The Art House Dallas Song Project: a Recap and Reflection
Art House Dallas recently hosted a Song Project, a day-long gathering of music and conversation. The focus of the event was to inspire songwriters to faithfully tell the stories of God at work in the world, and no less important, to weave their words with music that reflects the emotion and narrative arc of the stories. Many good people were involved as participants and mentors included Brent Bourgeois, Kate Miner, Josh Jenkins, Christopher Williams, and Patrick Ryan Clark. Thanks to everyone who contributed muscle and imagination to get it done. I'm especially grateful to our Dallas Executive Director, Jenny White, and her team of volunteers spearheaded by Marissa Miller. Thanks also to Eventbrite for sponsoring our delicious Mexican lunch.
Art House America is rooted in the Jewish/Christian belief and practice of a personal God. We believe that God has come to help his people through the person and work of Jesus. We lean into this and place our faith in a God who is with us, not against us. Songwriters who hold to this idea ought to be in the business of watching and listening for the stories of God at work in the world, including in our homes, friendship circles, and wider communities. The Song Project was designed to be a gentle reminder of this reality.
Anyone can use religious language and frame it in a preferred musical style. True artists, however, sing stories of God, people, and the world in which we live, and they seamlessly integrate music and lyric as an organic whole. If belief about God and reality isn’t seamlessly woven into my life, I shouldn’t expect it to be seamlessly woven into my songwriting. As a young songwriter and follower of Jesus, I looked to the Bible for some clarity about lyric and storytelling in general. The Jewish/Christian story of God, people, and place is collected together in the Bible — actually 66 short books, 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New.
Photo: Stephen RhodesLike any story the Bible has a beginning and end. In the beginning, God is creating (Genesis 1:1). By the end of the story He’s re-creating — making everything new again (Revelation 21:1-5). In the space between, it’s a long, twisting, messy trek of glory and shame, filled with small stories, sermons, genealogies, prayers, letters, songs, poems, and proverbs of every conceivable style. They incorporate every literary device from hyperbole to alliteration, and acrostic to stream-of-consciousness. The subject matter is the whole of life, hellish and heavenly. The rhythms of God, people, and planet cross and double-cross with a noisy racket. The creative beauty of God’s handiwork is mixed together in the same history with a fat king named Eglon, who was murdered by a left-handed man named Ehud. There are even stories for people who cannot see God at work, who openly question whether He exists to bring help to his people. If this is you, you’re in good company with history and the musician/shepherd/king David. This lyric, among many like it, has been attributed to the Jewish king:
My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
Photo: Stephen RhodesBy looking at the Bible, those of us gathered in Dallas remembered together how songs and stories are deeply connected to daily life. Using the imagination does not exclude using the stories of our interaction with God, people, and place. We can and ought to embrace an ocean of possibilities for our music and lyric. Throughout the event we tried to communicate that songwriting is not about sacred or secular, vertical or horizontal, modern worship or hymns, crossover or church, liberal or conservative. There is something deeper at stake. For anyone who is serious about having a songwriting life inspired by Jesus, it’s time to deal with what He is interested in — everything. This means people seeking God in a more beautiful, faithful way of living which is holistic in scope — beyond pietism to a true rightness, the rightness revealed in the person of Jesus and all that concerns Him. Not an American Christianity, left or right, Republican or Democrat, but instead, an adoration of Jesus and His ways of being human. The way of Jesus gives sufficient direction for being and doing and the promise of renewal in all things: the God/human relationship, relationship to each other, to the earth, music and the arts, agriculture, business, education, politics, recreation, communication, science — literally everything. Songwriting is made faithful by following where Jesus leads.
Is He leading some to care for victims of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan? Tell the story in song. Is He saving and bringing back to life your neighbor’s sick child? Tell the story in song. Is He leading you toward good imaginative, creative work? Is He giving you good things, food, laughter, sex, and marriage? Tell the story in song. Is Jesus present in the thanks and prayers of his people? Tell the story in song. Is He seemingly silent, nowhere to be seen? Tell the story in song. Do all this and much, much more with music that is winsome, emotive, honest, earthy, transcendent, and rich in depth and nuance. This is true music for people who profess to be active participants in this old Jewish/Christian story of God, people, and place. Everything else is copying, faking, buying, and selling.