Category Archives: Music

music: wailing worship

The modernist worldview of forward human progress asserted the belief that every problem not only can be solved but eventually will be. Along with much of the Western world, the church bought into the paradigm, seeking to resolve theological tensions. The result is services centered around certainty and sentimentality. Christians have become known to outsiders as those who wear rose-tinted glasses, offering the simple answer of “hope in Jesus Christ” as an answer to problems to everything from addiction to finding a parking space.

The area in which the sentimental nature of the church has become most clear is in worship. The sentimentalist, writes Jeremy Begbie, is one who “misrepresents reality through evading or trivializing evil, is emotionally self-indulgent, and avoids appropriate costly action.” Such works abound in contemporary Christian music; a song that comes to mind is “Blessed Be Your Name,” a happy melody with lyrics that encourage worship rather than painfully confronting God and reality about evil. It is self-indulgent in that the congregants can feel good about the decision to choose praise even when they could feel despair. The primary intent of such a song is the “satisfaction gained in exercising their emotion.” This piece avoids action by refusing to draw attention to any problems: through the complete evasion of recognizing evil for what it is, any situation that would require action remains unnamed. Such compulsory praise is “disturbingly out of touch” and is often “deployed as a narcotic” against the horrors of the world.

In contrast are pieces that confront the breadth and depth of both the human experience and of the triduum: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Day. Begbie writes that countersentimentality depends on an “appropriate construal of the relation between cross and resurrection.” The story is told and heard both as a story in which the resurrection is known from the beginning, and as a story whose ending is discovered as it happens. Hope and despair are held together. Such pieces acknowledge the reality of suffering as experienced on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, while also offering glimpses of the hope that is known to be in store for Easter Day. The challenge is to hold both tellings simultaneously.

Although Begbie calls for songs that include the hope of Easter Day, I find it enough to express the despair and mourning of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. In a society where the church has reduced itself to a center that encourages certainty, introducing works that meet people in places of questioning or anguish would feel paradoxically hopeful. One example is “Bukowski” by Modest Mouse, in which the narrator names God an “Indian giver” (racial issues aside for now) and questions “who would wanna be such a control freak?” The singer’s question speaks to doubt within myself, confronting a boxed-in view of God. His honest wrestling against God requires more contact than a bow of praise does. Another piece, entitled “Maranatha,” professes a God who is in, rather than only the cause of, all circumstances, and thus worthy of praise. Pádraig Ó Tuama sings, “I’ve fucked it up so many times / Alleluia.” The juxtaposition highlights that God is not to be worshipped merely because He is the cause of joy, goodness, beauty, and happiness, but rather, God is to be worshipped because He is God.

“I’ve fucked it up so many times / Alleluia.”

More is at stake than the experience and expression of human emotions and experiences. Without lament, humans are forfeiting both genuine relationship to their Creator and the power to appeal to Her for justice. As Walter Brueggemann writes, “a theological monopoly is re-enforced, docility and submissiveness are engendered, and the outcome in terms of social practice is to re-enforce and consolidate the political-economic monopoly of the status quo.” Which is exactly what we see happening in sentimental worship: complacency abounds. The problem, as Brueggemann illustrates, is that it is not only a complacency of humans, but such silence permits God to remain inactive. When humans lament, “the cry initiates history” by calling God to action in the face of circumstances that are not tolerable. It is a task specific to humans to engage with the Creator in such a way, negotiating with Her for the good of all. In Psalm 39, the speaker’s verbal “restraint only contributed to the trouble;” may we learn from the mistake of his silence. God is on our side and willing to work on our behalf, but we must cry from a place of genuine suffering in order to engage Her.

Lament in worship is also a crucial aspect of community formation. Much of what makes singing together so powerful is the seemingly simple act of breathing together. The congregation aligns the in-and-out of breath, submitting to a work that is beyond ourselves and greater than the sum of individuals’ voices. Guthrie writes that “in music, we encounter identity which preserves particularity.” Through worship, the community demonstrates what can be achieved by coordinating our very pneuma, our breath and spirit, with one another. At the same time, the individual can hold on to his or her self in the piece. To use such a living metaphor exclusively for acts of praise is to diminish it. By incorporating lament, we validate and encourage the members of our community who aren’t experiencing God’s goodness by coming alongside them in the physical acting out of despair. Israel knew this, often using the psalms to share the burden of pain.

The church’s definition of worship must expand beyond praise, must be redefined to include mourning, suffering, doubt, and lament. To do so will honestly engage the living God through the Spirit, call humans to action in restoring our world, and reach out in accepting community to those who are in places in life in which God’s goodness is anything but obvious.

This piece was originally written for Theology of Spiritual Formation with Chelle Stearns. Students were asked to write on music and singing.

