The $30 refurbished iPod I'd recently bought arrived one morning as I was on my way out the door. It came from dcluttr, a website where people sell their old but still functioning tech. Turning it on, I was surprised to find that it was still full of someone else's music, but I figured I might as well take "Michael's iPod" out for a spin anyway. My tastes are pretty eclectic, so chances were good that I'd find something that I liked.
I scrolled to "Compilations" (it seemed like the safest bet), hit play and was greeted by a heartfelt ballad with a country twinge. "Not my favorite genre," I thought, "but, hey, I can live with it for a commute." After about a minute, I pulled the Nano out of my pocket to figure out what I was hearing. The track was titled "At the Cross" and the artist was listed simply as "Hillsong." I gasped. A few months before, I'd written an article about how Justin Bieber and Chris Pratt's favorite church—yes, Hillsong—was taking over the world. And now, here it was in my unsuspecting earholes, entirely by happenstance.
I scrolled through artist after artist on Michael's iPod and found that every song's theme was the same. "And I know that there will come a day," a band named Third Day crooned at me, "When the Lord will call His own away / To a place that He has made for all of us." Michael had sent me an iPod that was filled to the brim with Jesus. As an agnostic who spent 13 years being educated by (really mean) nuns, I remembered that it was Archangel Michael who forced Satan out of heaven in the book of Revelations. Was "Michael's iPod" here to push Satan out of my record collection?
There is something that feels inherently intrusive about listening to someone else's music collection. Examining other people's playlists can be a deeply personal window into their loves, woes and recreational habits. I felt like I had broken into Michael's house, but the only thing I'd found was a stack of bibles and a crucifix. Never before had I encountered single-minded purity like it. Michael didn't listen to any music by popular Christians—no old-school Katy Perry, no new-school Justin Bieber, no Creed, not even any Amy Grant—he only listened to music about Christ. And I had never realized that there was a difference—and a big one at that—between the two.
While I'm sure absorbing huge chunks of this kind of music all at once was a factor, I found myself literally amazed by how intense worship songs can get. It dawned on me that most church-avoiders like myself literally never experience this kind of ecstatic religious fervor. The deeper I got into the iPod, the more I started questioning my own existence. Was this particular device sent to me for a reason? Was God, in His wisdom, trying to reach me? Why had I forsaken the teachings of the convent?
After a couple of hours, exhausted, and in the middle of a burgeoning existential crisis, I forced myself to step away from the iPod. Michael was in my head now, along with artists like MercyMe, JJ Heller (literally the most wholesome music I have ever heard in my life) and something called The Hoppers that legitimately messed me up for a minute, because, well... just take a look:
I decided to email dcluttr.
"My understanding when purchasing this item," I wrote, "was that it would be restored to factory settings. It is, in fact, full of someone else's intensely religious music. Can somebody over there, (a) send me clear, simple instructions on how to get it back to factory settings, or (b) send a priest to my house to convert me to Catholicism? (I would strongly prefer the former option.)"
I waited five days and received no response. Paranoia started to set in. What if my email to dcluttr had gone to a member of their customer service department who was a Christian? Maybe they, and Michael, and even Jesus himself, wanted me to keep this iPod as it was.
Christian music, after all, is enormously popular. In 2008, Christian music sales rivaled those of hip-hop. In 2014, as a genre, it outsold Latin and Jazz combined. Gospel Music Association research found that 215 million people—or 68 percent of Americans—had listened to Christian music in the last month. Michael's collection might have been alien to me, but there's a whole world going on out there that secular folks have absolutely no idea about.
In the end, I called dcluttr and they told me that restoring devices to factory settings is always the responsibility of the original owner, not them. So while there was a possibility that Michael left his collection behind on purpose as an exercise in spreading God's word, in all likelihood, he probably just couldn't be bothered to do it.
So I did what I should've done in the first place and figured out how to wipe Michael's God Machine myself. I'll admit to feeling a twinge of guilt replacing the Hillsong collection with Hope Conspiracy's back catalog (including an album called True Nihilist), but I also felt redemption when I added Beyoncé's Lemonade—because if that album isn't the Lord's work, I don't know what is.
While it didn't become a religious experience per se, buying Michael's iPod ended up being quite an educational one. It had been 20 years since I had this much contact with Jesus, and it was momentarily interesting to check back in again. While I remain in awe of the faith my ears witnessed, I do feel palpable relief having rid myself of the iPod's holy contents. If it really is true that God moves in mysterious ways, I imagine He won't mind hearing a little Britney now and again.