03 May 2005

the artist and the word

Posted by at 5:56 PM Read our previous post

. . . . . . . (or why I love the innocence mission)

Let me first say that I can't stand "christian" music. It makes me wince. I've tried to not involuntarily respond to it like this, that is, to not kneejerk -- to no avail; I just can't stand it, no matter how hard I try. Now, mind you, that's not to say that I have anything against musicians who are christians by faith; that's not what I'm saying at all, lord knows I don't care what religion one holds in one's heart of hearts, as long as one is honest to oneself and to others. God is Truth is Love is Beauty, and everybody knows that beauty wears many different liturgical robes, so I guess what I really object to is the category of "christian music." I don't mean gospel music by this, incidentally. Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, Pops Staples, for example, are all fine artists within that genre, and have kept the tradition going. I have nothing against this christian music. No ... by "Christian Music" (X-stian, henceforth to denote the difference) I mean the genre that has established itself in the last couple of decades as an alternative to "secular" pop and rock and hip hop music. Evangelical and other zealous types figured they could adopt our modern dance forms, change their lyrical content and use them as tools for evangelization. We now have new & improved, cleancut nutrasweet versions of our pop musics, replete with inoffensive language and good old-fashioned edifying moral values. This is all very well-meaning and even a good idea, until one realizes that that which makes our modern popular forms so special is precisely that which makes them dangerous and subversive. A sense of daring. Take that away and all you have left is empty posturing. A mere facsimile of art. (and this is just the lyrics . . don't get me started on the music)

Put another way: Most X-stian music makes me feel like I accidentally walked into a national convention of Elvis impersonators.

By contrast, let me now say that I love the music of the innocence mission, a family of musicians from Lancaster, PA. who by their own admission are unashamedly good christian people (Roman Catholic, in fact). I have met them and can attest to their kindness and their mildness of manner and style, their grace and their undeniable deep rooted sense of spirituality. I have been a great admirer of their work for more than a decade and have always felt a certain kinship with their music. The truly amazing thing to me (and the crux of this post -- why I bring it up) is that, until they devoted a whole cd to their favorite hymns and devotional songs a few years back ("Christ Is My Hope" -- a benefit recording they made to raise money for a local catholic charity), they had used the word "Jesus" only once in all their previous releases. Yet I hear in their music a depth of spirituality that makes the formulaic platitudes of most X-stian music sound as inspired as the scripted spiel of a used car salesman. Their outlook (i.m.'s) is unmistakably christian, but it's expressed in soft washes of humility and grace and wonder. Easy on the preaching, theirs is a music that celebrates the world by taking delight in the simplicity of moments, a music that somehow manages to simultaneously evoke both joy and melancholy.

"In this story
we sit down on Luna Bridge,
and catch snow in our cupped hands
and music is coming from the houses,
or it sits inside me . . . "
"You go outside.
You see the holy spirit
burning in your trees
and walk on,
glowing with the same glow
. . . And the birds of all your yellow teacups sing,
and you know this hymn . . . "

I find solace in music that challenges one to think about what it means to be a spirit-filled being in these post-post-modern times. Now as ever, joy comes to us in little packets like these each and every day. In our homes and in the faces of our friends and families. You can miss these tiny miracles if you are not paying attention.

In our living -- this is where spirit resides.

I don't think they consider themselves an X-stian band. I think they've even consciously avoided such a limiting categorization and I applaud their integrity. I'm certain that they would find a ready-made market just ripe for the picking if they ever decided to walk such a disingenuous path. I certainly wouldn't fault them; money talks loudly. I'm glad they haven't succumbed, though. The narrow market perspective that demands the same devotional catchphrases, the same aphorisms, the same old same-oldisms, keeps performers churning out the same song over and over again. It's refreshing to see an artist daring to do elsehow . . . taking the "road less taken", as Robert Frost once called it.

The other day I found the following paragraph in the introduction to the "Oxford History of Christianity." Reading it made me think about the interrelation between art and the spirit.

"Christianity is a religion of the word -- the 'Word made Flesh', the word preached, the word written to record the story of God's intervention in history. Every story needs a picture. Pope Gregory the Great defined the role of the artist thus: 'painting can do for the illiterate what writing does for those who can read'. Augustine had gone further in praise of music: written words are in themselves inadequate -- 'language is too poor to speak of God . . . yet you do not like to be silent. What is left for you but to sing in jubilation'. The visual artist as well as the musician is entitled to the benefit of the Augustinian argument. Words constitute a record exerting a long-term pressure: a work of art has an instantaneous impact. It bridges the gap between cultures with a simple gesture with an immediacy denied to translations of the record. Whatever the culture from which it derives, a great work of art is a potential source of spiritual insight, falling short of words in the power of syllogistic argument and even in the ability to suggest the content of the imagination's inward eye, but far superior in the evocative power to haunt and illuminate. Wassily Kandinsky, the pioneer of abstract painting, who published a study of The Spiritual in Art in 1912, spoke of art as resembling religion in taking what is known and transforming it, showing it 'in new perspectives and in a blinding light'. Some of the masterpieces of painting and sculpture in the Christian tradition have been produced by artists whose status as believers is doubtful. In Kandinsky's view of the breakthrough to spiritual perception, this is no paradox. 'It is safer to turn to geniuses without faith than to believers without talent' (my emphasis), said the French Dominican Marie-Alain Couturier -- an aphorism which he tested by persuading Matisse, Braque, Chagall, and other great names of the day to do work for the church of Assy in the French Alps. Couturier was not subordinating religious considerations to élitism; to him, 'all great art is spiritual since the genius of the artist lies in the depths, the secret inner being from whence faith also springs'. Jacques Maritain has drawn out a further implication of the supposition of the unity of all spiritual experience. To the Christian who wishes his art to reflect his religious convictions he says: keep this desire out of the forefront of the mind, and simply 'strive to make a work of beauty in which your entire heart lies.'. (my emphasis)"

Amen to that . . .

The X-stian music category is full of "artists" who seem to only want to express devotion to their chosen faith. They just praise, as if that is solely what worship consisted of. They sing, "O, lord how I love thee", over and over and over again, and say little else, unfortunately. This to me seems like a wasted opportunity. It's as if they think that their good intentions are enough to safeguard the quality of their artistic expression.

I think that an artist's task, be he faithful or be she not, is, first, to observe and participate in the various ways in which this love (and life's other mysteries) is manifested in realtime, and subsequently to attempt to describe the experience the best he or she can, using metaphor, irony, alliteration, symbolism -- a whole arsenal of poetic devices is at our disposal . . . thus opening the door to a potential true communion, one resulting not from sycophantic commemorations, but from a spirit of exploration and wonder.

There's the difference..



p.s. . . . This is just a personal rant against bad art. I only used the aforementioned band as an example of a contemporary group of artists whose temerity I admire, who I think expresses their faith in a genuine and beautiful way.
In no way are my comments to be read as the band's own opinions.

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