Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Gospel of Kitsch

Let's play a word association game. I say Katy Perry, you say...

Awful?

Inspiring?
Putrescent?
God's gift to the tweenage fangirl?

Emotions run high when we talk about musical taste. In this world, and particularly in this country, if you don't agree with me and my tastes, you must be either a snooty elitist hipster who only likes music that hasn't been written yet or a mob-following lemming who doesn't deserve to keep his or her own ears. It's amazing really, how we will defend our music faster and more ferociously than even our political or religious beliefs. Truly awe-inspiring. Tempers flare all the more blisteringly when one introduces pop radio to the discussion. Take, for instance, Miss Perry, (nearly) as controversial a figure as I can think of as far as this discussion goes. On the one hand, many adore her, even to odd and probably unhealthy degrees. One only need watch her concert film/documentary Part of Me to see her fans all but accuse her of being the Second Coming. While these disciplets look up to her as a goddess, though, many in the larger Christian community condemn the young woman and her music for its occasionally tawdry themes (see below).



What Havens Corners Church lacks in tact, it makes up in caustic wit and self-righteous judgment.


Others in the world of musical criticism lambaste her for creating music that, like most other Top 40 radio-fare, is utterly devoid of musical complexity, talent, or even the vestiges of lyrical depth. These may or may not be valid criticisms, but my point is this: even if you like the peppy songstress's music, you must concede it is hardly high art. And even if you take her at her word that she is indeed a Bible-believing Christian (as she does, in fact, claim), you, like me, cannot imagine looking to her for deep theological insight. Her music is bubblegum pop at its bubblegum poppiest! It's kitsch, right? What, then, do we make of this?



We'll leave Miss Perry alone for the time being and turn our attention toward another figure of both worship and enmity in the world of contemporary music and pop culture. I am speaking, naturally, of one Miss Lady B. Gaga (assuming, as I do, that her middle name is Bridget). I won't even bother doing a word association for her because, chances are, the words we'd say are ones I'm trying (to varying degrees of success) to keep out of my blog. As strongly as the masses feel about Katy Perry, those feelings pale in comparison to the reaction Gaga is able to elicit. She is a lightning rod for controversy, criticism and notoriety, and though I would never claim Miss Stefani Joanne Angelina (Bridget) Germanotta is wholly without talent, she certainly occupies a niche similar to that of her California Gurl colleague. Her boisterous, over-the-top performances exhibit an affinity for camp and absurdity that make it difficult to take her seriously as an artist, and she, again like Perry, really leans into the sex-sells side of celebrity. The shock, awe, and indignation of those both fascinated and offended by her gender-bending, over-sexualized, iconoclastic image seem to be the foundation on which she has built her empire. Could a "star" who intentionally offends in order to maintain her place in the spotlight ever contribute to a legitimate theological discussion? Well, you tell me.



Why are these "depraved" women invoking such blatant Christian imagery in their music? How could they purport to add anything to our discussion of God, and why would they even want to? They are secular artists, after all. It's a decent question, I suppose, but I'm not particularly phased by it. For one thing, I'm not going to count out that they might both be earnest Christians. Both do profess some form of Christian faith, and it is certainly not my place to judge. My larger point, though, is that even if they were totally "godless" women, we might still hope to see and learn about God through their work, because God is not limited to working through us. Perhaps God prefers to partner with His or Her children to accomplish Kingdom work, but God will not be limited by our assumptions and expectations. God is infinite, infinite. That we could ever even begin to hide God's face behind our "secular" institutions is truly laughable. This notion, that God is present in many aspects of creation and may be experienced within and throughout said creation is called "general revelation." Some fundamentalists and five-point Calvinists reject this doctrine on the basis that it potentially trivializes the "special revelation" of Christ, and claim it is only through such revelation that we may in any way interact with God. While I respect the drive to emphasize Christ's unique work on the cross, I simply do not agree with such interpretations. God is vast, God made the whole world, and we haven't damned the whole thing yet anyway.

Beautiful as this notion of general revelation may be, can we ground it in the Scriptures? I believe so, and it doesn't take much searching either. You can hardly open a page of the Bible without seeing God working outside the framework of the "chosen." God uses the aggression of the Canaanites, the Philistines and other neighbors to judge, teach and correct Israel whenever she grows too wayward. In the book of Jonah, the "pagans" practice more compassion than the prophet of God, and God makes use of a whale, a worm and a plant to express His or Her will. My favorite is the poetic proclamation that "the heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies proclaim the work of His hands" (Psalm 19:1).

