Imagery in Media: The Case of Christian Music

There’s an old joke that Korn was originally planning to be a Christian Rock group until their agent told them there was no money in it. Evidently, monetary incentive was not the only thing Christian Rock lacked.

Anyone who lived through the 90s into the early 2000s could tell you that Christian rock fails to be evocative.

There’s an old joke that Korn was originally planning to be a Christian Rock group until their agent told them there was no money in it. Evidently, monetary incentive was not the only thing Christian Rock lacked.

One need look no further than Creed and their breakthrough hit, Higher to see that the imagery used in Christian rock is weak. What some might fail to notice is that Creed never openly referred to itself as a Christian rock band, nor did they sign on to any Christian Music label. Yet they remain the most commercially successful modern band with a clear Christian slant. Most christian rock from this era was flat or pale imitations of Creed’s formula– some kind of loosely Post-Grunge (an already infamously loose genre) retooling of the words “And He will save us” over and over, usually relying on concepts such as “light” or a “Savior” both in subject and lyrical content. It tends to express itself in a way best defined as vague. Older Christian music, in the form of folk, country, revivalist songs also tend to keep things vague, focusing less on stories and more on the human experience of some God-given feeling involving human agency: “I saw the Light,” or actions taken by people in attempt at, or the act of worship: “Down in the River.” At times, these make light allusions to the bible or imagery of Jesus Christ, through occasional references or mention of the “Starry Crown.” It feels like the music comes from an iconoclast mindset. Modern (20th century and beyond) Christian imagery essentially has to be vague, by function, because to tap into its source would be treating it as inspiration in a manner fitting a mythology.

I would like to make a distinction here:

There is a difference between Christian imagery and Biblical imagery.

Biblical imagery can be deeply evocative. It’s rich, full of stories, prosaic and poetic. When I bring up biblical imagery in songs, I do not mean simple retellings or putting a story to music. I do not mean Sunday School songs about Noah and his ark. I do not mean campfire songs about Solomon threatening to cut a baby in half (but can you imagine?). Christian music — or perhaps it is more accurate to say “music with a Christian influence — ” is at its most evocative when it strays into biblical territory without being the Bible.

Two examples of artists who use biblical imagery would be The Mountain Goats, otherwise known as the sole consistent member, musician and writer John Darnielle; and PJ Harvey, a musician with a long history of collaboration and incorporating Christian and biblical images into her otherwise secular music. Neither artist is particularly famous on a level of being a common household name or emblematic of an era, or even clearly part of a large trend like Post-Grunge Both artists are secular in their focus, built on a secular fanbase, with no religious record labels, and yet they nail it.

 

Christian music has to, as previously mentioned, keep things vague and unclear. Any attempts to bring in specific stories could be seen as too overt in their message. They could veer propagandistic with the wrong outlook.  Conversely, to turn such a holy text into song feels like the work of ages past–actions legitimated by their age.  So how do John Darnielle and PJ Harvey’s songs differ– why do they work where things like Creed fail?

They work for the same reason they are rare: through being interpretations.

Rather than talking about unclear feelings one is expected to feel, or a confession of what one has felt in the presence of the Lord, Darnielle and Harvey paint a picture of a scene, or provide scenarios where one might not immediately see the connection, but can certainly feel it.

John has several songs titled after Bible verses, intended as representations of the verses. Every song on the album The Life of the World to Come is titled after a biblical verse. Another song from an earlier album is titled “I Corinthians 13:8-10.

Psalm 40:2 (released 2009) is obvious in its allusion to the verse. The two are presented for comparison, here:

“He has fixed his sign in the sky He has raised me from the pit and set me high.” –The song

“He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along.”— The bible verse

But of course the song goes beyond just rewording the verse. It is an evocative story of how this verse relates to someone on their journey. It paints a visceral and tangible painting of faith. It provides us with the line: “Lord send me a mechanic if I’m not beyond repair” –a line steeped in emotion. The song isn’t afraid to be rough and realistic with how it approaches a person’s faith. The subject, the narrated voice, is that of a complex and troubled person with an equally complex, and thus realistic and engaging relationship to their faith.

