Guest Post: Make A Trendy Noise Unto the Lord

Note: This is a guest post from David van Mersbergen.

Coming from a musical family with a church organist parent and grandparent, David began musical training at the age of eight years old with piano lessons. He began vocal training and choral singing in high school and continued in college with several tours of major cites in North America. He has studied music theory and history. His study of aesthetics as a branch of philosophy had guided his efforts to seek out music and art worthy of study, analysis, and praise. He continues to pursue musical performance by participating in community and professional organizations.  

The discovery was made when I performed “Hotel California,” a piece I had previously detested.

It had been sung very badly on many long bus rides to basketball games, track meets and field trips. Worse was that this piece had been singled out by many charismatic preachers in the late ‘70s to be about the church of Satan.

On playing it, however, the chord progressions were sound and made sense according to the rules of music theory. It should come as no surprise that the shock at how good this song was had context.

After playing Christian contemporary music with its three-chord variety for the last eight months, a song with eight distinct chords was welcome. How fun it was to play music that had intelligence to its chord progression.

I found it odd that music written about ‘materialism and excess’ was more musically deep and lyrically profound than most of the music written for praise and worship.

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of pop music is trite, stupid and poorly written so as to appeal to the masses of musically illiterate consumers, but why is it that Christian contemporary music strives to emulate that kind of music?

What makes Christian contemporary music so horrible has been the subject of many posts on Facebook, as well as an episode of South Park.

Lyrics that are theologically untenable or fallacious, as well as overwhelmingly sentimental, provide little more than mind numbing ear candy for churchgoers.

Christian lyricists are not poets by any means.  If a song about creation contains the word “trees,” there will be in the following line the word “breeze.” Sadly, too many lyricists are not familiar with basic theological principles.

Songs proclaiming the love of Jesus Christ come across as if the singer is in love with a matinee idol. Don’t think so? If a song actually names our Lord and Savior instead of just using “you,” substitute “Justin” or “Liam” for Jesus and see how one-dimensional this praise and worship song is.

Pop songs that come across as desperate and codependent are now fit to bring into church because it’s Jesus you’re singing about. They are insulated from literary criticism by virtue of their being “spirit-filled” or “anointed.”

The unfortunate implication is that lyrics are more important for working a crowd or congregation into an emotional high rather than for opening the mind to hear the law and gospel of God.

Why does CCM all sound the same or just plain awful?  The limited number of keys that most CCM is written in explains a few things.

Sadly, the guitar has replaced the pipe organ as the instrument of choice for the church and music director. The keys of E, D, G, A and C are the most comfortable keys for the guitar player. This is true for many pop and country and western songs.

One humorous YouTube video (Editor’s note: Video contains brief profanity) claims that all country and western music is the same, splicing clips of different songs into one loop until it sounds like a regular song.

Why? Aside from topics (trucks, beer, women), the keys and chord progressions are the same. The I-V-IV and I-VI-IV-V chord progressions are the most commonly used progressions in popular music.

Any melody can be written over these three or four chords with hardly any effort at all. With no harmonic variety in the music, the songs end up fundamentally sounding the same.

Praise and Worship leaders with little education in Western music, whose only exposure to music has been radio, television, and movies, churn out songs that reflect that exposure to the three-chord harmonic progression.

The result is that second-rate lyrics and simple chord progressions that were once the bastion of pop music have become customary in the Christian contemporary music.

Taking their cue from pop culture’s standard of quality, pastors and worship leaders embrace the lowest common denominator and clean it up (or wash it in the blood of Christ) for church.

Christian contemporary music is bad because the popular music it copies from the world is bad.  Lost is the idea of sacred music and the effort to produce it.

For most of the history of Western art in general, and music in particular, the Church, along with some of the aristocracy, was the major benefactor funding music for church worship services and ceremonial occasions.

Now the Church has become a consumer of popular music in its effort to reach a broader audience.

Pastors with little adherence to orthodoxy and practically no education in music or art now think the process of approaching God with humility, begging for forgiveness, receiving pardon for sins and resolving to lead a sanctified life should make way for a more palatable, seeker-friendly message.

Wanting to attract newcomers or those who are “turned off by traditional religion,” pastors and church leadership make the church service entertaining.

Congregations now confuse worship with entertainment, as if God needs a catchy tune get an audience. Such an objective can also be accomplished via a pole-dance.

Getting membership has become more important than proclaiming one’s sins can be and are forgiven, and that we are restored to a relationship with God.

