In Praise Of The Beautifully Inessential

It began with a hushed conversation in a library. I was in my first year of theological study, preparing to enter ordained ministry in the Anglican church. I was talking to one of the more conservative students at our conservative college and said something along the lines of this: ‘My problem is that if theologians really believe that God is the most beautiful and significant being in the world, why is so much of what they write so boring?’. ‘Ah’, said the man listening to me. ‘You need to read some Eugene Peterson’. In my mind, up to then, Eugene Peterson was know only for The Message, a translation of the Bible in the language and idiom of the congregation he pastored in America. I hadn’t really considered that he might have written other things. That started a journey of discovery of theological and devotional writing that is characterised by clarity, deep theological thinking and an intoxicating love for words. It’s also true that unlike many theological writers, Peterson could write with a combination of economy and beauty.

It’s not essential for theology to be beautiful, of course. The Nicene Creed is generally accepted as a binding confessional statement for Christians; it’s full of good theological truth – but one could hardly call it beautiful. For its form, beauty is unnecessary. Beauty is unnecessary for objective truth to thrive, it seems.

All of which leads to me to a 10-year-old documentary film about a Canadian rock band. The film is Anvil: The Story Of Anvil. Back in the mid 1980s, Anvil was one of a series of rock/metal bands that appeared poised on the brink of massive global success. Whilst most of them went on to achieve that, Anvil got stuck. The majority of the film tells the story of Anvil, 30 years on, still writing, recording and performing with the band members in their 50s; only now they have ‘proper’ jobs on the side to pay (some of) the bills. The film bears many of the hallmarks of the rock documentary – backstage footage, gig footage, the writing/recording process, arguments between band members. What’s different here is that the band is not making money in the process; they’re not even in the ‘critically acclaimed, commercially under-appreciated’ sector.

There are many possible reasons for Anvil not becoming Metallica. Bad management and bad production stand out. To be blunt, they will never write a song as threatening and thrilling as Enter Sandman. That, however, is not really the point here. What matters for Anvil, and for us, is they glory in their process and output; although they dream of recognition and adulation, that’s not what they’re in this for. They want to make music and to play music. To them, that’s success.

There’s something here to think on. I often hear parents (and sometimes their children) talk of the need to get a qualification – and hence a job – that will produce something; that will contribute the economy and provide for all their current future needs. What the child must do is do some necessary, important and tangible; she must produce. Clearly we need lawyers and doctors and engineers and builders and the like. Sciences matter. I’m not denying that; but they are not the sum and total of what we need. The moment we think of ourselves as units of economic production we run in to trouble; we’ve allowed an un-critiqued version of capitalism to overwhelm our identity. I studied for a degree in English Literature, not a degree renowned for its job prospects. I jokingly refer it as ‘a degree in reading’. Stop, though, before laughing too hard: when was the last time you (or someone you know) seemed incapable of seeing the real meaning of Facebook post or an email? Why do so many people swallow fake news uncritically? Now do you want to tell me that a ‘degree in reading’, in truly understanding a text, is unimportant simply because it doesn’t lead to a tangible end-product?

woman playing ukulele

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

 

God has given us some clues here. God didn’t have to create; before creation, He was perfect within Himself. In his relationship with the 3 parts of Himself, he needed nothing. Yet create he did, an expression of love that wanted an outlet, a glorious,  indulgent extravagance. Seas, mountains, rivers, plains, plants, insects, animals, fish, plankton, stars, planets, sun, moon, woman, man, snow, rain. All so unnecessary, all pouring out of an abundant self-expression of light and sound.

Or think on music. Almost all religious expressions involve music and singing; it has often been where new musical expressions have taken root. But why? Do we need to sing? For the Christian the words of Be Thou My Vision or My Jesus, My Saviour remain just as true if they’re spoken aloud. The music isn’t necessary in that sense. But can you imagine a world in which congregations just said those words, to the backdrop of silence?

