Exploring faith and music

BY DEREK BARBER
Daily Arts Writer
Published April 4, 2007

What does faith - or more specifically, the Christian faith - have to do with art? The Festival of Faith and Music held at Calvin College in Grand Rapids this past weekend explored this question. The two-day event featured folk icons Sufjan Stevens, Neko Case and Emmylou Harris as well as numerous lectures, clinics and interviews.

As a festival attendant, I was immediately curious as to why this diverse array of artists and speakers - several of whom would hardly consider themselves "Christian" - would participate in an event aimed at discussing the way grace, love and compassion are expressed in the world of popular music. To my relief, the "alter calls" were left out of this one.

Nevertheless, the experience got me thinking. Quite often, fans of rock music are immediately suspicious if they get wind that an artist or musician ascribes to the Christian faith. To be fair, this impulse is relatively justified. I mean, who can really forgive bands like Stryper or Creed that have defined popular Christian rock?

Perhaps the real problem lies within the way these groups have presented themselves in the past. In stark contrast to the humble faith advocated, these musicians performed bombastic stadium rock shows appealing to whatever trends were popular at the time. In most cases, the music sounds as forced as the lyrical content - a "hallelujah" here, a "love your neighbor" there - in short, spoon feeding "Jesus" to the Christian rock masses.

In recent years, however, faith-inspired musicians who are quite uncomfortable with the term "Christian artist" have emerged: artists like Daniel Smith of the Danielson Famile, John Ringhofer of Half-handed Cloud and even Sufjan Stevens. For these select few, the tag does not appropriately define or convey their artistic intentions. Sure, these musicians would likely claim to be Christians. They would also consider themselves artists. "Christian artist," on the other hand, suggests an appeal to a limited, specific audience as well as the burden of negativity associated with faith-based music.

Last Friday night, indie-folk hero Stevens performed in his famous "bird-wing costume" and strummed his banjo to a packed crowd, as inflatable Santa Claus and Superman dolls were tossed off the balcony like beach balls. But it was his lecture the following morning - yes, a lecture by Sufjan Stevens - that really stuck out. Not without reservations, the singer explained his problems with the "Christian artist" tag.

"Art isn't a tool," Stevens said. "It's sacred. There's a tendency to misplace focus on the role of 'artist' rather than the art itself. As artists, we participate in creation."

"Participating in creation" is key to understanding the motivation of musicians like Stevens. This idea emerges from the belief that all creative art is modeled after the Creator - i.e. God - and by "participating" in the creative process the artist discovers a larger, spiritual connection. Sound mystical enough for you? Well, that's partially the point. For these musicians, the mystery surrounding the art-making process is half the attraction.

Is it surprising, then, that musicians like Daniel Smith find the "Christian artist" tag so frustrating? If we are to believe, as Smith does, that dealing with art is to deal with abstract truths, little good can come from labeling the results.

Following the screening of the documentary "Danielson: A Family Movie," Smith - an eccentric indie-rocker as well as visual artist - explained how the term "Christian artist" is more of a marketing campaign than anything else.

"Let's not call it anything," Smith said, referring to the Christian music culture. "I don't want to be a part of a genre or fad . I want to do the work I'm made to do and then die."

Smith's petition of simply "doing the work," or creating the art, adequately describes the ambitions of these like-minded Christians. Music is an art form. Part of its appeal is its immediacy. Often we overanalyze music that has religious connotations at the expense of our enjoyment and pure understanding of the music.

The festival interview with Neko Case was a case in point. Best known for her country-folk solo career as well as her contributions to indie-pop band The New Pornographers, the songwriter was asked a series of overtly specific, somewhat spiritual and aimless questions by author/high school English teacher David Dark. Nevertheless, Case kept to her graces and Dark could only blush in return.

After Case's stellar performance, her vulnerable yet iron-willed vocals ringing within a sea of pedal-steel guitar, it became clear: Dark's earlier analysis was superfluous to the pure experience of the music. Truthfully, most musical art is best left to experience rather than discuss.

Of course, there is no tidy answer to the question of how Christian faith influences the art being produced. Perhaps this is why the Festival of Faith and Music and its artists are unique from other Christian festivals and performers - there's no need for a simple answer. The late Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor might describe the process as finding the spiritual in the everyday. In a candid scene from "Danielson: A Family Movie," however, Daniel Smith offers another interpretation:

"(The artistic process) is like a little kid helping his dad change a tire," he says. "In reality, the kid isn't really changing the tire - he just gets to feel a part of something bigger."