Music, the Silver-Lining

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Hope in the darkness. It’s hidden in the midst of great sadness.

I don’t normally dedicate my articles to specific people, but this is for Emily Shiflit. Emily and I were having a discussion about music when we first met each other. She mentioned that some of the songs I brought up seemed short on hope. She wanted to know why I liked songs that seemed hopeless. She shared some of the songs she liked. The lyrics were great, but the music grated on me. Why? What is it that I look for in music? Is the music I enjoy hopeless? If so, why do I like it? Is it all subjective? Lots of thoughts and too big of a discussion to fit in a Facebook message or text, hence a blog post.

Self-examination can be very revealing, encouraging, saddening, or just interesting. I’m normally a happy and upbeat person. I often see the silver-lining, so to speak. But I love things that are sad, gray, and melancholy. I like the rain that falls from the silver-lined cloud. I also feel, or have an angry passionate streak, which tends to come out in my love of heavy metal and Irish Punk music. Then, there’s the nostalgia side of me that loves Christmas and folk music. Like most of you, I’m an odd person.

But what is it about contemporary Christian music that generally just grates on me? Why is it that I turn on the Christian radio station and instantly start gagging? Why is my ‘Lord’s Day’ playlist so short?

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I love the imagery in the lyrics of this song. Remember that winter will fade and spring will come again. There is something very Narnian about it.

The focus is only on the silver-lining. The music, for much of contemporary Christian songs, is…mambsy pambsy. This was a term which me and my siblings invented, or stole from a book, which communicates someone being weak in a refusal-to-get-their-hands-dirty-and-get-the-work-done sort of way. It’s weak, wimpy, and almost a waste of space. This is how I view the music of most contemporary Christian artists. I’m not talking about the lyrics, just the notes they use to communicate truth. Music should match the truth being communicated. Their music is soft, inoffensive, mild, and annoying. There is no brokenness communicated in the music. There is little longing, little anger, little sadness, and thus little truth, little hope, and little salvation. The smaller you make God, the smaller you make salvation. The smaller you make the offense, the smaller you make grace.

When I was a child, I listened to a lot of Christian music. When I was a child, happy music was my fare. But when the rain came, when my faith was tested, when the trials of life crowded in around me, and the depth of my own depravity came to light, I found praise songs and most contemporary Christian music lacked depth. They were fine for the spring of life when all is green and bright, but they quickly burned away when the hot summer sun glared down upon them full of damnation and driving away every cool shadow. The Christ in those songs couldn’t have endured the cross. The Christ in those songs didn’t love me anymore than my boyfriend did. The praise didn’t include standing on the very cusp of the pit of hell and being rescued when you deserved to die. They didn’t include sin. They didn’t include my worthlessness. They were happy and thus weak. They failed to understand that to have a silver-lining you must have a very dark storm cloud blocking the sun.

Seeing the silver-lining should never deny the thunder cloud hiding the sun. 

It is truth that makes the silver-lining shine. Remember, hope is a light in the midst of great darkness. That means you have to pass through that darkness to reach your hope. So, why do I love Mumford and Sons even though the hope in their songs is often hidden behind sad, and somewhat angry folk music? Because that’s real life. Hope is often hidden deep beneath darkness.

Why do I love Metallica’s Master of Puppets? Because we are enslaved to our sin and it is damning. That comes through in the song in a far more real and visceral way than most contemporary Christian music.

Dark, heavy, but true. This is what sin does to us.

Dark, heavy, but true. This is what sin does to us.

The Bible teaches us that Christ did not come to save the righteous, but sinners. Christ didn’t come to make us perfect and give us perfect lives. He came to make us like Him. Not only should the lyrics communicate this struggle, this war, this perpetual battle between flesh and spirit, but so should the music. Our modern ‘worship’ is all about feeling good, but go back and listen to some old hymns. Listen to the sober tone to their music. Listen to how the music swells and grows, drops and dives, as the sinfulness of our own hearts is exposed by the light of God’s grace.

I don’t hold to separating out Christian and Secular, since God gifts both saint and sinner with artistic talent. I think lessons and truths (small truth, big Truth only comes from the word of God) can be gleaned from both. I also know that our emotional reaction to art has much to do with what we bring to the table. A song that speaks to you may seem insignificant to me, while a song that makes me weep may annoy you. Isn’t art an amazing thing? Isn’t it amazing that God saw fit to include it in our lives?

