Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Toward a Christian Aesthetic
For any artist--I use the term in the broadest sense--there are influences, even obsessions, with a virtual mentor bordering on idolatry. I was no different. I could name them: Pete Townshend as a writer and guitarist, Eric Clapton, especially Bluesbreakers, Derek and the Dominos, and his 461 band days, Jackson Browne as a writer, David Lindley as a player of infinite taste and nuance. T. S. Eliot as a poet. Evelyn Waugh as a fiction writer. In the early days, when I sang a Neil Young song, I vocalized like Neil Young, same for George Harrison. Gradually, I began to develop my own "voice"--not just vocally, but my own style. Musically, I was absorbing aesthetics that were part of a pretty hedonistic culture and that bothered me. Jesus Music had posed the question (via Larry Norman): "Why should the devil have all the good music?" Why indeed.
There comes a stage when you have to strike out on your own and come to your own conclusions. In 1973, Susan, the girl I was dating, and I decided to forego secular music. Susan had a great stereo her older brother had put together. It was a pleasure listening to music in her living room, and that's what we would often do--just sit there and listen to music. After listening to the Allman Brothers "Live at the Fillmore East," we both felt sort of depressed, or more accurately, oppressed. So, we decided to give it up for a while. I was playing every weekend and there was good Christian music available both live and on record. For several months we held out, and I'm here to say it was a good thing. There was a purging of sorts. It was like a fast. I can't really explain it, but it brought things into sharper focus. I wish I could be more specific, but I can't. The results played out over the coming years and was not a momentary epiphany. I began to explore the Why of the music I would write and sing.
For some reason our musical fast came to an end. I remember listening to "Dark Side of the Moon" and "Quadrophenia" at Susan's. I began to notice that secular music could somehow be "anointed" (a term that I didn't use at the time). And "solid," Biblical Christian music could be, well, lame. I had to know why.
I don't intend to answer the theological/philosophical question to everybody's satisfaction here. At the time, I only had to do it to my own satisfaction. One thing I noticed about songs of mine that seemed inspired, or anointed, or bore fruit--whatever: They were often songs about people and real events that somehow touched me. One of my earliest songs, "Gordy," was about a guy I didn't know, but whose death touched me because it touched someone I cared about. It was about a mysterios, intangible bond of love that seemed uniquely Christian. But the song was not a Christian song per se. A song I wrote a couple of years later, "Rhonda's Song," was about a friend who confessed that she felt ugly because she had acne. She had looked beautiful to me and I never noticed the acne until she brought it up. I wrote the song for her and sent it to her (on 8-track!) but never intended to sing it in a Christian setting. One Saturday night at the coffeehouse I felt that I should sing it. After a brief argument with God, I gave in and sang it. You have to understand. Singing a non-"spiritual" song there was like getting up in a traditional church for a solo and starting out "Jeremiah was a bullfrog..." But I sang it. Afterward, two young ladies came to talk to me about how God spoke to them through that song and told them that they were beautiful.
Reading T. S. Eliot's essay "Religion and Literature," which happened to be in a lit textbook I was using for a course at the time, reading C. S. Lewis's statement that we don't need more Christian writers (i.e., propogandists) but more Christians who are writers (artists), and my own experience that, generally, my most effective songs were not on a specifically Christian theme, led me to my own aesthetic. Whatever I wrote or sang, it had to be real. I could not do a "cover" version of any song, still can't. At first, I thought it was because I was undisciplined and lazy, not willing to go to the trouble. I found that I wouldn't go to the trouble because it wasn't worth the trouble. On the other hand, I would steal any good idea I could find and bury it in my kit bag. I ran across a quote that helped me reconile this theft. T. S. Eliot: "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal." Yes! And thus my motto: "Copy nothing; steal anything." There's a difference between the 1983 TV remake of "Casablanca" starring David Soul(why? why? why?) and James Joyce or the Coen Brothers "stealing" the plot and/or characters of Homer's "The Odyssey." Eric Clapton stole every good lick from every good bluesman that anybody went to the trouble to record. But the way he strung those lines together made them his own.
So, I guess the best way to describe my aesthetic is that I will try to absorb anything that seems good without trying to test its Christian utility, just its beauty or sublimity. If my heart and mind are in the right place, and I am sensitive to the Spirit, then what comes out may seem spiritual or not, but it will be real. My job, really, is not to make holy things, but to make art. And the holy thing is not a holy thing because it resembles other holy things; it is a holy thing because God has sanctified it--set it aside from the mundane for his divine purpose. He can do that with whatever He chooses.