Editor’s Note: Reflection on the Festival of Faith and Music
Music and faith are discourses on the ineffable. Though each has its own structures of power, entrenched technical lexicons, and professional training programs and methods to grow and supplement them, they are both straining toward articulating poetic realities. When I write about faith or music, the words I use are merely broken containers, strings of letters with oh-so-many holes in them.
Music has been decried and praised as perhaps the most obviously subjective art form. Unlike writing and the plastic arts, there is nothing visual to grasp, and sounds exist only for a moment in time before collapsing to make way for silences and other sounds. It is an expression inextricably linked to time. To me, that linkage to time and procession makes it peculiarly able to point beyond its own language, beyond human speech and presence and to the irreducible.
That irreducible can, I think, be properly called divine. At its best, music is a disruptive force, a kind of mist in the air that boggles our normal vision and makes us see the ghostly elements of life more clearly. Recorded music might bear witness to these elements even better, since we listen to a voice given body somewhere else in time and handed to us through countless intermediaries, and yet it can pierce our hearts just the same. It is the power of an absent voice–sometimes, when I am bold and wear a tiger’s heart instead of mine, I can call that absence God’s voice.
The official word on the Festival of Faith and Music runs long and short this way:
The Festival of Faith and Music is the gathering of a community of pilgrims who are on a journey to hear, promote and create the music of epiphany—music that catches our breath with its discovery of delight in the ordinary, eternity in the exceptional. We seek to revel in the mystery of the art form, comprehending it better through shared stories and experiences, allowing it to surround and teach us. We seek to discern the ways grace, love, compassion and the Christian faith are expressed in the world of popular music. We seek to be conscientious listeners, agents of renewal and prophets of the Light.
To revel, to reveal, to revel, to rebel, to revel, to reveal. What can a skeptic learn from such a description? We see that the people (the blood, bones, voices, and ghosts) who organized the festival and, we suspect, gave it such a description, are interested not so much in music as art or in faith as religion or cultural expression as they are in what I call a synapse. “Music of epiphany” refers to a synaptic event, a connection between an experience of art and an experience of divine revelation. This is not like a direct wired connection because there is an inherent gap between the music itself and the perceived epiphany. We could call that gap time, but the temporal difference between the sound of the notes and the phenomenon of divine experience is not too meaningful compared to the real gap between what we feel and what the music is. Hermeneutics and interpretation, I believe, go all the way down. The world itself is a poetic text, a text of multivalent meaning that is felt by so many who cannot contain it.
I would, therefore, call that synaptic gap faith, a kind of nonmaterial or paramaterial conduit for what properly passes for divine to arc through from the material vibrations of the music and our neurological response. Elliptical rather than straightforward, mysterious and intangible rather than definable or palpable, it is nonetheless extraordinarily real for me. When I listen to–to cite a worn and withered cliché–John Coltrane’s Ascension, I am cognizant of the music’s origin (probably headphones) and some of the rudiments of how it is affecting my brain. What is missing from the equation is that interpretive layer. I would say that all discourses that relate to the material and to history are fundamentally suspicious, or deserted. As a historian, my hermeneutics, the synaptic gap, transmits the messages and I receive them suspiciously. Deconstruction and theory and all these lenses through which to view constructed texts are working through material reality the only way we know how–that is, through analysis and language founded in language.
Faith is something altogether different. It is a discourse of hope. As a historian, I read a historical text understanding it to be deserted or dead. I cannot know the author’s real intentions, can only partially reconstruct their context, and treat it as alien and other, its letters permeated by an absence that allows me to move my own spirit into them, giving them new life in the present. It’s necromancy. Unlike historical language, faith assumes that the texts are living, that they are interpretively vital, nerves that continue to fire. It is through that lens that the Festival’s organizers are looking at music. Music, to them, can put us in touch with truth revealed, an irreducible message, a spark that can disrupt and inhabit us. Undoubtedly, the organizers would call this ineffable message, arcing over the synapse of faith, “God.” No doubt they identify that God most closely with the God of the Bible. Contained in what might seem like boilerplate, then, is an outrageous, even absurd claim: we can hear God speaking through music.
