A World Where Love Can Be at Home–Josh Ritter and Francis Schaeffer

“Christianity should never give any onlooker the right to conclude that Christianity believes in the negation of life.” — Francis Schaeffer

I’ve often wondered what might happen if Josh Ritter, one of my favorite modern songwriters, were ever to meet Francis Schaeffer, the famous American pastor and intellectual who in 1955 founded L’Abri in the Swiss Alpine village of Huemoz.

If you spend any length of time listening to Ritter’s music (and you really should spend some time with it) you’ll quickly realize that the man is simultaneously fascinated with religious themes and repelled by what he has seen of Christianity and of the Christian god.

In this sense he fits neatly into the category of “misotheist” as described by Bernard Schweizer. For Ritter the issue isn’t necessarily whether or not God exists. Rather, the issue is that if there is a God then he is a cosmic killjoy, a tedious bore of a being who would create us with the capacity to love and then fence it about with so many rules that the joy and wonder of it all is snatched away. Continue reading

The Best U2 Recordings You’ll Hear

For your Saturday listening pleasure come two songs from U2 that no self-respecting fan should go without hearing.

The first is With Or Without You.  A famous song, yes, but this live version includes a bridge (taken from the Book of Daniel) that they occasionally included in their live performances:

We will shine like stars in the summer night

We’ll shine like stars in the winter.

One heart, one hope, one love, with or without you…

The second is “One,” which has some of their best lyrics.  But rather than the pop version that they originally performed, they slow this concert version down considerably and add an orchestra.  The result is overwhelming.

More Monday.  Enjoy the weekend.

Understanding vocation, humanity, and politics through the metaphor of music

Maya Angelou says he “thinks like a sage, acts like a warrior and writes like a poetical prophet.” Henry Louis Gates, Jr. says he is “the pre-eminent African-American intellectual of our generation.” And Marian Wright Edelman says he is “one of the most authentic, brilliant, prophetic and healing voices in America today.” This is all praise for Cornel West, the Class of 1943 University Professor at Princeton University and author of many books, including Race Matters, Democracy Matters, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism, Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, and Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America.

Cornel West’s passion for jazz is infectious. Music becomes the metaphor for his vocation as an intellectual, his humanity as a black man, and his politics as a radical democrat. Reflect on the incisive musings below from his book, Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom.

The human voice itself is the greatest instrument. Black folks’ tradition begins with the voice. We try to make the instruments sound like our voices. Art Tatum vocalizes the piano. John Coltrane vocalizes the saxophone. Miles Davis vocalizes the trumpet. It’s the human voice you hear in the instrument. The human voice goes beyond technology, the poetry of the written page, and instrumental music.

The irony is that you can’t find your voice unless you’re bouncing off the voices of the dead. That’s where tradition plays a role. Everybody knows that Jelly Roll Morton is gone. Buddy Bolden is gone. But their voices are still here.

There’s no Wynton Marsalis without Duke Ellington. Duke is the voice of the dead. Now Wynton is in deep conversation. He’s in relation so he can create by finding his own voice. He is relating to someone who has expressed his voice in such a profound way. You get this wonderful interplay between past and present, which creates a new future musically.

Music has been our most powerful creative expression. Of course, the music itself is based on the communal links of church, family, and social education. Our music reflects our unique sense of rhythm, harmony, and melody.

For me, the deepest existential source of coming to terms with white racism is music. In some ways, this is true for black America as a whole, from spirituals and blues through jazz, rhythm and blues, and even up to hip-hop. From the very beginning, I always conceived of myself as an aspiring bluesman in a world of ideas and a jazzman in the life of the mind. What is distinctive about using blues and jazz as a source of intellectual inspiration is the ability to be flexible, fluid, improvisational, and multi-dimensional––finding one’s own voice, but using that voice in a variety of ways.

The motif for my work has always been to sing in spoken word and written texts like Duke Ellington played and Sarah Vaughan sang, to swing, to create an intellectual performance that has a blues sensibility and jazzlike openness, to have the courage to be myself and find my voice in the world of ideas and in the life of the academy.

American musical heritage rests, in large part, on the artistic genius of black composers and performers. This rich tradition of black music is not only an artistic response to the psychic wounds and social scars of a despised people. More importantly, it enacts in dramatic forms the creativity, dignity, grace, and elegance of African Americans without wallowing in self-pity or wading in white put-down.

