Archives For Resonate

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.]

Resonate Mark BeuvingI’ve already said plenty about Resonate (here, here, here, and here) but Zondervan has provided us with 5 copies to give away, so here we go! For a chance to win a free copy of the book, enter your email address at the bottom of the page. [Sorry folks, the contest is now over, but you can still find the book here.]

If you’re unfamiliar with the book, or if you just can’t get enough promotional material for it, I’ll just say a few things about why I wrote the book, and why I think it might be important for you to read.

Music is everywhere. Everyone experiences music often in a variety of capacities and settings. Since it’s such a familiar part of your everyday experience, it may seem like a waste of time to think about it more deeply. But that’s exactly why I wrote Resonate. Music is everywhere. We do interact with it every day in a variety of capacities and settings. And for that very reason, we ought to think more deeply about it.

First, there’s the dangerous side. Music is powerful stuff; it can affect us in ways we haven’t begun to understand. And much of the music our there can be harmful to your soul. So if you’re hearing this music—at work, in movies, on the radio, at the coffee shop, in the mall, in the car, in commercials—and you’re not thinking about what this music is saying, what it’s doing, and how it might be affecting you, then you’re crazy. Music is one of the most powerfully mysterious phenomena in this powerfully mysterious world. Passively listening to whatever sounds good or happens to be in the atmosphere is a dangerous game.

But then there’s the beautiful side. Music is powerful stuff; it can affect us in ways we haven’t begun to understand. We all know what it’s like to be deeply moved by a song in a way that goes beyond logic. We have all been moved to dance or tap our feet or sing aloud purely because the right song started playing. We have all (or is this just crybaby me?) cried as a song perfectly expressed some longing or fear or disappointment that we haven’t been able to express ourselves—whether the song expressed this lyrically or through a combination of sounds and silences.

HeadphonesMusic is God’s gift to us, and he intends for us to enjoy it to the fullest. For that reason, we would all do well to take some time to think more deeply about it. Where does music’s power come from? Why do we like it so much? The reality is, we know of no society that has ever gone without some form of music. Why is that? We know of societies without alphabets or currency—what makes music so universal?

I can’t promise that Resonate will satisfy all of your curiosity about music. But I wrote the book because I want to push people deeper into the mystery. I want people to acknowledge how miraculously beautiful music is, how amazing it is that God has given us instruments and ears and creative gifts and creative inclinations. I want people to look beyond lame distinctions like sacred/secular or pop/indie/classical and simply enjoy the gift of music with discernment, awe, and appetite.

So if you want to give it a shot, enter your email address below. If you’re one of the lucky winners, your life will be changed (because you will own a book you didn’t own before).

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If you’ve just stumbled across this page, you’re too late! Which means that five lucky people now have an additional book to read. But don’t worry, if you still want to read Resonate, you can find it here.

How Music Works

Mark Beuving —  April 29, 2014 — 1 Comment

Resonate Mark BeuvingToday Resonate releases. If you’ve missed my almost subtle promotion of the book this month, the book is entitled Resonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music, and it’s essentially a theological look at and a appreciative exploration of music: what it is, what it does, how it works, what the Bible says about it, etc.

In my experience, just about everyone appreciates music. I know a few who don’t seem to care, but almost everyone knows that music is truly amazing. Why? What makes music so special? How is it that music can sometimes lift our spirits, speak more deeply than a sermon, heal more profoundly than medication, and comfort us in some of life’s most difficult moments? (As an example of that last point, have you ever been to a funeral that hasn’t involved music? I haven’t.)

One of the most remarkable aspects of music is its ability to surprise us with the ordinary. Truly, all music is about being human. All songs are about some aspect of the human experience. Music is a means by which people in all cultures throughout all time (we have yet to find an example to the contrary) have wrestled with what it means to live in this world. By its nature, music takes the ordinary stuff of life and presents it to us in a way that makes it look different so that we can think about and experience it in fresh ways.

This is actually a characteristic of all art. Madeleine L’Engle says,

“Perhaps art is seeing the obvious in such a new light that the old becomes new.”

J. R. R. Tolkien said,

“We need…to clean our windows so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity.”

By artistically crafting her reflections on life in this world, a musician shows us the world we’ve always known as we’ve never known it. By embedding these thoughts into carefully crafted poetry and mixing that poetry with complex sounds, the musician speaks beneath the surface of our lives. Music enters through our senses and cuts into our souls.