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the works of lady gaga, one of the prophets in the reign of obama

Israel had many prophets, but today the church isn’t adding anyone’s words to the Biblical canon. When did God stop speaking? Did humanity stop needing prophets once Jesus lived, died, and lived again? Perhaps a better question is: when did we refuse to see the prophets in our midst? Pop star Lady Gaga is more than an entertainer, she is a prophetic voice of today. Through her fashion and performance art, Lady Gaga functions as prophet for secular USAmerica, which can aid the church in learning how to better engage contemporary USAmerican culture. This piece will define the traditional role of the prophet, evaluate how Lady Gaga can be understood to fulfill such a role within USAmerican culture, and reflect on the ways that Gaga’s work as a prophet questions the church’s engagement of today’s culture.

The primary role of a prophet is to fight injustice. Dan Allender explains that a prophet is one who actively stands outside of society in order to critique the injustices within society, with the hope of bringing about sociocultural change and reconciling groups of people who have been opposed to one another. The prophet “creates a vision for the future and exposes the reality of the present” by provoking her or his audience. Traditional tools of the prophet include “piercing narrative, powerful images, prescient poetry” and a willingness to “bear the consequence of being viewed as an enemy of the status quo.” Such artistry and suffering is employed by the prophet to create a compelling vision of what the situation could be if justice were carried out, if love and mercy were lived.

Perhaps most notable is Lady Gaga’s prophetic work against injustice against the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer) community. She came out as bisexual to both acceptance and criticism from the queer community: she has been “accused of not being gay enough” to claim bisexuality nor to be a representative voice. However, claiming bisexuality to a national audience, regardless of the depth of its truthfulness, was a prophetic move: Gaga chose to align herself with the marginalized, removing herself from the hetero-normative mainstream culture. As many prophets before her, she actively stands outside of the cultural norm in order to actively engage and critique culture’s treatment of a marginalized people.

“Born This Way” Live Performance

Lady Gaga adopts the prophet’s work of reconciling groups by working to reconcile LGBTQ and heterosexual individuals, who often have been viewed as oppositional. “Born This Way,” the chart-topping track on an album of the same name, has been accepted by many within the queer community as a new anthem, much like Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and Cher’s “Believe” have been in the past. What is significant about the song is its overt shout-out to the LGBTQ community; even more significant is that she includes heterosexuals:

“No matter gay, straight, or bi,

lesbian, transgendered life,

I’m on the right track, baby,

I was born to survive.”

This is more than an effort to speak on behalf of LGBTQ individuals, more than a matter of advancing rights for the gay community. The lyrics of “Born This Way” unites the LGBTQ and heterosexual communities. Live performances of the piece end with Gaga and her male and female dance company bending towards one another in a circular, all-embracing hug. The performance offers an image that speaks to a vision of what our reality could be, one in which gay individuals are not only equal, but lovingly included. Her image calls us toward the possible reality in which we are one, united humanity that includes multiple sexualities and sexual orientations.

Prophets must bear the consequence of provoking controversy and disrupting the status quo. As a result of Lady Gaga’s involvement with the LGBTQ community, many rumors have been started in an attempt to slander and shame her. One of the most direct attacks on her sexuality has been the rumor that she has a penis. Rather than retaliating (and effectively proving that she would be ashamed to be part of the transgendered community), Gaga claims to love the rumor. She states: “‘This has been the greatest accomplishment of my life: to get young people to throw away what society has taught them is wrong.’” If fans believe her to be transgendered and still come to her performances, listen to her music, and support her work, Gaga takes it as a hopeful sign for future inclusion of transgendered individuals in society. Rather than suffer, Gaga reframes the consequence into a cause for celebration.

Another consequence has been the protestors who gather outside of Monster Balls, Lady Gaga’s stadium concerts. One writer recalls a concert in Nashville in which picketers held signs “urging ‘homosexuals’ and other ‘sinners’ to ‘repent’.” During the show, Gaga shouted from stage, “Jesus loves every fucking one of you!” before launching into a raucous performance, “as if to say, the only proper theological response to bigotry and hatred is to dance in its face.” Prophet Gaga practices a living theology; rather than discussing abstractions, she moves into actions.

The Meat Dress

Lady Gaga has also served as a prophet is in the conversation of gender. In this realm, Gaga exposes the reality of the present by reflecting back to her audience what the present really looks like. She holds up a mirror, and the reflection is startling. Gaga as prophet “exposes the hardness of the heart.” One of the most notable examples is the ‘meat dress’, which Gaga wore at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. Feminist Kate Durbin notes that “masculinists see but a piece of meat, so Gaga gives them exactly what they ‘see’ – a piece of meat. In order, of course, that the Male Gaze might ‘see’ itself.” The powerful fashion image of a celebrity wearing raw beef holds up a critical mirror to the way members of USAmerican society view and objectify women.

