Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Paul Tillich's Theology of Indie Rock III

Part I, Part II.

In the last part in this series I used the examples of Muse and The Smiths to illustrate how Paul Tillich's system of classifying art can be used to find the religious aspect in rock music. Now I will give to more examples, and finally get to the kind of music that, according to me and Tillich, is actually communicating something of that depth dimension in reality we commonly call God.

But first we have to look at some music that fits in the upper left corner of Tillich's diagram. This is music subjective in attitude and form oriented. Well, there is a lot of stuff that would fit in this sector. Take this clip of the Strokes for example. What is going on here? A couple of guys are standing around looking cool as f**k. The singer, looking cool, sings something about his life, but he is not really trying to say anything much, it's more about finding words that fit the kind of sound they are creating. Oh, and his foot must really hurt after kicking that mike-stand. To call this religious would be blasphemy. I won't say it's without merit, that guitar does sound nice, and its a good tune. But depth, no.

Most "Next big thing" type of artists tend to fit neatly into this category. It seems to me it is the most secular of all the categories in the diagram, and I have to confess, these types of bands rarely interest me much. Yes, good for parties and such, but not really for listening.

So then, what would be typical of a band with objective attitude that is gehalt-oriented? First of all lyrics would deal with the existential situation of man. It would be considered insufficient to describe the personal life of the lyricist or some fictional person in a way that connects with the listener. Attempts would be made to grasp something universal, something that is beyond the particular. There would be a tendency to break up the linear narrative of lyrics and create more fragmented pieces of images that together point to something beyond.

Further, the whole song would be created around this centre of the song that is created by the lyric, so that sounds, arrangements and instrumental parts would support and deepen the experience that is presented.

You have to forgive me for taking my favourite band as an example but it is really the best one I can think of. This has been the nature of most Radiohead songs from OK Computer onwards. Take Pyramid song off Amnesiac:

I jumped in the river and what did I see?
Black-eyed angels swam with me
A moon full of stars and astral cars
All the things I used to see
All my lovers were there with me
All my past and futures
And we all went to heaven in a little row boat
There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt

This lyric is quite simple, just eight lines of text. The imagery is quite abstract: It suggests some kind of experience, maybe a dream or a vision, where the "I" of the song is experiencing something about our existence, the notion that in some way all the love we experience in life stays with us and that because of this there is 'nothing to fear and nothing to doubt'.

But the lyrics is just the starting point. The music adds so much to it. (If you haven't heard this song, I suggest that you do not watch the video yet, just listen to the music first) Those piano chords with that weird rhythm, those noises in the background that suggest a vast space around the subject of the song. It is all describing man's situation in the face of this faceless threat called death. Then the drums enter making the rhythm even more complex, adding to the feeling of existential commotion. In the middle of it all there arises this triumphant courage in the face of death, leading to this feeling calmness and trust at the end of the song.

To me this song says more about human existence, death and redemption than thousands of pages of top class theology. The experience of listening to this song is beyond the emotional, and the ego of the singer is completely irrelevant. By listening to this song something very fundamental in my being is moved, and this is an experience I wouldn't hesitate to call religious.

This is obviously not saying anything about the supposed religiosity of Thom Yorke and the other members of Radiohead (they have never said much positive about (organized) religion, with the exception of Buddhism). What I am saying is that this song (and there are many other songs that could be mentioned) can be interpreted as religious (or spiritual) in a very genuine way.

So here we have the diagram again, with my four examples placed in their respective sectors.

In the final part of this series I will address some of the problems of this system, and address why this may actually be a very significant and relevant line of theology.


Jusa said...

Mun nimi on Jusa, if you want me to write in English (for example for the sake of english readers), i'll try (altough i'm not too good in englihs - but isnt this good practice for me anyway? really i enjoy your style and ability to express tillichean ideas; i can only imagine what would it be like, if i could do the same, and i shit you not).

i dont have much to add to your analysis of Tillich's theology of art. and i guess his conception of form, inhalt and gehalt was correctly expressed in your blog. and before saying anything fatal I emphasise I read your three part tillich writing fast and not very carefully (It just happened I found your blog few minutes ago, and now I opened my dictionary in order to comment…..).

To have a deeper understanding of Tillich’s theology of art, we must know the “basics” of his view of the relation between culture and religion (keeping in mind one of his fundamental statements, “culture is the form of religion and religion is the substance of culture”). Going more deeper in tillich, which you seemingly know better than me, this is not possible without understanding the way he defines the whole life as a mulitidimensional unity, which basically is a process of potential being becoming actual. man’s cultural activity, artistic expressions among it, belongs to the dimension of spirit, which, as he often said, cannot be separated from biological or psychological dimensions of life. Hence, spirit is a result of evolution, of potentiality becoming actuality. The highest being in the created world is, of course, man, because in him all the ontological elements are fully developed and in him all the dimensions of life are actualised and thus man is fully individualised, and what is most important, we are free - free in the sense that we have an abstract language that liberates us to fly across any imaginable border, across any wall and to ask, what is beyond them, and finally, what will wait us after we go beyond the final frontier in the moment we die.

Freedom as an ability to fly lets us create new realms and thus it is just freedom that makes everyone of us, even if we just sit among the audience, an artist (you are an artist yourself when you interpret indie rock lyrics and find yourself there and take part in the meanings of them). you can easily see the relation between an artist and a philosopher who both ask the same question to which a minister is ought to answer. (and, putting freedom in the frame of form-inhalt-gehalt conception, you can see the relationship of that frame to that of form breaking dynamics, which in the spiritual dimension of life actually means man’s cultural activity.)

the reason for me to write all this is just the people of today often say, ok, there is no evidence of god or anything like that, and in this sense they say they find religion meaningless. In this they are right. For in the sense ministers either give emotionally candied psychological-sosiological lectures or else they are speaking in a simple Sunday school language in their sermons, religion makes little sense, that is, religion has no meaning. but it is just religion that should talk about meaning. And it is just this situation in which culturally sophisticated scientists (take for example Esko Valtaoja) often say, well, music is not just spots and lines, and if science doesn’t give the final answers, we luckily never run out of good art.

it is often impossible to talk about god with these people. but it is possible to talk about language, freedom, spirit - and then on this ground, it is possible to ask the questions of meaning. if these people say there are things to live for, a tillichean would ask, what is the ultimate meaning-giving reason or “power” as tillich would say - and if there is, an ultimate concern is actualised.

you should blog about gospel music vs. indie rock.

I myself have no idea how does indie rock sound. keep on keeping on, as Dylan would say.

ps just registered for a web log here at the blogger.com but it's still empty :-)

Patrik said...

Hello Jusa, and thanks for your comments. For this short series I have just picked up this one thread in Tillich's theology of culture, and I agree that one could find much more of value if one delved deeper. Not the least the notion of a new Theonomy is interesting, though I do not know how to apply that to indie rock yet..

I will actually address the notion of "christian" music in my next post (in Finland usually referred to as gospel no matter which genre) , among other things.

metalepsis said...

I jumped in the river and what did I see? Black-eyed angels swam with me

I always took these lines to be an intertextual reference to Swing Low, Sweat Chariot:

I looked over Jordan, what do I see....A band of angels coming after me

giving further credence to the spirituality of longing in the song , and perhaps a case can be made that it actually has hints of protest too!

loved the series!