Sunday, February 12, 2006
Prayers and Tears
I have always struggled between a desire to hear and support a genuinely, artistically, good Christian band and the reality that I’ve yet to hear such a band. Recently I ran across The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers and their/his album Psalterie and I think I might have found in them the first Christian band that I can honest claim is artistic. You can download the entire album for free, which is quite nice considering that it is a true work of art.
In addition to the album, the group has a flash program that you can download which includes pictures, lyrics, and commentary on the album. When you listen to the album you can tell that the artist, Perry Wright, is trying to say something substantial with his lyrics and his music, but the exact meaning is fairly allusive. Thankfully, the commentary does not simply consist of recording notes, but actually commentary on the themes and meanings of each song. Part of the reason I like this guy is that he is trying to make Christian music that says something.
One of the great challenges for many Christian rock artists seems to be finding a unity between form and theme, but Wright succeeds in this regard. Each of the songs on the album was “suggested” by the book of psalms. In the title of most of the songs is the verse that inspired it. Some times it is difficult to see the connection between the verses alluded to and the lyrics of the songs, but Wright’s commentary helps clarify things. While I won’t say that it is an experimental album, I will say that some of the recordings, productions, and dynamics are not typical in the least. And where Wright deviates from the beaten-pop-path it is always for a reason. The music speaks the same language as Wright himself. In “The Most Important Words (Ps 80:5),” for example, as the lyrics sing praises to God and relate our relationship to Him, the backup vocals weave in and out of key; thus evoking musically the same theme as “When the Music Fades,” without the needing to come out and say: “I am a fallen man making music to a perfect God, therefore my art will not be sufficient worship but I give it a try anyway.” You get a sense that everything on this project was chosen for a reason, every electric hum, reversed guitar, accordion, and odd vocal.
But there is something I am keeping back here. Two things actually. First, he says the F word, loud, forcefully, and unapologetically. In fact, he actually says in the commentary for “The Sun Fell on You (Ps 119:82)” that he knew that the song would get him into “trouble” because of his use of language. Yet he chose to put it in there. The second thing sort of explains why he felt comfortable using such profanity on a Christian work of art: Wright is not a perfect Christian. He describes many of his songs as “frustrated and faithless,” and claims to have occasional “sojourns into atheism.”
I think that when we, I am thinking particularly of myself here, try to conceive of what good Christian Art should be, we often think in terms of nonchristian/Christian. But this binary is not realistic in many ways, and Wright is a great example of this. I would never make the argument that Wright’s music represents a work of art made by a Christian walking righteously with Christ, but it is a very honest work. It is the work of a man who is struggling with faith; who does not pretend to have all the answers and know all the dogma, and who doesn’t pretend to be a tortured agnostic. This is a man who is growing in faith, who is maturing, who is learning, who is struggling with what it really means to believe, and as such there are elements (like the profanity) that display a lack of faith, but at the same time a deep honesty. Wright does not sound like he wants to shock anyone with his hip-postmodern-tenuous belief; he is simply a man coming to terms with his relation to God.
Perhaps the best song on this album is “Come Ye Sinners Poor and Needy (Ps 109:22),” an 18th century hymn by Joseph Hart that Wright arranges on guitar. Consider what he says about this song in context of the album as a whole:
“I struggled with the possibility of putting such an obviously religious song alongside my own often frustrated and faithless tomes. But Hart’s words truly do express the movement I have been trying to herald-and thankfully by means of a far more sophisticated pen.” (my emphasis).
If Prayers and Tears were affirming false doctrines through evocative music and powerful statements, I would not be writing about them here. But they don’t. Instead, through music that skillfully combines themes with sounds, lyrics with meaning, Wright chronicles his own “movement” toward faith. It is not a mature faith; we should not turn to him for answers, but that is not the place of art anyway. Where Wright is wrong, he is not making dogmatic pronouncements, but positing tentative beliefs. Perhaps the one statement that stands out is that he is trying to make the movement towards faith. And while I cringe when I hear him call Christ a baby “covered in filth and lies,” I delight that he understands that it is only this Baby that can save him. And I pray that his struggle will turn into comfort, and he will know the “peace of God which surpasses all comprehension.” (Phil 4:7). As he makes this movement, I will rejoice in the Lord that He has given Wright such an imaginative ability and devotion to excellence in order to worship Him in Spirit; and I pray that he will soon worship also in Truth.