Friday, September 19, 2008

Signs of the times...

Blaise Pascal said, "In difficult times you should always carry something beautiful in your mind." Writing from a Celtic spirituality, John O'Donohue adds:

We have often heard that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This is usually taken to mean that the sense of beauty is utterly subjective; thee is no accounting for taste because each person's taste is different. The statement has another, more subtle meaning: if our style of looking becomes beautiful, then beauty will become visible and shine forth for us. We will be surprised to discover beauty in unexpected places where the ungraceful eye would never linger. The graced eye can glimpse beauty anywhere, for beauty does not reserve itself for special elite moments or instances; it does not wait for perfection but is present already secretly in everything. When we beautify our gaze, the grace of hidden beauty becomes our joy and our sanctuary.

I suspect that this is one of the reasons why some people of faith have such a hard time appreciating popular culture - especially music -as worthy of revelation. They have been trained NOT to have a graced eye that can see beauty, truth and goodness anywhere. In fact, one of the challenges before the traditional church in the United States today has to do with moving beyond old norms to discover "the grace of hidden beauty" that is everywhere.

Younger, postmodern folk get this intuitively - as do those from the fringe - partly because of the very nature of culture in the 21st century, partly from being pushed away from the core and partly, I suspect, because this is one of the ways our still speaking God is communicating with us at this moment in time. I love how the poet, Michael Blumenthal, puts it:

There is a voice inside the body.

There is a voice and a music,
a throbbing, four-chambered pear
that wants to be heard, that sits
alone by the river with its mandolin
and its torn coat, and sings

for whomever will listen
a song that no one wants to hear.

But sometimes, lost,
on his way to somewhere significant,
a man in a long coat, carrying
a briefcase, wanders into the forest.

He hears the voice and the mandolin,
he sees the thrush and the dandelion,
and he feels the mist rise over the river.

And his life is never the same,
for this having been lost -
for having strayed from the path of his routine,
for no good reason.

Greg Stevens, professor at Rochester College, has observed/confessed that for a long time he would not/could not see the depth and beauty in popular culture: it was fun and a diversion, but not a vehicle for truth or beauty. But then he was smitten by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and all bets were off because he began to see how popular culture does three things:

One, popular culture reflects societal values. We gain a valuable insight into our culture by paying close attention to the stories we tell and the songs we write. The values we hold dear, for good or ill, seep into those expressions. Now that can be a frightening realization, just as any good look into the mirror can be. We learn that as much as we are a culture obsessed with wanton sexuality and enamored with the trivial (we've practically elevated Britney Spears to the level of deity, for crying out loud), we are a culture equally enthralled by the concept of redemption. Just spend a week in the movie theater or watching primetime television drama and count how many times this theme pops up.

Second, popular culture shapes societal values and beliefs. A culture shapes its values and beliefs through the stories it tells. The reason people get so upset about portrayals of violence or smoking on television or depictions of an abortion without subsequent emotional consequences is because they know that these portrayals do in fact influence thoughts and actions to some degree. People have even coined the phrase "the CSI effect" to refer to the impact that show has had on potential jurors who are now much more educated about forensic science and criminals who now have a better grasp of how to avoid detection. Because the songs we sing and the shows we watch help to shape our cultural agenda -- morally, socially, and politically -- it is important that academics explore these connections.

Third, popular culture matters to people. People take their favorite shows, musicians, and authors very seriously. They develop strong emotional attachments to these things and have sometimes profound aesthetic experiences of them. In other words, popular culture has become a form of popular art. Now this is not to say that there are not a whole lot of less than desirable pop cultural expressions out there. For every show like Battlestar Galactica, there are countless Temptation Islands. For every Citizen Kane, there are numerous Weekend at Bernie's. But this is nothing distinctive to popular culture. For every Mona Lisa, there are a thousand Velvet Elvises. But the best shows on television, for instance, provide viewers with a significant aesthetic experience and scholars are coming to realize the importance of studying that experience. In fact the philosopher Noell Carroll prefers to call popular culture "mass art" and says that such mass art provides people in western culture with their "primary access to aesthetic experience."
(For the whole article:

How does Jesus put it in Matthew 16: Some Pharisees and Sadducees were on Jesus again, pressing him to prove himself to them. He told them, "You have a saying that goes, 'Red sky at night, sailor's delight; red sky at morning, sailors take warning.' You find it easy enough to forecast the weather—why can't you read the signs of the times? An evil and wanton generation is always wanting signs and wonders. The only sign you'll get is the Jonah sign." Then he turned on his heel and walked away. (Matthew 16: 1-3)

And so it goes... Bruce Cockburn sings about the sign of Jonah in "Get Up, Jonah" and U2 wail on "Get Up, Deadman" but how often do you hear these prophetic cries in contemporary worship? If it isn't obscure and other worldly pipe organs and German chorales, it is trivial, me-centered so-called praise music. (Not that there isn't good stuff in either of these camps.) But where is the music like John Bell's from Iona that frames the prophetic complexity of our day in ways that feed both head and heart? Oddly enough it is in popular culture... go figure but it says something about forecasting the weather but not being able to read the signs of the time, yes?

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