By Cole Hartin
Advent is the season of longing, of preparation, of hope. As I’ve been reflecting on these themes over the course of the last few weeks, I’ve realized that most of the music I am drawn to year-round is centered on these same things.
Over the past year I’ve been enjoying a subscription to Image, a journal that “fosters contemporary art and writing that grapple with the mystery of being human by curating, cultivating, convening, and celebrating work that explores religious faith and faces spiritual questions.” As the bulk of my time and energy has shifted away from the academy and into the parish, I’ve had the freedom to step outside of my disciplinary lines. In part, this has meant time and space to nurture my interest in art and literary writing which I find have more uptake in parish ministry than technical academic writing (though I don’t want to leave this entirely behind me either!). Even here, however, the worlds of art criticism or poetry can be, at their worst, elitist and narcissistic in the same way that academia can be.
I have been trying to work out a vocation where art and theology find their home in the Church. This is their proper home, I believe, but given the reality of parish ministry, neither can be too refined. The reason for this is that the parish is the meeting place for all of the people of God in a geographical location, and so local theology and art need to be accessible and popular (except, maybe, in parishes that cater to university towns). This means, moreover, that parish clergy and laity have a role to play in theology and the arts, especially as they are taken up and find their form in worship.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
Image’s editor in chief, James K. A. Smith, sends out a monthly newsletter that includes, among other things, a meditation on various artistic projects, including visual art, music, etc. In the October edition, Smith alluded to a project about the emotional staying power of sad art, riffing on an article titled “The Distancing-Embracing model of the enjoyment of negative emotions in art reception.” Basically, what Smith is taking from this is that in opting to see or hear something that induces negative emotions, we are choosing — at a safe distance — to engage with difficult emotions in a way that can be both sad and pleasurable.
Smith references some of his favorite popular musicians like Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Sufjan Stevens, all of whom I love as well. I could add Noah Gundersen to the list, whose recent album A Pillar of Salt has the same effect.
As someone who is drawn to contemplating the darker shades of human existence, I feel too that there is something compelling in art and music that dwell upon the complexity, “the changes and chances of this fleeting world,” rather than that which propose a saccharine vision of Christian hope. I am looking forward to reading Smith’s forthcoming work on the issue.
This is one of the reasons that I have always felt a disdain for “Christian” music, though hymnody is not my problem here. I have considered that this might be stemming from some sinful problem on my part; perhaps I am being too judgmental. After praying about this, though, I have come to see instead that much contemporary worship music, and the majority of the CCM culture on which I was raised is too positive, and thus too simplistic.
When I put on Noah Gundersen or Phoebe Bridgers, however, I am immediately drawn in because of the raw emotion. For example, in the single form Gundersen’s A Pillar of Salt, “Atlantis,” that features Bridgers as well, the song begins:
If I was Atlantis and you were the sea
I’d sneak up behind you and break your knees
I’d cut off your fingers and both of your feet
So you couldn’t reach me, but you couldn’t leave, yeah
The violence and that can be attendant on erotic desire is evident here, and in some ways is part of the wider sweep of the album, as well as much of Bridger’s work. Take, for example, her “Moon Song”:
You couldn’t have, you couldn’t have
Stuck your tongue down the throat of somebody
Who loves you more
So I will wait for the next time you want me
Like a dog with a bird at your door
Here we see the same theme. The beloved that is both desirable and repellant in the same instant. There is a wish to keep the beloved close while at the same time recognizing the unhealthy and perhaps even abusive elements in the relationship.
And yet all of this is far more interesting to me than the opening track of the most recent Hillsong album These Same Skies. The lyrics for the chorus read,
That’s the power of Your Name
Just a mention makes a way
Giants fall and strongholds break
And there is healing
That’s the power that I claim
It’s the same that rolled the grave
There’s no power like the
Mighty Name of Jesus
I hear this song and read the lyrics, and on the one hand I recognize the truth of them. There is nothing offensive about the words, and the sound of the track, while still “worshipy,” mimics many of the artists I enjoy listening to. Compared with lyrics by Bridgers or Gundersen, this song is far less disturbing.
But why do I find this work song so cringy?
I think, in part, what Smith was getting at in his newsletter point in the right direction. I am drawn to music with challenging, negative emotions, precisely when the emotional purview of the song is far outside my own experience. There is something cathartic here, for sure, but there is also a pastoral engagement with which I can experience something of the emotional vulnerability of others as they described experiences I’ve never been through. Whereas the cleaner, righteous, and buoyant sound and lyrics of modern worship tends to leave me feeling cold. Lament and frustration are not allowed to remain unresolved; any emotional complexity is brought to a neat conclusion by the song’s bridge.
This quick turn to the triumph of God in Christ does not map onto Christian (or biblical experience). The destination is right, but the path is too easy, and thus feels saccharine. To put this another way: The emotional/theological ambiance on the path to redemption in Christ is not unimportant. My hope is that in our parishes, along with our divine worship and biblical study, will be able to grapple with the realities of life as they come and as they are given in art.
Here are a few albums to listen to as you journey through Advent: