CC Issue 18 / Music / Reflections / Theology / Faith

The Necessary Brokenness of the Artist

The devilishly handsome man himself: J.S Bach

I live in a house of about 30 people. 25 of them are Chinese drug addicts. I am English. It’s a long story as to how I got here, but the bottom line is this: we all follow Jesus Christ, and firmly believe that he’s the answer to our brokenness.

So we live that out, together, each day, in a wonderful swirling mess of place.

For reasons which would be too hard and uninteresting to explain at this juncture, we only listen to Christian music. And most of it is rubbish. It is middle of the road and repetitive and twee and boring. Acoustic strumming, gentle melodies, building to predictable crescendoes of choruses. And the lyrical content is even worse: soppy and sentimental. ‘Oh Jesus, you’re so lovely. We’ll always be together. You’re such a great guy. You’re kind of like my boyfriend.’

I once knew a musician who talked about music having edges, like you can touch it. At the time I thought she was talking rubbish, but in these 18 months of nothing but God-bothering music, I’ve started to see it. And I long for edges. Just something: the slightest hint of discord, or disonance, or instruments that are slightly out of time or out of tune. A voice that doesn’t quite hit the right notes.

At the very least, words that don’t claim they have all the answers. Words that are borne out of confusion, not apparent certainty.

After all, U2 never wrote a song called, ‘I’ve definitely found what I’m looking for’.

*

Up until the moment I realised God was real, I spent a decade wrestling with the question of His existence. During that time, I often pondered why it wass that non-Christians made the best music. And not only that, why was it so often the most broken, the most afraid, the furthest from God who make the music that defines our lives? If God is real, then why? Surely that’s not his intention. Surely we don’t need to be completely broken to make great art.

After all, art was His idea.

But let’s look at the evidence: The Beatles only really got interesting when they got drugs and Eastern religion. Kurt Cobain was a heroin addict. Led Zeppelin messed around with young girls, and Jim Morrison took an overdose. Probably.

I once sat in the grounds of a French Chateau with an old couple, still deeply in love after decades of marriage. The wife was a writer, except she hadn’t written for thirty years: “Really, my husband ruined my life: when I met him, I lost my ability to write. Because I became happy.”

Is it that great music, even great art, can only come out of a place of pain? Why is it that usually the most powerful, beautiful lyrics are not about having the answers, but the questions?

And if God’s real, was this all his idea?

Over the past few months, I feel I’ve limped to two (weak) conclusions.

The first is this: it hasn’t always been like this.

As a twenty-something male in the 21st century, in the developed world, I have a tendency to believe the lie that I’m living in the most advanced, the most developed and the most sophisticated period of civilization. And that society is continually moving forward. But of course, this isn’t true. It seems actually that society is going around in circles. We are neither the brightest, nor the most efficient society that’s ever existed. We are also not the furthest from God, despite what Richard Dawkins would have us believe.

We just have the best computers.

The same goes for music. Take a glance at the history of music in the West and you’ll see that it’s gone round in circles. Sometimes God’s at the centre of it all. Sometimes He barely gets a mention. It hasn’t always been the case that pop music has neglected God. Bach loved Jesus. Big time. Mad about him. Listen back to the ‘pop’ music of the mid 18th century and it’s full of glorious sweeping church choral works. It just so happens that we’re currently in a phase of musical history which, at best, doesn’t include God and at worst, spits on His memory.

However, this doesn’t answer the question of why Christians in 2012 make such rubbish music.

My second conclusion is this: It can only be, that when people find God, they feel the need to pretend that everything’s perfect; that because they’ve found the answer, there should no longer any pain, or fear, or struggle. If they don’t, they fear that people will question the truth of their new found faith.

I once heard an old, wise believer say of Christian music: ‘Where’s the lament?’

And surely he was right. Because there is lament, isn’t there? After all: Jesus wept.

There is pain, there is fear, there is struggle. But none of this negates the truth.

But this is not to say that I think we should celebrate brokenness, despite the fact that this is a very hip perspective. One of my favourite musicians, Jeffrey Lewis, wrote an album called “It’s the Ones Who’ve Cracked That the Light Shines Through”. And it’s tempting to subscribe to this idea; that mankind can be beautifully broken. I don’t believe that this is the truth either, because I don’t believe that was the original intention. And I believe that one day, there won’t be any brokenness.

But, until we get there, we must not skirt around, or skim over it. We must acknowledge, without celebrating.

CS Lewis says that no one should be making ‘Christian music’, but simply that Christians should make music. Followers of Jesus should make honest music in all of their frailty and fear and questioning about the pain of the tension in which we live. About the Now and Not Yet, acknowledging that there is so much we still do not understand.

Because everything’s not ok.

But in this smashed up old sphere of a world, in this life which is both too short and too long, we live our lives under the banner ‘it is finished.’

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