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November 22, 2017

Strange and Wonderful Proceedings

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I remember my earliest visits to jazz clubs when I was still a teenager. Before the music started, I would say to myself, “Almost anything could happen tonight. Almost anything!” Perhaps that sounds naive, the breathless enthusing of a fan, not the sober reflections of a future critic and music historian, but I still can’t imagine approaching jazz any other way.

When I attend a classical concert, in contrast, I can tell by looking at the program exactly what I will hear. If it says Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Number 8 (the Pathétique) is on the bill that evening, I can anticipate almost every note.  Rock and pop concerts are a bit more unpredictable, but even in that setting I know the band will play its familiar hits and probably try to make them sound similar to the albums, the proceedings “enhanced” with stage props and visual effects, yet still essentially the same routines they did last night in a different city and will re-create at their next tour stop.

But jazz, I learned at the very start of my exposure to it, plays by different rules.  It is open to a much wider range of possibilities.  The musicians themselves hardly know what they will play; the jazz world’s fixation with improvisation ensures that strange and wonderful proceedings can unfold on the bandstand, perhaps during the very next song. — Ted Gioia, How to Listen to Jazz, pp. 202-203.

Posted by John Barach @ 9:31 pm | Discuss (0)
November 7, 2017


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Music fans today can hardly imagine how disruptive the saxophone was during the early days of jazz.  Even decades after the sax had taken over the bandstand, many New Orleans purists objected to its baneful presence.  And the instrument had other marks against it.  The sax was not an accepted symphonic instrument — the American Symphony Orchestra League even issued a formal prohibition of the horn during the 1920s.

It was loud and lowbrow and perhaps even morally dangerous.  I’ve heard stories, perhaps apocryphal, of radio stations refusing to play sax music on the Sabbath, fearing its corrupting influence on impressionable young souls.  But there’s little doubt that Pope Pius X had the sax in mind when, at the dawn of the twentieth century, he instructed the clergy to avoid instruments “that may give reasonable cause for disgust and scandal.” — Ted Gioia, How to Listen to Jazz, p. 159.

So what brought about the change, so that jazz embraced the saxophone and it became, as Gioia says, “the defining sound of jazz”?  Here’s Gioia’s answer: “Most of the credit for this stunning turnabout goes to a single musician: Coleman Hawkins” (159).  To find out why, you’re just going to have to read the book.  Or you could just listen to this 1939 version of “Body and Soul”:



Posted by John Barach @ 9:29 pm | Discuss (0)
November 28, 2012

What Is “Contemporary”?

Category: Music,Theology - Liturgical :: Link :: Print

I was thinking recently about what is often called “contemporary” worship music and I began to wonder what exactly is meant by “contemporary”?  The obvious answer might be “Contemporary worship music is worship music that has been written/produced in recent years.”  So a song that was written in the 1800s would not be “contemporary,” while a song written last year — or maybe as long ago as the 1990s? 2000s? — would be.  “Contemporary” is new, “non-contemporary” is old, and the only question is what date marks the boundary line.

But two questions immediately come to my mind:

First, why should we call something “contemporary” based on the date it was written?  What about its usage?  Imagine that there’s a song that’s suddenly on the radio a lot, people are singing along to it, people are requesting it, and so on.  You’d say that that song was popular.  It’s popular at the time it’s being played.  Now that song may have been written many years before it became so popular, but that doesn’t matter.  It’s popular right now.  In fact, not only is it popular; it’s also contemporary — an old song, sure, but one that is part of contemporary culture because people are singing, requesting, and playing it.

Apply that now to the church’s music.  Some of the music that people view as “non-contemporary” or even as “traditional” is still being sung — and sung vigorously — by other people today.  It’s a staple of their church’s music.  It’s a song they sing several times a year.  More than that, it’s a song that many people, including children in the church, love.   Given the opportunity to pick a song, they request that one.   Sure, the song wasn’t written in the last decade and may have been written a couple hundred years ago, but isn’t it still contemporary, not based on its date of composition but based on its being sung by congregations today?

