Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Hip-Hop: The Components: Part One

In order to establish why I believe is a perfect genre for the to work in, I must first break down just what makes the genre what it is. I will start in this post by discussing the non-vocal aspects of hip-hop and their affect artistically.

The basis and beginning of hip-hop, and thus the best place for us to look when trying to judge its value, is sampling. This sampling began with Kool Herc in the mid 70’s when the DJ started looping the best parts of the songs when he would spin records. Out of this evolved an entire culture which was based, artistically, on the reclamation of the world around them. Originally, a DJ would sample a break beat (often a break in a song which would have only the drums playing) and an instrumental section of one or more songs. By layering these elements a new song was created. This is perhaps the most pure form of deconstructionalism in music as it literally involves the deconstruction of a song into a new piece of art which could be thematically opposed to the original piece and is, on some level at least, a reaction against those in power. I am not saying that the innovators of hip-hop consciously worked in the post-modernist philosophy; Kool Herc did not read Derrida. However, I do believe that they were influenced by the themes of alienation, fragmentation, deconstruction, and the explosion of data. In all the major art forms, from the 60’s onward, we kind find post-modern themes at the forefront: The Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, A Brave New World, Pink Floyd, The Sex Pistols, Scream, 1984… Concerns about the individual and his/her increasingly degraded value in the world and society were (and still are) simply a part of the consciousness of humanity at large. So while they might not have recognized what they were doing, on some level at least I am confident that they were heavily influenced by the philosophical issues of their day. By taking very small pieces of data (a snare hit, a horn sample, a bass line) from the mass of information swirling around them and reforming those pieces into something new, the hip-hop artist was etching out a spot in the world for himself.

In the beginning, the emphasis was on finding samples that would get people to dance; there was no major intellectual thought behind the choice to sample, it was done mostly out of necessity, as the originators were not wealthy enough to afford instruments and lessons. But this does not diminish the fact that the art form that was born was a genuine response to the issues of the times it arose from. In fact, we can see this same reclamation style in almost all the various branches of Hip-Hop culture. The break dancer can perform on street corners or sidewalks with a piece of cardboard as a cushion-thus claiming the streets as a stage, the graf writer tags on virtually any object in his environment-creating a piece of art on a bench or a wall or a train in such a way that the physical object is a part of his art. In the same way the producer and/or DJ takes samples from various sources in the environment around him and makes those elements a part of his art. How can one deal with the alienating and dehumanizing forces of data/information/marketing that flood the world? Deconstruct them and then reform them into works of beauty (although this is not an excuse for vandalism). In recent years there as been a move away from sampling and an emphasis on synthesizers and other ways of producing hip-hop music, however I believe that this spirit of reclamation still remains in the best hip-hop: finding, etching a place in the world and identifying one’s value (or lack thereof) remains the underlying theme of the genre (with the exclusion of those who do not treat the music as an art form—see my first post on hip-hop for a discussion of this).

Essentially, a beat is made up of either several individually sampled drum hits (snare, high hat, ride, bass, toms…) or a 1+bar of a drum break/loop. This is both one of the major defining features of the genre and—to some—its most irritating. Instrumentally, hip-hop tends toward minimalism and drums are a great example of this. In a typical rock song a drum part will repeat over and over for a single section and the next section, a chorus for instance, will mean a new part. In hip-hop this is rarely done, except in a few circles. The result is that the beat creates a rhythmic cycle which forces the listener to ignore the music (and focus on the lyrics) and yet it also makes a stage or backdrop to aid in the flow of words. The goal of the beat is to support the rapper and his/her message through regularity, non-distraction, and thematic agreement. (By thematic agreement I am referring to when the various elements of a work of art all work towards or suggest the same thing thematically. For more on this please see my post entitled “The Struggles of Christian Art: Part One.).

If the beats of hip-hop are often regarded as annoying due to their repetition, the actual instrumental portion is even more so. In other forms of music there tends to be several significantly different instrumental sections to a song: intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus, outro. A typical hip-hop song might incorporate a similar arrangement lyrically, but musical there tends to be far less difference between the individual parts than we would see in rock, pop, country, or other similar genres. The result of this is to again cause the focus of the song to be placed on what does change: the lyrics. Generally a producer will find an instrumental sample that reflects the basic theme or vibe of the song. This limits most hip-hop because it does not allow for more refined thematic agreement between the lyrics and the music. I.E. a song about a lost love might have a verse which describes how wonderful it was to be with that person and a chorus that mourns their loss. While the general theme is loss, there is a very real difference in feeling between what would be described in the verse and in the chorus and by not reflecting this difference in the music hip-hop often misses out on a certain level of thematic depth. That said, there is a benefit to this simplicity in that the listener is not distracted by the instrumentation. Many rock songs are liked merely for the way they “sound”, (an oft repeated statement by teens to their parents who disapprove of the lyrics of a rock song is “mom, I just like the way it sounds, I don’t listen to the words…”). Rock is often appreciated for the way it sounds rather than what the song means or what the singer says. Part of this is due to the fact that rock (and other similar genres) offer a lot instrumentally so that one really does not have to know, understand, or agree with the words!—I believe this has been a source of apathy within the rock community, since writing genuine lyrics is not necessary, that has heralded the death of the genre…but that is for another post.

