On the state of the arts

The Hold SteadyI 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?

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5 thoughts on “On the state of the arts

  1. Stephen 27 June 2010 at 1:07 pm Reply

    I like to think of O’Connor as being somewhere between Catholic and Pentecostal, though if she wasn’t Catholic she couldn’t have been the artist she was.

    As far as music goes, Kings of Leon does a good job of including their identity as ex-Pentecostals in their music (their dad was a traveling evangelist, but they’ve taken up a more conventional rock and roll lifestyle these days).

    I do often think about how Pentecostals have a lot of stories to tell and could add a great deal to the burgeoning world literature scene if there are capable novelists and story writers (and poets) out there somewhere.

    • Dave Mowers 27 June 2010 at 5:21 pm Reply

      Indeed. +1 to Stephen for Kings of Leon. I listened to their new album incessantly last fall.

      • Aaron A. Abubo 27 June 2010 at 10:55 pm

        John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats is Catholic. (I wanted to say “very Catholic,” which seems to be justified by his lyrics, but
        I didn’t… and then I did). Mary Karr is a pretty amazing poet who is also pretty Catholic. As for pentecostals, though… I’m at a bit of a loss, although you might have more luck browsing through the R&B section than Pop/Rock.
        In regards to the previous poster’s KOL comment, I’d only give him maybe half a point, since there seem to be plenty of artists who give time to their “identity as EX-pentecostals” including the formerly overtly-pentecostal David Bazan, whose latest solo album is as beautifully rendered as it is tragic in its bitterness (a reference which should earn me at least a half-point).

      • Dave Mowers 28 June 2010 at 8:43 am

        Nice. I know the Mountain Goats, and had wondered whether there was a connection there. I’ll have to check out Karr.

        +2 to Aaron. 🙂 another +1/2 for the Bazan reference.

  2. Patrick Abubo 29 June 2010 at 12:19 pm Reply

    Some thoughts:

    First of all, Dave mentioned Michener. I could do without him. But yes, I did bemoan the fact that literature students at North Central University have a rather limited scope of literary exposure. I’m sure there are different reasons for different students, but part of the problem is that they haven’t been taught to read well. They read their literature like they do their theology: whatever they’ve been told is good is what they know about. That’s probably an unfair generalization, but from what I’ve gathered in conversations with fellow students, they don’t know about many writers beyond those that have been covered in their English courses.

    I’m intrigued by the connection between the Pentecostal college students and the Pentecostal attitude toward art in general. In a Non-Fiction writing class, I read a well-intentioned piece by a peer who argued that a Sunday morning worship service was no place for “drama”. While I don’t see church “dramas” as on par with literature or recorded music, the bias against representative art (loosely defined) is telling.
    I believe that part of the problem for Pentecostals and art in general has to do with a fundamentalist evangelicalism. Art for a fundamentalist evangelical is only created for the purpose of evangelism. And art with a “message” is always poor art.

    Music fans don’t like it when musicians get preachy. The Dixie Chicks. Think about it. When it comes to writing songs, artists have to have a well-developed definition of art if they want to include political or religious views. To simply stand up and say this or that about politics or religion is to lose your audience. For Christians to write blatant songs about Christianity is to limit their audience, and to make music that will only play on the Christian radio station, or on a church platform. So in a way, it should and shouldn’t be difficult to spot the Christian artists in the mainstream. It should be difficult, because they will not be writing songs with Christian vocabulary. It should not be difficult, because the content of their songs should belie their attempts to suppress that same vocabulary. I think Eugene Peterson has said that all stories are in a sense Christian. As far as music goes, any music which deals with the Christian themes of forgiveness, redemption, and the like (although of course these could come from artists of other religious backgrounds as well) could be seen as Christian music. And for my money, I’ll take that kind of Christian music over the other kind any day.

    Thinking done.

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