Monday, November 14, 2005

How I Handled Messiah

There is a bad pun there, if you think about it. But it's not worth thinking about too hard.

I attended and spoke at a conference this past weekend called Faith and Popular Culture at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, right up the road from Gettysburg. It was a wonderful conference. Thanks to Jeff Rioux and all the Messiah College staff and students who made it possible. I hate logistics, and I can imagine that the logistical nightmares come in terrifying waves when planning something like this. But the conference came off without a hitch, no doubt because of all the hard work that went on behind the scenes. If you ever read this, thanks, folks.

I find that I always emerge from events like these both totally exhausted and totally invigorated; exhausted from trying to survive on four hours of sleep for the entire weekend, invigorated by the exchange of ideas and by the music I hear. The conference at Messiah was no exception. There were many highlights.

Steve Turner, the keynote speaker, author of books on Johnny Cash, Marvin Gaye, and Jack Kerouac, and journalist friend to the stars, was a warm and thoughtful man who helped me hear parts of U2’s Atomic Bomb album in new ways, and who regaled us with stories of rock star dinners with Bono and T-Bone Burnett. One such story: over dinner, Steve recommends that Bono read a book about the miner’s strike in England in the early 1980s. Bono does, and writes a song about it called “Red Hill Mining Town” that later appears on The Joshua Tree. Every rock journalist entertains these kinds of fantasies (here’s mine: Hey Sufjan, ever heard of a slim little volume of poetry by T.S. Eliot called Four Quartets?), and it’s nice to know that occasionally they come true. Steve is a prime example of a Christian involved in the popular arts who is making a difference in his field.

David Dark, one of the workshop speakers I heard, is a very bright man with a gift for synthesizing seemingly unrelated strands of popular culture and finding the common apocalyptic (in the sense of revelation, not Rapture and Armageddon) warp and weft in the cultural tapestry. Some of his favorites will be familiar to many Christians (Flannery O’Connor, Shakespeare). Others will be surprising and perhaps shocking (Radiohead, Beck, The Simpsons). I love and heartily recommend David’s book Everyday Apocalypse, and was again struck by the way he brings to life the radical nature of Jesus’ message, a message that continues to startle and disturb and bring life and light to a dying, dark world.

My own workshop went well. I think; I’m probably too close to it to judge objectively. But nobody stormed out of the room, nobody slept, and as best I could tell people were listening and engaged. I talked and played some music, and then we all discussed the ideas well past the time when the workshop was supposed to end. I certainly learn from these experiences. I hope others do as well.

I also heard some wonderful music. Sam Ashworth’s songs are crafted so well, and I delighted in just sitting back and taking in standard verse-verse-chorus pop songs about love for the billionth time, and still finding something that yielded palpable pleasure and joy. It’s hard to improve upon a catchy melody and a hook-filled chorus. John Francis, a Philadelphia musician with whom I was not familiar, and Sarah Masen, a musician whose work I know and admire, both struck paydirt with their sets; Francis with his eerie, haunting cover of John Fogerty’s “Fortunate Son,” and Masen with her re-working of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” For my generation these songs are absolutely iconic, and the immediate barrier that arises is that I can hear Fogerty and Dylan in my head the second somebody strums the opening chords to the songs. But both Francis and Masen overcame the familiarity factor by re-inventing these songs and finding something vital and fresh in music that, for me, approaches Hoary Standard territory. Wilco drummer Glenn Kotsche turned out to be a wildly inventive percussionist who employed an international array of rhythmic devices and tape loops to create ever-evolving soundscapes. Very good stuff.

And I relent and repent in sackcloth and ashes. I’ve dissed Jeff Tweedy a bit on some of the Internet music forums, mainly because I don’t think he’s worthy of the fawning acclaim that seems to accompany his every move. But Saturday night, during his stripped-down solo acoustic set, I rediscovered the pleasure of Wilco’s songs as songs. Not all of them work for me, and I still wince at some of the lyrics (not because of perceived blasphemy, but because I believe he thinks he’s more of a poet than I do). But I appreciated the breadth of his set (he covered everything from early Uncle Tupelo tunes to most of the album A Ghost is Born), and I was able to hear how clearly his song structures follow the Dylan template laid out lo these many years ago. He’s working within a tradition I understand. I do wish he’d abandon the fifteen-minute humming amplifier tradition, although, to be fair, we didn’t hear that Saturday night.

I also need to mention the great time I had traveling to and from the conference. Fourteen hours in a car isn’t usually a recipe for good times, but in this case I was accompanied by my brother-in-law Bill McCune and by my friends Dan and Annie Thress from my church in Columbus. We had a wonderful ongoing discussion about the role of art in the church and in the life of the Christian. For a while we also played a strange, exotic game of Name That Tune involving New Orleans jazz and R&B musicians. This is Trivial Pursuit carried to its most esoteric extreme, but some of us like this stuff, and a great time was had by all in the minivan.


John McCollum said...

Handle. Handel. I get it.

Anyway, I wish I could have been there. One of these days I'll make it to one of your seminars.

Thanks for all you do.

Andy Whitman said...

Ken, thanks for your comments and kind words.

All of the workshops were recorded (audio, not video), and I know they'll eventually be available from Messiah College. I'd check back at the conference's web site ( periodically to see if/when they're available.

e said...

You laud Turner for turning Bono on to miners' strikes. But even before "Red Hill Town", U2 performed a little known and even less well liked song called "Springhill Mining Disaster" about a mine collapse in Nova Scotia played live on the BBC (I think) in 1985 or 6. It's one of the worst U2 songs I've ever heard, which still makes it better than most other stuff out there.

So my take away message from your post is--beware of what you say to superstars.

The corollary to that being, of course: "beware of what you say to music journalists." :-)

John McCollum said...


Good call. Good song. Very Dylany.