Archives For The Arts & Culture

In 2012 I began teaching a course called “Christianity & the Arts,” and in 2014 I published a book on the same subject but directed specifically toward music, entitled Resonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music. In the process of researching for both the class and the book, I ended up reading almost every book I could find on Christianity and the arts, and I decided to write a brief review on most of those books here. My hope is that anyone looking to find a good book on some subject related to Christianity and the arts can find the best resources more quickly after scanning the list. And as I read others, I’ll keep adding them here to try to keep the list updated. If you have any questions about any of the books, leave a comment and I’ll do my best to help you out.

 

Resonate Mark BeuvingResonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music by Mark Beuving (2014, 224 pages)

I’m listing my book first, not because I’m claiming it’s the best, but because it’s the only one on the list I’ve written. I do think, however, that it’s worth your time. My approach was to first highlight the significance of music, then to explore the biblical and theological basis for listening to music. I addressed questions of why music is so meaningful, what it means for music to be “Christian,” what kinds of music Christians should listen to (spoiler alert: it’s all kinds, but we must be discerning), how music works, the missional opportunities that music offers, and just a bit on music and worship. This is not a book about “Christian music” or about “worship music,” though I do discuss both concepts a bit. If you like music and want to dive deeper into this world, this is the best book you could read on the subject, in my hugely biased opinion. For more on this book, click here.

 

ImagineImagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts by Steve Turner (2001, 131 pages)

This is my favorite book on the arts overall. Steve Turner is a music journalist, which means that (1) his examples tend to come more from the world of music and (2) he is an excellent writer. Imagine addresses most (perhaps all?) of the pertinent issues related to what art is, what it means for art to be Christian (or not), what it looks like for a Christian to create art, how we can benefit from all types of art (whether created by a Christian or not), etc. His writing style is compelling and he is consistently insightful on this topic. If you’re going to read one book on Christianity and the arts in general, this is where you should start.

 

The Liberated ImaginationThe Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts by Leland Ryken (2005, 284 pages)

This is the most thorough book on arts in general that I’ve found. As I began researching how Christianity should relate to art, I found Ryken’s book addressed every major question I had. As always, Ryken is insightful, compelling, and graceful in his writing. He addresses what art is, how it works, why and how we are affected by it, how we might define “Christian art,” what it means to be a Christian artist, how Christians can be inspired, challenged, and aided by non-Christian artists, and a variety of other important topics. As a professor of literature, the majority of Ryken’s examples come from literature, but he also delves into painting and other art forms. I find this book just as helpful as Imagine (even a bit more so), and the only reason I recommend Imagine over Ryken’s book in some contexts is that Imagine is a bit more concise. If you want to be a bit more thorough, this book is the one you should read.

 

Culture CareCulture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life by Makoto Fujimura (2015, 124 pages)

This is an important book. Many books focus on understanding the arts or engaging the arts, but Fujimura’s book focuses on caring for the arts and culture around us. Fujimura is a phenomenal and widely respected artist, and he challenges us to see culture and art, not as a battleground to fight over, but as a rich field to be cultivated. This takes us several steps beyond the critical approach and launches us into the world of actively and lovingly participating in the culture being produced around us. I believe this is an essential concept, and anyone interested in how Christians should think about and engage with the arts needs to read this book. For more on this book, click here.

 

On Becoming GenerativeOn Becoming Generative: An Introduction to Culture Care by Makoto Fujimura (2013, 25 pages)

This tiny and inexpensive book was launched by Fujimura in advance of his Culture Care book to introduce the topic. This book is simply the first two chapters of the longer Culture Care.

 

Art and the BibleArt & the Bible by Francis Schaeffer (1973, 95 pages)

This is the book that began my own fascination with the arts. Schaeffer’s insightful approach to Christianity and its relation to the surrounding culture is on display here, as in all of his books. The book is short, but Schaeffer does a masterful job of helping the reader understand what the Bible says about art and to delight in art in the same way that God does. At the same time, Schaeffer offers helpful instructions for being discerning in our approach to art, and aids Christian artists in thinking through their task. I would recommend this book to anyone, but especially those who sense the arts are significant for Christians, but haven’t put their finger on precisely why this is so.

 

Meaning at the MoviesMeaning at the Movies: Becoming a Discerning Viewer by Grant Horner (2010, 224 pages)

This is the best book I’ve read on the intersection of faith and film. The first chapter, which gives a biblical and theological explanation of art and culture, is worth more than the price of the book on its own. Horner uses Romans 1 to explain that all human production is characterized by both a knowledge of God and his truth and also the suppression of that knowledge. For this reason, Horner argues, we must be discerning when we watch movies. We can enjoy them and learn much from them, even when the film has been crafted by a non-Christian. But we also need to be discerning (even when the film has been crafted by a Christian). Horner’s book is well written and his arguments are persuasive. The last half of the book features an insightful look at a handful of important film genres, and in each case Horner gives a wonderful discussion of the genre itself, along with a theological look at why we find that particular genre appealing. This book should be required reading for anyone interested in faith and film, and I would recommend it to anyone wanting to understand the arts in general. For more on this book, click here.

 

Mystery and MannersMystery & Manners: Occasional Prose by Flannery O’Connor (1969, 256 pages)

This is one of the most influential books on art that I have read. It has shaped many aspects of my thinking on the arts. The book is a collection of fiction writer Flannery O’Connor’s letters and speeches, published posthumously. There is a fair amount of overlap from essay to essay, but even the repetition is rewarding. She specifically addresses issues of how a person’s faith should affect their art (fiction writing is her focus), and she refuses to validate the view that “Christian art” must focus on Christian subject matter or exposit Christian doctrine. Her craft is more subtle and profound, and she explains how she sees grace operating in even some of her darkest stories. Some readers may be frustrated by wading through a variety of speeches and letters delivered on a variety of occasions, but I would highly recommend this book to anyone.

 

The Theater of God’s Glory: Calvin, Creation, & the Liturgical Arts by David Taylor (2017, 194 pages)

Taylor’s approach to this subject is unique because it is narrow: he takes John Calvin as a dialogue partner in order to build a theological foundation for the liturgical arts in the church. That narrow focus means that this is not the only book you’ll want to read on the arts (and not necessarily the first), but it is a great thought-provoking volume for those who want to think through the role of God’s physical creation (e.g., musical instruments, embodied liturgical practices) in the corporate worship of the church. In short, Taylor finds Calvin’s suspicion of the liturgical arts to be at odds with Calvin’s creational and Trinitarian theology. So Taylor explores what we’d find if we set aside Calvin’s suspicions and built a theology of the liturgical arts that was based upon Calvin’s creational theology. The results are insightful. If you read this little summary and think, “why would I care what Calvin says about anything?” then this book isn’t for you. But if you’re thinking through the role of the arts in corporate worship, there is great fuel for reflection here.

 

Art for God's SakeArt for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts by Philip Graham Ryken (2006, 64 pages)

This tiny book is an excellent place to get started in learning about how Christianity and the arts relate. Ryken is a wonderful writer, and this brief treatment of the subject is filled with wisdom and inspiration. The book is probably too short to seriously aid those who have already invested a lot of time into studying the topic, but those who are getting started will find this very helpful and accessible.

 

Walking on WaterWalking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art by Madeleine L’Engle (2001, 256 pages)

This book is a classic on the relationship between faith and art. L’Engle does an excellent job of helping the reader to feel the tension in defining art and in clarifying the role that faith plays in one’s art. She cuts through many of the lame definitions of “Christian art,” insisting that if a person is truly Christian, then their art will be Christian, no matter what the subject matter. She weaves through various proposals for the definition of art and gives helpful statements such as: “Perhaps art is seeing the obvious in a such a new light that the old becomes new.” Those wanting a straightforward answer to the question of how faith relates to art may be frustrated with L’Engle’s meandering approach. But she writes as an artist (L’Engle was a fiction writer), and her insights have done much to help my understanding of this subject.

 

The Crowd, the Critic, & the MuseThe Crowd, the Critic, & the Muse: A Book for Creators by Michael Gungor (2012, 230 pages)

This book by the popular Christian musician Michael Gungor is a wonderful read. Gungor is passionate, humorous, and insightful in his approach to the subject of how a person’s faith should affect their art. As a musician, the majority of Gungor’s examples are drawn from the world of music, but the implications are clear for every art form. The book includes several powerful quotes, as well as a very helpful discussion on the frustrations inherent in the “Christian Music Industry.” I would highly recommend this book for artist and every art lover. For more on this book, click here.

 

RefractionsRefractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, & Culture by Makoto Fujimura (2009, 176 pages)

This beautiful book consists of refined blog posts written by Fujimura on a number of topics related to faith, art, and culture. Because these chapters started as blogs, the tone is more reflective, which is perfect for a book on art. Readers wanting strong definitions on what art is and straightforward answers about how Christians should relate to art will be frustrated, but I found Refractions to be very helpful for my own understanding of art and culture. Fujimura is a talented and gracious writer, and the book includes photos of some of his artwork.

