Songwriting is an act of courage. Mark Heard, I'm told, emerged from his studio one day, after writing one of his brilliant songs, and remarked to a friend, "This is either very good or really stupid". Mark of course was incapable of writing anything inept, but in that moment he articulated the dilemma every conscientious tunesmith, worthy of the craft, encounters in his quest to put into words an experience of life. Have I effectively written this in such a way as to enable the listener to participate in the depths of the experience, and emerge from it more human, more noble; in a word "better" than before? This is a tall order and a great responsibility, because, as we all know, there is power in words. Transforming power, (In the beginning was the Word), the power to move us closer to or farther from the Truth.
Many artists today fear poetry and imagination out of some misguided notion that their "message" must be explicit in order for it to be validated or they deem the marketplace too illiterate and fear commercial repercussions. These are sad commentaries on the state of the modern church. Francis Schaeffer once wrote "The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars". I dare say he'd be very disappointed today. In the best prose or lyric, more often than not, there is no specific moral, message or sermon attached. The most effective works are often filled with shadow, ambiguity, questions, doubt and longing, mirroring our own lives and the great unfathomable mystery which is God, in such a way that we are at once troubled, touched, and ultimately moved closer to the light. This is accomplished on an almost subliminal level, striking a richer, deeper resonance within us and putting to shame much of the pap which passes for art in CCM circles. The syrupy sweet, positive thinking claptrap cluttering the gospel airwaves today may provide a spiritual fast food fix and a great sugar high, but the rush doesn't last. Failures, estrangements, contradictions, betrayals and self-betrayals all conspire to bring us to that dark place where only the Spirit of God can reach down and redeem us. Many times the vessel for His Spirit is the courageous, transparent artist. Courageous because, in the end, the true artist must face and overcome doubts about himself and his abilities to accomplish his mission of integrity, self-realization and glory to God. All is certainly not lost, as there are a number of CCM artists who have mastered their craft and have achieved some success, but these are the exception. These artists have learned the power of language and metaphor, and use their words as brushstrokes and chisels.
Frederick Buechner calls metaphor the "language of God" . The very fact that Holy Scripture is written in human language qualifies the entire text as metaphor (the Incarnation itself being the grandest of all metaphors- "And the Word became flesh"). Few lyricists speak this language. I count myself as one who is just beginning to learn it's intricacies. Humbled by an artistic landscape rife with failures and glaring lyrical inanities now encoded and preserved in the long life of the CD, I have, nonetheless, learned a little in the twenty years I have been toiling at my craft. I have learned that valid life-impacting music transcends the hit charts, the gospel cheers and catch phrases- transcends the very business of music itself.
The concept for Daniel Amos' newest musical endeavor "Motor Cycle", emerged from my own attempts to cast a mythical sheen over my everyday, sometimes mundane experiences. In this way I was able to build for myself a kind of metaphorical playground in which I could romp and run free, design and sculpt and paint lyrical conceptions that gave weight to it's simple messages of love , faith and hope. In other words, I wanted to go beyond the surface of things, allowing God to breathe between the lines. My desire was to create a partnership with the listener, wherein together we would set out on a personal voyage of revelation, discovery and unity with the Divine. I am often uncomfortable explaining my lyrics, just as a painter would be if asked to explain his painting. He senses that by doing so he diminishes their sublime revelatory properties. The words of Christ were not always delivered on a silver platter of explanation, and some of the harshest and most cryptic of these ("Eat My fleshdrink my blood") left his followers aghast These were and are words of courage that songwriters today can draw strength from. While there may be some merit, at times, to the notion that we must spoon-feed our listeners, we must also be prepared to pay the price for taking the artistic high ground with prophecies, parables, metaphors, allegories, myths and mysteries that much of modern Christianity may be uncomfortable with.
My heroes -- C.S. Lewis, Czseslaw Melosz, Buechner and others-- all bolster in me the courage it takes to risk rejection and failure- that which must be risked if we are to attain the artistic relevance in the eyes of our own listeners and our peers. I, for one, am thankful that Lewis in his grand Narnia fable, called his lion Aslan. He refrained from having to explain that Aslan was really Jesus Christ in disguise. I and my children, and my children's children all thank him for it. We have and will again discover it for ourselves, and in this is it's great and beautiful power to haunt us all the days of our lives.
Poetry has the ability to continually reveal new and fresh layers of illumination with each new encounter. It's truly a grand paradox that with ten words a songwriter can paint a picture worth a thousand or with a haunting melody create a mood which opens up horizonless vistas for the listener to partake of. To use the old adage- to create a whole which is greater than the sum of it's parts. The metaphor is indeed the artist's playground and within it's parameters, further up and further in, we call upon the children of God to join us in the frolicsome celebration of all that is known and unknown about this unattainable earth and the great unfathomable God we serve. Let's occupy it together, until that hour when Aslan returns and carries us away on the back of his wildness and ferocity, to places yet unexplored.
This article originally appeared in Release Magazine in 1993.