I know I don’t listen to music like others. I really focus on words. Today I am contemplating the role reversal I watched on The Good Place. Not just once, but twice, Eleanor referred the deontology of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. Chidi was having none of it. Chidi was somehow on a self-justifying consequentialist version of situational ethics, a la Fletcher. That was twisted. This morning, as I listen to new music releases, I am listening for echoes of moral ethics.
We All have Filters and Projections
I realize I listen to music differently than just about everyone else I know. I remember a conversation with my oldest son a couple decades ago. I explained my rationale for liking Pearl Jam over Nirvana. I remember saying I preferred music that still believed in hope. Neither hopeless nihilism, nor rose-colored glasses putting a false hue on everything. But actually getting into the pain and challenge of life (think of Jeremy ) or how the band allowed the I’m Alive evolve from a song seeking an answer, from “why am I alive,?” to a claim, “I am alive.”
I look for the messages. Sometimes I have preferred messages that I project on to the music. My music projections make sense to me. I think that is what art is meant to do and be. Art becomes a conversation.
A Missiological Experience
Paul Heibert wrote about engaging culture from a postmodern perspective. While he’s not the first, not the only one, he spoke convincingly about listening to the culture; remaining free from the old colonialist pressures of imposing a “Christian” culture on indigenous peoples. Heibert identified an excluded middle. This middle is where we live; between the invisible of the other world (the world yet to come, heavenly worlds) and the visible things of this world. The excluded middle holds spiritual forces. But to me, it also holds art, dance, jokes, theater, and music.
Participating in contemporary expressions of culture in music and movies allows me to jump into the worlds as Paul jumped into Athens at the Areopagus:
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said,
“For we too are his offspring.”
Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals (Acts 17).
Yes, I know that’s weird. But that’s how I engage with art and culture. It is a big conversation, and it is going on all the time. I like to eavesdrop and hear what’s going on. If it has a good beat, that’s even better. But even in that sermon, Paul was quoting the pop songs of Greece (or at least its poets).
Chidi, Kant, and New Tunes
Immanuel Kant described an ideal kind of world. It was one that made sense or at least could make sense if you worked with it. Out of his thoughts in Metaphysics of Morals, he defined was a good action is. Just in case you wanted to know if what you are doing is a good and ethical action, here’s the way to test that. It’s called the categorical imperative. It goes like this: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
On the other side of Kant is Joseph Fletcher. For Fletcher, the most moral choice was to follow Jesus’ teaching, “love your neighbor” (Matthew 22:37-40), and John’s declaration that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) As long as the result is loving, all is good. That kind of consequentialism is like, “means justify the ends.” That can get messy, leading to statements like, “But I was meaning to….”
All We Do Is ChoseThroughout the previous seasons of “The Good Place” Chidi, a professor of moral philosophy, has established the supreme value of Kant’s categorical imperative. But in the most recent episode, he changes his tune. Kant would say an action is right, not because of its consequences, but because it can always be trusted to be ethical. Like, don’t lie. But what happens if the truth gets you in trouble. Well, Kant might say that isn’t the truth’s fault, so don’t lie, and probably don’t do the thing that got you into trouble. The point, is that the situation doesn’t change the ethical value to the right choice.
And choices, they are always all around us. In fact, choosing is all we do, leading toward everything else we do. Joseph, the sisters from Portland, Oregon seem to question the motives when they “look around to see how everybody else is doing it,” on Good Luck, Kid. Whereas The Kongos on 1929 Pt1 and 1929 Pt 2 deal with the realities of broken bubbles and crashing reality with songs like In My Chest, and We’re Almost Home. And Big Thief, in “Not” is in that in-between place of knowing what is not, but not what is.
You’re used to looking around to see
How everybody else is doing it
Now it seems like we’re all losing it
You read the paper, it’s all bad news in it
The train’s off the tracks, boat’s capsized
Don’t know the left from right
And you think, how am I gonna do this?
Oh, you thought you’d know the way but now you don’t
Oh, you thought you’d have the answers when you’d grow
They handed you the keys
The driver’s seat is yours now
There’s nothing left to lean on
You’re the queen from here on out
No time for doubt
Good luck, kid…
Speaking about this collection of songs, The Kongos describe the meaning of the title, “As you know, 1929 is a famous economical bubble. But we figured there are some bubbles, emotional ones as well. We liked the theme of a little bubble bursting, you finally get to access a bit of reality” (Music in Minnesota)
I don’t know where the rest of me went
I built this shell around me
Like the armor of a knight
It stops the arrows of an army
But won’t let in or out any light
I wanna feel it in my chest
Feel it in my chest
I wanna feel it in my, feel in my chest
Been living in my head
I’ve been living in my head…
If you want to ponder what it is, listen to Not, by Big Thief. As Adrianne Lenker, gets half-way through this song, we begin to hear her frustration. There are times when the pain of not knowing becomes overbearing. We know what it is not, but we don’t yet know what it is. Reminding me of the moments in life where I feel stuck not even know what I don’t know, but only know I am not equipped for this.
Not what you really wanted
Nor the mess in your purse
Nor the bed that is haunted
With the blanket of thirst
It’s not the hunger revealing
Nor the ricochet in the cave
Nor the hand that is healing
Nor the nameless grave
Enjoy your time this week as a cultural anthropologist. The key to understanding culture is to listen. Seems like music a great place to begin listening. Think about the choices we make. Do what’s right because it is the right thing to do (Kant). Or, as most of us do clumsily, love your neighbor (Fletcher).
Want Craig to come speak at your church, provide a workshop or a retreat? Send an invitation HERE
For more resources from Craig, check out The Missionplace.
And, although we’re on hiatus, subscribe to
Follow me and support me on my Patreon page.