Sam Beam
Sam Beam

I know Christians have heard this criticism quite a bit in the last few years. But let’s be honest: Christians whine a lot about art, yet have no decent art themselves to offer as an alternative. In this sense, they fall in the category of “easy target” along with feminists, younger siblings, and the latest Rambo movie. But then again, perhaps it is the part of the cultural evolution process to dispense with the weak, and quickly. And when it comes to a subculture as inbred as the Christian subculture!well, we all know that inbreeding is one of the quickest exits a species can find unless you’re European royalty.

Thus, I would never want to be too harsh on a site like Christian Music Today* when it make attempts at covering popular culture, because I do believe they want to engage culture. Or I believe, at least, that they believe they want to engage popular culture. But when I read a review and the advertising surrounding it features such phrases as “Hosanna Montana!,” “Music devotions for teen girls from Christian music’s top female artists,” and “The Purpose Drive Life Shop,” I can’t seem to shake the feeling that I am witnessing the workings of an intensely inbred subculture that is simply dips its toe in the water from time to time to see if it’s warm enough for them to jump in safely. Pieces like this online analysis of Iron & Wine’s 2007 folk opus The Shepherd’s Dog do not help matters, either.

Tim Avery, the piece’s author, seems content to highlight the particular moments where Sam Beam’s lyricism appears to dovetail with Christianity, noting Beam’s conflicted utilization of Christian imagery as well as his condemnation of Christian hypocrisy. Avery hits the nail on the head in one sense, depicting Beam’s discomfort with authority, particularly with God, whose “dizzying transcendence seems to separate him from his own creation, which is left to injure itself.” Unfortunately, Avery concludes his article with this stunning display of head-in-the-sand: “Fueled by Beam’s admitted ‘confusion,’ the dark images of insecurity throughout The Shepherd’s Dog remind us of our need for a dependable figure to order our lives.”

Not long ago, a “culturally engaged Christian” would have responded with a theodicy of sorts, a justification of the ways of God to Beam, someone who openly questions them. That approach might have been more interesting than the half-admiring, half-critical bit of sweet nothings it is. Perhaps the greatest irony is that the article spends time uncovering the difficulties Beam clearly has with an omnipotent god, and ends with a hope that perhaps, some day Beam will come to terms with this omnipotent deity—that Beam’s problem will suddenly become the solution. There is no attempt at dialogue; Avery doesn’t actually engage Beam’s imagistic usage, but dismisses it when he finds that it cannot be easily fit into the “make cohesive judgment, pray for soul” template. When he finds it does not fit the Christian Culture Industry’s parameters of acceptable discourse, he dismisses it. This is not to say that Beam does not have his own similar agnostic parameters of discourse, but you certainly wouldn’t know that from reading this piece. There’s a lot of talk of a cannonball, but no splash.

Beam’s agnosticism is very southern in its construction. Flannery O’Connor once described the south as a “Christ-haunted” landscape. In the same way, God haunts Beam’s music. He clearly feels both the presence of God as well as the difficulty of belief, and his ambiguity about belief that makes his portrayal of it so compelling. He is skeptical of it, but also recognizes its complexity (hence, Beam’s gentle mockery of those who talk about a “pocket map to Heaven”). Ironically, this is the very image Avery links onto, hoping that Beam will find this “‘pocket map’ folded within the characters and imagery he uses in his songs,” as if Beam only need to pay a little closer attention to the characters and images he is using to be clued in to the truth.

The question, then: Why the dodge? Where’s Avery’s theodicy? If it is so clear that Beam needs God, presumably there is a good and clear reason for Avery to say so. What is it? This question is not answered, probably because it can’t be answered in terms of Iron & Wine’s lyrics. Beam is an agnostic, but his music is not. As a logical human being, how could he possibly damn the metaphors he believes so powerful for conveying his thoughts? His writing is essentially rooted in the Christian idiom, and in that sense more thoroughly Christian than the writers of today’s “Christian music,” which is often rooted in the vague idioms of a language-starved, image-drenched culture. Beam’s language believes in a God, simultaneously recognizing both the beauties and the terrible truths about Him. That is a complexity that only the greatest Christian writers have been able to communicate. Perhaps the only lyricist who has even come close is Sufjan Stevens in “Casimir Pulaski Day.”

Avery recognizes that Beam writes in the Christian idiom, and hopes that one day Beam will accept its contents as a spiritual reality, rather than a cultural vernacular. It’s a nice sentiment, but Avery seems to neglect the fact that confusion is very much a part of the Christian idiom. There certainly is no “pocket map to heaven,” and the terribleness of Beam’s God will not lessen. If Beam does come to belief, it will be by coming to terms with these two truths rather than following this example of avoiding them.

Correction, Jan. 2, 2009: This article originally labeled “Christian Music Today” as Christianity Today. While published by Christianity Today International, the site is a separate publication.

Micah Towery is working on his master of fine arts degree at Hunter College in Manhattan. He is the founder and co-editor of The Cartographer Electric.

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