As a simple example, I love these lines from Death Cab for Cutie’s song “You Can Do Better than Me”:

“I’ve been slipping through the years
My old clothes don’t fit like they once did
So they hang like ghosts of the people I’ve been”

Death Cab 1I’ve always appreciated Death Cab’s ability to turn a phrase that captures something that I take for granted in such a way that I see how significant it truly is. The clothes you don’t wear anymore do stand (or hang) as reminders of where you’ve been, what you’ve done, what you’ve been like. They are a visual representation of growing up and growing old. For the Christian, a closet can be a reminder of God’s faithfulness through the years. When I first heard this song, Death Cab surprised me by reminding me of something that is happening literally every second of my life: I am growing and changing. This what good music does for us.

Music works by indirection. Rather than giving us a bald statement like, “Feel love,” music miraculously conveys love in tones, sonic textures, chord structure, melodies, lead lines, dissonance, resolution, and poetry. It’s impossible to explain precisely how this works, yet we all know what it’s like to feel love as we listen to music. I’ve felt it through the songs of Norah Jones, Sufjan Stevens, MxPx, Switchfoot, and the Beatles. A love song says less than an essay on the subject of love, but conveys more through poetic phrasing and carefully managed tones and melodies.

One thing we can’t forget as we talk about the power and mystery of music is that this gift comes from God. This unbelievable gift, deeply treasured and skillfully exploited by everyone from Bach to Beck, was thought up, engineered, and made into reality by the Creator. It’s his gift to us. He gave us the capacity to hear music, to enjoy it, to find meaning in it, and he gave us a green light to explore this gift to its fullest potential. All of iTunes is evidence that we have taken God’s gift seriously, and it speaks to the diverse and wonderful nature of this gift.

Music speaks to us because God designed it to. I have spent my life enjoying this gift and contemplating its ability to enrich and challenge, to deepen and soar. Lord willing, I will finish my life with a much greater understanding of and appreciation for this gift, but no closer to a clear explanation for how music does what it does. And I will glorify God because of it.

If you enjoy thinking deeply about this kind of thing, and if you want to grow in your appreciation for music (asking what the Bible says about it, how a Christian can enjoy religious and secular music with discernment, how music ties in with the life and mission of the church, etc.), then I invite you to read Resonate.

Music is unquestionably a gift from God. He didn’t have to create us with the ability to hear, much less to hear sounds so exquisite that we’re moved to tears. And yet he created the complex physics of sound and enabled our brains to interpret all of the beauty that eardrum vibrations can convey.

Christians, who should be the most attuned to God’s gifts, often find ways to limit our exposure to the depth and potency of music. For example, we like to limit our enjoyment of music to a specific subgenre we call “Christian music.” I’ve written on this before, and I also discuss it in Resonate (so, you know, you should probably buy a copy for everyone you’ve ever met…). My goal is not to degrade the music coming out of the Christian Music Industry, but to call us to engage with the wonder of God’s gift beyond this small marketing demographic.

Arcade FireIn this post, I’ll explore one brilliant piece of music that those who remain within the confines of the Christian Music Industry will never experience: the song “Afterlife” by Arcade Fire. (I wrote about Arcade Fire a bit in Resonate, but this song released after the manuscript was submitted, and I’ve fallen in love with it.)

Though Arcade Fire is not a “Christian band” by any definition I’ve heard, they frequently explore religious themes. In fact, they even purchased an abandoned church for rehearsals and recording and to give themselves access to an ultra-churchy pipe organ. So I wasn’t a bit surprised when their latest album, Reflektor, spoke of searching for the “Resurrector,” exposed the harmful effects of pornography, and meandered through other religious concepts. But I was surprised at the hopeful wrestling of “Afterlife.”

The song begins with a start: “Afterlife. Oh my God, what an awful word.” As Christians, we long for the afterlife. But Arcade Fire made me think here. After. Life. That is pretty crazy. The hope we have for the future comes after life. As the song puts it,

“After all the breath and the dirt and the fires are burnt…
After all this time, after all the ambulances go
After all the hangers-on are done hanging on
In the dead lights of the afterglow”

It reminds me of how odd our hope for the future must sound, of how odd it truly is that Paul would tell us not to “mourn as those who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).

The song also asks, “When love is gone, where does it go?” What a question! When we lose someone we truly and deeply and actively love, what becomes of that love? This question is followed by the related question, “Where do we go?” This has got me thinking so much about the ache of love in the absence of a loved one. It raises the question typically asked only at funerals, and then only briefly. And the question of where love goes leads me straight to this profound passage in the New Testament:

“Love never ends…So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:8, 13)

Arcade Fire 2The song never answers the question, but it does not shy away. The repeated refrain is:

“Can we work it out?
Scream and shout till we work it out.”