 

Echoes of EdenEchoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, & the Arts by Jerram Barrs (2013, 208 pages)

This book is excellent on the world of literature. Actually, Barrs’ book gives an excellent approach to the arts in general, but he focuses his examples and attention on literature. His basic argument is that all art (and literature in particular) carries “echoes of Eden.” This is basically a way of talking about the knowledge of God that is ingrained in us all (see Rom. 1:18-25), the “sense of eternity” that God has placed in our hearts (see Eccl. 3). We will find much to disagree with in the world of literature, but we also consistently find human beings (Christian or not) wrestling with God’s truth, God’s world, and what it means to be truly human. Barrs first lays out the theoretical argument of his book, then he tests this theory with several helpful examples, the best of which (in my opinion) is his chapter on Harry Potter (see my post about that chapter here).

 

For the Beauty of the ChurchFor the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts ed. by W. David O. Taylor (2010, 208 pages)

This book is a collection of chapters from various authors, all based on a conference on Christianity and the arts. It addresses all of the arts and focuses on how Christians (and more specifically, the church) should relate to the arts. As with any compilation, some chapters are better than others, but this is an excellent book overall. The bright spot for me is the first chapter by Andy Crouch, which I consider to be worth more than the price of the entire book. Other chapters cover helpful areas that many Christians will be wrestling with, such as the role of art in the church’s worship, why and how Christians can be patrons of the arts, and how art functions in relation to pastoral ministry.

 

The Mind of the MakerThe Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers (1987, 256 pages)

This book is excellent. Fiction writer Dorothy Sayers is sharp, and her writing is profound. Her arguments are tightly wound and throughout the book I found myself deeply resonating with Sayers’ insights. If every artist would heed Sayers’ wisdom here, the art produced by the church would be deeper and more powerful. As a fiction writer, Sayers primarily focuses on writing and draws her examples from that world. Her practical instruction for writing well is based in and intricately intertwined with Trinitarian theology. And this leads me to a caution: The Mind of the Maker is not for the casual arts tourist. Her arguments are profound, and sometimes tricky to follow. The reader must buckle up and hold on tightly. But any effort you put into understanding this important book will be well rewarded.

 

An Experiment in CriticismAn Experiment in Criticism by C. S. Lewis (1961, 152 pages)

As with everything C. S. Lewis has written, this book is powerful. It is not for the faint of heart, however, as Lewis’ skill as a litterateur and critic is in full effect, his arguments are tightly wound, and his examples are drawn from works of literature that most modern readers will not be familiar with. However, for those willing to invest the energy to follow Lewis’ argument, the book will prove rich. The book is on literature, and Lewis’ basic argument is that we should judge books not according to how they are written (a trend in literary criticism that Lewis found disturbing), but more about how they are read. Lewis proposes that what makes a book good or bad is the type of reading it invites. He begins by stating that he wants to define good literature as “that which permits, invites, or even compels good reading” and bad literature as “that which does the same for bad reading.” He is forced to conclude, however, that adding the word “compels” is only wishful thinking. Ultimately, “what damns a book is not the existence of bad readings but the absence of good ones.” The book is full of wisdom and many memorable (and transformational) quotes. Any serious about literature ought to read this book. For more on this book, click here.

 

Every Good EndeavorEvery Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work by Tim Keller (2012, 288 pages)

As with everything Tim Keller writes, this book is amazing. Actually, I think this is one of the most important books Tim Keller has written, and I believe it should be required reading for anyone in the work force and anyone pastoring people in the work force (i.e., everybody). Keller’s contention is that everything we do in life matters, and that even our most “secular” activities can be a means of God spreading his grace and provision throughout his earth. The book is not about art—it’s broader than that—but Keller gives a healthy amount of attention to the arts and any artist will find Keller’s insights helpful and inspiring. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing in life, I implore you to read this book for the sake of God’s kingdom.

 

Saving LeonardoSaving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, & Meaning by Nancy Pearcey (2010, 336 pages)

I found Saving Leonardo to be very helpful in understanding several types of art, and several aspects of art history in particular. Pearcey is a sharp writer, and (in the spirit of her teacher, Francis Schaeffer) she has done much to alert the evangelical world to the dangers of dividing the secular and the sacred. What I love most about this book is its careful discussions on why certain types of art emerged and why styles, themes, and transitions are significant. But I do have one caveat. As the subtitle suggests, Saving Leonardo is a bit defensive: it recognizes an onslaught of secularism, and Pearcey sees that onslaught clearly on many fronts. But I do sense that Pearcey is taking a slightly cynical stance in regards to many works of art, several of which are capable of a more congenial interpretation. I appreciate Pearcey’s concern to induce discernment, but at times one gets the feeling that Pearcey sees all art produced by non-Christians as a massive conspiracy to get Christians to renounce their faith. However, Pearcey ends the book by denying this accusation, and she rightly points out that art—even art made by non-Christians—can be God-glorifying and beneficial to Christians. With that caveat, I would heartily recommend this book.

