Vol 4, Num 21 :: 2005.11.18 — 2005.12.01
When Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy took the stage at Calvin College last Thursday, it wasn?t a new experience for those of us who live and work here: Wilco, along with other bands of its ilk, has performed here in the past. But for many in the audience who don?t attend Calvin, the evening was anything but ordinary. As if seeing their alt-country anti-hero at a Christian college weren?t bizarre enough, Calvin had the gall to plop Tweedy down in the middle of its chapel?organ, choir loft, and all.
The Tweedy show, and the response it generated from mainstream Wilco fans, was a wake-up call for me that confusion about what we?re trying to do at Calvin isn?t unique to evangelicals. Sure, we field angry phone calls from denominational donors upset with the occasional Indigo Girls concert or screening of Fahrenheit 9/11. But following Tweedy?s show, I was also reminded that regular, music-loving folks have little understanding of Christian, music-loving folks.
This realization hit home when I was perusing a prominent Wilco fan site, Via Chicago, a few days after the show. The hot topic of conversation among those who had attended the Grand Rapids event was whether or not it was appropriate that Tweedy played a new song that, on the surface, mentions Jesus shooting heroin. Several posters, who were not Christians themselves, felt that Tweedy should have been ?a bit more sensitive to the half of the crowd that attended the school.? Others countered that, on the contrary, he had been ?playing to the setting? the whole night because he ?kept the swearing to a minimum, respected where he was playing, and twice emphasized that he is an ordained minister.? He also ?pulled out a few songs that have cursory mentions of Bible, God, Jesus, etc.?
Meanwhile, another forum regular speculated that a campus curfew caused the concert to end early, that the crowd was quiet because students were unfamiliar with the music, and that the audience needed ?rabble-rousing? because of a certain presidential visit last spring. In a similar Via Chicago thread, discussing Tweedy?s appearance at Messiah College a few days later, one poster responded to accusations of Tweedy?s ?religious insensitivity? by saying, ?Look, if you book a guy (multiple times no less!) and don’t know what type of songs, etc you are booking, then you probably shouldn’t be doing that job.?
In these conversations, several assumptions about Christians are at work. The first is that Christians are easily and perpetually offended by anything that does not reflect their own worldview, which dovetails with the idea that their main concern about popular culture is whether it contains explicitly religious subject matter (?Bible, God, Jesus, etc.?). The other is a sort of fuddy-duddy mentality: Christians don?t stay up late, they gasp at swear words, they don?t listen to rock music, they skew blindly conservative. Therefore, if they?ve invited Jeff Tweedy to perform, it must?ve been a mistake. Man, are Christians clueless, or what?!
In case you couldn?t tell, the assumptions in these discussions originally got me feeling all frustrated and righteously indignant?because at Calvin in particular, nothing could be further from the truth. Although it certainly has its shortcomings, the college deliberately eschews ?behavioral? holiness standards (which make being a Christian about certain things you do, such as reading the Bible, or don?t do, such as drinking alcohol). The school has worked hard at cultivating an appreciation of popular culture expressions beyond the contemporary Christian bubble, with the understanding that not everything we encounter will reflect our own values?which is a good thing.
Unfortunately, this sort of perspective from Christians seems all too rare. And that?s why audience reactions like the ones following the Tweedy concert ultimately tick me off: in the end, we have nobody to blame but ourselves. The posters at Via Chicago were simply reflecting back the impressions other Christians had given them. People make sense of unfamiliar situations by interpreting them through the rubric of what they have already learned and experienced. So if certain audience members didn?t know any Christians who took art seriously and embraced bands like Wilco, guess what? They probably weren?t going to find any at Calvin, either.
Similarly, one of the most fascinating elements of the performance was that Tweedy felt the need to interact with the chapel space, to make self-deprecating comments that communicated his awareness of the environment in which he was playing. For example, he apologetically called the aforementioned Jesus-heroin song ?blasphemous,? which indicated that he knew it was unusual for a rocker like him to strum his guitar in a church setting. But again, this perception did not come out of nowhere. Many Christians would agree that a chapel is no place for a former drug addict whose songs contain ?objectionable subject matter.? How could Tweedy have known that the Christians at Calvin were any different?
Hopefully, the warmth and enthusiasm of the audience?s reception were a more faithful witness than the reputation that preceded us. We invited Jeff Tweedy to perform at Calvin not because he?s ?cool? or ?relevant? (or because we?re clueless), but because he makes moving, carefully crafted music with imaginative lyrics about thought-provoking subjects?music that is well-known and well-loved on this campus. By design, we try to make Calvin a hospitable place for musicians and audiences alike. Often, this means opening up to behavior, language, or subject matter that seems to make Christians uncomfortable, knowing that our faith ought to lead us to kindness, care, generosity, and attentiveness, not judgment and condemnation.
As usual, writer David Dark puts it best, sounding the call to radical inclusivity in Christian artistic engagement. ?All truth is a kind of altar call,? Dark says. ?We might not like what [certain artists] are telling us. But is it truthful? And if it is, what are we going to do now? I would challenge people to stop labeling something as ?objectionable subject matter? just because of the number of bad words they hear and try instead to hear the person’s story.?
And perhaps when, as a body, we begin listening more closely to these stories, Christian colleges will become known as the best music venues in town.
Kate Bowman Johnston is the student activities coordinator at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.