2.10.2005

For my catapult column this month, I conducted an interview with my friend and colleague James Stewart. I've gotten to know James and his wife Kari (another Calvin employee) via the committee for the Festival of Faith and Music and subsequent hanging out, talking, eating good food, and going to concerts. (Seeing the Blind Boys of Alabama at Ann Arbor's Folk Festival a few weeks ago at their invite was a musical highlight of my life.)

Anyhow, James is involved in a far-reaching community (most of whom you wish you were friends with) made up of students of faith, justice, popular culture, art, and the interconnectivity thereof. James has quite a past with contemporary Christian music, so when it turned out that my column was going to be about just that, I asked him a few questions. I couldn't include all of his insights--which extend far beyond just CCM--in my article, but thought they were so valuable that they ought to be available in their entirety. The interview that follows is long, but worth the time it takes to read it. Enjoy.

++++++++++++++++++++++

What's your history with contemporary Christian music? What was your early involvement with it? What drew you to it?

I discovered CCM in my early teens, largely because of a couple of magazines and its presence at Greenbelt. The artists I identified early on were Christians, who helped me think through my faith, but there was definitely always a tendency towards artists who expressed some sort of exploration.

I quickly saw a need for supporting musicians who are Christians, and since the web was just taking off at that point I developed a website which sought to foster communication between those musicians in the UK and Ireland. At the same time I got heavily involved in writing music reviews, primarily for online magazines but also a few print publications. Through that, and some dalliances with concert promotion, I got to know a lot of artists.

I don't think I ever fell for CCM as its own industry, and my work was always with the expectation that the artists I was working with would be performing in the general market. That was probably influenced by the integrated approach to the arts I learned primarily at Greenbelt, but also through reading theologians such as Walter Brueggeman, and also from the fact that CCM has never reached its own critical mass in the UK.

What are your theological quibbles with CCM's underlying tenets about God, art, and life in general?

I believe in a God who invites us to be co-creators of the future of the cosmos, a God of redemption, and a God of engagement. CCM rarely seems to break from the mould of appropriating rather than creating, redeeming or engaging. Any artist who wants to tell a story in the third-person, or one that may not have a neat conclusion finds themself having to explain exactly what's going on. Anyone who wants to ask questions has to step outside (every now and again things shift a little, and a few questions emerge as being 'acceptable' for a while, but they're rarely controversial) and the idea of respecting an artist while disagreeing with them, and maybe even enjoying the fact that you disagree with them is so very rare.

In the latest issue of Paste Andy Whitman talks about Merle Haggard. He says that in the late 60s when Haggard was writing songs criticising Vietnam War protestors he was entirely turned off from Haggard's albums. In retrospect, he is able to look back and see that Haggard's songs maybe weren't quite so adversarial as he thought, and that whether or not he agrees with them they're good songs, both for the artfulness of the writing and because they show a deep concern for his fellow people. I found that piece very affecting. It's natural to want to cut ourselves off from critique but every now and again we need to be startled and challenged by someone who cares about us. That's something CCM just doesn't have.

I suspect to really understand why I'd be uncomfortable with CCM someone would have to have some grasp of what I'd see as the shortcomings of much of contemporary evangelicalism.When I read the Bible I find a string of narratives that require some work to weave together, particularly if you come to them with a post-enlightenment modernist mindset that says "this must all fit together within my pre-defined bounds of logic." One of the great achievements of narrative theology has been to say "read them as stories and see what ideas emerge" rather than "try to force it all together and find ways to explain away the inconsistencies".

When I try to take that former path I find that very different ideas float to the surface. Fostering a transformative community that strives to be inclusive, that works for the poor, that stands against empire but engages with government to establish justice, bringing shalom and building the Kingdom.It's an entirely different paradigm from that which most CCM emerges from. In that world it feels like "personal sin" always trumps "corporate sin," that some idealised 19th century/1950s middle-class values are the normative form of Christian faith, and that all the rest of the world needs is our pre-packaged Jesus -- "McJesus" as some friends of mine had it -- as if that negates the need for food, shelter, clean air… It's a closed bubble.

