Secular, Sacred, or Both
- 2005 14 Feb
As a college freshman, I was introduced to, and subsequently transformed by, Steve Turner's seminal treatise on Christianity and the arts, Being There.
Although it was published almost eight years ago, Turner's essay has maintained its relevance, proving as fresh and enlightening a read now as the first time around. In a prelude to his later, full-length book Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, Being There challenges evangelical Christians to remove their heads from the sand of their own subculture and become active participants in developing mainstream cultural life.
Sound controversial? It was—and still is. In his very first paragraph, Turner argues somewhat cantankerously that mainstream culture lacks a noticeably Christian contribution "because there are no distinctively Christian people contributing."
When Turner wrote these words in 1998, he was making only a minor overstatement. While Jars of Clay had recently charted with "Flood," few Christian artists had even attempted what we now call a "crossover"—an effort to bridge the perceived divide between "sacred" music and secular.
But in the years since Turner's little booklet, things have changed. Christian artists are not only selling records in the mainstream, they are making active efforts to engage it on its own terms. Whether they've read his pamphlet or not (and many have), more and more musicians of faith are participating in the wider world of mainstream music, from quiet folk to hip-hop to indie rock.
Some of them, like now-independent singer-songwriter Sarah Masen or former Vigilantes of Love frontman Bill Mallonee, are in the mainstream as refugees from CCM—not because they "crossed over," as with a band like Switchfoot, but because their music overstepped industry boundaries. Most of these artists, however, admit they never found a place in CCM in the first place.
Take, as the prime example, Sufjan Stevens. He is a Christian college graduate. His lyrics are explicitly confessional. Mainstream critics agree that if the lyrics on his Seven Swans CD (2004) were sung by anyone else, they'd belong on a worship album or as the rallying cry at a youth group jamboree. Stevens seems like a shoo-in for CCM stardom. Yet he never caught the notice of the industry's executives—let alone that it never even occurred to Stevens to darken the doorstep of Nashville offices or studios. He dove headfirst into the gritty New York music scene, and emerged, to everyone's surprise, as the darling of the same indie rock critics who generally disdain such overtly religious lyricism.
What drew Stevens to the world beyond Christian music labels? Surely it was more than the creative freedom often lacking in CCM publishing—although Stevens' occasionally morbid subject matter and unusual performance-art leanings might have been considered off-putting, in the same way that Flannery O'Connor would have had a difficult time getting her novels published by the Christian Booksellers Association.?
Ultimately, this movement among Christian artists like Stevens is a theological one, linked to the same factors that brought about Masen and Mallonee's forays into the wild of independent music: a refusal to separate one's faith from one's involvement in the world at large, and a recognition that although the entire creation is broken, God's grace and truth continue to permeate all spheres of life.
In other words, for Christian artists like Stevens, the divide between sacred and secular is not only obsolete—it never existed in the first place. Some expressions of Christian cultural theory imply that evil and sin can be avoided by listening to particular music; my local Christian radio station, for example, advertises with the slogan "Hear no evil," as if the results of the fall can be avoided by tuning to a particular bandwidth. If we simply avoid mainstream culture, the thinking goes, we will be safe from the influence of darkness.
Of course, this is a lie—one that makes sin escapable rather than pervasive, a disease that is "out there" rather than something that plagues all of us. And the inverse of this lie, that the only place that God can be met and Christianity can be lived is safe within the confines of our own evangelical subculture, is just as insidious. As David Dark (author of Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, the Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons) is fond of saying to refute this dualistic attitude, "There is not a secular molecule in the universe." Everything has been tainted by sin, but sin has not destroyed the original, image-bearing quality of that which God has created and proclaimed Good.
Turner, too, addresses this problem in Being There: "We imagine a sacred part of our lives which involves praying, attending church, singing hymns, and reading the Bible, and a secular part involving eating, drinking, reading the newspaper, and painting the house. Is that the way God sees it? Does he wish we'd hurry through the mundane but necessary activities of sleeping, child rearing, and earning our keep until we get down to the real business of Bible study … ? Would a really 'spiritual' life consist of a seven day week full of church-centered activities, or was the Dutch art historian Hans Rookmaaker right when he said that Christ didn't die in order that we might go to more prayer meetings but in order that we might be more fully human?"
Applying these rhetorical questions to popular culture, Turner may well have found their answers embodied among this new crop of Christian musicians who believe that the earth and everything in it belong to God. Take, for example, a conference held every other spring at Calvin College. Here, artists and audiences, critics and academics gather to exchange ideas, listen to each other's music, and participate in the weekend-long conversation known as the Festival of Faith and Music, or FFM. Although their music inhabits a variety of genres, from avant-garde to hip-hop to folk, these artists are interested in good craftsmanship, in producing original, creative bodies of work. Their faith also spans denominations—dyed-in-the-wool Catholics give workshops alongside happy-clappy evangelicals—but they come with a common longing: to see God's hand at work in the music they love, and in the music they themselves make.
For artists like Stevens, this conference is an opportunity to air their suspicions that this type of music cannot and should not be confined to a subculture. "Art is … a reflection of a greater divine creation. There really is no separation," Stevens told the Grand Rapids Press just before the festival. "There's a fullness of being in the world that takes into consideration the supernatural and the natural, and everything we do and say is evoking and expressing eternal things without even knowing it."
During a keynote lecture at FFM this year, David Dark made the same point in a less esoteric way, proposing a quippy new slogan for Christians: "Culture: You're Soaking in It!" Dark elaborates: "Like it or not, you're already in it. You can't get away from culture. When Christians talk about whether or not they should 'engage culture,' I want to say to them, 'Too late!'" Working from a Reformed perspective, he argues that human beings were charged by God with a mandate to cultivate the whole earth—which, of course, leads to culture. Humans can't not be cultural; we are, by nature, participants in the world which is our home—warts and all.
By the same token, particular industries that designate themselves as religious do not have a lock on the truth. Christians are beginning to recognize—and many artists intuitively realize—that sequestering oneself with only like-minded believers eliminates the possibility of God's revelation in the general culture.
Additionally, this means that "Christian music" need not be limited to songs that explicitly mention God or make overtly evangelistic appeals. A Pitchfork Media critic who reviewed Sufjan Stevens observed that Seven Swans "deals with the stories of his Christian faith most directly. Which is not to say that Michigan [Stevens' previous release] and its tales of personal grief and acceptance of one's suffering were any less Christian in ethos." To my knowledge this writer is not a Christian, but in that final sentence he captures the premise from which many believing musicians outside the CCM industry write: the whole of life is available to believers as the substance of art. Simply because it does not overtly confess Christ does not mean it is exempt from possessing truth.
As T-Bone Burnett (an award-winning producer and in-the-world forebear) puts it, "You can sing about the Light, or you can sing about what you see because of the Light." Both expressions are valid artistically—but Burnett goes on to say that he prefers the latter. Judging from their work, so do many Christian artists working in the mainstream today. They are able to illuminate the stories of everyday people and, thus, reflect the Light even if they do not explicitly name its source.
At the end of Being There, Turner gives a charge to Christian musicians. "It is important to write from your heart," he says. "Write like a person and not an instruction booklet. … Create art that convinces people that this is about real life because it has all the shadows and complexity of real life—light and darkness, certainty and uncertainty, joy and sorrow, humor and seriousness." This is a calling of any Christian artist—and I think Turner must be pleased that in the years since he published his little booklet, so many musicians have begun answering it.