Columnists > Voices

Musical diagnosis

There's value in description, and hope for prescription

Issue: "GOP: No room for error," Oct. 19, 2002

YOU WANT THE TRUTH?" JACK NICHOLSON ASKS IN his famous portrayal of a beleaguered general. "You can't handle the truth." But in life we can handle the truth far better than we might suppose. Even Lisa Beamer, with God's grace, was able to handle the truth that the 9/11 airplane her husband was on had crashed (WORLD, Aug. 17). What truly hurts, from the Garden of Eden to the present, is the lie that all is well when it's not.

When a body is overrun with cancer, the dying person and his family need to handle the truth, not hide from it. On lesser matters as well, honesty counts. I often tell journalism students on the first day of a course that their real friends will bluntly critique their writing. We don't get tough but affectionate criticism often enough. One poetry professor who has his students assess each other's poetry tells them that he may be the only one to tell them the truth, because he is paid not to lie.

Whether we're assessing diseased bodies or sick writing, two types of help are valuable. First comes an honest and accurate diagnosis of the problem. Then comes the prescription of what to do. We expect a doctor or a teacher to be able to diagnose and prescribe. But what about a musician or a filmmaker? And might a songwriter or screenwriter who can diagnose but not prescribe still be valuable?

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I was thinking about this while enjoying the Austin City Limits music festival at the very end of September (see p. 39). Singers offered songs of yearning in front of 75,000 attendees over two days. Shawn Colvin sang, "Don't leave me alone in the twilight. Twilight is the loneliest time of the day." Robert Earl Keen sang his typically melancholy notes-"Sometimes I can't believe those days are gone"-to a driving beat.

Few singers suggested the right prescription-Christ-but many recognized the presence of pain, and some described its deep roots. Given a choice between a bubbly "Christian" song that offers the right prescription but shows little understanding of the disease, and a non-Christian one that diagnoses well but offers no prescription, I probably prefer the better diagnosis, all other things being equal. The hope, of course, is to combine diagnosis and prescription in a great Christian song, but those are hard to come by.

Nashville is the home of country music that often sounds canned; Austin is known for its singer-songwriters, and chief among them these days is Patty Griffin. Merely quoting the words doesn't do justice to her gut-grabbing music; Tolstoy must have been a very wise man to write, "Music is the shorthand of emotion," without hearing her sing at our music festival. Some forlorn phrases do suggest the intensity of her diagnosis: "Sometimes you find yourself flying low at night / flying blind and looking for any sign of light / you're cold and scared and all alone / you'd do anything just to make it home."

George Santayana, the pessimistic philosopher who lived in Boston for 40 years, wrote that, "Music is essentially useless, as life is." But Patty Griffin offers realistically optimistic conclusions: "It's a mad mission under difficult conditions / not everybody makes it to the loving cup / it's a mad mission but I got the ambition / mad, mad mission sign me up." Marriages, new schools, singing careers, new businesses: They're all mad missions, and any enterprise worth pursuing requires that passion. All life is not suffering, despite what Buddhists say; life is challenge.

Ms. Griffin, asked by one reporter after she sang about writers who had influenced her, mentioned Tim O'Brien, author of a gripping book about the war in Vietnam called The Things They Carried. Austinites at the music festival carried not just folding chairs but tattooed lives folded in a thousand directions with innumerable creases. We can turn our backs on these prodigals, or hope and pray that many will return, perhaps because-as newspaper editor E.W. Howe wrote-"When people hear good music, it makes them homesick for something they never had, and never will have."

Never had, yes, but never will? That's where a Christian prescription kicks in. Those who study the Bible know that the world is made up of two kinds of people: unrepentant sinners and repentant sinners. We should welcome music that illuminates our loneliness apart from God and stirs a yearning within us for something better. Then Christians should be present to speak with those waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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