I thought perhaps there's an essay somewhere on the point of view of those who like me criticize modern Christian music and writing, but who, unlike me, do so because it isn't holy and righteous enough for their Old Testament tastes. A little searching turned up a screed on what does and does not constitute godly music, containing this delicious admonition:
All music with a recognizable affinity to jazz, rhythm and blues, rock, swinging country-Western, New Age, and other contemporary styles of popular music should be excluded from the church
Earlier, the writer argued that drums in church are wicked as well, because "A steady beat, for instance, is conducive to primitive dancing, self-display, and sexual awareness."
What a shock it will be when he gets to heaven to find David (a Jew!) beating a drum while Johnny Cash (drug user! fornicator!) belts out a bluesy country song in D (the chord of the devil!).
If you care at all about good writing, and you haven't yet purchased a copy of The Atlantic's fiction edition, do so right away, while there are still some left at the newsstands. A writer friend told me a few months back that they are moving their offices to Washington, D.C., which saddens me because I suspect this city will do to the magazine what it does to many people -- coarsens them, dulls them, leaves them obsessed with the very small and ill-tuned to the very important threads of life.
But for now it remains the finest magazine in the universe. The essays and short stories in this issue have got me to thinking about the craft of writing, and how my own writing, -- and life, for that matter -- when surveyed from a distance, has the look of an onion, with successive layers peeled away, some easily, others only with much digging and scratching and tears. To write well is to dig for truth, though it be layered with inventions and contrivances, at its core it bears truth. But to tell truth is to offend, and to strive boldly for truth, arms flailing like an idiot in an all-out sprint for it, is to be wrong at times. This offends in a very different way, but it offends nonetheless.
So as I peel back the layers I wrestle with this problem more and more, and sometimes the words of one of my movie bad-guy heroes, Jack Nicholson's Colonel Jessep, come roaring to the forefront of my brain: you can't handle the truth!
But it seems that the alternative is to choke on it, and that's not worked so well either. More on that another time, perhaps. This is all just an introduction to two things I've recently read that I want to share with you. The first comes from Saul Bellow, whose 1963 comments on the topic of moralism in writing are excerpted in the aforementioned issue of The Atlantic:
A book which is lacking in power cannot be moral. Dullness is worse than obscenity. A dull book is wicked. It may intend to be as good as gold, as nice as pie, as sweet as can be, but if it is banal and boring, it is evil...
And this is why I increasingly find my stomach turning when I survey the fiction shelves of Christian bookstores. We are a people called to seek, pursue, and speak truth. That we tolerate such untruth as is found in poor writing and music is a shameful thing, and I suspect that the net effect is indeed wicked.
The second item comes from Stephen King's wonderful book, On Writing. I grew up reading King, and I confess that I was surprised when I got to college and found out that my tastes in reading, like so much else, were proletarian and shabby. I spent too many years thinking poorly of myself for this, and am only now coming around to the suspicion that it's okay to believe in my soul that post-modern, magical realist, nihilistic literature is a load of horse manure peddled by pedantic twits who spent too long at the feet of their clever, small-minded teachers, that much of what passes for art in the museums littering our nation's capital has no more heart than a talk show host, and that a lot of high-brow poetry doesn't make a damned bit of sense.
Or maybe I'm just not smart enough to get it. We shouldn't go ruling that hypothesis out too quickly. But back to Stephen King. Here's the part I want to share:
I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that's all.
If you tell the truth, don't let anyone make you feel lousy. More on that later as well, perhaps.
Sorry, been away again, on another top secret mission. Of course you know I'm kidding about the mission part, because nobody who kills people for a living would actually joke about it on his website, even though joking would be the perfect cover. Joke about killing people, blabbity blah about your kids, and nobody would ever suspect a thing...
Where was I? Oh yeah, the sorry part. Sorry.
Now, for a few recent irritations, because I'm in one of those moods, because I've had to give up coffee, because, minor detail, lately it makes me feel miserable.
First, a helpful email from American Airlines, notifying me that my flight scheduled to leave at 4:20 would actually be leaving at 5:30. Time email was sent: 5:03. What was intended to be a notification instead became mockery, as is much news in a highly connected world. This was followed by a string of emails telling me the flight would be later and still later, each notification coming within minutes of the newly scheduled time. So not only did I listen to the harried American employee periodically explain why the delays were NOT HIS FAULT, I got taunted by my own bloody blackberry. This is why it is very important that we discover how to teleport people, though I'm sure if the airlines are in charge they will find a way to get me to my destination both late and missing important body parts.
Second, flip flops. Let me be more precise, because the wife has a few pairs with frilly decorations that make her feet look as if they are sexy little exotic Las Vegas dancers. I have no inherent problem with the flip flop. What I have a problem with are men who cram their nasty, cheese-ridden toes into flip flops so that we can all see what an advanced case of gangrene of the toe looks like. I also have a problem with flip flops that look as if they have been worn while cleaning bathrooms in a Calcutta whorehouse.
Look, we all appreciate that you are young, and that you live the exciting parts of your life after 11pm, and that trudging to work at 8 a.m. is really a Tremendous Burden. But none of these are an excuse to go slippy-slapping about with your feet adorned in mold-ridden tire shavings. Have some self-respect, for God's sake, or is that too much to freaking ask.
Did I mention that I'm on the coffee wagon? Or off it. Whatever. I need caffeine and I can't have it.
Finally, I saw this sign in the cafeteria in my building: "Satisfaction Guarantee: If you aren't 100% satisfied, please speak to a manager." So let me get this straight: if I'm not 100 percent satisfied, then the "guarantee" is that I can speak to a manager? Who needs a guarantee for that? If I really want to talk to the manager, I can jump up on a table and pee in the wax geraniums. Now that's guaranteed to draw a manager.
So I'm thinking -- Sand in the Gears is a business, except that you get more satisfaction here than from your phone company, and you don't pay me (well, most of you don't). So starting today I'm offering the Sand in the Gears 100 Percent Satisfaction Guarantee. If you aren't 100 percent satisfied with what you find here, you can kiss my . . . shove it up . . . speak to Management.