Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Wrong Note.

Have you heard of Hillsong? They're the sort of tinny, canned music-makers who haven't yet realized that the nineties are over and that the sounds they are making are not innovative. Except, I don't think they really want to innovate - that's not their point. They are music for the lowest common "christian" denominator, and they are not trying to challenge their creative limits - their lyrics are often reorganizations of Bible verses, just as their melodies are often reorganizations of past musical directions. They move dirt, dig trenches, and insist that if you are not behind them, you're on the wrong team.

As an artist who values art as a conversation we engage in best by referencing, not copying the past, I find this sort of regurgitation incapable of compelling my attention or touching me in any significant way. This is strange. It is odd that music ostensibly so obsessed with matters of the soul should be, well, so soulless, and engaging only to those who, intentionally or not, have never been exposed to gutsy art with the capacity to move the spirit.

I do not mean, however, to demean the folks who make this kind of music. Perhaps they do not realize they are in this mire, or perhaps hackneyed musical paths are all they are capable of or perhaps they are so deep in a culture that so affirms their lack of innovation that they truly believe they are making good music. There are a lot of "worship" bands that are much, much worse than Hillsong. And the folks at Hillsong do seem to have hearts that actually get some very basic truths, as evidenced by this video.

I don't blame the sinner, I'm just offended by this sin.

That's right, I said it... sin. I think of bad art as sin. Usually it's unintentional, the foiblings of blissfully ignorant folks who maybe want to do well, but don't know how. And no, I am not talking about technical prowess. Everybody is an amateur at one time or another. I am talking about honesty. For art to be good - for it to connect with something real and essential in another person - it has to come from a place of honesty. It has to be vulnerable, vital, visceral. You would think that "artists" who were actually making enough money off it to call it their "job" would have this vital characteristic. This isn't the way it is, I know. If you work your tail off, have something people want, and get lucky, you might just make it.

Again, this has nothing to do with the character of the artist in question. It is quite possible to be an absolutely wicked person and play an absolutely wicked guitar. Picasso, Dali, Gauguin and many other painters were absolute turds in their personal lives, but when it came to their art they set that aside and laid their real selves bare before the world. The same is true of a great artists of all stripes: writers, musicians, actors, dancers - no matter how much they perfect their technical abilities, if they are not willing to be honest about who they really are when the time comes to make art, then it doesn't matter how well-intentioned they are or what they might understand to be true about life, as artists they suck, and their art is, in the balance, immoral because it allows us to ignore some very important truths with which we really, desperately need to be faced.

So why do people buy so much of this art? Why do dishonest artists like Hillsong and Thomas Kinkade and the makers of this ridiculously bad movie become bazillionaires? Because good art challenges you. It breaks with your presuppositions and forces you to think differently. It bypasses inherited thought patterns and requires you to process the world in a way that is not comfortable. By referencing the past but not copying it, it gives you real, tangible access points and then leads you down hitherto unknown corridors. It is, like the very God of the Universe, absolutely and completely unsafe.

While I believe in my guts that every last man-jack of us positively yearns for this adventure of the unknown, on a very important level not one of us actually likes it. And so, instead, we choose to expose ourselves to "art" that does none of those things and takes us to none of those places. We choose hackneyed craft that has none of the soul required to really challenge us. We choose to follow the path of least resistance, and to expose ourselves only to "art" that shows us what we were already expecting to see.

That is not to say that there will be no truth in this immoral, comfortable drivel. "Everything is everything", as the Rastafari say, so there are going to be bits and pieces of Reality no matter how fearfully we try to hide from it. There will be the occasional achingly beautiful chord in a Hillsong piece, "Fireproof" will say some true things about relationships, and Thomas Kinkade will comfort someone who needs it and strike a surprising color balance in the middle of a whole lot of pastel nonsense.

But why settle? Why be afraid of honesty and why not demand... not perfection, but excellence throughout the whole dad-blamed thing?

In my worldview, all of the created order calls God's name. Not just trees and rocks and mountains, but also Matt Damon, Damon Wayans, and Waylon Jennings. And yes, I do think that it is most healthy to look for that calling in places where folks affirm goodness and truth. It is just my opinion that much of what passes for goodness and truth in the subculture of which Hillsong is a part is largely a deceptive, comfortable, partial truth; which, according to the momma who raised me, is still a freaking lie.

Again, I really loved that Hillsong video and what it said. I love truth wherever I, with my imperfect little nose, can smell it. But I will not allow a whiff of perfume to overwhelm the overpowering stench of decay. It's time for "christian art" to be called on its lies and its half-truths and the fear they promote. We don't need this kind of education - we don't need this thought control. It is time for folks who purport to follow Christ to stand up and say with their wallets, "you can make it, but we ain't buying". It's time for them to demand honesty in art, because if art is infested with an overbalance of lies, then it is incapable of connecting people with the truth.

