Saturday, March 08, 2008

Blog Series: Introduction

I've decided to start writing more than just off-the-cuff foreign culture pieces and updates about life and ministry here in Rio de Janeiro. And something a bit more thematic than the wonderful Sunday Scribblings. So I've decided to do a short blog series of arts and the Christian culture. I'd like to have reader input on the topics, because I'm going to be writing as an American living in Brazil and cultural issues might be different from place to place. I'm curious to see what other people's experiences have been, regardless of religious affiliation.

To begin:

The other day, I was standing in line at a beauty supplies store when I was privileged to hear an argument going on among the employees. Like all good Brazilian stores, they had a large speaker set up near the sidewalk, where they pumped out music and a young man with a microphone calling out occasional comments about promotions while inviting customers into the store. The reason for the argument was that someone had put on some early 90's English-language music on the sound system. And it wasn't Christian music. Apparently, the owners of the store prefer to have only Christian songs played. Most of the employees, however, were truly annoyed. It must not have been the first time, because the complaints were verbal and loud. Comments like,
-It's in English; who understands the words anyway?
-I can't TAKE more Christian music...ALL DAY LONG...
-...forcing us to listen to this...can't there be a little something for everyone?
-Come on, can't there be options?
-Well, I TRY to mix it up, but the owners don't like it, and there's ALWAYS someone who complains...either it's too secular or it's too Christian, I just can't please EVERYONE...

And so forth.

I was standing there listening, smiling, because I empathized with the employees. And the customers. I can guess why the shop owners play Christian music. It's probably not to please their clientele. It's probably because they feel this is an acceptable way to witness to said clientele without actually having to get out and talk to each person individually about God's wonderful plan for the world. But it didn't look to me like that plan was working. It was just turning a lot of people off.

That experience reminded me of certain ideas we argued about a lot in college (where I was a music major). One was the idea that the arts exist to serve a higher purpose than art itself. A good song isn't good because it's good. A good song is good because it brings people to Jesus. Which means that classical music is okay, because there aren't "secular" words to corrupt people, but "Jesus loves me," while technically inferior, is better because it serves a purpose. Art as tool, means, and not as an end in itself.

This kind of thinking tends to make its followers less than expansive in their choice of artistic fare. Shrinks horizons. Great example? I was told this week that our volunteers were with some friends and when asked what Brazilian music they knew, offered up Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. The friends were shocked. And immediately offered to introduce the volunteers to REAL Brazilian music. Which, of course, was exclusively Christian (and mostly produced in the last 10 years).

This is my 2 minute translation of two randomly Googled songs by a "secular" and a "Christian" artist. Please tell me what YOU think...about it all.

If I want to talk with God
Gilberto Gil

If I want to talk with God
I have to be alone
I have to turn off the lights
I have to silence (my) voice
I have to find peace
I have to loosen the knots
on (my) shoes, of (my) tie,
of desires, of fears
I have to forget the date
I have to lose the bill
Have to have empty hands
Soul and body naked
if I want to talk with God
I have to accept the pain
I have to eat the bread
the devil kneaded
Have to become a dog
Lick the ground
of sumptuous palaces, of castles
of my dreams
I have to see myself saddened
I have to find myself hideous
And in spite of a terrible size
Bring joy to my heart
If I want to speak with God
I have to put myself to adventure
I have to scale the heavens
without ropes to secure
I have to say goodbye forever
Turn my back, walk on
Decided, on the road
Which at the end, will end in nothing
nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing (3x)
of what I expected to find.

Prophet's Prayer
Fernanda Brum, Emerson Pinheiro e Marcus Salles

I give up my dreams
I give up my life
I will spend myself completly
to realize your desires.

I don't want anything in exchange
let me stay at your feet
surrounded by many
loved by few
that's how I feel
let me stay here.

Because I know that God is
always protecting me
Will cease my cry
as the morning comes
I know that nothing will
keep me away from you
Lion and Lamb
my all, my love.


Jen said...

I am saddened by our (yes, our, as Christians) lack of understanding as to what makes something good, especially in the realm of art and music and writing. There has been much produced in the last 20 years by the Christian labels and presses that I think is trash, and I'm a Christian. If we don't strive to excellence in our art and music and writing, will it move people? Will it make them ask questions about the artist and why they create? Or will it just sell to Christians and totally turn non-Christians off to anything having to do with us and God? Hmm. I might have to write my own post, inspired by yours.

Susan said...

