Real music, featuring real life
The best music won't hurry me, or make me feel small.
As we look at the church, even much of the evangelical church, what we see is tragic, for often the church is using entertainment or just plain busyness to attract non-Christians. This is a poverty. But it is an even greater poverty if we need these to hold people after they are Christians.
"What does a good father look like? [half a page of space] How do I embody this role? [full page of space] What am I supposed to be doing for my son right now? [blank stare of space]." So begins and, two weeks later, presently ends my book-length manuscript. Around nine months ago, I decided that when my son was born I would start chronicling year one of both his life as my son and my life as his father. I chose the chronicle format over a standard memoir or collection of personal essays because I wanted the form of the book to model its content: discovery, over the course of time. With a chronicle, I would write as I experienced, immediately record impressions and understandings; and, by proxy, the reader would experience a sense of immediacy with the subject matter, neither of us knowing exactly where the present moment would lead. The thing that's so unnerving about the chronicle format, though, with its adherence and devotion to the present, is that the potential to expose deep, personal folly is almost unavoidable. Another issue with this subject matter, is responsibility. Although I admit my tendency to treat my writing as a living, breathing organism, my responsibility is to my living, breathing, sometimes screaming, infant son! Imagine: he screams because his feet are cold and I run to my notebook to write about his neediness in a way that will really move my audience. To my shame, I can imagine that.
And yet. Those few sentences in my notebook found the beginning of an answer shortly after I wrote them. I supported my son, Hiro, on my chest as he slept. I was pinned to an uncomfortable hospital couch . . . he to me. I dared not move for fear of waking him. How else, I thought, could I possibly father him right now besides being still with him, being present here, being generous with my body and my time? Obvious for some, perhaps, but that's a difficult position for me because my default mode is performance, busyness, "beginning-middle-end." Presence is difficult. What I desperately hope is that when my son looks for me, I will be home. I will be home. I will dwell here for my son. He has rights to a land shaped like me.
This is abstract. I haven't forgotten that this is an article about music. I was asked to write an article about "my favourite new music of 2007." I've spent months not knowing how to approach the subject. As someone whose ears harden in the absence of headphones, my uncertainty about writing this has surprised me. I love music. I love talking about music. I love reading about music. At present, I love the music of Page France, which I will get to (I promise). But I haven't known what this is supposed to be about. The topic has been clear, but its meaning hasn't. Why do I care about this music, specifically? What does my caring mean?
This is not intended as a discussion on the role of Christians in the arts (Calvin Seerveld and Hans Rookmaaker and Francis Schaeffer have already said anything I might think to). This is not specifically about the current phenomenon of Christians making genuinely good music that attracts, respects, and delights the secular music-place. Nor is this about the goodness to be found in secular music, and there's so much. I do not want simply to tell you that I adore certain music. My goal has been to tell you why, and, honestly, that "why" is not something that I've spent much of my music-all-the-time life thinking about. Thus, my lingering uncertainty about this article, why I've been attempting to listen to myself as I've listened to music, why my notebook for this article read "Page France [blankety blank blank pages]" for so long.
And yet. Two days ago, the beginning of an answer: "Loren . . . posture." Loren is an acquaintance, a friend-in-becoming, I hope. I met Loren at Meshuggah, my favorite coffeeshop. I got to know him while working at Subterranean Books, the local independent bookseller two doors down from Meshuggah. We talk about authors and architecture-based community development-authors because we're both interested; architecture because he is. He's in the midst of figuring out what to do with himself, his studies, his desires, his gifts. Loren is incredibly thoughtful, gifted, interesting. Loren is not a Christian. I have a lot to learn from Loren. Two days ago, I was sitting outside Meshuggah, listening to music, lost in the blank pages of this not-yet article. The deadline for a draft was staring me down. Loren came outside and sat down next to me. Reluctantly, I pulled off my headphones and nudged my notebook to the side. I asked how he was doing, if he'd come to any resolution regarding vocational decisions. And he began explaining where he was, why he struggled with his decisions, what he hoped for. At some point, I looked at myself listening to Loren. I was sitting on the edge of my seat; my headphones were in my left hand, my pen in my right hand, ticking. My question to Loren said, "I care what you value and who you are," but my posture said, "I'm freaked out right now and don't have time for this." I set my stuff down, slid back in my seat, and heard what he was saying.
Several hours later, I considered that moment. All the people I love, I trust, I want to be around, all of them answer, with varying volume, "yes" to the following basic question: "Will you be there for me?" I've come to believe it's the question that houses all my other questions, fears, and longings. The answers are variations on: "Rest, Jeremy, I'm here, and you have my time." This is a generosity, a gift, a grace: unhurried time. Behind all else, one of the main reasons I enjoy the music I enjoy is that it offers unhurried time.
* * *
It's now two days since I wrote those last words: "unhurried time." I'm mulling over exactly how I want to talk about that idea. It's a bit abstract. Perhaps some help from the four children outside the coffee shop right now. Their parents, looking for something to keep their children busy, looking for some way to find time for adult conversation, suggested that their children stand by the entrance and "make a play." "What's that?" one of the kids asked. "That's where you make up a story that isn't true," replied one of the mothers. I instantly wanted to object, wanted to bust in all Scorsese-like and yell, "No! You might only be two, three, three, and four years old, but you will have integrity!" I thought for a moment how I might direct my own children in the same situation. Perhaps I would say that what they should do is tell a story that is true, even if it's never been told the way they imagine it, even if it's never happened exactly like they think of it, even if they can't believe it themselves.
And yet, despite the misdirection, the kids huddled in the entranceway, deciding what story they would tell, until the youngest of the bunch flopped on the sidewalk and began crying—a great actor in the making. His mother asked him what was wrong, and the other children piped up: "He doesn't know what hero he wants to be."