Blues sensibility is tragicomic but not sentimental. There are no pure heroes or impure victims. Good and evil are locked in all our souls. The question is, what kind of choices do we want to make?

Blues––the elegant coping with catastrophe that yields a grace and dignity so that the spirit of resistance is never completely snuffed out.

What is jazz all about? It’s about finding your voice. It’s about that long, difficult walk to freedom. It’s about mustering the courage to think critically. It’s about mustering the courage to care and love, and be empathetic and compassionate. But it’s also about being in a group with antagonistic cooperation, which means bouncing against one another so that you’re giving each other more and more courage to engage in higher levels of collective performance.

Jazz is a mode of democratic action, just as blues is a mode of deep, tear-soaked individuality.

Jazz is the middle road between invisibility and anger. It is where self-confident creativity resides. Black music is the paradigm for how black people have best dealt with their humanity, their complexity, their good and bad, negative and positive aspects, without being excessively preoccupied with whites. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Coltrane were just being themselves. And for whites interested in the humanity of the “other,” jazz––a purely American form––provides them with examples of sheer and rare genius.

One of the reasons jazz is so appealing to large numbers of white Americans is precisely because they feel that in this black musical tradition, not just black musicians, but black humanity is being asserted by artists who do not look at themselves in relation to whites or engage in self-pity or white put-down. This type of active, as opposed to reactive, expression is very rare in any aspect of African American culture.

Louis Armstrong was an existential democrat, which meant that he believed in the dignity of ordinary people, and the potentiality of everyday people.

If you have enough courage to lift your voice, become an agent in the world connecting with other voices, you can democratize your situation––because democracy is about voice lifting, and lack of democracy is about lack of voice.

In performance, it’s your body as part of your voice, your critical intelligence as part of your voice, your feelings and passions as part of your voice. It’s a matter of mind, body, and soul.

The Double Entendre of African-American Music: A Lesson for the Church

Music has undergone serious theological neglect according to Jeremy Begbie, a professionally trained musician and theologian at Duke Divinity School. In his introduction to Theology, Music and Time, he writes:

In the twentieth century, the corridors of theology were not generally alive with the sound of music. Music has received virtually no sustained treatment in contemporary systematic theology. Much has been written about the bearing of literature upon theological disciplines (especially biblical hermeneutics), and the same goes for the visual arts. There have been some courageous forays into theology by musicologists, but apart from a few notable exceptions, twentieth-century theologians paid scant attention to the potential of music to explore theological themes.

In some respects this is puzzling, given not only the supposedly limitless interests of theology, but also the universality of music in all cultures, and the unprecedented availability and ubiquity of music in so-called “post-modern” culture, the persistence of music in the worship of the Church, the strong traditions of theological engagement with music in past centuries, the intense interest shown in music by many philosophers past and present, the growing literature on the politics, sociology, and psychology of music, the recent emergence of ethnomusicology, and the intriguing deployment of musical metaphors by natural scientists. In the chapters which follow, we shall be touching upon some reasons for this theological neglect. Undoubtedly, one of them is the difficulty of speaking about music in ways which do justice to its appeal and which genuinely shed new light upon it. As George Steiner observes: “In the face of music, the wonders of language are also its frustrations.” Another reason is the opacity of the process of musical communication: it is clear that music is one of the most powerful communicative media we have, but how it communicates and what it communicates are anything but clear.

Begbie’s Theology, Music and Time and Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music ought to be consulted, but for this blog post I am turning outside the theological guild to Michael Eric Dyson, a sociologist at Georgetown University and radio host.

In “The Great Next: Jazz Origins and the Anatomy of Improvisation,” an interview that belongs to Open Mike: Reflections on Philosophy, Race, Sex, Culture and Religion, Dyson brings clarity to what Begbie calls “the opacity of the process of musical communication.” Reflecting on an interesting feature of African-American music (spirituals, blues, jazz), he observes how the double entendre allowed blacks to communicate with each other:

A crucial feature of double entendres was the articulation of culturally coded messages and styles that signified on white dominant cultural structures while promoting black self-definition. Even though the dominant culture may have viewed blacks as barbarians and savages, as dumb animals incapable of abstract reasoning or “high” culture, they nevertheless reveled in the robustly playful elements of black cultural creativity. At their best, black folk refused to get struck in narrow Victorian modes of identity where they repressed consciousness of their sexual selves while exclusively engaging their spiritual nature. They didn’t buy into that bifucation between mind and body. As critic Michael Ventura argued, African cultures overcame the Cartesian dualism of the West because they contended that there was no such as being mental and spiritual over here and being physically embodied other there.

