The National: Exposing a Need

September 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine the other day over lunch. We talked about normal things for us: music, film, school and life. In the middle of all of this talk, however, we started talking about the role of art in faith and evangelism. While this is a topic I’ve touched on at times on this blog and will do so in the future, what stuck out to me was something my friend said. He said, “I think art’s purpose is to reveal a need,” and from there we went on to talk more in depth about that. However, I want to focus on just that statement, which verbalized something that I’ve thought about but never said in quite that way.

In this same conversation I brought up The National’s newest album, High Violet, and how adept The National is at evoking emotion not just through their music, but through occasionally obtuse and nonsensical lyrics. I think these two things are related.

If art shows us a need inside of us that we can’t ignore or sometimes even explain, I think it has done its job. I think this need is probably different inside of each of us, but it comes down to the fact that we are scarred and broken in this world looking for answers and often not finding them. Sometimes we want to give up looking for the answers but good art forces us to confront these issues time and time again; it gives us the strength to keep pressing on, because we know that someone out there is feeling the same thing as us. I think The National excels at evoking this because there is something emotional and worn about their music that is immediately identifiable.

On Alligator, their third album, the chorus of opener Secret Meeting says this, “I’m sorry I missed you/ I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain/it went the dull and wicked ordinary way.” Immediately I’m hooked, feeling the same way I do after spending hours in thought, never coming to any concrete conclusions. The National’s lyrics bring to mind images and then these mental images seem to project emotion. Alligator’s closer, Mr. November, is much the same. Lines like “I wish that I believed in fate/I wish I didn’t sleep so late/I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders” are juxtaposed with the chorus, lyrically and musically, of “I won’t f*** us over, I’m Mr. November” to create a very visceral feeling of disappointment and longing for days before failure.

This metaphorical, almost poetic language is very apparent on High Violet as well. In one of my favorites from the album, Conversation 16, the chorus goes like this, “Now we’ll leave the silver city cause all the silver girls gave us black dreams/leave the silver city to all the silver girls/everything means everything.” Using colors like silver and black place an image in the mind and invests this image with the emotions usually associated with silver and black. So, even though these lyrics are straightforward, they are charged with an extra emotional intensity due to their poetic nature and Matt Berninger’s vocal delivery.

One of the overwhelming senses I get while listening to The National is that there is something just out of reach. It feels like the words are trying to tap into something bigger, reveal something deeper. I often feel a profound sense of longing when I listen, a longing to be known in this fragmented world. There is a deep sense of alienation in many of The National’s lyrics, reflecting the way many people feel as they try to understand and live in this world. They do a great job of showing this, revealing this need.

The National is making artistic music, revealing the need for true love and intimacy, in a world where it is very difficult to be known by others. Sometimes this can be depressing, because they offer no solutions to these problems. They tell us stories of looking for meaning through drugs, sex and success that have all come up short.  But The National is here to expose the need, performing an important service by not handing us happy stories of true love around every street corner. They leave us with a question: how will you meet this need? Where will you go, what will you do to truly be known?

Churches Making Movies: A Few Thoughts

September 7, 2010 § 2 Comments

I found myself browsing the Internet and ran across an article from July 2010 in USA Today entitled, “Churches Making Mainstream Movies”. The article focuses on Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, GA, the force behind movies such as Facing the Giants (2006, Kendrick) and Fireproof (2008, Kendrick) and the reasons why other churches are beginning to follow in the same footsteps as Sherwood. As I was reading I was bothered by some of the statements quoted and by some of the things contained in the article. Now before I begin to explain why, I want to say I’m not discounting God’s ability to use anything and everything for His glory and I know people who have been touched through these films. I don’t want this to be a hate-fest on my fellow Christians. That being said, there are several troubling implications of the marriage of art and faith offered by these films.

“And every ending is on an up note: Once characters start to peacefully, prayerfully trust God in adversity as well as success, all their prayers are answered. They win the big game, pay off the bank, have the long-wanted baby, reconcile with loved ones.” This quote from the author of the article is one of the most troubling parts of the article. Can God do miracles? Yes. Does He always do them? No. When a “Christian” movie purports that everything will work out as soon as you start trusting God it is veering into “prosperity gospel” territory which stands in stark contrast to the Bible itself (read Luke 9 to see what Jesus tells his disciples about this life). The Christian hope is not a perfect life in this world, but one in the world to come. Paul’s life was not fun or great in terms of his physical existence. Sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want them answered. Are we bringing people into the Church by lying to them, by confirming our hopes and dreams in this age instead of the one to come?

“Movies are an escape. They offer hope. And Sherwood is stepping up to claim that the only hope that matters is Christian,” says Michael Catt, senior pastor at Sherwood. While I take exception to his assertion that movies are primarily an escape from life, I agree that the Christian hope is beautiful and worthy of being told to everyone. But in light of the films that Sherwood is producing, what is this hope? People are going to identify the “Christian” hope with what is said by the film. They will begin to identify the “Christian” hope with peace and prosperity in this life. This is not the Christian hope as I and many leaders of the Church throughout the ages understand it. To be sure, there is a peace that comes with knowing that you have a purpose in this world, but the Christian hope is the world (and human beings within it) being restored and reconciled to God. The picture is bigger than just what happens to me or you, and even if this is what Catt believes it doesn’t come through in the films produced by Sherwood. Do we want a very individualized version of Christianity (regardless if this is how we actually think about our faith) being presented through the screen?

Later in this article comes this: “Every movie has an agenda,” says Catt, citing James Cameron’s Avatar, widely noted for its vague eco-spirituality theme. “Clearly, (he) had a spiritual agenda there, and he’s out to reach his audience. So are we. We have lost this culture, and we have to fight back.” What he says is true: every movie contains an agenda or purpose, even if it is unaware of it. It is frightening, however, that he is proud of the overt agenda in these films. The best films I’ve seen are the ones that subtly introduce their points and quietly subvert other stories. Avatar was not a good movie, due in part to its glaringly obvious agenda. Also worrisome is the fact that Catt is proposing a battle over culture, when perhaps Christians are no longer vital parts of the culture because of films like Facing the Giants. I firmly believe that Christians need to be making culture, but the only way that we can actively participate is if we make good culture. That is how we “fight back”.

The rest of the article talks about different people making other Christian movies and I wish I could be excited about that. I’m glad Christians are making movies but if the movies aren’t good, then is what they’re doing really good? If our faith has to be simplified to put in a movie, is it still our faith? What is really being said about the Gospel in the name of evangelism? These are questions anyone who is a Christian making film (or art in general) must ask themselves. The way in which we present the Gospel effects how it is perceived and thought about. A serious responsibility rests upon us as artists and creators created in the Image of God to think critically about how we present the Gospel story in art. Presenting the Gospel as an “escape” from this world and its problems and using art as a way to sell the Gospel is a dangerous proposition.

All quotes taken from this article: http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2010-07-19-churchmovies19_CV_N.htm?loc=interstitialskip

A movie made by a Christian that serves as a great example of how I think Christians should approach film is The Sensation of Sight. You can watch it on Netflix instant or get more info at http://www.thesensationofsight.com/

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