Second, though, does “contemporary” in these discussions refer only to the date of the song’s composition or does it refer really to the style of music, and specifically to whether the song sounds like today’s pop/country/folk-rock/whatever hits on the radio?  Take two songwriters.  One is producing a worship song that sounds a lot like a hit by Coldplay.  The other is, let’s say, working in a conservative Lutheran tradition and produces a song with a square melody that’s recognizably in the tradition of church hymnody.  Both songs are completed on the same day, so in that sense they’re both “contemporary.”  But that doesn’t really matter, does it?  Only the first would really get called “contemporary.”  The latter wouldn’t.  In which case, “contemporary” isn’t really the best word to describe this sort of music, is it?

Posted by John Barach @ 2:07 pm | Discuss (0)
August 2, 2010

Psalm Singing

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms,Music,Theology - Liturgical :: Link :: Print

In his lecture entitled “Introduction to Worship,” available here, James Jordan points out that one way to tell what Satan hates is to see what things that God wants in worship are missing or abused. What does Satan hate? One thing he hates is Psalm singing. Says Jordan,

The other thing the devil does not want is congregations singing the Psalms because the Psalms are full of holy war stuff. If you start singing the psalms, you start getting iron in your bones.

You know that Psalm 68, “Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered,” was the marching song of the French Reformation. They would sing it as they went into battle. The Huguenots in France would sing it all the time. Of course, they didn’t have air conditioning then, so the windows were open and all the Catholics heard it, and it made all the Catholics so afraid that eventually the king outlawed singing Psalm 68 in public. So they’d go around whistling. And they had to outlaw whistling that melody.

Now, people are not afraid when they hear us sing “’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus.” They are not worried about you.

This move away from Psalm singing, it seems to me, has taken more than one form:

(1) Many churches do not sing the Psalms at all.  They may sing hymns or gospel songs or praise songs, but they don’t sing the Psalms.  In some of these churches, the Psalms are read; they may even be read responsively.  That’s better than nothing, but it’s also rather strange, isn’t it?  The Psalms were written to be sung.  David didn’t simply read them.  The Levites at David’s tabernacle didn’t simply read them out loud.  They sang them.  If you went to a performance of Handel’s Messiah, you’d be pretty disappointed if the performers read the text instead of singing.  But in many churches, the Psalms are not sung and, in most services, are not read.  And what that means is that the Psalms do not shape the piety, worship, expectations, language, biblical understanding, and so forth of the Christians in these churches.

(2) In some churches, a few Psalms are sung.  If you look in a hymnal (e.g., the Trinity Hymnal produced by the OPC and PCA), you won’t find all the Psalms.  You’ll find only some of them.

(3) There are songs that incorporate only a line or two of a psalm.  Take the well-known praise song “As the Deer.”  If you look at the first two lines, you’ll see that they are drawn from Psalm 42:1.  But immediately the song leaves Psalm 42 behind.  There are alternate stanzas that incorporate more of the psalm, but I certainly didn’t learn them and I doubt that a lot of Christians have.  This is not Psalm singing.

(4) Most of the Psalms that are sung in churches — and I’m talking about churches that are committed to Psalm singing — are metrical Psalms.  That is, someone has taken the Psalm and paraphrased it, arranging the words to fit a rhyme and rhythm scheme.  Doing so necessarily requires you to depart from a strict word-for-word translation of the Psalm.  For instance, “God” doesn’t rhyme with “sword,” so perhaps you change “God” to “Lord” to make the rhyme work.  The length of each line of a metrical psalm has to be a certain number of syllables with the accent falling in a certain place (“Da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA”), so what do you do with a long line in the Psalm?  You abbreviate it to make it fit.  At times, you rearrange words, producing something like what Jordan calls “Psalms by Yoda” (e.g., “You’ve raised like ox my horn”).

Do these changes really matter? Yes. I’m not opposed to singing Psalm paraphrases, and I particularly love the Genevan psalms. They’re still, to my mind, the greatest versions of the Psalms produced. But nevertheless they depart from a strict translation of what God actually said, and I think it is important that we learn to sing God’s Words and not our paraphrases of them.

Metrical Psalm singing, good as it can be, is not full Psalm singing.  A metrical Psalm is to a Psalm what a sermon is to a passage of Scripture.  It’s a paraphrase, a poetic rendition, an explanation.  But what about singing a good translation of the Psalm itself?  Who would want to settle for a sermon instead of a Scripture reading?  Who would settle for a poetic paraphrase instead of a Scripture reading?