Music, and art in general, may not be objectively necessary but they do something to us. They speak to us in a form that’s more true than mere facts, deep calling to deep (in itself a Biblical metaphor that achieves a truth that is more than factual). Jesus and the prophets don’t just speak in objective statements of truth; also stories, metaphors, poetry, word pictures, dramatic actions.

Why, then, do we settle for less in our or our children’scareers? Only pursuing that which is productive? A nation consisting solely of tangible product may be economically booming, but it would be colourless.

Why, then, do our churches often seem to only use one form of music (whichever form is the preference of that one subset of the culture)? Is there space for new melodies, rhythms and harmonies alongside the established?  Why is so much Christian ‘art’ of recent years so plainly didactic? Why not take the poet’s eternal advice:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Emily Dickinson

The truth is that Anvil just aren’t that good a band; having seen this film I won’t be downloading their albums. But I am reminded with fresh energy that meaning matters more than material production; that fruitful labour may look different to that which is deemed apparently successful. I’m concerned that, within the church especially, we are uncritically accepting a fully capitalist worldview where even the pastor’s role must be described with precision and point towards outputs and markers. That church members must serve an ‘end product’ of a church machine geared to keep us busy and numerically growing, forgetting to allow the beauty of relationships and creativity in the image of an endlessly relational and creative God to flourish.

Do we, our life choices and communities, allow meaning and beauty and relationship to define us? Or are we too busy making and producing to simply be in the presence of God and each other, basking in the beauty God showers us with and invites us to co-labour with Him in creating? Do we want to build a society of units of production and end product, or a kingdom in which God-given gifts are allowed to flourish in response to One who delights in the unnecessary and inessential?

 

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Revisiting Old Places, or Lessons From My Music Collection

I’ve just finished. A self-satisfied glow of smugness arranges itself all over my aura. I burst over the finish line with a flurry of productivity and the appropriate adrenaline rush of satisfaction at a target reached.

It wasn’t quite like that, truth be told.

Just over a year ago I, for reasons I won’t bore you with, managed to delete my entire music collection from my computer. If you played every song back-to-back without break that would be about 16 days’ worth of aural accompaniment.

Fear not, dear reader, for I rescued the situation. In the process of doing so I discovered all sorts of music I’d forgotten I owned.

I became aware that my listening habits had shrunk to the most recently purchased.

So I Had An Idea.

I decided I’d listen to it.

All of it.

In what order?

A to Z, by album title seemed the way to go. I’d include single songs; but not any recorded worship music of the type you sing in some churches as, frankly, I don’t enjoy it enough to do that to myself. I’d also omit compilation albums I’d got free with magazines. This was for the simple reason that I’ve got about a gazillion of those so I figured that if this was to be realistic I needed to make that decision. I also skipped on anything you may term ‘classical’ music for the entirely fair reason that I don’t own any.

I pompously developed my own social media hashtag for the purpose and format for the tweets relating that to which I was listening at any given time. Thus:

achtung baby – u2 #atozalbums

All lower case was important.

Like I said it’s only taken a year or so; confused by what I do with new music bought which by the alphabetical format should have come earlier in the project. All sorts of similar problems presented themselves. On I struggled, making up the rules as I went along. My game, my rules.

At the end of the project I’m now considering what I could do next – with music, with movies, with … anything I enjoy, really. All suggestions welcome.

While I’m here, a selection (in no special order) of Very Important Life Lessons I’ve gleaned from this.

1) I still don’t feel a vast need to get into ‘classical’ music. It’s not that I don’t like it; it’s just not my thing, really. I speak other musical languages. No, I’m not a philistine. If you really think this makes me culturally ignorant or stupid then let’s have a conversation about Shakespeare or the Victorian novel or Marlowe or Donne or Coupland or Milton and see if you still hold that opinion at the end.

2) I was strangely reminded of all the music I’d given away/thrown away/sold/lost over the years. The first CD I bought was the soundtrack to Back To The Future. I have no idea where that is now, and I didn’t put it on my laptop at any stage. Then there’s some Prince albums. Where have they gone?

