In blogalectic with Jenna and Masha
Happy New Year, good readers. This year begins with something different. Jenna has graciously injected a line of fervour into the discussion, taking on the large and sticky question of church music, specifically “the failure of many Christian recording artists to realize that music itself actually means something, not just the lyrics.” Consequently, she says, ‘our hymnals contain some of the worst schlock I’ve ever caught posing as music’, with ‘lyrics that would make a cheap Hallmark card blush’.
Masha concurs with Jenna’s sentiments, blaming much of it on the current culture of advertising, and offers a possible explanation: ‘We stop trying to pursue beauty, to form ourselves in imitation of beauty, and follow the easy path that leads to badness and banality.’
Personally, I don’t have a dog in this fight. It’s a fight I’ve been around several times, and if those of you reading this blog would like it discussed here in more details, I can certainly secure some competent guest bloggers. What intrigues me though, is the broader subject of beauty, and the lack thereof.
I believe, simply, that there is something properly basic about the human need for beauty. We are humans; therefore we will search for beauty and surround ourselves with beautiful things. This is of course true whether you’re Christian or Muslim or Pagan or whatever; this is simply, humanly true. The world is not beautiful—it is wild and tragic and heartbreaking—but Beauty is in it. And people look for Beauty.
We see this at a straightforward level if we watch a child watching a Disney film. Not even Disney enthusiasts care to argue that the opening credits of Winnie-the-Pooh is art on the level of, say, Citizen Kane. And yet the colours and sound and the invitation into “the enchanted neighbourhood | Where Christopher Robin plays” is mesmeric, enthralling, transcendent to a very young child. Beauty beckons to us, and draws us into itself.
The difficulty is following Beauty where it leads us. To recklessly paraphrase C. S. Lewis, one should never lose delight in the opening credits of Winnie-the-Pooh, and yet one should eventually try to comprehend Throne of Blood. One story, encountered earlier, gives us the straightforward consolations of childhood. The other undermines our confidence in human nature, or anything else. It is the harder lesson, and necessary, and beautiful. But looking at the reds and yellows of Pooh, we do not at first expect that is where beauty will lead.
These examples, of course, depart from Jenna’s in an important particular: there is actually artistic merit in Winnie-the-Pooh. The examples she and Masha give have none. This leads to a difficulty—one might say, perversity—which is also prevalent outside Church music. And it’s just as human as the need for beauty: the urge for ease.
We do not have to think about these songs. Emotion comes pre-packaged, and we can pick our favourite style and have a grand old weepy time. You can see this on X-Factor: beautiful contestants sing familiar tunes in the usual way, and the crowd on the screen reacts appropriately, the judges tell us what to think, etc. Music, and the art of the musician, and the reality that music arises from the art of the musician regardless of style or degree of ability, never seriously enters the frame. We are allowed to relax.
Beauty never lets us relax. Beauty bring us instead into rest, “costing not less than everything.” Beauty does not offer us anything or make demands of us; it simply is, and it points to itself. when we see Beauty, in its manifestations, we cannot but respond and follow. Even if Beauty does not wear its familiar aspect, we can still come to recognise it, though the process may be painful.
There seems to me to be a too frequent dearth of beauty, caused in part by the reality that Beauty is not static, nor does it simply exist to be observed. Beauty changes us. It knocks away the lines and boxes, and knocks away the idea of boxes, and shows us the absolute stillness of rest and hope and despair and tears and laughter that lies within and behind it, regions ‘where all that is not music is silence’.
Our own fear would side with the jailors, and keep us in the realm of the comfortable, the comfortably challenging, faux-development and self-important seriousness. But Beauty shows us levity in the face of tragedy, hope as the companion of despair. Beauty teaches us how to wonder; beauty teaches us how to laugh.