Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Pulling Up the Drawbridge

There's an interesting discussion underway at the Arts and Faith forum. It's the age-old conundrum of how much we, as Christians, should allow the surrounding culture to influence our lives. Typically, this discussion breaks down along fairly predictable lines. The conservatives/fundies accuse everyone of being worldly and having lost their salt and light, the rock 'n roller moviegoers accuse the convervatives/fundies of being narrow-minded, judgmental, and out of touch, and the non-Christians look on in disgust and thank the Higher Power As They Understand Him/Her/It that they are not Christians. I'm thankful to report that, for the most part, the current discussion has not degenerated along the predictable lines.

There is a tension here that will never entirely disappear. Nor do I think it should disappear. It is evidence of the struggle that we face as Christians; trying to follow Christ, and being acutely aware of our own proclivity to give in to temptation and to sin.

I do think that the whole focus on evil being “out there” is fundamentally misguided, though. The problem isn't movies, or rock 'n roll. You can retreat from all media influence (or limit that influence solely to the “wholesome” Christian cultural ghetto), hole up in the fortress, pull up the drawbridge, fill the moat with pirahnas, and still find evil, because we cannot escape from ourselves. The problem is “in here,” not “out there,” and until we start to address that we’re focused on the wrong things.

But I think it would be disingenuous to claim that the culture doesn’t influence us, sometimes in negative ways. I love rock ‘n roll, and I write about it for my living (or at least part of my living). I obviously find value in that, and yes, I find value as a Christian. But I’ve also struggled with some addiction issues in my life, including some years when I was a Christian. How did that happen? Because of my own inherent weakness and proclivity to sin, because of genetic disposition, because of peer pressure, because of the lure of idolotry and the promise of an instantaneous buzz instead of the hard work of spiritual transformation. Take your pick. Probably all of the above. But also because I listened to Grace Slick telling me to “feed my head,” and because I watched a bunch of crazy hippies in Michael Wadleigh’s documentary of the original Woodstock Music Festival and thought to myself, “hey, I think I’d like to do that the rest of my life.”

Jefferson Airplane didn’t make me do those drugs, nor did Michael Wadleigh. But it would be silly for me to deny that they influenced me. And so, to this day, I am careful about what I allow myself to be exposed to in music and in film. I can handle a lot of things, and shrug it all off in the name of art and believe (rightly, I think) that art is made by broken people and experienced by broken people, and that it is still possible to find great beauty and insight in the midst of the carnage. But as one of those broken people, I can’t watch movies that feature drug use, nor can I listen to music that advocates drug use[1]. I simply can’t go there because I’ve gone there in the past and almost destroyed my life.

It is not true that Anything Goes, although I think we should be very careful about proscribing what goes and does not go in a group setting, including the church. We need to leave enough room for the Holy Spirit to work in individual lives, and trust that individuals are sensitive enough to know what they can experience as worthwhile and praiseworthy, and cannot experience because it would be detrimental to their souls, if not their marriages, and their very lives.

Do I think it's okay for churches to show films, or to sponsor rock 'n roll shows? Sure I do. At the same time, I want to leave room for people to opt out of the proceedings without fear of judgment. The problem is not “out there.” The problem is me. But sometimes what is out there can undo whatever spiritual transformation has already taken place. And nothing is worth that, not even rock 'n roll.

[1] Don't you hate it when the footnote is longer than the original post? Me too, but you're gonna have to deal with it. I think it's important to note here that tone and context is everything, and just because a film/song contains references to drug use, that does not necessarily mean that said film/song is advocating drug use.

Take, for example, virtually every song recorded by my favorite rock 'n roll band, The Hold Steady. There are drug references galore. But you'd have to twist the meaning of those songs quite dramatically to believe that songwriter Craig Finn is advocating drug use. And because I will go to great lengths to work in Hold Steady lyrics into any form of writing I engage in, including recipes and directions to a friend's house, here's an example of what I mean:

I was not involved at the northtown mall
as a matter of fact i didnt even know that's where it happened

i was france ave when they came out dancing
i was lyndale south. i was kicking it with cousins
we were talking about going clubbing
instead we just started drinking

i've been straight since the cinco de mayo
before that i was blotto
i was blacked out. i was cracked out
i was caved should have seen all these portals
that i've powered up in.