 

It Was GoodIt Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God edited by Ned Bustard (2007, 355 pages)

It Was Good is a collection of essays from a lot of great people on a variety of issues surrounding faith and art. As with any compilation, some essays are better than others, but there is a lot of outstanding material here. Some chapters that stood out to me were those written by Tim Keller, Makoto Fujimura, Edward Knippers, Ned Bustard, and Karen Mulder. The collection of essays is impressive, and while some will find specific topics and writing styles more compelling than others, this book has a lot to offer anyone interested in learning more about art and how it relates to faith. If you’re looking for a systematic approach to the subject, however, you’ll want to look elsewhere. If you’ve already started down your journey in exploring Christianity and the arts, however, you’re sure to find this book helpful.

 

Resounding TruthResounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music by Jeremy Begbie (2007, 416 pages)

This is one of the first books I read on Christianity and the arts, and I found it very helpful. Jeremy Begbie explores the world of music and covers a lot of ground. He discusses the power of music and its important role in our daily lives. A large portion of the book is dedicated to the history of music and to the history of music theory. From the ancient Greeks to Luther, Calvin, Barth, and Bach, the book traces the prevailing theories regarding what music is and how it works. This includes both philosophy and theology. Begbie also discusses some intriguing facets of music that can aid us in the way we think about God (and the Trinity in particular). I would caution the average reader that this book is written at the scholarly level, which means that it’s well researched and carefully nuanced, but this will likely be a barrier for most readers.

 

Music, Modernity, and GodMusic, Modernity, & God: Essays in Listening by Jeremy Begbie (2014, 272 pages)

This is another scholarly work by Jeremy Begbie, and it offers a handful of essays that engage the modernist worldview, how it has affected our music, and how music might offer some paths leading beyond the stalemate that modernist philosophy and theology have left us with. Most readers will find this book overly scholarly (too nuanced, too sparse on explanations of philosophers and philosophical concepts, too lacking in passionate appeals), so I would only recommend this book to those deeply interested in both modernity and music. However, Begbie’s collection of essays here are insightful into the nature of music, and he offers some profound analogies from the world of music that can aid our thinking and discussions about several areas of theology and philosophy, not to mention music itself. For more on this book, see my review on Themelios.

 

Beholding the GloryBeholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts ed. by Jeremy Begbie (2000, 159 pages)

This is a compilation, edited by Jeremy Begbie, focusing on how the concept of Incarnation relates to the arts. First, the concept of incarnation (of God taking on flesh in Jesus) is explained and compared to the process of incarnating through the arts—taking a concept and then giving it “flesh” through paint, sound, words, etc. This is an essential concept for the arts, and for the Christian life in general, and Beholding the Glory does an excellent job of explaining its significance. Subsequent chapters explain how incarnation works in specific art forms: poetry, music, dance, sculpture, icons, etc. As with any compilation, some chapters are better than others, but I found this book helpful and insightful overall.

 

God in the GalleryGod in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art by Daniel Siedell (2008, 192 pages)

As the name suggests, Siedell’s focus is visual art in general, and modern art in particular. This is a helpful book for those who have trouble understanding modern art, and especially for those who wonder if there is any point in a Christian engaging modern art. Siedell is knowledgeable (he has worked as a curator) and gracious. This book is part of Baker’s Cultural Exegesis series, which means that it is more on the scholarly side. The average reader will struggle a bit, but I would still recommend this book for those wanting to understand modern art.

 

Visual FaithVisual Faith: Art, Theology, & Worship in Dialogue by William Dyrness (2001, 190 pages)

Dyrness focuses on visual art. The book offers a history of the visual arts, an exploration of what the Bible says about art, and an overview of the contemporary art scene. Dyrness’ book is in Baker’s Engaging Culture series, which means it is a scholarly work and therefore more heavily nuanced and technical than most readers will want. Nevertheless, the book would be very helpful for those hoping to understand the visual arts better, particularly in conjunction with a Christian worldview.

 

Reel SpiritualityReel Spirituality: Theology & Film in Dialogue by Robert Johnston (2006, 352 pages)

Johnston provides a helpful explanation of how film works and how our faith informs our experience with film. Johnston challenges Christians to go beyond the rating system to decide which movies are helpful and/or redemptive. One of Johnston’s key concerns is that many people today go to the theatre as a worshipful experience, as a sort of replacement for church and traditional spirituality. One of his key arguments is that we will often find God in the theatre. I would personally side more with Grant Horner’s contention that what we find in the theatre is humanity, but I would still affirm Johnston’s writing because human beings are made in God’s image, and God is reflected in the things we make, often in surprising ways. Once again, Reel Spirituality is in Baker’s Engaging Culture series, and the scholarly style will make this work more inaccessible to the average reader, but it is worth the time for those who want to learn more about a Christian approach to film and want to go deeper than Horner’s book (Meaning at the Movies).