PJ Harvey takes a different approach. It borders on apocryphal but it requires no prior knowledge beyond the simplest understanding of the narrative of Jesus. One does not have to look back to hymns and psalms or read from the scripture to grasp any allusions. She begs a simple question: “but how did Mary feel in all of this?”

Mary lost her head
And let it bleed
Came crying back to me
My son.. Where’s he been?
And don’t deny it
And don’t you hide him

Her song, Missed (released 1993) centers on the narrative of Mary searching for her son upon arrival in heaven. And that really is the way to phrase it, “her son,” not The Lord, not Jesus Christ, for, to her–in that moment–what she seeks is the child she birthed and raised, not the savior of mankind he has become, which could be seen as irreverent. There is no biblical spin-off tale that centers on her exploits and feelings, from which this song draws its message. This is an interpretive and extrapolated work, and by virtue of that, has a perspective I had never encountered before. It made me wonder about Mary more than ever before. It begged me, heathen that I am, to empathize and feel her struggle. It made me realize that in the story of Jesus, the world loses a savior, sure, but she lost a son. Dozens of other thoughts and questions stem from that one.

In essence, nothing about seeing the light or going down to the river to pray has ever made me question faith or narrative,but not every song has to and perhaps that is the point. Those songs are comfy and secure. But they aren’t engaging. They’re nice and uplifting, but they don’t make me wonder about faith itself. And perhaps that is down to audience. I simply know which one I prefer.

All in all, I think there is something to learn from treatments of biblical imagery. As a writer, one can see the means of evocative engagement with readers: it is, in a sense, the classic case of show, don’t tell.

On the “Birth” of Public Figure

The creation of that which is not wholly ourselves alone.

The creation of that which is not wholly ourselves alone.

I suppose this is an appropriate topic to begin my presence in the “blogosphere,” though I have to confess that I’ve not spent much time digging through the first posts of various bloggers and authors to get a sense of if this is a tired cliche or note. I’ve only just decided to take serious the idea of having a twitter, a blog, etc. and the possibility of being a writer as an actual form of living, rather than a hobby. With that possibility, I was struck with a strange feeling, however. This is not a debut in a normal sense, to create one’s own public image. It is not being discovered among all the hopefuls, it is not being a young actor who makes it in film and is recognized, no. It is a birth, all its own.

For, in doing all this, I have to make choices. I have to go so far as to name myself — To decide if I ought have a pen name, or if I ought use my real name, my birth name, my given name. And in some cases, like on Twitter, imagine if that were taken. Imagine if there was no room for one more Jay Carter. I would need a new name. And in the case of most blogs, Jay Carter: The Blog, doesn’t sound nearly as interesting as some catchy handle, persona, or loose memoir-esque title, like Confessions of an Adult Velcro User, or some such thing. I’m sure this metaphor applies beyond that of writers, into the realm of all public figures (especially those that must be clean, like politicians), but I would like to stick to the experience I myself am having.

This metaphor of a birth is one I quite like. We have to decide what we’ll be as writers, as content creators, as public figures, all over again. You’re a food critic, or a film junkie, or provider of social commentary. But you can’t be all of them, can you? Maybe a few, and that blend is what makes you stand out: finding a way to blend food prep with the ethical considerations of an anti-imperialist Cuban expat’s child, or something. We exist multi-factedly, but we narrow our lives into what we’ll be, our career choices, our ambitions, our hobbies (if we are fortunate enough to let those define us instead). Writing is no different.

But the metaphor continues, because, as writers, we are new, we are fresh, we are then born and unpublished, naked to the world and unproven in its harshness. We must then be the child minds that create. And like children, we thrive on imagination. To be a writer — even if it’s in a “non-creative” capacity, like that of a journalist, or a non-fiction writer, or biographer, or whatever one might make an argument for being a non-creative writing capacity — is to exercise one’s imagination. It is to draw connections others have yet to see, to imagine ways to tell even the most documented and vivid events in a fresh way that gives more people that story. That is absolutely an imaginative endeavor. Otherwise, there would be no reason to listen when your friend tells you about a news story they read — to listen for their flair. You could cut them off, (barring the rudeness, I suppose)simply ask for the link, and infer that the article you read was objective and without moments of creativity or emphasis. Even works utterly free of embellishment, lies, and other manners of falsehood are not devoid of imagination.