This component is similar to the other two in that in evolves taking another piece of art and using it to make something different from and sometimes in rejection of the original art (or at the very least those who market that art). The major difference is that DJing is the most blatant or obvious element of reclamation/deconstruction in hip-hop. Often times a DJ will play and cut-up a vocal sample that is very familiar, mixing it in with other sounds or beats. The result is a sort of sound collage which is composed of scattered pieces of data. Again, this is a genuine response to the issues and concerns of our time, as it deals directly with individuality, value, beauty, and power in the modern world. It neither glorifies nor ignores these issues; rather it acknowledges them and attempts to sort out an adequate response.

In my next post I will deal with the single most important aspect of Hip-Hop music: Rapping.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Chapter 2: Of Things Longed For and Their End

Before the blood on his hands had dried, U had left the station. From his office terminal, U headed out along the hallway which stretched from the rear of the moon base, through the many computer centers to the station’s entrance. At first U walked hesitantly, unsure of what had happened. The feeling of sickness had not yet left him, but it was fended off for a fleeting moment or two. He wanted to be sure.

Every time he had imagined what it would be like to kill he had been sure: they would come and punish him. It would be just. But they left him.
The light gray walls that once made him feel secure now oppressed him. There was no glory in this crime. U trudged passed the many frames that hung along the hallway. Each frame danced with vivid sights and sounds of the earth. At the end of the hall the space opened up to the entrance room. This room always reminded U of his own office; small, stale, and homely. A single steel door separated the inter-station from the transport tunnel which was the only way to leave. Beside the door on either side were two tall houseplants strategically placed to provide a sense of serenity in the otherwise drab room. Next to the plant to the left of the door Mr. Node stood hunched over. His hands were digging confidently through the soil.

“Hey there Mr. U, going home early?” Mr. Node’s wrists rested on the pot, his hands dangled on the surface of the soil. Sweat, U felt himself beginning to sweat. He hated the feeling of sweat.

“Yes.” U managed to allow the word to drop out of his mouth. Mr. Node nodded.

“Those red stripes that came through told me to check my PDA for a clean up order for your office. I couldn’t see how you could have a chance to make a mess, what with the doctor being there and all. But, sure enough, here’s the order.”

The older man pulled his PDA from its holster and showed the screen to U. He looked up to U with a look of satisfaction as if to say that he had proof that the PDA system was all bunk. His smug grin wrapped around his face and U began to feel the sickness returning. U looked politely at the PDA and then moved away from Mr. Node.

“Between me and you,” said Mr. Node in a low voice, “I think this just goes to show
how un-re-liable these things are. You don’t have a mess in there. What do you have to make a mess with? Your computer? How do they expect me to do my job when my orders are all screwy?”

“I don’t know Mr. Node” and with that, U turned and left the station.

The door of the station opened to small airtight room. On the other side was a door to a shuttle. As U sat in the front seat of the shuttle, his PDA lit up with possible destinations: Apartment, Store, Minerva, Relaxation Center… U selected “Apartment” and the shuttle set off without the slightest jolt. U felt the urge to sit back against the seat and view the screen in front of him. It was his ritual to watch the news on the way to his apartment. But today he was unable to do it. Instead, he pressed the button on his PDA’s screen which read: “view”. The view-screen lowered to reveal a window which peered onto the dark track below. The ride was typically quiet but winds had struck up and the shuttle began to sway slightly. U was not sure if the turbulence added to his sickness or lulled him. He let his head rest on the seat cushion. The shuttle itself was silent except for a low frequency hum from the engine and the sound of the wind whistling through the glass. It occasionally grew uncomfortably loud for U and he soon felt his stomach twisting again; that feeling of sickness. He started to think about his first time.

He couldn’t remember how it actually felt to do it, but the afterwards was still fresh. She was good, he could recall that much. His memory only became sound after they had finished. U stayed on the bed; there was nothing else to do. She rolled over and kissed him. The uneasiness had begun as soon as they had ended, and this kiss only hurried it along. Her light blonde hair was tucked behind her head but little strains danced in a tangle near her bangs. She smiled with lips made for pleasure, swollen with blood, and gave a little giggle that sung with knowledge and wonder. Before he could react she pulled away and slipped out of the defeated bed. A large window facing the parking lot stood next to the bed. As she put herself together, she opened the off-white curtains. The light from the late afternoon sun rushed into the room like an avalanche of radiance and she lit up in an angelic silhouette. The air hung still as if in recognition of her beauty, and the specks of floating dust shone around her like microscopic snowflakes. U knew he should have gotten up and gone to her, that’s what she wanted, but the light and her body only made the uneasiness return. He had imagined this and yearned for its coming for an eternity. Now it had come and gone and he was left with a world of brutal reality that seemed to mock his imagination with fleeting images of the surreal and the forever beautiful, but he knew better, now he knew better. The sunlight absorbed the room; the folds in the blanket glistened. Everything was alive and apparent. It should have been perfect, U had thought. But the light was different. It could have been warm and clear, as light should be, as he had imagined, only it wasn’t. She became washed out from the sun’s rays. A dryness filled the room. There had to be something wrong. Something out of place. He got up and went to her. Her smile came back and she shifted her weight to one leg in a way that accented her full, ghost like aura. As he closed his eyes and kissed her, he tried to forget that he felt ill. “There was no reason for this,” he told himself, “if I could only stop thinking and starting feeling”. When he opened his eyes he was facing the window. Her head was resting on his shoulder and as they stood she whispered to him. U’s vision fell upon the shuttle parking lot below the building. Other than their own, there were only two shuttles in the lot. “There is nothing wrong,” he tried to think. But the whole thing felt off. The air, the dryness, her lips, the light, it was just too bright to be his dream.

“I have to go to the bathroom” U said as he pulled away from her. He was sick.

A vibration woke him coming from what felt like the inside of his body, all of his body. It was the PDA. The shuttle had arrived at his apartment and was waiting for him to leave the oval shaped transport. For a moment all that was, was quiet. The shuttle’s hum seemed to ease his mind. He couldn’t remember what he had dreamt of, only that he felt sick. The office came rushing back to his memory and a feeling of profound emptiness that can only come from unfulfilled dreams filled him. Dr. Ortho. As he stood up, the door opened revealing the hallway of his apartment. The airlock door to the shuttle and the hallway slammed shut with a deadened sound.

“It ought to be loud, it ought to sound like large masses of metal clashing into each other. Do they need to deaden everything?” U questioned as he drug his feet over the old red carpet. His stomach had begun to settle again and U decided to make it to the living room. Down the short, well-lit hallway laid U’s bedroom, which doubled as his living room. A small MediaUnit sat facing his well-worn bed. As he neared the room, U could just make out the blue light from the M.U. shooting out to the bed. He always left it on to fill the apartment with space, it never worked, and every night when he went to bed, and everyday before he left for work, U would think to himself, “There’s no use in leaving it on…”, but there was something about the warm glow and the sound of indistinct voices that gave him a feeling of security. Now, however, the voices seemed to ridicule U, taunting him with the ever-present possibility of happiness and fulfilled desires. “Why couldn’t they have just punished me?” The bed was on the floor, no frame, just a slumped mattress protruding into the middle of the small room. The light turned on as U entered, illuminating a row of suitcases lined up against the wall opposite the hallway. U cringed as he saw cases of his clothes and necessities, ready for when the red stripes would call for his things. A note sat atop the middle of the three brown and green cases:

“For your convenience, all my valuable belongings have been packed and organized for efficient cataloging. If you are wondering how I was able to pack my things without raising suspicion from the system, I will leave it up to the glorious system itself to discover. I will say however, the mind of a single man has more potential than the actions of a million systems made by a billion men…”
The words were bitter. “How could I have been so pathetic?” U was almost glad that he wasn’t punished, at least some peon red stripe didn’t find that note and pass it around for a good laugh with his friends. U took the paper from the case and tore it, then folded it, and tore it again until it was a mass of small notes. He threw it into the trash incinerator and set himself down on the bed. The MediaUnit was playing the events he had missed while at work that day: stories, reports, distractions, comedies, sex. U turned up the volume of the box and fell back upon the bed to face the roof. A tightening feeling gripped him as he recalled the feeling of sickness, which only brought it back to life like some sleeping giant.

“Why didn’t they just take me………..Didn’t I kill a man? An important man? Maybe this is the punishment, a life of guilt…no…the system is not as generous as all that…” U’s thoughts were interrupted by the PDA’s flashing light, beating out a rhythm which called for U to read it. The light competed with the MediaUnit for luminance, but the red light from the PDA cut through the air and projected itself upon the wall. U could make out his name in the distorted message. He reached down and pulled the PDA from its holder to read it: “U, I know you deserved punishment. Something is interfering. Interview is needed for final report. Please take shuttle to your office for meeting at 04.45. Blue Stripe Leader Hughes, Enforcement Center.”

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Christian Hip-Hop: Is it Viable?

If the Christian artist should attempt to create art which speaks to the particular times in which he or she lives, what we must next discuss is what this art would look or sound like. I would like to suggest that hip-hop is a genre of music which has much to offer for the Christian musician. As I expect to spend several posts dissecting the genre and explaining why it is a viable format, I will begin here by qualifying some things in advance.

1. When I speak of hip-hop I am not so much referring to what the current genre sounds like but rather what it could sound like. In fact, this series of posts will, in general, be devoid of examples because there are very few that serve my thesis-and those that would are so obscure most would not know who I am referring too. So, please do not allow any connotations you might have of what hip-hop sounds like distract from my discussion.
2. While I believe that this genre holds tremendous opportunities, I would be the last to argue that it is the sole genre that the Christian musician should be working in.
3. The guiding factor in any approach that a Christian artist might take in art should be love. If a particular genre will be offensive and distracting then is it loving for a Christian to make that music? Now this can be taken to an extreme and I hope that in this post I can clarify how I belief this ought to really work. But, as a general preface I would simply like to say that making art with no regard for whether or not it is a stumbling block for others is not an acceptable practice for a believer. (One only needs to imagine the feeling of pulling up next to someone at a stoplight who is playing hip-hop music loud enough for everyone within a quarter mile to hear. Is there any doubt that the feeling of pride and intimidation that comes out of this kind of display is not appropriate for Christians?).