Emily, I hope this helps explain why I love the songs I love. Thanks for sparking the conversation that lead to this article! And please, don’t take this as me thinking my songs are better than anyone else’s favorite songs, this is more an exploration of self. I’m sure there are plenty of counter arguments to what I have said in justifying my own song choice. One of the interesting parts about getting older is how I have returned to the roots of contemporary Christian music with a renewed love of old hymns. The truth set to sober, serious, heavy, music feeds my soul when I sink down in the pit. They help me more easily remember the truths of scripture and sometimes memorize scripture themselves. For me, it’s a returning after years of avoiding “Christian” music almost all together. God is always good. He does not give us only sunny days, but provides us a song in the rain.

 

One of the Christian bands that I, so far, enjoy. Their lyrics are pretty good, not great, but good, and I like their music so far.

Gungor is one of the Christian bands that I, so far, enjoy. Their lyrics are pretty good, not great, but good, and I like their music. They have that haunted tone that I love so much.


 

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Writing Lesson: Suffering

I’m a storyteller. You put me in a group of people and I’ll tell stories to avoid awkward silences. You leave me alone and I’ll write, read, watch, or make up my own stories. About the only time I can get the story part of my brain to shut off is if I’m listening to music, and even that is no guarantee.

My husband is analytical. He’s the researcher, the studier, the teacher in the family. He taught himself how to program computers and now he’s teaching himself to be a preacher. He loves to analyze everything. We’ve had lively discussions about Star Trek, Chuck, Rambo, Godzilla, the Apprentice, Metallica, Downton Abbey, and of course theology.

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Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes

Both of us are Metal Gear Solid fans. That’s a video game, fyi. As far as I’m aware, this story started in the 90’s with Solid Snake as the main character. He appeared in five games. His father, Big Boss, was the villain in several of those games. Big Boss is the main character in 2 games, a demo, and the up and coming Phantom Pain. The story is complex, riveting, unique, and moving. As you play, you start to put the pieces together of how Big Boss became the bad guy you face as Solid Snake. You realize he wasn’t always evil. In fact, he was an honorable and good man for many years until one too many betrayals by the US government and people he trusted drove him to the dark antagonist we encounter as Solid Snake.

Being the fan boy and girl we are, we have spent hours playing this game and hours discussing the plot, characters, and unraveling the complex threads of the story. I stand in awe at Hideo Kojima’s ability to move me from anti-Big Boss to feeling very sympathetic towards him and what he becomes. As his story unfolds and you see everything he goes through, all the men he loses, and the betrayals he faces, you begin to understand how and why a man could become such an antagonists.

Discussing our favorite video game, my husband said this: To tell a good story you need great characters, and to have great characters you need great suffering, and to have great suffering you need context.

Big Boss context is war. From WWII, to Vietnam, to the Cold War, including children soldiers, his context is the battlefield. He suffers betrayal by his government which leads him to kill his mentor. He’s betrayed by everyone he counts a friend. He loses soldiers in useless battles. He has been trained to be a weapon and then is shunned because he is that weapon. This betrayal is his suffering. This context and this suffering creates a great character. Big Boss has three sons. The least of his three sons goes through similar sufferings at the hand of his government, but he is able to overcome them in the end. This creates a juxtaposition between Solid Snake and his father Big Boss. This allows you, the viewer, to see a mirror image of one man going bad and one man going deeper and stronger.

200_sTheir story reminds me of Lore and Data in Star Trek:NG. Two brothers created in the exact image of their father, one is evil and one is good. Big Boss and his sons are that way. Solid Snake is forced to destroy both his brothers who take on the evil of their father.

As a storyteller, I found my husband’s analysis of what makes a good story to ring true. A good story has to have good characters. But what makes a good character? Suffering. It is what they go through and how they react that we are interested in. We want to see them suffer because that’s something we can all relate to. From a child who loses a parent, is bullied, bullies, to soldiers, mothers, and growing old, we have all suffered. That suffering and how we react to it is what makes us who we are. Whether good or evil, it’s suffering that paves the path we are walking.

That suffering needs a believable place to happen. That’s our context. It’s not so much about being in space, or on the battlefield, or traveling through time, as it is creating the suffering which makes sense. A princess forced to live a life of ease is not suffering, but a princess trapped in a betrothal to a man she’s never met is suffering. A boy adopted into a wealthy home after living on the streets isn’t suffering. But that same boy now in a new home who discovers his friends aren’t all they seem, and then finds himself in a battle for his soul is suffering. Context enriches the suffering of your characters. It gives you a structure to guide suffering the rest of us can get.

