Some people who until recently I considered my friends introduced me to Rebecca Black’s ‘song’ “Friday“. In brief, in “Friday” everything that could possibly go wrong with a song, has. It puts me in mind of an old Muppets sketch where a piece of music is given to The Electric Mayhem and they are asked ‘what can you do with this?’. Zoot – the saxophonist – replies ‘well, if you give me a match, I can put it out of its misery’.
I don’t wish to be overly harsh on Rebecca. She’s 13. Her problem is that her problems are those of a 13-year-old, and even then they are the problems of a well-off middle-class white American. They therefore don’t make for particularly good source material for a song. There’s no narrative, there’s no friction, there’s no hook. There’s no hook musically either – there’s no real melody to speak of, no interesting chord progression, no complexity. It’s a song written – both lyrically and musically – in crayon.
At this point I am not going to trot out that hackneyed old untruth that one should only write what one knows. If that were true we would have no science-fiction or fantasy. A much more accurate aphorism, therefore, is that one should only write about that with which one can empathise. It is this power of imaginative association, the ability to understand, that gives literature most of its power and almost all of its value. It is what enables ‘poetry after Auschwitz’; it is why Seamus Heaney was able to write that he was one ‘who would connive / in civilised outrage / yet understand the exact / and tribal, intimate revenge.’ There is always a complicity between the author and the thing authored, and however many tricks are employed to avoid that juxtaposition, in the end it remains inescapable.
I read widely, and I have read some truly awful books. I have read Stephanie Meyer. I have read Tim LaHaye & Jerry B. Jenkins. But what I don’t understand – and I know I’ve said this before, but bear with me – is why there are so many Christian authors who are simply appalling at being authors. In the light of the aforementioned complicity, I find this worrying.
I will try to set out my questions as simply and as clearly as possible, so that if any of you have any answers you can provide them. These are not rhetorical questions: I really want to know.
1. Popular Christian books appear to be written for idiots. With a popular science book on a complex subject – like, for instance, quantum mechanics – I would expect the more basic, premise-establishing opening chapters to lead into progressively more detailed chapters on the subject. I would expect the basic ideas to appear and then be enhanced as additional, more complicated information appears. This is not a progression I see in similarly themed Christian books. You want an understanding of Grace? God is good, so He is gracious to us! And…err…that’s it! That isn’t an argument, it isn’t the progression of an idea facilitating comprehension. It just leaves the idea stranded, gasping for life like a fish left flapping on a beach. Why does this happen? Why are no theologians first getting down in the muck with us plebs, and then lifting us out of it? Who is the theological equivalent of Ben Goldacre or Jack Cohen or – heaven forefend – Richard Dawkins?
A further problem presents itself. If Christian books are written for idiots, and treat the people reading them as idiots, and the authors appear to offer no deeper insight or path toward conclusion, can we really blame the rational secularists who treat all Christians as idiots? If everything suggests Christians are intellectually subluminescent, can we honestly find fault in – for example – Christopher Hitchins if he concludes that Christians don’t really think the difficulties of their faith through?
2. Christian prose is either manic or comatose. (This may be a larger problem than mere literature: there seems to be an increasing polarisation of church services along similar lines too). That which is not incendiary is pedestrian; that which is not hidebound is frenetic. “God is good all the time” may well be true (and a great truth at that), but saying it for 300 pages with only minor changes in vocabulary does not a worthwhile book make. So my question is, where are the good writers? Where are the men and women whose technical ability matches their desire to write in the first place? I can think of very few, and the only one still alive is Adrian Plass.
