Last week, after finding out I passed my thesis defense, and finishing lesson plans, I excitedly rented a red Nissan Versa from Hertz Rent-A-Car on Saturday morning, and headed down to downtown Austin.
When I first moved to Waco, I was incredibly excited to realize how close I am to Austin, TX, and consequently, two fantastic music fesitvals: South by Southwest (SxSW) and Austin City Limits (ACL). Without a good monetary justification (ie, I was raising money for India) in September, I was unable to attend ACL, but, I found myself well funded and with enough free time, to make it down for the second to last day of SxSW.
What is SxSW, you ask? Basically, it is one of the largest indie music and film festivals in the world. Lasting about a week, hundreds of bands from all over the country (and world) converge on Austin to meet with record labels, showcase new music, and, well, party. Films are also premiered during this week - this year MacGruber, the newest SNL based movie, was the big premier, last year was (500) Days of Summer (one of my favorite movies, ever). Basically, it's a big festival, meant to create conversations on what is happening in the business of entertainment.
My only previous experience with major music festivals is Life Light, the largest free Christian music festival in the United States. Life Light is squeaky clean, polished evangelical Christianity. No smoking. No swearing. The teenagers there are often respectful, and the merchandise tent was chock full of Jesus memorabilia, what a lot of "insiders" in Christian pop culture would call "Jesus junk." Like I said, squeaky clean, packaged, safe, Christianity.
A large part of my life for 8 years, Life Light shaped a lot of my views toward art and music in general. Unfortunately, I have spent much of my higher education life reworking a lot of that view. A book I began reading today, Rapture Ready! by Daniel Radosh, examines Christian pop culture from an outsider (in fact, Jewish) perspective. He states that a lot of Christian rock musicians are considered primarily ministers first and musicians second, which creates an odd tension between how much they evangelize, and, sometimes, how many times they mention Jesus in a song, and whether or not they're producing worthwhile music. For a very long time, it didn't matter what the quality of music was - it just matter whether or not they were "praising Jesus!"
I feel like I have been in musical therapy in erasing that mindset.
I still feel a little cringe of guilt when I skip over KLOVE when scanning through the radio, though I no longer have a problem listening to David Bazan, who is known for such lyrics as "God bless the man who stumbles, God bless the man who fails, God bless the man who yields to temptation" and "...you were too busy steering the conversation toward the Lord to hear the voice of the Spirit, begging you to shut the f--- up."
Going to SxSW, it seems, was another part of that therapy.
Now, I don't want you to get the wrong message here. I am not saying that I am any more enlightened than my more conservative counterparts who attend Life Light and listen to KLOVE. What I am (let's put a name on it) testifying to here is a change in my personal spiritual life, not something that is necessarily true for all people, though I believe it is reflected in a large part of my generation.
Some people are fine and happy listening to music that is all worship, all the time.
I am not. And it has taken me years to realize that.
For years, I listened to what I was told was good because, frankly, I didn't know any better. I couldn't make myself listen to music with curses in it - during a particularly righteous phase my freshman year of college, I deleted all the Green Day off of my computer because some of the songs had swearing. If the song wasn't immediately about Jesus - or wasn't a peppy clean song I could dance to, like something from The Beach Boys - I didn't listen.
6 years later (my goodness, it's been that long?!), I find myself standing at the back of a bar in Austin, TX, dancing along as Frightened Rabbit performs "Keep Yourself Warm," surrounded by drunk or getting there people, and not caring.
Is this enlightenment? No, not necessarily. Is it an improvement? I think so.
I texted a friend from back home on Saturday, telling him that SxSW was like Life Light, only 4 times big, and with copious amounts of alcohol, smoking and cursing. And free food. SxSW is, for the most part, unabashedly unChristian. Bands swear from stage, smoke and drink backstage, and as the movie A Knight's Tale put it quite nicely, "committing all the oldest sins in the newest ways."
While I was frequently surprised by what I saw - Austin is a really weird town, truth be told - I appreciated it as well. I actually really enjoyed myself because not only was I seeing some bands I happened to admire (She & Him, for one), but there was a sense of realness about a lot of the bands and people. People walked around basically unashamed of themselves and their own personalities, not afraid to let opinions fly (especially from the stage) regardless of whether they offended or not. They were often original, real, and strikingly unique.
Part of what enrages me about Christian popular culture is the number of things that I find that are simply co-opts of secular culture, often done in poorer quality. A few examples of this include "All the Holy Ladies," "Christians in da Club," and "I Can't Believe It" (now with autotune!). We are so concerned with creating something squeaky clean that we have forgotten about making something genuinely good.