But to sing a good translation, word for word, would require either a through-composed Psalm (and they’re somewhat hard to learn, given that there’s no repetition in them) or — horrors! — chanting.  And immediately the objections start: “We can’t chant!”  Why not? “Chanting is Roman Catholic!”  No more than saying the creed or a host of other things we do in church.  “Chanting would be too hard.”  But aren’t a lot of worthwhile things hard at first? The question is: Do we really want to sing the Psalms or not?

(5) When churches do sing the Psalms, they sometimes do so in ways that rob them of their power.

*   C. S. Lewis said that a lot of hymns in his day were “fifth-rate poetry set to sixth-rate music,” and that’s true of some metrical psalm versions, too.  Sometimes the music doesn’t fit the words.  Check out, for instance, the version of Psalm 88 in the blue Christian Reformed Church Psalter Hymnal, where the darkest Psalm in the Bible is set to light, bouncy music.

* When people think of “chant,” they often think of Gregorian chant.  There are forms of Gregorian chant that can be quite powerful (e.g., the ones included in the Cantus Christi), but those aren’t what springs immediately to mind.  Instead, when you say the word “chant,” people think of a choir singing Gre-e-e-go-o-o-o-o-o-o-r-r-i-i-a-a-n cha-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-n-n-nt, with every syllable stretched out over a series of notes, rising and falling in a soothing way.  That’s great for ambiance, with one candle lit, when you’re having dinner with your wife. But it isn’t warlike and it isn’t something the congregation can sing.

* The Anglican tradition includes a lot of Psalm chanting, but if you get a CD of it, chances are pretty good that it will be sung by a boys’ choir.  Now there’s nothing wrong with a bunch of young boys singing in their high-pitched prepubescent voices.  But the effect is more sweet than warlike, and such CDs don’t give you a good idea of what chant could be like.

* I mentioned above that I love the Genevan psalms.  Sung at a good pace, they’re lively, dancelike, and at the same time warlike.  You can imagine pounding your spear on the ground as you sing them.  But sung slowly, in a dirgelike fashion, few people can stand them for more than a stanza or two.  Ho hum.

And if you buy a CD of Genevan psalms, chances are that’s what you’ll get, perhaps because a choral performance, especially with people singing parts, needs to be slower to bring out the complexity of the music.  For that reason, Bach’s motet “Jesu, meine freude” is going to be sung more slowly than the hymn “Jesus, Priceless Treasure.”

The other thing you’ll find on a CD of Genevan psalms (or, worse, in the liturgy!) may be an organist doing improvisation for a while between each stanza. Don’t get me wrong. That kind of stuff is fine — for a concert. My acquaintance Harm Hoeve is a great Dutch organist and he does fantastic improvisations on the Genevan psalms. But it kills congregational singing and it makes it unlikely that the congregation will want to sing more than a couple of stanzas.

So when you listen to CDs of this sort of music, you have to use your imagination. Imagine what the Genevan psalms would sound like if they were kicked up a gear or two and sung by a bunch of David-like soldiers. Imagine that those Anglican chants were being belted out by a bunch of tribal warriors : “Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered.”

Having said all of that, I must also say this:  In criticizing these traditions, I’m not saying, “My church does this rightly, but yours doesn’t.”  Rather, my aim is to point out something that the whole church, my congregation included, needs to work on.  I don’t know of very many churches at all that sing all 150 Psalms, let alone in a good literal translation, let alone in a lively and martial way.  What can we do to bring about a change?

Posted by John Barach @ 2:44 pm | Discuss (6)
June 4, 2010

Ral Donner

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Yesterday, as I drove to the church, I was listening to Louisiana Public Radio’s “Old Gold” show. They played a song from the ’60s in which the singer sounded to my ears a little bit like Elvis Presley. A stray thought drifted across my mind: “Who was the guy, a contemporary of Elvis, who sounded so much like him that it hurt his career?” I remembered hearing a song by him years ago, but I could remember neither the song nor the singer. There was little I could do to retrieve the rest of that memory. I didn’t even remember enough to Google it.

The song I was listening to ended. And the next song was the very one I had been thinking of: “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got (Until You Lose It)” by Ral Donner:

I don’t know for certain that his vocal style hurt his career, but that was exactly the artist and the song I was thinking of. How weird is that?