Or maybe it's that CCM is all about letting some mythical gatekeeper do all your thinking for you, even though St. Paul (among others) was pretty clear on the need to 'test the spirits'?

Why do you continue to care what happens to CCM? If it's so terrible, why not just shake the dust from your heels?

For a while I did shake the dust from my heels, I guess. I drew away from writing reviews when I ran out of synonyms for 'bland' and the website fell into some disrepair as my time was drawn in other directions, and I realised just how much hard work it was to explain to people that I wanted to foster community, not industry. But disgust was always mingled with a little voyeurism, and while I'm no longer the authority on CCM happenings that people say I once was, I am a long way from being current.

What's drawn me back of late has been a continuing passion for theology, art and politics. Experiencing the '04 US presidential election from this side of the Atlantic, it was at times difficult to remember why I'd want to espouse the label 'Christian' at all. But when the chips fall, I still believe that the community Jesus called us to be is vital for our society. Trying to work out how anyone can fall for the rhetoric of Falwell, Robertson, Dobson and their ilk has drawn me back to the realisation that the Church rarely does anything to develop the critical faculties, and I think CCM operates (whether willfully or no) as a sedative. An opiate for the masses, if you will. :)

Great art engages minds and works as a mirror for people and for communities. If more Christians were involved in the pursuit of art, perhaps the tone of debate around all areas of life in Christ would rise?

What is your goal in calling out shows like Christian Music Makeover?

My key problem with Christian Music Makeover was (and remains) the use of the phrase "spiritual makeover." Certainly my theology embraces the idea that we are all in need of redemption and are working towards that redemption, but I don't think that can be reduced down to the superficialities that spring to mind when the phrase 'makeover' comes to mind. Nor is it something that I think should be laid bare in the manner their press release indicated. Redemption happens in community, but community is about more than fandom.

So the reason I called it out was to try and foster a discussion of whether this is really a good model of discipleship to be suggesting to impressionable music fans. I passionately believe that one of the key tenets of our faith we need to be constantly reclaiming and re-imagining is community, and I see the use of phrases like this as part of the disintegration of that pillar. Obviously blogs thrive on polemic, so my entries were often direct, but I hope and believe it caused some discussion.

The other way this all bothered me, and this grew as time went on, was the sense that rather than modeling constructive engagement with culture, which to my mind requires careful analysis and positive contribution, this initiative simply seems to be appropriating a tired medium that many agree has had a detrimental effect on television programming. I was told that 'reality TV' is hugely popular, which it is, and that the programmes would be promoting healthy living and spiritual discipline, which are great things, but Jesus told us a cautionary tale about building on solid foundations, and I really think that's missing here.

You and some of your friends are working to set up an alternative event during Gospel Music Association week in Nashville this year. What does your event aim to accomplish?

We're still trying to decide for sure on the shape, focus and form of the event. Having experienced GMA week in all its torrid glory, I observed that there were a number of people who for a variety of reasons were a part of that industry but weren't comfortable at the event. In some cases, they had only come to a realisation of the underbelly of that industry once they were tied in by contractual obligations, in other cases they didn't know where else to turn, and in some there was a lack of language to identify what it was that was wrong.

I'm a strong believer in the importance of the 'fringe,' people who are on the edges of groups or events are often the ones who are most likely to transform it because they are aware of what goes on within and without, and because being on the edge forces you to analyse. I felt that if a fringe were fostered at GMA week that it would perhaps affect some of the much needed transformation there, or at the very least help provide a community for those who feel on the edge.

A number of friends who attend Downtown Presbyterian Church—which is a church in Nashville that is working with some great artists, running programmes for the homeless, and whose building lies the other side of the Ryman Theatre from the convention centre where GMA is based—expressed enthusiasm and that church got behind the idea. Right now, we're working towards a simple programme of events that have value in their own right but which will be of some interest to the crowds at GMA. We decided that the best approach is to produce something with a value that stands outside of the critique it presents. I think that will allow us to demonstrate both the critical and constructive power of this thing called art.

Ken [Heffner, student activities director at Calvin College] argues that CCM is on the verge of crumbling because the assumptions that made it possible are crumbling. Do you agree with this? If it were up to you, what would happen to the CCM industry in the future?