Pastors have allowed the attention-seeking lead singer to educate the congregation on what music is.

Hymns with four-part harmony and theologically sound lyrics are replaced with karaoke-style sing-a-longs.

The cycle is complete when the young musician with mediocre talent decides to go to school to be a music leader, but has never read or sung a hymn, heard an oratorio, or seen an orchestra perform a symphony.

The church used to transform the culture, now it has become transformed by it.

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Building my Own Threshold

Early on in the maintenance of this blog, I planned a series of posts centered around Joseph Campbell’s monomyth.

The monomyth (more popularly known as “the Hero’s Journey“) was supposed to guide my own endeavors as I sought to succeed in obtaining employment.

The problem with my original set of posts regarding the subject was that my presupposed outline for my life hinged on me being accepted into the Praxis program.

After being tossed off the metaphorical threshold steps (twice!), I sank into a period of aimlessness. I took whatever work I could, trying to make sense of everything.

In many respects, I was quite lucky. I had no debt and my friends and family supported me.

Looking back on this period in my life, trying to track my life-goals according to a mythological theory was quite foolish.

Life, quite obviously, is not a story. I believe it was in the recent film Their Finest that one character stated: “Stories have structure, purpose, and meaning… unlike life.”

I should really watch that movie.

So what am I doing now?

For one thing, I have recently enrolled in fall classes at a local community college.

I’m doing administrative, marketing, and sales work at my family’s business.

I’m researching possible careers to pursue and the best course of academic study to fit such a career.

I’m reading a lot of old books, working on several creative side projects, and am writing this blog.

In a word, I’m building my own threshold, where the only threshold guardian is me.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth, as espoused in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

As a guide for story structure and dramaturgy, it’s an excellent tool.

But regrettably, it’s a pretty suckish model to plan your life around.

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Why Read Old Books?

Note: This post is adapted from a speech I gave to my Toastmasters club.

Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov once said, “If you want new ideas, read old books. If you want old ideas, read new books.”

Following this observation, I have made a point to read old books.

Pavlov’s maxim applies to both fiction and non-fiction, from the epic poems of Homer to the stories of Washington Irving to Greek philosophy to the Bible.

Picking up a dusty copy of The Iliad will transport to you the world of raging Achilles and bold Hector in the carnage of the Trojan War.

Or you could make a trip to rural New York, circa 1790, and become acquainted with the fearful Ichabod Crane in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Either of these books would excellently reveal to the reader that the heroes and villains of the past weren’t so different from us.

Whether it’s the wearied prince Hector’s longing for peace, or the hapless Ichabod’s unrequited affections for Katrina, we can all see something of ourselves, both admirable and repellant, in these imaginary characters and the eras they inhabit.

Reading old books is beneficial because it allows the reader to glimpse into other worlds, in order to better understand the past and to apply it to the present.

When I say you should read “old books,” I generally mean you should read the classics. That said, what is a classic?

Orson Scott Card, the author of Ender’s Game (an excellent read, by the way), once defined a classic as stories that are so good you want to share them with your children.

When I was seven or eight years old, my mother gave me a new set of books to read: The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis.

I loved those books dearly, reading them and re-reading them, and being overjoyed to hear the audio drama versions of them, before being crushed when the films failed to meet my expectations.

I later read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien, eventually finding my way to Shakespeare’s plays Hamlet and Macbeth, and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. By the time I was 18, I had read the entirety of the Bible ten times.

All of these aforementioned books, written across multiple continents in the span of dozens of hundreds of years, have been passed down through the centuries to us. We can read all of them at any time on our cell phones.

But why read them at all?

The first reason to read old books is that it provides a window to the past.

At some point in time, the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving, sat down and thought up his story.

Irving was an American, influenced by stories of European folklore that he had picked up during his travels through the continent in the nineteenth century.

Reading his story allows us to get acquainted with his thought process and walk around in his mind a little.

Imagine what could have inspired passages such as this one, describing the town of Sleepy Hollow:

“However wide awake they may have been before they entered that sleepy region, they are sure, in a little time, to inhale the witching influence of the air, and begin to grow imaginative—to dream dreams, and see apparitions.”

You see that this is a time when the majority of people took the reality of the supernatural for granted— whether that idea lay in base superstition or religious faith.

To look back on such a concept with disdain would defeat the purpose of reading old books. Our ancestors were no more ignorant than we are, and in many ways were our intellectual betters.

