Archives For Flannery O’Connor

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.

One Verse Hollywood Believes

Mark Beuving —  February 17, 2014 — 2 Comments

Hollywood isn’t known for its adherence to biblical truth. But in some cases, Hollywood returns repeatedly to biblical truths. As with all humanity, Hollywood can’t seem to fully move beyond Jesus, as though Jesus were a “thorn in the brain” (to borrow a phrase from Christian Wiman), a “haunting figure” (to adapt a phrase from Flannery O’Connor), or a “rock in the shoe” (from my colleague, Ryan McGladdery).

In this post, I want to highlight one verse that Hollywood believes in. A truth that Hollywood considers profound and returns to time and again:

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

As soon as I say that, I’m sure you can think of plenty of movies that feature self-sacrificing love, where a character lays down his or her life for a friend. Let me give you a brief sampling here, and then invite you to post other good Hollywood illustrations of this verse in the comments. And, by the way, spoiler alert: Don’t read any of the descriptions you don’t want to read (I shouldn’t have to say that, but someone always complains…).

 

The Lord of the Rings & The Chronicles of Narnia

I’m lumping these two together and treating them briefly because they are both adaptations from stories written by Christians. But they’re also great examples. Self-sacrifice runs throughout Lord of the Rings as Frodo and his companions risk their lives for one another and to save the world. And then Gandalf sacrifices himself so the “fellowship” can continue (and later returns—reborn—as Gandalf the White). And Aslan’s self-sacrificial death to save Edmond is so clearly Christian that I need not explain it here. But the success of these movies shows how powerful our modern culture finds such stories.

 

Harry Potter

I have written on this before, so I’ll direct you to those two posts for details (here and here). But Harry’s parents die so he can live, Harry and his friends sacrifice for one another for seven years, and finally, Harry willingly lays down his life to save everyone he cares about.

 

The Hunger Games

In the first film, Katniss willing chooses certain death in the arena when she volunteers as a substitute for her sister, Prim. In the second film, some of the other tributes throw themselves in death’s path to save Katniss. Depending on how faithfully the third film follows the book, we may see more of this later. (I’ve written more on this here, here, here, and here).

 

The Little Mermaid

I’ve written on why The Little Mermaid can be taken as absolutely horrifying or as powerfully edifying (here). But in either case, we see King Triton willingly becoming a pathetic piece of seaweed in order to take his daughter’s place and allow her to live. And Ariel and Prince Eric in turn risk their lives for one another and the good of the world.

 

Wreck-It Ralph

In this animated gem of a film, Ralph finds himself in a place where the little kid (Vanelope) for whom he has developed a big-brotherly love is going to be destroyed, along with every other character in the arcade. As King Candy (aka Turbo) holds him high in the air and tells him that it’s “game over for both of you,” Ralph says, “No, just for me,” and throws himself strategically to his death in a boiling geyser of Diet Coke and Mentos so that Vanelope and the others can be saved. Vanelope sees his sacrifice and risks her life to save him as well.

 

Gran Torino

The impossibly curmudgeonly Walt (Clint Eastwood) eventually learns to love his neighbors, and eventually gives his life for their good (see Preston’s take on it here).

 

Frozen

After the newly crowned Elsa flees into the mountains out of fear and confusion, leaving her kingdom in a perilously “frozen” state, her little sister Anna risks her life to help her sister. She is persistent in her life-risking because of her love for Elsa, and eventually she forfeits her last hope at life so that she can save her sister. It’s seriously beautiful. (You can read more here).

 

Titanic

After the horrifying events surrounding the Titanic unfold (spoiler alert: the ship crashes and sinks), Jack selflessly places Rose aboard a floating piece of debris and stays in the icy water, where he quickly freezes to death. A self-sacrificing act if there ever was one, but as many have pointed out, there was clearly room for two people aboard that piece of debris…

 

Conclusion

There are so many other examples we could look at. These are merely the first nine that came to my mind. But the point is, Hollywood seems enamored with the idea that love has no greater expression than the laying down of one’s life for the sake of another.

What does it all mean? Well, it certainly shows that non-Christians often say things that are true, profound, edifying, etc. It also illustrates that what we have in the gospel is the most compelling story in history. Perhaps the phrase “the greatest story ever told” has become cliché, but the host of Hollywood films (and keep in mind that we haven’t said anything about the world of literature or music here) focusing on this one biblical concept shows that this old cliché is far from tired.