With these things aside, I would like to begin by establishing the acceptability of hip-hop in relation to love. To do so, it seems to fit to look at what Paul teaches concerning the balance between freedom and love:

Rom 14:14 (I know and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself.
Still, to someone who considers a thing to be unclean, to that one it is unclean.)
Rom 14:15 For if your brother is hurt by what you eat, you are no longer walking according
to love. By what you eat, do not destroy that one for whom Christ died.
Rom 14:16 Therefore, do not let your good be slandered,
Rom 14:17 for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Rom 14:18 Whoever serves the Messiah in this way is acceptable to God and approved by men.
Rom 14:19 So then, we must pursue what promotes peace and what builds up one another.
Rom 14:20 Do not tear down God's work because of food. Everything is clean, but it is wrong for a man to cause stumbling by what he eats.

This is where, I believe, many have struggled over hip-hop as a Christian genre; and they have not struggled without cause. One merely has to look what is currently called hip-hop in order to see that it is generally filled with self-absorbed, violent, base, and even dehumanizing themes. But as I stressed in my first point, I do not wish to argue that this particular branch of hip-hop is worthy, I am arguing for a new style. Some might argue that no matter how “new” of a style a Christian artist might create, if it is in the hip-hop genre then it holds the same vile connotations of the mainstream style. But this is not a logical response and it is not Paul’s view. If we applied this rule to everything, then in Paul’s example of abstaining from “unclean foods” because others considered it to be a sin we would have to also abstain from eating all foods! Why stop at unclean food? Why not abstain from eating at all so that if someone who is offended at unclean food sees us they might get not even a hint of evil? Well, without going down to much of a theological rabbit trail, there is a point where abstaining from something so that you might not offend or hurt others, causes more harm than good because it results in destroying what our freedoms truly are. And we can see this in Paul’s example: it was productive and good to abstain from eating “unclean” food if it would help someone who felt it was a sin to eat such things, but Paul does not suggest that we not eat any food, even though physiologically someone would have a connotation between “all food” and “unclean food”, because it would hinder that person’s growth and understanding of the universe we live in, and would give a distorted view of our Christian freedoms granted by Christ. Therefore, abstaining from things out of love for others must be done reasonably and in respect to degrees: there is not nice line that we can draw and keep from crossing. Every situation demands that we consider whether or not we are being offensive or not and whether the offense is reasonable or not. What is Paul’s suggestion? “Everything is clean, but it is wrong for a man to cause stumbling by what he eats.” Rom 14:20. In addition, the governing ideal is love. Therefore, Hip-Hop cannot be reject simply because some of it (currently the majority of it) has vile themes (although that particular type of hip-hop which really is vile must be rejected) in the same way that Paul urges the early Christians to abstain from eating unclean foods but not all foods. While connotations are still strong in some people concerning this music that does not mean that we cannot help change those connotations for the better through humility and love. So can a Christian artist create hip-hop music in such a way as to not cause anyone to stumble? I believe so, but in order to do so the pride, arrogance, and selfishness of modern hip-hop must be totally abandoned.

This abandonment must be through and through. Right now, if you were to search for “Christian hip-hop” on the Internet, or even tune to some Christian radio stations you will find that the music already exists. But, in these cases what often happens is that lyrically the themes will be about evangelizing or committing a life to God; however, the actual style of the flows (a hip-hop term for the particular way in which a rapper’s lyrics are placed on the beat. It might include tone, speed, aggression, passion, intonation, and volume.) and the music suggest the same themes as the mainstream music. I have heard so called “Christian” MCs rapping about how they take the Word of God to tha streets with the same style and music that I have heard secular rappers talk about taking drugs, violence, and sex to tha streets. Can this be anything less than sacrilegious? (This is really the fault of the Christian community which for so long rejected all art as “evil”. Now that art has been liberated, many Christian are ignorant to the fact that it is not enough to say “Jesus” in a song in order to make it good “art”.) And it is this that still offends some people. If the rapper is stating that he is a humble servant of God while flowing aggressively over music which is also aggressive, how can he be making art out of love? What is required is a musical sound and a lyrical style that is unique to the Christian worldview. If we can make hip-hop in such a way that all the elements of that music point to and suggest themes and a worldview that is fundamentally different, then I believe we can avoid the dangers of causing a stumbling block. But we could not stop there. The musician himself would have to be humble. Part of what makes hip-hop such a prideful genre is that the artists act as such outside of their art. A Christian rapper cannot announce how much better he is than everyone else, how wealthier, how skilled, etc…Humility and love should be his/her mark.

To conclude, hip-hop need not be a stumbling block for anyone. If the Christian artist is making art which treats themes and music holistically, and if he/she does so with a loving and humble attitude in mind, I believe no one will reasonably be offended. (And Paul is concerned with reasonability: Rom 12:18 “If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone.”) I must caution here that others have tried to create a uniquely Christian genre of art before and failed horribly-I am thinking here mostly of the rock or alternative genres of several years ago. But their failure was not because they tried to make art which accurately portrayed their beliefs, emotions, life, and the world around them; rather, they failed because their focus was on simply sounding different. An analogy for this failure might be found in baseball. If a batter was told to try and make a homerun he might start by learning what constituted a homerun and then he would proceed to practice and train. Eventually the batter would succeed. If, however, the batter did not understand what a homerun was, he might assume that any ball hit out of the playing field was a homerun. This batter would undoubtedly fail to hit real homeruns and would instead resort to hitting fouls, which are much easier to hit. Likewise, the Christian artist must not confuse a new style of Hip-Hop with any different sounding style. This will be hard, but with God’s help, and a proper focus I believe it to be completely possible. In my next post I will discuss why I believe this to be a good genre for the Christian artist.

