Sunday, June 22, 2008

The problem of evangelicals and art

In his online column for the January/February issue of Books & Culture, John Wilson discusses the Iron & Wine concert at Wheaton College that I mentioned earlier on this blog. I am pleased to find out that he listens to good music, including the Decemberists and Calexico. But I was disturbed by his conclusion. He discusses the song “Jezebel,” one of Sam Beam’s most beautiful songs, which he apparently had not heard prior to the concert. He then writes:

"Who's seen Jezebel," he sang, and the song built from that opening to the high point of intensity in the entire concert. Jezebel, in this telling, is a scapegoat, "born to be the woman we could blame." (Where have we heard that before?) But she's more:

Who's seen Jezebel
She was gone before I ever got to say
Lay here, my love, you're the only shape I pray to

So read the lyrics to "Jezebel" I found next day on the web (hence, of course, subject to error), from a 2005 EP that I haven't heard, Woman King, and that I'll now check out. What I heard Friday night—when Sam Beam's voice became more passionately intense than at any other point in the show—was this: "you're the only God I pray to." Maybe I misheard. (If you were at the concert, please correct or confirm my impression, though the point is pretty much the same in either case.) And as I sat, eyes still closed, musing while the last vibrations of the song faded away, I heard thunderous applause. What were they applauding? The sentiments of the song? Or maybe just the Iron & Wineness of it. Much as I love women, and Woman, and one woman in particular, I couldn't join in. But I won't stop listening.

The actual words that Beam sang are finally unimportant, though for the sake of this post, let’s just assume that he heard him rightly. The fact that Wilson could not applaud reveals a profound misunderstanding of art. For Wilson and many evangelicals, one can only applaud a musician with whom one shares a similar “worldview” or religious posture. Wilson cannot applaud because Beam’s lyrics (at least seemingly) subvert Christian belief.

This is a profound mistake and it has a long history. Evangelicals tend to see everything in propositional-didactic terms: the Bible is a storehouse of facts, the sermon is an education in doctrine and Bible, movies and novels are opportunities to teach morality, and music is reduced to the “worldviews” (currently, my least favorite word in the English language) expressed in the lyrics. Is it any wonder that evangelicals have consistently rejected, ignored, or misunderstood visual art, poetry, iconography, sacraments—things which do not lend themselves to propositional interpretation? Obviously, I am oversimplifying things, but evangelicals have long had a troubled relationship with art. And this column exemplifies the problem. So why applaud Iron & Wine? Well, should I dispense with Ingmar Bergman because his films challenge the existence of God and are at times clearly atheistic? Should I avoid Philip Pullman’s trilogy because he portrays the church as the enemy? Should I reserve my admiration for authors who depict Christianity favorably? Should I always listen to but not applaud musicians who reject God?

Wilson’s final line is typical: “I couldn't join in. But I won't stop listening.” Evangelicals are all about knowing what’s out there—reading the same books, watching the same movies, listening to the same music—but always approaching it from a predetermined position. Evangelicals have a really difficult time actually engaging the world, and by engaging I mean entering into a real dialogue on the basis of a “hermeneutics of charity.” Evangelicals already know what is right and what is wrong, and all they need to do is locate which box a particular artist or intellectual belongs in. (Wilson is better than this, but many evangelicals are not.)

The world for many evangelicals is basically black and white. But art is all about the gray, and herein lies the source of the difficulty: how can an evangelical really appreciate art when the evangelical posture toward the world is one that is anti-aesthetic? Evangelicals see things in terms of propositional and moral truth; but art is not primarily concerned with the propositional and/or the moral. Art is not teaching by a different means. If we think of the classic transcendentals, evangelicals are perfectly at home with Truth and the Good—with logic and action—but not with Beauty.

I am willing to grant that Wilson approaches art charitably—at least more charitably than most—but I am concerned about the way this column approaches Iron & Wine propositionally: he expects the music to teach something, and what it teaches is determinative for whether he can truly appreciate it. Perhaps I am being uncharitable to Wilson, but I am only trying to take him at his word. Instead of him saying, “I couldn’t join in, but I won’t stop listening,” I would rather have seen him say, “I joined in the applause, acknowledging Beam’s great talent and important voice within the world of contemporary art. And I will continue to listen, while engaging in thoughtful, charitable dialogue about his music.” Something more along those lines would have set a better example for evangelicals.

We need Christians who will listen, not only to the words on the page but also to the artists and the themes implicit in their works of art. In “Jezebel,” one might explore the way Christians throughout history have often sought to silence women or paint them in negative terms. Perhaps this is an issue relevant to Beam. But this may be going too far. Beam is a storyteller, and like the Decemberists, he tells stories in which he is not always the subject of the “I” in the song. I think it’s quite plausible that “Jezebel” is written from the perspective of an anonymous protagonist, someone who is in love with a woman whom he has lost to the “dogs.” Love is often described in terms of worship, and Beam might be playing off that idea—combining it with the figure of Jezebel to distinguish his song from the cliché.

The point is, we need to listen charitably and engage with an open mind, and not simply pass judgment. We need evangelicals who can empathize with and appreciate artists who do not share their same theological commitments. In short, we need evangelicals who are comfortable in the gray beyond the black and white.