Some of her other fashion pieces have been similarly tied to society’s treatment of women. Lady Gaga has worn many weapon-inspired bras, including a flame-thrower bra in the music video for “Bad Romance,” a ‘gun bra’ in her video for “Alejandro,” and a ‘fire bra’ to the Much Music Awards and on the cover of GQ magazine. Durbin states that, like many women, Gaga’s “breasts were seen as a weapon, therefore she was going to literally turn them into that.” Gaga hears the narrative society tells women and exposes the flaws and pain in the narrative through constructing a powerful fashion image.

An equally blatant statement about gender was the introduction of Gaga’s alter-ego, Jo Calderone, at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards. The opening monologue made it clear that this performer was not Lady Gaga as Jo Calderone: “Gaga? Yeah, her,” Jo says while pointing to some vague distance; Gaga is not here. To further emphasize the opposition between Gaga and Jo, he informs the audience, “She [Gaga] left me [Jo].” Gaga, according to Jo, groups him in with other men: “She said I’m just like the last one.” Jo, for his part, dances in a company comprised entirely of men; the audience does not see a single woman on stage during the performance. This is not an image of a woman who includes masculinity into her being. Instead, she is one body, portraying both a female and a male who are in opposition to one another. Similarly, the viewers are one humanity in opposition to one another as a result of the gender divide. The audience knows it to be absurd for Gaga to critique Jo, just as it is equally absurd for Jo to feel left out from Gaga’s life, since they are one and the same. The audience can then look back on themselves and see that they create divides within the one humanity, divides where there should be unity. Gaga-versus-Jo is a picture of humanity, a mirror for how we relate across the sexes.

Jo Calderone

An additional role of the prophet is to expose idolatry. James Danaher writes that in today’s USAmerican culture “what we recognize and revere about a person is their celebrity status.” USAmericans unknowingly idolize celebrity and the formation of identity that leads to celebrity status. We join the game, attempting to construct an identity for ourselves to gain some amount of fame. At the same time, we hate celebrities for their status and for having the resources to continually re-create their identities, so eventually we demand their destruction.

Gaga, while seeming to be part of the system that perpetuates obsession with celebrity and identity construction, undermines the system and shows that it leads to death and destruction. In her performance of “Paparazzi” at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Gaga opens by naming the idol USAmericans have come to worship, and recognizes her potential position as sacrifice: “I pray the fame won’t take my life.” The fame is the god that this society has made, and it demands ritual sacrifice. By the end of the show, Gaga is covered in blood and hanging from a rope, enacting her own death. She had explained the performance idea to her label by asking “I imagine that my pop career could be quite long and people will wonder for a very long time what my demise will look like, so why don’t we show them?” By walking, willingly, to her own enacted death, she showed the audience what they do to celebrities: demand violent destruction. The image does what prophetic images are meant to do, which is to “disrupt denial and expose the subtle and overt idolatry of the heart.” Having shown the audience her destruction, Gaga is then free of the audience’s demands on identity because she has fulfilled that identity and shown that it leads to death. After that moment, all her work is free to be performed without inhibition because it is enacted in the shadow of her own death. The audience are no longer able to impose an identity on her; it is she who identifies herself with true identity/ies.

According to Allender, an important piece of the work for a prophet is to be a “servant of the church who stands outside the church in order to invite those who appear to be in it to return to true worship.” Lady Gaga’s work as a prophet within the secular community questions and critiques the church, inviting its members to return to what we too-often refuse to see as good news and worship. Gaga, in acting as a secular prophet, aligns herself with the marginalized people of the LGBTQ community. The church should be convicted: we are called to stand with the oppressed and marginalized, and instead are the ones excluding and condemning. As Gaga reconciles and unifies queer and straight peoples, the church creates divides with hateful language on picket signs. Gaga’s work asks the church: what is a loving response to individuals, regardless of sexual orientation? Her scream of Jesus’s love followed by dance questions: what would action look like on your part? Can you ever stop the debates over scripture and sin long enough to act?

Gaga’s use of fashion and performance art raise questions of communication. Gaga confronts the culture through symbols that it fluently understands: music, performance, and fashion. The church insists on using scripture as its primary form of engagement, but for many people in USAmerica, the text does not carry authority over their lives. How could the church better engage culture on its own terms? What would happen if we ceased to articulate and defend every position, and made room for a conversation through image and action that made sense to today’s culture, within and outside of the church?

2009 VMA Performance

Finally, Gaga’s enacted death to expose the idolatry of celebrity questions the way the church teaches the narrative of Jesus crucified. We often have sermons trying to explain what Jesus did, but her bloody performance and murderous stare ask: how would the church enact the narrative? Pastors try to educate congregants by explaining the historical context of the cross, but what if they moved the narrative into the context of today’s culture? What would we critique? What idols would we expose? How can the church live into the story of life, nonviolent death, and resurrection in a way that speaks to the contemporary world?

