Essay / Misc.

Your Old Men Shall Dream Dreams

Since at least the time of Nietzsche, a major objection to Christian faith has been that it is bad for the human spirit generally, and the imagination in particular. It produces people with tiny souls, content to monger prooftexts, take everything on authority, stay on the surface of life, and investigate nothing. Pat answers satisfy our lethargic minds and trite nostrums guide our moral lives, while “Christian art” (if the term itself is not indeed oxymoronic) is considered wildly successful if it rises to the level of bare mediocrity.

So goes the critique, and it’s got some bite. But Daniel Amos’ 2001 CD, Mr. Buechner’s Dream, is a standing refutation of the notion that faith kills art. This sprawling CD (actually a double-CD set) doesn’t refute the Nietzschean suspicion simply by being swell art and therefore a bit of evidence to the contrary –though as the mature product of an accomplished group of Christian musicians it is certainly that. No single CD will turn that tide; in fact a generation or two of Rembrandts and Bachs would barely suffice to that end.

Instead, what Terry Taylor and his band offer here is the fruit of a quarter-century’s personal struggle with questions of art and faith. In the unpromising arena of Contemporary Christian Music, the band Daniel Amos has been fighting this battle across a career that spans more than two dozen major releases (if you count all the solo projects, side bands, and whatnot). Taylor has been turning this problem over and over in his head, asking himself and his listeners about the way Christian faith shapes art.

Mr. Buechner’s Dream is a pretty cerebral collection of songs, so much so that it’s not ridiculous to say this CD argues a thesis. The thesis is that Christ doesn’t cut the nerve of creativity. In fact, by the time this CD has made its case, Christ and creativity seem very close together indeed. As long as the music’s playing and the words keep coming, it seems as if faith feeds the imagination and vice versa, and while the spell is working it’s hard to imagine that Christian believers could ever make bad art –it’s even it’s hard to say how artists can function without the tremendous advantage of Christian faith. Of course the spell is fragile and breaks easily, but the wonder is that Taylor can weave it at all.

How does Terry Taylor advance his thesis over the course of 33 alternative pop songs? His first strategy is to summon the witnesses, who are drawn from the bookshelves of novelist Frederick Buechner. In one of his memoirs, Buechner dreamily ponders the various literary personae who surround him in his study, and Taylor explores this scene in one of the early songs:

Old Chesterton with his cherub’s face
Greets Lewis by the fireplace
And Miss O’Connor dressed in southern grace
Can’t keep up with Mr. William’s pace

These ghostly figures do not all show up in the rest of the songs, as Taylor has learned over the years to conceal his erudition and brandish fewer footnotes and quotations. But the invocation of such a host of sympathetic artists at the opening of the collection has a lasting effect. Though the tone of the CD is mostly set by the visionary space of Buechner’s bookshelves, the dreaming old man himself is also among the prophets, and Taylor sings to him

I felt so out of place
‘Til you danced your dance of grace;
I saw a hope of faith shining there
(in the tale you told)

I was a dying man
‘Till i heard the song you sang
And I grabbed your ravaged hand reaching out
(in the tale you told)

Terry Taylor has used a lot more material from Buechner in earlier lyrics (1993’s MotorCycle was Buechner with a beat), and speaking for myself I have to say that (aside from the excellent Alphabet of Grace)I’ve always found Buechner considerably less satisfying than what Taylor does with Buechner. It’s not exactly straw into gold, but in my opinion there’s value added.

But to feel the force of Taylor’s argument, you have to accept the image he offers of Frederick Buechner as the paradigmatic believing artist, who can teach the craft of either throwing a veil of mystery over the everyday, or describing numinous ancient figures as our contemporaries –see the striking songs on this CD about Lot’s wife (“framed in the city lights of hell, she took a mirror from her purse”), Job (“the world went fatal on me, Cold hearted, dark, and cunning”), Eve (“I hear you’ve got a tender spot for sweet talk and tattooed men”), Sarah and Abraham (“It’s a miracle we ever got saved, a wonder all our bills are paid; here’s a pregnant pause”), and Noah (“A flood of fire in a lost world’s dying … Take us, and break us, but please don’t forsake us.”)

This tensive interpenetration of the commonplace and the transcendent is a continuous thread through these songs, because it is a key to the way the Christian imagination finds God in the midst of life. On songs like “Ordinary Extraordinary Day” (“There was living and dying and everything in between”) and “Small Great Things” (“Wayward sons and fragile daughters, a touch of faith enough”) the tension is all there is.

Another artistic advantage of believers over unbelievers is that they’re uniquely capable of doubt. That is, minus the enveloping condition of faith, doubt would be too much of a steady state to motivate creative exploration. So while doubt is not exactly a virtue in Taylor’s vision of creativity, in juxtaposition with faith it does get a lot of the artist’s work done, as a force that is both driving and drawing. The reverent mind traces the contours of the world seeking the meaning that it knows must be embedded here from beyond, even when

Sometimes there seems to be
No author of the story
These thoughts occur to me
On this side of glory

There must be a meaningful pattern here somewhere, and that sets the faithful mind to wondering:

I’m looking through the beveled glass (I get to wondering)
Was that your shadow going past ? (I get to wondering)
Are these your footsteps in the grass? (I get to wondering)

All philosophy begins in wonder, and art both begins and ends there, wherever it may be permitted to explore in between.