And not just any music–popular music.
Can music do this? Can popular music transcend the critical, arch its back from the immanent plane and toss us for a loop? Because of my weak faith, I would be afraid if the answer were a straightforward yes. If you could hear God, if you could really access the divine in an oasis beyond criticism, God would be without limit. That God would burst out of my weak biological vessel and dissipate into the air like vapour. I am terrified that God is not someone you could keep an eye on. Look into the Bible and see the animal in His cage. See! You cannot touch! But this God would burst the chains and be like a mosquito you can hear faintly buzzing but cannot see. When you wake up with a rash of itchy red bumps, you know that God has been here. Does the divine make itself known through everything from Radiohead to Mostly Other People Do the Killing? I would like to pose a musical answer to this musical question.
Wolf Parade’s song “I’ll Believe in Anything” has a number of turns that I find useful when trying to articulate this. First listen:
Turning to the lyrical text, we find the song opens us with its first line.
Give me your eyes
I need sunshine
Give me your eyes
I need sunshine
Your blood, your bones, your voice, and your ghost
My most faithful interpretation of these lyrics goes like this. Since the song is addressed in first person, it is received by the listener as an attempt to articulate a private experience with which I hopefully identify. Thus it is not primarily speaking to something outside us but to our own being. Wolf Parade’s imperative declarations become my own. I am demanding new eyes. Someone, something can see the sun and I cannot. This song finds the truth that sunshine–perhaps connecting to the Light in the official description–is something found inhabiting our interpretations rather than in the dry fact of the matter. Further, the song does not understand the person whose eyes we are demanding to be at all ephemeral. This is a person with blood, bones, voice, and, in a curious twist, a ghost.
I’ll believe in anything and
You’ll believe in anything
If I could get the fire out from the wire
I’d share a life and you’d share a life
If I could take the fire out from the wire
I’d share a life and you’d share a life
If I could take the fire out from the wire
I’d take you where nobody knows you and
Nobody gives a damn
The chorus of the song continues to open us up. The possibilities unleashed by a new perspective, by the indwelling of “sunshine,” has allowed us to embrace belief beyond suspicion. This is a faith that is shared, not alone, as the two believers are linked not only by the lives they share but by that “and.” I’ll believe in anything and you’ll believe in anything. This faith is worked out in dialogue and in tension between two (what I can only call) persons. What follows this radical declaration of belief is at the core of the song’s meaning in this interpretation.
Wires are transmitters. Their role is not to do anything themselves, not to perform any service other than putting its two ends in touch with each other. Nerves are essentially wires, though with that synaptic gap transmitting rather than a solid tie. Nonetheless, I think I can transpose my discussion of the synapse into the wire because the transmission of electricity through wires is invisible enough to at least partially account for the ineffability of the synaptic gap. Wires are not supposed to catch on fire. Something has disrupted the transmission, but it has set the wire alight with a dazzling blaze. Rather than seeming inert but buzzing with energy, some event has transpired to set the wire ablaze. If only I could get that fire out from there, to extract it, I could share that life I have. Or do I have it? Is it being transmitted through the wire? When I live, does the medium of transmission I choose (especially if it is digital and thus I live literally through wires) convey the love and life I want to give?
The most puzzling aspect of the song’s chorus is that final section. If we can share our lives, if we can take that fire and hand it back and forth in mutual dialogue, find and process that revelation in community, we are taken to a place where “nobody knows you and nobody gives a damn either way.” This brings up an important question. If we are singing with the voice in our headphones, we are singing to someone or something else. The “you” is an other. If, however, we are passively listening, we receive the message as directed to us. The you becomes us. Instead of reducing it to one or the other, I would recommend embracing that tension, sharing it if you will. Neither deny ownership of the “you” nor seize it only for yourself. Thus we are both the ones who take “you” to that place that is arid. No one knows “you” and, what’s more, no one gives a damn.*
First, we can say that the line establishes that there is a certain place where we are unknown. Despite our deep sharing, our mutual holding of the flame, I do not know “you” and “you” do not know me (or the other way around). This does not diminish the uplift of the song’s music nor does it seem to impede the giving of love. Lacking a full knowing does not preclude a deep mutuality. God should breathe a sigh of relief here. Reading the next line leads us to a slight confusion. Nobody knows us. We are anonymous. It makes sense that nobody cares about us. We are forlorn and abandoned despite our deep mutuality. Loneliness and alienation, we all know, live within and haunt the best of relationships, so the song could be hinting at that. It could be hinting that, if we could get the perfect fire, wrest it from the malfunctioning media of exchange we use and hand it directly to that which we most love, it will still lead us to that arid and anonymous place, at least sometimes.
