hideously beautiful | a defence of horror

Nosferatu

October is here again, and along with it inevitably follows the classic debate amongst the Christian public on what to do with Halloween and, by proxy, horror. The holiday is often vilified for its suspected pagan roots, often (and I would say incorrectly) viewed as a celebration of the occult, and along with it the horror genre of art in general is accused of similar things, with horror cinema being a particularly ubiquitous recipient of criticism.

There are a number of complaints I hear about horror films, some of the wider ones typically being the genre’s transfixion with blood and gore, the very fact that it instills fear in people, and the perception that it celebrates or glorifies evil, thereby empowering it. I’d argue that a lot of these criticisms stem from wider human behaviours and entertainment issues, such as the thrill-seeking adrenaline addiction that fuels the love of things like roller coasters or people finding joy in wanton destruction (which rears its head in more socially acceptable fashion in films like Transformers and 2012), nor are they things of which the filmmakers and critics working within the genre are not aware. Let’s be honest here: most of the population thinks Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and Jason Goes to Hell are trash, not cultural cornerstones or works of art that will stand for eternity.

Rather than simply refute the common reasons Christians cite to condemn it, all of which could be the basis for their own entire posts, I want to speak about horror from the positive. This is an extremely misunderstood genre for the sole reason that it is deliberately off-putting, an unadulterated examination of humanity’s demons. Horror is beautifully ugly, and it speaks to me in a way that nothing else can begin to emulate. Perhaps it’s because it appeals to my affinity toward pessimism and nihilism; my natural inclination is to see the worst in the world and fall into a downward spiral questioning whether there’s any point to any of this, and I carry any hope with me only by the grace of God. Not that all horror is an inherently hopeless affair, but it explores those darker undertones of reality in a way that often removes any of the gloss and sugar coating that make other presentations so easily digested. The macabre is often a painfully difficult pill to swallow.

Modern-day American evangelicals have been raised and nurtured in a culture that shuns the negative, the dark, the depressing, endlessly suckling at positivity’s breast. Certainly it’s problematic to overly dwell on the gloomy and bleak, but refusing to acknowledge it and let it simmer and exist is a recipe for emotional immaturity. The human experience is a broad, all-enveloping wave of chaos, and every piece is essential and will be known in some capacity by the end of one’s life. Sadness, pain, and evil need to be understood just as much as hope, joy, and goodness.

Art, then, is the voice by which we express and begin to understand our lives, giving words, images, and sounds to those feelings and circumstances that shape us and everyone around us, and I am of the opinion that no aspect of the human experience should be exempt from this process. Every piece needs to be expressed and to be understood, even the most unsavoury or dour or grotesque elements. Drama is capable of conveying feelings of sorrow and despair in a way that is potent and palpable as well as palatable, but where horror demonstrates its value is its ability to look at all that is wrong with the world with an undiluted gaze. Drama will help us grapple with our hurts, and horror will reveal them for the monsters they truly are.

When the blinds are pulled back and evil is unfiltered through the eyes of horror, there’s a uniquely powerful opportunity to engage with darkness in a way that isn’t normally afforded along a wide breadth of subjects. In fact, horror can often be particularly incisive and effective when exploring abstract concepts due to the often fantastical natures of the film and story premises, a variation of Tolkien’s philosophy of using fairy stories to reveal truths about reality. While there are certainly those that simply seek to thrill (and are quite justified in their desires to do so in the most general sense), I’ve seen horror films that are far more affecting that tackle subjects such as grief and loss (The Babadook); loneliness, bullying, and unrequited love (Let the Right One In); and the inevitability of death (It Follows).  In addition, The Exorcist is one of the most thoughtful and compelling explorations of spiritual warfare I’ve seen in any medium.

I’m not saying that we should replace our positivity bubbles with total immersion in sadness and morbidity. And I’m not saying that you should force yourself to watch horror anyway if you don’t appreciate being scared or made to feel extremely uncomfortable. What I want is for people to simply acknowledge the genre for the value it presents to human expression (and even worship) rather than writing it off entirely due to its shortcomings, often more pronounced due to its nature and often merely the result of misunderstanding. The world is wonderful but twisted by sin, and we ought to cease demonising horror for shedding its piercing light on what our true demons are.

