cultural accumulation, peanut butter, and the books

made|new|collage

One of my friends, about two years back, suggested a band that I’ve since grown to love called The Books.

The Books specialize in amalgamations of sound bytes from obscure sources combined with original acoustic elements and loops.  Old radio broadcasts, sound effects, spliced interviews, segments of old songs… as sound curators, the descendants of musique concrète and pasticcio, they collect these disparate elements and string them together into an off-context collage that somehow makes sense as a whole.

What comes out of this approach is arresting.  In “Take Time,”spliced verses from Ecclesiastes, bursts of laughter, and radio self-help celebrate thoughtful pause. Segments of gospel songs, banjo etchings, clicks and crunching gravel create an atmosphere of backwoods strength in “Lemon of Pink I.” “Of the Word God”is solely clips of that word from a church service, but the intensity and fervor of the speaker becomes subtly disturbing as it intensifies – is she truly using it reverently? or in vain? “Ghost Train Digest” features unhelpful interjections from an old radio drama, suggesting the story without offering any plot (perhaps as an indictment, or a satire). “Excess Straussess” layers repeated strings, yearning for, perhaps, the spoken, distorted Word, “salvation.”  Found sounds settle into toe-tapping grooves, rhythms of speech strike fresh, and words transform in the space of seconds.

It strikes me that our interaction with creativity in this digital age is similar.

We move through our lives as collectors, picking up bands and playlists, authors and artists, styles and genres, and stashing them as influences that shape our identities. We string them together, tape them up in odd formations.  We curate. We create mixtapes. We tell our friends about our latest finds. We are museums, scrapbooks, collages – songs by The Books.

This cultural accumulation can be dangerously ingrown.  That’s how we run social media, isn’t it?  Pick your friends, pick your favorites, pick your styles, pick your content. We can easily end up with an echo chamber of our own interests and desires, a mirror by which we shape our selves to become more and more like our selves. Our content, assisted by ad agencies, is tailored to what we like (instead of what would challenge us to think differently and, oh I don’t know, change).  We consume more and more of what our flesh wants instead of what our hearts need.

There’s a different way to consume culture.

This way looks at the creative products around us and says: This is good. That is not good.  This is beautiful and true. That is ugly, but also true. Selecting the most valuable and meaningful cultural artifacts, we paste them together to see where they might lead. When they lead us to a place of greater understanding and wisdom, greater empathy and love, we can speak Christ into our culture. Or they may even lead us to Christ himself.

Every one of us has the responsibility and privilege of making biblical value judgments on what we encounter. We must always be willing to say – unequivocally – that something is a lie, or repulsive, or destructive, and it is so because God said so. However, in our bent and broken world, truth and lies, ugliness and beauty, goodness and badness are always mixed up and layered over each other like so many samples of old radio programs. Discernment and nuance must come into play – anchored in God’s Word.

Thankfully, the truth is like the contents of an overstuffed peanut butter and jelly sandwich. No matter how much you try to suppress it, it will always squeeze its way out through the cracks.  That’s when we get to point out the sticky goodness all over our fellow creators’ fingers.

The Books manufacture every song with a thread – a melody, a rhythm, a hook, a word. Everything else hangs together on that thread, even when spinning randomly like a mobile. Our lives and the circumstances we find ourselves in also have a thread – and that thread is Christ.  The cultural providences we bump into and the streams of art we wade through should never be thought of as random in this universe.  God is working, and we get to listen for a greater, deeper, older resonance in this vast world of new wonders.

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