Beauty in Sodom: In Defense of Secular Culture

The greatest [secular] band of our time.
I am currently listening to [the secular band] Radiohead’s magisterial 2006 album In Rainbows, specifically the [secular] song “Bodysnatchers.” I have just read Joshua Gibbs’ post on the Circe Institute blog, in which he reveals that he is selling his popular music collection and that, for Lent anyway, will only be listening to music over 100 years old. But he goes further than that, attacking the Christian project of “cultural engagement” in its various confused forms:

For some, engaging the culture means inviting neighbors for dinner. For some, making subtly Christian films which will soften the hearts of unsuspecting secularists. For some, public debates with local scientists. And for some, “engaging the culture” means writing think pieces about how the latest Kanye West record reveals his latent desire for a Savior.

Leaving aside the idea that maybe some or all of these things could be considered rightly within the “big tent” of Christian cultural engagement, Gibbs has a point. And he doesn’t stop there. One by one, he takes apart his own reasons for listening to Kanye, Drake–even Radiohead, or watching popular secular film. His ultimate defense, he says, was St. Paul’s Mars Hill sermon, in which Paul clearly displays a knowledge of secular idol worship and secular poets — enough to engage with his Athenian audience.

But as Gibbs points out, Paul’s example isn’t quite how he had portrayed it in his mind. For example, the pagan poet Paul quoted to his audience had written hundreds of years before. It would be more like quoting Shakespeare in our time than Rihanna. As Gibbs approaches his conclusion, he gets more stark:

Popular music glorifies a bad situation but offers no direction. A spirit of searching and longing attends the best pop music, though the search is aimless and the longing arbitrary, unformed. Rachmaninoff’s Vespers (Op. 37) is also about longing, though it lacks the craft cool of Modern Vampires of the City or the high vaulted passion of The Joshua Tree. Rachmaninoff cannot offer any Christ-haunted cosmopolitan thrills, for he is not haunted by Christ, but inhabited by Him.

Finally, Gibbs is convinced that his previous deep indulgence in secular music and film may be a cause for judgment. “Repent,” he concludes. “The judgment of your motives is at hand. The judgment of your tastes is at hand.”

To be sure, our motives and our tastes will come under the judgment of the Son of God, when all of us will stand before his throne and give account. But I think Gibbs is too hasty in his rejection of popular music and culture. In fact, I think he is committing a grave error.

It is our Christian duty to seek after righteousness (which is beautiful), and to nurture it where we find it. How can we do this if we shut off for ourselves the glorious stream of humanity, which some may call secular culture but which we could, if we take the long view, call “culture, soon to be redeemed?”

I’m not sure that listening to secular music, even a record as important and near-perfect as Radiohead’s In Rainbows, has contributed to my growth in wisdom. But it certainly has helped me perceive and identify beauty, wherever it may be found. And it may be found everywhere. And it is our duty to seek it out.

Where is beauty? It may not be where we expect it, or where we want to find it. Dostoevsky says, “Is there beauty in Sodom? Believe me, that for the immense mass of mankind beauty is found in Sodom. Did you know that secret? The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”

The victory of God in this battlefield does not entail the Christian leaving beauty behind, but it will mean leaving Sodom behind. God will use the Christian to take the beauty that is in Sodom, and bring it in His train to Jerusalem. So it is our Christian duty to divest Sodom of its beauty, appreciating all the while that whatever is beautiful is good, and whatever is good is of God.

If Gibbs throws out “new” music because of its newness, and devote himself to music that is more than a century old instead, he will commit chronological snobbery, and furthermore all men through all times are under judgment as sinners. The musicians of the past were, taking everything together, not better people than those of today. Rachmaninov was a great composer, perhaps even “Christ-inhabited” as Gibbs asserts. But his near contemporary, Igor Stravinsky, was not (at the time) so blessed. He wrote The Rite of Spring, a celebration of paganism that no modern artist has yet to match. [It is important to note that Stravinsky later became a devout believer in the Russian Orthodox Church.] If Gibbs avoids the last century of music, he will miss the great wealth of Christian music to come out of Africa and Asia, with their burgeoning and joyful populations of Christians.

It might be easier to give up on popular culture than to redeem it, to consign it to the godless who always seem to have the upper hand. “Redeeming culture” is the tiredest of tired phrases, but it is not a tired concept. It is where the great Christians of the last centuries, for the most part, have heard Christ’s call. Many of them have believed, as I do, that cultural engagement (perhaps a redefined and discerning version thereof) is one of the avenues by which Christ will save the world. Here is G.K. Chesterton:

Things can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is false, but nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true…All things not only may have something to do with the Christian God, but must have something to do with Him if He lives and reigns.

What are we leaving behind, if under the guise of faithfulness we leave behind popular culture and any prospect of redeeming it, and head for the hinterland of culture? Let’s think long and hard before we start on our journey. As part of our research, I would assign the Radiohead album In Rainbows.


Liveblogging Radiohead’s “King of Limbs”

11:05 AM Pacific Standard Time. The author is one happy man. Radiohead pushed forward their album’s release date, and NPR streamed it live! I listened, and then I bought it. $9.99 on if you’re interested.

11:07 AM. The first song was entitled “Bloom,” I believe. It was mostly instrumental, with a jazzy piano under-layer and some jazzy bass. Rating: 7.0 out of 10.

11:10 AM. The second song is better. Peaceful, cheerful for a Radiohead song. Great vocals from Thom. Listening to the wind-down now. Ghostly background vocals…oh, it wasn’t the wind-down. It’s back. Looped drums and another interesting, Euro bass-line. Delish. That was “Morning Mr. Magpie.” 8.0.

11:12 AM. Missed a lot of the third song. Dad needed a phone number. That was “Little by Little,” probably the weakest song so far.

11:16 AM. Now on to “Feral.” So far KoL is a more melodic Kid A/Amnesiac rather than The Bends/In Rainbows. Quieter than Hail to the Thief or OK Computer, but I’ve got my hopes up. Feral is another high-six. Maybe  6.8.

11:20 AM. Track 5 is “Lotus Flower.” There’s a video for this out now. This is a more In Rainbows song and I love it. Long, deep, and melodic. 8.5.

11:28 AM. On to “Codex.” They’ve got a piano on a phaser. Interesting. Thom is moaning in the background. This is another more-melodic Amnesiac-style song. Good. Reminds me of one my best musical experiences, a long drive in August through the endless pine woods of northern Wisconsin, over through the UP, and down into pristine northern Michigan, just as my brother and I were getting into our Radiohead kick. Other highlights of the trip were “Hljomalind” by Sigur Ros and “Lazy Eye” by the Silversun Pickups. Codex: 7.5

11:32 AM. “Give Up the Ghost” started off with acoustic guitar. The second-to-last track is winding things down. I had a Fleet Foxes vibe at the beginning. This is a VERY low-key album. Wow, except for that little vocal hook on the tail end of this song. That just bumped it up at least a point in my book. 7.8.

11:40 AM. Already we’re at the last track of this 40-minute album. Will it go out with a bang? Doesn’t sound like it. Really sweet little guitar riff, possibly the most cheerful thing I’ve ever heard in a Radiohead song. There is a ghostly U2 vibe. And we’re done. Last track, 8.2 to my ears, 9.0 to my heart. Lame, I know, but there it is. Full album verdict? That will come later.

11:44 AM. NPR’s commentators are saying that the newer albums are moving away from the guitar as the showcase instrument. That is definitely true with King of Limbs. The bass and particularly the dupstep-like drum lines were integral to these eight songs. I could complain that it wasn’t long enough, but King of Limbs shows, first of all, that Radiohead is still on top of the game.