I am a firm believer that art can exist for art's sake - it does not need to serve a higher purpose in order to be valued or appreciated. I remember having discussions about this in college and being made to feel that my understanding of art and music was wrong (Jenna - this is probably why we became friends there). I agree with jen that there has been a push to create Christian music that is, unfortunatly, often inferior but praised for being "a witness." I have a great deal of respect for the artists who are christian but don't sign with christian labels or sing exclusively about God. These are the ones who might make it to the radio and gain the respect and the listening ear of non-christians.
I will stop ranting now. Clearly, this is a topic I have too much to say about!

wren said...

Jenna! (contented sigh)
I miss passing notes with you about literature in the back of Chem 100. So here's the start of this discussion.

On a note, I pass you a paraphrase from Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners (which you HAVE to read): "bad art is not edifying." :D

As we walk out of class, I tell you this story:
Recently, I sat through a secular classroom discussion in which my classmates attempted to define the phrase "spiritual writing." The discussion rocked my dilemma of "spiritual writing"--whether it was written with an evangelical intent or not--into a greater discussion: can you even write about spiritual things? What's spiritual writing?

My point: in the greater discussion of art, even the term "spiritual" is debated. Crazy! In some circles, the idea that there can be a spiritual side to life is in question. Suddenly, the intent of evangelizing through art seemed so silly to me. If it points to something other, something that transcends the writing, that's an achievement in itself. To evangelize through it, in some ways, is just silly. Good art tackling big issues promotes further curiosity and interest in itself. Art that is subject to its message is propaganda--which can be art, but is often bad art. When the message is subject to the art, it often touches deeper heart strings than the other way around.

As a Christian in a higher academic setting, I have recently been struggling with this idea of how to discuss my faith while writing memoir in a predominantly secular worldview writing workshop. In order for my classmates to see the art, I have to use nonthreatening vocabulary that is not preachy in order to receive their feedback about my writing. If my writing is preachy--about faith, or the history of Bolivia, or teaching grammar--the reader is blinded by the content and can't see the art. If the art and the content walk hand-in-hand, well, then we have Mary Poppins' adage: just a spoonful of narrative makes the content go down... in the most delightful way.


All that to say: the message has to be subject to the art.

Rachel said...

if you want to experience some truly awful Christian music, go by Carioca and Uruguiana any weekday between 9 and 5. It's a lady with hair past her butt who sometimes makes her 8 or-so year-old son sing too.

Truly painful.

In terms of other faiths, Jewish music is pretty limited and most of it is highly depressing-sounding, even if the theme of the song is happy.

Ellen said...

okay, im not really big on music, personally. however, i do focus on the words- the message, the flow. since when does mentioning Jesus automatically mean the song is Christian? these songs sound as if they were written by followers of some cult (nudist cult by the sounds of the first one- must get naked to talk to God???).
love you, deary!

Anonymous said...

Hey, I didn't know this song by Gilberto Gil. He is no Christian singer, that's for sure.
I had to go through the words of the songs again after reading Ellen´s comment, because I couldn't undestand what brought about the picture of a naked person praying (Jenna, you did a great job with the translation, by the way). "Pão que o diabo amassou" (hardship, disappointment) is an idiomatic expression, so is "de corpo e alma" (wholeheartedly). Although the latter wasn´t used as such, I think that's the idea the author wanted to convey when he wrote "ter a alma e o corpo nus". Also "nú" doesn't necessarily mean without clothes on. It can also mean exposed, unconcealed. The message I got was: If you really want to speak to Got you must put aside every worry of your everyday life, free yourself from anything distracting, be it caused by your work (reference to shoes and tie), material things (mãos vazias/empty hands), or pain; you have to hold on to your beliefs even it they seem to be unfounded (subir aos céus sem cordas para segurar/ to scale the heavens
without ropes to secure).
But then, again, these are just my thoughts... Another Brazilian might interpret the words differently.

Anonymous said...

... ooops
forgot to sign my comment.



--jenna said...

Ellen: Gilberto Gil isn't a Christian singer; that was the "secular" option!

Ana: Thanks for the clarifications. Those idomatic expressions always get me!

Jen: Can't wait to see your post!

Susan and Renee: Ooh...I miss the late-night conversations over coffee...or science textbooks! Love the Flannery quote...

Rachel: The metro singers are truly awful. And I think Jewish music tends to sound 'depressing' to Western ears because of the minor keys and Middle Eastern style. (I actually kind of like depressing-sounding music!)