Marcus Luttrell, the Lone Survivor

Marcus Luttrell, the Lone Survivor

Think about the stories that stick with you. Think about the characters that stick with you. Harry Potter sticks with us because every year of his life the suffering ratchets up a notch. The Hunger Games don’t just deal with suffering at the hands of oppressive governments, but the psychological suffering of Katniss as she becomes a darker and darker character. To this day, I’m haunted by Henry in The Time Traveler’s Wife. He suffered his whole life and even suffered in his death. In real life, we think about the Holocaust. Those stories of great suffering continue to reverberate through history. Think about the haunted look on a soldiers face in Vietnam when his country couldn’t back him. Look in the eyes of Marcus Luttrell knowing he was the only one of his buddies to survive. Suffering is what connects us.

Do you use suffering to help us bond with your characters? Are you afraid to put your characters through the fire? Remember the Bible teaches that we are refined in a fire to clear away the dross. God uses suffering to make us more like Christ. Suffering burns away pride, self-reliance, and hardness leaving soft gold shimmering behind. In antagonists, suffering brings bitterness, blame, self-protection, and self-love creating a monster.

Suffering is one of the best ways to create believable characters, both your protagonist and antagonists. I’m pretty good at making my heroes suffer, but I think I need to start working on my villains a bit more.

Refiners-Fire

Just an FYI:

Metal Gear Solid is rated M for mature.

Harry Potter is PG – PG13.

Hunger Games is PG 13.

Time Traveler’s Wife is rated R.

Star Trek: NG is PG.

Chuck is PG-13.

Rambo is R.

Godzilla is PG-13.

The Apprentice is PG-13.

Metallica is PG-13.

Downton Abbey is PG-13.

Frozen and Predators

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Sometimes you just have to own up to your own weirdness. Here’s mine: I watched Frozen for the first time the other day and Predators (the sequel to Predator) for the second time. Guess which one I ultimately enjoyed more? Or which one I wanted to watch again right away? Predators.

Yes. I enjoyed Frozen a lot. It was cute. It was sweet. It made me tear up especially because I watched it with my sister. (And I’m totally Elsa. I took a Facebook quiz and it agreed.) Disney’s tongue-in-cheek perspective of itself and the standard love-at-first-sight story line made the movie particularly funny. The inner message exemplified by Elsa’s character provided a great lesson on selfishness. When Elsa sought what she wanted, when she sang, “Let it go”, she destroyed the world. Only when Anna willingly gave her life for Elsa, was Elsa able to see what she was. A monster and a villain.

It’s odd to me that so many people, especially Christians, treat Elsa’s song as if it is some awesome message when it’s what creates the villain of the story. Do parents want their kids to become villains? Or are they so caught up in the idea of being ‘true to yourself’ that they don’t care if that makes you a monster or not? I doubt that the goal of Frozen was to point out the lie of this concept, but they did it, planned or not. The one person true to themselves was the villain, and then the villain was saved. Plus Olaf was really cute. Fun stuff!

Rated: PG

But . . . I loved Predators. Most people wouldn’t choose it over Frozen. I get that. It wasn’t anything magical or amazing. It wasn’t especially well acted, directed, or even that intriguing of a story. It was a nice shout-out and throwback to the first Predator movie, but not quite as good. The first Predator had great timing and pacing.

My weirdness: I have a well-trained eye for finding the special soft spot in an action flick that makes it worth watching.

When I first heard about this movie, I mouth fell open. Adrien Brody embodies great acting, but casting him to fill Arnold Schwarzenegger shoes seemed like insanity or comedy. It would be the equivalent of casting Justin Bieber to be the lead singer for Metallica. Okay, maybe not that bad, cause Brody can act. As the previews rolled out, I joined in with the ridicule for the casting decision. How could they not cast someone like the Rock, or even Jason Statham? Give us an action hero, not some pretty-boy actor.

NOOOOO! (At least that's how we all felt.)

NOOOOO! (At least that’s how we all felt.)

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Brody did a great job. He played a cold, distant, hardened killer. From the very beginning of the movie when he’s dropped out of a plane on some foreign planet, he pulls everyone together, shows himself to be a competent leader, and in some ways psychopathic. He’s not above using his fellow prey to trap the Predators.

They also have a female sniper. Now if you know me, you probably think I’ve lost it. I typically hate action movies with buff women who fight just like men. There are a few exceptions, like Sarah Conner and Chuck, but generally action flicks have eye-candy (come on, I have a brain) or they have super buff women (yep, it’s believable that without a gun, she took that guy out – not). In Predators, the female sniper nurtures and watches out for everyone else. As Brody leads them and uses them to figure out what’s going on, the woman at his side keeps track of everyone. She keeps them all going. This is a rare realistic pairing of a man and a woman. They stand shoulder to shoulder to face the problem together each supplying what the other lacks. It was amazing to see that kind of real and special relationship in an action flick.

