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Right off the bat, I’ll own that this title is pretentious. But I just had this realization, and I think it’s profoundly true. I’ll need to improve my titling skills, because while this post should be broadly relatable, I’m sure the title scared most people away. But not you, dear reader. Thanks for giving me a chance here.

The 19th Century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard is one of the most influential thinkers in history. If that statement surprises you, it’s because his thinking comes to most of us indirectly through many currently-influential voices. He’s the philosopher equivalent of the bands who influenced the Beatles, who in turn influenced every musician you’ve ever enjoyed.

But he doesn’t do much direct influencing of modern readers because it takes a lot of work to dig into. (Follow me on this—I promise it will pay off.) For one thing, he wrote a ton of books, and those books tend to have many hundreds of pages. But to make matters exceedingly irritating, many of Kierkegaard’s books were written under numerous pseudonyms (Victor Eremita, John Climacus, Anti-Climacus, Hilarius Bookbinder, etc. etc. etc.). And some of these works claim to be compilations of writings from still others. Some of these pseudonyms seem to represent more nearly than others what Kierkegaard himself believed, but it’s impossible to be sure.

Kierkegaard would play games with these pseudonyms. He would release two books by two different pseudonyms on the same day, or within a couple of weeks of each other. While he was producing these works, he would be sure to be seen in public frequently so that no one would suspect him of being the author of these works (a bit of theatre that worked for a time, but not for long). These books would offer different points of view on Christianity, philosophy, ethics, and society. Kierkegaard also published several books under his own name, but it still takes a lot of brainpower to untangle the relationship between this Kierkegaard and the pseudonymous authors of Kierkegaard’s other books.

Because of these bizarre methods, there’s no consensus on what Kierkegaard himself actually believed, no universally agreed upon “theology of Soren Kierkegaard.” I’m tempted to think of that as a frustrating loss. But I’m realizing that it’s not. It’s actually a gift.

How can I possibly claim that this quirky, controversial, confusing philosopher could save our world? Because the kind of reading that his books require would make us all better citizens and dismantle our biggest hurdle to mutual understanding.

When I first started reading Kierkegaard’s works, I read them as I read any book. I was in search of “Kierkegaard’s theology.” I wanted to know his views on things. When I do this with any author, I get a feel for their positions, and then I decide whether or not I agree with Calvin or Keller or Wright or Lewis. When I think about it, it’s extremely binary. But this is actually unhealthy. Because I actually agree with and disagree with all of these authors.

What is this pull I feel to identify with some authors over others, as though I need to check [favorite author]’s views before I know what I believe? Wouldn’t it be healthier to learn from each author and pull the most helpful parts from each? Isn’t it most important to walk away with deeper understanding and inwardly transformed as a result of wrestling with an author’s arguments? How does it help me to be able to claim to “agree with John Piper” or whomever, as though it’s all or nothing? Are we not perpetuating the problem by relying on a few individuals to do our thinking for us? Really, it just makes us all that much more divided. Encamped. Partisan.

But Kierkegaard’s bizarre style won’t let us get away with this. You have to think for yourself. When you read Kierkegaard, you have to engage with his actual arguments, because you never really know what it means to “agree with Kierkegaard.” You have to decide, to “judge for yourself,” to use a Kierkegaardian phrase. With each pseudonym; each book; each paragraph, sentence, and argument, you must weigh and decide what you think.

It’s infuriating. And exhausting. And healthy.

Kierkegaard was extremely controversial in his day, and cartoons like this were often printed in newspapers, where he was mocked for his pants and curved spine. People tend to be uncomfortable with those who challenge the norms.

Our political climate is so polarized. You’re republican or you’re democrat. You’re pro or anti whomever. You’re pro this or anti that. We deal in sound bites, in memes. And your response has to be instant. You have to be outraged or impressed within seconds, and if you don’t make a social media statement right now then you’re siding for or against someone or something bad or good. IT’S US OR THEM! RIGHT NOW! Our figure head has made this or that statement, so fall in line!