The next song was “Suspicion” by Terry Stafford. If you’ve ever heard it on the radio, you may have said (as I have), “That’s Elvis.” But chances are it was Stafford. Elvis recorded the song in 1962, but it was Stafford who had the hit with it in 1964.

While I’m at it, if you want Elvis’s own favorite impersonator, here’s Andy Kaufman:

Posted by John Barach @ 3:14 pm | Discuss (0)
November 20, 2009

Psalm Singing

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Thanks to Daniel Foucachon, there are now a number of videos of a Christ Church psalm sing on YouTube.  Not, I hasten to add, the Christ Church that I pastor but our sister church in Moscow, Idaho.  Enjoy!

“Before Thee Let My Cry Come Near” (from Psalm 119)

David Erb’s version of Psalm 149:

“O ‘Twas a Joyful Sound to Hear” (Psalm 122)

Posted by John Barach @ 4:29 pm | Discuss (1)
March 7, 2009


Category: Music,Uncategorized :: Link :: Print

Sad news: Fabchannel, which for nine years has been presenting some great concerts, is coming to an end.  Too many music labels don’t want them broadcasting concerts of their artists.  They’ll have the concerts up for one more week, till March 13, and then … they’re gone.  What a pity.

Here are some of the concerts I’ve especially enjoyed:

Joe Henry
<a href=”″ mce_href=”″>Live Concert Video – Joe Henry</a>

Maria McKee
<a href=”″ mce_href=”″>Live Concert Video – Maria Mckee</a>

James Hunter
<a href=”″ mce_href=”″>Live Concert Video – James Hunter</a>

Andrew Bird
<a href=”″ mce_href=”″>Live Concert Video – Andrew Bird</a>

Andrew Bird (again)
<a href=”″ mce_href=”″>Live Concert Video – Andrew Bird</a>

Lizz Wright
<a href=”″ mce_href=”″>Live Concert Video – Lizz Wright</a>

Bettye LaVette
<a href=”″ mce_href=”″>Live Concert Video – Bettye LaVette</a>

There are many more concerts up, including Iron & Wine, The Arcade Fire, Ron Sexsmith, Simple Minds, Shawn Colvin, Luka Bloom, and Solomon Burke. Enjoy them while you can.

Posted by John Barach @ 10:03 pm | Discuss (0)
June 30, 2008

Mark Knopfler Live

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Thanks to the generous gift of a set of tickets for my entire family (thank you! thank you!), we attended the Mark Knopfler concert at the Britt Music Festival this weekend.

Brothers in Arms was probably the first Dire Straits album I heard, but I remember a friend playing “Romeo and Juliet” and “Sultans of Swing” and soon after encountering Brothers in Arms I went back and picked up some earlier Dire Straits albums as well as a couple of Knopfler’s soundtrack recordings (Cal and The Princess Bride).  I think it was Jamie Soles who pointed me to Knopfler’s first solo album, Golden Heart, and since then I’ve picked up several of his subsequent albums.

So it was a great joy for me to take my family to Jacksonville, ride the trolley to the top of the hill, sit on a blanket with a perfect view of the stage (thanks to my mother-in-law who stood in line for hours to get a good spot for all of us!), eat cheese and bread and salami and chutney and drink wine (thanks to my glorious wife who prepared a picnic lunch for us), and then see Mark Knopfler in concert.

This was his Kill to Get Crimson tour, but instead of playing mainly new songs, he roamed through his repertoire.  Here are the set list and some YouTube videos, none of which are from the concert I saw, though they are from this current tour (the ones at the end are from the night before the concert I saw):


Posted by John Barach @ 11:03 am | Discuss (0)
March 6, 2008

Sacred Harp

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My first introduction to what is known as “sacred harp” or “shape note singing” was a few years back, when I picked up a CD called Goostly Psalmes, which Canon Press sold, and then eventually tracked down the companion CD of psalm and hymn tunes by William Billings, A Land of Pure Delight.  Some of these tunes I learned to sing when I visited Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, and some of them are included in the Cantus Christi hymnal.

At the time, I suppose I thought that this hymnal was resurrecting these tunes and this style of singing, as it was doing for the Becker Psalter of Heinrich Schutz.  It turns out that I was wrong.