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faith and art in real time

madenewgrowth

I often write very theoretically and philosophically about art and faith. It’s easier than being very vulnerable. But today I’d like to take a detour from that path, if that’s alright, and tell you all what the intersection of faith and art looks like in my life right now.

I am applying for graduate school. For years, I’ve talked about this one goal. I remember saying goodbye to the staff at the International Christian School of Budapest, and going to grad school was my stated reason for leaving, and one that I believe is God-ordained. But then I got to Chicago, and a whole host of other issues sort of took over for a season (you can read about that here if you feel so inclined). Now I’m back in a practice room, every day, or nearly every day, and I am learning so much.

Yes, I’m obviously learning new music and new techniques, as one generally does in a practice room. I’m also learning deep, soul-stirring lessons. I’d like to share them with you, so here they are, in no particular order.

  1. Practicing is often not fun, but faithfulness to what God has asked me to do and be demands that I practice. Every day, after I get off work at 4:30, I walk down the hall from the admissions office to the practice rooms in the music building. I’d rather go home. I’d rather eat my dinner and watch Netflix, but for this season, God is calling me to practice hard. This is not merely an issue of stewardship of my voice and my talents. This has cosmic proportions. Recently, when I look at the chaos of the world around me, I wonder what I, in my frailty and ignorance, could ever do to help such a situation. Every time I think that, though, God is faithful to remind me that healing the gaping wounds of this world is His job. It is mine to be faithful to the task He has given me, and right now, even if I don’t understand how on earth it benefits anyone, my God-appointed task is to apply for graduate school, and that necessitates rigorous practice. Viewed in this light, every practice session becomes an attack against the dark. Any act done in obedience to the call of God, no matter how small, is a beacon of light. Practicing becomes a holy act of war.
  2. There is no room for fear. I am often tempted to be afraid – of rejection, of failure, of debt, of change. I often think of the admonition against fear as applying to spiritual things, or at least to life and death matters, not to my pre-audition jitters. That’s not nearly holy or significant enough to matter to God. But He sees sparrows. He clothes lilies. My fears are significant to Him, and He calls me to hand them over to Him. In a marked departure from the kind of music that I normally listen to as the music nerd that I am, the Chris Tomlin song ‘Whom Shall I Fear‘ has become my rallying cry as I face the thought of audition panels. ‘I know who goes before me, I know who stands behind, the God of angel armies is always by my side. The one who reigns forever, He is a friend of mine, the God of angel armies is always by my side’, is a potent antidote to the fear of judgment by selection committees. He walks ahead of me onto every stage, and I am eternally and unequivocally a child of the Most High. Really, whom shall I fear in any audition, no matter how exalted the stage?
  3. I am learning to take my own advice that I gave here, and invite God intentionally into my practicing. I have begun to pray before I practice. I’m learning to surrender even a practice session and ask that He would be pleased to make it productive and fun. When things aren’t going well, I ask Him who made my voice what approach I should take to get it to respond the way I want it to. I have begun to thank Him for a good practice session. This approach, coupled with a belief that my practicing matters in some eternal, invisible, supernatural way, has fueled me to greater productivity in a practice room than I have ever experienced since I was 13 years old.
  4. Phones are the death of a helpful practice session. I’ve started leaving it in my office when I practice. There’s very little chance that something earth-shatteringly important is going to happen in the 90 minutes or so that I will be separated from my phone. When I don’t have it with me, there is no temptation to browse Facebook or Instagram. If a text comes through, I don’t know about it, so its presence doesn’t derail my concentration. If my practice session isn’t going well, the easiest thing to do is to think, ‘Well, I’ll just take a little break and come back to it in a few minutes’. I’m fairly certain every single millennial reading this has pulled this stunt, whether in a practice room or somewhere else. Guess what? Your motivation probably isn’t going to improve in the 10 minutes you just spent on Facebook. If anything, you’ll likely be less motivated and interested in your sub-par practice/study/workout/Bible reading session. Don’t just put your phone down. Put it somewhere you have to exert a significant amount of effort to get it, and then get back to the task at hand.
  5. My abilities develop at precisely the rate that God intends they should develop. This is a lesson I’d rather ignore at times. The truth is that everything on this earth is under the control of Almighty God. Why would I ever think that my voice and musical development is exempt from that inviolable reality? There have been times that I have raged at my inability to do certain things as a singer. I am learning that this is also not mine to control. It has been given to me to be faithful in practicing what I have learned in a lesson, memorizing music, and accessing my God-given and God-reflecting creativity as best I can. The outcome is not mine to determine. What God makes of my faithfulness is not my business.