Don’t you hate it? Isn’t it ugly? Don’t you feel in your bones that we need something better, something more sustainable?

What we need, I submit, is a Kierkegaardian way of reading things. Take your time. You’ll have to decide, but don’t simply follow the party line. Do your homework. Weigh each comment, each argument, each moment on its own merits. It’s not about blind adherence, it’s about the journey.

Judge for yourself.

Kierkegaard also rails against indecision, so you do have to make up your mind. Deciding is important, but you’re not allowed to decide by default, by blindly following your tribe’s voting guide or statement of faith. If we could all retrain our habits of engagement in light of Kierkegaard’s infuriatingly inefficient approach, perhaps we’d learn to understand each other better, to renounce the “hot take.” We would then develop wise, patiently-formed, true-to-the-depths-of-our-soul convictions, and we could hold hands and walk away from the echo chambers we’ve been told to pledge allegiance to.

[If you want to give Kierkegaard a try, I recommend starting with this fantastic biography, or this brief but helpful guide to his thought.]

While there has been a lot of diversity in style and approach, every Arcade Fire album has, to a significant degree, been about one thing: disorientation and alienation in the modern world. They had put out four incredible albums around this theme, and then a few weeks ago they released their fifth. And I love it.

Though Pitchfork gave a weird, negative review, Everything Now holds its own amidst Arcade Fire’s impressive catalog. It’s not their best album, but it doesn’t need to top its predecessors to be an excellent album in its own right. (Feel free to skip the rest of this paragraph, but I want to address the Pitchfork article. The aspects of the album with which the reviewer takes issue are seriously bizarre: He’s mad that Win Butler is monotone on a song or two (why is expansive range a requirement for every song?), he mocks the use of synths throughout (I think it’s cool, it’s a nice development from earlier offerings, and it fits the overall project, which I’ll unpack in a minute), and he unilaterally decides that it’s in bad taste for Butler to list the days of the week in a song  (I dig the way it sounds and works with the song). I’ll just take the liberty of upgrading Pitchfork’s 5.6 rating to an 8.0. Boom.)

In some ways, Everything Now’s message is a bit on the nose: we demand everything, and we demand it now. Our Amazon-addicted society is alienating us from each other, and destroying our souls in the process. But in typical Arcade Fire fashion, the album goes beyond the lyrics. Song after song unpacks the disorientation we feel today, but the music itself is a huge part of the critique and indictment (Pitchfork somehow misses this).

Here’s how it works. Lyrically, Win Butler critiques our constant need to fill our ears, eyes, and minds with “infinite content.” He concedes that this makes us “infinitely content,” but calls out the inevitable result: “all your money’s already spent on it.” But here’s the thing: he’s singing this as part of a song that you purchased! And musically, the album itself is conspicuously upbeat and dancy.* The listener finds himself being entertained by infinite** content that simultaneously calls you out for your addiction to infinite content. It’s brilliant. And the effect is so much more powerful than a mere spoken statement. The reader is implicated in the critique. We’re all guilty as charged, just by virtue of our enjoying the thing that’s accusing us.

All of this makes the album fascinating in itself, but there’s also this: Arcade Fire has just made—probably unintentionally—a shot for shot remake of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. It’s seriously like Ecclesiastes: The Musical.

Watch how this works. The intro and first song (“Everything Now”) explore the endless journey of accumulation: music, movies, possessions. Butler sings: “Every room in my house is filled with shit I couldn’t live without” and “Every inch of space in my heart is filled with things I’ll never start.” Now jump back a few thousand years to “the Preacher” of Ecclesiastes: “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil” (2:10). The Preacher also notes that all of a person’s hard work stems “from a man’s envy of his neighbor” (4:4—how’s that for a critique of capitalism, by the way?). And again, “All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied” (6:7).