Today, on Jeffrey Overstreet’s Looking Closer blog, I came across a review of a recent documentary on shape note singing.  What’s interesting is that this musical style, which goes back to the earliest years of the United States and beyond that to Great Britain, is not dead nor has it been preserved only by academic musicologists.  It’s still alive and kicking in many churches, particularly in the southern states.

The documentary is entitled Awake, My Soul, and here is the review that alerted me to it.  The documentary has its own webpage, as well, where you can hear some of the music.  The first seven minutes of the documentary are online here.

My wife commented that there was something tribal about this singing.  Only later did I discover on the documentary’s website a reference to this as a “Lost Tonal Tribe.”  Exactly right.  There is something tribal about this sort of vigorous singing together, and that’s a good thing.

In Crisis, Opportunity, and the Christian Future, James Jordan talks about how the church functions as a tribe, and part of what cements the tribe together is vigorous communal singing.  History progresses through phases as tribes give way to kingdoms and kingdoms to empires, which then get so large that people begin to form new tribes within the empire to which they give their chief allegience.  At such a time as this, the tribal aspects of the church, including communal singing,   are exactly what the world needs.

I repeat the word “vigorous” here for a reason.  Dirgelike singing doesn’t change the world.  At least, not for the better.  It doesn’t draw people either.  Our Reformed forefathers sang the psalms, but they didn’t intone them slowly as if they were marching reluctantly to their funerals.  They sang them with vigor and strength, as soldiers marching to war.

The quotation on the documentary website from Joe Dempsey at the Washington City Paper puts it well: “Get enough people singing weird harmonies at the top of their voices and you start feeling a little sorry for the devil.”

Give this shape note singing a listen and maybe even pick up the documentary.  This may not be exactly (and certainly not only) what we ought to be doing ourselves.  I don’t believe, for instance, that every song ought to be sung in four-part harmony or that everyone in the church ought to be able to sing in four-part harmony.  But this documentary gives us an opportunity to watch and to learn from a community, a living tradition, that gets some things right.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:18 pm | Discuss (0)
August 17, 2007

Basso Profundo

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Some beautiful examples of Russian music with choirs featuring some basso profundos. First, here’s the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir singing Chesnekov’s “We Praise Thee,” from the Russian liturgy:

These guys can apparently hit G1, which is two octaves and a fourth down from middle C. (Go find that on a piano and try to hit that note.) At a little over a minute into that video, the camera focuses on a man whom I think is Passiukov (sometimes spelled Pasikov), who appears also in the last video here. Here’s another, this one from the Orthodox Singers Male Choir:

And finally, a longer clip. You’ll see Passiukov (or the guy I think is Passiukov) at about three and a half minutes into the video:

Posted by John Barach @ 2:33 pm | Discuss (2)
June 26, 2007


Category: Music :: Link :: Print

Sinead O’Connor has just released her latest recording, which is entitled Theology.  It seems to be biblical theology, not systematic, since most of it is … wait for it … psalms, along with some stuff from Jeremiah (“Something Beautiful”), Job (“Watcher of Men”), Isaiah (“If You Had a Vineyard”), and Song of Songs (“Dark I Am Yet Lovely”).  Oh, and there’s some Curtis Mayfield, too.

Unexpected?  Well, she sang something from Psalm 91 on her first album and has included some nods to Christianity on several of her recordings since, so it isn’t a completely new direction for her.  Still, a whole album of it is a surprise and it’s a surprise to find her going so directly to the Bible.

There are two discs — the first stripped-down and acoustic, the second with a band — with basically the same material on each.  The second disc sounds more accessible to me, based on the Amazon clips.  One of the reviewers said that the second disc sounds like pop and the first sounds like prayer.

It’s not word for word from Scripture, and there are a few glitches that I can catch from the clips on Amazon.  She pronounces the “j” in “Jah” like the “j” in “jam,” instead of as a “y” sound, and that grates on me a bit.  The bad grammar in the title of “Whomsoever Dwells” is jarring.

