Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Oh Lord, I Have Made You A Place In My Heart

Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart
among the rags and the bones and the dirt.
There's piles of lies, the love gone from her eyes,
and old moving boxes full of hurt.
Pull up a chair by the trouble and care.
I got whiskey, you're welcome to some.
Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart,
but I don't reckon you're gonna come.

I've tried to fix up the place, I know it's a disgrace,
you get used to it after a while -
with the flood and the drought and old pals hanging out
with their IOUs and their smiles.
bare naked women keep coming in
and they dance like you wouldn't believe.
Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart,
so take a good look - and then leave.
-- Greg Brown, "O Lord, I Have Made You a Place In My Heart"

That's just about the saddest song I've ever heard. It's also one of the truest songs I've ever heard, if not necessarily in all the details, then at least in the attitudes expressed. Several people contacted me about my previous "Twenty Great Christian Rock Albums" posting. "What do you mean by tension, complexity, and ambiguity?," they asked me. "What's wrong with straightforward, overtly Christian art?" And "What do you have against Christian music?"

First, the easy one: there's nothing wrong with straightforward, overtly Christian art. I love the Sistine Chapel. I loved all the Madonna with Child paintings I saw in Italy last fall. I love liturgical worship music. I love old hymns. I love some of the worship choruses we sing because they cut to the heart of the matter, and "I'm desperate for you/I'm lost without you" may not be great poetry. It just happens to be true.

But my comments were intended to reflect my views on popular music and singer/songwriters. It was an admittedly biased, opinionated take on what I want to listen to. But I will say that, in general, I want to have very little to do with most overtly Christian contemporary music. There are exceptions, and I listed some of them in my "Twenty Great Christian Rock Albums" posting. There are others as well. But in the singer/songwriter realm, voice is everything. And by voice I don't mean vocal qualities, I mean the unique perspective that a singer/songwriter (or any kind of writer) is able to bring to the proceedings. And if all you can bring to the proceedings is a sanitized, cliched musical version of a Hallmark Greeting Card, then I'll pass. And that's mostly what I hear in contemporary Christian music.

I am drawn to singer/songwriters who wrestle with real life. And real life, at least as I have experienced it, doesn't conform to nice, uplifting aphorisms or simplistic biblical choruses. Does the Bible inform my life? Sure it does. But so do battles with addictions, and besetting sins such as anger and cynicism, and a desire to follow Christ, and a realization that some days I really don't want to follow Christ at all, and that all I really want to follow is the path of least resistance, which amounts to comfort and hedonism in my case. Leave me alone, Jesus. Greg Brown had that one right. That's the way it is some days. So I'm looking for singer/songwriters, regardless of their philosophical or religious convictions, who understand those kinds of conundrums. That's what I mean by tension, complexity and ambiguity. And I'm looking for people who express those things in song in unique ways.

Most singer/songwriters simply have nothing to say. The airwaves are filled with such mindless fodder. But there are people out there, including Christians, who are willing to bring their unique talents to bear on messy life. And I want to hear them and celebrate them. I don't want somebody singing about how their chains are gone and they've been set free -- unless it's really true. And I will confess that even then I'm unlikely to believe them, although I'm much more likely to believe that they're in the process of being set free. I want somebody -- some Christian -- to sing to me about how they're dead to sin, and how the old man has been crucified with Christ, and yet they still drag the old man's sorry carcass around with them, and that it weighs them down. Because that's reality, at least for me. It's just a desire for creativity mixed with truth, a truth that is more than propositional truth, and that recognizes that even Christians still live in a fallen world, and that they are a part of the problem as well as part of the solution. At least I am.


Pilgrim said...

I just spent a weekend at Calvin's Festival of Faith and Writing, and get your point. (Sorry to have missed Jeffrey Overstreet. An embarrassment of riches.)

Today I zoomed around to Ladysmith Black Mamabazo's No Boundaries (with English chamber orchestra)--overtly Christian, from a group that hasn't been sheltered from the ugly side of life. I don't know if you consider the music contemporary. Or great.

My head partly agrees with you, but in Ohio in April, to this music, I have to say, And Yet... And Yet. . . .

allcedars said...

Exactly. Thank you.

Pilgrim said...

I read this blog though I don't like a wide range of music. I want this kind of honesty from Christiams, but I want it in conversation and in the written word, fiction or not. (Your blog is not audio.) I relate to the issues you articulate so well.

From music, I want peace, hope, and consolation, not more questions.

Congratulations on the srticle in CT today. Saw it here first. :-)

Pilgrim said...

At the same time, one has to feel the music has faced the truth of the pain in the world, before it reached a place of consolation. That's why I like the music from "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (I spent my early years on edge of Appalachia.)

I'm not talking about rock music especially (which makes me more nervous, the older I get).

Anonymous said...

Fantastic insight! I absolutely enjoyed this read.

Paul said...

Great post - my thinking almost exactly. One of my favourite (note the correct English spelling) songwriters is Randy Newman for several of the reasons you state. OK he's an atheist but he exposes more truth about fallen human nature in one song than in many albums full of CCM. Bit short on solutions admittedly... :-)