I've been asked to speak at a conference called "Reconciling the Church and the Popular Arts" at Messiah College in Grantham PA (southwest of Philadelphia). The conference is November 11th - 12th. Steve Turner, who has recently written a wonderful biography of Johnny Cash (and a thoughtful, challenging book called Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts), is the keynote speaker, and the featured musical performer is Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. Like the similar conference at Calvin College this spring, there will be workshops on music, film, radio, advertising, etc. I will again be speaking on music criticism from a Christian perspective.
In formulating some initial thoughts about this conference, I'm thinking that I'm going to entitle my workshop "Beyond the Grid." What is the grid? It's a handy tool developed by the theologian Francis Schaeffer in the 1970s as a way to evaluate art from a Christian perspective. Schaeffer suggested that all art could be plotted on a four-quadrant grid. Those quadrants were Good Art/Good Message, Bad Art/Good Message, Good Art/Bad Message, and Bad Art/Bad Message. Thus, one sought out good art with a good message, avoided bad art with a bad message, and wrestled with the conundrums of good art with a bad message and bad art with a good message. Schaeffer was a wonderful, godly man and a fine thinker, and he had a profound influence on many people, but I think his handy tool for evaluating art is fundamentally misguided, and not very helpful. For one thing, the Good Art/Bad Art distinction begs the question. Schaeffer assumes that it is relatively easy to determine. It is not. It is notoriously difficult, as every philosopher of aesthetics from Aristotle forward will readily attest. Second, the "message" of a piece of art is also slippery and very difficult to pin down. Just what is the message of "She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah"? Is it a good message? A bad message? How do we know? Or how about "Here we are now/Entertain us/A mulatto/An albino/A mosquito/My libido/Yea"? Good message? Bad message? Anyone care to decipher?
And that's what I'd like to talk about; how to move beyond this narrow taxonomy of categories and approach art in general (and popular music in particular) not as an analytical exercise, but as an exercise in joy. Don't get me wrong. As Christians we do need to think critically about popular culture. Obviously we cannot unthinkingly accept whatever the world throws at us. But I want to leave room for joy, and I'm not sure where that fits in to the analytical approach. I want to leave room for being surprised, shocked, challenged, deeply moved, and grieved by art, for becoming a less self-centered person, for becoming more thoroughly engaged with those around me. Art (and music) can do all those things. That cannot be quantified, and it doesn't fit neatly on the Schaefferian aesthetic grid. I don't want to pin down and label art, or understand it in its 19th- and 20th century contexts and how that has influenced the post-modern world, or anything else related to dry academics. I want it to explode within human hearts, and I want people to believe that this is God-ordained, not something to be feared, but something to be welcomed and embraced -- something like grace.
The reality is that Messiah is a Brethren college, part of the Anabaptist tradition that is deeply suspicious of popular culture as the mouthpiece of "the world." And I understand that view. There is crap out there. There is popular music out there that can lead people astray, that can influence them to make bad choices, to believe lies, etc. But I would also say that it would be unfortunate at best, tragic at worst, to minimize or underestimate the impact of popular music from a spiritual standpoint. In my case, there is also Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Sigur Ros, Sufjan Stevens, and hundreds of others. My point is not to create a new canon, the next generation of "high art." My list will look different from everyone else's, and not because I'm a relativist, but because I'm a unique human being, as is everyone else. But those musicians, and many others like them, have enriched my life in amazing ways, helped me understand love and the loss of love, death, the longing for community, for relationship, what it means to be a child, what it means to be a parent, and a hundred other real-life issues I face as a Christian. And that's what I hope students at this conference will embrace. Find the joy and the points of connection in your life, and let God move beyond the grid.
These are just tentative thoughts, and I'd welcome your own reactions or questions to any of this.