The problem of evangelicals and art
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.
"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.
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.