Friday, April 08, 2005

The Struggles of Christian Art: Part Two.

In my last post I briefly discussed the importance of understanding modern movements in art and also modern philosophies and ideals in general. It was my assertion that we must not be ignorant of the struggles of humanity in our works of art. Here I will continue in that vein as I attempt to explain why we must understand the times.

It has been the downfall of many Christian artists that they create works which seem to exist completely outside of the world in which the artist himself lives. In an attempt to glorify God, some have created works that paint a distorted picture of reality. An example of this might be seen in that particular type of religious painting which focuses on landscapes and rustic settings. One can imagine this type of painting, where a cottage or something similar is shown in the midst of an ethereal landscape. The theme(s)-if there is one-of these paintings seems to be portraying the natural world as God’s creation. I must clarify here that I am not suggesting that themes such as these or works such as these have no value for the Christian artist; they surely do. The problem has been that many will exclusively focus on themes such as these. The result is that we are not realistically dealing with the world we live in.

Should the Christian artist be a realist then? I would suggest the answer is both yes and no. Yes, in the sense that we cannot ignore the fact that we live in a fallen world. No, in the fact that we are free to explore the creative capabilities of our imagination, as it is a gift from God. If we only create art similar to those paintings which I have just given as examples, we are doing a great disservice to our fellowmen. While God did make a profoundly beautiful world, and while there are a great many joys to be found in following Christ, we are still subject to the sufferings and crises of this life. And it is for this reason, in part, that we must look at current artistic movements, because these movements are not created in a vacuum. Major movements in thought and art happen in response to specific problems that have arisen throughout history. We can look at the Romantic period of literature as an example of this.

The Romantic poets on both sides of the Atlantic were compelled to write poetry expressing the importance and value of man as a spiritual being (some spoke of humanity as part and parcel to God), in response to the scientific and rationalist philosophy of the age that preceded them: the age of Enlightenment. While this is a gross reduction of the causes of the Romantic period it is useful in the sense that is shows how movements are created: not only the intellectuals and artists, but even the common man was concerned about the affects of the Industrial Revolution, Darwinism, and Rationalist thought because these forces affected the common man (although many times the common man did not have access to or understand the poet’s response to these forces). When the Romantic poets began to write about the dangers of these things and the importance of man’s spirituality, this was something that spoke to the crises of the time. In a very similar way, we are in the midst of another intellectual crisis and Post-Modernism is an artistic result of that crisis.

I have neither the ability, the time, nor the space to discuss Post-Modernism in any significant way, but for the sake of this discussion I will quote a useful definition:

“Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality. In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality. For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one's own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.” (

With this in mind it is not difficult to see how this movement arose out of the modern world where data seems to be both infinite and often inaccurate, and the value of the individual seems to be less and less important. If “interpretation is everything” the importance of any one interpretation is greatly reduced and this is the crisis we find ourselves in.

If, as Christian artists, we create art that does not speak to any of the current concerns of humanity, then we are failing. I am not saying here that Christian art should be Post-Modern; rather, it should be in dialogue with it. Both the believer and the unbeliever are subject to the causes of Post-Modernism: the devaluing of human life, the devaluing of universal “truths”, the chaos of the data explosion (see the internet), and the affects of globalization. Therefore, if you as a Christian artist desire to write a poem relating the beauty and complexity of nature, please write. But, do not exclusively write of the beautiful and the good in life, for this amounts to an intellectual lie. Speak also to the problems that grip all people; paint the ghetto as well as the field. If as Christians we truly have answers, then our art should reflect that instead of denying that there are problems to be solved. However, this must be done with a great empathy for humanity (notice that I say humanity here, because, as I have said before, these problems affect all people.). The world does not need more people forcefully asserting that they are right and everyone else is a fool. Rather, we should seek to genuinely understand the struggles and crises of our time and create art which addresses these struggles.

I must add a strong caution here, for it has been the way of some to deal with the crises of their time by simplistic portraying them and then unsympathetically providing an unrealistic solution (not to say that Christianity provides an unrealistic solution, but that the particular way that some art shows this solution reduces the struggles of humanity to an absurd level). This sort of didactic art is not becoming of a Christian because it is not truly empathetic. An example can be seen in that branch of Christian fiction (typically teen fiction) that vilifies an unbeliever in sin and shows how much better the Christian life is. This is not what I mean when I say we must sympathize with the struggles of our time. Instead we should consider ourselves as Paul did, as chief among sinners and then, in light of the sufferings of humanity, write of the world from a Christian worldview.

So then, why should the Christian artist understand the philosophies and art movements of his/her time? Because these movements are a response to the specific problems of the times, and although as Christians we will view these problems differently, to ignore these problems is foolish and inhumane.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Struggles of Christian Art: Part One.

Psalms 33:3 “Sing a new song to Him; play skillfully on the strings, with a joyful shout.”

Fundamental to the creation of any work of art is a unity between the devices employed and the theme(s) of the work. A poem mourning the death of a national hero would not be good if it used light, simplistic rhymes, unless of course the poet was attempting to force the reader/listener to reconsider their conceptions of that “hero”. Likewise, a musician would not write a dark, sorrowful song recounting the joys of his first love, unless he was pointing out that young love is often ill conceived and has a tendency to end over-dramatically. In good art all elements of the work should evoke, in some way, the theme(s) of that work. Sometimes this will lead to extremely complex forms of art as the artistic devices refine theme. It is easy to paint a picture, which exposes the suffering of death, one would only need very simplistic devices to do this; however, if you wish to show how death is a horrible fact of life that points to an innate knowledge in all men that suffering is abnormal, then you must use a very complex web of colors, images, subjects, space, and lighting to reveal this.

