  6. Hi Willa and Joie, Thanks for bringing this song to my attention. Didn’t know it existed.

    I, too, think that it was motivated by the looming war. I think he is clearly linking the world’s troubles to belief in the world’s religions. It reminded me immediately of that passage in Earth Song where he sings of how religion is betraying us, religion’s pledge of peace always ending in another war. What we have done to the world is a direct result of our religious beliefs.

    “What have we’ve done to the world
    Look what we’ve done
    What about all the peace
    That you pledge your only son…
    What about flowering fields
    Is there a time
    What about all the dreams
    That you said was yours and mine…
    Did you ever stop to notice
    All the children dead from war
    Did you ever stop to notice
    This crying Earth, this weeping shore?”

    I think sfaikus is right that he opens, talking about Adam and Eve and the story religion tells us about who we are and what we are supposed to do, but, instead of flying, we fall.

    Everyone thinks there’s just one religion, one family of love that suffers the little children, with a God who grieves over our sins; we’re taught giving, but we take, our hearts open wide, and then we are betrayed by our religion. We do not fly, we fall, and in our falling, we take, as our religions tell us to do, and destroy the lands that we claim “in his name.” Love of others is replaced by hatred.

    So, he asks, “what is my life, if I don’t believe?” Well, he can follow his own dreams and take chances and dare. As he did when he left the JW’s.

    And, “What of our world,” if we don’t believe? Well, we stand up and say no to the religion causing all the problems, and what it is driving us to do.

    The lines

    Realize I’ll be there_To love you and understand you_To leave the light on and understand_Until we all know_It’s over_Til we all know_It’s over

    means MJ will be there for us (I’ll be there), which he is in his music. I’ll take MJ over god any day.

    I deeply believe that MJ had a religion of universal love, he believed in love and its power, absolutely, And, sometimes he used the word “God” to express this love. But I think long ago he realized that the world’s religions may say that they and their gods represent that love, but they don’t. It’s all a game — a game of world power. All this really bad stuff is done “in your name.”

    • “The lines ‘Realize I’ll be there / To love you and understand you …’ means MJ will be there for us (I’ll be there), which he is in his music.”

      That’s really interesting, Eleanor. I hadn’t thought about those words in terms of Michael Jackson being “there for us,” as you say. But now that you mention it, that ties in with what Barry Gibb wrote when the song came out. According to The Guardian article,

      Gibb downplayed the protest element of the track. “[All in Your Name is] the message that Michael wanted to send out to all of his fans all over the world,” Gibb wrote. “That he did it all for them and for the pure love of music.”

      That leads to a totally different interpretation of “All in Your Name” – that he isn’t speaking to God but to his fans, and saying that he’s singing and dancing and performing for us, so doing it “all in your name.” That’s such a different way of seeing this song. I’m going to have to let that soak in a bit …

      I’m so glad you mentioned “Earth Song” – I kept thinking about it as Joie and I were doing the post. There are a lot of connections between these two songs, aren’t there? – especially if we see them both as addressed to God and asking difficult questions about how religious beliefs can lead us astray.

      By the way, a Jehovah’s Witness came to my door this morning and gave me an invitation to an Easter celebration (though it doesn’t use the word “Easter,” just “a memorial of Jesus Christ’s death) as well as a talk about “Why Would a Loving God Permit Wickedness?” In some ways, that’s the theme of “All in Your Name” though it extends it – not only why does God allow wickedness, by why does God allow it to be carried out “in Your Name.”

  7. Thanks for another great post. I love this song also but never really understood its implications – just enjoyed the beauty of the melody and words and the passion with which Michael sings it. It seems yet again, as with almost all his songs, that this one is ambiguous, and can be interpreted in many ways. I could not decide who’s side to come down on!! Willa or Joie as you both make a good case for your interpretation – and then there is Eleanor with yet another one?? good old MJ. I believe that more often than not, it wasn’t the message of his songs that was important, but that people listened to them and made them relevant in society, and that is what partly motivated Michael to write. He wasn’t just imparting a message, but he wanted people to hear it and act upon it.

