Friday, February 04, 2011

Cultural Criticism (UPDATE, UPDATE II Erratum)

As a welcome escape from the Egyptian situation - I am still following it via Al Jazeera - I have been re-reading my "move" book, the award-winning Heroes and Villains by David Hajdu. A collection of essays all but one of which were previously published in The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and The Atlantic, among other publications, these essays cover the gamut - jazz and hip-hop, the blues and Sting, The Beatles and Susannah McCorkle, Elmer Fudd and graphic novels - of pop- and high-culture phenomena. The one previously unpublished essay, which opens the volume, is a review of the importance of the life and career of Billy Eckstine. Once the most popular singer in America - he outdrew Frank Sinatra and was offered a $1 million contract by MGM for both movies and recordings; his first band as a leader included Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis, names one might recognize - Eckstine's career came to a screeching halt when a photographer for Life magazine snapped one photo of a group of young women swooning over Eckstine, one leaning against his expansive chest as he laughed in seeming revelry at the event. The problem, sad to say, was the photo was taken in 1950. Eckstine was African-American. The young women in obvious physical desire, were white.

Hajdu's eclectic mix of the best - Lennon and McCartney each get separate essays; Ray Charles is remembered, as is his contemporary Bobby Darin - the worst - Alan Lomax, Sting, ignorant (mostly white) blues fans who focus on technical virtuosity at the expense of the totality of the musical experience - and the just-plain-odd - an appreciative essay on Elmer Fudd reveals that, in fact, Fudd was not voiced by Mel Blanc, among other glorious tidbits - is a rare gem among volumes of critical writing. Unlike Lester Bangs' gonzo-journalism-cum-narcissism (every essay of Bangs, no matter how brilliant, is far more about Lester Bangs than his purported subject matter), or Gary Giddin's insiders approach to writing about jazz, Hajdu writes for those who may never have heard, say, an Anita O'Day record, or truly appreciated the artistry of hip-hop artist/actor Mos Def, yet allows them access. He does not treat the reader like an idiot. Nor does he toss off phrases and jargonish nonsense that might make the reader feel like an adept of some secret world open only to those who truly understand.

As I read through these essays for the second time in six months, I have been thinking about the lack of serious critical acumen in the Church. One thing I will say for Wesley Theological Seminary, they had an actual Ph. D. in sociology on the faculty, who also happened to be a United Methodist clergyman. I wish even the introductory class in Sociology of Religion had been required of all M. Div. students, instead of those just in the Urban Ministry track. I was fortunate to take it, and continue to benefit from it, as I have moved with Lisa from south to north, from rural to more suburban churches.

All the same, some instruction in larger cultural concerns might also benefit our clergy. Wesley also houses the Center For Arts and Religion, and there is a strong emphasis on the role of the visual and graphic arts in the life of the local church. Classes in hymnody, however, are electives; one late professor, Jim Logan, used to begin his classes on Methodist History and Doctrine by playing a Charles Wesley hymn, integrating it in to his lecture for that day.

These, however, offered such a narrow scope for understanding the place of music and the other arts in the life of the local congregation. There was no introduction to critical writing, no entry for our clergy-in-training to learn to think critically about the culture in which the Church lives, and for which it lives. Seminary graduates escape after three or four years grasping in some general outline everything from liturgical practice to the classic doctrines of the church to an outline of its history; what they do not have when they leave are the tools to look at the larger world and understand it, come to grips with it, perhaps even see within its various cultural guises hints and possibilities of the blowing of the Spirit in song and poetry, in literature and art (there was a class on protest in African-American fiction, but the professor who taught that has long since passed away).

Since my own interests lie in music, I think Hadju's volume, with its breadth of subject matter and depth of understanding, even as he occasionally lapses in to cliche - John Lennon-good/Paul McCartney - bad is his most egregious one - seems as good a place as any to begin to understand the possibilities for the Church if it had even a few folks who would approach cultural criticism from the unique perspective of the Christian faith. For example, what are we to make of the varied music of U2, The Alarm, The Call, P.O.D., and Lifehouse? Would it be possible to integrate, say, the moral lessons of Dostoevsky and Alice Walker in to a way of looking at the larger world? Is it even possible to take the pessimism of Jonathan Franzen and the exuberance of David Foster Wallace as different poles as we move toward acceptance of our diminished national status, as well as the diminished role of faith in our national life?

Sadly, I just don't know if there are enough folks out there who understand how necessary this is to doing good ministry. We cannot serve a congregation if we do not have the tools to help them grasp the world around them. If we don't have those tools, we cannot pass them on.

UPDATE: Courtesy of (who else?) The New Inquiry comes this wonderful example of critical writing. What makes it wonderful? Why, by taking on the cliches of a critic pretending profundity. The DJ who created Girl Talk - as evidenced, at least, by the video TNI produces so helpfully - is certainly clever. Beyond that . . . is the clever use of technology a technique the way, say, learning a musical instrument or singing is a technique? At this point, I would have to say . . . well, read the review at Riff Market.

UPDATE II: Speaking of writing well about culture . . . I have corrected an error. Above, I referred to the band Lifehouse as "Lighthouse", for God only knows what reason. I regret the error, especially as I was pleading for more intelligent writing about culture. Ah, well, physician heal thyself and all that . . .

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