That’s as good a summary of the human experience as I’ve heard. We’re asking where we go, and our lives are a series of screams and shouts directed toward finding the meaning to our existence, the meaning that we know exists but remains just beyond our grasp. As the Preacher said,

“I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14)

Best of all, the music is incredible. Mysterious, hopeful, inspiring, exultant, beautiful. Hardcore music asks some of the same questions, but something about the way Arcade Fire explores the issue in the actual music, not just in the lyrics, strikes me as compassionate, honest, and full of longing.

It’s not that Arcade Fire is teaching me about the afterlife. It’s not that I’m ready to add their song to the end of my Bible, or even my theology books. But their creative approach to these concepts has pushed me to think and feel my way through these all-important issues with a greater sensitivity and some fresh thoughts. And I’m deeply indebted to them for it.

So to those who would appreciate God’s gift in its fullness I say: Enjoy every ounce of musical beauty that Chris Tomlin conveys in his music, but don’t turn up your nose at Arcade Fire. The gift of music is being joyfully explored in many “secular” places.

This entry is part 20 of 22 in the seriesBook of the Month

This great quote is attributed to Elvis Costello: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Indeed.

That’s one of art’s greatest characteristics. It defies description. It resists paraphrase. So when it comes to writing about something as complex, subtly nuanced, and experience-driven as music, you may as well be using a waltz to explain the Eifel Tower. But that doesn’t stop us from trying.

Resonate Mark BeuvingAt the end of this month, I’m releasing a book through Zondervan entitled Resonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music. It’s essentially a music lover’s approach to the topic. I have always loved music. Always. I still remember the time my dad came home with a new boom box and a cassette tape of the Beach Boys’ Surfer Girl album. Music has been a constant part of my life since that moment.

And that’s exactly where the description-defying nature of music comes in to play. I can’t tell you exactly what music has done for me. Inspired me? Deepened my emotional life? Helped me to contemplate key aspects of human existence? Enlarged my being (to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis)? Yes. All of those. But what do these grandiose claims mean precisely? As an educator, a book lover, and a writer, I spend a lot of time around intellectual types who would rather be reading commentaries than listening to Radiohead. That type of person gets suspicious when you talk about an “enlargement of being” in connection with melodies and tones. Yet I am convinced that all of us need to embrace the gift of music more deeply.

In my experience, we tend to take music for granted. It’s everywhere. Many of us pursue it eagerly, but even those who don’t care much about music are exposed to it constantly. The trouble is, we rarely think about the music we hear. Is music actually good for us? How so? Can it be harmful to our souls? If so, how? And how do we guard against the harmful affect? What kind of music should we be listening to? Is it okay for a serious Christian to listen to “secular music”? Should we be primarily focused on “Christian music”? And what does “Christian music” mean, anyway?

These are all questions that I’ve had throughout my music-loving life. I haven’t always had good answers to those types of questions. To be honest, I went through many years without even considering them. And yet music has always remained with me—affecting me in ways I didn’t understand, attracting me in ways I can’t articulate, even leading me into worship in the oddest of situations (a concept that I was not entirely comfortable with).

So while writing about something as mysterious as music is inherently difficult, I felt compelled to explore this gift from God. Anytime we find one of God’s gifts going unappreciated, or we find the gift being used but the Giver going unacknowledged, we need to think more deeply. If you’ve never felt awe at how unbelievable the gift of music is—if that gift has never left you in awe of the Giver—then you need to think more deeply about music.

That’s what I hope to offer readers through Resonate: the opportunity to think more deeply about music. In the first half, I explore a theology of music. What does the Bible say about it? How do we explain the universal fascination with music (there has never been a culture that has gone without music)? How should we as God’s image bearers relate to music? How should we think about the distinction between secular and Christian music? Then in the second half, I explore ways that we dive in and interact with music. How should we listen to it? How should we create it? How should we share it? How does music relate the worship and mission of the church?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll keep posting about music here and there. That’s partly to promote the book (what’s the point in writing it if no one reads it, right?). But I also genuinely care about music, and I sincerely want you to see the beauty, brilliance, and mystery of music as you’ve never seen it before. And my prayer is that you would see the beauty, brilliance, and mystery of God as your grow in your enjoyment of his gift of music.

If you’re so inclined, you can pre-order it here:

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