Thursday, April 09, 2009

What's Dave Bazan Doing Here?

Bazan recently said that he no longer calls himself a Christian. So as an agnostic, what is he doing at a Christian college event? What right does he have to play at Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Music?

Recalling the early days of his frustrations with Christian rock, Bazan said, “It’s embarrassing to be associated with stupidity and hypocrisy, on that cultural level.” Yet years after Pedro the Lion signed with Tooth and Nail Records, Bazan is once again finding himself in the middle of a Christian subculture in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But this time, do stupid hypocrites surround him?

Looking at the concert schedule, one wouldn’t expect this event to have anything to do with a Christian college. Lupe Fiasco, The Hold Steady, The War on Drugs, Over the Rhine and David Bazan were the highlighted shows of the weekend. So what’s so “Christian” about this event?

Author and teacher David Dark may have some insight into why an event like the Festival of Faith and Music exists. During his workshop at the fest, he said of music: “you have it in your head, but you don’t always pay attention to it. When you pay attention, then something happens in your mind.”

This festival is not concerned with simply entertaining, but purposefully presents workshops and seminars to help attendees think about what it means to sincerely engage with music. This festival takes music seriously. It doesn’t look at electronica as just something on an ipod that helps people work out, or punk as a thing that is forgotten as a youthful expression of rebellion. The Festival of Faith and Music is attempting to strike at the heart of what happens when Lupe Fiasco sings about American terrorists, and why Dave Bazan says the f-word in his songs. The Festival of Faith and Music is about the truth of music.

At the Festival of Faith and Music, the hope is to experience culture without any form of elitism, be that indie-snobbery or self-righteous religiosity. Christian or not, every person in the world experiences something special within themselves when they’re at a concert. Calvin College wants to have dialogue about this, and does so every two years.

In 2007, the fest brought in Sufjan Stevens, Emmylou Harris and Neko Case. It really got some people thinking, "is it possible that not only Christians are able to create music of great cultural and spiritual importance?"

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This year's event was even more openminded and fascinating than its predecessors. The highlight of the fest was a meet-up between Lupe Fiasco and renowned thinker and author, Cornel West. In an intellectually engaging discussion about hip-hop, Lupe spoke about what it means for him to interact with art. He says, “The world is a mess, and we’re products of that world. But you have to check your mind and soul to find out what the garbage, what the mess is.”

As Lupe reminds, awareness is a key principle in music. When a musician composes a piece of music, it takes all of his or her experience and skill to put that work together. When a listener consumes this work, it shouldn’t be done so with under-appreciation for the energy and heart that the creator initially put into it.

David Bazan accentuates this point in saying, “whatever is true, as long as you’re thoughtful and careful, will present itself to you.” Without mention of the gospel, the speakers and artists at the Festival of Faith and Music show nothing but respect to the Christian faith, but whether or not they're Christians was of less importance. The point of the fest was to examine what music means in our culture today. Lupe Fiasco told Cornel West, "I separated culture from religion, and then religion from spirituality." Setting out three clear distinctions between culture, religion and spirituality, Lupe is a perfect headliner for this unique fest. "I started to go off what I felt, not what I thought."

Too often, American culture blends spirituality with entertainment, and the result is crude and dishonest drivel. Just look at American Idol if you can stomach it, or modern country music. Engaging with music can be a spiritual phenomenon, but is not one to be exploited. You will hear no positive comments on the Christian music industry at Calvin's Festival of Faith and Music, this fest is interested in real art. Art of a higher caliber isn't concerned with fitting into a mold.

David Dark said, "I believe Radiohead. I think they're telling the truth, and I want to be in on it." It is not a specific faith that keeps this fest running, but an openness to the possibility that faith could be bigger than what most Christian rock bands sell. God might be a topic of a Switchfoot song, but that's not to say He can't be just as important in an iconoclastic Arcade Fire song as well.

Songs may be composed of metaphors, lies, and facts. None of these things are in and of themselves "truth." But after a weekend at the Festival of Faith and Music, one can argue that these three things (when indecipherable amongst each other) all point to truth. This truth is not Christianity, but is a God who requires no elitism to experience Him, only a creative spirit.

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