BY ALCUIN DAVIDSON
I have to admit that when it comes to my taste in music, I’m an elitist. Buying a new album is a major commitment for me, and I listen before I leap. A good album deserves my undivided attention: I have to listen to it in one sitting, from beginning to end, and I have to have the lyrics in front of me. I have to consider the effect of the instrumentation, the timbre of the singer’s voice, and I have to roll the singer’s words around in my mind for awhile until I’ve identified the true taste of their meaning. Fine music is like fine wine, and I’ve always refused to get drunk on cheap beer. But then I met Sophie.
Sophie and I had known each other since the beginning of our freshman year, but we hadn’t known each other very well, mostly, I think, because she was always half an hour late to church functions, hasn’t read anything written before 1800, and wears overly expressive scarves. One time I happened to be standing next to her in church when we sang my least favorite worship song: “Every Move I Make.” I don’t hate this song because the lyrics are facile and slightly incoherent: I hate this song because in the middle we are required to sing “La la la la la” ad infinitum. My tolerance for contemporary worship music being, well, limited enough as it is, this sort of stunt really puts me over the edge. I’ve always refused to sing that part of the song. Sophie, however, became positively exuberant when that part came, even jumping up and down and doing hand motions. I was tempted to find this display off-putting, but then I saw her face. There was a vivid engagement and joyful openness to her expression that was really quite fascinating: here was an intelligent if too postmodern young woman who could passionately worship the living God by singing the stupidest nonsense I’ve ever heard. I tucked the interesting image away and would have thought no more of it, but after the song had ended on a final tacky power chord she turned to me and said, fervently, “Don’t you just love this song?”
Startled into honesty, I replied, “I hate it.” She blinked, and actually looked a little crushed for a second. Then she smiled and flashed me a knowing look. We sat down.
After the service she turned to me again and said, “So tell me, Alcuin, what’s the problem with ‘Every Move I Make’?”
“I don’t think the lyrics are particularly meaningful,”—I think the lyrics are stupid—“and I find the bridge to be in bad taste”—if I have to sing “la la la” I think I will stab myself in the gut and twist.
“I think the lyrics are very meaningful!” said Sophie. “The verse is obviously a reference to the part of Acts, I think chapter 17 or 18, when Paul speaks at the Areopagus. When we sing that song, we’re participating in the mystery of God’s revelation throughout time in, you know, different cultures. I mean, here Paul was telling the Athenians that the unknown god they had worshipped had been or should have been God all along. It speaks to the fact that God meets us where we are, but then lifts us up with His love to the truth made flesh in Jesus Christ.”
“Okay,” I said, slightly taken aback, “be that as it may, what about the way it’s written? The chorus is a mess, and the ‘la la la’ part, you have to admit, is kind of a cheap trick.”
“Good taste isn’t the point,” she said, as if talking to a small child.
I was in for it now. I don’t usually burden new acquaintances with my musical taste, and now I saw that I would forever wear the scarlet S for “Snob” in her mind if I didn’t explain myself. “I’m not saying that a worship song has to be a Shakespearean sonnet,” I backtracked, “it’s just that God—God deserves the first fruits of our labor, our art. God is so infinitely worthy of praise, our best praise, that to serve him two-buck chuck when he deserves the best vintage, from the costliest vineyard, is just insulting.”
“Ah,” she said softly. “I see what you mean now. I feel that way too, sometimes. I guess, it’s just—well, I don’t think that we’re capable of serving up Cabernet, or at least I’m not. If I only sang praises to my King when I was thoroughly convinced of their aesthetic value I’d be forever silent. I mean, the Spirit groans what we can’t express through words; the stars’ voice praises their creator without speech. I don’t think words are ever really going to cut it, and elegant verses are not that much better than trite cliché when you come right down to it.”
“Well then, what can we do?” I was actually slightly upset. “If there’s no legitimate standard of excellence, how can we find beauty, truth, meaning?”
“I’m not sure,” she said. “But I think that it all comes down to love. I mean, God was willing to use the words of a pagan poet to make his gospel known to the Athenians. God is love, and he sees things… lovingly. If we loved the things we read, or the music we heard, or the artwork we saw, if we approached them with humility, then God would reveal Himself and His mind to us even in Danielle Steele novels, or Fergie’s music, or Thomas Kinkade’s paintings.”
This was an overly pantheistic, if somehow appealing, statement, and I opened my mouth to argue, but she cut me off— “Oh man, I’ve got to go. I’m sorry to cut this short, but Alice and I were going to tie-dye shirts tonight for that rally on Sproul and she’s giving me a come-hither-NOW look. But good talking with you, Alcuin. See you next week!” And then she ran off down the aisle of the sanctuary, her scarlet scarf fluttering behind her.
“Good talking to you too,” I muttered to the empty air beside me. I had to think about her ideas for a while, but I think she’s at least partly right. I do not agree that true artistic excellence is “beside the point,” but I do concede that the work of the Holy Spirit can transcend stupid lyrics. God is the true lyricist; God is the only true Word, and art is only truly art when something of His Spirit dwells in it, just as a man is only truly human when the fire of Pentecost burns up what he used to be. And the fire is love, the Word is love: the Bridegroom turns water to wine at the wedding feast.