I took a long road trip last weekend in a car I’ve just bought. It’s an eight-year-old car, so it’s not exactly new, but it’s quite a bit newer than the fifteen year old ride I’d been wheeling around in for the last five years. Last weekend’s trip, however, marked one of the first times I’ve been on a long road trip with my own music playing in my own car, as I’ve never replaced the iPod which died my senior year of college.
While I was on the road listening to my new-to-me car CD player, a great deal of my trip was spent listening to the new album from Minnesota-turned-Brooklyn rockers The Hold Steady entitled Heaven is Whenever. To be honest, I purchased the album because I like Springsteen-influenced, “intelligent bar rock” in all of its incarnations. Imagine my pleasant surprise, then, when I realized that at least Craig Finn, The Hold Steady’s lead singer, is self-consciously Catholic. A further investigation of the band’s other albums has revealed that Finn is thoroughly influenced by his Catholicism, even if that’s buried underneath six feet of Schlitz-soaked, heavy-partying turf of the characters in his songs.
All this got me to thinking about Christians and the arts generally. Is it saying too much to say that one might be able to measure faithfulness or discipleship or at least how widespread the Christian tradition is in a given culture by the way it influences that culture’s artists, poets, songwriters, and novelists? What does the relative lack of serious artists who are also Christians in our culture say?
Or, to put it another way, with apologies to Paula Cole, where have all the Flannery O’Connors gone?
One of the things which continues to amaze me about Pentecostals, particularly those students of my alma mater with whom I frequently interact, is how shallow their exposure to serious art is. I’ll pick on literature a bit, as that’s more-or-less my favorite. My roommate, a literature major at that institution, sat on our porch the other night describing literature majors who think that Ted Dekker and Francine Rivers are major literary geniuses, and who have never heard of, much less read, names like Michener, Faulkner, Updike, O’Connor, Hemingway, just to name a few. This is troubling to me.
There are even less examples of Pentecostal artists who pursue a high level of quality in their crafts. Denzel Washington certainly comes to mind, but beyond him, few authors or artists ring any bells to me. I’d be interested to hear if anyone else knows of any. What does it say about the future of a tradition when we cannot imagine the future differently than the present which we see? Can our communities be oriented towards Christ the soon-coming King if we cannot tell stories well?