What We Can Learn From Musical Giants
U2, The Beatles, Bob Dylan. There are names that are forever etched into our cultural landscape, and these musical giants are key cornerstones of our current musical landscape. These are names that are known for a reason — their contribution to music as a whole, and their lasting legacies have inspired countless songs, artists and people. What can we learn from these massive names, and how can we apply the aspects of the world to a far more important cultural cornerstone — the church?
The first thing we can see is that these bands didn’t get to where there are because they kicked their feet up and let someone else do the work. Every riff, every lyric, every rhythm was a product of turning inspiration into reality through hard work.
The Edge’s famous guitar riff from “Where The Streets Have No Name” might have been enough to carry the song by itself, but it took the band weeks of refining and practice to actually craft the riff into a cohesive song. In a TV documentary about the recording of the song, co-producer Brian Eno estimates that “half of the album sessions were spent trying to record a suitable version of “Where the Streets Have No Name… the band worked on a single take for weeks”. They didn’t settle for one killer part, they worked hard to make the whole song into what it is today — iconic.
The church and it’s artists cannot be afraid of self criticism, refining and hard work. The simple fact is that the more of ourselves we pour into a project, the more we honour the skills and talents that God has given us. Jesus illustrates this in the parable of the talents — only the men who put their skills to work received their master’s praise — the man who hid his money in the ground out of fear was scorned by his master for not increasing what he was entrusted with.
The second thing we can take from these artists is that they significantly redefined their cultural landscape.
...These artists is that they significantly redefined their cultural landscape.
There’s no greater example of this than Bob Dylan. His impact on the musical and cultural landscape even now is something that’s difficult to measure due to its reach. Dylan came to prominence during a time where the American consciousness was in a process of shedding its traditional roots. In the 60’s there was a resurgence of the foundational music genres — jazz, blues and bluegrass — and the pseudo-traditionalist movement that Dylan was heavily steeped in was ultimately just a label. Dylan shed his Americana roots and turned to electric instruments with 1965’s “Bringing It All Back Home”.
The irony of Dylan’s choice here was that he was accused of “selling out” because he didn’t conform to the walls and bounds of a movement that he was deeply involved in. Yet, had he not broken out of the confines of what everyone thought, his legacy might have been simply relegated to one corner of a very vast cultural landscape. Dylan simply followed his own artistic integrity, and said what he needed to say.
There’s a fundamental application here for the church. Jesus makes the decisive statement in John chapter 18:36 that says “My kingdom is not of this world — if it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place”. The kingdom of God is not furnished by things of this world, and as Christian artists, neither should we. Our culture, our art, our reality here and now should be fluid enough to reflect the Kingdom to come. We need to say what we need to say, even if it means going against popular rhetoric.
However, this raises a significant question — how much of the world do we reflect in order to reflect back the Kingdom of God and it’s values? The third and maybe even the most important thing we can learn from these significant artists is that they not only redefined their cultural landscapes, but they also redefined themselves. They are a lesson on how the church can and should consistently redefine what it means to exist in their own relevant time, place and culture.
The Beatles didn’t spend their entire career singing “I Want To Hold Your Hand” — the bubble gum pop tune was what the band needed to be at that particular time. However, as the band matured, found their place and their own style, their music and art naturally and organically shifted. And that didn’t happen just once. There we distinct stylistic phases that The Beatles went through — as perhaps a response to the changing world, or simply because they were discontent with making the same type of music.
That too is what the church needs to be. We must retain a certain discontent for what we create, knowing that one day, the means and methods we use to lead others to salvation can and will likely change. This can be applied to music, but also to our wider church organisations and programmes. Our challenge is found by meeting those changes head on, rather than simply existing as we did 10, 20, 50 or 100 years ago.
We must retain a certain discontent for what we create...
There’s a lot we can learn from musical giants, but the greater challenge is applying those lessons to ourselves.