More questionable: it sounds as if in one song she says something like “They say that you are to be feared / But I don’t believe everything I hear…,” which, of course, isn’t what Psalm 130 says.  On the other hand, what she says may be a personal response to certain ways in which God is presented and may, in that context, be correct.  But I will say that I haven’t listened to the whole song, let alone the whole album, and so in mentioning it to you, I’m not necessarily endorsing her theology.

Even if she doesn’t get everything right, it’s still surprising to see an artist like Sinead produce an album of psalms and other biblical passages.  What’s next?  A Sinead O’Connor/Jamie Soles duet album?

Posted by John Barach @ 2:26 pm | Discuss (9)
January 22, 2007


Category: Art,Literature,Music :: Link :: Print

Last week, I read Steve Turner’s Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts.  I’d spotted it in the Medford Public Library and thought it looked interesting.  And it was.

Turner is a poet and music journalist and has written several books and articles about musicians, so he knows what he’s talking about.  He does a very good job at pointing out the ways in which the arts contribute to a full life.  Dance, for instance, makes us aware of the beauty and grace of the human body.

Whereas some books on the arts focus solely on artists who are themselves creating new pieces of art, Turner recognizes that not every artist does.  Musicians in a symphony simply play the notes that are in front of them.  Similarly, there are actors who simply have to say the lines that have been written for them.  It strikes me that Turner is unique in addressing what it means for such artists to carry out their art in a Christian way.

Turner distinguishes helpfully between what he presents as “five concentric circles” of artistic work.  In the outermost circle are the sorts of artists I mentioned above, and Turner affirms that there’s nothing wrong with simply playing the notes or acting a role.  The creation of something beautiful is valuable, even if no one hearing the musician play those notes would be able to tell that he is a Christian.

The next circle is the kind of artistic work that does express “Christian faith because it dignifies human life and introduces a sense of awe” (p. 83).  Think of a saxophone solo that makes you glad to be alive or a photograph that shows you a beautiful scene or a poem that sheds new light on some aspect of ordinary life.

The third circle is the kind of artistic work that expresses the Bible’s teaching but in a way that is not specificially Christian.  Unbelievers, too, can often affirm the importance of forgiveness or appreciate humble care for the poor. The fourth circle is more explicitly Christian, drawing on biblical and theological themes such as original sin.  The fifth and central circle is the most explicitly Christian, presenting the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Turner notes rightly that all of these circles are legitimate artistic endeavours for Christians.  He traces the history of Christian appreciation and avoidance of the arts.  It’s sad to see that, whereas the Roman Catholic church often embraced and supported her artists, the Protestant world often didn’t.  Turner interacts (often sympathetically) with some of the Protestant cautions with regard to the arts.

At various points in the book, he speaks about the superficiality of much of the art that Christians produce.  Christians shouldn’t focus their artistic endeavors simply on the gospel as if they were simply interested in propaganda.  It’s not wrong to produce music about ordinary life; Christians as much as unbelievers enjoy drinking good coffee or falling into bed at the end of a hard day or loving their wives or walking under the stars and they shouldn’t feel as if singing about these things is less godly or less “spiritual” than singing about Jesus.

Furthermore, they shouldn’t shy away from talking honestly about sin.

Adultery, violence, murder, deceit, fornication, betrayal and pride are clearly important to adult storytelling, whether in fiction, in film or on the stage.  A simplistic reading of the situation would conclude that these sins are included to appeal to the base in human nature.  Sometimes they are.  But it is often more deep rooted than that.  Drama depends on conflict.  The protagonist must face tests and trials and through overcoming them, reveal his or her true character.  Violence and sexual betrayal are among the most extreme tests we can face, which is why they are so frequently used in story lines (p. 39).

After pointing to the stories of David and Saul and David and Bathsheba, Turner continues:

If the obstacles the writer introduces either don’t seem challenging enough (for example, the protagonist is handed back too much change in a store and worries about whether to return it) or doesn’t seem real enough (for example, a fight ensues but no punches are seen to land and no blood is spilled), then evil doesn’t appear evil enough, and if good triumphs, it won’t appear good enough.  This is why so much “Christian fiction” lacks the ring of truth.  The action doesn’t appear to take place in the “real world” (pp. 39-40).