Instead, our goal in reading old books is to look into the past, seeing a world that is very much like ours.

Take The Illiad for example. This epic poem is one of the foundational works of the western canon.

In Homer’s poem, the warriors on both sides of the war, the Achaeans and the Trojans, frequently blame the gods for their troubles, and the gods are shown meddling in human affairs quite frequently.

This human tendency to want to assign direct blame for misfortune and injustice to an ethereal, all-encompassing source is not new.

If there’s one thing that I took away from listening to The Iliad on audiobook, it’s that people have been saying, “It’s not fair!” since 800 B.C.

So whether you’d like to peruse the works of Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, or C. S. Lewis, or perhaps more ancient writers like Homer and the multitude of authors responsible for the Bible, I cannot recommend reading old books more than enough.

For there is no better way to enrich your mind, discipline your imagination, and open your eyes to another way of life than to turn the pages of a classic tome.

If any of you have children, grandchildren, or young nieces or nephews, your duty to pass on these great books is crucial.

The older generation must teach the younger generation of this important pastime. Otherwise, we face a new age of darkness, chained in the bonds of ignorance.

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Every Christian Movie I’ve Ever Seen Is Awful. But Why Do They Sell Tickets?

The last Christian movie I saw was a Pirates of the Caribbean-knock off called Beyond the Mask.

If the pretentious title wasn’t enough, the 2015 movie’s script followed all the standard beats of a Christian movie:

  • All Christians are perfect nice-guys (as in Fireproof and The Identical).
  • All non-Christians are jerks (as in Courageous and Flywheel).
  • Your youth pastor think it’s great (as in every Christian movie ever made).

The fact that the film was a technical and aesthetic monstrosity aside, I left the theater wondering why my fellow Christians continue to eat this garbage up.

Quite obviously, it’s not because the films are good.

Courageous was a clumsy grab-bag of sitcom humor, melodrama, and gunfights.

The Identical had an original concept, but everything but its logline caused me unintended laughter and cringing.

Fireproof is probably the Citizen Kane of Christian movies. (Some might opine that Facing the Giants, which I haven’t seen, deserves that title.)

Insofar as I can tell, its script, while minimally passable in terms of dramatic quality, was copied from a Christian marriage counseling book.

Titled The Love Dare, this totally real book was actually named and featured in the movie. I’ve heard of product placement, but this takes the cake.

Speaking of product placement, this leads me to the real reason that Christian movies continue to sell tickets at multiplexes.

Ready? Okay, say it with me:

Marketing!

Now it’s time for me to take off my film critic hat and put on the Marketing Guy hat.

Months in advance before the 2014 film God’s Not Dead was released in theaters, trailers and what-not found their way onto the computer screens of young, tech-savvy believers, their parents, and most importantly, pastors!

Okay, thought my teenage-self. This looks pretty cool.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers cut new trailers featuring big-name Christian media personalities such as that guy from Duck Dynasty and his wife and Christian rock band the Newsboys.

If my teenage-self kind of wanted to see that sucker then, I definitely wanted to now! It had the Newsboys in it, and I just loved their music!

That, my friends, is what we call a celebrity endorsement from an influencer to whom your target audience will pay attention.

As if all that wasn’t enough, as the time drew close for the film to be released, I heard rumblings from fellow churchgoers about the film, and how some were going to see it.

I’m fairly certain that at least some of my pastors mentioned it. I know for certain that one of them proclaimed his enthusiasm for the 2016 sequel, God’s Not Dead 2, from the pulpit.

But this wasn’t just positive word-of-mouth, though it was that too in retrospect.

It now wasn’t only an excuse to see a movie the Newsboys in it, it was a religious duty.

By paying twelve bucks to sit in a chair for two hours and watch that one kid from Good Luck Charlie literally debate philosophy with the guy who played Hercules, you were helping to propagate the Gospel.

In the end, I wound up not going to see any of the God’s Not Dead films. But I almost wish I did, just to see why everyone kept saying, “Oh, it was great.”

Nevertheless, God’s Not Dead had a box office of some $60 million, more than recouping its shoestring budget. Indeed, I recall 2014 being hailed as “The Year of the Faith-Based Film.”

Having not seen God’s Not Dead or its sequel, I cannot in good conscience comment here on its quality.

However, I can tell you that one of my more secular friends scandalously watched part of it on YouTube.

He is the sort of person whom I and my fellow Christians are told that we must help to evangelize to by supporting the film.