    Not being American I know very little about the Iraqi war, but with hindsight think it had far more to do with oil than really anything else!!! But whatever the reason, Michael of course would have been against it, and so Willa’s point of view is very apt.

    We know that Michael was very interested in all of the world’s religions and there are influences from many of them throughout his work. I am not sure that he had a ‘crisis of faith’ – rather more an awakening which did lead him to believe that ‘they are all the same’. In his essay on God he writes about God expressing Himself-Herself (love the gender sensitivity here) in all the religions of the world, and what is important is the essence, and the final line ‘We are one’ or ‘all the same’.

    Says Eleanor ‘I deeply believe that MJ had a religion of universal love, he believed in love and its power, absolutely,’ – couldn’t agree more.

    • “I am not sure that he had a ‘crisis of faith’ – rather more an awakening which did lead him to believe that ‘they are all the same’.”

      Hi Caro. I love the way you put this, and I have to say – you, Joie, corlista1, Eleanor, all of you are leading me to rethink how I interpret this song. Before Joie and I did this post, I heard the line “There’s just one religion” in a really negative way – as a Muslim or Christian or Jew saying that they were the chosen people, they were the only ones with the truth and the one true religion, and everyone else was wrong. I saw the lyrics as disputing that and revising it, so by the second chorus (the one Michael Jackson sings), he’s saying “They’re the same.”

      But now I’m rethinking that, and wondering if that line and the one that follows – “There’s just one religion / One family of love” – is a positive message of “We are one,” as you say, Caro. I can really see it both ways. In fact, I like seeing it both ways, and feeling it kind of oscillate between the two.

      • I think Michael would like all of us to ‘oscillate’ Willa because it means that we are paying attention and thinking about what he is saying with his songs, and debating and sharing, and hopefully living the positive messages. I think he thought as with so many things that there are many ways to view them, and that there isn’t just one way of anything – unless it was he himself, and then of course, there was and will always only be, One MJ!!

  8. 3 Things; faith, hope and love.The greatest of these being love..I think you can find this in all great religions. It is unfortunate that humans have made war and killed in the name of a religion or another.

  9. This is such an interesting song, and one MJ worked on in his last decade, so thanks for this enlightening discussion, Willa and Joie. I see the song as highlighting a protest against the war–encouraging us to fight back and stand up and say NO to war :

    “And where is the peace
    We’re searching for
    Under the shadows of war?
    Can we hold out
    And stand up
    And say no?”

    And many of us did protest the buildup to the wars that took place after 9/11. I remember standing on street corners with signs and debating with people who accused me of wanting Saddam Hussein to come over to USA and take over. It was a really crazy, paranoid time in USA, and I can understand some of that as a reaction to the shock of 9/11 but still it got way too crazy to think Iraq as a country would invade USA!!! And as you point out, Willa, none of the 19 involved in 9/11 were Iraqis. This whole idea that Saddam Hussein was ‘worse than Hitler” made it ok to attack (a justification for the invasion, along with the nonexistent WMD).

    Re why does God ‘allow” these terrible things like war and violence to happen, I think MJ had moved way beyond thinking of God as outside of us–a CEO with a white beard, etc–and more into a position that God is within us, part of us, and not separate, as early as the late 80’s when he started to meditate with Deepak Chopra. He transformed his understanding of the teachings he received from the JW without abandoning them entirely, and built up a more inclusive religious/spiritual vision.

    In this respect, the words “all in the game” are interesting b/c from an Indian/Hindu perspective the world is the play (or lila) of consciousness, like a game. There is the concept that it is all maya, an illusion, and that the bedrock spiritual realities do not change regardless of the outer circumstances, which is why you can meditate anywhere, even in a prison (and there is an interesting documentary of prisoners meditating that I watched and it really helped them to go within and understand their emotions, their inner lives). I think MJ knew that God does not ‘allow’ these things like war and violence–the ‘damage’ he refers to, people do.

    Thanks for the stimulating discussion of this song. It is very moving to see how well MJ and Barry Gibb work together–the sharing and collaboration–the opposite of conflict.

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