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Essay

The Road Behind Us
Image’s Founding Generation

When Image was founded in 1989, the cultural landscape looked different than it does today. Religious writers and artists felt cold-shouldered in the public square and often ill at ease within the church. The need for a journal that demonstrated the continuing vitality of contemporary art informed by faith—art that upheld high standards, grappled directly with historic faith traditions, and avoided false uplift—seemed more or less obvious. We asked several members of Image’s founding generation, writers across a number of disciplines, what they see as having changed over those years, whether there’s still a need for a venue like Image, and what our new calling might be.

 

Andy Whitman
Music without Labels

MY TWO FAVORITE PIECES of Christian music were created by a junkie and a theosophist. In one, a song called “Peace Piece,” the celebrated jazz pianist Bill Evans plays a pensive solo piano improvisation in the dead of night, at the end of a sixteen-hour recording session. Broke, strung out on heroin, living in an apartment without electricity or water because of his inability to use his money for anything other than momentary bliss and oblivion, Evans conjures the ineffable in a minimalistic jazz etude. It’s a song that would make the cherubim and seraphim weep.

In the other, “Listen to the Lion,” the legendary Irish troubadour Van Morrison repetitively chants his lyrics like rosary beads and eventually abandons the English language. For three minutes he moans, cajoles, scats, spits, hiccups, and roars. This is the purest musical balm for the soul I know. It’s R&B glossolalia, singing in tongues, groanings too deep for words. Make no mistake. I love lyrics. I’m a fan of words and always will be. But sometimes words won’t do. And although Van Morrison can be a fine poet at times, he’s never better than when he breaks free of language altogether.

I bring up these two examples because I love them, but also because there’s nothing identifiably Christian about them, and yet they speak to the deepest parts of my soul. This is, of course, hopelessly subjective, solipsistic blather that cannot possibly be translated into reliably conventional theological language. The musicians themselves could pass no doctrinal litmus tests. And there is nothing in the music or the history of the musicians—no lyrical signifiers, no trustworthy testimony that can be passed along to inquiring listeners via press releases or liner notes—that suggests that the performers are even remotely familiar with catechetical truths, let alone Jesus.

But I will invariably listen to these songs on those days, or during those seasons, when I am most in need of spiritual sustenance. In the solipsistic but nevertheless true language of the Jesus Freaks, God shows up, and I am changed in usually subtle but always good ways.

I know. Those who look for reviews listing the requisite number of Christian references will be sorely disappointed. But it all started like this.

In the early days of Image, in the early 1990s, the Christian singer/songwriter Mark Heard shared his day-to-day experiences as a member of the Christian music industry. His essay in Issue 2 was a litany of funny and not-so-funny anecdotes, joys, frustrations, and a particularly telling little story about what he called the “No, Play Stupider” sessions. Heard recounted a recording session in which he and his fellow musicians were admonished by the owner of a Christian record label to play only major chords, to abjure any sentiments that could possibly be construed as negative, and to focus only on upbeat messages. The resulting song was full of clichéd instrumentation and lyrics, and brimming with loss/cross and grace/face rhymes. It was, perhaps not coincidentally, also a big hit on Christian radio stations.

It would be a stretch to claim that Heard’s essay changed the nature of contemporary Christian music. Contemporary Christian music has undoubtedly changed in the intervening two decades, and arguably for the better, but the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise. Nevertheless, for me, and perhaps for other people who read it at the time, that essay validated several nagging questions. Why does Christian music almost always sound sterile and shallow? Why does it so infrequently reflect the complexities and nuances of real life? Do Christians ever make mistakes, do stupid things? Do they even, God forbid, sin? Is it okay to sing about that? What if safe, family-friendly messages aren’t the point? What if truth is the point? What if beauty is the point?

These were questions I had never formulated in any coherent fashion. They were there, shapeless and indistinct, but Mark Heard’s essay helped to usher them to the forefront of my thinking. What if the solution was neither an abandonment of discernment nor a retreat from the culture? What if the solution was not a stark choice between ideology and imagination, but rather an embrace of both? What if imagination itself was transformative, and the most meaningful human truths could be discovered, like a hidden treasure, in the process of experiencing a work of art? And what if the same ideas could be applied to music, which had its own hygienically pure Christian ghetto, producing songs that fed the soul with alarming infrequency? Thank you, Image.

That was nearly a quarter century ago. In the intervening years, Mark Heard passed away, a tragic victim of a heart attack at the ripe old age of forty. And contemporary Christian music itself underwent its own painful passage and emerged in a better place. Although there are still numerous examples of sanitized schlock, Christian artists have now explored every aspect of life and faith: unanswered questions and prayers, crippling doubts, the pain of loved ones dying young, the breakdown of marriages and families, and, lest I overlook the positives, the hard-won victories of trust and hope in the midst of these trials and tragedies.

But it is not only the definition of what is permissible in Christian music that has expanded. With increasing frequency, Christian musicians themselves have engaged in a great diaspora, fanning out into every musical genre and into every musical market. Twenty years ago, the self-identifying Christians performing outside the narrow confines of the CCM industry could be numbered on two hands. Now, hundreds of Christian musicians are routinely reviewed and championed in magazines and on websites that have nothing to do with Christianity, and Christian artists such as Sufjan Stevens and Mumford and Sons can be found at or near the top of the popular charts.

There is nothing wrong with overtly Christian imagery or themes, and there will always be a place for liturgical music, praise and worship anthems, and singer/songwriter fare that explicitly explores faith and issues related to it. The Contemporary Christian Music industry, as a whole, is not about to disappear. Nor should it.

But consider Bill Evans and Van Morrison, and the awakening of a soul to nothing more and nothing less than beauty. There is no convenient label for this, no musical genre category at Amazon or Barnes & Noble that can possibly encompass what it means to be shaken from the doldrums of an ordinary, dull day. There is no industry that can crank out such works. They are too subjective, too ephemeral, and, in any case, “cranking out” is a poor, shoddy metaphor for the creative process that results in the restoration of souls.

I am thankful that Image recognizes what cannot be labeled, and has done so for twenty-five years. That recognition, of course, has a long historical precedent. The Vatican Museum is filled with magnificent works of art that have nothing to do with doctrinal correctness. The monks of Lindisfarne and Iona preserved the legacy of western civilization not because it was theologically sound, but because it was worthwhile in itself.

But historical precedent has not necessarily fared well in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, and there are far too many examples of publications that literally measure artistic worth by counting cusswords and toting up unwholesome references. It is all an exercise in missing the point.

The point, as Image editor Gregory Wolfe is fond of noting, is that beauty will save the world. The point is that Bill Evans’s pensive solo piano meditations and Van Morrison’s wordless vocal epiphanies can transport us to a place where we are torn out of the tiny kingdom of ourselves, ripped open to the prospect of a glorious, broken world, where the light can enter the gash. The point is life before death.

Image has borne witness to that mystical transformation for a quarter century now, celebrating and commenting on the best and loveliest of words, of visual images, of sounds. It has consistently rejected the garish, the sensational, the didactic, the maudlin, and the cheaply sentimental in favor of quietly insistent radiance. A long time ago, Image helped at least one rock-and-roll lover, uneasy Christian, and budding music writer see the world in new ways. It has never stopped. May it never do so.

 

Andy Whitman has written about music for Paste, All Music Guide, Christianity Today, and Image.

 


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