If God's light shines through the creation's most vibrant displays as well as its subtlest cracks, then it is high time we start evaluating all things through this Divine lens. As Jethro Priest of Midian sings in Dreamworks' The Prince of Egypt (perhaps itself a fine example of general revelation), you must "look at your life through Heaven's eyes!" In extending this principle to "Who Am I Living For?" and "Judas," our task is not terribly difficult, as these songs are already clothed in divine imagery and language. What secrets do these women have to tell us then?


Who Am I Living For?


So I pray for favor like Esther

I need Your strength to handle the pressure
I know there will be sacrifice
But that's the price...

I can see the writing on the wall

I can't ignore this war
At the end of it all
Who am I living for?

I recently read a book about the problem of young people leaving the Church in increasing numbers (the "dropout" problem) called You Lost Me by David Kinnaman. In it he identifies a type of young Christian who, while firm in his or her belief in the Gospel message, also lives in tension with the Church because of all the baggage associated with traditional organized religion. These Kinnaman calls "exiles," in that they are caught between worlds like the Israelites in Babylon. They desire to fully inhabit this world rather than surrender all attachments to it as some in the Church insist they must, yet hold also to belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Kinnaman specifically lists Miss Perry as one of these exiles, as she was raised in a very strict Pentecostal home. Many assumed she abandoned the faith entirely when she left the Gospel music industry for the bright lights of Hollywood, but I can't help but hear the stirring of God's Spirit when I listen to her sing these words. In the middle of the thoroughly secular album "Teenage Dream" sits this gem, this prayer for strength and provision, this commitment to finally turn oneself over to God. And the vast majority of Christians will miss it.


Judas


I want to love You

But something's pulling me away from You
Jesus is my virtue
But Judas is the demon I cling to

This song garnered tremendous controversy in Christian circles even prior to its release. As it seems we are wont to do, we Christians assumed Gaga was somehow honoring the traitor of Scripture at the expense of our Lord's message. Perhaps it doesn't help that the chorus essentially says she is in love with Judas, but it doesn't take much in the way of analytic skill to hear what she is really saying. Look at the the stanza above. In the words of my best friend Tony, "I don't know a single Christian who couldn't relate to that." In these four brief lines Stefani has illuminated a profound truth of the Christian walk: as much as we want God, we often want what hurts us more. In this I hear echoes of the Apostle Paul, who himself admitted, "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do" (Romans 7:15). In an interview with Fuse she compared her "love for Judas" to being stuck in an unhealthy relationship, which is actually an elegant and poignant analogy for the binding quality of sin. She also claimed that through her brokenness, through ours, even through our most evil deeds, God may bring good, as through Judas' betrayal God brought to fruition the "ultimate prophesy of light" (her words). Her speech here is redolent with surprising spiritual maturity, and the lyrics of "Judas" speak to me on a deeply personal level. They are beautiful, tragic and true, even if they exist within the context of Born this Way, an album widely condemned for its promotion of "alternative" lifestyles. Even on the title track, though, she makes the bold claim that "God makes no mistakes." Right you are Gaga.


I've long said I have a soft spot in my heart for crappy music. I like music I can dance to, so sue me! Often the only fruit of this philosophy is I can enjoy a wider variety of music, which is a gift in and of itself, but praise God that my openness to music traditionally avoided by the "religious" has also yielded the benefit of teaching me truths about God and humanity I might not have learned inside a church. As film critic and Christian writer Craig Detweiler says, "the world is having a fascinating conversation about God, but the Church is missing it." We are so withdrawn from the world Lady Gaga and Katy Perry have to preach the Gospel for us, and pardon me for saying they might not be doing such a bad job of it. This is because God is shining in spite of us. We are too busy protesting these women to hear God speaking through them. We are too busy hating the world to see God in it. I understand these are, by and large, sweeping generalizations, and Christians are not always, or even often, so stodgy as this, but the tension with the world persists. What are we to do then? Do we dig in our heals and insist we've done enough to reach the world? We could, I suppose, but such pride is not in line with the heart of God. I believe God expects more from His or Her children. We could always do more. We can always love more radically, serve more compassionately, engage more humbly. We are God's chosen, we are God's blessed, but we are blessed to be a blessing, and we must never forget it.

1 comment:

  1. Jordan, I hope you don't mind that I shared this on a number of media sites, as I think this essay is masterfully crafted. While I don't think everyone will agree that Gaga and Perry are true evangelists, they are doing a better job then the people who are busy "hating the world-to see God in it." The Church and the Christian Media machine need to take a close look at what they are putting out there into the world, and realize that their opinions about the world's immorality are barely Biblical, and turning off entire generations of people from ever stepping foot into a church building. Sin and righteousness are certainly things that the Christian must be aware of, but they should look into their own lives before judging the actions of people who aren't even apart of the church.

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