Vol 4, Num 5 :: 2005.03.11 — 2005.03.24
In case you couldn?t tell from the direction this column usually takes, it?s difficult for me to find much that is excellent or praiseworthy in modern American evangelicalism. This is particularly true with regard to our attitudes towards popular culture and our own meager cultural offerings. So usually, I spend much of my word count speculatively grousing about what?s wrong with the contemporary expression of Christian faith that it produces such shallow, legalistic, and (literally) God-awful cultural dogmas and devotions.
I don?t mean to come across as a curmudgeon or an embittered pessimist when taking to task the hype over The Passion of the Christ
or the shortcomings of CCM. I also don?t want to exempt the mainstream from criticism; culture isn?t faring any better there, if you can trust the Billboard charts and this year?s Oscar telecast. Mostly, I just want to compel people to ask questions about the way things appear to be: Is that really the way they are? The way they ought to be? Or have we whitewashed the gritty and uncomfortable truth in favor of a convenient lie that requires nothing from us but our money and blind allegiance?
These aren?t upbeat questions, of course; they?re a bit like peeling the layers from a cosmic onion. They usually result in a sort of Matrix blue pill/red pill dichotomy or an I Heart Huckabees-esque existential crisis, but I?m of the opinion that those are usually good for people. You have to trust the process.
I do realize that, by and large, I?m preaching to the choir here. Most readers of catapult, I am sure, have undergone their respective religio-existential crises and now spend their time, like me, alternately inducing such crises in others (usually students), complaining about how no one else truly gets it, and praying against the demon of cynicism with limited success. In this particular choir, the latter is our most insidious pitfall, because it is our default easy-way-out. Cynicism allows us to feel superior and slighted at the same time. But it also makes us sort of sour and not a whole lot of fun to be around. Not to mention that the last time I checked, it hadn?t made the Fruits of the Spirit.
To keep myself honest (and I suggest you do the same), I try to surround myself with a few people who don?t let me get away with being cynical. My colleague, Ken, checks my rebellious spirit and kindly suggests edits to my writing when it becomes too snarky (for instance, I have a feeling he?s going to make me axe that ?God-awful? comment in the first paragraph). My future husband, Nathan, has a remarkably broad perspective on the Church that never fails to challenge me; he?s also mastered one of those devastating spousal ?looks? that shuts me up instantly if I?ve become uncharitable. And my friend Joanna, as another self-professed cynic, gets inside my head in a way only a comrade could. Together we slouch towards Bethlehem.
Sometimes, the people who accompany me on this journey, simultaneously gibing at me and soothing me, are people I have never met. Some of them are other writers and cultural critics, some of them are filmmakers, and many of them are musicians. Of these, some of them are Christians, but many of them are not. I?m not sure what about these culture-formers attracts me, but this empathy is mysteriously written into me?as a small child, I was fascinated by the sounds on my father?s vinyl records, Beethoven and the Beatles alike, and I somehow felt those sounds meant something.
As I grew in stature and in faith, I learned that I should not make philosophical alliances with this kind of music. It was produced by people with no regard for God or His laws, I was told, and therefore had nothing to say to me as a Christian. As a young person who wanted desperately to please God, I diverted myself with Michael W. Smith and Rebecca St. James for a time. Once I hit college, I could no longer find good reasons to resist so-called ?secular? music when I found so much truth, and so many of my own experiences, reflected in it. I will never forget the first time I was handed a Radiohead album and instructed to listen. I had never felt so strangely alienated and so completely known.
Again, these are probably familiar experiences among this choir to which I am preaching. Many of us grew up faced with what Craig Detweiler calls ?a schizophrenic bind? when it came to popular culture. Several months ago, I interviewed Detweiler, an author and professor, for an article on approaches to popular culture at Christian colleges and universities. He summed up the origins of my own journey?and, I suspect, many others?this way:
I think [young Christians] have been trained with their mind to resist all things outside of faith and to be highly skeptical of culture. Their brains say, don?t listen to it, don?t like it, don?t dignify it. But their feet, their ears, and their hearts betray them. What they?ve been taught and what they are experiencing are two different things. Their heart, their inner being, loves the movies, music, and TV, and yet they feel in the chapel and the classroom that they should not. It?s their heart waging against their mind.
When we see that we have pitted our hearts and minds against one another, instead of learning to conduct them in concert, it is apparent why we are so tempted to pessimism and cynicism. Many of us were taught to betray ourselves and our birthright as culture-formers (Genesis 1:26-28). I want the students with whom I work to resist this dichotomy with vehemence?but am I giving them anything substantial and true to embrace instead, a thesis in addition to an antithesis?
This is why we need our little choir. We need people who can help us answer this question, who understand our personal demons as their own yet who are not content to let the conversation end with ?speculative grousing.? We need people who, as Dwight Ozard put it in his farewell music column for PRISM magazine, ?while [they take] great joy in pulling the carpet out from underneath evangelical piety, [work] just as hard to point to a good and godly place to land and a life of faith that is whole and rich and true?and worldly.?
I am fortunate that some of these very people will be gathering in my own proverbial backyard in a few weeks. The office with which I work at Calvin College is hosting its second Festival of Faith and Music, a chance for artists, audiences, academics, and anybody else who cares to gather together and make fascinating sounds and talk late into the night about the schizophrenic bind that, for many of us, has evolved into a beautiful paradox. Many of the people who have helped me on my own journey will be there?David Bazan of Pedro the Lion, Sufjan Stevens, Bill Mallonee, Sarah Masen (whose debut cassette caused me to realize that Christians could sing the whole litany of created things and still point to the Creator). A couple of Georgia boys who were so frustrated with cultural discourse that they started their own publication will be there to share their brainchild, Paste magazine. The gadflies from this online site will be there, too.
It is our hope that we can resist cynicism and explore proactive attitudes and solutions at this Festival. And if you are part of the choir to which it is preaching (or find yourself getting there, slowly but surely), we hope you will join us, too. We hope you might find a home of sorts among us, a place to return for refreshment because the journey is difficult and tiring. We gather to hear one another and to speak and to question, and then, onward, together we slouch.
Kate Bowman is the student activities coordinator at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. She blogs for her supper at http://weblogs.calvin.edu/weblogs/sao.