And as children, we grow and learn, and everything is exciting and new again, because we’re learning to speak again for the first time, and we exist in a world where we assume everyone will want to hear what we have to say, because we ourselves just learned it. We have a life and a past that we draw from, but it will never absolutely mesh, and we find that in crafting our new selves, we must discard so much.

That is why this is a birth — because we are not ourselves recast.

She, Who Walks…

She, who walks in empty grace
trepidatious in her step
has gone, unfazed, to wear the face
to face a meeting with regret.

Escorted by the Seraphim,
her hosts that hold her spirit low—
dangling like a pendulum
touching not the earth, and swinging slow.

Ask her not where she must go
guarded by their splendor so.

She, who walks with certain fate
has never for a moment wept
as spirits, round her, congregate:
Her countenance has kept

Ritual, continue then,
Sacrosanct, her journey, lo.
The Lord watches devil’s Kith and Kin,
The Vicar asks we tell her so.

But ask her not where she must go
on moonlit nights when clouds hang low.

For where she walks, men young and old
speak of Vice and Virtue—of her role—
claiming thus, she works for gold
and not the good-ness of her soul.

A Modern Belle Dame sans Merci
who wears the faces that she must,
and will be the woman she must be
to be avoidant of their lust.

And know she walks, with grace, august,
having learned that Love, she cannot trust.

My Personal Crisis with Poetry: Patronage and Payment.

There is something wrong with how we consume poetry.

There is something wrong with how we consume poetry.

 

Poetry is, to me, a very strange form of creative writing. The rest of the world seems to agree, given the treatment it gets. For one thing, unlike most other forms of writing, there seems to be a collective agreement that there’s no money in poetry when it comes to publication, unless you’re Maya Angelou (or as a more topical, though less impactful example: Rupi Kaur).

As I understand, it is for that reason that contests, such as the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowships exist. Because Poetry has to be funded, encouraged to flourish somehow. And it’s evidently in lump sums that come through victories in the medium at key points in one’s career. The aforementioned fellowship aims at young poets and requests that a majority of the submitted works are those that have yet to be published. Other contests, like that of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize are for poets late into their career. Then there are those that fall in the middle or at the beginning, such as the James Laughlin Award and Walt Whitman Award respectively. Of course, some contests reward the poet with publication, but it is the idea of these prizes, tied tightly to career mileposts, like first publications, second publications, mid-career poet, poet who has had a lifetime of achievement, etc, that seem to motivate the art, knowing that something about the consumption or presentation of poems makes it a harder sell than a book.

That difficulty comes from value expectations.

Value expectations are everywhere. Imagine having to pay to consume a meme. Imagine the outrage people have when something that used to be free starts costing money, even though it had always cost money to produce. Poetry is stuck in a similar space. Sharing a poem is much much easier than sharing a book. Consuming a poem is easier than consuming a book. I’m sure you’ve seen Wordsworth poems image posts of his poems against a field of grass or daffodils or some sort of stationery with a wispy cursive font. I’m sure many people have, in fact, only seen the works of Bukowski or Rupi Kaur in a quickly consumable format. Often, not even shared as copy-pasted text, but as an image of text — likely because it is easier, being one click, no highlighting, and you can send it, and that sharing an image often implies lack of authorship on the part of the sharer. They may be claiming to have discovered it, but the majority of content created by the average internet user is likely text and not images, provided you discount images of themselves or friends. (Think: how many of your friends on facebook make their own meme content compared to those who share it? How often might you assume a block of text copy pasted at you was authored by your friend, as compared to an image they sent?)

Poetry by virtue of the details of its consumption is given an assumed lower value. First of all, many of the best poems in the world hardly reach 200 words (for some, not even so many syllables). Second, it is often cast as having a barrier to entry, by way of its metaphors, references, strange layouts, and “depth” or hidden and implied meanings. In a world where length of content often matters more than depth, (just look at how video games market themselves with having “over 100 hours of side content!”) it is not surprising that poetry, with its short length and sometimes high gate of entry would start to fall to the wayside.

I am, however, not here to tell you that it has a value. Certain foundations seem to believe that it still does. Scholars still look to the poems of old, even as they validate new poets every year. Poets still exist and create content (though they tend to have a day job). I cannot tell you that it has a value — all I can do is hope to convince you through my work.