For the Christian artist this as often been a difficult lesson to learn. In many worship songs for instance, if one listens only to the lyrics the theme might be our brokenness and the need for repentance; however, the music itself might be similar to a pop-rock or alternative song, with a simple four-chord progression and an uplifting melody line suggesting a theme of unbroken-ness. Esthetically we might say that it is “good” music, because it is similar to what we hear on the radio; it is not old fashioned. But, the question must be raised: “How can one truly worship God, singing of our own brokenness and need for repentance, while the music is the same as a pop song glorifying sensual pleasures in a hopeless world?” That is not to say that we cannot rejoice in the fact that Christ has given us the ability to repent; rather, what I wish to focus on is those particular Christian works of art which:

1. Emulate popular art purely for the sake of appealing to younger generations without any regard to the appropriateness of the artistic devices they employ. (This has been supported by some based on 1 Cor. 9:22 “I have become all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some.” But Paul does not mean that we should blindly do what “all men” do; rather, we should understand what, why, and how the world makes art so that we can know when it is wise to emulate them and when it would be a stumbling block.)

2. Are done in a style that is completely ignorant of modern art forms. If Christian art ignores the particular problems of modern man, than it has nothing to say to either the believer or the unbeliever, for all men are subject to the sufferings of this life.

3. Are created with cliché elements, language, chord patterns, colors, melodies, images, lighting, narratives, or themes. Why is it that an unbelieving artist will spend weeks to years perfecting a work but a worship song will use simplistic language devoid of genuine emotion or worship? (I do not mean to suggest that all Christian art is like this, however we must be honest and admit that in some cases this is true.) If, in the case of worship songs, we are creating a work specifically for the glory and worship of our Lord and Savior, then how can we create poor art? And by extension, if we cannot make good art when the explicit purpose is to worship God, how can we possibly create good art in general?

4. Confuses the old for the sacred. This problem is similar to the second one I have already listed.

The question then is how can a Christian artist overcome these issues to create works which both glorify God and edify humanity. In response to the first issue I have listed, I believe that the Christian artist should be aware of what each element they use in their work denotes and connotes. If we keep the second and forth issue in mind, this becomes difficult: we cannot simply copy what others are doing, because our understanding of life, suffering, and the world is different and therefore demands an art which reflects that difference. (This is no different than the situation with any other artist. The Buddhist musician makes music which speaks specifically from his/her worldview, shouldn’t we?). What we must do then is be aware of the current artistic movements, understand what they mean, how they work, their ideologies, and their roots. We must understand the specific dilemmas facing humanity in our times and that does not exclusively refer to politics and war, but also philosophy, science, religion, culture, etc… We should create art that is conscious of these elements but with a fundamental difference; and that difference should come from our worldview as Christians. In practice this should mean that a worship song could incorporate some movements and structures that are similar to what might be heard on the radio; however, the fundamental difference should be such that no one listening to the song would confuse the themes of that song with those of the pop song. If the modern artistic elements add to the themes of a work of art, they must and should (moral imperative) be used. When, however, they distract, dilute, or hinder the themes, they should not be used. Therefore, it is fine to use an electric guitar in a worship song as a melody which adds to the dynamics, but if that guitar melody becomes a bombastic, flashy solo, distracting from the spirit of worship, we should question its value. And likewise, a heavy metal song about the joy of salvation would be a poor work of art because the music devices work against the message.

As for the third issue I raise, perhaps the best thing a Christian artist can do is be conscious of the fact that our creative ability comes from God, it is unique and important. If we look out into creation we can clearly see that God Himself was and is concerned with beauty, complexity, themes (does not all of creation speak to the struggles and suffering of life? The sorrow of death, the wonder of birth, the infinite and vast beauty of the sky, the sea, space, do not all these things speak to what humanity is confronted with in life?), and skill. Therefore, we also should treat the creation of art as something extremely serious and worthwhile. As David tells us, we should “Sing a new song to Him; play skillfully on the strings, with a joyful shout.” Notice that David says a “new song”, and that there is an emphasis on skill here. We are called to innovate, and to do so skillfully.

In the next post, I will address how Christians can, and should understand artistic movements and how we should properly incorporate them into our own art.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Chapter One: Justice Undone