The double entendre was about black folk having their cake and eating it too, so to speak: it was about healing the rift between body and soul; it was about playfulness while contesting white power in signifying fashion; and it was about enjoying and celebrating their culture even as vicious stereotypes abounded. That was terribly liberating to black folk who had been indoctrinated with the belief that they were inferior, that they were, in the words of Margaret Walker, “black and poor and small.”

If there is an application for us, then I propose that Christian theologians, pastors, musicians, and laypersons consider how worship (or liturgy) communicates and what it communicates. Does church music promote the double entendre of Christian self-definition as this-worldly and other-worldly, embodied and ensouled, above beast and below angel, dust of the ground and breath of life? Does church music invite playfulness while contesting the powers that be?

Soul Music, or Plato Was Right

There is no better or faster way to out yourself as a curmudgeon than to pick on the music that kids are listening to, especially if you do it without the ironic and self-mocking flair that my generation has perfected.

And there is no issue which used to divide kids and parents more than what tunes–an archaic word for them–are acceptable to pulse through the ubiquitous earbuds.   My generation, like my parent’s generation, was shaped by rebellion implicit in our musical preferences (Nirvana?  Pearl Jam?  Yes, please).

The case that the music matters goes back to Plato, and while it doesn’t have many popular defenders (at least among non-parents), it remains compelling.  And Roger Scruton is just the guy to update it.

The argument is long, and resists excerpting.  But Scruton captures the fundamental difference between melody and noise about as well as anyone I’ve seen:

When we hear a piece of music, we hear a sequence of sounds: one sound, and then another. Usually these sounds are pitched, and melody depends upon playing different pitches in succession. When we hear a melody, however, we don’t just hear a succession of pitched sounds. We hear something else—namely, a movement between those sounds. The melody begins on one note, continues through its successors in a goal-directed way, and ends on another note. This is something we hear, even though nothing in the physical world actually moves.

But the essay, named “Soul Music,” would have done just as well titled “Body Music,” for as Scruton argues, its music that connects the two and shapes our embodied existence:

Only rational beings dance, and in the normal case they do so by way of putting their personality and their freedom on display, in the manner described by Schiller. When you are in the grip of an external and mechanised rhythm, your freedom is overridden, and it is hard then to move in a way that suggests a personal relation to a partner—the I-Thou relation on which human society is built. Plato was surely right, therefore, to think that when we move in time to music we are educating our characters. For we are learning an aspect of our embodiment, as free beings.

If Scruton’s argument is right, then music–not the words, but the melodies, harmonies, and metre–matters.  Which is to say, we should always listen to our mothers.

Funny Swithfoot Video: Awakening

Rock n’ roll,

Virtual reality, on screen and cardboard diorama,

Refreshing self-deprecation,

80’s retro,

Buster from Arrested Development,

Longing fulfilled, and childhood dreams,

Ironic reversals,

John Foreman singing his God-lovin’ guts out,

The secret solidarity and sudden revelation of friendship…

Just a few of the inspired elements of this stylishly simple Switchfoot music video.

Switchfoot is still unlike any group out there… Quality, varied, emotionally honesty, excellent rock music that doesn’t take itself too seriously, proving, along with Eden Espinosa of Wicked that Evangelical Christians have something that the ‘Culture of Death‘ wants but cannot produce on its own: innocence.

For you Switchfoot fans, visit (or re-visit) this clever, playful, and generally refreshingly non-MTV music video.

Bonus: Do you know about their Nov. ’08 release compilation album, “Switchfoot: The Best Yet”?

