The Death of Genius

Slate has an obit for Pink Floyd’s first lead singer, Syd Barrett, today. Barrett departed the band early, long before Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and other classic albums. Still, Slate says Barrett did have a kind of genius, even if it was consumed by an acid inferno. They also say he’s not the kind of rock martyr that a Jim Morrisson or Janis Joplin was, partly because he descended into madness pretty quickly after leaving Pink Floyd.

Rock has its share of tortured geniuses. But these days, you don’t find many geniuses in the world of pop music, esp. Christian pop music, known in the biz as CCM. There’s interesting music, entertaining music, but little that will stand the test of time. I wonder if CCM isn’t turning out loads of Steeler’s Wheels (Don’t know them? Exactly.) and no Dylans, Costellos, or The Whos.

On the other hand, twenty-five years from now, when we might get a “Classic Christian” format on radio, they’ll probably be playing people we barely hear of. After all, too few Christians know about Mark Heard, The Choir, the early Bruce Cockburn, and the dozen or so other musicians who pioneered Christian pop music and remain on its fringes. Charlie Peacock is still making art, for crying out loud, and not just music for the audio junkpile that is Christian radio. Who else is out there making fantastic art for the few? Even in this MySpace moment, there’s a lot out there that just can’t get into the minds of the many.

It often seems like somebody trying to really make art gets shouldered out of the industry. Perhaps a better image is being left on the side of the road a thousand miles from nowhere (quick! name the artist) after hitching a ride with a Rolex-wielding guy in a limo. Take Derek Webb, whom I mentioned yesterday. Derek Webb

This quote is now on Dick Staub’s Web site (and if you’re not reading Dick Staub, you should be):

Christian artists don’t seem to be focused anymore on making great art. That’s our main problem, not what our message is, not what we are trying to communicate, not how we are breaking down these barriers, but the fact that we are failing to make good engaging art is our main problem…Our industry, the way it is set up, who the gatekeepers are, it doesn’t encourage making unique art…We have a radio genre that is on the whole pretty uninteresting, and it’s pretty bland artistically. (From Relevant Magazine, January 29, 2006)

That’s a pretty blistering critique. Pair it with this from the aforementioned Dick Staub (whose next book, incidentally, is titled The Culturally Savvy Christian: A Manifesto for Deepening Faith & Enriching Popular Culture in an Age of Christianity-Lite (January 2005):

At the risk of sounding uncharitable—50 years from now, how many copies of Left Behind and the Purpose Driven Life will be sold? Our popular culture is impoverished and the “Christian media culture” is satisfied to make money by serving crumbs off the table of that fallen culture, often dumbing down our faith in the process. Until we experience a spiritual, intellectual and creative renaissance, both culture and the parallel universe of Christian media will serve thin gruel, entertaining ourselves to death. I’m concerned about the whole Christian media enterprise. (Read the whole interview.)

Me too, Dick. Me too. And the music industry isn’t alone. I remember reading a fantastic novel a few years ago called They Shall See God. (Full disclosure: It was published by my former employer, Tyndale House.) The author, Athol Dickson, wrote really great fiction, the kind of fiction that could have mainstreamed like Tolkien and Lewis. But the Christian industry can’t sell a guy like Athol because the shelf space is taken up by others either of dubious talent or next-to-no interest in making a difference beyond tomorrow.

Quite frankly, I wonder if it isn’t because so much of the evangelical subculture is expecting the rapture at any second. That old aphorism, “Only one life, twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last,” has done some harm along with the probable good. How many artists have laid down their art, convinced that it was hay and stubble rather than gold and precious stones with which to build the kingdom? The church continues to foster this kind of thinking, at least at its core. Peace Like a River coverWe turn out evangelistic novels instead of Christian novels; in other words, too many of us are interested in decisions more than discipleship; statistics rather than genuine sanctification. (I know, I know, there are exceptions and promising trends, but on the whole…) And who makes the “Christian” best-seller lists? Not a Eugene Peterson, or a Leif Enger (whose Peace Like a River is one of the great modern Christian novels), but pop psychology masquerading as something more.

I believe in the Second Coming of Christ. But when He comes, will He find faith in the world? In other words, will he find a richness in what the church has done? Or will we gleefully hand Him what we’ve done, not realizing we had to dig it up from where we’d hidden it? I wonder if we won’t find ourselves like the Pharisees, watching, waiting, and minding our P’s and Q’s, while the Messiah turns up in a food trough in an two-thirds world imperial backwater.

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