The light, which illuminated the small room, was just enough to get the job done. It shone from a small hanging lamp that was centered on the ceiling. Across from the door sat a lone figure, hunched over and typing. His skin was pale from hours of low, artificial lighting and his clothes had a dampened appearance. His body gave the impression of being age and wear. Yet as he sat staring at the screen, U was thankful. When he had been presented with this commission, people said that he deserved it and they urged him not to display gratefulness; but he did. Every variable had been counted and it was only just that he received the position. U was, in fact, almost an anomaly in the history of justice. Statistically it was nearly impossible to get a commission due to a single variable, yet he had done it. Generally, commissions were given after taking into account an almost infinite amount of variables: age, weight, beliefs, race, experience, knowledge, IQ, stability, health, interest in occupation, love life, values, self-image…. The list goes on and on. But in the case of U, one variable, work ethic, had so outweighed the others that he was granted the commission. Some demanded that the variables and the figures be recounted and the computer be tested for flaws, but, as always, the system functioned perfectly. U knew all about the statistical improbabilities and this was why he thanked the official who presented the commission papers. But the official merely shrugged off U’s thankfulness: “Don’t thank me Mr. U. This had nothing to do with me. To tell you the truth I was among the first to demand an investigation, but you cleared so take these damn papers and get off,” the official had said.
None of these things ran through his head as he typed. He had been stationed on a remote control center on the moon. Only two people worked there beside himself. Mr. Node was in charge of the facility’s maintenance and Mrs. Gram worked, like U, at a terminal. The system found that it was more efficient if people did not know what they were working on as long as they were told that it was a matter of life or death. Of course people rarely believed that their work, whatever it might be, was of such importance and so most worked in order to hold their job. U did not know what Mrs. Gram did at the center other than the fact that she worked at a terminal. Breaks for food, rest, and bodily emissions were strictly scheduled everywhere so that co-workers could not find much time to fraternize. While the system had put an end to entropy in the field of justice, productivity was another matter. Not that anyone was complaining. The system had entirely taken away personal privacy in exchange for unmolested justice. Most felt it was a small price to pay. Every soul in the eUnion wore a PDA. This PDA had thousands of corresponding sources inside the body which monitored everything from viruses to heart rate, current location, calories left to burn, and even most emotions could be determined by examining changes in the mind, heart, etc… The PDAs would feed all this information into the system so that every movement, decision, and action could be analyzed in relation to justice. If, for instance, someone broke the speed limit because they were too lazy to leave on time, this person, upon breaking the speed limit, would immediately be presented with a ticket on the PDA. This action, along with every other, would be analyzed in regard to things like pay rate, occupation, etc… Likewise, if someone was to speed after discovering that his wife was cheating on him, the ticket would be less severe. In this way, everything was taken into account in order to achieve pure justice. The proponents argued that if all actions were rewarded or condemned immediately people would inevitably gravitate towards good acts. What they didn’t take into account was the vastness of the variables. In the beginning all PDAs would display responses to every single action taken by the individual. The result was an overload. There were several cases of people cutting off their ears in order to stop the buzzing that the PDA produces inside the ear whenever any variable changes. They quickly altered the software so that the internal buzzing would happen only when a person committed an act that changed a variable 10% or more. In addition, they allowed people to petition for a PDA that only produced visual warnings. This model was only given to people deemed mentally unstable who would likely crack under the pressure of continual judgment. U was one of these luckily cursed individuals.
It was partly due to his mental instability that U was able to gain his current position. One of the “entertaining” elements of the PDAs was that they could tell a person almost anything they wanted about their own body and its internal workings. Most people used this feature to keep track of weight loss, tell how well their white blood cells are doing against a virus, and so on. These variables, and many more, were the same ones used by the system to pronounce judgment. U had learned to read them in such a way as to optimize his work. By being completely aware of his body and its capabilities at all times, U was literally able to make every second of his workday count.
The compound in which U worked was very unique. Due to the great expense of sending power to such a remote part of the moon, the center was both poorly lit and air-conditioned. It was the worst in the early mornings and late nights when the oxygen generators would slow to a stop for the night and then slowly start up in the early morning. But it was at these times that U felt the most at home. He would arrive early with Mr. Node and begin work and leave after both Mr. Node and Mrs. Gram. Occasionally U’s work would be interrupted by Dr. Ortho who supervised a series of similar compounds across the northern moon hemisphere. The mantra of the system was redundancy as a cure for entropy. Even though no worker ever needed supervision with the constant surveillance of the PDAs, it had been found beneficial for productivity to have random human supervision. It was for this reason that U was thankful to have this position.
The door of the lonely room slid open with a solid gush of air; a short, stocky old man in a gray suit entered the room.
“’Lo U! How’s the work coming along? Diligent as ever, I see.” His words, much like his movements were both flighty and confident. U turned in his black office chair to look at the Dr.
“Is it that time already? Seems like you were by to check my figures just last week,” U said as he turned back to his work seemingly unconcerned with the Dr.’s presence. “Must you do this?”
“Yes, yes, you know quite well this is all necessary. I understand it must seem very trivial to someone like you, but I can tell you that any mistake would be very detrimental to our work here.” The Dr. walked over to U’s machine station and withdrew his PDA from it’s bag. As he began pressing buttons, U kept typing as if the doctor wasn’t there.