Music and the Soul

We’re living in a time when there is a manifest crisis of worship in the church. It’s almost as if we’re in the midst of a rebellion among people who find church less than meaningful. They’re bored. They see the experience of Sunday morning as an exercise in irrelevance. As a reaction against that, it seems that almost any church we visit is experimenting with new forms and new patterns of worship. This experimentation has provoked many disputes over the nature of worship.” (R. C. Sproul. A Taste of Heaven: Worship in the Light of Eternity.” Orlando: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2006: 13, 14)

The second symposium of the newly formed Alliance of Christian Musicians’ Northwest Chapter opened with this quote, and an invitation to explore issues of a possible crisis of worship among America’s Protestant and evangelical churches.

Much of today’s argumentation regarding worship music center around genre: the tired debate of hymns versus CCM-style “praise” music. Dr. Overman, retired professor of religion at the University of Puget Sound, threatened to overturn the accepted dichotomy by moving the discussion from form to anthropology and ontology. He argued that,

…what has happened, especially in the last 400 years and more in the 20th century, is that human beings have generally lost the perception that we live in a hierarchical universe. All of what were formerly called the “higher levels of reality” have been brought down to one level. The loss of the hierarchy, when applied to the psychology of the Christian, (a hierarchy of the Holy Spirit, one’s own spirit, the mind [thinking, feeling, will], and the body) has been pressed downwards so that human beings today do not first respond by asking questions about their spirit or thinking, but mostly always about their emotions and states of will. The worship wars can be traced fundamentally to the fact that people, when they come to church, have lost the sense that there is such a thing as an extraordinary state of being, extraordinary space, time or manner of speaking. Everything is reduced to the level of the ordinary…defined principally in terms of states of feeling and will.”

Most intriguing about Overman’s remarks is that, if correct, they could fundamentally shift the discussion from an argument of forms and preference to a discussion of what it means to be a Christian human being and, in light of such a shift, might unearth more useful ways to break the stalemate. Continue reading

Christians by Faith, not by Genre: Sufjan, Swithfoot, and the Nature of the Artist

I received a great many presents this Christmas. I almost felt guilty about this. But then my philosophical training saved the day. I began to think about the nature of giving gifts to celebrate Christmas and I could hear my Sunday-school teacher deliver s tidbit of that simple, yet profound wisdom little Christian children pick up in between goldfish snack breaks: “We give presents to each other to remember the greatest present of all: God’s gift of His Son to mankind.” Right. That made me think of the concept of grace. Then I realized that all the gifts abundantly bestowed upon me by spouse, parents, parents-in-law, siblings, grandparents, students, and others are images of grace in my life; human imitations of that Grace that has redeemed my nature and brought me into the glorious kingdom of heaven. (See Dr. Sanders here for a discussion of nature, grace, and glory.)

Two of these little graces in my life have flowered into big graces: CDs by Sufjan Stevens and Switchfoot.

On the face of it, these modern musicians have little in common: Sufjan’s music is produced independently, Switchfoot now has a major label promoting them in Columbia; Sufjan plays banjo and about 18 other instruments in his folk rock style, Switchfoot offers consistent pop-rock; Sufjan is from the Midwest, Switchfoot consists of SoCal surfers.

Sufjan and Switchfoot, though, are both doing their best to fulfill their callings as human beings made in the image of God by making music as an expression of who they are in the form of a gift to others – in spite of their evangelical backgrounds. Continue reading

At a Party with Elgar: The Enigma Variations

The Enigma Variations is one of the most enjoyable set of variations that classical music can boast. What makes them particularly interesting is that Elgar wrote a variation for each of his friends, making the reconstruction of their personalities a fun exercise for any music novice. Join the party, then, and meet the guests. And say thanks to your guide Wikipedia, as it will come in handy along the way.

The Theme: You swear you have heard this before, somewhere. And then it hits you: the opening of The Matrix, the first notes of the film before the techno kicks in. You try to forget it, but this haunting melody will follow you the rest of the night.

Caroline Alice Elgar: The first person you meet is (appropriately) Mrs. Elgar. A pleasant lady, Mrs. Elgar is easy going but has a passionately romantic side that comes out if you stick around long enough. Of course, it is quickly submitted to a powerful gentility is befitting this eminently graceful women.

Hew David Steuart-Powell: A pianist friend of Elgar’s, Steuart-Powell apparently never sits still. Always fidgeting, always nervous, he isn’t able to converse long, nor stay on one topic for longer than a moment. You listen politely before he flits along to the next conversation. Continue reading