Friday, August 15, 2014

Getting down to rock and soul...

Today as I embrace a time of reflection and renewal on our Sabbath, I
have been thinking a lot about our upcoming "Rock and Soul" concert. These events have both been intentional and organic in ways that always surprise me. And while some more hesitant folk in our churches have had a hard time getting their head around why a pastor would put so much time and energy into a rock and soul show (or a folk music gig or a jazz performance or anything else that is just a little outside of the box) the vast majority get it - as do many of those whose lives vibrate with life outside of our Sanctuary. So here's what I have discerned about why these kinds of concerts/events/happenings are of value:

+ First, popular music speaks to our culture.  In my spiritual tradition, the use of music has always been steeped in high culture: if it wasn't classical, it was not of the Lord. This became increasingly true in the 19th century as artists separated themselves from Christianity in the West and began to pursue "art for art's sake." Many in my Reformed tradition accepted the notion that artists where set apart to explore higher truths - and many artists bought into this foolishness, too. The result has been a phony distinction between high and low culture that spiritualizes some art and denigrates others; just go into most art museums if you think I am mistaken and you'll discover an atmosphere of quiet, intense reverence that once only existed in places of worship. Such a rarefied approach to art, however, deepens the ancient binary way of organizing life into good and evil, light and dark, high and low.  

It also disconnects people of faith from what is happening in the nitty-gritty realities of life on the ground. Living with our heads in the clouds is antithetical to a faith that proclaims "the Word became flesh and lived among us." Like the angel said to Christ's disciples 40 days after the resurrection on the day of the Ascension: Sisters and brothers, why are you standing around looking towards the heavens! Jesus is no longer there but calls you to get back to the work he started here on earth. So get to it! (note: this is my very free interpretation of Acts 1) Popular music at its best - as well as visual art, TV, movies, sculpture and dance - rejects the heaven/earth divide. Take a listen to 21st century country music if you think I am mistaken: it will let you know what the vast middle class of white Americans are feeling. The same is true for the heartland of black culture as a quick survey of the most popular hip hop performers will disclose. In the book of Revelations, we are told to "listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches..." and one way of doing this involves popular culture.

+ Second, music draws people into community - and celebrates their gifts. What I have discovered in doing this for 30+ years is that there are people in our congregations who are ACHING to share their gifts but don't feel as if they are valued. This is especially true in churches where only the elite are elected as officers, only the finest of classical culture is offered in worship and where the ordinary tends to be under-appreciated or dismissed. Further, if the only way people in church experience music (or the other arts) is through performances by the best and brightest, ordinary people will rightly conclude that true faith is essentially passive exercise. How would they think otherwise when their gifts aren't needed or valued? 

But get a small group together to sing and play popular music - and help them
practice productively and see the sacred in the music and message of some of their favorite songs - and a whole new energy of creativity is released into the community. Here is what I have found in doing the work of church renewal: we NEED the gifts of ordinary folk. And they NEED to share these gifts. Because I am a musician, I tend to go for the low hanging fruit first and tease out the musicians by asking them to join the feast. But the quest for unlocking the gifts of our people must go deeper than music so that the full range of ordinary blessings are embraced, shared, celebrated and nourished. 

+ Third, playing rock, soul and jazz in the Sanctuary invites people into our space who might never darken our doors for worship. I have been told the following enough times to believe it is true: "I won't regularly come to your church on Sunday mornings (for a variety of reasons.) But I will be there for your out of the box musical gigs because they nourish my soul in ways that traditional worship does not." I've heard it said that listening to such a prophetic pronouncement by those outside the church is unwise in this time of scarcity because it asks us to cultivate programs that don't meet the immediate needs of the congregation. My mature response (and I have been immature and snarky through the years) goes like this: our musical events do something in the wider community that goes beyond the utilitarian. And while we have gained new friends and members as a result of these gigs, mostly what happens is that we build new alliances and friendships with people who once mistrusted the church. What we are changing, therefore, is both our relationship to the wider culture and how they speak about us when we're not around. By joining our Sanctuary with the wider culture's quest for justice and compassion we become partners for the common good. And we are doing this in a way that the makes sense to those beyond our walls because music is a participatory art form - and popular music is participatory in spades.

+ Fourth, drawing emotional, spiritual and ethical truths from popular music helps people in and out of the church discern how God is still speaking beyond the old forms.  In a world as hurting as our own, in an era that saturates our consciousness with the suffering of the world, we can often wonder: where the hell is God? Our work with popular music helps people learn to discern the presence of the Lord beyond scripture and worship. It honors the holy in the songs they sing on their way to work. It lifts up the presence of God whether we're at a funeral or a party. It brings the sounds and feelings of the working week into the Sanctuary. It becomes a way of prayer. And it reminds people that there is a source of hope and love beyond the obvious pain. In fact, this love and hope is embedded in our pain.

Professor Jeremy Begbie of Duke Divinity School put it like this where he owned his own classical bias and the limitations it imposed upon him. He said:

Sometimes I’m asked in classes, “What kind of music do you like?” And I refuse to answer. The reason I refuse to answer is because it’s assumed that that’s the most important thing you could ever ask about music: “Do I like it?” I think Christians need to learn -- if they’re really interested in engaging culture, they need to learn to ask a subtler question, which is: “What’s going on here?”

Why is this person doing this writing, performing, whatever? Why are people buying this, listening to it, whatever? What’s happening when they consume this music? And then I think one learns a lot more. You learn a lot more about other people. We learn much more about the culture that we’re living in. And so I’m often recommending music that I know will be a bit of a stretch to perhaps the group I’m with, and they’ll recommend music to me that might be a stretch for me, but I think we’ll both just learn a good deal more and expand as Christians a little bit more.

Some examples: I’m a great fan of the Scottish Roman Catholic composer James MacMillan. James MacMillan is a -- that’s tough music. It’s not the toughest contemporary music, but you wouldn’t have it with the shower on, you wouldn’t have it as background music. It has to be listened to, but when you do -- I’ve known people who have no classical training and who would never think of going to a classical concert being totally mesmerized by this music and feel that they learned something as Christians about the Christian faith in the process.

That I would like to see going on more. A student in a class the other day played a song by Sufjan Stevens. I can’t remember which one it was, but it was about a serious topic. I thought it was banal given the serious topic.It turned out a lot of the class, particularly those of a certain age group, in their 20s and early 30s, were deeply moved by this and thought that it was completely appropriate to those lyrics.

So I had to do a bit of thinking on that instead of just swipe that aside. I said … , “What’s going on here? Why do you hear profundity or at least music that’s appropriate to those words where I only hear trivialization? Because it sounds almost facetious, that sound, considering the profundity of the words.” That’s an example of a two-way learning process where we need to challenge each other on Christian terms, to say, “Christianly, what can we learn about the gospel or the Christian worldview from this music?”

That’s the key question to ask, I think. Not instantly, “Do I like it or not like it?” -- because until we ask the first question, actually, you’re just not going to like it, but then we might be missing out on something fantastic.

If you are in the area on Sunday, August 17th @ 3 pm come on by for our Rock and Soul concert. We'll be raising funds for our ally in caring for Mother Earth. And rocking the house.


Peter said...

Wonderful, James. I'd certainly darken your church door!

RJ said...

God loves you - but damn so do I, my man!

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