Thursday, April 26, 2012

In Defense of Christian Music

I still remember the day I got my very first CD player and my very first CDs. it was Christmas. The summer before, I had heard DC Talk's Jesus Freak at summer camp, and I had asked my mom to find out what it was. That Christmas morning, I awoke to find, on the chair reserved for my presents, several books; On top of the books were two smaller, thinner objects, wrapped in paper; And on top of them was an object of unfamiliar shape.

It was a CD player. My first CD player. And below it was DC Talk's "Intermission: The Greatest Hits" and the O. C. Supertone's "Loud and Clear." Although that was years and years ago, I have no doubt that to this day, they remain among my most-listened-to CDs.

I grew up listening to Christian music. I grew up on DC Talk, O.C. Supertones, Relient K, Switchfoot, Toby Mac... They sunk into my head and my heart, and as Anna can testify, I can identify certain songs in as little as 3-4 seconds with my iPod on shuffle. I grew up listening to them. I grew up with Jesus Freak ringing in my ears. I grew up doing chores to Momentum. I grew up singing along in my horrible, horrible singing voice to Wilderness.

And so I grew up with all these songs echoing in my mind. And so I came to know, in my heart and in my head, that as we wander the wilderness, God has been there too. I came to know that our appeals to God merely echo Christ's more passionate and more desperate appeals to God. I came to know that while Christianity is peaceful, that is not the same as being "quiet" or "weak," and that we must refuse, at any and all costs, to merely roll over in the face of the world.

I grew up, in short, listening to theology: To Christology, to apologetics, to theodicy. I grew up listening to songs about God and Christ and the Incarnation and suffering and questions and doubt and faith. And I grew up, and I continue growing up, and who I am today I owe in large part to the music I was blessed with. I can find the roots of my affinity to Job and The Man who was Thursday in my old Supertones CDs: In Wilderness and Like No One Else. I can trace my unwillingness to compromise on scripture back to DC Talk's Socially Acceptable, and the essential "active-ness" and liveliness of Christianity to their Luv is a Verb.

These are only seeds... but they were planted early, and they were watered often. When I came to Biola and started really reading Lewis and Chesterton and a whole bunch of other really dead guys (much love to Cyril of Alexandria and John Henry Newman and too many others to list), I was ready to really think about the ideas they put forward: I'd already been thinking about them for years.

This has value. This has more value than I can say. Christian music has its detractors, even (some might say especially) in Christian circles. But done well, it can be invaluable. That is all.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

People or Caricatures?

Quick, watch an episode of The Office. What did you see? Did you see a normal office building, populated by individuals just like you and me? No, you didn't. You saw an office building full of caricatures: "A picture, description, or imitation of a person or thing in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect," according to Google dictionary. Dwight's characteristic is weirdness, Jim's is awesomeness, Kevin's is oh so many things. They are too exceptional to be real: They are comic and, at times, grotesque exaggerations of what a weird person is, or what a funny person is. They are not real, and we are very rarely tempted to think of them as such.

Now listen to a Bible lesson about Peter, or Gideon, or that crippled guy in John 5, or--very often--Jesus himself. Was the sermon about a real person, or just a caricature, created to prove a point? In my experience, Peter is often either a bumbling idiot (if the lesson is about Gethsemane or the Transfiguration) or a prideful fool (walking on water, proclaiming his loyalty to Christ). Recently I heard Gideon described as "throwing a pity party," focused on nothing but feeling sorry for himself. That crippled dude in John 5 is the butt of everyone's joke. And Jesus can be caricaturized (apparently this is not a word: It should be.) in any number of ways.

Here's the thing: While this can be useful in proving a point, it can backfire very easily: By reducing a complete person to a caricature, you weaken the Bible's relationship to reality: The stories are no longer stories that happened to real people, in the real world. Peter is no longer a person to relate to, with fears and hopes and dreams, and a love for Jesus but a weakness of will: He is a buffoon to be laughed at, or a fool to be pitied. Gideon is no longer a human being much like ourselves, in a situation we often find ourselves in, as the least of his household, surrounded by idols: He is a self-absorbed twit who inexplicably fails to see what is about to happen. These stories of real people and real events, preserved by divine providence for our benefit, are now something much more akin to an episode of The Office, where not-quite-real things happen to not-quite-real people.

I myself fall into this same mistake sometimes. It's much easier to speak of a caricature, especially if your desire is to amuse (as mine often is). But it is not good. We literally cannot afford to turn the people of the Bible into caricatures: It is difficult to relate to caricatures, and even more difficult to learn from them. The Bible is the story of God working through, talking to, and saving people: And if we do not see that, then neither will we see its relevance for us.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Most Interesting Man in the World

There's this strange belief, that many people share, that for a character to be interesting, he must be flawed. This reasoning caused the director of the Lord of the Rings movies to rewrite Faramir as merely a crappier, less-manly Boromir, irresolute and treacherous, instead of the paragon of virtue, a reminder of the Numenorean blood that still flowed in Gondor, that we find in the books. It is also this reasoning that played a large role in utterly destroying the terrible "adaptations" of the Narnia books. Peter becomes the whiny, petty, utterly selfish would-be king, picking fights in railway stations and engaging in pointless power struggles... and then in the next movie the exact same thing happens to Edmund. All in the name of making the characters interesting by making them flawed.

As if Lucy is not infinitely more interesting than Edmund, or Faramir less interesting than Boromir. 

And we forget (or ignore) that Aslan is easily the most interesting character in the series.

And we forget that of all men, Jesus is easily the most interesting.

Jesus. The only sinless man. The only person who does not have the "fatal flaw" demanded in Greek tragedy. The man who, according to all the secular writers of the world, should be by far the least interesting. And yet he is not. This un-flawed man has not ceased to be talked about in the 2,000 years since his death. He has shaped history, shaped the world, buildings have been built and destroyed, nations have formed and collapsed, laws have been passed and repealed the world over... because of this man. Because of this one, perfectly good, un-flawed, most interesting man. 

The problem is that people view these good men as though their actions were predetermined. "When a character is always good," they say, "You always know what he is going to do." But you do not know. You view "good" as a static state of being. But it is not. It is active, ever more active than evil, which is often a mere slipping into the easier and more "natural" way. Evil is the passive state: Evil accepts the temptation to take the ring, evil accepts the temptation to be whiny and petty and demand the respect you think you deserve. But good... good is active. Good must be active, for it to be good. Good must reject the impulse to take the ring to Osgiliath. Good must actively push against the easy decision to lapse into selfish pride. You can conceive of the Dos Equis man (the 2nd most interesting man in the world) saving an orphanage full of kittens while riding on a flaming motorcycle... it is utterly inconceivable that he should do the easy thing, the "flawed, dynamic, interesting" thing, and let it perish. 

Every moment in the life of a good man is full of struggle and battle: Every battle a battle of life and death, and every victory a heroic victory. It would have been the easy, natural thing for Job to "curse God and die." And yet Job would be a far less interesting man if he had done that. It would have been the easy, natural thing for Jesus to turn stones into bread at Satan's request, or to bow down to Satan and inherit the world without the pain of the cross... and yet the story of Jesus would be far less interesting, and the world would not even have noticed his passing.