Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Christian Music and Album Covers

I feel very disappointed that this has to be said, but Christian musical arts should not be selling their physical image on album covers, posters, or their myspace page. Being attractive, cool, or sexy is not a valid reason for other Christians to listen to your music, and it is so painfully antithetical to the Gospel that I am both angry and sad every time I come across it.

As consumers we should think twice before purchasing a Christian album which promotes the artist as an idol--a side note here, just because the artist is holding a cross, kneeling, or praying while they are posing seductively does not mean they are not trying to appear to be an idol. I understand that the commercial aspect of CCM encourages the artists to try to compete with secular artists who openly use sex or hipness-appeal to attract consumers, but how can you justify such a blatant attempt at becoming an idol Biblically?

If you are a Christian music artist, please consider the effect and purpose of your "image" is; remember that we should seek to give God glory, not ourselves. If you are a consumer of Christian music, please consider whether or not the artist is being marketed as an image (read idol).

By the way, if you think this is an isolated issue, please do a search for Christian music on myspace, particularly Holy Hip-Hop, but any genre will do.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Desire for Narrative

Lately I have had a lot of ideas knocking about in my head about the prevalence of existentialist ideas in modern thought. I haven't quite gotten around to blogging about these ideas, but after reading a particularly distressing Wired article I thought I should write a bit.

In Thomas De Zengotita's brilliant book Mediated, he discusses how modern life is characterized by a mediation; instead of experiencing and learning about the world directly, we increasingly tend to interact with it through an intermediate source. A obvious example can be found in almost any natural disaster. Very soon after the disaster occurs, it slips from becoming a tragedy to an event. The coverage becomes the focus of our thoughts and discussions. The debate about the disaster becomes the event itself. One critic described the premise of the book like this:
"Influenced by the media-inspired "culture of performance," we now live our lives as if we are performers practicing method acting, he maintains. We go through the motions of expected reactions to everything from the 9/11 terrorist attacks to Princess Diana's death to documentaries of the Kennedy assassination and the civil rights movement. The Internet, satellite television, and a host of technological products and services now give us the impression of participating in current and historical events to such an extent that we can barely distinguish the varying levels of what de Zengotita categorizes as ranging from the real-real to the unreal-real."

De Zengotita does not extensively explore why we desire to be performers in the world; I would posit that it has much to do with an over-saturation of narratives.

Stories have always been a central aspect of human relationships and cultures; we always have and always will tell stories. Stories are part of the way we learn about the world and our place in. But never has there been a time where there have been so many stories told, so often, so ubiquitously. At any time of day, an average person in most countries can turn on the TV and be presented with hundreds of stories covering thousands of conflicts. Movie theaters and home rentals make it almost as easy to watch stories on the big screen. Newspapers, magazines, and books all are filled with narratives.

Setting aside the monstrous narrative beasts that are TV, film, and books, our cultural stories are so interwoven into our lives that pieces of them can be found on billboards and on Internet ads. The on-going "real life" narratives of celebrities are perfect examples of this. We might start "reading" their story on the Internet, and find pieces of it on the evening news, over coffee with a friend, from a billboard which features the latest film staring the celebrity, and so on. Our lives are utterly and completely filled with narratives. And not simply "stories," but narratives of the kind De Zengotita has in mind.

When people share personal stories, they rarely take on the larger-than-life, ontological aspect that written, filmed, or otherwise "created" narratives do. In such creative narratives the protagonist is always at the center of the universe, and there is nothing mundane or banal about their existence or actions (if you've been wondering, this is the bit about the influence of existentialism on our modern lives). Everything they do is imbued with meaning because they are enacting a story. Actions which might appear to be dull (going to work, mowing the lawn, brushing teeth, etc...) in this narrative are actually just as meaningful as major plot twists. And important actions and events in the narrative take on transcendent meaning and purpose--winning against all odds, getting the girl, setting things right are all accomplishments which are greater than the sum of their earthly parts.

Do you know that feeling you get when you walk out of a movie theater after seeing a film that draws you into its world? That feeling of foreignness that lingers for a few moments, challenged by the sun light and trivial world of reality? That is the fading residue of the illusion of transcendence that compelling narratives give us; they are able to persuade us that the events of the story are of such cosmic significance that the external world of modernity appears as a cheep substitute.

In a post-Christian world, the importance of the individual must be established and upheld by some means, and narratives are the most efficient means to do this. We are all important. Why? Because we are all performers in the story of our lives.

Only there is a problem.

Life, by in large, is dreadfully dull.

In the real world, the act of brushing our teeth is not imbued with cosmic purpose, although it might win us friends. Mowing the lawn is a chore. And most of us are not faced with the kind of singularly important conflict that is the defining feature of most stories. Our conflicts tend to be mundane, and once resolved, they lose their significance rapidly.

But humans are remarkably adaptive creatures, and taking cue from the millions of narratives which we bath in daily, we tend to make narratives when none present themselves--often to the detriment of ourselves, the world, and truth. If you've ever talked to anyone between the ages of 12 and 20, you'll know what I mean. Teenagers are wonderfully adept at creating drama in order to give their otherwise petty daily actions profound meaning.

"It's like, I LIKE him, but he doesn't even know how I feel because that OTHER girl, Stephany or whatEVER her nam is is like always with him and I told her to leave him alone or else I would tell her brother about her little pills but she just pretended not to her me so I'm going to text him and that'll..."

I don't use this as an example of how foolish teenagers are, because no age group is immune to the thirst for narrative; all groups act out in one way or another--teenagers are just easiest to pick on.

In the past, this desire for narrative always had one very big limitation: no matter how hard you wanted to be someone else, some character of your own creation, you would always be you, stuck in the "real" world. Aside from a few exceptionally strange people who are pathological liars, actors, or spies, it just was not feasible to actually create our own character. You could take actions which would fill your life with drama, but you would still be stuck with you. That is, until the Internet.

Thomas Montgomery, a 45-year-old father of two daughters, married to his wife Cindy for 16 years, recently plead guilty to shooting his rival in an Internet love-triangle. Wired magazine published this article accounting the entire story. Be warned. It is graphic and depressing. One day he simply decided to be someone else, so he made up a new identity and went online. He managed to trick a "17 year-old" girl into believing that he was an 18 year-old Marine. Even after this identity was reveled to be a hoax, he continued to be a "performer" in his own self-made narrative. The result of his seemingly childish (he was playing make-believe wasn't he?) actions were horrifyingly disastrous. Jealous of a 22 year-old co-worker who began carrying on a (digital) relationship with this 17 year-old-girl, Montgomery shot him in the parking lot where they worked.

I don't bring this up as a scare tactic, or to suggest that all people who try to narrativize their lives will end up murdering someone, but what should be clear is that there is something innately wrong about living the life of a character. The Internet affords us the ability to do what was once insane or impractical: we can all be characters, actors, stars. Not real people with real interests and concerns, but characters who closely resemble us. Our websites contain the trivial facts about us that interviewers drag out of affected celebrities, as if the most important aspects of our lives were what kind of foods we like, who we'd like to meet, and what our favorite movies are.

Consider Myspace for a moment.

There. Now you've got it.

See how pervasive this is? And who is immune?

But what is the source of this? Two truths. First, all people innately recognize that they are important and that certain events in life have transcendent purpose and significance. Second, all people desire to live lives that account for this innate importance and transcendent events, even if it requires absurd and obscene actions--life is meaningful, and if there is no rational reason to believe so, then all that is left are our narratives which feign meaning.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

There is No Peace? Part 2

The Hebrew word in both Jeremiah 6:14 and Ezekiel 13:10-12 for "peace" is Shalom.

In another example of how the English language is overrated, our single word for peace painfully fails to capture the meaning of the Hebrew word Shalom, which has more to do with completeness, rightness, and soundness than freedom from violence. With this definition in mind, I believe these two verse speak volumes on how we as believers should interact with culture and make art.

Ezekiel 13:10-12:
"'Because they lead my people astray, saying, "Peace," when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash, 11 therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall. Rain will come in torrents, and I will send hailstones hurtling down, and violent winds will burst forth. 12 When the wall collapses, will people not ask you, "Where is the whitewash you covered it with?"

Jeremiah 6:14 "They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially,
Saying, 'Peace, peace,'
But there is no peace."

In both of these verses, God is speaking through His prophets, condemning the false prophets who are convincing everyone that everything is alright. Often times when we as believers think about how we should filter what comes into our minds, we think in terms of major sins: if a book as a sex scene in it, I can't read it; if a film has profanity, I can't watch it; if a TV show is filled with violence, I can't view it. But what should be of much greater concern is how the world presents to us Peace, but there is no peace.

A car commercial subtly persuades us that the purchase of a vehicle will make our lives complete. Difficulties, problems, all will be set right if we own a car.

A romantic comedy, free from sex scenes and frank dialogue about sex, suggests that if a person finds that special someone, the one person they are meant for in the world, they will be complete. All fears will melt away once we have true love. Nothing will be too frightening once we have that one, perfect, companion.

A political candidate assures his audience that if elected, he will make our country secure, safe, and sound. The poor will be fed, the corrupt will be outed, and the economy will be mended. If only he is elected, then we can have economic, geopolitical, and domestic peace.

But there is no peace.

When we as believers engage culture, we need to remember that our peace comes from Christ, from His work on the cross, from knowing where we belong and who we are, not from anything in this life. It is a fundamental truth that all people long for peace, for Shalom, and that one of the best ways to turn a buck is to promise people peace. Whether it is advertisements, films, or songs, we must remember that these things are merely white washed walls, covering up the ugly, unbearable fact that there is no peace in this life outside of Christ. Everything else is a chasing after wind.

As artists, this idea of medium as prophetic utterance is just as meaningful as for the consumer of art. When we create, we must create in such a way as to show that there is no peace outside of Christ. Whenever we fail to do this, we are false prophets.

So often Christian art slips into portraying humanity, the world, and nature as healed and at peace with God, because if humanity is not at peace with God, then people are stilling sinning, and if people are sinning then there is still sin in the world, and if there is sin in the world of our art, then it must have representation. When we fail to show that the world, humans, even nature to some extent, does not have peace, we are false prophets, white washing the world, when only the blood of Christ can do that.

In a similar way, when Christian artists are so focused on creating for their own subculture that they forget to speak to the issues that face all people, they are giving their audience peace, not in Christ, but in Christendom. When we only sing songs of rejoicing, of bliss, of blithe, we are asserting that the peace of Christ has already taken us out of suffering; we are false prophets crying, "Peace, peace, But there is no peace."

There is No Peace?

This morning I read a passage in Ezekiel that struck me as addressing some of the most central problems with our culture and arts (both Christian and secular):

Ezekiel 13:10-12:
"'Because they lead my people astray, saying, "Peace," when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash, 11 therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall. Rain will come in torrents, and I will send hailstones hurtling down, and violent winds will burst forth. 12 When the wall collapses, will people not ask you, "Where is the whitewash you covered it with?"

Here's a passage with a very similar meaning in Jeremiah:

Jeremiah 6:14 "They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially,
Saying, 'Peace, peace,'
But there is no peace."

Before I explain how I believe these verses are extremely important to our understanding of culture and art, I would love to hear some other views. I'm going to wait a few hours, or days and see what some of you can come up with. How could these verses help us understand our roles as creators and consumers of art?