God a mediator for music
Friend and fellow cultural discerner Tom Speelman published an opinion piece in last week’s Chimes. His article dealt with an Andrew Bird concert that happened last week Friday in the midst of the Festival of Faith and Music. As is usual at Calvin, little to no conversation happened because of it. While most of the article commented on the concert itself — I also enjoyed the concert immensely and would recommend you read his thoughts — it was the broader point of the article that caught my interest more. As he is about to conclude the article, he makes the following statement:
While God is present in all genres of music, certainly, it seems that he is most visible right now within the genre of American roots music, and I think people see that. Why else would Mumford & Sons be a headlining act in 2013?
Here are a number of claims that, outside of Calvin College, would seem audacious. To suggest that God is present in music at all would offend a certain camp, and going any further would only elicit greater resistance. The fact that this cultural discerner was able to embed such a claim in an opening clause, as if it would go uncontested, should be celebrated. Through what has now been decades of hard work, the ethos of Calvin’s engagement with culture has become one that not only works but outshines Calvin’s official engagement with almost any other issue. Cultural discernment remains a final holdout, the last bridge I have retained with Reformed theology.
Let us move deeper into the statement. I want to work further with what Speelman writes, looking somewhat into how God could be “felt” through music and what role roots music plays in the conversation.
One word that the Festival organizers used to define how we find God in music is the term “music of epiphany.” An epiphany is a sudden, striking realization, usually meant in a positive way. It is the word for which a light bulb over a person’s head became the graphic symbol. Therefore, to say that music can give us epiphanies or realizations of God’s presence is to say that music can somehow show us something of God. While asking “can God be found in music?” to a group of Calvin students might give you a relatively positive response, I want to be more skeptical. If we think that we have found God in a Josh Garrels song, we can probably produce no proof that would convince someone else who did not already agree that God could be found in music.
I would also argue that you cannot “find” God in the form or content of the music itself. Parse sheet music, analyze instruments, drop a camera down the throat of a singer, analyze recordings or go to a thousand live shows and you will not find God. Look into yourself. Do you see God there? Is God at work in your brain? Pick apart the grey matter and look — just be careful. I skip over the possibility of actually finding something we could call God this way only because I find it to be an absurdity. We cannot find anything recognizable to a strong notion of God in the material world. Not yet, not with the tools we have, and probably never. Yet I believe and I agree that we can, in the experience of listening to music, discover something of God. How could this be?
My initial thought, and the one I will briefly pursue here, is that what we call God can be found in a gap. Imagine those diagrams of nerve endings you had to study (or will have to study) in a psychology or anatomy class. You know that nerves do not actually touch. The electrical signals and chemical receptors have to cross a small connective gap called a synapse.
What I propose is that there is a kind of synaptic gap between the music and us, and it is there that God dwells, transforming and working through the music and through it binding us more deeply and lovingly to God’s creation. In this scenario, God is not some factual or reducible element of “good” music or “true” lyrics. Instead, God is a mediator, a conduit for messages calling us to imagine new possibilities and act on them. The music harbors God, and it does its job well enough that you cannot find God by picking and criticizing. It is only when the work of criticism is finished and a new openness to surprise established that God can work on the music with us. If we try to encapsulate or formalize God’s role in all of this, we will be constructing, and God is precisely that which is not constructed, that which calls us into deeper love of the material world in which we live.
How does roots music play into this theory? At the moment, there is a lively and commercially thriving collection of artists that appropriate roots music and play acoustic instruments. Mumford and Sons makes a good stand-in for the whole group. We cannot deny that this band is a headlining act in 2013. We know the band regularly addresses spiritual concerns in their lyrics and favour an uplifting and inspirational form in their songs. Can we, however, infer from those two facts that we and, more importantly, the record-buying public, can see God in Mumford and Sons in a special way? I think we can say that Christians in the United States do have an affinity for this kind of music, and they express that affinity in the act of purchasing many, many records. Commercial success — and here I suspect Tom would agree with me — is not indicative of divine presence. Nor, I would say, is the presence of spiritual content indicative of divine presence.
We cannot ever be sure of divine presence. God speaks to people in many different ways. Many of those who have bought Mumford albums have probably had some kind of epiphany. Most, I would wager, have not, and yearn for other aspects of that music. Let us never be too hasty to either exclude or include God from or in our actions. Overemphasize presence and we risk making something appear “safe.” Overemphasize God’s absence from culture and we make ourselves either lazy consumers or the paranoid besieged. Here at Calvin we are privileged to be privy to all sorts of enlightening conversations and articles like Tom’s. I hope that we can all tune our ears to them and find, not safety, but confidence in how we look into this sacred and wild world.