Music and Theology, Part 2

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Songs, at their best, capture our hearts, they connect us with meaning, they move us... both literally and metaphorically. Good songs express the voice of a generation, they capture a time, they become our song.

This has to do with the way a song fuses music and words. Art (in this case music) has the power to make words and ideas really get under our skin. That's why Plato urged the city fathers to exile all the poets and storytellers. He argued that while philosophers deal with ideas in open rational ways, poets conceal their ideas within the seductive emotions of art. It's true. As Robert McKee observes, 
"Every effective story sends a charged idea out to us, in effect compelling the idea into us, so that we must believe. In fact, the persuasive power of story is so great that we may believe its meaning even if we find it morally repugnant."
That kind of persuasive power puts a huge social responsibility on storytellers and songwriters. Yet McKee boldly insists, 
"I believe we have no responsibility to cure social ills or renew faith in humanity, to uplift the spirits of society or even express our inner being. We have only one responsibility: to tell the truth."
Good art is about honesty. When we instead attempt to use our music or art to promote something--even a good thing--it becomes cheap and hollow. A lot of worship music is like that, as well as much "contemporary Christian music" (CCM). The artists are not allowed to be honest, to sing from the heart, and it rings untrue to us. A good song, including a good worship song, needs to come from the depths of the soul.

Honesty alone is not enough of course. If we are honest but unreflected, we get a shallow song like "I want to rock and roll all night, and party every day." It's honest, but it's shallow. But when we can be uncensored and raw, and combine this with reflection, we get the opposite of shallow. 

Consider the song "It's Been Awhile" by Staind,

It's been awhile
Since I could hold my head up high
And it's been awhile
Since I first saw you

It's been awhile
Since I could stand on my own two feet again
And it's been awhile
Since I could call you 

And everything I can't remember
As fucked up as it all may seem to be 

I know it's me
I cannot blame this on my father
He did the best he could for me

It's been awhile
Since I can say that I wasn't addicted
And it's been awhile
Since I can say I love myself as well

It's been awhile
Since I could hold my head up high
And it's been awhile
Since I said I'm sorry

This is a song about addiction, regret, and failure. It's a song about struggling with your failings, and struggling to love yourself in the midst of it, even when you know you are hurting those closest to you. It's a song about facing our own darkness.

Staind is not a Christian band. No one is telling Staind that they ought to write a song about sin and repentance. It is just a raw and honest song, that comes from the heart. What makes it powerful is that you can sense that it is honest and real. 

But this song draws out the point that "honesty" is not quite the right word here. A better word is vulnerability. Honesty can imply saying what you feel or believe in an unapologetic way. Telling someone on Youtube that they suck may be honest, but it's not vulnerable. That's also where we get all the mean-spirited and reactionary judgmental statements from angry conservative Christians that has so poisoned our social conversation. People say awful ugly hurtful things, and claim "I'm just being honest." What's worse, they think this is an expression of their faith, that it has to do with upholding moral values. 

It may be honest, but it's not vulnerable, and as a result it polarizes us. It does not lead to reconciliation or repentance, rather it builds up walls. That is quite the opposite of what Jesus and the gospel were all about. Jesus said he did not come to condemn the world, but to save it, to bring redemption and reconciliation--that's what the gospel is all about, and it seems that more and more conservative Evangelicals have lost sight of that. We may think it's brave to "take a stand" like that, but it's really not. What takes real courage is vulnerability.

There is a place for anger. It's not that anger is not real or legitimate, it's that expressing anger alone is just too superficial. When we dig down deeper to ask what it was that made us feel angry, we find something more vulnerable beneath--feeling disrespected, excluded, condemned, rejected, unwanted. "When you do that, it makes me feel worthless" gets down deeper than simply saying "it makes me really angry when you do that." Saying "When you walk away when we're fighting, I'm afraid you'll leave me"  gets down so much deeper than simply saying "I'm mad at you for walking out."

That kind of vulnerability results in empathy, as the person hearing it understands our pain, rather than becoming defensive and pushing back. In short, being honest without vulnerability does not produce the result that we want. Vulnerability is harder. The very word means that we are susceptible to harm or attack. Yet somehow when we open up like that, the other opens up, too. It's that kind of paradox that Jesus referred to when he said "if you want to find your life, you must lose it." It's in confessing our sins, our weakness, our fear, that we find our way back towards love and hope. Faith is not the expression of certainty, it's the expression of vulnerability. It says, "I see all the pain and injustice, I see my own failings, and yet I'm still holding on."

Being vulnerable as a songwriter entails speaking of the things that are close to our heart with courage--speaking of our longings, what matters to us, speaking of our struggles and hopes. This results in songs that capture the real depth and complexity of life. It allows us to delve down so much deeper than when we merely say what we feel we ought to, what we are supposed to say. 

It can be scary to go there, but that's what living is about. The theologians and philosophers of the world could learn a lot from the courageous vulnerability of the artist.

Go back and READ PART 1
Go forward and READ PART 3

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At 11:34 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Derek
Vulnerability is indeed the key.
It allows the fear of judgement to be removed.
It allows us to connect.
That Jesus made Himself vulnerable is what most attracts me to Him.

At 9:33 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Lewis can you elaborate on how vulnerability allows the fear of judgement to be removed? I think a lot of people fear that making themselves vulnerable would open themselves up to judgement, so they instead seek to defend themselves. So I'd love to hear your perspective here.

At 4:10 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Quite so.
Vulnerability must be 2 way to work.
But 1 way vulnerability has an amazing effect on the 2nd party.
That is why Jesus made Himself vulnerable to us, I think.


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