Then we step into “Signs of Life.” Butler sings, “Looking for signs of life, looking for signs every night, but there’s no signs of life. So we do it again.” This is the pursuit of meaning through experience, but it’s an unending, unsatisfying expedition. And it’s exactly what the Preacher seeks (and finds elusive). In 2:8, he talks specifically about seeking satisfaction through people—singers, concubines (the sexual overtones should not be overlooked). But there’s no better summary of this than his opening poem:

“All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:7–9)

Let’s do one more song just for fun. On “Creature Comfort”—the musical highlight and a lyrical gut-punch of a song—Butler sings about boys hating themselves, girls hating their bodies, people begging God to make them famous or to at least keep them from pain. It’s a song about meaninglessness, suicide, giving up, and the futility of life. It’s tough, and the compelling viby drive of the song adds some tension to the enjoyable music and devastating message. But once again, this is actually the whole point of Ecclesiastes. The Preacher returns to this theme throughout. Here’s how he says it in 8:16–17:

“When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.”

The high points in Arcade Fire’s search are found in love—not rom-com love, but fought-for, struggled-through love between doubt-filled people. This is also one of the Preacher’s realizations in Ecclesiastes. Honestly, there’s so much more to be said, but you get the point. I’m not suggesting that Arcade Fire was trying to preach Ecclesiastes in song, but I do think they were on a common journey. The Preacher set his course millennia ago, and human beings have followed in his steps ever since. I personally find Arcade Fire’s musically documented journey compelling (and convicting), and maybe you will too.

And real quick, lest there be any doubt, I want to provide the Preacher’s conclusion to his journey, lest you come to the end of Arcade Fire’s hopeful yet inconclusive final song and want to know the answer:

“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” (12:13)

__________________________

* Let me be clear: it infuses this stylistic shift with enough fascinating elements to keep it interesting on multiple listens. Classic Arcade Fire on that count.

** The album uses song titles, style, and the intro and outro to make the album into a perfect loop. Put it on repeat and you won’t even notice the seams.

Malcolm Gladwell

My favorite podcast—since the day it launched—is Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. I’m always excited when a new episode auto-downloads on my phone, and I rarely let an episode sit an entire day.

This week’s episode is entitled “The King of Tears,” and Gladwell’s premise is that country music is the best genre for connecting with people and eliciting emotional responses. It’s another fantastic episode, but about halfway through, I realized: “Uh oh. He’s wrong on this one.” Here’s why.

It’s the kind of mistake you’d have to be steeped in a certain tradition to recognize, and I happen to fit that demographic. I was raised on CCM (Contemporary Christian Music), a genre which shares the same fatal flaw as country music. And this flaw is tricky. It makes you think the music is powerful and moving, but it’s actually a shortcut. It short-circuits the creative process, and robs the listener of something vital.

What Gladwell loves about country is what people tend to love about CCM: it tells powerful stories. It gets into the details and draws you into a specific situation:

“The thing that pushes us over the top into tears is details. We cry when melancholy collides with specificity. And specificity is not something every genre does well.”

Ok. I’ll follow him most of the way on this point. Details matter for good art. To create in God’s world, we have to dig into the real STUFF of creation. Get our hands dirty. Work with the raw materials. That requires making abstractions concrete. It’s taking an idea and incarnating it—wrapping it in flesh. This is what it takes to make art live.

Travis Tritt

But I refuse to concede that the kind of specificity that country music traffics in is better—or more emotionally attuned—than what rock music (or other genres, for that matter)—offer.

For Gladwell, rock music is subordinate because it tends to be vague and repetitive in subject matter. (That’s an unbelievably broad generalization and far from true in many cases, but let’s let him run for a moment.) So he contrasts the intricate details of country ballads with the “vagueness” of the song “Wild Horses”:

“That’s how you get tears. You make the story so real and the details so sharp and you add in so many emotional triggers that the listener cannot escape…[It’s] far easier just to fall back on the bland cliche that ‘wild horses couldn’t drag you away.’ Country music makes people cry because it’s not afraid to be specific.”

But no.

