Wednesday, June 8, 2011

With A Stranger's Ears

As I sat in DC rush-hour traffic on my way back from a visit with a church member yesterday, I found some comfort in listening to one of my more centering iTunes playlists.

Like most folks, I have a variety of lists, each of which serves a different purpose.  For working out, I tend to listen to one of two playlists.  "Wide Rhinestone Lapel" is a collection of 70's disco greats, and makes for great driving cardio background.   "Pomp and Bombast" is a collection of blaring loud overblown martial soundtrack music, the perfect ubermensch aural backdrop for chest presses and squats.

But there are others, for other moments.  "Mighty Dorkus" is a collection of the most delightfully overblown music for those times I'm feeling goofy.  "Mr. Wistful" is for when I'm up for a good cathartic emo wallow.  "Nicotine Cloud" is a collection of less-accessible Tom Waits works, which I mostly use to discipline the children.   "You stop pestering your brother NOW, or I'm putting on Frank's Wild Years again!"

In dense traffic, I make a point of staying away from my "Redneck Rampage" playlist of honky-tonk and southern rock.   Instead, I drop into a playlist called "Golden Radiance," most of which is music that reminds me that Jesus Christ isn't just something I say loudly when someone cuts me off.

Yesterday, I noticed something about much of that music.   A significant minority of that list comes from encounters with Jesus music outside of worship, and in the soundtracks of edgier cinema.  Three of the songs, for example, are drawn from Cohen brothers movies.   From "O Brother, Where Art Thou," there's the sublime Down to the River To Pray.  From the recent and quite solid True Grit, I have a pair of songs, both of which were used to reinforce mis en scene, and which play off the old American hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms."

Now, the Cohen brothers, well, they ain't Jesus folk.  In a recent interview, it was clear that they also weren't really practicing Jewish folk, either.   As with so many folks, it was Bar Mitzvah and out for them, pretty much.  

But the aesthetic sensibility they bring to their film-making seems to also give them something of a knack for identifying that which is most sacred or most evocative.  Perhaps it's something in their blood, some genetically ingrained temple-keeper way of knowing that gives them an instinct for the sacred.  Once a Cohen, always a Cohen.

But it may also just be 'cause they know the good when they hear it.

This, I would suggest, is a powerful measure of the value of a piece of Christian music.   If it's musical and aesthetic purchase does not extend beyond the doors of the sanctuary and the hearts of the already-faithful, then it's probably not the best vessel through which to connect to folks who aren't already inside the doors.