For the last eighteen years at least, I have had a whirlwind relationship with the world of music: a relationship filled with ecstasy, heartbreak and betrayal. Melodramatic, yes. But perhaps you can relate a bit to this reflection if you think of a band that you loved, maybe at a younger age, which broke up or, worse yet, put out an album in which the artist seemed to be selling out or just not really trying? Keep this experience in mind. These betrayals are at the core of what I want to talk about today.
I will be writing some album reviews and general articles about music for the iN website. The goal here is a depiction of Christ in culture; an inverted Christian viewpoint making out the shapes, substance and emotion behind our artistic expressions. I am, of course, a cracked lens, with my own tastes and pet peeves, and of course my limits in experience and musical knowledge. This article will attempt to explain what I will be evaluating in future segments. How is Christ glorified or denied in music? How is God sought after or ignored? It could seem that I am over-spiritualizing here, but I want to look at one (and there are many) very Biblical connection vital in the viewing and critiquing of art as Christians: it has to do with our conception (and breaking down our misconception) of idolatry.
Getting back to my experience relating to the music world… I will start on a positive note, so you can get to know me a bit better. When I was a kid my first loves in music were: hymns, Michael W. Smith and Pink Floyd. Something I loved early on in music was Story. I loved Christmas hymns and songs that told the haunting story of Christ coming to earth: “What Child is This?” or “Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel,” or the dark conceptual narrative of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” depicting a human being building up a wall of isolation around himself and then losing his mind (a very appropriate narrative for this article as you will see).
The betrayals began in the plush, floral atmosphere of the Christian bookstore. I have a vivid memory of this strange chart in the music section of one of these stores. The chart essentially outlined a very detailed correlation between secular artists and the Christian bands (which could be purchased in the store) which sounded similar. For example: “if you like The Smashing Pumpkins, you will love Audio Adrenaline and Bleach!” Lets take a brief moment to observe the conspicuous lacking of the latter two bands in cultural relevance or even memory. Growing up a home-schooler in a family that did not have to constantly fend off the negative influences of cussing bands and violent movies which naturally saturate our public schools, and also esteeming artistic expression, I was perplexed by this list on a general principle: why listen to a band that sounds like another band? For whatever reason I still picked up my copy of Bleach’s “Space” and loved it. When I got bored the next week (okay, that is an exaggeration) I decided to use the chart in reverse to try out some secular bands (again, as a homeschooler I had never heard of most of these bands). In this way, I discovered a new principle: the secular band correlating to the Christian band was always better. What an awesome discovery! I loved Bleach, but The Smashing Pumpkins were ten times better. And of course, as my experience grew, I also grew to appreciate the pioneering principle: who crafted the style or sound in the first place. At this point a whole new world of beauty and creativity were opened up to me: I fell head over heels for the Pumpkins, for Radiohead, for Nine Inch Nails and for the dark, heartbreaking melancholy of Tori Amos.
I am being rather hard on the Christian music culture. Our excuse and our condemnation is that we are following a secular trend. We live in a culture which proclaims itself to be progressive but, ironically, is openly derivative when it comes to artistic creation. The nineteenth century towered to the stars musically with skill and expression, with many of its composers attributing their inspiration to God, building to the abstract explosion of dissonance and jazz (whether this explosion was progressive or degraded we can save for another article) and we now live in an era which could be called the post-greatness age; an era where the three and a half minute pop song is ruler. Let me relate a few more betrayals in my musical relationship to highlight this derivative age and then get back to viewing and critiquing music as Christians.
There is practically no group of people I am more embittered toward in pop culture than music reviewers: writers for Spin, Rolling Stone, etc. When I was young I plunged into these magazines hoping to find kindred spirits in the realm of love for music. Instead I discovered a den of jaded, posturing, name-dropping, “cool kids” who judged an amazing album in the way a science textbook might describe a breathtaking sunset. Their guiding light was assumption, their critique was in weighing derivatives; giving rave reviews to albums solely based on their familiarity to that established favorite bands and excluding or fearing that dangerous alien: creativity. Most importantly, their attitude was smugness. They assumed it had all been done before and they perpetuated this stagnancy. They built up an encyclopedic knowledge of names, dates and styles and forced music in to the boxes they were stuck in. Why do we as humans do this? And how can we then critique inspiration and not just judge based on our knowledge? You can probably tell from my attitude that I would like to do things differently in these articles, but what would that look like? Again, the answer lies in the trap of idolatry.
As I continued to college I became surrounded by different experiences with smugness, and each of these experiences continued to let me down as an aspiring songwriter (which I had decided to be when I was twelve). I was betrayed by fellow students who thought a love for music meant rattling off the the succession of Beatles or Led Zepplin albums and naming “the best” ones rather than their favorite ones; I was betrayed by professors who instructed song writing classes where you were trained on which chord progressions made successful pop songs; I was betrayed by so many of my favorite bands who traded in an intimate, personal expression in their albums for a leftist political agenda; and the list goes on…
You are probably getting the point. So where does idolatry come into the discussion? I want to include part of a passage from Isaiah here that is going to seem completely out of the blue. It is a strange, satirical description of idolatry that will lead us to the central nerve of my argument: “Those who fashion a graven image are all of them futile… He plants a fir, and the rain makes it grow. Then it becomes something for a man to burn, so he takes one of them and warms himself; he also makes a fire to bake bread. He also makes a God and worships it…” This depiction is repeated several times to let the sneering irony sink in and then concludes: “…no one recalls, nor is there knowledge or understanding to say… ‘I fall down before a block of wood!’ he feeds on ashes; a deceived heart has turned him aside. And he cannot deliver himself…” (Isaiah 44:9-20 ).
Idolatry is the insane act of cutting off the branch from the source and worshipping it. It is seeking the way in the dark when God offers light. It is hoarding manna when God bestows daily sustenance. It is being smugly confident in the byproduct when God inspires fresh product. A lot of Christians seem to think the way to avoid worshipping music is by making crappy music. We are cutting off the inspiration God offers. Or we think that not being “conformed to the world” means adapting secular music and pruning off the rough edges. Seriously? I truly believe that those secular artists being copied were inadvertently seeking God more than those Christian derivations. You Christian bands who tidy up secular music and call it your own are cutting off the branch even further from the source!
Are we as Christians content to live in an age of post-greatness? An age where it has all been done before? Do we not believe in an infinite God who is constantly able to widen the scope of the finite? Along with simply describing albums, critiquing lyrics and examining world views of both secular and Christian artists, my motivation in reviewing artworks (as well as derivations) will be fueled by a love for music and a desire to taste the infinite through inspired musical expression.