The prophet known as Lady Gaga is doing God’s work in secular USAmerica. Rather than fight her, the church would be wise to allow itself to be critiqued by her exposures and educated by her forms of communication. After all, God has often provided prophets who have worked outside the church to invite the church itself to repentance; we should not be surprised that the Living God is still speaking, should not be startled to see a prophet in our midst. The proper response might be gratitude and worship: perhaps a dance would be appropriate.

This piece was originally written for Cultural Exegesis: Pop Culture and the Kingdom, taught by Kj Swanson and Jev Forsberg. Students were asked to use a piece of culture to inform theology.

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liturgy: honest creations

The most genuine moment of communal worship I’ve experienced was at a concert. Singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens was performing to a full house in Detroit and ended with his song Casimir Polaski Day. The piece is about the death of a girl with whom the narrator is in love. The final lines are heartbreaking in their blatant honesty: “All the glory when He took our place/But He took my shoulders and He shook my face/and He takes and He takes and He takes.” As the hundreds present sang along, ending in barely above a whisper, there was a sense of solidarity, community, even worship. God is sometimes awful, and it feels like He takes endlessly, and yet here we are bound together by our human hurt, sharing in and singing of His presence. I craved more art forms and more honest art in aiding my relationship with God, and in joining my community in our covenantal relationship with one another and God.

Sufjan Stevens

In contrast, many of the church services I’ve attended are full of smiling people. From the moment I walk in the door, I’m welcomed by a grinning greeter before a smiling volunteer hands me coffee and a program, then sit down to hear a pastor tell me how great love and grace and forgiveness are. The Church has become a center for certainty and belief, a place to feel better about human experience. We hide our doubt and avoid acknowledging the hardships of evil in our lives. The arts can teach the Church about honest engagement, and incorporation of arts into our practice can guide community into encompassing and embracing the range and depth of human experiences.

There was a time when the arts, like present day liturgies, were full of idealism and beauty in perfection. Artists were once encouraged, as John Walford puts it, to “avoid addressing the brokenness of creation as we experience it.” Instead, they were to depict beauty in perfection, to conjure an imagined or lost ideal. Walford goes on to point out that  “such works fail to engage the viewer because they are devoid of the substance and grit of life as we know it.” Art portraying idealized beauty is sentimental, and in the Church such art “cheapens, rather than deepens,” as John Witvliet states, the viewer’s relationship with God. Indeed, sentimental art in the Church is counter-productive in that it averts viewers from action, as well as from their own encounter of a genuine emotional experience with the world.

Eventually, artists’ understanding of beauty moved from an ideal into one that is equated with truth. As Walford summarizes photographer Cindy Sherman’s understanding, standard beauty had become dismissive “as obvious, easy and boring.” Artists began to develop a mature aesthetic of beauty, characterized as broken and wounded. In this understanding, beauty incorporates the horrible, hurting, and disfigured as part of the art’s honest engagement of the world we inhabit. Herman argues that such an aesthetic is not only permissible but encouraged by the resurrected Christ. To Herman, the aesthetic of wounded beauty “bears the marks of Christ’s resurrected body — marks that memorialize suffering but move beyond it to redemption.” Just as Christ bears the marks of pain while simultaneously offering a hope that is beyond the present world, the challenge is for art to bear pain while offering an image of what could be.

Art in liturgy is also a participation in the work of the Spirit. Begbie approaches the question of art in worship by looking at where we are headed as shown by the ending chapters of Revelation and by the Spirit’s work among the Church as portrayed in the New Testament. He writes of a Spirit who “exposes the depths” of both humanity’s forsakenness (exemplified of Christ’s cry on the cross) and the depths of God’s love for us (exemplified by the act of Christ on the cross). Artists participate with Jesus and the Spirit by avoiding sentimentality and delving into the depths of both human joy and sorrow.

Another way that artists join the work of the Spirit is in the act of re-creation. Artists take existing materials and transform them into objects of beauty or curiosity: pieces that evoke a response from the viewer. Similarly, the Spirit took the existing person of Jesus and resurrected him. It was not a mere resuscitation, for the resurrected Christ was in some ways unidentifiable to his followers at first glance. The Spirit’s work was one of transformation, of taking a person and making him new. When artists take tired materials and create something compelling, they are participating in the redemptive and transformative work of the Spirit in our midst.

This is the art of suffering, allowing art to ask the same difficult questions we ask of God that encompass not only hope and love, but also despair and tragedy. With broken or wounded beauty, art is a continuation of the work of transformation the Spirit began in resurrecting Christ, and the resurrected Christ can be found there. Just as Christ carried the memorializing marks of his crucifixion while offering hope for a new world, so art can expose the depths and range of human emotion while avoiding sentimentality.

This piece was originally written for Theology of Spiritual Formation with Chelle Stearns. Students were asked to write on liturgy.

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