we started recreational
it ended kinda medical
it came on hot and soft and then
it tightened up its tentacles

i wasnt there
i was blind high
i was scared. i was lake and columbus
i was cutting off all my hair
i was unfurling a flag of defiance
aimed at my guidance guy

so this is it
this is the end of the session
i ain't gonna be taking any more questions
i think my attorney's gonna second that notion

it started recreational
it ended kinda medical
it came on hot and soft and then
it tightened up its tentacles

the band played screaming for vengance
and we agreed, this world is mostly manacled
it started ice cream social nice
it ended up all white and ecumenical

there are guys
with wild eyes when they ask to get you high
there are girls
that will come to you with comfort in the night
that's right

we started recreational
it ended up all medical
it came on hot and soft and then
it tightened up its tentacles
the band played sabbath bloody sabbath
you thought it was stoney and adorable
it started in the vestibule
it ended in the hospital

there are guys
with the wild eyes when they ask to get you high
there are girls
that will come to you with comfort in the night
there are nights
where it all comes on a little bit too bright
there's a cross
and in the center there is a hot soft light
-- The Hold Steady, "Hot Soft Light"


mg said...

i don't have anything to add, but just wanted to say 'good post'.

Anonymous said...

Good post.

How do you go about avoiding music/movies that advocate drug use? Do you research them ahead of time? I think this would be very difficult to do as one listens to a lot of music/watches a lot of movies. Or if you hear a song advocating drug use, do you not go back to it?

Andy Whitman said...

Andrew, it's more the latter. I usually don't know ahead of time if a particular movie/album is going to contain some content that it's best for me to avoid.

So I encounter them as a surprise. When that happens in a movie, I literally look away. When it happens with an album, I push the "Next" button and move on, and don't return to the song in question.

And, of course, I have a "history" with some movies and some albums. I mentioned the movie "Woodstock." There are many other movies and albums I associate with that history as well. I just don't go there. I avoid them. They have specific associations in my mind, and I've found that it's best if I avoid them. Run away, run away, in the immortal words of the knights in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." And I do.

And to avoid misunderstanding, let me note that I'm not at all advocating a list of approved/safe movies or albums, or anything like that. I'm simply noting my own weaknesses, and that no work of art is even remotely worth losing my family or my life. And for me, it probably comes down to that. So, recognizing my own weaknesses, I will do whatever I can to avoid placing myself in a position of temptation.

As you might expect, it's an occupational hazard as a rock 'n roll critic. And, as I mentioned in my original post, it very much depends on context and tone. Those Hold Steady songs are rife with drug references, but none of them make me want to do drugs. Just the opposite, in fact.

Anonymous said...

Andy, I'm is the visuals from the movies that are indeed more powerful than the songs? As you had mentioned not being able to watch movies that feature drug there are many that do have drug use in them but indeed are not glorifying it or promoting it. As there are also many songs by recovering addicts in music that also aren't glorifying it but are singing about in almost a storybook way...

John McCollum said...

Yeah, so much here to think about. I'll check out the thread.

Rich Nathan said that the church (and, I'd interpolate, the individual Christian) exists to be a bulldozer, not a bulwark. In other words, we should not view the church (or our own morality) primarily as a defensive mechanism.

We should worry about how we're going to be an active force for good in culture, not how engaging with our culture is going to taint us.

I dunno.

On an almost completely different note, I do get what you're saying about the Hold Steady's drug-related lyrics.

Sasha Baron Cohen said that a lot of people misunderstand Borat, accusing the film of being racist, when it's actually a biting commentary on racism and bigotry.

Anonymous said...

Reverend John Stott ("Basic Christianity") has said: "The great tragedy in the church today is that evangelicals are biblical but not contemporary, while liberals are contemporary but not biblical. We need faithfulness to the ancient word and sensitivity to the modern world."

A few of my quizzes:

A Neon Bible Study

Sgt. Pepper’s Bible Study

All You Need Is Love


D’oh! -- The Simpsons Bible Quiz

Listening to Music with Discernment

Christian Discernment 202: Pop Culture: Why Bother?

Steve Beard's Thunderstruck website: