Monday, December 31, 2007

Broken Social Scene: The Half Gospel Groan

This is a post I started writing back in early November but never finished because it got me thinking so much. I've finished it up as a result of my kind friend Tyler's urging.

I just bought Kevin Drew’s first solo release Spirit If….. When I’m downtown Holland and have time, I sometimes stop by Full Circle record store and get myself into trouble. Steve, the owner/manager, sells used CDs too, an unbelievable temptation for me. So despite what I said about him a few posts ago, I bought Elliot Smith’s Either/Or for seven bucks and then couldn’t resist Kevin Drew’s first solo disc either. Kevin is the main creative force behind the Toronto based band/musical collective known as Broken Social Scene. This music is not for the faint of heart. I’m not sure if Kevin suffers from depression or if he is a drug addict (perhaps both), but this record is swirling in the bizarre and beautiful of what sounds to me like drug induced phantasms. I’ve now bought all of Broken Social’s CDs and sometimes wonder how I can reconcile my fascination with this music with my faith.

It is interesting that I now live in Western Michigan, an area predominantly populated by Dutch Reformed Calvinists. For all that could be said in critique of Calvinism as a whole, there is a theological openness to an engagement with culture that is liberating. In 1999 I attended my first Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College that hosted authors like Chaim Potok, Anne Lamot, Rabbi Kushner, and Maya Angelou. At that time the festival also included music (the music has since been separated into a separate festival that run every other year alternating with the Festival of Writing), and it was there that I first heard Pedro the Lion. In the Spring of 2006 I interviewed for my position at Hope College, a sister school to Calvin, while Susanna was presenting her poetry at Calvin’s Festival of Faith and Writing. Six years later the festivals keynote authors were Alice McDermott, Marilyn Robinson, and Salman Rushdie! This is all to say that there resides within the Dutch Reformed tradition some seminal ideology that must not only allow for but also motivate this kind of liberal dialogue with contemporary culture. I confess that despite my own reformed leanings, I am not as well read in these areas as I would like. From what I understand much of the Dutch Reformed tradition owes its substance as much to Abraham Kuyper, yet I did take in a very helpful quote from John Calvin when I was a freshmen beginning Wheaton College. It was in a pamphlet every student read called “The Student’s Calling.”

“All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God.”

I want to be very careful with the notion of a “wicked man.” Applying this kind of language to a person is not first and foremost the responsibility of the Church in any final and ultimate sense. None of us is equipped to judge another human being in a final way. Righteousness and damnation is ultimately between God and that person. However, for the sake of minding our own hearts and minds, it is important that we learn to discern our culture carefully. Such discernment is not a matter of condemning another person but rather protecting our own selves—in this case protecting our imaginations, the parts of our being that receive and react to culture. I read John Calvin’s statement in a pamphlet called “The Student’s Calling” when I was a entering Wheaton college.

Nevertheless, this quote has been seminal for me in terms of my engagement with culture. Hyperbole is generally not trust worthy, but this statement is true and no exaggeration: I am sure these words of Calvin were worth the sum total of my undergraduate education. Underneath this statement is a hungry desire to learn and explore all that God has created and to daringly move into a world that is ruled by a dark prince of confusion and enmity in order to find this truth. We could couple Calvin’s words with St. Francis’ teaching that there is not one bit of the created world that does not testify to God’s glory. Our purpose as members of a royal priest hood and holy nation is to go out into the darkness and redeem every inch of creation by drawing out the good within it. We reveal this goodness in just the same way a priest gathers up the bread and the cup and lifts them above his head for the congregation to see and hope in.

The question for each servant of Christ then is, which areas of creation he or she should explore, dig into, sift through and redeem. We are sent out from our prayer closets, out from our homes and from our communities to search out each nook and cranny of the created world with the wonder of a child and the craftiness of a serpent to be salt and light, to leaven and purify. Yet here is the tricky question: how far can each of us move into the darkness and still generate the light of Christ? As I referenced earlier in a previous post, some of us might lean over to reach out to the world and fall in. Perhaps there are some parts of the world that are best left alone, parts that might have goodness, but its goodness is so deeply hidden beneath layers of confusion that it is ultimately too much for any one person to engage alone without getting into trouble.

Broken Social Scene is a formidable excursion into the messy, grisly beauty that is their sound. Kevin’s newest record has few songs that rarely miss the opportunity to use the “F” word, such an ugly word. It is fair to say that much of his whole aesthetic is beautifully “F-ed up.” So why would a worship pastor like myself even bother with this? No doubt there are many who might not find it worth their time and energy, and I’d honestly be hesitant to recommend this music to just anybody without a good chat. I’m a lover of music and art in general. Unique music like Kevin Drew’s is very hard for me personally to ignore, and if I am going to listen to it, I need to discuss it in just this kind of manner to find the goodness within it. As people of faith, we cannot participate in society at large and leave it un-examined. I fear that many Christians blindly consume culture like sheep going to slaughter. This apathy will eventually lead us to a neutered Gospel and milk toast discipleship.

