He Is A Brittle Crazy Glass: On Music and Theology
For PeerDev.com – Jerrod Beck
Dustin Ragland, Feb 7, 2017
“Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?
He is a brittle crazy glass” – George Herbert[i]
The trick in writing anything on the Internet nowadays is to hold up in some kind of walking-with-hot-drink balance the tension of vernacular and timelessness. To speak to our fragmented attention with a kind of fragmented “ATTENTION!” Except I’m aiming for something whispered, in the punk rock tenderness of Joe Strummer,[ii] in the amplitude God uses with a lot of saints. I don’t want to ignore how hard it is to confess the handle “Christian” when it festoons the Trump government, is somehow a genre of pure saccharine art, and generally comes with several asterisks, even from those who confess it thus, as I would hope to:
“Poetry is a verdict, not an occupation.” – Leonard Cohen[iii]
So instead of writing something with one hand on Twitter and one hand on a dog-eared copy of the Summa, I think I will go with a bit more of a confession booth, with a hope that it at least feels like some sentences that are meant to be read both this week, and in 50 years, if we get there as a planet. That right there: pessimism and optimism for the future kissing - like it’s high school and you’re not sure who’s supposed to take the lead but here we go – that’s what theologians might call Eschatology. It’s a promise that art could be about more than merely what happens now, and what happened then; it could move beyond instant reaction to a realm of things made for more than one generation. When I mention to my (mostly) younger students the musical witness that Afrika Bambaataa bore (and still bears), and they look at me like I’m making it up. Not because they are ignorant of the past (they are quite smart), but because they are not so sure the things they make will be around in 1 year, much less 100. The survival of any work of musical art past the first 1 hour that it is leaked, or put up for streaming is a frightening thing for young musicians. The survival of a young musician fighting back rapid entropy of royalties, healthcare, public funding…the last thing any musician needs is to have instant judgment waiting for her before her $0.0001 royalty direct deposit. This anxiety manifests in theology by trying to remove any trace of immanence, in appeals to vaulted language and infinite adjectives. It’s an understandable anxiety, but it puts God into a very safe box in which nonsensical (as in, without the sense that accompanies being) terms can cordon off the divine from what He has made. If my only legacy as a musician and person of faith is to knock a tiny divot in the Berlin Wall of the idea that God is somehow tainted by our making art about the actual world, and not the best of all possible worlds.
“Little swirl, mimicking nebulae, mimicking galaxies, which turns
for no apparent reason other than to cast and recast the whole
as it whirs and whirls, knocks and ticks at three am
in a snit to proclaim itself not as You but it in You.” – Emily Warn[iv]
Perhaps unnervingly to my fellow music-makers, with-pilgrims trying to melodize the ineffable (whether we like to admit it nor not), I suppose my tack here is to wrack out a confession. A meditation. That’s better. When I write a song on a guitar, when I play drums for a songwriter in a session, when my laptop glows on my face as sounds that could only be data are redeemed into noises – when these things happen, I’m hoping that they turn into an offering to God. This is what Scripture calls an offering that would be pleasant to the Lord’s olfactory capacity, assumed to be pretty damn good. See Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 2, Numbers 29, etc. When I’m in the midst of a conversation that is talking about God’s sense of justice (hint: it’s always on the side of the marginalized, poor, “other”) without ever mentioning his name, I can smell this aroma. When it’s the midst of a conversation mocking the very idea of deity, not to mention the deity of a very specific Palestinian Word-Become-Flesh – I smell this aroma.
The thing is, art makes possible Fyodor Mikhailovich’s “furnace of doubt,”[v] where a lot of us religious folks (from many faiths) abide. “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him”[vi] makes some Evangelical folks twitchy, but this amazing word, “abide,” let it move around in your mind’s mouth a bit. Press it in your hand. The tense space between faith and nothingness, a lot of us live there, and it isn’t always joyful. I make art there not “because I have a heart for it,” but because more semantically fenced (or religiously approved) prayers fail at saying anything really meaningful about this tense space.
“’Belief’ implies propositions about which you get to make up your mind before you know the work they are meant to do.” – Stanley Hauerwas[vii]
We make art in this furnace of doubt (and I mean all of us – regardless of religious faith or none) not because art is useful like bourbon is useful. Art leans into the inexpressible. It doesn’t seek to numb it. It helps all of us to let go of what’s necessary, and I mean existence-level Necessary, to seek what is Contingent - on purpose! To start a melody is to assume that the melody will continue to some end (thanks Husserl!)[viii] – but it is an end that is not promised. So when I try to answer the music press in my head asking “is it awkward to be a person of faith and create in environments that aren’t typically amenable to religious faith?’” I usually answer: Why would I be interested in an anodyne, sentimental art-space that has already decided all the aesthetics, and worse, all of the answers? We are here creating stuff, heathen and pilgrim, to learn to abide. We are exhausted in the act of trying to build our own necessity, and deeply afraid of our contingency. We cast our cares down in a single note, hoping against hope that there will be an end that is beautiful to the time we spend on just this one idea. We do that together, when I play drums with you. I won’t deny that I do so with a hope that a better Ghost moves in me while I do so, but I only ask that you don’t hide anything from me either.
“To learn to distrust the distrust of feeling – this then was the next step
for the seeker?” – R.S. Thomas[ix]
A lot of theology (I mean…a lot) tries to put music, and art creation in general, into a useful category. It does X. It means Y. My hope as a theologian-musician, a presumptive sobriquet to be sure, is to pray this thought: We play music to say what cannot be said, because there are indeed things (…hope, justice, anger, lust, wonder, irony, despair…) that cannot merely be said. Unlike Wittgenstein,[x] we do not pass over them in silence, but in song. With him, we say:
“It is a great temptation to try to make the spirit explicit.”[xi]
Let’s try in the humility of a thousand failed songs before the first one clicks. Let’s try in the lyrics that are really what we meant to say when they were leaving, but couldn’t think through the present pain of it. Let’s try in the wordless chord that rings us like our body has become a bell. This place right here: the contingency of our existence made explicit in spirit – I am with you, abide with me. Who knows what we might see.
[i] George Herbert, “The Windows”
[ii] Joe Strummer, interview: http://www.furious.com/perfect/joestrummer.html
[iii] Leonard Cohen, The Favorite Game. Likewise I hope “being a Christian” (or “being a Muslim, or Jew”) is ultimately a verdict, not a self-description.
[iv] Emily Warn, “Psalm”
[v] Dostoevsky, that is, quoted in Arthur Trace’s Furnace Of Doubt
[vi] 1 John 4.16 ESV
[vii] Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child
[viii] see Edmund Husserl, Experience and Judgment
[ix] R.S. Thomas, “Perhaps”
[x] see Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
[xi] ibid., Culture and Value