He thought it was boring and stupid.

Funny how that works out.

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Miracle on 34th Street: When Big-Wigs Had Big Hearts

This previous month, I watched Miracle on 34th Street as part of our tradition of watching Christmas movies during Christmastime.

When I watch old movies such as these, it always strikes me just how good they are.

There isn’t just a higher standard of cinematic craft in place, but the entire value system on which these old movies are built is drastically different from those of today.

In the film, a man named Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), claiming to be the real Santa Claus, becomes the Macy’s department store Santa Claus. He promptly sets out on a one man mission to spread genuine Christmas cheer.

What makes Miracle different is that it doesn’t cast the businessmen running Macy’s as dastardly villains, as a modern film might do.

Rather, it goes with the typical Old Hollywood policy of making sure that everyone gets their just deserts, no matter who they are.

Miracle on 34th Street not only demonstrates that businessmen weren’t typically castigated as scumbags in 1947, but that being decent is good for business.

A major theme in the film is the primacy of kindness and charity over the crass and ruthless desire to “Make a buck, make a buck,” as Alfred (Alvin Greenman) puts it.

Kris’s strategy for fighting this mentality is to refer the parents of children he sees as the department store Santa to other stores where they can find items that aren’t available at Macy’s.

Though his bosses are at first alarmed, the head of the store, R. H. Macy (Harry Antrim), makes Kris’s unorthodox tactic official store policy following an avalanche of public support.

As a result, Macy’s not only skyrockets financially, but sets an example for their competitor, Gimbel’s, to adopt the same policy. This feeling of charity and helpfulness leads the two stores to mend fences.

As I’ve written before, Old Hollywood was made up of people whose sense of morality bled into their art.

This principle is evident in Miracle on 34th Street‘s depiction of commercialism as a problem. Unless I’m very much mistaken, it’s the first in a long line of films to decry this particular ism.

The difference between Miracle‘s take on commercialism and others is that it presents a realistic motivation for someone like R. H. Macy to not be a Grinch.

Macy sums it up nicely when he says that by being “known as the helpful store,” they’ll make more profits than ever before. Mr. Macy is hardly a villain.

In fact, there are practically no villains at all in this charming picture, aside from the sleazy pseudo-psychiatrist Sawyer (Porter Hall).

Speaking of Sawyer, this leads us to one of the hallmarks of Old Hollywood: Justice is always served. Miracle is no exception.

In the course of the film’s events, the vindictive Sawyer is fired after orchestrating Kris Kringle’s unjust insanity hearing.

Fred Gailey (John Payne), the lawyer who defended Kris at the hearing, gets together with the Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), the leading lady who rediscovers faith in the good things in life.

Even Alfred gets a direct commendation from Mr. Macy himself, a fine reward for a kindhearted boy who enjoys dressing up as a street corner Santa Claus and giving kids presents.

Things have certainly changed since then. Businessmen are almost invariably portrayed as bad guys in the movies.

“Corporation” might as well be a portmanteau of “corrupt organization.”

The question isn’t whether change has occurred. (It has.)

The question isn’t even whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. (It’s a bad thing, no doubt.)

The real question, the one I want to know the answer to, is why this change happened at all.

Image courtesy of hark.com.

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Popularity is Amoral

Many authorities seem to believe that if something is popular, it is therefore low quality. This is particularly true when it comes to works of fiction.

This is nonsense. There are plenty of popular works of fiction which are also good.

Inception. Star Wars. The Lord of the Rings. (Both the books and the films.)

Likewise, there is plenty of tripe out there which is enormously popular.

Twilight. (Both the books and the films.) Fifty Shades of Grey. (Ditto.) Most Adam Sandler movies.

The exact opposite of these two parallels are also true.

There are works of artistic genius mostly ignored by audiences (Twelve Years a SlaveLincolnHugo) and equally obscure works of utter hackwork (Dylan Dog: Dead of NightRepo Men).

In the end, popularity (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter. It’s amoral, like money. (See 1 Timothy 6:10).

The only thing that matters is why something is popular.

The Dark Knight was popular not just because it was good (that’s what made it memorable) but because it had a kick-butt marketing campaign (see here).

Similarly, the Twilight movies were popular not because they were good (they weren’t), but because they had a kick-butt marketing campaign (see here).

The principle of popularity being amoral can be seen everywhere. The films put out by Marvel Studios are generally mediocre aesthetically, but people do go to see them.

