This is the second part of a series (which began with this post, which in turn was a continuation of this one) that hopes to engage with the ways Christians engage with art (and responses from artists) that directly criticizes the church. The movie Spotlight, which won the Oscar for Best Picture this year, was met with generosity on the part of church representatives despite the fact that the plot revolves around the cover-up of clerical sex-abuse in Boston – this showed an deep, incredible humility and largeness of spirit.
But, as the last post outlined, there hasn’t been the same kind of reception toward other forms of artistic protest against aspects of Catholicism – the dynamics orbiting how and why it happens make up a painful topic to reflect on, and it’s hard to know how best to approach something like this. It’s sensitive, nuanced and engaging with it’s not unlike walking, blindfolded, into a room full of broken tables, chairs and armoires. However, approach we must – and while the last post was more general and drew from examples across mediums like music, film and performance, this one’s gonna narrow down the focus onto a single song of a single band, one that’s proved to be one of the more successful indie* groups of our day.
Before going on, though, I’d like to clarify that I’m not trying to justify what these artists are saying about the church – it would take a whole other series to do justice to the un/fairness of their statements. But that’s not the focus here right now. Plus, I think a lot of Christian arguments in response to that stuff have been made already, and made rather loudly. Which is good, but the catch is that equally fervent (and public) attempts on behalf of Christians to understand not only individual situations but also how certain attitudes within the Christian community have contributed to said situations have been in slightly shorter supply.
So the focus here is more on how Christians react and relate to this kind of stuff, and not on whatever fault lies on the side of the artist. We can’t change someone else’s mind (or repair cultural damage) with the flick of a switch – we can, on the other hand, do what’s within our power as a community to acknowledge where we’ve fallen short and walk the slow, thorny road of responsibility and reparation.
Anyway – onward.
There was a day a few years back when I was walking through a music store with a friend attempting to school me about worthwhile bands – this was during the period of my life when I was trying to escape the musical influences of my youth (which mostly included exposure to either Newsboys or Steven Curtis Chapman**). Through high school, I in all likelihood probably couldn’t have been able to tell the difference between “Barbie Girl” and “Black Hole Sun.”***
We eventually got around to the “A” section of Rock/Pop**** and inevitably ran into Arcade Fire. At that time they were just about to release The Suburbs, a strange, sharp, bestselling-yet-obscureish album that left Barbra Streisand tripping to hide her confusion while naming it album of the year at the Grammy’s. They are arguably the reigning kings of the alternative music world, and the mere mention of a potential new disc dropping is enough to bring the entire writing staff of Pitchfork to their knees – their big win spawned memes involving hipsters smacking the beat-down on anyone who claimed not to know who they are.*****
So they’re popular, and influential. And as my friend flipped through their discography, she couldn’t help saying “I really liked their first album [Funeral], but I don’t know how to feel about the second [Neon Bible] because of what they say about the church.” I didn’t know how to respond to that, and continued not to know for a long time.
One reason was out of full ignorance – I hadn’t listened to them until their third album, the aforementioned Grammy-winning The Suburbs, came out and, though the album was a tad uneven, I was won over by a number of their songs (particularly this stunner: “Half Light II (No Celebration)”), which eventually led me back to 2004’s oft-hailed Funeral and 2007’s controversial Neon Bible. While I could never say they were anything close to a favourite band of mine, they were always a group I was grateful for, popping up every now and again to provide a liminal experience before retreating again into the background noise.
Another reason for my discomfort in the store that day was that I’d heard very similar things for a very long time – as with “Take Me to Church,” The Magdalene Sisters and Sinead O’Connor’s SNL protest, criticism of very real issues inside the church was discouraging some believers from even hearing the artist out. Which was weird to relate to, as I both a) recognized something deeply disordered about this sentiment but b) still couldn’t help feeling like a bit of a traitor if I didn’t agree at least somewhat. But what exactly was Arcade Fire’s big beef?
There’s a song called “Here Comes the Night Time” on their most recent album, Reflektor,****** which is a good starting point. It’s got a killer Haitian beat (the parents of one of the main singers, Montréal-native Régine Chassagne, emigrated from that country during the controversial rule of François Duvalier), but the words in the song express much heavier, loaded sentiments:
As with Hozier’s song, the lyrics are strong and act as a visible outcry against certain presumably-Christian mentalities/messages. We hear, pretty early on, a lament that goes along the lines of: “And the missionaries / They tell us we will be left behind” – the main sense here is of abandonment, even possibly abandonment by God in a time of need. Melodramatic a bit? Yeah, kinda. And it more than prompts an eager apologist to pipe up with a “but that’s not what REAL missionaries should say,” who might think they’ve then deftly parried the jab.
