WalkerW: Deriving Holiness from the Profane

2013 02 19 Johnny-Cash-Hurt

DR commenter and fellow Mormon blogger WalkerW wrote an excellent piece about the importance of listening for the sacred in “profane” music.

Suffering, as I noted in my last post, is an intrinsic part of reality. We are expected to mourn with those who mourn. Confronting suffering, pain, and sin head-on is the life of Christian. If our example is Jesus Christ, a man who “loved people in great misery who were taken from Him and did not understand Him” and was then “beaten and executed for espionage and treason,”[3] how then can we as disciples not look misery in the face? We can shy away from music that is filled with angst, despair, and sadness. We can look at it as “unworthy.” But we might miss out on something beautiful. As philosopher Roger Scruton noted, “Beauty can be consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling. It can affect us in anunlimited variety of ways…[I]t speaks to us directly like the voice of an intimate friend.”

There are lots of great songs in that post. Song full of loss and longing. Here is just one.

6 thoughts on “WalkerW: Deriving Holiness from the Profane”

  1. I enthusiastically agree with these points but at what point does the music itself (not necessarily the lyrics) cross the line to being antithetical to anything lovely, praiseworthy, of good-report, or beautiful?

    I would argue that the spectrum of music from which holiness could be derived is quite broad but,from a physiological standpoint there is some music that effects our bodies in such a way that makes us anxious, stressed, and provoked to anger. One specific genre that comes to mind is Death Metal: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tI0S5xn8rQo I mean, there’s a reason they use this kind of music as an interrogation technique.

    Where do we find the line between music (again, just the music, not the lyrics) that is profane but can couch a worthy message, and music that is so abrasive on the senses that any message is lost in the noise? Sure there is meaning, but is it useful in improving myself or others? Is there such a thing as objectively unworthy music?

    I think it’s partly subjective. I had a companion on the mission who got mad at me for listening to Stravinsky (he said it wasn’t music): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dkg_lJeHmjs but I think there’s also, physically, a threshold of tolerance of rhythm, harmony, timbre, and volume where the body is affected by the music detrimentally as it would be by a drug.

    And if Death Metal has this aggressiveness in excess, does Nine Inch Nails have it in degrees? If so, should one be extra careful not to overindulge in such music?

    Another thing: As we wade in the pits of profanity in order to find beauty and meaning, at what point do we risk soiling ourselves in the mud?

  2. Nathan-

    You raise interesting questions, so I have to start by saying that this is an improvised response. I would say, however, the the formulation of Paul’s statement is important in that it outlines what we seek. It doesn’t say a single word about what to avoid. Another verse that comes to mind is that God hasn’t given us a spirit of fear.

    So in a way your question is malformed. It asks: what should we avoid? And the answer is “nothing” for the simple reason that we ought not practice avoidance. We ought to practice pursuit. Target things that are uplifting and the non-uplifting stuff falls be the wayside naturally.

    I believe in a kind of relentlessly positive perspective. As long as you’re sincerely trying to do the right thing, you’re going to be OK in the end. I’m not really interested in trying to find lines that demarcate the safe from the bad because: what’s the point? If you’re trying to find the best you’ll be so far away that you won’t have to worry about the border. And if you’re really sitting at the border between good and bad music, then knowing exactly where to draw the line is sort of irrelevant, because you’re already mired in mediocrity.

    I’m not saying to just do away with standards, by the way. Standards perform important functions. Just to think of two:
    1. they provide milk instead of meat for folks who are less far along in their discipleship (primarily children)
    2. they can provide social cohesion and form a part of a community

    But the whole question of “but isn’t there a little bit of evil in X, and then in Y, and then… ” seems to drag me down until the puritanical mindset of my adolescence, and I don’t want to go back there.

    For the record: I swore off Nine Inch Nails in high school and I’ve never seen a reason to go back. I recognize Trent Reznor is incredibly talented, but in my pursuit of beauty it didn’t make sense. Neither has death metal. But for me the emphasis is never on the prohibition (e.g. I can’t listen to NIN), but instead on the tradeoff (what can I find that’s better than NIN to listen to).

    I don’t always live up to that because my motives are not always pure. I absolutely listen to / watch stuff that is probably not the best, but I find that the more emphasis I put on seeking spirituality, the more I naturally lose an appetite for those things and they fall by the way side, and I try to let them go without clinging to them.

    I also understand that sometimes the best available is still not good enough, which is why I have such a hard time finding TV shows to watch. I love my mind. It might not be all that awesome, but it’s mine. I’ve got a whole kingdom up there full of thoughts, quotes, memories, promises, and covenants. I’m naturally protective of what I let in.

  3. WalkerW – I hear that! I do my best writing when I’ve got something explicit to respond to. I often find that I can write 90% of a piece in just a few minutes, furiously banging on my keyboard at 2,000 words an hour. But when I’m done what I have is just a specific response to a specific comment. Trying to go that last 10% and generalize to a broader audience can take forever.

  4. Nathaniel, I actually really like your answer. It made me think and realize that your line of approach (looking for good rather than simply avoiding the evil) is more how I actually behave anyway. The whole R-rated movies thing is a good example. I grew up strictly avoiding them but now I often find uplifting and beautiful things in the occasional R-rated flick. But it means I have to be more responsible about what I’m getting myself into when I start the movie and how I’m going to internalize what I experience.

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