Sometimes I roll into discovering a specific piece of God’s personality like a pebble inching its way down a hillside, and sometimes He smacks me over the head with a rock. I’ve been in a Christian environment since the day I was born, so these sudden epiphanies are welcome changes from learning things a day at a time before coming to the realization. Sometimes I envy those new believers who lived a life without encountering any Christian mumbo jumbo, and all of a sudden they learn a new truth every other day, which sets them on fire. For me, I strolled through spirituality like the day hikes my parents were so fond of taking us on, walking with my eyes on the trail until I took the time to look around me and think, oh yeah, this is what I’ve been surrounded by for the past five hours. I’m not bitter that I couldn’t have one of those life changing kamikaze conversion stories; I’m thankful now for the gradual spiritual upbringing I experienced. But one of these sudden epiphanies occurred in my life two summers ago, while I was living in a nice little apartment in downtown Saint Augustine with my best friend Will, and Ashlee Fee, the quietest roommate in life. It came to me in the shower.
All around is the sound of muuuusic… I, like many of my friends and acquaintances that exist within the little subculture of Generation Whatever that we are a part of, love music. I obsess about it. I buy it, catalogue it, talk about it, write it, record it; I even work at a record store in town so I can get the 30% discount. Once, while helping me move into a new apartment, my mom suggested I sell some CD’s to have extra cash. I was horrified.
I need an ongoing soundtrack to everything I do. When I’m writing or painting or reading, I like my ambient music. Brian Eno is choice creative fuel. When I’m delivering chinese food, it’s metal all the way. When I’m with friends, it’s noodly indie rock. I can firmly say that I have a song that will fit any experience in my life, and I like to have it ready just in case. Serious late night conversation with a bottle of wine and a brokenhearted friend? Got it covered. Road trip through the mountains of North Carolina? Consider it sonically augmented. Any mood i’m in, and I can match it with that one perfect tune for the moment. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
Ever since the advent of burning CD’s and downloading music, and especially since the introduction of the iPod, music has become more than a passive augmentation of daily life. It defines life in a way that the majority of people in previous generations can’t comprehend, save those weird old men who obsess about Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. We are relegated into social groups by the music we listen to, and it decides the clothes we wear. I’m not saying this is right or wrong, but it’s a fact of youth culture today. This did work in other decades, ever since rock and roll began really, but we are at the apex of the phenomenon.
It seems to me that for centuries, mankind has been dominated by the visual. This is particularly true of western culture. One of the many ambiguous purposes of art has been to reflect the general sentiment of the time in which it was created, so if you look at the dominant art of the time, you can get a feel for what was important to people at that time. Okay, this is where my bachelor’s in fine art comes into play, for I am indeed an art geek. Art history time. If you look at last century specifically, you can see a change in how we encounter the world around us. With the rise of new musical forms, like jazz, and, later, rock and roll, artists started to change their approach to creation. The abstract expressionists (those big blotches and splashes of color on a canvas? these guys) frequently referenced music as an influence on their work. Pop art took that influence even more literally, like in Andy Warhol’s many portraits of Elvis. And sometime in the late 60’s, artists began to examine mediums that grew beyond painting and sculpture. They started to experiment with video, installation, performance, and sound. Since that point, art wasn’t so much about the object itself, but about the experience the bystander has in being in the presence of the art. Artists started appealing to all the senses, rather than just the visual. And, if art is a reflection on the times, this showed a shift in how we perceive our world. No longer are we simply looking, but we are touching, and smelling, and tasting, and listening. Art and technology are both leveling the playing field for the senses. Gradually, we are taking to time to acknowledge the other ways in which we can encounter our surroundings, and sound has really taken a step forward. Music, the broadest and most accessible interpretation of sound, is far more important to us now than 50 years ago. Have I lost you yet? Bear with me.
