Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Good Critique of Mumford and Sons

Nathan Chang writes a compelling piece on Mumford and Sons and their latest album Babel. Personally, I have enjoyed their past two albums, both for their passion and energy and for their spiritually thoughtful lyrics, but Chang provides some convicting food for thought.

Talking about Mumford's quotable lyrics, he says:
Reading the lyrics from a Mumford & Sons song is a daunting task, not because they’re challenging, but because they’re incoherent. Mumford seems afraid of writing thoughts that are longer than two or three short lines, not that this matters when your main audience is looking for a style, catchiness and a hook rather than challenging lyrics. Songs don’t have to be philosophical treatises, but a good song—like a good poem—marries truth and efficiency of language through subtlety and the suggestive power of the unspoken. Creative Writing 101: “Show, Don’t Tell.” Someone missed the memo or doesn’t have enough faith in writing or audience or some combination of the above. This is of course what makes Mumford & Sons so quotable (especially on Twitter and on Sundays). Attention deficit results in a failure to tackle the difficult questions; the songs feign to wrestle with anything approaching thoroughness or even a serious effort.
Later in the article he draws a comparison between Mumford's lyrics and contemporary Christian praise music:
It is the unimaginative, manufactured earnestness that ultimately makes Mumford & Sons as emotionally unfulfilling as a lot of contemporary Christian praise music. They have perfected a songwriting formula lifted straight out of the Hillsong playbook: Take any deficiencies or failings of the lyrics to elicit emotion and add accompaniment with sufficient volume, then take a few lines and repeat them again and again with feeling and honesty. Surely if the drums come in at the right time and we throw in a key change, the song will be really emotional. It’s a problem in church, and it’s a problem on the radio.
Even though I still will enjoy Mumford & Sons after this article, I appreciate the ways in which I have been challenged by Chang. The world we live in is full of 140 character bits of decontextualized truth. If that is all we are getting, I believe our hearts and minds will suffer for it.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

GIving Up 'Getting Ahead' For Simple Pleasures

When I was out west, I would often remember with longing the rain and thunderstorms that would often come through Georgia. You might think I'm crazy, since southern California has some of the best weather in the country, but there's something peaceful about rain that made me long for it more often than once every six months.

This past Monday it rained. It rained a lot. All day in fact. I loved it. After falling asleep to it in the afternoon, I went downstairs, opened the garage door, set up a camping chair near the edge of where the water was dripping of the roof and I sat, watching and listening. It was extremely peaceful.

I also had a book in hand, The Hidden Wound, by Wendell Berry. This is my first Berry book, recommended to me by one of my favorite professors at Fuller. I don't know much about Berry, except that he is a Christian who has written a lot on agrarian ideas and that he has lived on a farm in Kentucky for the past forty years.

In the book, he is talking about racism and slavery that existed in our not so distant history. He himself grew up on a farm where his grandfather owned a couple of slaves. One slave in particular, Nick, become a childhood friend of Berry.

In one chapter, he is describing how Nick's life was rich in simple pleasures, contrasted with the "anxiety and the greed and the haste and the self-doubt of the white man scrambling for the top." Speaking about these pleasures, he says:
"In these times one contemplates it with the same sense of hope with which one contemplates the sunrise or the coming of spring: the image of a man who has labored all his life and will labor to the end, who has no wealth, who owns little, who has no hope of changing, who will never 'get somewhere' or 'be somebody,' and who is yet rich in pleasure, who takes pleasure in the use of his mind! Isn't this the very antithesis of the thing that is breaking us in pieces? Isn't there a great rare human strength in this--this humble possibility that all our effort and aspirations is to deny?"
Being back in Georgia, in the northern Atlanta suburbs that are so full of the excess of wealth and busyness, it's hard not to be sucked in to believe that these things are what I should be going after. Thankfully, a restful time in the rain helped remind me that these things are not life giving and that God's definition of success for me is far different from what the world tells me it is.

Here's a closing thought from Berry again, this time drawing on Henry David Thoreau, who gives some direction as to what true wisdom is:
"A Thoreau so well knew, and so painstakingly tried to show us, what a man most needs is not a knowledge of how to get more, but a knowledge of the most he can do without, and of how to get along without it. The essential cultural discrimination is not between having and not having or haves and have-nots, but between the superfluous and the indispensable. Wisdom, it seems to me, is always poised upon the knowledge of minimums; it might be thought to be the art of minimums. Granting the frailty, and no doubt the impermanence, of modern technology as a human contrivance, the man who can keep a fire in a stove or on a hearth is not only more durable, but wiser, closer to the meaning of fire, than the man who can only work a thermostat."