It is incapable of love; and that's not just depressing - it's a sin.


  1. Holy Crap.
    A couple of good points generally, but you talk about art like it's completely objective and you've got the corner on it. Some people HONESTLY find some Hillsong stuff cathartic, soul impacting, and true. Just like outside of Christianity different people are moved by different art and forms of art, within Christianity we can see the same thing. When you canonize or codify your own definitions of good art, you come off as a self-important pretentious ass, which may or may not be a sin. Although I do agree with your point in general, and the Christian movie thing.

  2. in my opinion, a huge reason why people like the 'lowest common denominator' is because it's all they are ever exposed to. if you eat hot dogs every single day and then someone offers you a smoked sausage, you would be blown away and think it's the best, most amazing food ever! but, it's still just sausage. that doesn't mean that hot dogs and sausages are bad, but it does mean that you are still missing out on the rich, creative flavours God provided on this earth.

    children do not receive education in art, music or culture anymore so it's hard to expect them to be discerning as adults, christians or not. i agree with RyanMichael that "people HONESTLY find some Hillsong stuff cathartic, soul impacting, and true", but it's because it's all they know.

  3. Cannot agree with you more....but then I am not too pro Christianity being an umbrella for anything other than truth....or emotionality being linked to issues of faith, so-don't-you-dare-criticize....I think teachers of anything have to be under higher scrutiny, be authentic to hold its own. I thought "The Passion" as a movie was exploiting ppl's emotional connection to faith to the extreme....meaningful violence may make us better Christians, bond us closer to faith? Nah. I took my kids out of the movie as I believed it traumatizing. Cath and Dave were visibly upset by it back then, and Matt and Chris never made it to the movie theatre after that. I don't promote violence in popular film either. Unnecessary to make a point. Christian art has become very label-ish, but if we say it.... we are labled asses....yet a Hollywood movie reviewer has the perfect right to support his own view point? Keep scrutinizing...not only do you have the right to, we have the responsibility to keep on pushing for art that is not sickly sweet and pretentious just because it is Christian.

  4. Point taken, RyanMichael. It is true that I do not have the right (or, in fact, the inclination) to judge the aesthetic tastes of others.

    Nonetheless, I still think that a degree of objectivity with regards to art is possible (I kind of HAVE to believe that, being an art teacher).

    While I can grant that some twelve year old girls find that Britney Spears connects on a deep level to something in their soul, I would still argue that they've been marketed that hyped emotion, and that they are experiencing none of the subtle shades of engagement available to them through truly good music. There ARE elements of beauty and truth in Britney Spear's music and in Eminem's and in 50 Cent's and in Elvis Presley and in Hillsong and even in Michael W. Smith. I LOVE belting out M.W.'s old tunes.

    But why stop there and pretend that that is great art? Why give those guys the accolades and opportunities, when there is SO much in that music that is pure horse manure? At some point, you've got to get tired of milk and start yearning for solid food.

    Could it be that you agree with my point in general, and about "christian movies" but draw the line at Hillsong and call me a "self-important, pretentious ass" because you really like Hillsong, and are perhaps unwilling to lump yourself in with all the critically challenged folks who eat books like the "Left Behind Series" for breakfast? The truth hurts, dude - maybe it's time to, er, face the music.

    That may be mean - but hey, you started it.

  5. I find it interesting that you bring up the idea of honesty in art. The lack of it is one of the primary reasons why I chose to disengage from the mainstream Christian "art" machine which for me was Christian music. Ultimately the issue that drove me from it was that in it everything was too clean while the life I led, and lead, was far from it.

    I recognize my own reaction of it (to completely ignore it) and now try to find Christian musicians that are honest about life as one in God’s kingdom.

    Also I look for musicians that make good music.

  6. I see I'm a bit late to this conversation, but it seems to me that the problem with the intersection of religion and art is that Christianity has become an institution, and institutions seek to maintain themselves. The best art deconstructs; it challenges how we see the common parts of our common lives; it lets us see beauty where perhaps we did not before. It makes things messy and yes, it requires vulnerability--which, no matter what we Christians would like to think--are not things the church values very highly.

    Much of what passes for art in church these days seems to pass muster precisely because it reinforces decades of doctrinal purity (doesn't detract from the words, which are really the only important thing). I've found far more interesting theology among musicians (for example) who don't profess any certainty about salvation than those who do--but perhaps that's because my faith is generally inseparable from my doubt.