 

Personal JesusPersonal Jesus: How Popular Music Shapes Our Souls by Clive Marsh & Vaughan Roberts (2013, 256 pages)

Marsh and Roberts examine pop music and the modern person’s listening habits in an attempt to discover how our experience with pop music shapes us. The subject matter is fascinating, and Marsh and Roberts incorporate theology, psychology, and a wonderful knowledge of pop music into their text. I will say, however, that I found this book to be a bit disappointing, mostly because the writing style was so technical and every point so carefully nuanced that I felt an absence of firm conviction (this book is also in Baker’s Engaging Culture series). The scholarly approach gives the book lasting value, and many writers will want to build on what the authors have put together here, but when an author is working so hard to avoid making assertions beyond what their research will allow, the book often becomes tedious. For me personally, the scholarly strength of the book made it fall flat, aside from a few wonderful insights that I took away. I hope other readers will disagree.

 

Outreach and the ArtistOutreach & the Artist: Sharing the Gospel with the Arts by Con Campbell (2013, 128 pages)

As the title of this book suggests, Campbell focuses on the arts as a means of sharing one’s faith. Campbell is a jazz musician, so many of his examples are about music in general, and jazz in particular. Outreach and the Artist provides a fairly robust vision for what it means to incorporate the arts into outreach. At times, I felt as though Campbell was recommending the bait and switch: throw a jazz concert, and once you’ve got people there for the fun event, hit them with the gospel. But in the end Campbell’s approach was much more robust, and he does address how art itself, communicating as art can be an outreach opportunity. The book is more specifically focused than most readers will want, but for those wanting to do outreach, this will be a helpful read.

 

Imagination RedeemedImagination Redeemed: Glorifying God with a Neglected Part of Your Mind by Gene Edward Veith, Jr. and Matthew Ristuccia (2014, 176 pages)

Imagination Redeemed is not primarily about art. As the title suggests, the book is about the imagination in general. Each chapter follows the same structure: Veith writes some on the importance of the imagination for life and art, then Ristuccia writes about some appeal to the imagination in the book of Ezekiel. In one sense, the book is broad because it addresses imagination for all of life, but the book is also oddly narrow in that most of the application focuses on the book of Ezekiel. It’s part encomium to imagination and part commentary on Ezekiel. The strength is that the sections on Ezekiel show how powerfully the Bible makes use of the imagination. The weakness is that those less interested in the background and text of Ezekiel will find the book difficult to finish. The book is full of insights on the imagination, however, and the sections on Ezekiel are also insightful.

 

How to Read SlowlyHow to Read Slowly by James Sire (2000, 192 pages)

This is not a book about art, it’s a book about reading well. But I’m including it here because Sire gives a significant amount of attention to reading poetry and fiction. The book as a whole is helpful and definitely worth reading, and those interested in fiction and poetry will find much help in reading, understanding, and enjoying these art forms. Sire is a great teacher, he uses many excellent examples, and he is always clear in explaining why it matters.

 

Lit!Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books by Tony Reinke (2011, 202 pages)

Reinke’s book is about reading—all types of reading, including literature. Overall, this book is very helpful. Reinke orients the reader to the challenges and possibilities of reading various genres and provides discussions about important topics such as whether or not a Christian can benefit from reading books written by non-Christians. My only concern with Lit! is that Reinke seems (to me) to view written words as inherently better (or more powerful, or more beneficial) than images, which he says are more ambiguous and more prone to corruption. I disagree with that sentiment, especially when it comes to thinking about art, and especially when considering the massively corrupting purposes to which language has been directed, but I suppose I shouldn’t fault a literary enthusiast for loving his own art form.

 

The Artisan SoulThe Artisan Soul: Crafting Your Life into a Work of Art by Erwin McManus (2014, 208 pages)

McManus writes as a pastor of a highly artist-saturated congregation. In other words, he knows what it means to be a shepherd to artists. The book includes helpful discussions on the nature of art, the importance of craftsmanship, and the importance of the imagination. While the book continually interacts with the world of art, the book is not about art, strictly speaking. McManus uses art as an analogy for life: you want your life to be a work of art. So while I would recommend this book, if you are looking for a book specifically on art or what it means to be an artist, I’d start elsewhere. If you enjoy art and want to be a better person, this would be a great book for you.

Music Is Medicine

Mark Beuving —  July 14, 2015 — 1 Comment

The title of this post is probably enough. We all know what it’s like to somehow feel better or consoled or validated or inspired after listening to a piece of music—as if by magic. And magic is not the worst term for it: much of music’s power comes from an indefinable quality ingrained in this mysterious art form by the Creator. Many have tried to explain why it is that music is so powerful. No one has succeeded.

