Dan’s Reflections: Christmas with Jars Of Clay, Sixpence None The Richer, Leeland, Sara Groves and The Renaissance Singers

As promised, here is my first in a series of brief “Reflections” on the mingling of music, art, creativity, worship, festival, Christian faith and the contemporary world in which we live.

This past Christmas, I attended with my family, the LOVE CAME DOWN Christmas tour with Leeland, Jars Of Clay, Sixpence None The Richer, Sara Groves and others.

We also took in a RENAISSANCE VOICES Christmas concert at the Cathedral Church Of St. Luke, and a worshipful morning at an anonymous contemporary local church.

These are the questions I posed for this particular holiday activity, and an attempt at some thoughts:

What gift does the unique genre of music being played give to the 21st century Christmas/Advent worship experience?

The gift of the Love Came Down tour was evident. My family, in general, was enthusiastic about attending. I have two teenage daughters, with a great diversity in their musical tastes, a pre-teen son and myself and my wife are in our mid-40s.

We all (generally) had some appreciation for each of the bands performing, and coming to the arena hosting the event in a snowstorm, we were glad to finally arrive at our destination.

We all came with different expectations to a “big concert.” One daughter looks for “bigger bang” in the concerts she prefers; the other is more content with simpler fare. My son is open to almost anything. One young Wilt is learning to play the drums (and guitar and voice), the other the acoustic guitar (and voice), and my son, the bass (and possibly drums).

In other words, the contemporary nature of the music, and the common faith most shared in the large venue, drew us into the content of the music without a large amount of convincing. Rock and acoustic stylings of Christmas music both familiar and unfamiliar were driven through a large sound system, and generally felt like “the world which we know.” The quality was high, the lyrics rich and thoughtful, and ideas central to incarnational theology were generally elevated. I heard a few things to which I said, “Hmmm,” and then heard other bits of poetry and artful playfulness that made me say “More of that, please; let the poet become the theologian for a moment.”

These bands were “set apart” from us; i.e. we couldn’t spend time with them in any significant way due to the size of the crowds, and their work behind stage after the concert (probably getting ready to head to bed to get ready for the next show). Their music was quality, and gave a mysterious sense of unattainability behind the big system and the lighting to those who were also musicians in the room. However, it inspired at the same time – “I could do that if I worked on this…”, etc. Young people (15-30’ish) were everywhere, though the arena was cold, and felt somewhat empty (again, there was a big snowstorm that night).

The Renaissance Singers had compiled a set of music that was to be sung in a massive Anglican Cathedral in Portland. They were, of course, unamplified, as the hall did most of the acoustic work of carrying simple voices. We dressed up a bit for this concert, sat on cushioned pews, and saw more gray hair than my children have seen in some time. From the start, the Renaissance Singers carried us through a number of points in time, through songs familiar and not-so-familiar.

Songs based in the Renaissance period, Reformation period, early medieval and late medieval period and even the past few hundred years, filled the hall. The gift here was the sense of uniqueness of sounds to the modern ear, and my children seemed to enjoy the concert as much as the other. The setting, and the simplicity of voices singing a cappella (except for a few numbers) was captivating. This concert took us back in time, and even my youngest was attentive throughout the whole creative journey. We had the opportunity to linger in a beautiful piece of sacred architecture, and afterward ate rich treats from a local bakery with the singers and other attendees of the concert.

Again, the venue was chilly, so we sat in our coats. I would say it did take away somewhat from the experience. No candles were lit (sadly) – just basic lighting was provided. Images of eagles were everywhere (the image that is often associated with the gospel writer Luke, the namesake of the cathedral). Art hung around the room, sculpture was everywhere, and a stunning domed chapel (for which we could not find the lights – I and a gal who attended the church accidentally turned the lights on and off in the entire cathedral – drawing much attention – as we searched for them!).

I took my children to the back of the church where the tomb of what must have been the founding pastor sat right in the main hall. His slightly-larger-than-life sized body was carved in marble on the top slab as is so common to see in European cathedrals. While initially freaked a bit (how often would one find the buried remains of the founding pastor in a contemporary church venue?), my oldest daughter commented, “That seems okay to me.” She was conveying an appreciation of the sense of connection and history evidenced by the choice to put this man’s tomb in the worship space in which the congregation gathers.

What values drive the making of that kind of worship/artistic music?

In the Love Came Down event, the values were clearly on celebrating the Christological event through the sounds of the age, in a multi-generational fashion. The bands were tight, the songwriting strong, the arrangements cross-generational. These bands value the contemporary artists voice in declaring themes of friendship with God, engagement with social issues, family life and the stories of the scriptures.