3) Even some music that I might be slightly embarrassed to admit to owning I still quite enjoy. All Saints, I’m thinking of you. Among others.

4) If you’d have told me 10 years ago that I’d be into some of the hip-hop or folk I now like then I’d never have believed you.

5) As with ‘classical’ music (see point 1) so with other greats like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones and so many others. I can recognise greatness but still not enjoy it enough to buy it or listen to it often. Enjoying something and acknowledging greatness are two very different things and that’s OK with me. There’s some ‘holes’ in my collection I have no intention of filling.

6) I really enjoyed this. So what else, in the dark recesses of my own soul, might I have forgotten I enjoy but pushed down to give attention to the new and the urgent and the demanding? Acting. There’s one I really need to give some thought to. Silent prayer is another.

7) As with point 3, there may be some stuff in me I’m faintly embarrassed by but actually that’s OK too. I don’t have to impress anyone with what I’m into as long as it’s not damaging me or another person.

8) Why is ‘Christian music’ SO unimaginative? Why do these bands keep impersonating U2 and Coldplay? I like those 2 bands quite a lot, but I also like Kanye West and R.E.M. and Radiohead and Faithless and Manic Street Preachers and so much more. So … you know, don’t get stuck! Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins puts it really well in this short little clip.

9) Doing this bought back some fantastic memories of when I first heard certain albums (e.g. I stopped everything I was doing when I first heard Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’,  lay on the bed and cried at the beauty of it), or gigs I went to (e.g. Radiohead again, the guy in front of us threatening to punch me and my mate Mark for jumping up and down).

10) Here’s one for you. Try something similar. It needn’t be music, it needn’t be art at all. You don’t have to blog it, tweet it, Facebook it if you don’t want to go public. Find some old books, pull out that box of letters and mementoes, have a read of something you wrote years ago, randomly look at old emails. Anything, really. How have you changed since then? In what ways are you the same? How do you respond to this now that is different to how you responded then? Are you ashamed of or embarrassed by something you have no need to be that way about? Do you need some help to think something through?

As if to prove I’m no philistine, I’ll end with some T.S. Eliot that’s haunted throughout this musical journey:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”  

(T.S. Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’, the last of his ‘4 Quartets’)

Edinburgh Fringe: Sensory Overload

I was born and bought up in Edinburgh to English parents, and as such I became a regular visitor to the Fringe. I have vivid memories of getting hold of the frighteningly thick Fringe programme and essentially picking shows at random. I have a particular memory of a one-man production of Dr Faustus, and Paul Merton’s Comedy Story Players. Both odd, for different reasons, and in their way sum up much of what is so great about the Fringe.

So returning for a week at the Fringe after 10 years, it was apparent that the random approach couldn’t be taken due to cost. So the shows were chosen on the basis of what our group fancied….here’s a brief survey of what we ended up doing.

Monday

Dylan Moran (Stand-Up Comedy). We were lucky to get tickets for one of only two shows he was doing. I like his intelligent cynicism and world-weariness. I’m also never quite convinced that his implied inebriation isn’t more performance than actual. There were some great moment, but he lapsed a bit too much into simple, easy laughs of the ‘I hate politicians’/’Men and women are different variety’. That’s all fine if you say something striking, which he rarely did. That doesn’t mean it’s not funny; I laughed hard at times at the delivery of a gifted performer. He is though, merely good to very good.

Tuesday

Peter Duncan’s Daft And Dangerous A one-man show from the former Blue Peter’s presenter and Chief Scout. It’s great fun whatever your vintage or background. An hour of musical style singing, acrobatics, audience-participation, comedy and generally good times, using the varied story of his career to this date as the hook for a highly entertaining hour. He’s playing throughout the Fringe – strongly recommend this. Get tickets here.