The late Roger Ebert said as much in his review of the 2011 Thor movie:

“Thor” is failure as a movie, but a success as marketing, an illustration of the ancient carnival tactic of telling the rubes anything to get them into the tent.

On the other side of the coin, Marvel’s Netflix properties, such as Daredevil and Luke Cage, are both television masterpieces and smash hits with audiences.

As I discussed a few months ago, more genuinely good artistic endeavors would be financially successful if one or both of the following were true:

  • If people had more disposable income.
  • If more artists had an entrepreneurial mindset.

The political economy of the arts and entertainment industry, it is definitely more feasible at this moment for artists to hustle up and market the heck out of their art rather than to wait around for a more forgiving economy.

Until then, rest assured that popularity neither certifies a film as good nor condemns it as bad.

It just is.

Note: I realize that in a past postArt Needs More Entrepreneurs (Part 2/2)“, I stated that popularity “generally” denotes quality, in that there must be a good reason for many people to pay for something. I now realize, in keeping with the subject of this post,  that this reasoning is crude, if not without merit. I intend to expand on this point in a future post.

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Writers, Actors, and Singers: Please Stick to Writing, Acting, and Singing

I was watching a football game or something a few weeks ago, when I suddenly informed by an asinine commercial that Leonardo DiCaprio planned to release a new documentary on “climate change.”

Last time I checked, DiCaprio is not a meteorologist, or an ecologist, or a biologist, or a chemist, or a physicist, or an astronomer. He is an actor.

I also know that he has been making such documentaries and promoting such nonsense since at least 1998, when he established the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which is when they were still referring to climate change as “global warming.”

(For the record, I’d be pretty scared if the climate wasn’t changing.)

I then reflected that this DiCaprio is probably a better actor than he is a scientist or policy analyst.

But his behavior falls in line with that of many other writers, artists, singers, and actors who attempt to play those roles yet have absolutely no business doing so.

Meanwhile, people like Lena Dunham and Jay Z are suddenly being treated like they’re the smartest people in the room because of their stances on hot-button issues.

In Dunham’s case, she wants “straight white men” to go “extinct.” As for Jay Z, he apparently likes Clinton enough to belt out obscene song lyrics at one of her campaign events.

The only reason people pay attention to the political statements of actresses and singers is because they’re already famous.

Whatever they say is going to sound like pure wisdom to their fans, and it will attract the attention of the media because it’s political, thus giving them even more unwarranted credibility.

In other words, it doesn’t matter what these people say so long as it’s them saying it.

Granted, some political views are more palatable to the blogosphere, tabloids, news aggregates, click-bait sites, and the mainstream media than others.

Chris Pratt’s enthusiasm for hunting hasn’t won him much attention from such parties. The same can be said for Adam Baldwin of Firefly fame, who endorsed Ted Cruz via Twitter last year according to Wikipedia.

The effect, however, remains the same. When some actor suddenly announces his stance on a feel-good cause like climate change, it grants him an aura of sophistication and charity.

Think about it like this: People are naturally suspicious of politicians, but they love it when celebrities make political statements because they already like them.

If they happen to agree with whatever vacuous tripe the celebrity is saying, they’ll love them even more and do whatever they say, which usually means voting for Democratic politicians.

The problem isn’t so much that people unqualified to give opinions regarding such topics continue to do so. It’s a free country. They’re free to say what they want.

The problem is that these people’s sincerity is, at best, questionable. DiCaprio is without a doubt mouthing whatever lines some intern is feeding him just so he can beef up his personal brand.

Ditto for Donald Trump, who’s taken this principle to the Nth degree by becoming a major contender for President of the United States of America. Heck, he’s been running for president since 2000.

The two-pronged point I’m trying to make is that when people who are famous for acting, singing, or writing begin talking about politics, science, or public policy, plug your ears. They have nothing to say worth listening to.

I highly doubt that any actors, singers, or writers of note are reading this blog post, but if you are, please stick to acting, singing, and writing.

If you must talk about politics, go and spend your free time reading good books on things like history or economics, like Ronald Reagan used to do. Please avoid major periodicals for a while.

Or if you’re more technically inclined, you could be like Hedy Lamarr, who invented a nifty anti-missile jamming system during World War II. If she could do something like that, you could easily bone up on mathematics or chemistry or engineering or something.

In a word, actually learn something about what you’re talking about before deciding to soapbox about it. That’s all I ask.

Image courtesy of dailymail.co.uk

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