In this post I won’t be trying to explain the “active ingredient” that makes music medicinal; I simply want to honor the power of this gift of God and commend it to you as an important part of a healthy lifestyle.

Flannery O’Connor, a legendary Catholic fiction writer, explains the art of fiction in a way that helps me understand what music is doing when it helps me feel better. “You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate,” she explains. In other words, when you have something to say that can’t be said, you turn to art—in O’Connor’s case this meant fiction writing. She says,

“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.”

A kind statement from a loving friend that “Everything’s going to be alright” is important. But there’s another dimension at work when we hear the Five Stairsteps sing “O-o-h child, things are gonna get easier; o-o-h child, things’ll get brighter.” The words mean what the words mean, but their poetic arrangement allows them to mean more, and the music itself is an added balm, another layer of significance and exploration and auditory compassion.

Headphones2

Wheaton literature professor Leland Ryken adds some helpful thoughts here:

“A rich confusion of awareness lies below the level of our consciousness. Artists reach into that confusion and give it an order. As we stand before a painting or listen to music or read a poem, we suddenly see our own experiences and insights projected onto the details of the work before us. Artists turn our pain into art so we can bear it. They turn our joys into art so we can prolong them.”

This thought was recently beautifully expressed by the band U2 in the song “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”: “We got…music so I can exaggerate my pain and give it a name.” Bono was apparently inspired when he heard the Ramones as a youth, and found in music something that spoke to him deeply, a reality that he expresses in the song:

Vinyl“Heard a song that made some sense out of the world
Everything I ever lost now has been returned
In the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard”

Bono has written about his early experiences with music, and speculates a bit on what was happening to him deep down when he listened to the musicians he loved:

“When I hear these singers, I am reconnected to a part of me I have no explanation for…my ‘soul’ I guess. Words and music did for me what solid, even rigorous, religious argument could never do, they introduced me to God, not belief in God, more an experiential sense of GOD. Over art, literature, reason, the way in to my spirit was a combination of words and music.”

The National acknowledges this type of connection when they sing (in “Don’t Swallow the Cap”):

“If you want to hear me cry, play ‘Let It Be’ [The Beatles] or ‘Nevermind’ [Nirvana].”

I’m not trying to be overly mystical about all of this. My point is ultimately very simple: music often “speaks” to us more deeply than words can go. We could take a “mystical” approach that views music as a type of impersonal magic. Some Christians feel threatened when they hear arguments about a “power” of music that supersedes logic. But we shouldn’t feel threatened by this. Instead, we should remember that God is the one who designed music. Music is his gift. That indefinable quality that makes music so powerful was implanted by God. Music has no power aside from what God has placed within this amazing art form. Rather than downplaying the power of music, we should acknowledge the power and beauty of God’s good gift.

I’ve always loved the introductory song on Wilco’s self-titled album, which introduces the whole album with: “This is an hour of arms open wide, a sonic shoulder for you to cry on. Wilco will love you, baby.” For me, Wilco is a great place to go when I need a sonic shoulder. You might choose to go somewhere else. But the point is, music is medicine because God has made it so. May we find comfort and hope and empowerment as we explore God’s gift, and may we sense the loving arms of the Creator as we experience the healing that often flows through this mysterious part of his creation.

For more on this and other related subjects, click here.

Small Theology

Mark Beuving —  May 7, 2015 — Leave a comment

The Beuving Family (Web) _0095I can remember looking forward to the day when I would have kids with whom I could have theological conversations. Not that this was the reason I wanted kids, I just thought it would be exciting to teach my heirs some amazing theology.

My daughters are now three and five years old. I have not begun reading them theology textbooks at bedtime, nor have they heard me speak the words “justification,” “pneumatology,” or “hypostatic union.” But we have certainly had plenty of theological conversations.

These conversations always arise unexpectedly. I don’t plan theology lessons for my girls; the theology invites itself into our regular conversations. Often, a character or plot development in a movie or TV show will lob me a doctrinal softball, and I’ll take a swing. (I’ll ask my girls questions like “Will Hiccup ever see his daddy again, even though he died?” or “Why do you think Rainbow Dash is so sad?” or “Who else do we know who died and came back to life again?”) Sometimes these turn into great conversations, sometimes they don’t. We never go very deep, but sometimes we have meaningful (if not complex) conversations about important theological truths.

We have talked about God’s constant provision and the importance of valuing God’s gifts when my daughters have complained about the dinner menu. We’ve talked about having compassion for the poor when both of my girls threw fits about the kind of sheets mommy put on their beds. We’ve had several chances to talk about human depravity and the importance of forgiveness when kids at church or at preschool have been mean.

