Sunday, October 9, 2016

Contemporary Music and its "God-Haunted" Spaces

Here is the second part of some continuing (provisional and incomplete) reflections on music.

Artists can debase their talents by enslaving themselves to projects that are unworthy of the dignity of the human person. Great technical skill can be used to produce ideological propaganda, anarchic degradation, and/or the manipulation of human perceptions and appetites. This is a significant problem in the presentation, context, and lyrics of so many popular songs and indeed of the overwhelmingly crass, artificial, cheap glittering realm of the contemporary "music industry."

How much of what we hear and see today in music and performance is hedonistic, grandiose, superficial, and obsessed with sexual and violent imagery? This stuff does us no good, and it's something we certainly want to protect our children from. But we cannot merely reject--in a negative, moralistic way--all contemporary music, which is so diverse and changing, and which draws upon so many different facets of the human experience we all share in common in our world.

Insofar as we are human, we live in the context of a culture that we cannot simply escape from. Rather, what we need above all is education--for ourselves and our children--in the perception and judgment of what is truly worthy of human life, human purposes, and human destiny.

It is important, therefore, to have an intelligent and attentive aesthetic sensibility toward the very large and variegated world of mainstream music, not only to filter out the bad stuff but also to be edified by so much real human expression found therein. We need particular discernment to recognize the "God-haunted" spaces that echo through some of this music: the pain, the questions, and the gratuitous vitality that struggle to be expressed over a wide range of styles and forms.

Indeed, we often find these elements in places we would not think to look. The restless searching and the cry of the human heart don't necessarily stand out "on the surface," or in every aspect of a song, recording, video or concert mass-marketed as entertainment. But there can be a drama, a frustration, a stubborn hope, and an obscure but intense longing for God that come through even along with the spectacle and the excesses of these artists and their performances. These things push to break through in the midst of so many distorted and misdirected expressions.

We must learn to perceive and to discover and, according to our particular circumstances, to foster the true elements of the arts and music of our time.

This doesn't mean we should just expose ourselves to entertainment media that are harmful to us, on the pretext that we might be able to find something of value. We need guidance and we need to help one another on an educative path that takes into account our relative strengths and weaknesses and maturity as well as the dysfunctionality of our fallen human condition.

There is no place for presumption here. Rather we need to do this together, with accountability, drawing upon the grace of Jesus in his Church, through prayer and the sacraments, in the ardor of Christian love, sustained by dependence on the Holy Spirit and the teaching and guidance of the Church.

This is a work of prudence and temperance and all the Christian and human virtues by which we are formed in Christ. I don't intend to propose here any kind of systematic method for engaging in this work. I can't say I know all the possibilities or all the cautions that must be observed. I need help here as much as anyone else. Many of us play and/or listen to contemporary music already, and would only benefit by helping one another to carry out a more attentive work of judgment and appreciation. What I also want to emphasize, however, is that if it is rightly carried out, this work will discover more that we expect. It will be a work that will surprise us.

This is because the inescapable human need for a relationship with reality in all its authentic fullness--with truth, goodness, beauty, justice, love, happiness--is ultimately a need for God whether or not it is acknowledged or recognized as such. Insofar as a work of art genuinely embodies a creative intuition of the fundamental connection between human existence and an infinite fulfillment--a creative and constructive intuition that grasps the essential human drama and is not reduced to manipulation, distraction, or cloying spiritual suffocation--it will contain, however obscurely, the mark of the human longing for God in its mysterious and sometimes dark beauty.

Aesthetic sensibility is not simply the logical application of some theory. Informed by truth and the experience of objective reality, it also entails a practical perception in peculiar circumstances. Contemporary music has and continues to give us genuine works of art: musical compositions, songs, recordings, and live productions. Even (indeed especially) in a secularized context, we can find signs of the depths of the human heart that can only be filled by God. Lyrics that don't mention God explicitly may still articulate the heart that searches for Him. The energy, the engagement, sometimes the suffering or sadness expressed, or the way the musician or singer pours his or herself out in performance--these things may indicate the longing for the unknown God or the God perhaps obscured but mysteriously sought, the wounds exposed that only He can heal.

Music is a powerful force. Contemporary music is often a force that drags people down, but it also can draw them up. In the increasingly desolate human environment in which we live, we must discern and value the things that draw us up--and be prepared to find them in some unexpected places.