I’m continuing to blog through Christian Scharen’s outstanding new book Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to Those Seeking God. I invite you to grab a copy of the book and join me in reflecting on it.
Scharen opens Chapter 6 of Broken Hallelujahs (“Surrender to the Music”) by briefly returning to Plugged In‘s review methodology. He does so in order to highlight the degree to which many simply aren’t paying attention to the “shrill danger warnings” sounded by Plugged In. Here Scharen quickly addresses the two primary critiques I had of the previous chapter, recognizing Plugged In‘s complicity with “the multibillion-dollar industry dedicated to providing Christian with products guaranteed to be spiritually edifying” and citing critical comments regarding the arbitrary nature of “checklist Christianity” by readers of an interview with the senior editor of Plugged In (116). (I should note that this is my first time blogging through a book chapter-by-chapter, and I decided not to read the book as a whole before beginning, but to post in response only to a given chapter both in and of itself and in relation to previous chapters. Nevertheless, while I’m glad Scharen made mention of these two critiques of big-business and checklist Christianity, I still wish he’d gone to a bit more detail, particularly for the benefit of readers who may accept both of these manifestations of faith as healthy and positive.) Scharen’s intent in this chapter is not to belabor his critique of Plugged In, but to remind readers of the reason it is necessary to construct a better strategy for discerning whether to engage various expressions of the popular arts. Following C.S. Lewis, Scharen suggests “we view pop culture as also the domain of God, as potentially spiritually edifying, and as ‘innocent until proven guilty,'” (117) rather than guilty until proven innocent.
Before offering his approach to such discernment, Scharen carefully distinguishes his approach from that of Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor, who want “‘to create a theology out of popular culture rather than a theology for popular culture’ . . . thus relocating the center of contemporary theology from the academy and the church to the culture surrounding them” (118). The trouble with this approach is it affords equal value to any and every assertion, without providing any rationale for sorting through the validity of various claims, which Scharen illustrates humorously by invoking George Strait’s “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” (119).
Instead, Scharen follows Lewis in attempting to determine whether engagement with the popular arts makes one a better person. After exploring a bit of Lewis’s personal and academic life out of which he wrote An Experiment in Criticism, Scharen turns to consider the difference between “enjoying” art for our own sake and “attending” to art for its own sake. In other words, the moment enjoyment becomes the focus, the discussion is no longer about the art itself, but those who “use” it. There is nothing wrong with using art, but there is a major problem when one’s enjoyment or lack thereof is the sole criteria by which art is determined to be worthy of engagement or not. Unfortunately, human selfishness exists as a significant obstacle preventing us from attending to art, because we tend to be so preoccupied with our enjoyment of it or lack thereof. It is the role of selfishness in this process that introduces the ideal role faith can play in human engagement with the arts: imitating Jesus in the losing of one’s own life, the setting aside of one’s own interests, and the opening up of ourselves to the other, no matter how different the other may be.
Scharen closes with these words which capture both the degree of difficulty inherent in this approach to engaging the arts and the promise it holds for individual Christians, the community of faith, and the world:
Yet too often Christians seek with all their might to hold on to their life in Christ. They run from “secular” culture, reject the popular arts in all their beauty and terror, and seek the purity and safety of their own Christian ghetto. [But] such a fearful response fails to fully answer our Lord’s call to follow. In trusting that Christ’s mercy is sufficient, we are enabled to give ourselves away to a broken and hurting world, seeking to understand it, love it, and ultimately share in its midst God’s ongoing work of reconciliation. (137)
I have been challenged by the contrast between “enjoyment of” and “attending to” the arts to carefully reflect upon the way in which I often allow my “taste” in music to inhibit me from actually experiencing music on its own terms, hearing what it has to say and how it chooses to say it. That’s not to say I’m going to force myself to start listening to Kanye West, but it is to say I think I need to be less judgmental when others speak of their connection to the music of Kanye and others. How does your “taste” make attending to art difficult for you?