Stephen K Amos (Stand-Up Comedy) An hour of comedy from a comedian I didn’t know before hand, but is growing rapidly in popualrity. He’s just been awarded his own BBC show, and I can see why. His show, which he’s touring all over the UK in the Autumn, is called The Feelgood Factor, and that says it all. It’s the opposite of Dylan Moran in many respects – optimistic, upbeat and just plain fun. The occasional obvious moment, but never too much. Even the interacting with the audience was of a kind and gentle type. Really enjoyed this – laughed until I hurt. Get tickets for the autumn here

Wednesday

One Man Lord of The Rings In an hour. A brilliant performer, the voices are amazing and the comedy about right. Not worth it if you haven’t read the book or seen the films…..and even for me, at an hour it was a little stretching. Worth seeing, but not a stand-out.

Thursday

The Magnets The bare description of 6 voice acappela music doesn’t do justice to this show. The guys spent an hour performing covers of songs they truly make their own, without any instruments or backing tracks. Some of the noises were jaw-dropping in their complexity. The singing is amazing, the performance thrilling and the charisma exhilarating. Quite simply, fantastic – see more here

What none of this covers, of course, is the great vibe around the city – the buzz in the many fine independent coffee shops, the street performers, and the city’s beauty. It was great to be back. Hope it’s not 10 years until the next time.

U2 – No Lines, No Limits

(This is the first of the  ‘other stuff’. Occasionally I’ll branch out from films to look at something else that has got my attention. If it’s not your interest, stick with me. Back to films soon).

Let’s be clear, this is only a first impression. I’ll know more when I’ve lived with this – I think you only really grasp an album when you’ve lived with it, breathed it, let it soundtrack the stuff of life. Here, however, are a few impressions.

I come at this as an unabashed fan, but not one who doesn’t occasionally feel embarrassed by the band. All I can say, though, is that they keep resurfacing in my life. U2’s music has journeyed with me through most of the major turning points of my life. My first major memory is my sister buying Unforgettable Fire on vinyl and playing it to death. I liked them then, loved Joshua Tree but fell head over heels with Achtung Baby. That just grew and grew. It fascinated me all the more, as a Christian at university, developing my own faith, while they discovered Ecclesiastes. It always confused me why some Christians felt so let down by this masterpiece, when all I thought is that they had really broken through to something special. Through this, 4 concerts (5 if you include the BBC balcony in London) – at least one of them being one of the finest pieces of performance art you’re likely to see (Zoo TV), the other being an evening of profound depth (Elevation tour in London, as Bono’s father was dying and I experienced the beginnings of what I now know to be depression and panic attacks).

So to No Line On The Horizon. One word? Not enough, but I’ll stick with ‘spacious’. Their music was always best heard under an open sky with 60,000 others, but as Bono has said they needed to record this album remembering that most would listen to on earphones as they walked. So it was. On the first two listens, I was intrigued. On the ipod, something else happened. Reviewers had said ‘Moment of Surrender’ was a standout, one of their greatest, but until then I didn’t really get it.  In the space between my head? Extraordinary. Unlike anything they’ve done before, but also strangely reminiscent. Subtle, deep and beautiful. Quite stunning, and not a little strange that one song (and in time the whole album) makes that whole private, intimate space so open. I love ‘Breathe’ too, a stream of consciousness, feverish rambling, as a (possibly) holy man wonders through an urban nightmare straight out of CNN’s breaking-news. The closing ‘Cedars Of Lebanon’ is wondrous, a thing of sleepy, dirty, beauty, quite the opposite of what you expect of a U2 song with that title.

The whole album feels for now like Unforgettable Fire’s dark, surreal cousin. It probably will turn out to be one of their finest, but really it’s too soon for that sort of judgement. It is, though, a work of genuine depth and searching. I’m struck by so many lines, but there’s little point in listing them now. I need to live with this, grasp it and appropriate it – upcoming holiday is well-timed.

For now, it is enough to be sure of simply this: there is good sense in Bono’s insistence that they won’t go anywhere soon.