In a sense they’re right – there is nothing factually wrong with that statement, but the complicated thing is that it still doesn’t really engage with the core of what artistic protest’s about.
Christians, particularly those raised over the past forty years in North America, are very ready to defend their faith and the reasons for belief. This is awesome: where there’s discussion, C.S. Lewis or Chesterton or Scott Hahn are never that far behind. But an issue with this approach is how it can treat the whole shebang as an intellectual debate rather than an emotional response to a damaging relationship – the latter is usually what’s actually happening. Sure, a songwriter might write a lyric like this because they hold a logically founded belief about an entire group of people, but mostly likely what went down was that they met a very real missionary******* who made them feel that way. Damage wasn’t done through argument but through relationship, and no argument in response is going to fix that.
The song goes on:
Been left behind, / A thousand times, a thousand times
If you want to be righteous, get in line
They say heaven’s a place
But do you know where it is?
It’s behind the gate they won’t let you in
Again, an apologist could patiently describe the image of our-turning-away-from-God being more accurate than that of God-turning-away-from-us******** along with how said gates are only closed because of our own choices and, once again, they’d be correctly explaining Catholic thought. But the whole intellectual-defense strategy thing still can’t help falling apart because (read:) this may not be an intellectual crisis so much as a pastoral one. In all likelihood, when people misunderstand Christianity, it’s probably not because of something they’ve read so much as how it’s been incarnated in the world through people identifying as Christians.*********
We are human beings, which among other things means we can be fairly irrational. We’re poems, not equations. Our issues require interpretation and time enough to be sat with. We have hearts that don’t know how to live with the entirety of our desires. Hands to be held in times of vulnerability. Eyes that will notice some hypocrisies more than others. Dealing with people in their wholeness is worthwhile yet beyond frustrating, and it involves more than engaging with intellectual facts.
It’s this line, though, that for me’s the real kicker:
And when they hear the beat, coming from the street, they lock the door
But if there’s no music up in heaven, then what’s it for?
They are one hundred percent right.
Not that heaven should be a rave or beachy soiree (like in the video), but more in the sense of how music is an intimate expression of who God is and thus, for them, a heaven without music is an Eden divorced from the Source and Summit, from the Am that Am. Here we come to a painfully confusing reality: we are told by doctors of the church that all good art inherently points toward God (meaning the joy/intimacy/terror/melancholy/connection/meaning/dance that art connects us to is in fact inescapably a reflection of the divine) yet it can still be mixed with a black-rhino sized portion of anti-Christian sentiment.
Art, as have implied Augustine and Aquinas (along with a veritable chorus of other church thinkers), could be said to be a shortcut to experiencing God, but it gets stickier when we think about the kinds of lifestyles that great artists have lived while still being on the receiving end of their powerful gifts and perceptions. This was expressed in compelling fashion through Amadeus, a film that both shows how Mozart’s gifts were an expression of God while never losing sight of the fact that Mozart himself was a bit of an entitled little twerp.
Yeah, art could be (fairly) compared to baby food on the experience-of-God scale when placed alongside the electrified, possessing nature of mystical experience, but the intimacy born of prayer, liturgy and unitive experience requires a discipline and understanding that’s not the easiest thing to come by. The intuitive, flash-in-the-pan connection that art can give (I quite literally got high once after hearing a poem at an otherwise-middling poetry reading) seems like an oasis in comparison. So it can be pretty understandable (even if we disagree) that a person, on encountering the back of God in a problematic piece of art, thinks they’ve found the mystery at the center of the world.
Life is hard, and can be made even harder if you’re unsure if there’s any meaning or redemption on the other side of confusion and suicide bombers and suffering and heartbreak – maybe art and music and dancing, for you, is one of the only ways of transcending the shitshow that our earthly existence sometimes shapes up to be. And then along comes a missionary, albeit maybe not the best example of one, who proclaims that elements of what you’re doing (music, protest, dance, sex, poetry) are weights around your neck and could land you in hellfire. Let go of that stuff and take the sober road to heaven with us, they seem to be hearing. Which may seem, to the artist, like the missionary’s asking them to abandon whatever flashes of the divine they’ve found – the answer’s obviously going to be no. To them, it reeks of hypocrisy. Because if there’s no music in paradise then, really, what is it for? The image of heaven that they’re being sold appears, to them, to be missing the very deity of the hour. So they write a song about it.
