the art of transformation: books or music?

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Friday, October 15th, 2010

the art of transformation: books or music?

the book or the movie?

it’s the classic question that supposedly separates the intellectuals from the, well, non-intellectuals. i have absolutely no shame in saying that i’m a “movies” guy. almost aways. of course, i just don’t read any fiction or could-be-a-movie books. most of the reading i do is of the theological variety and there’s not too many movies being produced about atonement theories or eschatological perspectives. 🙂

but a couple days ago, in the context of a brief twitter conversation, a new question arose: books or music. after recommending awhile back that a twitter friend go check out elbow—one of my favorite bands—he told me that he had yet to check them out. i jokingly told him to stop what he’s doing and go listen. his response, humorously, was that he couldn’t because he was in the middle of reading a brian mclaren book (to which he knew i was partial). my response was the following:

@charlespeters you’ll be more transformed by elbow than mclaren. 🙂 less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone

what was an off-the-cuff joke had become something that struck a cord in me and got me thinking. maybe there’s truth in that tweet. maybe lyrics and chords and melodies had more transformative power than sentences and paragraphs and prose and narrative. maybe, in fact, the music of [insert band of choice] is truly more transformative than [insert book/author of choice]. could it be?

this is a good opportunity to pause and say that i’m very specifically dealing with theology books, as opposed to the more freeform prose of popular fiction. i’m expanding the realm of music, though, to more than just music about “christian” music. whereas the industry’s treatment of “christian” music is pretty vacuous and compartmentalized, there’s plenty of truly great books dealing with theology. another way to put it is that there’s some semblance of “cred” with (some) christian literature, whereas christian music is looked at as a sort of “ghetto”. (this could be a whole other blog post…) ok, back to the matter at hand…

i think i have some ability to provide some level of objectivity to this question. i have a foot in two worlds. first, i come from the theology world where books and words and semantic thought is king. while in seminary, at any given time, i’d be juggling 6 or 7 books. you know, like the no-pictures-and-small-type kind of books. 🙂 on the other hand, i also come from the arts world where emotive construct and right brain function is of the highest value. in the case of this question, i’m placing music in the broader category of the arts (or artistic expression…as opposed to theological, non-fiction literature).

as i’ve reflected, i can point to a handful of books that have been deeply shaping to my faith. books like the aforementioned brian mclaren’s a new kind of christian, kenda creasy dean’s the god-bearing life, don miller’s blue like jazz, os guinness’ the call, rebecca groothuis’ good news for women and shane claiborne’s jesus for president have all been literally life-changing reads. the person of faith that i am now is directly traceable to these books (and many others). in varying degrees, the books that i’ve engaged over the last 10 years or so have been deeply transformative.

at the same time, there’s been some albums that have been equally (or more?) transformative. i cannot understate the power of derek webb’s mockingbird at that time in my life. while in seminary, this album came out and did just as much to shape my faith in a lasting way than any book i read. kevin max’s stereotype be, nickel creek’s why should the fire die, david crowder band’s a collision, dc talk’s jesus freak, derek webb’s stockholm syndrome, don chaffer’s what you don’t know, jenny lewis’ rabbit fur coat, sufjan stevens’ illinois and, as odd as it sounds and in its own strange way, snoop dogg’s doggystyle (this could also be it’s own post…) are all albums that have been intensely transformative.

of course, the nature of transformation with the two different forms of expression is very different. while i don’t want to relegate the transformative power of books to strictly intellectual change, it certainly does begin there. undoubtedly, of course, when a new theological insight clicks mentally, the logical progression is a change of heart, leading to a new perspective of god and the world and people around you. it’s more of a progressive transformation.

with music, there’s a visceral, sonic connection that’s made that allows one to see the world in very different ways. whereas we all have varying degrees of emotive response to music, there has been extensive research about brainwave changes when listening to music (or engaging other art forms). that’s simply to say that something literally changes in us through music—not just lyrically, but simply sonically. granted, lyrics—like derek webb’s mockingbird—are a key component to what i’m talking about, but much like elbow’s seldom seen kid, there’s simply something about the sound that creates an internal metamorphosis.

ultimately, i’m not arguing either way. quite frankly, neither am i attempting to create a false dichotomy. clearly, both things create change and transformation. i’m simply presenting that both are agents of personal (and communal) transformation worth considering.

so what do you think? where have you found the most personal transformation?

2 Comments

  1. Hardin says:

    Really good thoughts that largely describe me personally as well.

    Maybe the biggest difference between us is that I am a full on reader guy. At any given time I have at least 3 books going. One is a theological book like you mentioned, one is biographical or U.S. history (usually Founding and Civil Rights eras), and one is usually about baseball history. I also frequently have a novel going.

    Words on pages magically come alive to me and I find deep spiritual and existential meaning in all four forms I mentioned above.

    On the other hand, I believe that music can and does literally save people's lives. I don't think it's hyperbole to say that without music I would be completely dysfunctional spiritually, emotionally and mentally. It has helped me discover and embrace myself, even (especially?) in those inevitable human times of self-consciousness, awkwardness, anger, and heartbreak. I've started a couple blog posts about this topic that I will finish in the coming days, but for now I'll leave you with some Tom Keifer (Cinderella) lyrics from their song Ode to Rock N Roll.

    "You (rock) taught me to be myself, how can I thank you?"

    Those are some simple but very deep words to me.

  2. erniebufflo says:

    I think it has to do with your learning style, maybe? I'm cerebral, a thinker, a writer, and I tend to connect most to the written word– even the thing I like most and connect best to about music is the words, not so much the melody– so I'd say for me, books tend to be more transforming, though I still love music and have certainly been changed by it.

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