Archives For The Arts & Culture

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.

The Composer

Mark Beuving —  March 9, 2015 — Leave a comment

I have written a lot about music, both on this blog and in Resonate. And while I don’t want to always ride my own hobby horse, we can always stand to be re-awakened to amazing aspects of the world God made—like music. I recently came across this wonderful poem written by a friend of mine in my church, and I’m sharing it here.

Acoustic GuitarThe reason I want to share this poem is that it encapsulates in short, poetic thoughts so much of the wonder of music. In a short space, this poem explores many of music’s most powerful and enigmatic features: its physicality, its allure, its structure, its freedom and adaptability, its ability to suggest, its connection to the human experience and human emotions, its divine origin, etc. The poem does all of this while still preserving the inherent mystery of music.

So I’m posting the poem here (with the author’s permission) in hopes that you will reflect on the mysterious power of music and come to better appreciate the musical world you inhabit. We tend to take music for granted, in the sense that we fail to value it. But we should take music for granted, in the sense that we see it as a wonderful gift of God and make a continued effort to enjoy it for all it’s worth.

 

The Composer

© Jim O’Brien – January 2009

The overture lasted six days
After a measure of rest
He began to fill the staff
Of an unending composition
Infinite movements
Filled with keys and meters
Melodies and harmonies
Rhythms and timbres

A symphony of mystery
And anxious anticipation

A dissonant chord
Remains a constant reminder
And demands resolution

Modes change
Signatures modulate
As acts of engagement

There are no accidentals
Only “intentionals”

Grace notes

The music is miraculous
It transforms
It moves
It arouses

Overwhelming joy
Tears
Deepest despair
Tears
Amazement
Wonder
Freedom

Pondering…

How often does He sing the blues?
Does He cry when He hears Handel’s Messiah?
Do Gilbert and Sullivan make Him laugh?
What does He think of rap?

Finite styles from ethnic and regional identities
Different languages?
Who connects to all forms?
What is it that the Creator places in the heart
That makes the Russian and Italian
Express passion uniquely?

Why does a concerto enhance a sunset?
How is it that one style embellishes
And another distracts?

Who says that country or blue-grass
Only work when a mill and water-wheel are present?
A river absent a man’s intrusion
Wants a stringed quartet or piano and cello

Can a trombone paint a hummingbird?
Must the brush be a flute?

How is it possible that wind
Through branches and leaves
Can render an illusion of rain?

What comes to mind
With the sound of rolling timpani, crashing cymbals?
Is it the rhythm of the ocean?
Or a flash from a massive billowing anvil?

Man has been given a gift to create
Instruments that recreate
The sounds that He created
To what purpose?

We can guess
The composer knows
I think He wants us to know Him

I do have one question:
Why seven?
The frequency of eight is double that of one
Logical, simple, …divine?

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