I am learning so much more than just new music these days, and you know what strange reality I’ve encountered as I’ve been enabled to loosen my grip on my music as my identity? Singing is so much more fun than it ever was. Yes, sometimes it’s tough to make it to a practice room, but on the whole, singing has become more joy-filled than it has been in a long time. I hope the same is true for you. In fact, you should come make music with me.

I’ll be in a practice room.

bon iver’s 22, a million | a review

jv1

Bon Iver’s long-awaited third album, “22, A MILLION” dropped on Friday.  I’ve historically been a big fan of Bon Iver’s work and was very curious which direction Justin Vernon and the band would choose to go after a five year recording hiatus.  Vernon has been up to some pretty interesting creative endeavors of late:  appearing on Kanye West’s “Yeezus” album, launching the Eaux Claires Festival in his Wisconsin hometown, producing albums for the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Staves.

Facing self-proclaimed burnout after the instant fame and touring schedule with “For Emma, Forever Ago” and “Bon Iver, Bon Iver,” Vernon said,

“It’s a thing about self- and mental discovery, and those are all important things. But it’s not 148-shows-over-a-year-and-a-half-important, though. It’s a machine, and it’s money, and you just get put on this indie rock cart, and it’s embarrassing.  I’m not trying to score again.  I’m trying to prove to myself it’s about the music you make.”

Lucky for us, Bon Iver does score again: big time.  I’m writing this review the day of the album’s release; partly to make a deadline, but mostly because if I give myself longer than a day or two to write, I will surely overthink it—and this is an album that can be easily overthought, but really shouldn’t be. I taught a voice lesson today and asked my student if he had listened to the album.  His response was, “Yeah, I don’t know if I get it—but I love it.  Do you get it?”  After a first listen the album comes across as deliciously noisy, experimental, transcendent. To my ear there are snippets of Frank Ocean, West, and certainly James Blake.  The soundscape is genius:  it oozes invention while still managing to be quintessentially Bon Iver.  This is what seals the deal for me—and is the mark of lasting creative sustainability.

Each song, complete with individual artwork, is highly symbolic—almost hieroglyphic and rich in numerology.  The tracks are packed, often dense with layer after layer of invention—rich, expansive invention, constantly mixing distorted and manipulated sounds with the natural ones we expect of the band.   2009’s “Woods” from “Blood Bank” gives birth to      _ _ _ _ 45 _ _ _ _  on this album, Vernon’s (and my) favorite track.  This track was first performed live at Eaux Claires 2016.

In a press conference at the Oxbow Hotel in Eau Claire, Vernon said the following:

The ’45’ song with Lewis, that’s my favorite. We made an instrument. Messina and Francis helped make this instrument, and everyone before that — [talk box innovator] Robert Troutman, who did the most amazing vocoding in the world. We all made an instrument together. And then me and Lewis, the instrument we were playing was only possible to play as two people, and it was just us making music as freely as humanly possible. When we made that recording, I played it for my friend Brad Cook, and he was like, ‘Just put that out. That is the best song you’ve ever made.’

This sound is fresh and previously unclaimed.

What grabs my curiosity and attention the most, though, is the open soul-search that tangles itself throughout the whole album.  Ideas of faith, prayer, consecration, God and eternity are laid out like a playground where nothing is off-limits.

The sixth track on the album, ballad, ‘‘666 Upsidedowncross,’’ gives us Vernon’s uncertain musing, ‘‘I don’t know the path.’’ The album booklet cites the anguished Psalm 22 — ‘‘Why are you so far from saving me?’’

‘‘33 ‘God’’’ was released 33 days before the general album release and is 3 minutes, 33 seconds long.  33 is also the age most agree upon as being Jesus Christ’s age at the time he was crucified.

Vernon names music as his religion: ‘‘For me from a very early age, music has been my religion. It’s been my way of understanding, it’s been my way of celebration, it’s been my way of contemplation.’’

–Christ-follower: how is our faith our way of understanding, of celebrating, of contemplating?  How does this spill over into the art we create?

contributed by Desiree Hassler