For the last year, I’ve been reading through the Bible. It has, no doubt, been interesting. And if not interesting, then boring. And if not boring, then horrifying. And if not horrifying, then unforgivable. And if not unforgivable, then darkly mysterious — like the face of the deep, and the pillar in the desert. But above all other things, the thing that struck me most is the Bible’s unrelenting, formal weirdness. When you read it straight through, the Bible feels far more like Moby Dick than Left Behind: a thousand years pass in a verse, styles intermingle, and one genre leaps to the next. This isn’t just another argument that all writing is experimental, but that if this is God’s story (be it creation in relation to God, or God in relation to creation, or both), then both God’s and creation’s stories were ahead of their time. The books are myriad (but catalogued, numbered) and filled with histories that run beyond themselves and with authors who can’t control their texts. Despite the efforts of the best theologians, they remain deeply incoherent. The texts are, in turns, meta(non)fictional, psychoanalytical, and, yes, boringly nouveau beyond Alain Robbe-Grillet [sorry, DeForrest!]. Unfortunately, the religions of the book have often become, in too many respects, dangerously stodgy in their reading and interpreting. They have quieted the spirit — the life and the love and the playful mystery — of the texts, while magnifying, alone, the weight of words. Frankly, I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to open the Bible.
Unsurprisingly, “Contemporary Christian Music” largely finds itself in the midst of a similar crisis. That hasn’t always been the case, but even if, once upon a time (during the 60s and 70s), Christian music ventured into psychedelic terrain (and into laughably questionable hermeneutics), it has since become mostly uninspired, and dotted somewhere on a spectrum ranging from “U2 knockoff” to “Coldplay knockoff,” with varying degrees of post-rock influence. Fortunately, there are exceptions, and, in particular, John Ringhofer’s Half-Handed Cloud came as a revelation to me. (Why I hadn’t heard HHC up until this point is a mystery to me, but not even the best music critic — a position I myself am far removed from — can listen to everything.) And while there is a temptation to simply call “Elephant 6” on HHC (which isn’t a bad thing, by the way), his influences spring out and redefine what I would’ve otherwise just labeled quirks and references. His methodology springs from a playful and highly-personalized appropriation of artists as diverse as Kurt Schwitters, Stan Brakhage, and Joseph Beuys. In particular, both artistically and theologically — perhaps even biblically — HHC performs Joseph Beuys’ declaration: “Everything under the sun is art!” Literally. (By the way, that is a word most often misused by readers of the Bible who want a God who can create the world in days, and yet refuse to believe such a creation would be anything other than an artifice, ripe for misuse.) Beuys made his sculptures with dust, fat, toenails, and blood*. HHC, on the other hand, builds with voices, words, and sounds.
“Cross” by Joseph Beuys
Finally, we arrive at Flying Scroll Flight Control. Like Gumshoe, I think the biggest hurdle for the listener, believer or unbeliever, will be straightforward transliteration (in this case, nearly every lyric is taken, almost verbatim, from New Testament epistles). I’ll admit that even as a questionable believer, my ears still prick up when I hear “election” uttered, much less sung. And, often, I feel as Kierkegaard felt about the letters of Paul: that they are a “reduced Christianity,” a blunted edge. More than that, they are — like all theological statements — just sort of weird and uncomfortable. (Yes, there is a deep humanity to Paul’s words, as well. I think Ringhofer’s repetitions draw attention, particularly, to these moments as well.) And yet as someone who may struggle to believe what they say, I’m enamored with Ringhofer’s wild exuberance in proclaiming them, in repurposing them, and, by extension, I would even say in explicating them.
We don’t often think of orthodoxy bearing any similarity to the avant-garde. But to think correctly through the Bible, to perform it, is to be open to the wildness, the strangeness, and, frankly, craziness of it all. It is to enter a labyrinth (a metaphor already within a metaphor) and pray a prayer that winds and shifts and continues to turn on itself, into itself, and out of itself; to pray a prayer that brings other voices, other sounds, even a psychedelic collage, into (what Cixous beautifully calls) “the evaporation of solid words into a mist for the lips of God;” it is, like Bueys’ dream of art, the integration of everything under the sun, through the spirit, the parts redeemed by the whole. It is a joyful noise, as cacophonous as its source material. When I picked up Flying Scroll Flight Control to write about for TMT, I sent an email to Ringhofer asking for the lyrics. He responded: “Lyrics seem so much better heard than read…” And here, at the end, I can’t think of a better metaphor for all of this than that. “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
* For what it’s worth, Bueys also used sounds to make his artwork.