 

Last week I did a series of posts on Jesus and his church as the Light of the World. Today I want to add one final related thought.

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor was a brilliant fiction writer. She was also Catholic and deeply committed to Scripture. Though her fiction is often dark and disturbing, she insisted that it flowed out of her belief in Christian truth. How did she explain this? By appealing to Jesus as the light of the world. As a fiction writer, she said,

“Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.”

This line of thinking is so profound for thinking through the kind of art we make as Christians. But I also believe that it extends much farther than that. If Jesus is the light of the world, then he illuminates everything we see. We simply cannot see anything without him. The objects around you are not the light, but you cannot see them apart from the light.

Sometimes as Christians we get that idea that we must only be looking at Jesus, as though our books must be Christian, our music and movies must be Christian, our clothing must be Christian, our jobs and our cars and our friends must be Christian. But the reality that Jesus is the light of the world gives us another way to view the world. It’s not that everything we view will have the face of Jesus painted onto it, but everything we see will be seen in the light of Jesus.

Light Bulb 3If you’re a Christian plumber, for example, your job is not necessarily to install Christian pipeworks, adding as many cross-shaped pipe junctions as you can, thinking that this is what it means to be a Christian plumber. If you’re a Christian police officer, your Christianity does not mean that you will sneak in the Apostles’ Creed every time you read a criminal his rights. If you’re a Christian salesman, your Christianity will not mean swapping out the items your customers order with a New Testament, saying “They don’t really know what they want, this will do them eternal good.”

This is not what it means to bear witness to the light of the world. Jesus is the light of the world, so everything we see will be painted in his light. Jesus doesn’t want us engaged in “religious” activities every moment of every day.

He wants the plumbers among us to see their plumbing in light of who he is. So they will be hardworking, fair, gracious, and they will honor God with their work. Our Christian policeman will see God’s image stamped on every victim and every criminal they encounter. They will uphold God’s justice, and also love his mercy. Our Christian salespeople will see their wares and their customers in light of Jesus. They will temper their healthy desire for profit with the best interests of their customers, considering the ways that grace, truth, and the biblical definition of the good life affects their product, their approach to sales, and the way they treat their customers.

Jesus is the light of the world. He’s more than a message we proclaim. He also provides the illumination through which we view every aspect of our existence. As Christians, we should encounter nothing that we do not view in light of Jesus. As the light of the world, he is our interpretive grid for everything.

 

I’ve developed a weird sort of crush on Flannery O’Connor. If you’ve never read anything she’s written, I would highly recommend it. But be warned: you probably won’t enjoy it.

Her writing is not fun, nor is it entertaining in a lighthearted sense. Pretty much everything she wrote was dark. Her stories are filled with death, murder, doubt, blasphemy, and all sorts of debauchery and violence. This much shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. Much of what we read and watch contains all kinds of darkness. But here’s the kicker: Flannery O’Connor was a devout Catholic.

How can a person with a profoundly Christian worldview write stories that are dark, violent, and depressing?

For O’Connor, the use of exaggerated violence was actually an aid in getting people to see life for what it is, and to see themselves for who they are:

“We hear many complaints about the prevalence of violence in modern fiction, and it is always assumed that this violence is a bad thing and meant to be an end in itself. With the serious writer, violence is never an end in itself. It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially, and I believe these are times when writers are more interested in what we are essentially than in the tenor of our daily lives…the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him…” (Flannery O’Connor, Mystery & Manners, 113-114)

In other words, extreme situations force us to look beyond all of the decorum and comfortable habits that adorn our daily lives and see what we are at the core of our selves. As O’Connor says, the violence is not an end in itself, it is a means of cutting through the irrelevancies and showing us who we really are.

I have already written a fair amount about The Hunger Games, but it’s worth pointing out that this is one of the strong points of those stories. When faced with a violent and dehumanizing situation, we find out who these characters really are. Some of the “tributes” from districts 1 and 2 show their predatory nature, while Katniss, Peeta, and Rue find ways to uphold the dignity of humanity. Those commitments were there the whole time, but it took an extreme situation to draw them out.

As we read or watch this type of fiction, we see ourselves in the characters. Our books or tv screens become mirrors and we are forced to ask, What would I do in such a situation? It forces us to wrestle with that deepest part of ourselves that may not see the light of day in the course of our daily routines.

Of course, many people will pursue violence as an end in itself. But violence can be a good thing when it points beyond itself to reveal the “qualities least dispensable” in our souls, “those qualities which are all we will have to take into eternity with us.”