excellence-proofed

The fact that I didn’t think I heard a single interesting bar of music from the forty or so acts I caught or overheard at Creation shouldn’t be read as a knock on the acts themselves, much less as contempt for the underlying notion of Christians playing rock. These were not Christian bands, you see; these were Christian rock bands. The key to digging this scene lies in that one syllable distinction. Christian rock is a genre that exists to edify and make money off of evangelical Christians. It’s message music for listeners who know the message cold, and, what’s more, it operates under a perceived responsibility — one the artists embrace — to “reach people.” As such, it rewards both obviousness and maximum palatability (the artists would say clarity), which in turn means parasitism…. Every successful crappy secular group has its Christian offbrand, and that’s proper, because culturally speaking, it’s supposed to serve as a standin for, not an alternative to or an improvement on, those very groups. In this it succeeds wonderfully. If you think it profoundly sucks, that’s because your priorities are not its priorities; you want to hear something cool and new, it needs to play something proven to please … while praising Jesus Christ. That’s Christian rock. A Christian band, on the other hand, is just a band that has more than one Christian in it.… And here, if I can drop the openminded pretense real quick, is where the stickier problem of actually being any good comes in, because a question that must be asked is whether a hardcore Christian who turns 19 and finds he or she can write first rate songs (someone like Damien Jurado) would ever have anything whatsoever to do with Christian rock. Talent tends to come hand in hand with a certain base level of subtlety. And believe it or not, the Christian rock establishment sometimes expresses a kind of resigned approval of the way groups like U2 or Switchfoot (who played Creation while I was there and had a monster secular radio hit at the time with “Meant to Live” but whose management wouldn’t allow them to be photographed onstage) take quiet pains to distance themselves from any unambiguous Jesus loving, recognizing that this is the surest way to connect with the world (you know that’s how they refer to us, right We’re “of the world”). So it’s possible — and indeed seems likely — that Christian rock is a musical genre, the only one I can think of, that has excellence-proofed itself.

John Jeremiah Sullivan, “Upon This Rock,” GQ 2004. This is a pretty famous essay, and rightly so. A good many Christians know of it, and know what he means in this passage I’ve quoted about excellence-proofing, but I’m just not sure it’s possible for us to meditate too much on what Sullivan says here. In the last few days I’ve found myself in dialogue with some people who are trying to think in serious ways about what it might mean to engage as faithful Jews with a digital world. I wrote about my encounters in two pieces for the Technology channel of The Atlantic, here and here. The approaches are rather different, and while I think that there could be some fruitful collaboration among these people, I don’t know that it’s going to happen; but in any case, what struck me about both approaches is how grounded they are in distinctive practices of the Jewish faith. One might be on the Orthodox end of the spectrum, and the other closer to the Reformed end, but all the people involved seem to be thinking as Jews. This is something that I often find to be missing from the technological practices of my fellow Christians. I’m sure there must be innovative stuff out there, truly and deeply grounded in distinctive Christian practices, but it’s hard for me to find. In many ways no point could be more familiar: Church buildings look just like ordinary civic auditoriums — indeed they are auditoriums; Christian books are designed to look like whatever books happen to be popular at the time, and follow the same titling practices; Christians dress like whomever they want to imitate socially; and so on. Christian colleges, like the one I teach at, have a curricular structure that exactly replicates that of secular institutions, just with slightly varying proportions of requirements. We all know how this works, and we know that there are — or at least can be — good reasons for it. But this way of doing business has become our default, and that’s not healthy. And it’s especially discouraging to me when I see people who know the emerging tech world well, and have good education and some technical skills, and (most important) have the opportunity to innovate, instead choosing the same imitative patterns that lead, inevitably, to excellence-proofing themselves. Take, as just one example, the series of videos produced by the smart and committed people at Q: They’re imitation TED talks. Pure and simple, nothing but. Same staging, same camera angles, same length. They seem to be designed to make stray viewers think that they are watching TED talks.

Can’t we do better than this? Can’t we back up a step or two, and instead of asking “What currently cool technologies can we copy?” ask “What are our core convictions and core practices, and what existing technologies best support them?” And maybe even ask this more challenging question: “What if the existing technologies don’t serve our needs very well? How can we acquire the imagination, the technical chops, and the sheer courage to roll our own instead of choosing from a pre-existing menu of options?” It’s better — far better — to risk abject failure than to choose a safely imitative course that makes excellence impossible by design.