Here is another plank of the lyrical argument: mystery. The encounter with Jesus Christ is something that hurls you into the heart of a mystery and awakens the powers of the creative mind at its highest and deepest. It sharpens your wit and it brings you befuddled to your wit’s end. Then it re-sharpens, re-befuddles, and repeats the cycle. This is how it teaches you to keep your wits about you. This is life for those who have learned to live with One whose ways are past finding out. Some songs wear their search for the meaning of life on their sleeve:

Love is a question mark
Life’s in a shadow box
God hides himself sometimes
Inside a paradox
And there may not ever be
Anything here new to say
But I’m fond of finding ways
To say it in a different way

While other songs are just haunted:

Someone laughs and
Reaches down
Cracks the plates and
Spins the world around
On their fingertips

Fred Buechner famously advises writers to (in words from King Lear) “Speak what we feel, not what we ought,” and throughout this set of songs Taylor is ruthlessly critical of those who let their senses of perception or expression be dulled by precoccupation with what they think they’re supposed to say or see. In a song built around the most obvious six-note guitar line ever written –I do hope this is an intentionally stupid guitar line– Taylor snipes away at the attitude:

Does everybody want it nicely
Lined up in little neat rows?
Does anybody know precisely
Just where the wild wind blows?

and offers to make some art to accommodate that demand:

We could dance the same old dances
Learn all the same old ropes
Roll out the same safe songs
Tell all our tired jokes

before suggesting an alternative artistic agenda:

We’ve got some walls to climb
We’ve got some gates to crash
We’ve got a fire to light
Burn down the pious trash

The phrase “pious trash,” if not a Flannery O’Connor coinage, is at least a term she applied liberally to characterize most Catholic novels she’d ever seen. O’Connor had her own worries that “piety kills the creative mind,” and she worried so well and thoroughly about it that her creative mind somehow produced work possessed of something you can only call genuine piety: high octane piety that eats the varnish right off of sham and cant.

Terry Taylor has served time as the Angry Young Man of Christian rock, the Overlooked Prophet, and the Embittered Old Curmudgeon. In any of those guises he could dish it out with the most spiteful of them, and some of that aptitude shows up on this CD:

Have you heard about ‘Faithful street’
Where the honey flows, and grace is cheap?
They’ve been sowing everything they reap (so they say)
And everyone’s in glowing health (Faithful street)
And everyone can share the wealth (Faithful street)
And no ones faith is ever weak on faithful street

But whenever the sarcasm breaks through, it’s clearer than ever that it’s in service of a vision of how things ought to be if believers would let their faith inform their art rather than letting their churchy sensibilities colonize, cannibalize, moralize, and sterilize their sense of mystery in the making:

You’re feeling
You got a healing
Hand in the air
If you can name it
You can tame it
And it’s always there
I can’t hold it
I can’t mold it
It’s like catching a star ….
So how does this come so easy for you?

At the considerable risk of being directly didactic, Taylor finally climbs into the lectern and gives a little lyrical lesson on What Art Is For (now listen closely kids, this is the part that will be on the quiz):

I’ve opened up a place in this simple song
It’s a little bit of space I’m leaving… …
Taking chances at first glances
That you’ll get me all wrong
And cross out every word I’m singing

Or this could grow on you my friend
Might not knock you down or drag you in
But it’s a place I can begin
To get under your antenna and your thick skin

How about a little wind in your perfect hair?
How about a little swim in my ocean?… …
I’m dreaming in and breathing in the metaphoric air
Designed to get your faith in motion

I’ve opened up a vein and let the ink get out
It’s dripping from the hand I’m moving… …
The mystery in you and me
Is what it’s all about
And true love is the scalpel I’ve been using

There it is. The whole 33-song collection is full of strategies of indirection, sneaky moves, and low-flying attacks designed to get under your radar. There’s also the occasional pregnant pause

in which you might hear the voice calling out to you to return to the place where faith and imagination reinforce each other.

Because Mr. Buechner’s Dream is so focused on its chosen topic, whenever it mobilizes biblical language the language is caught up as commentary on the creative process. Nowhere is this more so than in the simple little song Joel, which finds in the prophecy of Pentecost a kind of foreshadowing of a coming time of faithful art that is not pious trash:

I’ll pour my spirit
On all flesh
Your sons and daughters
Will prophesy
Your old men
Shall dream dreams
And your young men
Shall see visions

It takes a lot of energy to prophecy, and even seeing visions is apparently more appropriate to the young fellows than to old guys. But old men can dream dreams, and Mr. Buechner’s Dream climaxes with an eschatological vision of God’s Spirit poured out in such a way that prophecies, dreams and visions pour forth from all the people of God. May it be so.

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