Country music suffers the same flaw as Contemporary Christian Music, and this is what Steve Turner calls the fatal tendency to SPELL. IT. OUT. Art works by indirection. Art shows more than it tells. A sermon works because a preacher explains a passage or concept in detail. Understanding is a primary goal. But art leads you into contemplation. It’s a journey, an experience, a question, a “what if?”

Many country songs tell stories (sometimes good stories!), and you get to enjoy hearing the story unfold. You can be moved by the story, but you don’t find yourself reflecting, wondering, or soul searching. You’re moved emotionally in the same way that a story out of Chicken Soup for the Soul moves you. It’s all spelled out for you, and you get to respond in a sappy way.

This is the same impulse that has defined CCM. It has to be clear, it has to be positive, and it usually has to invoke God at least 2.5 times per song. There’s nothing wrong with clear communication, but as I’ve written elsewhere, co-opting an art form and making it a vehicle for a sermon diminishes the power of that art form (though it might remain interesting a sermon substitute).

We could also dismantle Gladwell’s argument this way: some of the most emotional music ever written is classical. Can Gladwell (or anyone human) listen to Mozart’s “Lacrimosa” or Bach’s Mass in B Minor or Smetana’s “Moldau” and not well up in tears? Please. It’s incredibly rich emotionally, but the words are not English. There is specificity, but it’s not specificity in the characters or references that create the emotion, it’s the specific relationships between the notes and tones that does the emotional heavy lifting. I’m sorry, but Gladwell’s premise is so demonstrably false.

So what’s the takeaway? I’ve written at length about this over the years, but: Christians ought to be among the most creative people on earth because of our connection to the Creator and because he has called us to continue his work of creation (when God placed the first humans in the garden, their task was to “work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15)). Yet tragically, we have in some senses come to be categorized by a genre of music that shies away from creativity, that values lyrical formulas over artistic craft. I lose interest with country music for this very reason. I love sweet little stories, but if there’s nothing to ponder, if everything has been spelled out and I’ve been told how to think and feel, if there is no mystery to capture my imagination, then I can listen to the song once and move on. And that’s a great definition for bad music.

I’m glad that Malcolm Gladwell tears up when he listens to Garth Brooks, and I thank God that many Christians are inspired when they listen to CCM. But we can do better. And thankfully, we often do.

[While this should go without saying, I’m obviously just sharing my opinion here. Please feel free to happily disagree. And if you want to learn more, I’ve written a ton about these concepts here.]

We want God to do the spectacular through us and around us. Of course we do. I can remember times when I’ve read Acts and then prayed that God would shake our little prayer meeting room, just as he shook the room the disciples were praying in.

We read about the miraculous things that God is capable of, that he’s unleashed on the world before: fire from heaven, healing, literal resurrection, stopping the sun, parting the seas, etc. etc. etc. God has done such amazing things! It’s natural to read about these things and then long for God to do these same things in our lives today.

God is still capable of these things. Why not now? Why not in our lives?

Charlton Heston Parting the Seas

It’s not wrong for us to long for God to do the miraculous. But we do miss something important when we expect God to work in spectacular ways. Here’s why.

Everything God does is miraculous. Everything he does is filled with love, is saturated in power, runs counter to our natural way of thinking, undermines the evil that stains this world, brings life out of death, shapes us in ways we could never expect or even hope for. This is as true of the fire he sent from heaven to ignite Elijah’s altar as it is of the wife who somehow finds the strength to respond patiently to a difficult husband. It’s all miraculous. It’s all grace.

Missiologist Paul Pierson says it well:

“If we constantly want God to do something spectacular, we have to ask why. While we remain open to the spectacular and the extraordinary work of God, we must not forget that the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, etc. We are called to embody those in our lives and in the life of the Church. In these days, love, joy, and peace may be the greatest miracles of all!” (The Dynamics of Christian Mission, 235).

When we are expecting the spectacular, we are setting the terms in our interaction with God. “God, I want you to act, and I want you to act like this…”

I do think it’s amazing that God once parted the sea for Moses. But that wasn’t common, even in Bible times. And when we consider that the biblical storyline covers thousands of years, the huge miraculous events recorded in the Bible are not as “common” as we might assume as we read it.

Again, this is not to say that God doesn’t act miraculously now. It’s simply a corrective to our assumptions, our expectations. We ought to be crying out to God when we’re in need. But we also ought to allow God to respond as he chooses.

Your situation may seem huge and impossible, and you may be inclined to believe that the only way God could solve your problem is by doing something spectacular and showy. But perhaps God has a better way. What if God answered your prayer by “subtly” changing your heart, rather than “spectacularly” changing your circumstances? Both are equally miraculous—surely it takes as much divine power to change a human heart as to calm a raging sea.

I’ve written quite a bit about the arts, how they interact with our faith as Christians, and how they ought to be incorporated into the lives of our churches (see here, or here, or here). In my experience, Christians are becoming increasingly open to the value of the arts, but they don’t know where to start in learning more about what art is, how it functions, and how it might be incorporated into our lives and churches. If that’s you, I’ve got a great suggestion for you.

Silo Bible Teaching for Normal PeopleWe’ve recently created two Silo courses on the arts: Art & the Bible and Engaging the Arts. The beauty of a Silo course is that the whole thing is broken up into five minute videos. This means it fits your schedule, no matter what your schedule looks like. You can work through the material in a relatively short amount of time, or you can fit the material into the gaps in your schedule, however small and infrequent these may be.

The first course, Art & the Bible, lays the foundation for a Christian understanding of the arts. The course answers questions like: What does the Bible say about art? What does it mean for a Christian to interact with art? What is Christian art? The course contends that art is a gift from God that we must pursue with joy and discernment. The second course, Engaging the Arts, builds upon the Art & the Bible course by taking on a more practical feel and addressing issues of what it means for a Christian to create art that glorifies God and communicates with the surrounding culture, how art can be an avenue for our mission as Christians, and how art can deepen our churches.

From now until the end of 2015, you can take either or both courses for 40% off. That means that either class is $15 as an individual or $12 each if you take it as a group. Just use the coupon code thearts when you pay for the course. 

I’ve embedded the first two sessions of each course below, along with the outline of each course. Our prayer is that these courses will help you grow in your love for God and his gifts, and that they will provide a catalyst for you to incorporate the arts into your life, your church, and your mission.


 

Art & the Bible Sign Up Button

 

Session 1: Reclaiming Art as a Gift from God

Art & the Bible: Reclaiming Art as a Gift of God from The Silo Project on Vimeo.

 

Session 2: Art Is Deeply Humanizing

Art & the Bible: Art Is Humanizing from The Silo Project on Vimeo.

 

Session 3: What Is Art?

Session 4: Art & Creation

Session 5: Art in the Bible

Session 6: Romans 1 & a Theology of Art & Culture

Session 7: Truth & Suppression

Session 8: What Makes Art Christian? Part 1

Session 9: What Makes Art Christian? Part 2

Session 10: How Art Embodies Worldview

Session 11: Is Culture a Cesspool or a Playground?

Session 12: Developing a Christian Posture Toward Art

>> Sign up for Art & the Bible now, or start with a Free Trial.


 

Session 1: What Does the Bible Say about Art?

Engaging the Arts: What Does the Bible Say About Art from The Silo Project on Vimeo.

 

Session 2: How Art Communicates, Part 1

Engaging the Arts: How Art Communicates, Part 1 from The Silo Project on Vimeo.

 

Session 3: How Art Communicates, Part 2

Session 4: The Dark Side of Art, Part 1

Session 5: The Dark Side of Art, Part 2

Session 6: Creating Art, Part 1

Session 7: Creating Art, Part 2

Session 8: Bad Art, Part 1

Session 9: Bad Art, Part 2

Session 10: Art & Mission, Part 1

Session 11: Art & Mission, Part 2

Session 12: Art & the Church, Part 1

Session 13: Art & the Church, Part 2

>> Sign up for Engaging the Arts now, or start with a Free Trial.

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