12 July 2008

Invader Christian (3)

In this previous posting, I suggested that perhaps the alleged mediocrity in contemporary Christian artistic offerings is due to greater preoccupation with the packages of sensory assaults rather than with the truth being packaged. Giving the matter more thought I now wonder if it may not be the package of sensory assaults as much as it is the motif. After all, the aforementioned Byzantine culture adapted pre-existing cultural trends to produce explicitly Christian art. But there is a difference of motif. For the Byzantine east, especially when you consider icons, the motif is the Incarnation. In contemporary Christian art, especially music, it’s clearly something else; and that’s even if you could find a connection between any element of Christian dogma and the contributions to culture made by Christian artists.

Compare some of these offerings with something like the icon of St. John the Precursor, Beheaded:





















This icon, which is supposed to depict a beheaded John the Precursor, depicts both the beheaded John and the glorified John. This single “package of sensory assaults” depicts two things apparently in the same time and place, which is an impossibility. But the purpose of an icon is to show the truth of the depicted saint in the truth of his life. In this icon we have two contrasting images in a singly icon of a single saint, but which really don’t make sense without each other. Consider that portion of the icon depicting only a headless John. All you have is a headless man, end of story. Consider the other portion, depicting a winged saint (we know ‘tis a saint because of the halo). Wow, a halo-headed guy with wings. Neat. The entire icon makes sense, only in view of the Incarnation and all that it entails, including the glorification of the saints, but only if you are familiar with the gospel and Christian dogmas.

I belong to a denomination which, to put it mildly, takes a dim view of icons. My denomination are inclined to dismiss icons of Mary and Jesus as productions of people threatened by the idea of a crucified and risen Lord of lords and King of kings, but not of a harmless little baby, unlike Herod who was terrified of a “harmless” little baby. In fact, the motif behind such icons is not fear; the motif, as I’ve already mentioned, is The Incarnation. The Incarnation, the “enfleshing” of the eternally-begotten Son, is perhaps the most important of Christian dogmas. (I say perhaps because I don’t like to oppose dogmas to each other, or arrange them in any sort of hierarchy.) Whatever our positions on icons, the importance here is the relation of truth to “packaging.” The “package of sensory assaults” which is the icon of John the Precursor, Beheaded is, if possible, smaller than the truth of his beheading and his glorification.

One gets the sense that the motif in much CCM is sensual gratification, giving people what they want, what Calvin would call “tickling the ears” with music. Sadly, what most people want (yes, even Christians) is pleasure-giving packages of sensual assaults. Of course, Christians’ sense-assaulting packages are “positive”, “family-friendly”, and seasoned with special salt distilled from the Blood o’ the Lamb.

That might explain the marketing techniques often used by CCM marketers, and to which I alluded in a previous posting. By gratification, I mean giving consumers of music, whether Christian or not, what they want, especially stylistically. If Nora Jones is “in”, then CCM needs to provide a CCM Nora Jones sound-alike. Here, the secular culture sets the agenda because the “they” whose wants we are seeking to fulfill are consumers of music in the secular culture, the culture which Invader Christian thinks he wants to see reformed. If these consumers like Jane Roe, “secular” artist, we’ve got Jane Doe, CCM artist of the order of Jane Roe. If the culture you think you are trying to reform (Christ as Transformer of Culture) is setting your agenda, then you are simply following it around.

There is a connection with Calvinism here. In a previous posting I mentioned the Calvinist denial of a distinction between the secular and the sacred. The Incarnation, in Eastern Orthodox thought, implies – necessarily – that we live in a “one-storey” universe. Much of contemporary Christian thought and art employs the image of a “two-storey” universe, just like the secularists. Like our Eastern Orthodox brethren, Calvinists also deny the “two-storey” universe.

This is important because much of what we experience as mediocrity in Christian arts, especially music, is rooted, I believe in Protestant evangelicalism’s obsession with evangelism and outreach as motifs – when there is any hint of motif, of course. Evangelism and outreach are fine; but what is ignored is art’s role in spiritual formation, indeed spiritual formation doesn’t seem to make it on the radar. The music is designed, one gets the feeling, to get people saved, and them to help them hang on ‘til Jesus gets back, or simply to “uplift” them. That is, they serve the image of a two-storey universe in which the purpose of evangelism and outreach is to get people here in the lower storey to make a commitment which will reserve them a place in the upper storey, when the lower storey is destroyed, or to help them wait it out here in the lower storey until the rapture, if you believe in that. (I, for the record, do not.)

Spiritual formation? (How many evangelicals even have heard the term?) Why bother about all that? We need to get people saved and to encourage the people doing the saving (which should be all of us: there’s no time to enjoy anything because it will probably all be over tomorrow). So it has to be all about evangelism, missions, outreach and so forth.

It would be relevant to discuss what is the purpose of spiritual formation, as opposed to evangelism and outreach and how the difference between the two important is important. Sadly, I haven’t the time. Alas. Actually the truly relevant question is about the purpose of Christian music, if not to evangelize and do outreach. I don’t have time for that one either right now.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 4

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James Frank SolĂ­s
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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