My favorite theological conversations lately have come when we sing to our girls at bedtime. I’ve been singing part of Mumford and Sons’ “After the Storm”—the girls love it. I’ll sing, “There will come a time, you’ll see / with no more tears / and love will not break your heart / but dismiss your fears.” Then I’ll stop and ask them, “Did you know that someday we won’t cry or be sad anymore? Do you know when that will be?” It’s a perfect chance to talk about the return of Christ and the reality of heaven.

I also cycle through the verses to “This Is My Father’s World.” Every night I’ll sing a couple of verses, and every now and then we’ll talk about what the song means. Just last night my five year old asked me what it means that God “shines in all that’s fair.” So we talked about God’s omnipresence, his power in creation, and the goodness of God’s world. We did this without using any big terms, which was a great exercise for me.

As I looked ahead to the time I would talk theology with my kids, I also pictured them much older than preschool age. But I’ve been surprised at how often I get to talk theology with my girls. I shouldn’t be surprised—I know that theology is practical. I know that everything in this world relates to God. But somehow, I didn’t expect theology to be so readily applicable to so many of the things my daughters experience so early in life. For me, it has been a great reminder that everything is theological, and that God cares about—and is active in—every detail of our lives, no matter how small our lives may be.

Strange TrailsI get excited about music, but I have waited for few albums with as much anticipation as I waited for Lord Huron’s second full-length release. When I wrote Resonate, I included a section on Lord Huron’s first album, Lonesome Dreams. At the time, I had listened to that album over 100 times (according to my iTunes play count), and I wrote about the depth and complexity of the album. The album flows gracefully from one song to the next, themes recur and develop, the last song even mirrors the first both lyrically and instrumentally. I included Lonesome Dreams in the book because I see it as a powerful example of music’s potential to draw us in, to make us think, to stir our imaginations, to make us wonder and think and feel—even if we are not receiving propositional statements that tell us what to think and feel. I have now listened to Lonesome Dreams over 200 times, and my thoughts are the same.

So when Lord Huron’s follow up album, Strange Trails, released, I was excited, though a bit apprehensive that Lord Huron wouldn’t be able to create another album at that caliber. Thankfully, they delivered. Strange Trails sounds like a cousin to Lonesome Dreams: some definite similarities in style and themes, but not simply more-of-the-same.

One of the most surprising features of Strange Trails is the process that Lord Huron’s Ben Schneider used in creating the album. Strange Trails has an underlying cast of characters. Essentially, Schneider envisioned a greaser gang, and each song comes from the perspective of one of the characters in Schneider’s fictitious world. The album doesn’t offer a strict plotline, as in an opera, but one does sense an underlying story and movement throughout the album. In an 8-minute radio interview with NPR, Schneider describes several of the characters—including their names, physical appearance, and some back story—and explains how these characters contribute to the album.

Lord Huron

This is similar to Schneider’s method in crafting his first album, for which he created a fictional fiction writer (sort that out), who fictitiously wrote the Lonesome Dreams series of adventure novels, each of which shares a title with a song on Lord Huron’s Lonesome Dreams album. (“Naturally,” Schneider, who is a talented graphic artist as well, created a website for his fictitious fiction writer, George Ranger Johnson, where each novel in his series is featured.) Schneider also created a series of “episodes” as music videos for the songs on Lonesome Dreams. (He is doing something similar for the Strange Trails album.)

Admittedly, this is a quirky approach to songwriting. The listener certainly doesn’t need to know about the characters and their back stories to enjoy the album, but I will say that his approach gives his albums a depth that is often missing in music. The lyrics aren’t bald statements or shallow rhymes, they are as complex and intriguing as the characters “speaking” them. Musically, the album is multi-layered and varied. The songs flow well together (intentionally so), yet there is a range of emotion that highlights the variety of perspectives through which the album “speaks.”

The combined effect is enjoyable and inspiring music with unusual depth. I haven’t figured the album out yet; it continues to draw me in. There are lines that immediately speak to me (“I had all and then most of you / some and now none of you…I don’t know what I’m supposed to do / haunted by the ghost of you”), but lines like these are more suggestive than clearly defined, and they set my imagination to work. In my opinion, this is how an artist taps into the power of music. So much of music’s power is its ability to suggest, to stir, to move. Music is deeply mysterious, so songs that leave no space for mystery or subtlety or reflection betray their art form; they are more sermons lying atop instrumentation than actual songs.

Lord Huron 2

So what can Christian artists learn from Lord Huron? I don’t mean to suggest that everyone should adopt Ben Schneider’s approach to creating art. But I do think every Christian artist, regardless of their particular medium, would do well to learn from the depth of Schneider’s work. Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins recently criticized Christian musicians for simply imitating U2 for the last few decades. Corgan is obviously exaggerating, and he seems to be unaware of some recent trends in “Christian music,” but he is surely right to call Christians to greater originality in their art.

