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Advent 2017

31 July 2013
art - threatening

One of the statements that has stuck in my head ever since my time at the Yale Congregations Project in June was a line from David Bartlett's plenary talk:

And I'm not sure about how we care about art, I'm not sure how invested in it we really have to be, or what the threshold looks like. But the more I think about it, this is the very nature of artistic creation, it seems to me. And now I see statements like these everywhere.

What art does — maybe what it does most completely — is tell us, make us feel that what we think we know, we don’t. There are whole worlds around us that we’ve never glimpsed.

Greil Marcus SVA Commencement Address: How the Division of High vs. Low Robs Culture of Its Essence (from Brainpickings)

Marcus says this in a speech where he unpacks the high/low culture divide. It's a distinction that we can deny, but the divisions will never disappear, Marcus theorizes.

And this brings us to the whole question of "style," which is so often a word that stands staunchly in the divide between high-brow classical music and low-brow whatever else, stuff that so often involves plastic guitar picks.

In theory, we want this division to be denied in our worship too, don't we? I have two thoughts on this.

First, whatever music we employ, we have to be aware of it's "intrinsicalness". It is a fallacy to say that there are not "betters" and "worses" (as Martin Marty puts it) within any kind of music.

Organist David Crean writes: "In the interest of maintaining an atmosphere of tolerance, accessibility, and collegiality, we have ceded more and more of our legitimacy to popular culture." (quoted here)

And this brings me to my second point: maybe we don't or we can't deny the high/low divide in our worship.

See just a few recent articles at Patheos with titles like "Why good church music is so hard to find", "Why I've stopped singing in your church", "Why is 'Christian' music so awful?", and, just this past week, "Christian music…Why does it suck? What can be done?"

Here's a thought: industrial Contemporary Christian Music is bad because it is among the "worses" in our culture. It has little substance theologically and, because of it's high level of derivation, no value artistically. It has nothing to support it because it intentionally breaks ties with what Paul Westermeyer calls "the Te Deum and the long strand of the church's song which it represents". It doesn't speak of the orthodox faith, and it doesn't threaten us. Like popular music, we don't care about it. If we don't care about it, it doesn't threaten us.

Holiness, by definition, is something that is other. If our music is just more of the same, how are we to contemplate holiness?

And lets bring this discussion full-circle by thinking about what art is again.

"Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time." – Thomas Merton (via "What is art?" from Brainpickings)

If that isn't threatening, I don't know what is.

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