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(SPOILER ALERT) Two things made this movie. Brody’s character’s unwillingness to give out his name and the woman’s willingness to end the sufferings of herself and her team before the Predators could torture them. The woman asks Brody’s character several times for his name and each time he evades the question. Why? He doesn’t want to attach himself in any way to these other people. He wants to stay distant because he realizes that’s the only way to stay alive. The minute he starts caring about anyone is the minute he dies. Over and over he uses those around him to learn and battle the Predators.

Woman: This isn’t right. He’s one of us!

Brody: He is. That’s what they’re counting on. They want you to feel something for this man. To be human.

Woman: And what are you?

Brody: Alive.

Woman: What’s that worth?

Several other people sacrifice their lives for the group painting a nice contrast between Brody’s character and everyone else. Even the convict two days away from execution gives himself for the others.

At the end of the movie, they’re down to three people: Brody’s character, the woman, and a strange guy who seems to have no purpose. The strange guy gets injured. (See quote above.) Brody wants to leave him behind. The woman refuses. Brody ditches both of them. He’s all about himself. In the end, he has to choose between going back to help them or the chance to leave the planet.

He goes back.

He’s the best fighter, and the only chance they have to survive. At the end, he makes the choice to sacrifice himself for his friends.

While Brody’s character is forced to fight for someone other than himself, the woman is also dealing with her own demons. Before she dropped on the Predator’s planet, she was engaged in a failed sniping mission which left her spotter captured and tortured. She wishes she had put him out of his misery even if it risked her own life. Throughout the movie, she assists with suicide, or offers to. At the end, she is forced to either put Brody’s character out of his misery, or give him a chance to save himself. She knows if she takes the shot, she might miss and he might suffer. But she decides to give him a chance.

Brody saves the day, decides to acts for the good of others, and instead of sacrificing the weak he depends on them. The woman chooses life instead of death.

Royce and Isabelle.

Royce and Isabelle.

His name is Royce and her name is Isabelle.

This movie amazes me because Isabelle finds her strength in nurturing and helping a man. Royce finds his soul in sacrificing himself for others. Wow. That sounds familiar. I think I know of other places this kind of behavior is encouraged. Wink wink. Who would have thought that you could see examples, extreme yes, of Biblical male/female behavior in an action flick?

There were quite a few places in the movie that had huge plausibility gaps. Thankfully, most of them happen at the beginning of the movie. At one point, the misfit gang seeks out high ground. They break free of the jungle and wonder across an open stretch of flat rocks. No one notices anything odd about the sky other than the sun not moving. Then, in a totally different scene, it’s the extra close planets visible on the horizon that clue them in that they’re far from home. How did they miss the planets the first time when they were on high ground? The jungle is filled with pines, fields, and oak type trees. That sounds about right for a jungle. Isabelle’s jacket has a decorative zipper on the back.

Why oh why do these movies not get military consultants? Please.

A sniper would never have a decorative zipper on the back of her jacket. Also, speaking of military, one of the things which sets our military apart is their ability to control their shooting. Our soldiers don’t just spray bullets everywhere. They choose a target and shoot it. This proved to be a huge advantage to us in the Iraq war. The untrained terrorist just hosed our boys with their AK-47s but missed much of the time. Our soldiers are trained to hit what they aim at. In one scene, Royce fires at this alien dog with no thought to aiming at all even after a head shot proves to drop it. Royce is supposed to be ex-special forces. His useless shooting was way out of character compared to the cool, calculated guy he appeared to be the rest of the time. It wasn’t like the scene in the first movie, Predator, where they used the mass destruction of the jungle to prove how freaked out the men were and yet how powerful. This was just everyone shooting. Royce doesn’t even seem particularly freaked out. It would have been better if they had carried his personality through to his shooting at this one point.

Rated: R (Obviously) (Deanna, you can’t watch this, obviously.)

In the end, I really enjoyed Frozen, but Predators hit home more. Despite its problems, it proved a fun action flick with an awesome heart at its core.

 

Predators

Thanksgiving 15

I’m thankful for music.  Music has been a part of my life since I can remember.  There was always music in my house, my parents invested in piano lessons and guitar lessons for all of us at one time or another, and I still listen to it all the time.  I love everything from Celtic music to  Heavy Metal.  Metallica is my favorite band along with Mumford and Sons, Flogging Molly, and Linkin Park. I also spend a large part of my life listening to Christmas Music.  Music expresses such deep emotion and longing.  It can be such an aid to remember the truths of God, and is a great aid to meditation.  Plus, it gets you moving!