Two notes on mediocre Christian arts

First, via Martin Roth, a thoughtful and provocative essay on the mediocrity in, and demise of, Christian arts.

Part of me has a great deal of sympathy for what’s being said here - which is, more or less, that much of Christian arts culture has bankrupted itself on phony displays of piety and the celebration of hypocrites and spiritual charlatans (Michael English is Exhibit A for the author, mostly for his sexual exploits outside the confines of his marriage). Mediocrity is discouraging for the discriminating mind, ear, eye - especially when it’s committed in the name of religion or faith or the divine.

And yet, another part of me thinks this is one of those things where the author went looking for what he wanted to find – in this case, evidence to justify an artistic disillusionment intense enough to make one wonder if it doesn’t have its roots in something more or else or other than just, say, Michael English putting (in the wonderfully euphemistic words of one of Arthur Miller’s characters) “knowledge in the heart” of a backup singer, or Tim LaHaye reducing Christian “fiction” to doctrinaire propaganda, or unscrupulous profiteers taking advantage of the kind of people who see a “Jesus Got ‘R’ Done” t-shirt and can’t live without one. The “demise” of Christian arts seems closely to mimic the line-blurring in western culture more broadly between the high, middle, and low/no brows; between the popular and artistic culture; between “artificial” and “reality;” between sacred and profane. But is this new?

Sure, there is a lot of crap out there. And it will seem all the crappier if you compare a “My Boss is a Jewish Carpenter” bumpersticker to a Mozart Mass. This kind of good-ole-days argument goes a bit wobbly, though, if you replace the bumpersticker with a clip of Michael English singing “I Bowed on My Knees.” Which is why I found the author’s reference to English as evidence of the mediocre in latter day Christian art particularly odd.

The logic seems to be that because English has lived a morally mediocre life, his art is/was equally mediocre. English, though, seems to me to be disproof of (rather than evidence for) the author’s thesis that we live in a time when “the sacred spaces are where the mediocre put their feet up.” But rather than argue the merits of English’s musical ability, I’ll stick with the underlying claim. If art is to rise and fall on the personal lives and histories of the artist – if, that is, we have to approve of Michael English’s personal choices to enjoy or be affected by his music – then I fear more than just Michael English’s music will be found wanting and mediocre. Or “syphilitic,” in the author’s word. Put this another way: Franz Schubert, who created some of the most magnificent liturgical music ever, died of syphilis (and yes, I know, it’s a dubious analogy given the underdeveloped state of therapuetic pharmaceuticals in 19th century Europe). But I certainly don’t care, any more than English’s dalliances with the BGVs diminish my experience of the music he created in his heyday. We’ve been down this road before. It was called Puritanism.

Of course distinguishing between the art and the artist has limits, just as we ourselves do. No matter how great their work, I don’t watch Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson movies anymore. Full stop. But my larger point still holds: we abdicate our rights and privileges, as well as our responsibilities, as functional members of a culture or society that values the arts if we insist on locating the moral or ethical center of art within the artist alone. To abdicate in this way is to place ourselves in the passive role of the consumer, whose primary role in the artistic experience is reactive, declamatory, evaluative: I think …, I feel …, I believe …, I like him, I hate her. Syphilitic. Take it away.

It’s a commonplace of Intro to Lit (at least when I teach it) that “art” cannot happen – it doesn’t exist – until or unless it comes into contact with a reader, a viewer, a listener, a critic, a fan – in short, an interacting other. On this theory, “Footprints in the Sand” isn’t artistically shabby because Christy Lane is a bad person (I have no idea one way or another, and, as you might have guessed by now, don’t really care) but because the song reduces real suffering and pain and the problem of evil to a trite, singsongy allegory about how we’ll be able to decipher God’s cryptic sandy heiroglyphs better by and by.

Like so much other Christian art, the flaw in “Footprints” is its inability to speak authentically, not just to what we - as the encountering other in this “work of art” - want to believe (for most Christians, that Christ is always there upholding the saints) but also to how we live (periodically bereft of hope, sometimes emotionally abandoned, spiritually withdrawn, the promise that God will always uphold his children notwithstanding). The song fails as art because it fails to offer any original or evocative re-imagination of the individual’s relation to the sacred or divine, in all its complicated paradox and incomprehensible contradiction.

This is a tall order, to be sure (and I chose Christy Lane pretty randomly from a generous corpus of artistically flawed Christian music). Very few works of art or artists pull it off entirely. But there are moments. Moments of beauty and grace, of understanding or feeling that sweep over us in and through a given artist’s work. If we’re talking about Christian music, and specifically of white gospel music, randomly, let’s take the Perrys, and just off the top of my head (I listened to them while I was traveling recently), there’s the bridge to “Calvary Answers for Me,” the piano introduction to “Oh That Wonderful Promise,” the male ensemble in the second chorus of “I Rest My Case,” a little bass lick in Loren Harris’s second verse of “I Met the Nazarene,” … and on and on – moments that merge intimations of faith and feeling and beauty in a way that gracefully verifies what the apostle so famously described as the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. Hoped for because felt, unseen but intuited – for me, at least, in musical moments like these.

For you it might be a Schubert melody, or the labyrinth at Chartres or a Martin Luther King sermon or a Fannie Crosby lyric or quiet spot on a park bench bathed in what Dickinson called “a certain slant of light.” Take them you where you find them. Find them where you may. In these moments - you interactively encountering some form of artistic beauty - these moments exceed or detach from the intentions of the artist, overrun the character of the creator, and become self-sustaining units of experience on their own. I don’t know how it happens exactly (and I’ve spent most my adult life trying to understand it), but it obviously does. I guess the fact that beauty comes from flawed human vessels might well disillusion some people, but for me the imperfect origins of artistically perfected beauty make those special musical moments all the more meaningful.

Second note on mediocrity is closer to home, via reader DA, who sends these clips from his incomparably comprehensive Singing News archives. Clip one is from the Singing News, September 1993. A letter to the editor written by “RT, Proctor, VT”:

No study of Gospel Music would be complete and honest if it did not cover the Christan community’s tendency to allow inadequate musicians to represent itself. In 1931, a professor at Oberlin Conservatory was concerned with this and believed it the result of ingrained Calvinistic fear of the well trained. Is that the case today?

Discuss. Meanwhile, JD Sumner, in that same issue, had this to say in his column.

You think, down through the years of groups that I call “wearing their religion on their sleeve.” I mean by that, they come on stage boasting about how good they are - and while they’re on stage they try to prove it. Most of them are not in the business today, and most of them were family groups, or at least a husband and wife team. Then you say, “What about the Speer Family?” The Speer Family has never been one to preach or testify on stage, not even when Dad and Mom were living. In fact, they were known as the Singing Speer Family, because what they did was SING. When these groups become so holy and people find out they’re really human just like they are, then their popularity begins to fade. Then the family groups start bickering and eventually break up. Husband and wife spend twenty hours a day fussing and four hours at night getting on stage TRYING to act super-spiritual, and it’s a hard thing to do, until this finally tears up a group. The Bible says to be temperate in all things, and I believe that goes with being too super-spiritual when it’s not real. And once you set that precedent, you have to keep it going, and eventually that will completely destroy a group.

Think on these things.

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Comments

  1. Montana Man wrote:

    Who is Paul Mathers? What does he do besides write this essay? And it’s mediocrity because somebody couldn’t make it in secular music so he did Christian music? Not to pick on the country dudes, but how many of them who really seem NOT to be talented have made it to some degree because they insisted on perservering? I can’t remember who said it… that if you wanted to do music try it for five years and if you weren’t making a living at it then, go on to something else — but at least you made music for five years. Or were mediocre for five years. But sometimes the people who wanted to be in the spotlight are doidng the BGV — and they’re still making music. In one form or another. Thanks for including your Perry comments — you’ve done so on other occasions with reference to “Rest My Case,” and your comment on the men’s trio part of that song. I did find myself troubled by JD’s reference to the hypocritical super-spiritual (on-stage) groups, when the off-stage lives of many, including JD, I think, were a contradiction to what they offered on stage. But over time, perhaps the gaps were eliminated, or greatly minimized. By grace, and mercy. Which all of us need.

  2. Montana Man wrote:

    Provocative piece. What does Paul Massey do besides right pieces like this? Thanks for your Perry comments on “Rest My Case,” too.

  3. RF wrote:

    Interesting.

    One of the real frustrations within southern gospel music is the total refusal of fans and the public at large to acknowledge that the human element invades all of us, Christian and non-Christian. None of are immune to that, and yet we tend to bury those who fall short of our expectations. It’s easy (too easy) to criticize Michael English or Kirk Talley, Sandi Patty or any number of other people because they have failed. How many failure do each of us have in our lives? Was it made public or did we hide it under the rug?

    One of the great things about Christianity is the concept of forgiveness. How many singer have sung that all of our shortcomings are thrown in the deep blue sea? And we still hold on to the fact that they fell short.

    It has nothing to do with quality of music, which is what we should be discussing here. I’ll let God deal with the individual sg star, but I can deal with the quality of the music. What is good is good and what is not is not. Listening to a pious artist does not make what he or she does good. Like Hovie (and I believe JD) were trying to say is simply this. Sing and sing well. Is this ministry or entertainment. Hovie said yes to both. And so it is.

  4. Rod wrote:

    I have more of a problem with the industry leaders turning a blind eye as long as they’re selling Cd’s and concert tickets only to completely ostracize and turn their backs on the artists when they are found out (Kirk & Michael). I also don’t think they should be the morality police either but please spare me the indignance. Oh and another thing RF…Kirk and MIchael were the ones found out…I could name at least two dozen major artists who have had or do have the same problem. The leadership and peers in this industry know it but SSSHhhh!!! Let’s wait till they’re caught and then let’s be self righteous. PHARISEES

  5. Rev wrote:

    SG artists are as human as anyone else, and combined with a lot of time away from home, etc. it is not surprising that there are occasional moral and ethical failures. But I agree, there seems to be an inconsistency. I loved Anthony Burger — but what is the deal about divorcing his first wife (Eva) and marrying an ex-employees wife (LuAnn)? Or Ronnie Booth, who just got married (actually, remarried, since he has a teenaged son). Is divorce and remarriage considered ok within the industry, but other sins — even after repentance — are never to be forgiven or forgotten?

  6. Sandy wrote:

    In reference to sg artists, or any christian for that matter, I’m under the impression folks may not be too concerned with divorce and re-marriage as with the adultry that many time preceeds. Thus, trigger or beget a divorce.

  7. Montana Man wrote:

    Is gluttony really a sin?

  8. Rod wrote:

    Rev: I posted a comment in one of the other blogs about how a man (or woman) can leave their families 200-250+ days a year and be the husbands, wives and parents God intended them to be. Remember God instituted the family before he did the church and many artists, evangelists and preachers put their ministries over the family in the name of God. To me that explains the rampant divorce and marital problems facing Christian ministries today…And to make sure you guys know where I am coming from I know from EXPERIENCE what it does to marriages. And Montana man…I am not sure about gluttony but my wise old grandfather said,”too much of anything can’t be good”. :)

  9. quartet-man wrote:

    I am not sure what context the comment about Michael singing Christian music because he wasn’t good enough came from. I would like to see the whole thing. He loved (and loves) Christian music and to my knowledge had no designs to do otherwise. Maybe as a young man he got started with his family group when he might have wanted different. I don’t know.
    As far as talent, he is as talented as lots of people in the secular industry. At one point he lost ground, but I understand that is not true now. Either way, in his prime, he was a force to be reckoned with.

  10. Rod wrote:

    MY POINT HAS BEEN MADE!!! No one will respond to my last post (8)…I have posted something like this several times and NOTHING…None of the artists will address it. I am curious as to what your responses…Any takers?

  11. Rev wrote:

    Rod — I agree with you that the travelling lifestyle inherent with this industry creates a serious source of temptation for many, and an opportunity for Satan to get his foot in the door of a home with an absent parent and/or an adult living days and nights without their family and spouse. I’m sure there are those who are genuinely called to this kind of ministry in which God has graciously given a special measure of grace to both the travelling musician and the stay-at-home spouse, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t awkward at best. Billy Graham (not a musician but a travelling preacher gone for long periods of time in his younger years) went out the way to institute safeguards for himself and his co-workers to protect them from temptations and opportunities for moral failure; yet even so, his son Franklin may well have been the rebel he was in part due to the absence of his father.
    I realize any time somebody mentions EHSSQ it gets emotions going, but whether you like them or not (I happen to like them), one thing that Ernie Haase has made a point of doing is limiting the number of concerts they do on Sundays. He stated a couple of years or so ago that he wanted to have his guys home to go to church with thir families at least twice a month. Now I realize that is difficult for many groups who find that Sundays are one of the biggest days for ministry in churches, but I think Ernie at least sees the potential problems with being gone so much and wants to do what he can to keep the families strong.
    If the only way to “survive” in the southern gospel arena is to sacrifice one’s family and marriage, then they need to take a big look at the overall situation and reconsider if God really called them to do this. There are other ways to use one’s musical talent and sing southern gospel music than living like a gypsie while the family falls apart.

  12. Rod wrote:

    That’s great Rev…By the way Billy Graham was once asked, ” What is your biggest regret” or something along that line and he said, “That I didn’t spend more time with my family”. I do understand calling and ministry as I travel about 130 dates per year. BUT…If it came to sacrificing my family or morality I would quit and do something else related to ministry or at least cut my dates and if I had to live by more modest means then so be it. I really think there should be some organization started to support and counsel Christian ministries. It would be a great ministry in itself.

  13. CVH wrote:

    The subject of art produced by Christians should be more of a concern to us than it seems to be, whether we’re talking about music, art, writing or any creative endeavor. It’s valid to question the quality of any creative work, especially if it attempts to imitate or illuminate our faith and inspire others. I wouldn’t agree with some of Massey’s comments but the underlying premise has some validity. And yes, Michael English was a poor example to make his point but the writer was obviously misinformed on English’s career trajectory. Restoration may not be as sexy as rumormongering but I’d rather listen to Michael and, believing in the redemptive power of God, be attuned for the nuances of the truth he’s learned along his obviously painful journey than endure the overblown blather of so many artists out there today.

    The problem comes when we fail to distinguish between objective standards of quality and our own personal taste; at that point a thoughtful conversation becomes an irrelevant subjective dialogue. It is commonplace these days to filter everything in terms of one’s personal preferences rather than holding things to an objective standard. Is there room for personal taste? Of course. You may enjoy a piece of music that is uninspiring and simplistic (the Cathedral’s “Wedding Music” comes to mind) or lyrics that are banal, delivering truth in lowest-common-denominator fashion (remember LaVerne Tripp’s “I Know”?), but don’t call it good art.

    The rabbit trails on this thread run the risk of diverting attention from the central premise which is, as I understand it, good art matters.

    There are some lyricists who are gifted with the ability to fuse the pathos of the human condition with the timeless truths of the holy. In the field of Christian music, I’d suggest Gloria Gaither, Ken Medema, Sara Groves and Derek Webb to start. There are others but these individuals, each in their own way, express truth with intentionality. Their work moves you in deeper ways than do the superficial “heaven and the cross” lyrics. There’s nothing wrong with heaven and the cross but there’s so much more to life and faith than those simple concepts.

    Our esteemed host mentions those moments that “become self-sustaining units of experience on their own”. Those moments then become a dynamic part of ourselves with the ability to have an impact on both conscious and subconscious levels, informing our intellect, emotions and creativity. In other words, those moments make us better.

    Partly because of a lack of good examples and partly because of the generally subjective nature of society today, many people have no framework of reference to create or appreciate good art. They hypnotically ingest whatever is placed in front of them and only filter it on the narrow parameters of sensibility with which they are equipped; shades of color rather than the full spectrum, taste buds dulled by the mediocrity of fast-food blandness, ears tone deaf because of the incessant blare of white-noise mediocrity we listen to, unaware of the symphony of meaning being played just around the corner.

    At the risk of sounding elitist, I’d venture that it’s not so much that the lines are blurred between good and bad as that a large and growing number of people don’t possess the skills to discern one from the other. Having a preference is not the same as understanding what makes art good or bad. And in our politically-correct, aesthetically-neutralized culture, EVERYone is creative and worthy of adulation. It starts in elementary education where “everyone’s a winner” and continues through adulthood where we are criticized if we dare dissect anyone’s efforts at anything. Everyone’s OK, we’re all equal and no one should lose. (No wonder people hate HR departments)

    Then there’s the eternal conflict between art and commerce. Is it good art if is sells? Of course not. It may be, but it isn’t necessary for a creative work to aspire to and reach high standards for it to be commercially viable. There have been numerous conversations here about praise and worship music. It has had, for better or worse, a major influence recently on the CCM industry to the point where many artists who otherwise might be producing decent pop/AC music are doing the P&W thing because it’s big and it sells. Is it all inspired? No. Most writers - good writers - write to the market. That’s not to say a truly inspired song won’t break out of the mold now and then but regardless of genre, most writers and therefore most producers and artists follow the trends rather than risking setting them.

    As long as the commercial aspects of ‘the bidness’ hold the influence they do over the creative process there will be a disconnect between good art and that which is merely passable, or worse, truly bad. What’s worse is that those who are willing, perhaps even called, to name bad art for what it is are characterized as thinking themselves smugly superior or lacking heart.

    Art is hard. Creating it or understanding it. Good art reaches out to engage us and too often we sit back passively, waiting for “it” to do something more to entertain, inspire or motivate us. In our laziness, we have forgotten that it is an interactive experience. When we encounter it - when we engage it and allow it to move us - our response, rather than being a stream of inadequately descriptive words will be silence. True, good art will render one speechless. Perhaps that is its noblest goal and our highest compliment.

  14. JW wrote:

    I enjoyed the linked article and averyfineline’s, very thought provoking.

    As for English supposedly singing sg because he couldn’t make it in secular, Garth Brooks sang country because he couldn’t make it in pop, Michael Bolton sang whatever he did because he couldn’t make it in rock. It’s common and not limited to sg.

    I actually disagree with much of the linked article. I hate mediocre art, but I just think he was dead wrong to compare bad so called Christian art to supposedly “good” non Christian art.

    Thanks for your take, averyfineline. I felt your point was much more balanced and realistic.

  15. KS wrote:

    Ya know, Avery, the fans of SG are their own worst enemies. Everyone talks about the fate of SG and its eminent demise but what other genre of music has a more narrow criteria within which the artists must conform - by this I mean their appearance, their style, their sound and on and on and on; and yet these same purist fans refuse to use a discerning ear when it comes to true QUALITY music. Is it any wonder that there are few true talents willing to dive into Southern Gospel? The rewards are few and the sacrifices great. The few true talents that are in the industry must feel tremendously confined at times. The smallest step to the “right” or to the “left” of SG gets such a strong reaction from the purists that most SG artists aren’t willing to take the risk - the fallout is too great. (kudos to EHSS) Frankly, I can’t bear to listen to most SG radio - about 15 minutes is all I can stomach. I have my favorite SG groups but most would consider them “progressive” or not “true” southern gospel. So be it….at least it’s QUALITY!!

    As for the SG artists’ moral character - carnality is a problem in all walks of life these days. SG artists are as human as factory workers, airline pilots, company executives, police officers, etc. I agree that they have a responsibility to the message they sing and most take that responsibility seriously. Some may not. I ensure you, however, that the Lord is keeping score and those who dare to tread on the dangerous ground of portraying one thing and living another will be dealt with - we don’t need to be worrying our little heads about how many days they are on the road or if they are “good husbands and daddies”. I have a real problem with those who are “concerned” - most times “concerned” is another term for NOSEY!!! We need to pray for these groups. Ask for God’s protection on their ministries, their families. Stop picking apart how long their hair is or how true their “sound” is to Southern Gospel. If fans are so concerned with the fate of SG perhaps they should look at themselves first…maybe the problem lies within. We want quality SG music?? Talent attracts talent!!! Fans control how attractive this genre is going to be to those TRUE talents who are above mediocrity. Until fans refuse to accept average they will continue to get average.

  16. Rod wrote:

    KS…I appreciate the “JAB”…However I am “NOT NOSEY” as you put it. I was one of those artists and still do it fulltime (with a much lighter schedule). I sang on the QT convention several years…I traveled 250+ days a year with many other artists and it SHOULD be a concern. I have seen what damage being on the road does to the families of these artists…It nearly destroyed my life. Now mind you it doesn’t happen to everyone however it eventually catches up to most of the artists…Why do you hear about the artist “coming off the road to spend more time with the family excuse”? Some are personnel problems but most actually are having family, money, spiritual problems from being on the road so much with so little support spiritually and financially. I KNOW not guess that most groups do not have devotions or any church life while at home. There are a few and you can tell by the way they live…KS, I am concerned…I have many friends in this industry and KNOW them personally and it does CONCERN me that they are sacrificing their families and in a lot cases their spiritual walk all in the name of God and SG music.

  17. singer wrote:

    Rod,
    You can’t travel 250 days a year and raise a family.There have been a few who were better at it than others but for the majority of traveling artist they have dysfunctional situations at home which lead to divorce, seperation from children and many,many years of regret.We do have some family groups that travel with spouse and children and I am positive that would be better than being absent.

    I decided many years ago that I wanted to see my kids play ball grow up and attempt to raise them with my wife. I still do not have that perfected but I sing 80 dates a year, solid dates with no waste, work smarter not harder and still have time to be a Dad.
    It took 18 years to figure that out!

  18. Rod wrote:

    Finally…Someone answered the 1,000,000 dollar question…And the answer is…YOU CAN’T…Ding, Ding, Ding…Tell them what they’ve won Bob. Not mocking you singer just agreeing…Where’s KS…Probably chasing rabbits. :)

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