If music is becoming more important in the world at large, so then it is in the “Christian” world. Actually music has always played an integral role in Christian spirituality, particularly as the dominant form of worship. David wrote psalms that use the words maskil and miktam to denote musical terms. He speaks of harps and flutes for praise of his King. Fast forward to the middle ages, and monks used music to worship and create an environment of holiness. Most of the big composers of the classical and baroque ages started their careers in the Church, and wrote beautiful melodies in praise of God or in commemoration of saints. I got a CD a while ago of sacred harp music, which is one of the oldest music forms to emerge from the United States, and is still sung in backwoods Southern rural churches to this day. It terrifies me, but in a good way. Spirituals gave way to the blues, which influenced rock and roll. And that pretty much brings us up to the present day. Contemporary worship.
I’ll be honest with you. I don’t like a lot of worship music. at least, I don’t like the way it is performed. And I mean literally performed. I don’t want to spend too much time railing against worship music, because there are a lot of wonderful, amazing things going on in the contemporary music scene, but somewhere along the line someone thought it would be a good idea to turn worship into a rock concert. I suppose this was to make it more interesting to scores of young people who would never dare sing along to spider-webby old hymns from 1892. Which is fine in principle, the Church should always be seeking new, relevant ways to reach the world, but there came a point when the way Contemporary Christian Music (or CCM, as we say in the biz) was being presented lost sight of its reason for existence. And that is to worship God. I don’t claim to be a scholar on worship, and I still struggle with how to really enter into worship, but I know there have been several experiences in my life where I have seen a group at a church or convention and thought to myself, where is God in all this? From what I understand, worship music should be like a beacon, a portal through which we communicate to God, and He to us. Its not about how many musicians you have, or how tight the band is, stand up here, close your eyes at this point, etc. Its about using sound to enter into an environment with God. Music is a bridge between the physical reality we live in, and the spiritual reality that we couldn’t set foot in without entering into communion with Him.
My friend Mountain and I were talking about worship a while back. His band was in Nashville recording their second album, and we were discussing the general theme of the new songs they were writing. He was saying how one song in particular was a worship song that knew it was a worship song, one among millions that have been sung throughout history, and not just literal songs, but acts of worship that show themselves in even the most mundane of happenings. The Bible tells us that the trees of the field will clap their hands, and the very stones would declare the name of the Lord if we didn’t. Imagine that! Even the most inanimate pieces of God’s creation engage in worship; they add their part to the symphony. It got me thinking about how everything really is worship. Everything. How I treat other people. My attitude to the daily grind. How I put on my shoes in the morning. All of these things can be an act of worship, and I’m contributing my song to the chorus of millions that have gone before me, and millions more that are coming. Mountain said that he saw it like single cells that are organized in every living thing, heaps of them bonding together to create a larger organism. I think that is absolutely beautiful. Tiny cells that are seem insignificant when taken individually, but when they work together they compose a grand symphony of worship. I started thinking about cell theory, and how the universe we live in is comprised.
I remember this IMAX film I saw when I was young, and it has this amazing scene where the camera panned out across the universe, then zoomed in on our galaxy, then our solar system, then our planet, then a region of earth, then a countryside, then a pond in that countryside, then an amoeba in that pond, then the nucleus of that amoeba, onto a strand of DNA, a molecule in the DNA, a proton within the molecule, and a quark within the proton, which is the most microscopic level of existence we have been able to ascertain. Practically pure energy.
So, back to the shower. Will was very fond of listening to music in the bathroom, so the agreement was that my stereo would occupy the living room, while his would perch on top of the toilet to provide the soundtrack for cleaning our skinny malnourished bodies. I was getting ready to step into the shower when I put on the March into the Sea E.P. by this instrumental metal band from Chicago called Pelican. The second track came on while I was washing my hair. And I was so overcome with the beauty of the music that I began to cry. I realized that God was telling me something. He was showing me that I can experience Him in whatever I do, as long as I am looking for it. Here’s a band that plays without words, and I’m pretty sure they aren’t Christians, yet their music was causing me to worship my Lord. I discovered that it was MY interpretation of the song, not their reason for writing it, that brought me to this place. And if I could find God in a song, I could find him anywhere. In a crimson sunset on the bridge to Anastasia Island, in the way traffic just flows at a blank stoplight in total harmony, in a conversation with my drunk Belizian neighbor, Rudy. God is ready to meet us in all places at all times; it’s up to us to see it.