The others suggested the standard fare: Superman, Spiderman, Flash Gordon, SpongeBob. I had my own suggestion. "How about," I wanted to tell him, "you be 'Happy Ending.'" Could any role require more imagination?
If those kids did make that play, I'd suggest Page France's album Hello, Dear Wind as musical accompaniment. The first Page France song I heard is "Chariot," in which God is a "wrecking ball with a heart of gold"; in which there will be a "wedding feast for the snakes and bees with the angel teeth" wherein we'll be married to "the blushing circus king and dance like elephants"; in which Jesus is "one of us, plays the tambourine, breaks the bread for us and sings"; and in which Michael Nau, the frontman for Page France, both asks for assurance ("Tell us that you care for us / We need to hear a word for us") and resolutely imagines: "So we will become a happy ending." It is a mystery.
This album is filled with such tension: We see rust, yet we imagine, as vividly, shimmer. There are soldiers and thieves, and there are kings and queens. Uncertainty and confidence. Figure and literality. Anxiety and rest. The already, as theologians like to say, and the not-yet.
There is a lightness to the music. Glockenspiels and accordions and tambourines seem, initially, to suggest that we not take these lyrics too seriously. And I want to take that musical directive seriously, but I won't take it literally. In the same way, were Loren to ask me, if the subject of Christianity entered our conversation directly, how the God of the Bible could be so vindictive, I would be careful to take that question seriously, but I would be equally as careful not to take it only literally because Loren has a rust and scar history, has family and friends, knows people, maybe including himself, who have been burned by Christians, belittled by poor exegesis, frustrated by circumstances. There is more than surface, something shoving the stated. We have reasons for our questions and fears, even if we don't always know their source or possess certainty concerning their expression. "We know," as Esther Meek says in her excellent book Longing to Know, "more than we can say."
So I fight the temptation to set "serious" lyrical subject matter (creation, fall, redemption, consummation) against "light-hearted" instrumentation, refuse an either-or fallacy. To do so would be akin to the Christian who says, "If we really believed in sin and salvation . . . if we really believed in judgment, then . . . ." That kind of conditionality is often a result, I believe, not of increased seriousness about spiritual matters, but of an impoverished imagination, of the fear of living with uncertainty, of a God who never laughs or dances or wouldn't dream of playing a tambourine as long as there's so much work left to be done. Perhaps taking myself too seriously is a result of my not taking God seriously enough, of refusing to live with uncertainty, with finitude, with a God-man who breathes his last on a Friday and eats fish on a beach with his friends a few days later. "What if we really believed?" In her essay, "Facing Reality," Marilynne Robinson answers:
I find no evidence that such beliefs were felt to be discredited or that they were consciously abandoned. They simply dropped out of the cultural conversation. And, at the same time, we adopted this very small view of ourselves and of others, as consumers and patients and members of interest groups, creatures too minor, we may somehow hope, for great death to pause over us. If we do still believe in the seriousness of being human, while we have lost the means of acknowledging this belief, even in our thoughts, then profound anxiety, whose origins we would be at a loss to name, seems to me an inevitable consequence. And this may account for both the narrowness and the intensity of the fiction that contains us. It is our comfort and our distraction. We are spiritual agoraphobes.
Here, then, is one of the discomforts I often encounter when I listen to music that emanates from a Christian worldview. I do not feel taken seriously because everything is so literally serious. I'm not trying to "take on" the Christian music industry. I believe that many Christian artists do their work in good faith and to the glory of God, but so often I'm left feeling malnourished, small, not respected as a complex, glorious ruin (to use Schaeffer's term). In short, I feel hurried. I feel hurried lyrically; I feel hurried instrumentally; I feel hurried existentially. In contrast to a band like Page France, I'm not given room to live and move with my uncertainties, not allowed to walk around with the image of myself as "buried in the junkyard," "rattl[ing] with the car parts" "every time the herald Cherub sings" ("Junkyard"); not allowed to seek fresh, extra-worship-service expression for my seeking, not allowed to exit an album, or sometimes even a song, without a literal explanation of and solution to my problems. In short, I'm left anxious, harried, hurried.
What I love, finally, about Page France, and other bands who appeal to my desire for unhurried time—Iron and Wine, David Bazan, Kelley McRae, The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers, Dolorean, Ill Lit (named after a collection of poems by Franz Wright, whose poetry refuses to hurry me), and Sufjan Stevens—is that they allow me to feel whole. I am not made to feel malnourished because of my real doubts, my real fears, my real need to live with apparent contradiction. Jesus is hard, Jesus is gentle. Peter knows, John the Baptist knows, Thomas knows. Jesus calls people to repent, and Jesus leaves people with open-ended questions. Every Sunday that I meet with other believers, Jesus calls me to confess my sins, and Jesus allows me to break bread and sing. I have not seen Jesus, but Jesus makes the most sense of everything I do see. Jesus' message is urgent, and Jesus doesn't force Himself on anyone. Jesus will come with a sword, and Jesus will also come with a backing chorus of angels playing trumpets and tambourines.
I don't know whether Page France (or most of the musicians I appreciate) shares my religious convictions. I've never had a conversation with them. I do know that Christians, myself included, have a tendency to want to hurry and claim musicians as "our own," as if they, and not the reality they sing of, will revive us. I do know that the members of Page France met at a potato sack race in San Francisco, and that's a good place to meet. And I know that they play instruments and express ideas so admixed with sobriety and joy that many Christians would quickly dismiss them as liberal, at best, or, at worst, heathen. I cannot defend them personally, but I will defend the value of music that rings true to the human condition as I understand it, music that doesn't spoil a mystery, music that, if it hurries me at all, hurries me to dance, to plea, to cry, to sing, to imagine me as a happy ending.