From the outside it might look simple but, when you’re up against the grain of it, it all gets messier and only more complicated. Not the least because the weird (and petrifying) thing continues to be how the depths a work of art can drag you to don’t necessarily cancel out the heights it otherwise reveals. Like a bipolar personality, each extreme can co-exist without cancelling the other out – so we might bump into art that seems to simultaneously draws us toward and away from God. This is a picture-perfect example of paradox, and there is no clean response. Pretending to have one would be intellectual dishonesty of a high degree.
Obviously the heaven, God and church that this “missionary” is suggesting doesn’t line up with what real Catholic spirituality suggests (more on that later), and this is a huge stumbling block in cultural dialogue. Another big one is the way that people use symbols in completely different ways. The next few lines show a good example:
When I hear the beat, my spirit’s on me like a live-wire
A thousand horses running wild in a city on fire
If you can’t feel it, then the roots are dead
Here comes the night!
Here comes the night!
Look out, here comes the night!
Here comes the night!
Here comes the night!
Here comes the night, the night, the night, the night time!
The night, as a symbol, is often a force that’s contrasted with the day – in one aspect of our cultural language, the day’s become associated with virtue, law, order, routine, family and safety while the night holds vice, crime, chaos, danger, sin and loneliness. And so it might seem to someone that the band’s advocating a frantic, Bacchic descent into sin and decadence – this, to a Christian, would reasonably be seen as something to resist and struggle against. But is this what Arcade Fire’s invoking with their chorus?
I would say nope. The old paradigm of day/night and good/evil doesn’t hold up in the same way that it may have in the past: there are competing cultural stories for many of our big symbols, and day/night are no exception to that. The association of the day with virtue is key here – if the virtue in question is genuine, inflaming and transcendent then everything’s all well and good. But what happens when virtue begins to be understood as more a kind of social obligation than genuine virtue in the Christian sense? I’m referring to the pseudo-virtues of respectability, politeness, productivity and all those other social lubricants: the virtues of making life smooth in the developed world, the virtues that self-identified rebels love to chuck off the nearest roof.
Yes, these social virtues do help us live together with less friction and, frankly, get more stuff done, but they kinda lead us to repress other, equally human forces: spontaneity, emotional authenticity, raw encounter, liminal experience – these are the traits of the human person that are relegated to our night-time. They are, at best, held in second-place to the virtue of not-rocking-the-cultural-boat or, at worse, mostly abandoned in the name of “growing up.”
The “day” to some has come to mean a sterile facsimile of everything that matters in life – this is the day (and the heaven) that the band’s railing against. To cry out for the coming of night isn’t to ally oneself with sin so much as trying to reconcile yourself to the parts of our hearts that don’t fit into our daily planners and work-weeks.
The heaven they resist isn’t the heaven we’ve been told about – it’s a whitewashed unHeaven that’s come to be part of our cultural baggage because of the ways some Christians have misrepresented the spirituality we’ve been entrusted with. Cleanliness has been associated with godliness, sociability with virtue, repression with maturity and the world has tasted this lukewarm oatmeal and spat it out.
Arcade Fire has roots both in Quebec and Texas – both of these are regions with strong cultural roots of Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism, respectively) and, as mentioned in the series on art/politics/martyrdom, cultural expressions of spirituality, even with their good points, come with a veritable plethora of unhelpful cultural baggage: unHeavens, unGods, unJesuses (?unJesusi?), unChurches and the like. And art that rages against unChristianity is the price we pay for it.
This isn’t to say that artists aren’t to blame for uninformed opinions – they have their role to play the same as anyone else. They often happen to be on their own fraught religious journeys – while Arcade Fire has become famous for seemingly anti-Christian songs, vocalist Win Butler himself has identified as Christian and struggles with how it expresses itself in culture.
He talks about it directly in an interview:
Interviewer: I know that in the past you’ve identified yourself as a non-denominationally religious or spiritual person. And I may be misinterpreting this, but it seems like some of the lyrics on the new record seem to skewer the notion of religious fundamentalism. It’s a huge idea in the world right now, and especially in America– growing up in Texas, did you see fundamentalism at work? Did it inform your childhood, even if you weren’t participating in it?
WB: Yeah, it’s definitely a big part of the culture there. [In general] I think the relationship between religion and culture is much stronger now. I remember outside of Houston, seeing one of those huge mega-churches, just driving by it on the highway, thinking it looked like a football stadium. I was definitely exposed to that– the Christian bookstores, the money side of it. But I don’t have an overly negative view of religion. It’s so diverse.
The interview was taken after the release of their second album, Neon Bible, which arguably has the most content that’s critical of how religion’s lived out today – this was the album my friend felt uncomfortable about that day in the music store. It’ll also be the topic of the next (and last) post in this series. Listening to (or watching, reading, observing) stuff like this can provoke a couple different responses in a practicing Christian: a person can or a) recognise that, in all likelihood, the artist is reacting moreso against an unGod than against the God who inspired the Song of Songs, or b) interpret the art as an attack on the Jesus they know/love and engage in a struggle (aka, culture war) against the person/their ideas,
Culture war sucks and deals damage to everything and everyone involved – the kicker is that it’s not even necessary. What makes recent church responses to Spotlight (ones that’ve been more reconciliatory than defensive) so necessary is that it transcends culture war by allying Catholics with those wounded by the church. When dialogue happens and faults are admitted, bridges can then built to people on the other side of the divide and the work of adjusting misconceptions can actually begin.
Which is what we’re here for, right? Isn’t what we’re working toward? Don’t we want a world where, when we hear songs like this in the future, we’re much more likely to ally with artists against the unChurch/unVirtue/unGod rather than fighting against them in the name of a God that they can’t see straight for all the cultural confusion? A cultural confusion that Christians (and Catholics in particular) have part of the blame for?
I’ve heard some people refer to the act of watching Spotlight as a form of penance – that’s a beautiful, painful image. And it comes as a penance even to those people who have never committed these kinds of wrongs against non-believers. But it’s our penance as a community, as a church, and maybe this penance involves our praying, striving, fasting and begging for the grace to incarnate the God of life and love and mercy in our own lives so as to continue the work of untwisting the cultural baggage of our time.
For more on the band’s latest album, check out this article from Christianity Today.
For more on Win Butler, check out this interview and feel free to skip down to his comments about religion.
Tune in for Part III for some final thoughts on the topic.
*Now that most “independent” bands have signed up for major labels, I’m not sure what the word “indie” even means anymore. I guess I’m trying mostly to refer to bands you’ll hear on “alternative” radio stations in the big cities.
**I have it on sources that, in my early childhood, my mother played a lot of Queen, ABBA and Phantom of the Opera around the house – at some point the switch to CCM was so complete that even this was blocked out.
***This was remedied later both by ongoing interventions and a much-needed gig working in a kitchen with a rather punkish chef toting a blessedly loaded iPod (this was back in the days when most of the planet didn’t already carry smartphones).
****Another entry in the “what does that even mean anymore?” genre.
*****Which is funny if you think about it, as the hipster stereotype involves said overcultured coffee-consumers enjoying looking down on those not sufficiently in the know.
******Fun and incriminating trivia: about half of this article was written years ago for a review of the album for Dappled Things that never actually reached completion. Reduce, reuse, recycle!
*******One of the fun parts of how culture works, though, is that you might not need to have even met said actual missionary to get the impression that s/he said those things. We’ve inherited a bunch of stock images and stereotypes (like, for example, the judgemental religious leader) and so people can actually treat these stereotypes like actual people who’ve said actual things to them. While this is definitely nowhere near the ballpark of good-reason-to-hold-a-belief, the reason why certain stereotypes exist is that, well, people like that have existed long enough to have made a cultural impression that’s going to be hard to shake off for another few decades. Obviously there’s more to it than that, but this particular slice of cultural theory would deserve a whole series of posts dedicated to it.
********Odd thing though: this language only really caught on in the second half of the twentieth century – many saints and church leaders used the language of condemnation until well after the wars.
*********That’s not to say that some people aren’t turned off on a purely intellectual basis – those people certainly exist, though I find that (though my own limited, personal experience) more people are turned away or hurt through the behaviour of Christians more than what they say.
Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain a sense of awe.