The word “broken” as it exists in the band’s moniker is essential to appreciating this music. Most of Kevin’s lyrics are obtuse to say the least, and I’m not sure if it is fair to say there is any traditional way of reading them. He is bound and determined to elude any conclusive interpretation of what his music means. Nevertheless, whether the band literally owns up to the brokenness of the word “broken” in their name, that word describes the functional purposes, the modus apperendi, of the band. In Wilco’s documentary, I am Trying to Break Your Heart, former guitar player, Jay Bennet, explains that their method was to take the conventional structure of the song and “f---k” it up. Well, if that is what Wilco did on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Broken Social Scene bashes each of their songs to pieces.

Here is exactly where the redemption comes in though. In the midst of what sounds like extreme efforts to destroy their music, there is still a brilliance of coherent, melodic beauty akin to the likes of my beloved Elliot Smith on one hand and Radiohead on the other. Broken Social just manages to do this in an especially broken and horrifying way.

For a Christian who is tired of sentimentalism, the excessive addiction within the church to masking the pain of the world with forced happiness, the wonderful chaos of Broken Social Scene is a relief. What I appreciate from this kind of art is its spot on ability to articulate what I call generally the “spirit of the age.” This music is able to hold a mirror up to our post industrial society, to examine and confess its agony and at the same time provide a melodic structure that points to something meaningful. What that meaningful something is, is beside the point. What I share with a Kevin Drew or a Thom Yorke is the belief that in the midst of a broken and messy world there is still something worth singing about. In many ways they are much closer to a biblical profession of faith than our so-called Christian artists that are marketed to the church. Let me explain.

In his book Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairytale, Fredrick Beuchner teaches us that the good news of God is always bad news before it is good news. This allows us to see the value of the tradition of tragic literature. Beuchner’s point is that we cannot fully understand salvation until we understand what we are being saved from.

The Greeks originally believed that their tragic dramas should be woven into popular civic life in order to train the moral compass of each citizen. In their Golden Age they had seasonal drama festivals, tragedies in one season and comedies in another. They believed that the tragedies, above all, revealed the quality of a person’s virtue. When un-just violence is inflicted upon a character, a citizen should feel deep pangs of fright and even anger. If a citizen does not experience this, it is probable that he or she is in fact amoral and even corrupt.

For the Greeks the emphasis was upon each individual’s journey toward the virtuous life. For a Christian a tragedy is instead an admission of our need for salvation. Not only should a believer have an ache for justice in the face of tragedy, she should fall upon her face in repentance to recognize her own capacity to contribute chaos to a tragic plot. “Oh, but for the grace of God go I!”

Broken Social Scene, with it’s broken aesthetic, is a tragicomic musical expression. The fundamental idea of the comic is not just that it is funny but that the outcome of the story is good. Often the comedies portray shocking brutality yet they posses a coherent, positive ending where the troubles are put aside and the main characters enter into joy. This can be understood in the composition of the music. The rhythmic foundation of Broken Social is essentially comic in the regularity of the snare and kick drums on both the quarter and half notes. The steadiness of the beats and the overall expression of the drums are not half-hearted. The drums scoot you right along underneath the maniacal swirls of sounds, the distorted voices and the many layers of ambient noises, trumpets and electric guitars. Pare back all the instrumentation, leave the drums and you might sense a stronger sense of hopefulness. For me, drums are everything and Broken Social never disappoints.

However, the overall sentiment of the music, while containing a strain of beauty pulsing through it, is an emotion of confusion, frustration and lonely despair. This is a condition I am no stranger to, and it is how I assume that most of us feel—especially those of us in the West who are so busy. As one writer said it, “Americans don’t have lives; they have careers.” Some scientists believe that as much as 30% of our population suffers from some degree of depression. In this context I hear Broken Social Scene as a protest against the darkness of what we have made of ourselves here in all our affluence and convenience. Here is how I see this music as in one way more authentic to the Gospel than what is marketed as “Christian” music. After all, a third of the Psalter itself is made up of laments and groans of suffering. It is only our sentimentalized American faith that is in the habit of drawing attention in song only to the more pietistic and jovial of the Psalms. I would never ever want to hinder a brother or sister from engaging the person of God intimately and passionately, however, the breadth of the Psalms do not support this as the main focus of prayer life. The overall gist of the Psalms is: the world is full of wickedness; I and we are complicit in this wickedness; even in the midst of the testimony of creation and God’s historic faithfulness we continue to rebel against him; we don’t know what else there is to do or how to stop our rebellion; finally, we cry out “please help us Oh, God.”

Broken Social Scene’s music is essentially a groaning. It is a “half-Gospel” in its ability to help us confess the wrong that is in the world. I am not suggesting that all of us need to listen to this CD or even make it something we can each appreciate. I’d much rather have a good hymn like “Be Thou My Vision” or “Be Still My Soul” as a theme song of my waking life. I just offer this band as an example of how I go about engaging our popular culture.

One final note about Kevin Drew and Broken Social Scene: we as Christian artists should be challenged by these kinds of musical collectives. When I saw Broken Social in concert a few years ago there were at times as many as eighteen people on stage when they had their full horn section adding to a song. Normally this many musicians on stage would suggest either a train wreck or something like jam rock (the later is something I am not particularly fond of). What does it take to get so many people to play and create together? And further, how is this creativity sustained over a period of years? This is my question as I continue to chip away at my own record. How can I incorporate more and more people into one whole piece of art? It has not been easy.

1 comment:

AndyKadzban said...

haha, i'm glad you finally posted this! I'm excited to start class, see you tuesday morning.