Monday, January 07, 2013

Moron Making a Scene: David Byrne on How Christianity Works

In a previous post I recounted the eight priorities of making a scene, according to Talking Heads frontman David Byrne in his recent book How Music Works. Based on his observations of the 1970s hub of groundbreaking music, CBGB in New York, these elements of a scene interest me as a (former) musician. I welcome innovations like those that took place at CBGB, launching such interesting and unique artists as Blondie, the Ramones and Talking Heads. I wonder if a similar gestation to that of CBGB is what led to the recent rise of innovators such as Arcade Fire, Avett Brothers and the Lumineers, whose sounds all overlap in my imagination.

But I'm actually more interested in the elements of a scene as they apply to new directions in the life of the Christian church. That's where my energy goes these days, after all: as an editor of Christian books I'm compelled by what's new and fresh, intrigued by the people who look and act different from the churches of my youth but who nonetheless stand in the continuous Christian tradition and, I think, are setting its course for the future.

Byrne follows his chapter on making a scene with a chapter on how music shapes culture. Here he rants considerably on the hegemony of classical music and other genres tied to Western modernity and the Industrial Revolution. (Arguably the forms of church that have been handed down to us have similar ties.) Classical music gets underwritten by the people populating the halls of power, but it creates only a small cadre of virtuosos who commit themselves totally to the genre, on one hand, and an ever declining class of passive consumers of the genre, on the other. The bar is set too high for the general populace to participate meaningfully in classical music, just as (possibly) the bar is set too high in the church of modernity for people to embrace membership in it.

Meanwhile, "popular" music sets the bar much lower and feels no loyalty to the constraints placed on pedagogy by classical music education. Children are encouraged to play around with instruments rather than being rushed into scales and arpeggios. Students pluck out melodies and tease out harmonies by ear and experimentation rather than first learning to read and score music. In the process children are learning less about appreciating music and more about making something, which they ultimately come to appreciate on their own. Along the way they learn to collaborate and cooperate with one another, to give artistic expression to the feelings they otherwise might struggle to convey, to relate to their environment in ways that are harmonious and, consequently, redemptive rather than consumeristic and competitive (and too often, consequently, violent).

I'm sure an apologist for classical music would go hard after Byrne for his hagiographic write-up of popular music. It's not the Messiah, after all--neither the Messiah of classical music nor the Messiah of Christianity. But for those of us who do follow the Messiah (see what I did there), Byrne's argument raises legitimate questions for how we practice and propagate Christianity in a postmodern era.

So, here's how I might apply Byrne's eight elements of making a scene to contemporary discipleship and spiritual formation. I'm sure I'll have more to say (and I hope you will too), but here's a quick send-up:

  • There must be a venue that is of appropriate size and location in which to present new material. The architectural structure of most churches doesn't allow for this. They are presentational and authoritarian by design: an elevated pulpit that fits one person standing over rows and rows of seated students; that person officially sanctioned by credentialing schools and elder boards to present a gospel rigorously vetted by centuries of religious writing and internecine conflict. Whatever traditional church structures convey, they don't convey "new" material. Especially in the West, churches signal to their neighbors that whatever is taking place inside those walls, they've heard it all before. Faith communities that aspire to make a scene will make concerted efforts not just to look different but to foster newness by the environment they create for themselves.
  • The artists should be allowed to play their own material. There is a class divide within the church between those who are ordained and those who are not. It's ultimately gnostic; those who are ordained know something the rest of us don't, and they are better than us because of it. There's a better function for ordination--Moses, for example, got plenty sick of being the only ordained person in the entire tribe of Israel and actively sought out ways to lend authority to others. Once he did that, he became less the voice of God and more a trainer for how to hear and convey the voice of God. Everybody, from Moses to the most marginalized children of Israel, was better off for it. So the ordained folks should consider themselves not authoritative voices but curators of content and patrons of the Christian message. The pulpit, such as it is, should be as open as possible.
  • Performing musicians must get in for free on their off nights (and maybe get free beer too). A scene starts out as a third place, which means the space is as open as possible and a tight, mutually encouraging band of regulars is considered a good thing. These regulars are "behind the scene," though; their ownership of the scene results not in cliquishness but in a sense of responsibility for the scene's flourishing and concern for (and care of) newcomers.
  • There must be a sense of alienation from the prevailing music scene. There has always been a sense of alienation from the prevailing church scene. This is almost laughably axiomatic. But such alienation can be channeled, as St. Francis channeled the disillusionment with proper Christian society in Assisi into a vital, stunningly redemptive Christian order. Clusters of disillusioned Christians are always a scene waiting to happen.
  • Rent must be low--and it must stay low. I read recently that the "cost" of a single baptism on the mission field is currently calculated at @$762,000. That outrageous figure is largely based on the kind of bloat that takes place over centuries as an organic impulse gets institutionalized. Remove the barriers that such bloat erects, and it's like scales falling from your eyes. Keep missions cheap should be rule number one.
  • Bands must be paid fairly. Keeping missions cheap can't come at the cost of human well-being. Martyrdom should come at the hands of enemies of a movement, not from its champions or beneficiaries. People who are making a scene make plenty of sacrifices, but the curators of that scene should not add to the pain of mission.
  • Social transparency must be encouraged. Again, ordination and cliquishness are enemies of the church. They are, in fact, enemies of the gospel. That sounds mildly scandalous in the case of ordination, but when we set up a special class of people, who are perceived as more spiritual or closer to God, we are saying something about God in relation to his creation that is not true. Ordination doesn't have to look like that; it can look like something much truer to the gospel and can function in a way much more effective to the transmission of the gospel.
  • It must be possible to ignore the band when necessary. This, in fact, is how you subvert the creep of bloat and special spiritual classes. People's participation in the life of a community is not predicated on their giving attention and deference to the architects of that community. The ethic of people of the way of Jesus is to love God and love one another; it's not to kiss the rings of the preacher, the teacher, the elder, the bishop.
These are my thoughts. I'm sure there are more to come. In the meantime, to see a scene up close, check out Mark Scandrette's Jesus Dojo in San Francisco. He's one of many who are doing something different.

1 comment:

KlamMan said...

I just read this and I love all these ideas. Speaking as a pastor if a local church I desire to see the Church of Jesus become less an insiders club and more of an communal hangout. I would like our church to be considered less a Big Show ( think Rosemont Theater) and more an after party hang out where you can talk honestly and still catch the scene (maybe like a booth at CBGBs). David Byrne has some genius insights and Dave has some great parrellels.