Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Martyn Joseph

We went to a benefit concert Friday night at which he was the headliner.  I liked him very much at first, but by the end was not so impressed.  I looked Saturday for a video to embed, and rapidly decided I didn't like the songs that much.  By Sunday morning I was remembering the irritating things he said more than the clever ones, and the lyrical complexity just seemed showy and shallow.

It's worth looking at this from a couple of angles.

First, it was a benefit concert - he gave his time and the other performers gave their time, as did the organisers.  We gave, but they gave more. I should respect the effort for a good cause, and perhaps not be so ready to be critical. So hats off to him for that - you don't catch me doing my profession for free very often.

Still, the performance is what it is and stands or falls on its own merits.  Further, the choice of this performer says something about those who invited him, and why they thought he would appeal to a middle-aged Christian audience.*

Hmm.  Begin at the beginning.  He is a folksinger with an attacking style. New Englanders might remember Jaime Brockett, but Phil Ochs, Barry McGuire, or Dave Van Ronk would be more widely known. He is vocally aggressive, aggressive in his guitar style, and lyrically aggressive.  He's good at all three.  He has that easy way of interacting with an audience that coffeehouse performers developed when they were up close, and modified only slightly when they got to the high stage. He also has a Welsh accent, and anything from GB seems to work for American folk audiences that way.  It had been a while since I'd experienced that, and it was exhilarating at first.

But then that was all.  There were some clever turns of phrase and internal rhymes, but when you really boiled down the lyrics, it was pretty much "Lots of things suck.  It would be better if people were nice to each other."  True, but not profound.  He did do a nice story-song, rather Harry Chapinish, toward the end that seemed to teach that kindnesses have meaning and sometimes have enormous consequences.

I have seen this before, usually among people within a decade of my own age, this deep response to a certain intensity couple with similar social values, becoming somewhat confused with Christian belief.  Not that they are unaware of theological distinctions and the faith as taught, but that they think this is all related somehow – the Next-Best-Thing.  There are lots of variations of this.  On the Right, patriotism and/or traditionalism get treated as if they are related phenomenon.  Again, not that decent and informed Christians can’t tell that the gospel is not the same thing, but that they think it’s a first cousin.

Worse, there are also people who seemingly can’t tell the difference, who think that patriotism, or folksingers who care about injustice, are actual siblings to Christianity.  There are emotional responses that are taking the place of clear-headed belief.  I have heard a pastor – a very intelligent and well-trained one who is presumably able to make theological distinctions – declare that the U2 concert he attended affected him as a religious experience.  I point out for emphasis that he did not immediately recoil and say “Whoa, I have to look at what is happening in my head and heart here.  That’s crazy talk.”  He said it as evidence that a U2 concert is a valid spiritual experience.  Because it felt good. (He didn’t put it as bluntly as my last sentence.  He described his emotions poetically and with intensity, using words like “profound,” and “connection” - but void of clear intellectual content. It felt good, no more.) The power of being part of a temporary community, all feeling the same thing together, was the ticket.

It troubles me because so many get sucked in to their own cultural nostalgia, their own comfiness, when someone pushes the right buttons. I am apprehensive not because I believe community unimportant and doctrinal differences an excuse to cut ourselves off.  On the contrary, I believe community is at the center of the gospel, far more than checking off the boxes on the Four Spiritual Laws, and because of that, dislike this imitation.

Both Nicodemus and the rich young ruler had some claim of being in the same community as Jesus.  They shared a lot of similar ideas. The major parties of Zealots, Essenes, Pharisees, and (less so) Sadducees all offered community, and appealed to fellow Jews on that basis. They were the patriots and the folksingers and affirming congregations of their day.  Jesus was pretty harsh on them, harsher than on people who were farther removed from the center, such as Romans or Samaritans.

*They might have been expecting a different demographic, but that's what they got.

1 comment:

Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

As I said after the concert, didn't Joan Baez do this gig in 1965?? Or maybe that was Barry McGuire, I get them mixed up. Apparently there IS nothing new under the sun.