Mark Judge over at The Daily Caller wrote a brief, yet profound, article about Christian rock at the end of last week and our editor Dallin passed it along to me. Dallin’s intuitions were right regarding the article: that I would find some insights in what Judge was saying, and that it echoed some of the things that I’ve written on the subject of what is called “LDS music.” Furthermore, the subject has reminded me of an interesting series on seer stones down at Juvenile Instructor (here, here, and here). I’ll tie it all together, hopefully, in a minute.
Judge really has two interwoven ideas in his article, and I’ve struggled with both of them when it comes to Linescratchers.
First, that “Christian rock is not Christian.” Judge points out that all music is inherently spiritual, and is one of the world’s built-in mechanisms for lowly mortals to reconnect with their Creator. In his mind, even music that expresses doubts, darkness, and anger are ultimately spiritual as well. On the cross, Jesus asks why God has forsaken him, but as we read this poignant reminder of our separation from God it actually joins us with the God we’re separated from. For the spiritual listener, even a work of darkness brings us to God, because it is encapsulated in a larger hope of redemption from that darkness. For the spiritual listener, a work of darkness is only so because we have the light to contrast it to. When one looks at the great spiritual works throughout history (the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, the Odes of Solomon, Dante’s Inferno, the Qur’an, the Buddhacarita, etc.) it is clear that suffering always precedes the miracle, and without this very human element, any work about faith is, from the start, disconnected and unreal.
So Christian music that ignores the darkness and only arrives at the conclusion is attempting (and failing) to bypass the human path to God. It offers an escalator (or even a teleporter) to Heaven, when in fact God created the stairs for a reason.
While I think Judge is right about most Christian music, I think LDS music as a genre is hopelessly behind even that. Perhaps this is a function of our culture in general. Those of you following The Book of Mormon musical know that the idea of the musical is that Mormons are just naive yet lovable dolts who don’t really have the tools to fix the world’s problems due to our optimistic disconnection from reality. While this may or may not be deserved, it’s a stereotype we should work to overcome, and LDS music isn’t really helping. Though I think that’s changing.
Judge’s second point is that music reviews have evolved into a process that is so violent and cold to its subject matter that they become unhelpful. Anyone who is familiar with music reviewing knows that this is absolutely true. Music reviewer-speak is filled with insider jargon, technical terms, and pretentious detachment. To Judge, the greatest problem is that they ignore the spiritual aspects of their subject matter, which reduces music to a base exercise in genre-hopping and being part of a scene.
In other words, we need to change our paradigm of thinking in regards to spirituality in music. It is not just the responsibility of musicians to write spiritual music, but rather it is incumbent upon the listener to listen spiritually to all music. The writer is already thinking spiritually when he or she sits down to write the song, no matter what the content is. Our question should not be, “What spiritual ideas did this musician place in his/her song?” but rather, “What spiritual ideas can I glean from his/her song?”
This, I believe, was Joseph Smith’s primary lesson and contribution to the world. I have seen apologia, anti-Mormon rhetoric, and church lessons on Joseph’s methods of revelation, and, to me, they somewhat miss the point of what Joseph was teaching us. When Joseph looked at the Book of Genesis, he didn’t just see the text in front of him, he saw more text behind the text. When he looked at ancient papyrus scrolls, he didn’t just see old paper, he saw ancient documents filled with stories of Abraham, the vast expanses of the Universe, and the throne of God. When he looked at an ordinary stone, he saw heavenly visions and an 1000-year ecclesiastical history of a foreign people. When he looked at Masonic rituals, he saw the gates of the Celestial Kingdom. When he looked at a pile of stones he saw an ancient altar from Adam’s time. When he looked at a ring on his finger, he saw eternity. Discussions about whether Joseph was literally translating, seeing words spelled out, changing “mammoth” to “curelom” or “tapir” to “swine”, etc. seem to be missing the point as far as I’m concerned. The point is that when Joseph looked at ordinary things, he saw heavenly things.
This is really the lesson we must learn from our art. Thus, I have been conflicted from the beginning about Linescratchers. My goal has been to show that spirituality is not limited to “spiritual music,” but it has been difficult to navigate the waters on the way to that goal. People have mistaken Linescratchers as a place for “squeaky clean rock for the whole family!” or as a breakaway protest from LDSmusicians or the FCMA, or as a new Deseret Book. It’s not any of those things. It’s an attempt to connect the Mormon people with the full range of human emotion, and the idea is that the result would be a broader, more real, and more useful definition of spirituality.
But in order to achieve that goal I’ve had to do violence to the music. Take my recent review of Brandon Flowers’ solo album Flamingo. In order to let my readers know that his album was spiritual, I felt the need to completely deconstruct its metaphors and purposes in great detail and summarize them in a way that was grabbing to the average passing reader. In doing so, I was really doing violence to the original work of art, by running the sand through a narrow funnel so to speak. I have consoled myself by reminding myself of the purpose of the site, which is really intended more as a stepping stone. We’re trying to teach Mormon listeners, musicians, writers, and artists, that the spirituality is in the listening just as much as it’s in writing. This means we have to do some hand-holding at first. I do think it is worth it in the long run, but until we have 1) A self-sufficient musical/artistic community in the church, and 2) A market that is willing to support those artists financially, some hand-holding will probably be necessary for quite some time.
Here’s to the day when our ham-fisted and clumsy attempts at explaining this are no longer necessary.