Friday, February 27, 2009

The Bono Conundrum

We live in an evangelical culture of molds. We love them. Drive down any highway in the Bible Belt and you'll find 3 basic architectural molds of Church and Church people. Before I get started here, let me just say that this isn't a bashing fest, this a commentary. (How was that for a cheap and lazy disclaimer. Hey, I never claimed to be a non-hypocrite.)


1. High Church people. These are usually Baptists. Baptist-lite. Extra-strength Baptists, and Baptist-Olestra. They mostly dress a certain way, and sing a good healthy mix of hymn and praise music. Every once in a while a long-haired, bearded pianist will wander who looks like Jesus at the piano, but most times, they keep things close to the chest and playbook as far as that goes. Good clean fun.

2. Superdome Church people: These are the guys that probably have the most fun on Sunday morning. Not much Calvinist fatalism taught here, and no hints of Gnostic "this-life-sucks-flesh-and-Earth-is-evil" talk. They've usually got some unbelievable band and some incredible media team that rivals the pop culture that they are... well... rivaling.

3. Then you have the occasional small neighborhood church. This is my favorite church. It is a church and built-in small group all in one nice package. You aren't allowed to drop by, sing a few words off the wall and hit the Luby's. If you come, you will be hugged. Sadly, since the rise of the mega-church, these important congregations have been weakened and the onslaught of hugs one receives when visiting can often times scare a family away. But, here, IMO, we find the most non-conforming group of interesting Christians known to man.

That's the Church culture. There be the molds. Anything outside of that mold is considered suspicious and should be discouraged.

Christian Art

Then we've got the ever-splendorous Christian Music Industry. I'll admit, I'm a bit jaded here. So forgive some of the words that follow. It is in this industry that we find, IMO, Christianity at its absolute worst. When I first came to Rice, Amber and I were just visiting Nashville for the first time and dipping our toe in the waters. I told the Music Business and Law prof. about some of our upcoming meetings and he told me that I should buy some lubricant for the initial screwing that was coming. He went on to say, not in a judgmental tone, but as a warning, that the Christian Music Industry is notorious for paying late, or never paying, and absolutely abusing songwriters.

We heeded his advise and dove in. We met some wonderful folk. However, long-story-short, it wasn't for us. A label fellow (VP) at one of the big ones liked our record and had it in his car for a week but said that it was perhaps too strange and -get this- complex for the radio and would need to be simplified. Well, we went a different direction and God bless them.

The thing to note about the CCM industry is that there are molds. Those molds are cast from tried and true molds found in the "mainstream" pop world. Yes, there are molds there as well, but CCM music, (specifically radio tunes) are the grand mold-followers. And yes, there are original voices that make it through from time to time, but they are rare. Who in the hell would sign a man today who would want to showcase the hammer-dulcimer and have lyrics like "and the moon is a sliver of silver, like a shaving that fell on the floor of a carpenters shop"? Nobody.

However, there are many reasons to listen to CCM rather than participate in the business. Much good comes from the guys sweating it out in that industry and it is appreciated. However, I do feel sorry for many who wish to be more expressive and individual than they are allowed to be. The mold will not allow it.

All these things are representative of molds. These molds, though good in some way, have contributed to many, many painful things in our faith. This is because molds cannot be kept. No man is plaster. No man is marble. We are absolutely flawed. And from those flaws God creates beauty. There is great beauty in man, for what God makes is good and Holy. But a mold is nothing more than an unattainable idol. It is the Golden calve that we want to so desperately see, when God wants us to simply desire Him.

Then along comes a S.O.B. like Bono. He doesn't appear in all the molds. He pays no homage to the popular and well-known mold gurus. Is he crazy? What the hell? Did someone read that Rolling Stone interview where he flat-out says that he is a "Christian," even though he doesn't like the moniker because of the loss of its meaning to the mold idols.

I truly believe that the life of a saint should be extraordinary. Nothing plain or mold-like about it. Obedience is a terrible and wonderful journey. It will make your parents think you've lost it. It will make your friends say, "are you out of your frigging mind?" Obedience calls unto a radical life of embracing who God has made us to be. Following Jesus is not an easy thing, but it is like that Mountain hike that is to tiring and irrational. What good is a mountain hike anyways? You get hungry; its dangerous; you get tired; but the view is spectacular. No trading it. Or it is downsizing your monthly expenses, even though you don't need to. It is a trip into the plain and ordinary, but the obedience brings the bliss. The wood-paneled walls might as well be Sistine Murals.

There has been a story that I heard or the news that has stuck in my mind since I viewed it. It was an NBC special report about a man who was a football star who suddenly quit his multi-million dollar career in the NFL and took a job as a border patrol officer instead. People thought he was nuts. He doesn't think so. He believes that it was obedience because it was what he had always wanted to do. Yes, he was big and brawny and could knock down a tree on the football field, but that's not the vision that was in his heart. The obedience was to monitor drug trafficking from Mexico. He had grown up around drug dealers and when he was a boy he dreamed of being a peace officer so he could make a difference. So you have a man who the world thought should enter into a societal mold: Big black man = potential NFL star. Try again. The life of obedience is NEVER predicable. It never promises a grand retirement fund, because you don't really retire. No, not all of us will do something so odd as to question our sanity, but... you just might. No, I take that back. Sometime, you will. Period. No exception. You'll be asked. It's up to you to play it safe or take the leap.

I'll end this here incredibly long blog with a great quote by Thomas Merton. (Himself a strange saint, in that he decided to go live with a bunch of Buddhist monks as a Christian Monk. No, he didn't convert. Lewis greatly admired his writings.)

"One of the first signs of a saint may well be the fact that other people do not know what to make of him. In fact, they are not sure whether he is crazy or only proud; but it must at least be pride to be haunted by some individual ideal which nobody but God really comprehends. And he has inescapable difficulties in applying all the abstract norms of "perfection" to his own life. He cannot make his life fit in the with the books." Thomas Merton

The grand evangelical illusion of our time is that there is a real tried-and-true created mold. There is no mold. There is only obedience. And obedience is a vast, unending gallery of art that might at any moment transform into a cool brisk world, with snow, a Lion and an evil queen, or a barbed wired fence separating two countries, or in front of microphone staring down a million reasons to believe that you are better than you are.

Dangerous business, that obedience.


Vitamin Z said...

Interesting thoughts about CCM. I hear you. I think the majority of the problem has to do with the size the market. It's so small, it just can't sustain any thing "risky". I have posted many reflections as well on about CCM on my blog since I was in that world for about two years. You can find them by searching "CCM" on my blog if you want.


Stephen said...

That's a great Merton quote.