Bob MacDonald said...

I was with friends the other day who are or were so strict they had no name for their assembly. As an artist and Anglican I have had serious differences with them in the past. I was glad to see among them this time a violinist who knew music that for his friends would be out of bounds - such as Britten's Noyes Fludde. Both of us having played and acted in this work, we had a brief conversation that would have been rarely heard around that table. The undermining of immediate judgment is difficult but necessary for those who do not keep the mitzvah - Judge nothing before the time. I was glad to see a dropping of the guard of propositional armor among those whom I love.

Shane said...

"But art is all about the gray . . . Art is not primarily concerned with the propositional and/or the moral."

Aren't those propositions? And isn't the moral of your own story just above "Don't judge?" If art is gray, as you say it is, then this is perhaps the "moral" which we should say to be teaching?

To say that all art is gray seems like a very parochial conception of art. Consider The Winged Victory of Samothrace, the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel, Milton's Paradise Lost or Bach's Mass in B Minor. None of those works seem particularly "gray" to me. (Milton's Satan is a bit more interesting than ordinary, but he's still obviously the bad guy.)

What is philosophically important is not to set up a dichotomy between the propositional/conceptual and the experiential. On that mistaken conception, Art would provide this amazing experience which is so sublime and magnificent that it cannot be "reduced" to mere conceptualizations such as having to say "what it means".

I think that picture has to be wrong, because the ability of art to have an effect on someone is parasitic upon associations of concepts. Thus, the symphony makes you tense because the beating of the drums recalls the sounds of war and connotes a whole web of associated concepts about soldiers marching.

I conjecture that that we could tell similar stories for all sorts of putatively non-representational forms of art.

If the art were truly non-representational, and unconceptualizable, then how would we become aware of it? How would we notice it's shape or it's color or . . .

The second thing I wonder is what exactly you think Wilson has done wrong?

On Wilson's account it sounds like this lyric in the song pulled him out of the experience and so he comes to reflect consciously on the moral world the music is portraying, for it obviously is portraying one.

But what would be wrong with coming out of the experience in that way? Indeed, isn't that exactly what challenging or provocative art should do? Namely, pull the viewer out of himself and present him something he didn't expect and to which he must now react.

But just because a piece of art puts me in the position of having to react does not mean that my reaction should be applause, obviously. The degenerate shock pieces of the modern "art" come to mind as examples of things which are to be booed (on artistic grounds).

But, Beam doesn't deserve a booing and Wilson certainly isn't giving him one. Quite to the contrary, I think Wilson's doing exactly what he ought to be doing, considering who he is--he's lingering at the doorstep. And that seems to me to be what beauty does--it makes you linger a while, scratching your head. I take it that if Beam has a vision worth offering in this song, then Wilson is still pondering it. And I think that's about the best an artist can hope for--all other things being equal.

D.W. Congdon said...

For starters, I'm not trying to pick on Wilson. He was just the impetus for me to think about the topic. Although, to give credit where credit is due, most of this is just recycled from English courses at Wheaton, filtered through the inherently oversimplifying lens of a blog post.

Having said that, I am unpersuaded by your argument. First, you force a dichotomy on me where one doesn't exist. I said art is not primarily about the propositional or conceptual, and I stand by that claim. Every artist I have ever met has made this same point. The only ones who have ever argued to the contrary have been philosophers. That's not to suggest that philosophy of art as a whole leans in that direction, only that the few who want to make a case for art being a didactic tool are not themselves artists. My point here is only that you are trying to force my position to be black-and-white, and that just won't do. I accept that art can and does teach, but that art is not just a beautiful form of teaching.

So the first half of your comment is misguided and wrong.

The second half is more interesting. Of course, art should definitely provoke and disrupt us. I've made precisely that point in a paper where I made an analogy between art's ability to take us outside ourselves and the doctrine of justification in which God's word takes us outside ourselves (all in relation to Jüngel).

The question in the case of Wilson is why, exactly, did the art disrupt him? On the basis of his column, I would have to say that it's not because of Beam's interesting play with the story of Jezebel, but rather because the lyrics did not cohere with Wilson's preconceived idea of what is theologically appropriate. When Wilson hears the word "pray," he demands that the artist connect this word to some conception of God before Wilson can offer his applause. That might be putting a bit strongly, but I think that's the general sense we get from the column.

Once again, I'm not trying to hold Wilson up as some kind of scapegoat here. I am using this example to raise the bigger issue about how evangelicals -- who tend to favor a highly propositional understanding of revelation and truth -- can really engage and appreciate art. Perhaps we simply have radically divergent understandings of art, but I want to suggest that while propositional truth is absolutely essential, it is not the core basis for either the doctrine of revelation or the nature of art. Certainly, it's an important aspect -- more for that the former than the latter -- but it is not the primary dimension.

Shane said...


Didn't attribute the dichotomous view to you. I'm just trying to point out a hole I think that nobody should want to fall into. But that view is out there--people who make feeling opposed to reason and shit like that.

So I didn't take you to be denying the existence of propositional content, tout court. My remarks are more directed to showing how I think that all the affective dimensions of art rely upon the conceptualized bits. I have to admit that I'm thinking about this on my feet--i don't have a 'philosophy of art' per se.

Now as to the charge that the propositions are not primary, and that it's only philosophers and not artists who are interested in them. Let me say it this way--poets and grammarians tend to have different interests. The poet might say that the grammar isn't the thing that is of primary importance in the poem. But what he means by this is presumably that he thinks the sound of the words or the play of the poetic images or something is the most important thing and the grammar is just the tool by which this is expressed. The grammarian, on the other hand, is going to say that the grammar is the really important bit, because it is the sine qua non that allows all of the other stuff to happen. The moral of the story is that perhaps both of them are right--because the scope of their interests is somewhat different.

I think the situation with the artist and the philosopher might be analogous. The artist is worried about the artwork and the philosopher is worried about the nature of the experience. (To put it in very crude terms that are no doubt too simple.)

D.W. Congdon said...

I think you'd find that poets, particularly modern poets, see themselves as intentionally breaking the rules of grammar. This goes for modern art in general. While grammar is involved, it would be hard even from a grammarian perspective to say that the rules of grammar are actually making the poem possible, except in the general sense that grammar makes all language possible. But this is distracting us from the real issue.

The poet-grammarian relationship is not really analogous to the issue I raised in my post. A better analogy for the issue I am raising is the relation between poet and essayist, in which the essayist is trying to read the poem like an article in The New Republic. I think this is a better analogy because the issue here is two different ways of approaching a work of art. There is no reason at all why a poet should be unable to see her work from the perspective of a grammarian. There is no competition between the poet and grammarian. Any good poet will know how she is playing with the rules of language.

But the poet and the essayist (representing one who thinks and writes in conceptual language) actually offer competing interpretations or understandings of art. It's not just a matter of perspective, though. The essayist (or philosopher) actually reads the work of art in a way that does not attend to the "inner logic" of this text. The text of the poem calls out for a particular kind of reading, and I do it an injustice if I approach it from the wrong point of view. Sure, the philosopher places greater emphasis on the propositional and the logical, but that might not be as innocuous as it seems if it inhibits a proper appreciation of the poem's content.

Anyway, my point is simply that the issue I raised with Wilson has more to do with competing ways of approaching an artistic work.

I would say more but it's getting late. I hope this comment makes sense.

dw said...

I think the problem in Wilson's hearing of the tune is, precisely, a genre problem. It has to do with persona and how it functions in the lyric poem.Beam might, indeed, feel this strongly about Jezebel (or her type), but he might also be singing what a lover of Jezebel would sing. I love the song "Crazy" by Willie Nelson, and I sing it a lot. I have never been left by anyone in exactly that way, but I have felt that way every time I sing the song. I don't know what the Wheaton students were applauding, but I know better than to believe every word a singer-song writer sings.


the don said...

thanks for writing this... i had the same twinge after reading Wilson's article, and instead of thinking through some sort of critique, i just grabbed my ipod and went on a walk listening to 'Jezebel' about 6 times in a row...

maybe i missed it, but wilson did mention that wheaton had asked Beam not to cuss on stage as well... i thought that was interesting...

Kyle said...

While I think I typically have a view of art D.W. Congdon is promoting, I too have had the experience of hearing a song and realizing that I couldn't really clap for it because of the propositional content. But in this case, it was the group Caedmon's Call; I used to love them, both musically and lyrically, until I started to become convinced theologically that there was something misguided and probably wrong about the intensely Calvinist spirit of their lyrics (especially songs written by Derek Webb). But the problem here isn't that I'm not able to appreciate art because of its propositionality, it's that their art is in many ways too propositional, too didactic. While I recognize the artistry, I also recognize a preachiness and a problematic theology (and sometimes an incoherent theology: for example, the lyric "This world has nothing for me and this world has everything; All that I could want and nothing that I need" can only be sung with complete obliviousness to its propositional meaning or complete obliviousness to the song's artistry; a Christian appreciation of good art requires an appreciation of God's created order, yet their theology undercuts the possibility for any goodness to be found in God's Creation b/c of the fall).

D.W. Congdon said...

Excellent point, Kyle! You're absolutely right about that. You've hit on the other side of the issue which I raised in my original post: evangelicals who are also artists. Evangelical critics of art tend to look for the propositional content, while evangelical artists tend to make art overly propositional. This only confirms my basic argument: because of the nature of their Christian faith, evangelicals have a difficult time connecting with art and the aesthetic.

The issue is readily apparent when one listens to almost any so-called "Christian" music. The quality of the music is generally of a very low level, but the lyrics are even worse. Most of the songs are glorified "worship songs" or make some pious statement or tell a very moralistic story. There are almost no songs of lamentation, tragedy, moral complexity, or socio-political responsibility. Nor are there songs which portray perspectives other than the one singing -- a storytelling technique that artists like Bob Dylan and Sufjan Stevens have mastered.

I would like to come to Derek Webb's defense. His solo albums are quite a bit better than his Caedmon's Call work. They are still solidly from his perspective and still preachy, but they are a big step up from typical CCM fare.