“You know U, I know it sounds odd but sometimes I think it would have been better for you to come work with me at my lab. Seems like you’re the complete opposite of the guy they sent me. He’s lazy, shows up late, talks a lot and complains even more. I guess the only way you two are similar is that you’re both outliers. He’s the last living member of his family line. And since the system seems to think that keeping a lineage is important, that variable out-weighed the fact that he’s a horrible worker…..say U, I can’t seem to get into your system. Cache back-up or something. Do you know anything about this?” U turned his head a little to the left but his eyes and fingers kept at their work.
“Umm, yes, I have it blocked from all wireless access.”
“Blocked? Why would you do that U?” The Dr.’s face began to reveal a hint of concern under a veil of confusion.
“I felt it would be safer, this is important data right?”
“well, yes….but blocking a station is clearly against did you do this without the system warning you?”
“Oh, well, I suppose the system realized there was no harm done. Here, I’ll unblock it.” For a second, for a mere second, U’s PDA began to flash and compute as if it’s owner had lied, a dreadful lie. But only for a second, then it concluded that it had been a false alarm.
“Thank you, and in the future, please restrain from taking your own initiative. You might have done considerable damage,” the Dr. said with a fatherly tone as he began to scan through the pages and pages of digital information. U turned back to his computer, but this time his fingers never reached their keys. In his left hand he clasped his PDA, and his eyes stared straight ahead; his breath grew faster and faster. He allowed a shiver to crawl up his spine. The Dr. looked up from his PDA and saw the shape of U’s body rise and fall with every breath. At first, he tried to ignore it, but as the pace grew faster, and his body began to shake, the Dr. spoke:
“Are you alright U?” He lowered his PDA and began to walk the couple of feet that separated them; the gray suit made a soft swooshing sound as he walked. He raised his right hand and went to place it on U’s shoulder when he saw a bright red light flashing from within U’s hand. The Dr. froze.
“U…is that your…PDA?” U looked down at his flashing PDA. He opened his palm to reveal an oblong device with keys at its base and a screen at the top. This screen was flashing red letters. U looked down at it and the slowly wrapped his fingers around the PDA once again.
“I think you should take a break U, I’ll come back later.” The Dr. began to move slowly away from U whose breathing had become faster and harder. As he moved, the Dr. inched his right hand toward his own PDA. Every thought in his head was bent on grasping that PDA and hitting the panic button. The hanging lamp’s light flickered and seemed to fade. The damp, still air began to weigh on the Dr.’s exposed skin. His sweating fingers felt around his PDA without the benefit of eyesight. His eyes stayed fixed upon U to see his aged body rise from the seat. As U stood, the Dr.’s feet moved faster as he walked backwards toward the door while his fingers stabbed desperately for the button. His graying hair glimmered, reflecting the light from the lamp. U turned to the Dr. and froze. The stood facing each other, the Dr. continued to stab at his PDA within it’s pouch while U simply took in air. For a moment there was nothing. In a sudden crash U’s PDA was thrown to the floor; its pieces spread throughout the room and the smell of burnt circuits reached the Dr. with a rush that covered his whole body with fear.
“U, what’s going on? Calm yourself. Remember the system. Remember….”
“I did,” replied U, as he lunged forward. The Dr. quickly turned to head for the door, but U was faster. He grabbed the Dr.’s head from behind and with a smooth kick to the back of his legs the Dr. fell to the floor. The Dr.’s voice cried out with pain as he swung franticly at U. with his PDA. But U. seemed oblivious to the Dr.’s defense as he leaped on top of the Dr. and began smashing the Dr.’s face with his fists. With each successive hit blood covered more and more of U and the Dr. The flailing hands of the Dr. struggled desperately to distract U while his mouth shouted out:
“Stop! Oh Please stop! Remember the system!”
The old man’s gray suit turned red with his own blood as his hands and words failed. U, still breathing feverishly sat upon the now dead Dr. He, stared at his bruised and bloody hands and waited. It would only be a matter moments before they came for him. With his eyes closed he visualized the murder, the screams and the death. The remembering calmed him for what was to come. Once they came he would be disposed of quickly, but justly. But regardless, he had already done what was needed, despite justice. U resisted the feeling of sickness that was crawling up his throat. The smell of blood, burnt circuits, and death filled the still room and drew U momentarily from replaying the murder in his head. The disruption unsettled him and the sickness grew.
“Mr. U?” In the doorway behind U a voice asked. U lowered his eyes. His heart beat rose and panic struck him. He had to be confident, if he doubted, he would never make it. Never.
“I am U.” His voice was not the way he had imagined it would be in the thousands of times he had dreamt of this moment. U crawled off of the Dr. and turned to face the Men.
There were three of them. They, like the Dr., wore gray suits. A red stripe went down the right side of two of them and a blue stripe on the third. The blue stripe signified their speaker. He had a case in his right had.
“Mr. U. where is your PDA?”
“Gone. I destroyed it”
“It is a punishable offense to destroy a PDA. The system can not function properly if people do not allow it to be with them.”
“I have done more than that, and I am not afraid.”
“What does the readout say?” The blue striped leader asked on of his assistants. The assistant removed a PDA and rapidly typed. He showed the result to the leader. The blue stripe crossed over the dead Dr. to where U stood. He could see U’s body trembling slightly as he drew near.
“You are to receive a new PDA and are removed from this position until further notice.” The blue stripe pulled a PDA out of his case and handed it to U. The speaker’s hand stretched out to U, but U didn’t move.
“I killed him.”
“Are you refusing to take the PDA Mr. U?” The two red striped Men readied themselves for any resistance.
“No….no I’ll take it.” The blood on U’s hands stuck to the PDA as he took it from the speaker. After the PDA switched hands the red stripe stood smiling at U for a moment until the unit lit up with U’s name.
“The recognition went through,” the speaker said to one of his aids, “you’ll be receiving instructions on when you can return to work within the next week. I suggest that you monitor this unit carefully. Good day sir.” The three stripes went through the door, leaving U with a bloody PDA and a now complete feeling of sickness.