Now, I'm not writing this blog to simply poke fun at all the "Christian" versions of secular culture because, as Radosh points out, imitators appear in secular culture as well (think of the way similar bands tend to come out at the same time: Britney and Christina, Good Charlotte and Simple Plan, John Mayer and Jason Mraz, Vanessa Carlton and Michelle Branch). It would be far too easy to just spend my time poking fun at these imitations, and not look at the outlying ramifications from Christianizing an already existing form of art.
Think about a painting.
Let's take, for example, one of my favorites: Van Gogh's Golden Wheat Field:
It's a beautiful, original work of art, beautiful in part, because of the way the Creator knows his work, knows his art, and sought to do something original. Van Gogh sought to portray his own image of this particular field, at this particular time, and as a result, we have a beautiful, bright, enchanting piece of art.
Now think of what an imitation would look like. It would be someone trying to make Van Gogh's style, but something would be missing. It wouldn't have that originality, that panache, that original sense of beauty that the first one has. It might be, technically speaking, a very good replica. But there is something intangible missing in the masterpiece.
It is merely a replica, and not the real thing.
This is how I feel about a lot of Christian art. A lot of it feels like someone took an original idea from secular culture, dipped it in a vat of Jesus cleanser, and came up with their own version. And that is how a lot of non-believers see it as well. When a band comes out that is marketed as "the Christian version of Linkin Park," they end up creating a name for themselves as an imitator, not as an artist in their own right.
As I walked from party to party on Saturday, trailing my friends Althea and Will - both fellow India travelers, and both, incidentally, non-believers - I realized that what we in Christian culture need to do is not to sanitize secular culture so that it is "Positive and Safe for the Whole Family!" but create something so wholly compelling that it expresses to the non-believer a realness about ourselves.
Blogger and author, Matthew Paul Turner, writes of this in the opening chapter to his newest book, Hear No Evil. He overhears a conversation in a coffee shop in Nashville between a new Christian musician and a record executive, discussing an upcoming showcase. In the course of the conversation, the musician - with spiked hair, punk rock clothing, and a distinctly fake aura - comments about how they need to create something real and honest in their stage show, so that they can be appear vulnerable to the audience. Turner writes: "So many of us Christians are all about being vulnerable, especially when we're on stage, dressed up in a costume and wearing makeup, putting on a performance we consider 'a means to an end.'"
We have let our desire to convert, our desire to sanitize, Christianize, and Jesus-ify everything we do that we have forgotten the most important part of the Gospel: heart. We have forgotten to be real about ourselves, about our struggles, about our problems, about the times that we don't believe, because, for some reason, we think we'll be judged by not only outside culture, but by our own brothers and sisters as well.
Throughout the day at SxSW, I was hanging out with Althea, Will and Althea's boss, Chris. Chris didn't know me from Eve, but was still kind and friendly toward me, offering to buy me a drink to celebrate my thesis, and giving me his coat when he noticed I was cold. After about 3 or 4 hours of hanging out, the topic of faith finally came up, and Althea told Chris that I am a professing Christian. Instead of saying, "Oh, I never would have guessed!" or "Wow, what are you doing in a place like this?" Chris opened up about where he's sitting in his faith - he openly and honestly told me that he attends church for his children, and doesn't really have a faith of his own.
My 18 year old self (one who probably would have ditched SxSW three hours before), would have taken that opportunity to rattle off the gospel, tell him he needs a personal relationship with Jesus and that's what he needs to do to save his soul.
My 24 year old self...listened. As we walked down the street, I nodded in agreement and told him I understood, and that everyone is at different places in their faith walk, and sometimes, doing it for someone else is, well, what we do.
Because I didn't try to take his culture and subvert it into my own, because I was willing to come to his area and love what he loves and experience what he experiences, I feel like I was more real. I didn't come away from that conversation wondering whether I should have evangelized, beating myself up for not having a tract on me. I just came away hoping that I had given him a little slice of a Christian who's not a ranting and rambling evangelical who cringes at every swear word and yells at anti-abortion rallies. A Christian who is, surprisingly, like him. Just with a different outlook.
I believe that we all need to strive for authenticity. And I am not holding myself up as a paragon of this - I fail a lot in being real, but I believe I'm getting better. If we drop the idea that there are separate worlds, and that we somehow need to create a safe culture for ourselves, we'll find ourselves marketed differently - as real, authentic, loving people, not just caricatures in the media. We can be a real Jesus to a real hurting world, simply by stepping back from our own sanitizing cleanser and getting our hands dirty once in a while.
We can give Jesus new PR.
The following are some examples of bands I feel are doing a good job of giving Jesus new PR. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but merely a starting point if you want to get some new ears for original, authentic music.
The Civil Wars
And I must give credit: Matthew Paul Turner is where I hijacked the whole giving Jesus new PR idea. Follow him on Twitter @JesusNeedsNewPR.