Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Beyond the Grid

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.


Anonymous said...


I agree with your analysis of Schaeffer, he does just delay the issue.

I like your idea of approaching art from the perspective of joy. My initial thought is if art should stimulate joy in its audience, then it will have to somehow expose the Source of joy, i.e. God. Or it should expose the sources of dispare for what they are. The more exposure you get to the "Humble King", it delivers more of a beating to self-centeredness. Also, since God is emotional (well maybe except for surprise, omnicience you know) art that evokes emotion can not be discounted. Christian art can still be Christian even if it evokes dispair or other negative emotions (ever read Ps. 88?) The method for this exposure is up to the artist.

An example of art that exposes God in a fairly direct fashon would be C. S. Lewis' Chronicals of Narnia. It's a thinly veiled allegory; who could Aslan be? An example of a bit more subtle exposure would be Tolkin. He does not use allegory but his themes are overtly Christian: self sacrifice, the battle between good and evil, a returning king, the joy of fellowship, etc. These works have brougt many people joy. I was depressed the first time I finished LOTR because I could not hang out with the characters anymore.

If we move more and more away from overtly Christian art, towards art that can still expose "anti-joy" we might wind up with Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. I shocked my daughter (and wife) by telling her the movie was a Christian movie. When you figure out the message of the movie/book, "You cannot remove evil from man," you're left with the question, "Who can remove evil from man?" Where does that lead you?

I intend these examples to demonstrate the range of expression open to a Christian artist.

Another interesting thought is that non-Christians can produce Christian art. The movie Signs is a good example. If I didn't know better, I'd of thought that Calvin wrote it.

Mark K

John McCollum said...


Thanks for taking on Schaeffer. In some circles, criticizing him would be tantamount to not seeing Bono as the fourth person of the trinity.

(I love Schaeffer, by the way. I just think he's all wet on this issue. I had a high school Bible teacher who approached art from a Schaefferian/Keatsian [Art is beauty, beauty is art] perspective, and it drove me nuts.)

teddy dellesky said...

no thoughts as of on clockwork is definitely NOT a Christian movie...existential maybe. it addresses the problem. i.e. "you cannot remove evil from man", but offers no answers. there is no message of hope whatsoever. some viewers may not reach the next obvious question. just some friendly ranting.

Andy T said...

I think we're going to have to have a discussion about aesthetics. I remember sitting in a room as a college lit mag editor trying to explain that aesthetics goes beyond some quantified sense of goodness. I might have raised my voice.

Relevant Magazine has been doing a Schaefferean sort of rating on music. Really artificial, eh?

KarlandBethany said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
KarlandBethany said...

Once again you get my musical juices flowing. Not having heard of Schaeffer until this morning I wont agree or disagree with Him. But from what you say Andy his categorizing of art leaves much to be desired.

So I sit here today with "Eastern Odyssey - A journey from West to East captured in Sound, Rhythm and Spirit"

This is art that I know very little about. I have no basis to tell you if it's good or bad, I do not speak the languages in which the tracks are sung, so I cannot tell you if the message is good or bad. All I can do is listen to the textures and allow the music in its basic form effect me.

As I listen to it, it will have an effect on me for the art that it is. I will either enjoy it or not. But even if I don't enjoy it that doesn't mean that it no longer becomes art. Or does it???? Maybe art is truly in the eye/ear of the beholder. Which means that there is no possible way to say that art is good or bad.

I went to school to hone my art and learn how to use the muscles in my body. Never when I was there did anyone tell me that my art was bad. (That's saying something as I created weird stuff.) But they did critique me on my control of my art. If I was not able to control the creation of my art then it was bad art. My final project of my senior year was done on a MAC using small lights, photo resistors, a dancer, 4 friends from the Audience and 8 sound files. I got a "b-" not because my sound files sounded bad or because my art was not what my instructor didn't like, but because at both performances the MAC crashed and ended the performance. I could not control my art and that made it bad.

Classifying my art as bad has to be something that I agree with as the artist. I'm the only one that truly can say that my art is bad. In that final project it was bad. It didn't come out like I wanted.

Holding to this, I cannot say that Chris Martin's singing with Cold Play is good or bad. All I can say is I don't like the way he does it. I can't say that Bono is a bad artist as it is his art not mine. I have many complaints about U2 and Coldplay. Things that I wish they would have changed in their art, but then it wouldn't be their art anymore it would be a Bono/Freudenreich compilation of art.

