BOLOGNA, DENTISTS & ARTISTS

CHENANIAH, LEADER OF THE LEVITES IN MUSIC, SHOULD DIRECT THE MUSIC, FOR HE UNDERSTOOD IT.

-I CHRONICLES 15:22

 

This obscure passage from the Old Testament fell on me as I was reflecting lately on the role of art, music in particular, as a kind of language. 

"We gave this movie to friends; they watched it; then they tore it apart."

The young woman who made this comment bore grief in her voice. Because the film conveyed positive content, she sincerely wanted her friends to enjoy it for what it was.

Sadly, this is what it was: Mediocre.

Her comments came amid a discussion I was leading about the role of art and artists in the church, and her experience is something we all can relate to. 

Another participant bemoaned TV shows like The Voice and American Idol, not for their content, but their very purpose: To exalt the excellent and eliminate the mediocre. 

I suggested, gingerly, that we need more excellence in our culture, not less, when it comes to the arts. 

I realized in that moment that in my circle, the Presbyterian Church in America, hardly anyone knows we have a big steel box in our theological basement labelled Tools for Creating Excellent Things for All the World to the Glory of God. 

Arts and artists get weird treatment in our churches. Other kinds of vocations do not.

We'd never expect our dentist to use her dentistry as a platform for propaganda. We'd know intuitively that her preaching at us while our gums are saturated with gauze is a bit inappropriate. 

No, we expect her to fix teeth well, or she wouldn't deserve to the License to Drill.  Nor could we say she's "glorifying God" by conducting a shoddy practice. 

But with the arts, the popular ones especially, mediocrity is endured so long as a "good message" or some good intentions are apparent.   

I recently attended an evening of music with three acts that progressed from flatness to brilliance. The first  was earnest yet uncreative; the second more creative but lacking passion; the third blew the other bands out of the water with passion, energy, vocal range and a special something that got the audience to its feet. 

This is not to say the earlier bands don't have a tune to play or a story to tell. But the third group seemed to understand the music, themselves and the moment in a way that was compelling. Excellence in music begins with language proficiency in music.

At least, that's what Matt Monticchio tells me, and he's a composer. Me? I ain't no musician. But I love music like I love a native speaker's ease of delivery. 

Even in a shallow genre like pop music, excellence is better than mediocrity and we know it intuitively. We reward it with our wallets. Christian artists take note: No amount of good intention or desired outcome will transform mediocrity into something God-glorifying. 

At the lunch discussion, between gobbles of Lebanon Bologna and apple juice, I recommended that perhaps Christians who do art should first and foremost strive for excellence in their craft. How they then use their creations to live or speak the Christian faith is up to them, but in order for their work to really glorify God, it should at least be recognizably excellent. 

I was surprised at how novel the notion was to most the group.

Where's that tool box?