Friday, July 31, 2009

Chris Tomlin, Andy Kaufman, John Cage, and Mob Art

I struggle with editing my titles. . . . .

Anyway, if you're a musician in the church these days, you've undoubtedly come across the music of Chris Tomlin. He has written most of the current widely-sung worship music in the church today. . .here's a taste: "Forever", "The Wonderful Cross", "Jesus, Messiah", "How Can I keep from Singing", "We Fall Down", "Be Glorified", "How Great is our God", the list goes on.

As with most people who become popular or very successful, Chris is now an easy target. The artistic community, especially, has come down on him for having simple music, sometimes simplistic themes, and not alot of "pushing the envelope" artistically.

It is my opinion that folks who criticize Chris Tomlin in this way have missed it. Even the magazine "Worship Leader" ( a magazine which, without Chris Tomlin, would probably not exist) cannot review a Tomlin recording without talking about how it's 'more of the same' or 'we've heard it before' etc. . . . (they do give him positive reviews. . .but those phrases are always sprinkled throughout, as if they wish he would do something different)

I think that Chris and the band are genuinely trying for artistic excellence on their recordings, and have become pretty solid musicians in the process. I also think that neither one of those things is their goal.

Chris Tomlin's goal is to have everyone singing his songs, to the Lord. He writes with the church in mind, and writes so that the church will be singing deep, glorious truths, in a way that is singable and familiar.

"Jesus, Messiah" declares the theological truth of "substitutionary atonement" in 3 or 4 minutes in a way that everyone can sing. "Forever" paraphrases Psalm 135 in a memorable way. "Holy is the Lord" comes from Nehemiah and leads us in how to respond to God's presence. . . . .

This is a different kind of art,. . . "Mob" art. Two folks in history who are masters of mob art are Andy Kaufman and John Cage. Andy Kaufman was a comedian who would perform bits that subtly "involved" his audience without them really knowing what was going on. This was frustrating and maddening to some. . .and you often didn't know what was happening until you realized you'd been had by the master comedian and the joke was on you. (check out the movie "Man on the moon")

John Cage was an innovative composer who actually invented alot of musical instruments (he has his own museum". He wrote pieces like " 4'33" where the orchestra would sit there for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, not play a note, and the art was happening when the composer would turn a page, someone would clear their throat, someone would shuffle their feet, etc. . . You were a part of the work of art and you didn't know it. Here's a performance of 4'33 here.

With Chris Tomlin, it's the same way. The songs he writes are meant to be sung by the church. So, the next time you're in a church meeting and everyone starts singing a Chris Tomlin song together. . . . that was the idea. That was his goal. You're a part of his "art" at that moment when you're singing.

Now, I'm not saying we can't appreciate artistic excellence at church. Even musical excellence, beauty, and virtuosity should be celebrated.

Its my opinion, though, that during most church meetings. . .we should celebrate God and what he has done, together, in song. Chris Tomlin is trying to help facilitate that,. . .and in those moments, be "artistic".

So, if you're going to criticize him, or others who are trying to write congregational anthems, just realize that the purpose is different for them than in most musical compositions, and recordings. He may not have the most intricate guitar patterns or alot of "old english" language in his music. But, folks all over the world are being given voice to declare great truths about God, express their heart to Him, and even learn some theology in the process.

Thanks Chris Tomlin!

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