I would propose, however, that a literal reading of the phrase “give a damn” makes the song more fascinating still. Ignoring for now the idiomatic meaning, we are free to focus on the effect that literally “giving a damn” would have. Read this way, it seems that this place where unknowing permeates, where the fire is shared in full awareness of the mysterious nature of life and of our mutuality, is free of curses. Damnation cannot reach there, and we are unable to curse because our lives are shared. If we curse “you,” which is also “I” then that curse corrupts. The fire shrivels in our hands, leaving them black and desiccated. Nobody knows “you” and nobody gives a damn either way. With this touch of the fire, I will believe in anything, and so I will love without caring, love without giving a damn or giving damnation.
Living these words out is, of course, the more challenging part. During one workshop I attended, I asked David Dark, an academic cultural critic within the Christian community, a question. We were discussing Rumi’s poem entitled “Unfold Your Own Myth,” which I will give in full here:
Who gets up early to discover the moment light begins?
Who finds us here circling, bewildered, like atoms?
Who, like Jacob blind with grief and age,
smells the shirt of his lost son
and can see again?
Who lets a bucket down and brings up
a flowing prophet? Or like Moses goes for fire
and finds what burns inside the sunrise?
Jesus slips into a house to escape enemies,
and opens a door to the other world.
Solomon cuts open a fish, and there’s a gold ring.
Omar storms in to kill the prophet
and leaves with blessings.
But don’t be satisfied with stories, how things
have gone with others. Unfold
your own myth, so everyone will understand
the passage, We have opened you.
Start walking toward Shams. Your legs will get heavy
and tired. Then comes a moment of feeling
the wings you’ve grown, lifting.
[Emphasis probably mine]
We were discussing the idea of myth. In his estimation, to be Christian is to affirm in some way that we should not be satisfied with mere stories or interpretations. We should affirm that there is a reality being testified to by the language we use. I asked what this meant for those myths we ourselves unfold. Those testify to what I would call the material reality of myself. That which acts and works with the potentialities of the world and makes them real. He identified real material action as using the body, the material, to identify with the oppressed. That might be a good start, but it leaves the actual process of inscribing our myths into actualities in a haze. Perhaps that is how it should be.
How can we judge whether the Festival was a success? Can we hold it to the mission statement, its feet charred by the textual fire? That might seem unfair, but what other measure do we all share in common, that we can discuss on its own merits? We have our own stories, but how do they fit into a grander narrative?
I believe that the Festival made real progress in opening me. Immediately after the conclusion of the final event in the Festival, I, like Omar, stormed in to kill the prophet. Tired and disillusioned by my own introversion and the incongruity between the messages I was hearing in the workshops and keynotes and what I wanted to hear, I came with guns blazing. Criticism is the only way, I thought. Criticism is what makes the world go round. I have kept those criticisms. I will be expressing them in a subsequent post in a more straightforward manner. I wanted to leave this space open for more considered and deeper reflection. I have my dissatisfactions, and they will be given their due. But I will see them in the sunshine, knowing that there is a kind of reality to which this whole shebang pointed that they do not encompass or tarnish.
*Note: this ambiguity also exists in the idea of demanding new eyes. It could be that you the listener are being asked to give up your eyes, that the person who needs to see the sunshine is the singer, the “I” that is not you. This only adds to the play of “you” and “I” that makes the song’s inherent message all the more potent. I love this song!