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Just What is Calvin Trying to Do?
A closer look at Christian cultural discernment.
By Matt Poole '01 - Matt is a senior from Glen Ellyn, Ill.

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Last year Calvin was host to a concert that spawned strong reactions from members of the college community. The performer was Liz Phair, a singer/songwriter whose first album brought her grossly inflated notoriety due to the harsh way she confronted certain injustices (especially gender injustice). After the performance, upset parents and alumni bombarded administrators with questions like "why would you invite someone like Liz Phair to Calvin?" and "is Calvin still a Christian college?" These concerns weren't new, but were uniquely prolific. Calvin has been accused in the past of allowing itself to become "secularized" by hosting concerts from artists like The Indigo Girls, Ben Harper, and Liz Phair, and other cultural events featuring non-Christians. These questions are often bred from fear and misunderstanding, yet when not asked rhetorically they are valid and deserving answers. They need to be answered as it is part of Calvin's call to be doing concerts like these, and without the understanding and support of the community, it can not be fully effective.

The core of this issue is not who the college invites or what they say, but why their voices are given a venue. Calvin hosts concerts so its students can engage in critiquing culture, be informed and enjoy it. This is unique, and rightly, may be confounding since there are few if any colleges that invite artists to perform for any reason other than ticket sales and entertainment.

Calvin College has a worldview that does not chastise popular culture as many other Christian schools do, and does not revel in it like many secular ones. This leaves Calvin outside most conventional categories. The explanation lies in that Calvin, as part of the Reformed tradition, recognizes that the entirety of the universe was created by God, from planets to people. When God created humans, they was set apart and blessed as the bearer of God's image, the spirit of creation. Therefore, anything created by humans essentially comes from God's providence but can be misused. Simpler put, the ability to create is good, was effected by the Fall, but can be redeemed.

Unfortunately, it has been ingrained in many Christians that sin comes in things, and when we avoid those things we can escape sin more easily. It is simple to discern when knowing why you do something is never a factor; when answers are black and white, it is possible to live a safe and sheltered life. Alcohol, tobacco, popular music, sexuality and controversial ideas have all been demonized as physical receptacles of sin, but sin does not emanate from these objects. Sin comes from the choices we make in all areas of our lives, and unlike some claims, choosing to listen to secular music does not equal turning your back on God just as listening to Christian music isn't proof of walking towards him. It is not what you do that gives flesh to your faith, it is how you do all things.

When Christians listen to Dave Matthews or DC Talk, Brittany Spears or Jennifer Knapp, we are called to engage the music, and strive to see what the artist is saying, not just be entertained by its "sound." When we are passive to culture (Christian or not) it is detrimental to us. We are not blessed with music, art, film and technology to blindly lap it up. All created things have sin as part of them, so when we choose not to confront those things they effect us in ways we cannot perceive. It is hard sometimes to see that even the most blatantly Christian lyrics have sin in them. Pride, contempt, distrust, selfishness and every other sin pervade created things no matter what they are intended to do. Hymns are tainted just as much by original sin as the songs of Nine Inch Nails or the Backstreet Boys. Sometimes it is difficult for Christians to remember how deep sin runs and, unfortunately, that often allows us to be judgmental. This does not mean that churches should start playing Nine Inch Nails on Sunday mornings, but rather that sin is so pervasive that it does not stop at secular culture.

There is definitely a difference between (for example) Michael W. Smith and Liz Phair, but it might not be exactly what first comes to mind. Both use the gifts God gave them to create a cultural product, but when it comes to how those gifts are used to glorify God, Smith worships in a more true and reverent way. So why did Calvin invite Liz Phair and not Michael W. Smith? First and foremost Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) bands create music for Christians accomplishing two things: they reaffirm the faith of Christians and entertain them. However, they do not often mirror with much depth the struggles of life. The short is Michael W. Smith does not often dig deep enough into the pain and promise of Christ's death and resurrection. On the other hand, The Indigo Girls, Ben Harper and Liz Phair have much to say about their struggles with and observations of God's promises, sin, pain and wonder, and often do it more completely than CCM groups. However, it is not only musicians in the secular realm which have the ability to challenge and truly speak of struggle and triumph. Calvin strives to support Christians who bridge the gap between the secular and Christian music worlds without selling a part of themselves in the process. Bruce Cockburn, David Wilcox, Bill Mallonee, Robert Deeble, Over the Rhine, T-Bone Burnett and Pedro The Lion are just a few examples of Christian artists who speak poignantly of the totality of experience through their music, and they have all performed at Calvin.

Calvin does not only host one type of concert, and will continue to invite a spectrum of musicians for its students to engage in. From Jars of Clay to Bela Fleck to the Vigilantes of Love, Calvin is dedicated to examining artists that are wrestling with and expressing their struggles, but will strive to not lose sight of the call to help God seek the redemption of all he created.

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