Many Christian artists are extraordinarily creative, and the world has benefited from the creativity of Christians throughout history. But we need to continually be inspired by the beautiful, reflective, mysteriously complex art of people like Ben Schneider. Christians, after all, believe that ultimate reality is the Creator—infinitely complex, deeply mysterious, worthy of never ending reflection and contemplation. And we believe that this Creator formed a world that is itself complex, mysterious, and full of meaning, along with a mini-creator capable of exploring the mystery and meaning that resides in all things. So in my opinion, Christians would do well to listen to the music of Lord Huron and be edified and inspired—not to imitate Schneider’s style or approach, but to create with the same pursuit of depth and meaning.

 

Social media is a huge blessing. I have not been shy about praising social media platforms like Facebook and Pinterest and also smartphones themselves, which are our primary portal to social media. Many aspects of social media provide us with the opportunity to be better friends, better citizens, better humans.

And yet social media is also a powerful tool for polarization. Social media has a unique ability to increase our arrogance, our self-certainty, and our blood pressure.

Why?

Why does social media make us angry and opinionated? And how can we use social media in a more healthy way?

The biggest problem with social media is also its greatest asset: brevity. We love social media because it gives us snapshots of information about our friends, our interests, and our world.

But while brevity (combined with connectivity) is social media’s greatest strength, it is also social media’s greatest danger. Our world is filled with important and complex issues. Human beings love to discuss everything from the nature of humanity to the President’s foreign policy to the true motivation of terrorist groups to the theological distinctives of celebrity pastors. These conversations need to happen. But these aren’t issues that we can sufficiently grasp in short conversations.

So why do we keep trying to have these discussions in 140 characters or less?

Social Media Distraction

The truth is, the media we use shapes the way we think. Neil Postman famously wrote on the changes in thought processes and social interactions with the advent of the television (in addition to the previous shift that came with Gutenberg’s printing press). While Postman could be a bit alarmist, he was certainly right to warn us of the danger that we might be “amusing ourselves to death.” In the spirit of Postman, author and Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin recently said, as he reflected on the new year:

“My greatest reservation of 2014 has to do with the sanctimony of social media. Partly, it’s the speed of digital, the incessant necessity to respond. But throughout the year, on a variety of issues, I kept noticing a lockstep consensus, in which to disagree, or to dissent, was to invite the backlash of the crowd. It’s hard to be nuanced in 140 characters, and yet the whole point of reading and writing is to engage.” (article here)

Brevity is a powerful tool for grabbing a person’s attention. It’s a wonderful way to surprise your audience, to catch them off guard, to pique their interest. That’s why headlines work so well: Grab the readers attention, then nuance your position. But with social media, the headline is the content. That’s about all the space you’ve got for content. So you can make a sharp political statement that will grab people’s attention. Some people will love it, because they already agree with you. Others will be furiously offended, because they already disagree with you. But no one is going to change their mind. No one will even be informed. They will simply read your potent statement and become further entrenched in their corner, whether that’s your corner or the opposite one.

As Ulin said, social media also carries a sense of urgency. You only have a few seconds to process all of the information on your feed, so you’ve got to form your opinions quickly. You have very little time to decide who was at fault in the most recent shooting, to evaluate how damning the President’s recent statement really was, to form your opinions on health care, or to determine whether the newest controversial movie is a must-see or a scheme from Satan. In the amount of time it takes you to scroll down your feed, you have to decide.

And that’s not a recipe for healthy opinions. That’s a recipe for an opinionated, arrogant, polarized society. Social media gives us access to limitless information, yet it does not make us informed citizens. Alissa Wilkinson, chief film critic for Christianity Today, recently wrote a great article entitled “In Praise of Slow Opinions.” She argues that everyone is in a rush to give the “hot take” on the latest film or issue. Readers want someone with a strong opinion right off the bat, and writers are eager to offer their “hot take” because it generates clicks. But we ought to be wary of quick opinions.

Life is complicated, and so are films, politics, social issues, and theology. Why are we so eager to get such strong and quickly-formed opinions on everything?

A major culprit is social media. Or more precisely, our misuse of social media. I still believe that social media is a huge blessing, for reasons I’ve already expressed. But when we jettison meaningful conversations in favor of sharp tweets, we’re begging for increased blood pressure and a more polarized society. Social media is a great way to connect and stay “in the loop,” but it’s no replacement for true dialogue. For that we still need books, blogs, articles, lectures, and good old-fashioned conversations—each of these means of communication possessing its own strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and dangers.