There is one hole in my argument though...Culture. In our culture we perform music using a well-tempered scale. There are defined rules that most follow purposefully. When we know the artisit is using this scale and should be in tune, then we can say that the art it badly performed. So if the artiest and listener are agreeing to rules of art then yes we can say that the art is bad.

Now I'm back to where we started. Within the confines of accepted rules of art there can be good and bad art.


Andy Whitman said...

Thanks for your comments, Karl. I appreciate them.

I review albums (among other things) for a music/popular culture magazine. I write words about the music, stating my opinion about its merits (or lack thereof) and assign a one- to five-star rating for each album I review. I don't fully subscribe to the "no one can comment on good/bad art except the artist" view. I think there *are* some objective standards that can be used to evaluate art, including popular music. I could get into what I think those standards are, but that would fill up many pages. Maybe another time. But I also recognize that much of this is hopelessly subjective. Paste Magazine recognizes this too in its "Dischord" section; two reviewers hear the same album, and have radically different reactions to it. How can this be? They're both presumably qualified to evaluate music. They both can express their views articulately. So how can they arrive at such drastically different conclusions?

Welcome to the wonderful world of aesthetics. And that is what I get to talk about at this upcoming conference.

I love the idea that you're currently listening to music that doesn't fit any of your past experiences. I find that I'm constantly comparing. It comes with the territory; I've been listening to rock 'n roll (and its many variations) for decades, and there really is nothing new under the sun. It's rare when I hear something that hasn't been done four or five or four or five hundred times before. So the fact that you're hearing music that doesn't have any historical antecedents for you (and that doesn't have a "message" because it's in an unknown language) is a great thing. You get to simply listen. And you get to react purely to what you're hearing.

In a way, that's what I'm hoping to communicate in this conference. There is so much baggage that accompanies music appreciation. We drag years, if not decades, of musical history into the proceedings. And if we are Christians, we also drag our brains, firing on all synapses in an analytical manner.

I do think people can enjoy art on many levels, including logic, but it's unfortunate that academia teaches art on pretty much only that level. In literature class, one dissects the poem. What does it *mean*? What does the white whale symbolize? Who is the man who owns the lovely, dark and deep

There's not a lot of cachet put on simply reacting to the words or the music for their own sake, to simply finding joy in what you encounter. That's too plebian
for academia.

From a Christian college perspective, there's another layer: emotions, like
everything else, are fallen. We can't necessarily trust them. So simply finding joy in what we encounter isn't enough, because we can find joy in things we shouldn't (or at least happiness, or pleasure). We need to pay attention to what we're encountering and what agenda may be behind it, and we need to
adjust our responses accordingly. Thus Francis Schaeffer's grid. We have to *think* all the time about what we encounter.

I do see merit to that perspective. But what about joy? What about experiencing music on a visceral level, pogoing around the room, bouncing off the couch cushions, or however we viscerally experience that lightning bolt between a musician and our own soul? What about the fruits of the Holy Spirit, one of which is
j-j-j-joy, a word that I almost choke on when I think about it because of all the weird connotations it has in the evangelical world. You know how I know what joy is, how I know it's something real and tangible and not the exclusive property of televangelists with big hair who talk about Jayzus? I know it because I experience it when I listen to popular music, often made by non-Christians who wouldn't know a fruit of the Spirit from Fruit of the Loom underwear.

Sorry for ranting. But that's what I want to communicate, hopefully without drooling. I don't want to discount the analytical approach, but I want to move beyond it, to where the real action is. And I hope to have some fun in the process.

Karen said...


i believe that it's pronounced: "Jaay-zus-uhhhh."
it can also be pronounced: "JEEEE-zus-uhh."


mommy zabs said...

Andy, I really like your thoughts. I have always wondered on the "good art" thing. I mean that is often in the eye of the beholder in some regards. We are all made with different likes and dislikes. We are all unique. So I do feel that model falls far short, it over-simplifies.... it is not realistic.

On relevant Andy T,
I suppose the rating does seem some what similiar to FS's idea. However, reviewers review from their point of view. I don't take the same point of view on every album the company does... BUT reviewers review... and I don't think there is anything wrong with relevant doing their version when so many magazines in the mainstream have their on version... though maybe not spritual. But you are entitled to your opinon. Just food for thought. You can't be hard on relevant and not be hard on any magazine that attempts to do ratings on albums, movies or whatever.... whether it comes in the forms or stars, points, or thumbs up or down.