3. There being so much bad Christian literature about, what is the excuse that can be offered in its defence? This, to me, is perhaps the most intractable problem of all. Modern Christian music may well be (and in my opinion, mostly is) ‘fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music’, as one eloquent apologist once put it (though he then defended it, not because it wasn’t sixth-rate, but because it was sung with genuine devotion, which is the more important thing), but how do we defend such a thing in terms of its quality? How can we? Where did the idea of doing one’s utmost for His highest fall by the wayside? That is of course to take the worst view of it – that the people involved in the hymn’s or book’s creation were too lazy to make a good job of it. But it is not much less troubling if we are more charitable. Suppose this doggerel really is the best the author could do – does this confer more worth on it? No one doubts their devotion – only their merit. At its best Christian art is among the very best of all art ever made – Michaelangelo’s David, Da Vinci’s Last Supper, the poetry of Dante and Milton and Donne and Hopkins, the Book of Common Prayer, the music of Bach and Handel – all can stand up to be counted with the greatest achievements of the human race. My question now is, why has there been such a sharp and catastrophic falling off of genuine worth? It didn’t used to be the case that the devil gets all the best tunes – but ask me to choose between the complete works of Hillsongs and the complete works of Led Zeppelin and I know who I’d consider more aesthetically worthwhile.
I know there is an argument against this. The argument usually runs something along the lines of “Well yes, musically, Led Zeppelin are probably better. But the lyrics aren’t as edifying, and that’s the point of Christian music.” This is not a good argument, and it’s an argument that I’ve heard before. It used to be advanced by proponents of badly-written Science-Fiction. “Yes, I know the characterisation is paper-thin, and the plot is pedestrian – but the ideas are spectacular.” In the case of Christian Music, the defence – as was offered above – was that the devotion of the listener was what mattered. But doesn’t that sidle away from the real problem? There would be no need to mount that defence if the music itself was impervious to musical criticism. I return to the original question: why must we put up with fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music when our God is worth the best of both? Why shouldn’t Christianity’s music be vibrant, its lyrics fresh and deep, its literature illuminating and intoxicating? Shouldn’t it, in fact, be more likely to be these things, given the nature of the One to whom it is primarily offered?
4. Are we, as Christians, so hamstrung by the defence mounted above – that the devotion is the important thing – that we have become unable or unwilling to winnow out the chaff of the qualitively unacceptable? There is a song in a hymnbook that begins with the immortal lines “I want to be a blooming tree / Bear more fruit than Sainsbury’s”. Leaving aside the sheer ludicrous crashing awfulness of the thing, what concerns me more is a) no one was prepared to say that this really is not good enough for the hymnbook, and b) now that it’s in the hymnbook, some people will feel obliged to sing it. There are other great examples of the same sort of thing. What does “Rise up church on broken wings” actually mean? It’s my job to deconstruct metaphors, ones much more elaborate than this, but the ones I deal with on a daily basis have some kind of connection to the thing they talk about. This is an interesting image, but not one that appears tethered to any kind of sustained metaphor, or even perceived reality, concerning the nature of the Christian church today.
This sort of thing concerns me. I’ve never quite been able to suppress or move past the idea that Christians are ambassadors for Christ. Christian art, therefore, must be able to stand as art, first and foremost, whose aim is to glorify God. Our aesthetic sensibilities are as God-given as any other part of our beings. That which offends them, almost certainly, is not the greatest offering we could bring to He who offered all for us. It is also unlikely to impress those who are not Christians. I sometimes wonder how tone-deaf, and how insensitive to suffering, would be the god who considered ‘Great is the Darkness’, with its hideous clash of music and lyrics, the greatest hymn offered in his name.
So in conclusion, and to compress my arguments to their shortest possible form, my questions would be these: Why do we offer God such paltry fare? Why do we consider this acceptable? Why does there not appear to be a more strenuous discernment in what is, or is not, ‘good’ in terms of Christian art? Where can one go for legitimate, grown-up edification? And how have we managed to get ourselves into this mess in the first place?
Finally, some good music (non-Christian, but you were expecting that by now, weren’t you?) Via the wonder of Facebook, I have reconnected with an old friend from my school days, Stephen Macartney (in fact I believe we even went to nursery school together!). Stephen is in a band called Farriers, and they – it turns out – are seriously good. But you need not merely take my word for it. The link above will take you to a downloadable 5-track EP (you know it’s worth the £3. You do. You know this because you can listen to all the tracks in order to determine this) that will demonstrate their listenability. Below, I provide the Farriers live in Lagan Meadows. Enjoy!
 The complete verse is:
Rise up church with broken wings
Fill this place with songs again
Of our God who reigns on high
By His grace again we’ll fly