I've been thinking about that a lot and finding it difficult to judge, since I feel like I now stand a long way from being informed. Paging through CCM [magazine] it certainly does look like that world's crumbling, but I wonder if anyone within that world has noticed. It seems as if CCM redefines itself so that any criticism is on the outside, and looking at some message boards there certainly are the usual rabid set of fans. My gut feeling is that Ken's right, but it's pretty difficult to gather the evidence.

I wonder if one of the biggest problems facing CCM at the moment is that recent years saw so much emphasis on "our artists are crossing over" that the industry shot itself in the foot. Their own propaganda destroyed the belief that being on a "Christian" label was a measure of theological purity. Perhaps the either/or attitude that CCM artists should either be the biggest thing in that world or the biggest thing in the general market has turned into a realisation that CCM artists are just a bunch of fish in a big ocean.

I have been very glad to see CCM artists jumping on the DATA bandwagon. I really pushed for that when I worked at Jubilee 2000 and it's great to see it happening, even if they are generally trying to steer well clear of the more structural economic and political issues involved in those campaigns.

I'd like to see the industry fall apart right now, but I don't think it'll happen. And just like the collapse of a cult there'd be a lot of follow-up to be done. Perhaps the best thing would be for more and more artists to make clear statements to their fans that "I'm done here. I want a space for us to ask questions together and this isn't it. Please check my website for my next move. By the way, I have flaws." The artists would need to be heavily involved in the de-programming.

One of the big factors for me is that I suspect the general music industry is headed for a meltdown or paradigm shift. There has been a string of new rock bands making waves, but it's becoming progressively more difficult to break a new band or to lift bands from the top-tier of 'indie' to the first tier of 'household name'. With the challenges that the web, file sharing, the monopolies of Ticketmaster and Clearchannel, and such, something's got to give.

And at the same time, I'd want to add that the general market isn't a whole lot better than CCM. I don't consider it blasphemous in the same way as it doesn't use poor theology to sell its product, but there isn't much engagement going on there either. It's again on the fringes where that happens. My ideal would be for all Christian efforts in music to be fostering engagement everywhere, making a transformative impact on the general music industry.

2.07.2005

Fight! Fight! Fight!

Remember, in grammar school, when two kids would get into it by the water fountain or in the coatroom or near the monkey bars? And everyone else would gather around and chant, "Fight! Fight! Fight!" And then one lone messenger, ye olde towne crier of the playground, would zip around the blacktop making sure everyone in the vicinity knew about it? And then the teacher on duty would get wind of it, sigh, and attempt to break it up. Or call the principal. Who would tighten his khaki overcoat and tell the wrassling second-graders, "That's enough, that's enough" in a tired, disgruntled voice as he shooed the rest of us away. If he had even a speck of a sense of humor, he would be trying not to laugh.

Maybe that was just my school. It was public, after all.

Anyway, the point of this is that a lovely acquaintance of mine called Lara wrote up a lovely endorsement of my last catapult column about Bono and bawdiness. The thread went at least 38 comments before someone actively disagreed with me, which must be some kind of miracle, because I sure do spout a lot of bee-ess. So anyway, finally, someone popped on, positioned him-or-her-self as "one small voice," and took me to task for my apostasy. When I read the line, "[Jesus'] wife (no wife of course) was not at home watching him grind [his] toes into Mary's boobs as she washed his feet," I knew I had to reply.

Come on, everybody, it's such a Monday. I'm my own towne crier. Gather 'round the monkey bars, ball up your little fists inside the mittens which are clothespinned to your jacket, and chant it like you mean it! Fight! Fight! Fight!

(Sidenote, related but less funny: to be honest, the meta-fight here is kind of wearing me out. I am sooooo tiiiiiiiiired of explaining why pornography is not the same thing as art to people who are just not going to change their minds. Times like these, I really start feeling my expat status. And thinking that I might need to scoot a little further away from my homeland.)

2.01.2005

Money makes the Word go round.

Curious why I feel alienated from evangelicalism? Just click here for a summary.

White men! White men in suits! White men in suits everywhere! (Brian McLaren, I mean you no ill will.)

I feel very sad.