The band on a stage far at the head of the gathering communicated some sense of distance from the activity of worship/artistic expression, and the band was elevated above us for the full light show effect and visibility. This communicates distance and remoteness however, and if that was the plan, it succeeded. The coldness of the arena further seemed to isolate people, as did the plastic seats of the hockey arena.

The pace and style of the show communicated that a value was the excellent presentation of the music prepared for the event. In this case, spontaneity was not a value, but rather regimen and a strong sense of order (in both time, space and speaking/performing). Leeland seemed to be the most “loose” in this regard, as they opened the night, and seemed to truly want to lead us in a worship dialogue with God. The others did as well, I’m sure, but these guys were the most “down home” and disarming in their approach.

In the cathedral, the Renaissance Singers were on the floor, right in front of us, and felt a bit more accessible due to geography and lack of sound system. The values here seemed to be largely performance values, focusing on common Christmas themes with music that spanned their historical period of specialty. The value, in this case, was on a more classical representation of these themes, and their was a rich faith element to their work.

Readings were incorporated from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim At Tinker Creek and works by other authors, and this communicated the value of other art forms, in addition to the art of the cathedral in which the event took place. Outside, a massive, 3-4 story tree was decorated with lights, and after the event the sharing of cider and fantastic baked goods in a densely populated room (again, with the singers), evoked strong emotions about the Christmas/winter season.

This event felt far less “multi-generational” in its approach and even appeal, but still drew the few of the younger crowd that attended.

What are the stories being told, both in the theological/worldview content of the event, and in the manner in which the material is presented?

In both cases, stories about the Incarnation, and about the winter season, were mingled. Jars of Clay sang Hibernation Day, a song about staying indoors on a snowy day, and the Renaissance Singers laced their set with wintry melodies.

The Love Came Down event was telling a story of faith that was contemporary, theologically appropriate (I couldn’t hear many of the lyrics up in the rumble seats at the top) and playful. The Renaissance concert telling more stories that had both appropriate theological themes and more “fantastical “themes, such as an ethereal medieval emphasis on Mary and the baby Christ.

The manner in which the Love Came Down event was presented said that God is in the world, the best music we can play celebrates it, art and poetry are important, and auditory (and some visual – light and clothing) aesthetics are important.

The Renaissance concert said that the music of history is beautiful and has something to say about the Christ event, that cathedrals and lights and food and tight music are valuable in times of celebration. It said far more about aesthetics, and about the congregation feeling included in the art, than the other event I would have to say.

What contribution might this form of worship expression give to current and emerging culture, both inside and outside of the Church proper?

The contemporary sounds of the bands in the first event still have a vital part to play in the ongoing worship and worldview life of the Church. The Church will always have a new song, and no matter what one thinks of contemporary Christian music, Christians must say what they have to say along the way. My children will probably listen to this, filling their iPods with 98% contemporary music. The other 2% may involve the other worlds of music, but it won’t move them as much. Again, that is not a declaration of value, just reality.

I.e. The first concert had a strong connection with popular culture, and the high culture of those who care deeply about music, sound and arranging. The second appealed primarily to more “high culture” ideals, though my children appreciated it. My wife and I bought the CD of both concerts. My children would only buy the CDs of the first, but at this point, definitely not the latter.

Now, a mingling of the two sounds, environments and values – this might possibly bring things together for them and for us.

What role do aesthetics, art and creativity play in the creation of liminal (threshold) spaces of worship encounter for those attending?

Both events were intended to create a space in which the Christmas story would be both declared, enjoyed and embraced. The warmth of the room (or lack therof in both cases), the hall itself, the music, the demeanor of those with microphones or roles of leadership, the snacks (a concession area with hot dogs and hot pretzels in the arena; homemade baked goods and cider in the cathedral), all mean something to the story.

If I were honest, the Renaissance concert, in its quietude and formality, along with the wider aesthetic and its appeal to me personally, felt more like a time of connection with God than the larger Love Came Down event. I appreciated deeply the music in both; the wider aesthetic, however, felt better in the cathedral.

I would also note, however, that the Love Came Down concert was probably far more appealing as a worship space to those who hadn’t just driven 4 hours to get there, with a tired family in tow. Again, how we arrive has everything to do with what happens when we get there.

In Conclusion

All in all, the trip was a gift to us, and to me personally. I’m eager to put out a Christmas EP of 6 or so songs that give my own takes on some favorites of this all-important season. This trip gave me some inspiration that I’m drawing on for my own writing and event thinking.

Again, this reflection is by no means meant to be exhaustive, but rather a snapshot of some ideas related to art/worship and its expressions in the world today.

May this be the first of many musings to come. Thanks for reading.