Turner follows up with some quotations:

Mindful of his Calvinistic heritage Daniel Defoe argued in the preface to Moll Flanders: “To give the history of a wicked life repented of, necessarily requires that the wicked part should be made as wicked as the real history of it will bear, to illustrate and give beauty to the penitent part, which is certainly the best and brightest, if related with equal spirit and life.”  Francois Mauriac said that his job as a novelist was to make evil “perceptible, tangible, odorous.  The theologian gives us an abstract idea of the sinner.  I give him flesh and blood.”  Or, as John Henry Cardinal Newman once observed, “It is a contradition in terms to attempt a sinless literature of sinful man” (p. 40).

Instead, too many Christians shy away from realistic portrayals of sin, presenting a Pollyanna view of life, “paintings of birds and kittens, movies that extol family life and end happily, songs that are positive and uplifting — in short, works of art that show a world that is almost unfallen where no one experiences conflict and where sin is naughty rather than wicked” (pp. 40-41).

But presenting the truth about sin doesn’t mean that the artist has permission to be worldly.  Turner warns that we are perhaps most in danger of succumbing to worldly ideas when we’re just watching something for fun, but he is careful to identify what worldliness is and isn’t.  It’s the rebellious system of thinking and acting that characterizes unbelieving people; it isn’t a disdain for the world around us.

Confusing these two usages can lead to disaster.  Some strict fundamentalist sects show disdain toward creation and culture, and yet in doing so become proud, arrogant and uncaring.  They therefore become worldly in the very way the Bible condemns and yet are not worldly enough in the way the Bible commands.  We are told to be in the world but not of it.  People like this are often of the world but not in it (p. 43).

This sort of “unworldiness” which emphasizes the “spiritual” and rejects “the secular” (that is, anything that isn’t directly about Jesus) — a view which Turner correctly identifies as having its roots in the heresy of gnosticism — can damage people and drive them away from Jesus:

When I was researching my book Trouble Man: The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye I visited an African American church in Kentucky where one of the pastors asked me this question: “Gospel music is made for the glory of God, but for whose glory is pop music made?”

I assumed I was meant to think that if someone wasn’t singing about God, they couldn’t be singing to God’s glory and that if they weren’t singing for God’s glory then they must be singing to the glory of the devil.  It’s a tortured logic but one I have seen affect some of the most innovative artists in rock music.  It can lead people to think that they are damned for singing a song about the joy of being in love or driving a fast car (p. 46).

And so people like Sam Cooke and Jerry Lee Lewis, but doubtless many others, found themselves confronted with a choice: sing gospel music only or leave the church to sing “secular music.”  And if you’re going to be treated as a rebel, then you may as well act like one.  And so they have, working out the gnosticism their churches taught them.

And yet those aren’t the only choices.  The church needs to embrace and appreciate its artists, even though artists often don’t fit in well.  And artists need the church, too.

Toward the end of the book, Turner calls Christian artists to be faithful church members instead of edgy outsiders.  Turner cites the poet Jack Clemo who left the Calvinistic Methodist church he grew up in but returned to the church later in life:

At first I steered clear of the church, having a sort of “poetry religion,” but a Christian can’t develop much on poetry religion.  We all need the religion of ordinary people and the love of other converts.  That’s why, in the end, I went back to church; to worship around people who don’t like poetry.  It’s a good discipline.  I can’t put myself apart from them as someone very special.  As a convert I am just an ordinary believer, worshipping the same Lord as they do (p. 122).

Turner adds:

The church humbles us.  It is one of the few places in our societies today where we sit with rich and poor, young and old, black and white, educated and uneducated, and are focused on the same object.  It is one of the few places where we share the problems and hopes of our lives with people we may not know.  It is one of the few places where we sing as a crowd.  Although the church needs its outsiders to prevent it from drifting into dull conformity, the outsiders need the church to stop them from drifting into individualized religion (p. 122).

There’s a lot more packed into these 131 pages: including a good discussion of how poets and musicians write (they don’t first have an idea and then start writing; they often just come up with words or phrases that get stuck in their head or sound good with the music, even if they don’t make much sense by themselves), the politics of “Christian worldview” (why is it that some Christians would identify a song against abortion as demonstrating a “Christian worldview” while a song about third-world debt wouldn’t qualify?) and a helpful chapter about U2.  Buy a copy for an artist friend.  And then read it yourself too.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:24 pm | Discuss (0)

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