I have the privilege of spending a decent amount of my time with people who are really skilled and talented when it comes to music. Some of them are young and some of them are not so young, but I’m often amazed to listen to the gifts that these people have been given.
I was thinking about some of these folks after spending last night watching a good portion of the Grammys. I made it from T-Swift’s opening through the Black Keys, and from reading the recaps from what I missed, hate that I didn’t catch Kelly Clarkson’s performance and the tribute to Levon Helm. (By the way, wasn’t it great to see T-Bone Burnett on the guitar last night?)
Part of taking in the Grammys is the tradition of ripping the musicians who win or who perform. Technology can smooth over more and more and sometimes the pageantry of the stage can distract from the actual singing of the song. The critics and the purists often point out that the people on stage often aren’t the best singers, and by their standards can’t sing at all, and that if you really want to hear good music you should come down to the opera or the local symphony.
And they are probably right.
Often the best of the best in terms of commercial music can’t hit the notes with the singers at the opera or the symphony. But what the pop stars and the country singers and the rappers and those the Grammys celebrate can do, in addition to sell music, is that they can connect their music with the lives of people. Taylor or Jay-Z or Carrie or Beyonce might not be the best musicians in the world, but what they excel at is getting their message through the mess and touching the lives of real people struggling with real things in real cities and real towns. The singers and bands that the purists stick their nose at shape and influence countless people each and every day on the radio, on Itunes and on MTV and CMT.
And isn’t that what art, really, at its best is about – producing something beautiful and evocative that resonates with people in their lives? Maybe it inspires us to something greater or maybe it just gives us perspective on what we’re going through or maybe it distracts us from our problems or reminds us that someone else has been where we are and made it to the other side. I’ve looked at plenty of pretty pictures in museums, but what resonates with me are the images that connect with my own experience and force me to reconsider my life because I looked at that particular painting, photograph or digital image.
I live and work in the church game where the terms are often about relevance versus content. The mainline church, where I spend most of my time, has often railed against churches that focus on relevance and meeting people where they are. We often claim those faith communities are dumbing down faith in order to reach more folks for Jesus. Our ideal, which we have not lived out quite as well as we have hoped, is to do what we do, to offer our vision of the faith, present it to folks and hope they receive it .
But I think the Grammys can be instructive. I think God wants all of us, in the church and out of the church, to make beautiful music, to be the best artists we can be. At the end of the day, however, we have to connect and influence people’s lives where they really live. We have to speak to the questions people are asking, we have to witness in ways that provide real meaning and we have to live in ways that are faithful but also relevant to the ways people live in the 21st Century right here in the heartland.
Music that is popular need not be crap – I’d like to think the emergence of Mumford & Sons says something about that. I’d like to think and would like to one day lead a church that shows that faith need not be simplistic, otherworldly and full of babble to connect with people in this day and time. I believe the church can offer a Gospel, one that is real, one that is challenging and one that lives out of a deep conviction to be a first sign of the reign of God alive in this world and invites people to a vision of life that is not only attractive but ultimately lively and compelling.
I’ve been fortunate to be part of some places and meet some people who really do live this out in their lives. People want to give their lives to something greater than themselves. I really believe that. And I think the church has the words, the songs, and more importantly, the vision for a life of real meaning and deep purpose. We just have to learn how to make our way through the mess and connect.