Jared Witt l January 26, 2016
It’s not a character flaw. It just is what it is. Some people have never had a profound personal experience with music. It doesn’t matter the genre, their ears are just missing whatever is the ear equivalent of cones in the eyes. These are the people who, when asked what they listen to, say, “Whatever is on the radio” and who think it’s appropriate to talk over the bridge in “Sunday Bloody Sunday” when you’re riding in the car.
I won’t pretend to understand these people. In high school I was even convinced that they were missing a soul. Older, more adjusted Jared can just accept that not everyone is wired the same, and bless their hearts, they just access the dark matter of their existence differently through…I dunno…watching ”Two and a Half Men” or paying their bills early or...whatever…the point is, it’s fine. I don’t need them to get the guitar solo in “Limelight” for my sake.
Nonetheless, the mere fact that they probably have souls does not mean that those people should be in charge of writing, playing, or picking out the music we listen to in church. They, whose hearts have never beat in unison with thousands of others at a concert and who don’t grasp how the right amp feedback at the right moment can poke a wormhole in spacetime, will never understand the difference between a Leonard Cohen faith song and a Chris Tomlin faith song. They’ll never understand what’s so offensive about the canned pig slop that gets marketed and sold under Christian record labels. So, without further ado, here's how Christian music can get better:
1.Don’t write about God
I know. Sounds crazy. But the worst way to write about God, is to write about God. The ancient Israelites realized this early on. What can be said of the divine? "I am who I am." The divine name given to them is more like an anti-name. It’s very structure discourages naming. Why?
While words can be helpful, giving us a conceptual handle on the world around us and making it easier to use, the more mysterious and alive a thing is, the less it should be used as an object (i.e. the more freedom it has to define itself as a subject). Words have a way of imprisoning the thing they name. If I say my wife is a very sweet woman, that’s true enough in most contexts. But what happens when she wants to be quirky? Sardonic? Withdrawn? What happens when, like this last Saturday, she is a nasty woman? It’s not only unfair, it’s impossible for me to try to put an Ibsen-esque clamp on all those other potentialities and say, No, you’re the sweet one, remember?
How much more so when we speak of the divine? The problem is, when you tell a pious artist to sit down and write a song about God, you’ve implied a whole gamut of things that they’re not allowed to write. Getting into specifics seems too bold. But, of course, just saying God is great, and awesome, and good a thousand times has no color. It’s boring. The real world of lives and things is where interesting stuff happens, which must be why, according to the Christian doctrine of incarnation, God wants so desperately to be a part of it. Let's sing about that. This leads to the next point.
2.More verbs; fewer adjectives.
What if a story were written like this?
“A powerful house was great on an awesome hill. Steadfast were the people in the really fantastic house. How they conversed! Holy was their conversation in the great house. Really, they were the best of the best. It was really a very mesmerizing conversation. Astounding was the awesomeness of the almighty house where the people conversed fantastically.”
Pretty maddening to read, right? There’s a structural reason. The verbs are colorless, almost to the point of non-existence. The story (I use the term loosely) attempts to build interest solely by using more and more hyperbolic adjectives without showing us whether the adjectives are warranted (side note to those with eyes to see and ears to hear, there seems to be a lot of this going around lately, wink).
This is why good creative writing teachers often do an exercise where they require their students to write a short story without the use of adjectives. Adjectives rely on the reader’s trust. We have to take the writer’s word for it that the house was indeed “great” and that the conversation actually was “mesmerizing.” It takes strong verbs to draw the reader into the house and actually prove it.
There is a counter-intuitive relationship between the simplicity of Bob Dylan’s words and the complex feels they give to you as a listener. This is why he is widely considered one of the greatest lyricists of all time. He talks about people doing ordinary things with profound consequences.
When “the word became flesh and dwelt among us,” I believe that was God’s way of saying, you want to write a decent song about me? Quit looking up here at the sky, and start writing about the human stuff you see going on right in front of you.
3. Be Honest
Michael Gungor, who frequently succeeds in being an exception to many of the things I’ve said about “Christian artists,” wrote an article similar to this in which he said he could usually tell in about three seconds whether he has stumbled onto the “Christian” radio station.
And we all know what he means. The breathy, affected voice. The bland instrumentation. The avoidance of minor chords like they're the plague. The problem is, when you make your money as a "Christian musician," everything you write and sing is based on supposed tos. You're no longer permitted to always express what you feel, you're expected to express what you're supposed to feel about God. You're expected to emote the kinds of feelings you’re supposed to emote.
Real art comes from accessing the deep stuff inside you, not repressing it.
And unless I’ve grossly underestimated God, God can handle our less flattering emotions, doubts, fears, depression, losses…You know. Art.
Can we all agree that the divine isn’t Kim Jong-un? He is not so insecure that we have to walk around like yes-men all the time, saying pious things we wouldn’t normally say and acting more inspired than we actually are. And why pretend, anyway, when God has x-ray vision? God sees beneath your upbeat chorus line to the deep things of your soul. If I've understood Romans 8:26 correctly, there is more holiness in one honest "groan too deep for words" than in all the perfect fifth chords in the world.
So be real for God’s sake.
Cheers and Peace,
Jared Witt (Twitter: @realjaredwitt) is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.
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