I exhausted much of my teens and early 20s trying to be a certain type of guy. I looked over racks of CDs and vinyl, and up to the ideal of a record-store guy, the sort Nick Hornby depicted in his benchmark novel High Fidelity.
I wanted to know what they knew, to lower a bucket into deep wells and come up with the name of the engineer on The Clash’s Cut the Crap or the bassist on Thelonious Monk’s Straight, No Chaser. I wanted to do the breaststroke in an endless pool of Top 5 lists, trivial pursuits, and unsung gems. My visions of the good life and the cool life fit together like a rhythm section pounding out 4/4 time.
What I didn’t see, or initially chose to ignore, was the way any culture built on taste and judgment will bend beauty into a sword if unchecked. Some record-store guys spread their arms wide, acting as teachers and tour guides. Others, in the parlance of High Fidelity, felt like “unappreciated scholars,” belittling everyone less knowledgeable—“which is everyone.”
Although I lacked the bite of the most agitated arbiters, I remained adjacent for years. The nearness opened my eyes to a specific phenomenon, which disproportionately affects a certain type of person, whether or not they actually work in a record store.
The song goes like this: The everyday critic turns over the latest offering from an indie act with a strong, storied reputation. Think of a Wilco, Beck, or Sleater-Kinney. They proceed to find significant fault with that artist, using truly cutting terms to call out a perceived lack of integrity or the presence of softness. Stopping their ears to degrees of difference, they treat artful bands like chief musical offenders, ignoring acts on the level of Pitbull or Britney Spears.
Rather than reserve judgment for the shiny and shallow object of pop, these musical hall monitors reveal a range of satisfaction an inch wide. They betray themselves, forgetting the grammar of music promotes inclusion and empathy. Music opens. Music softens. Music welcomes.
The phenomenon repeats itself in church circles. Some Christians seize the smallest possible amount of power—sometimes as little as signing up for a free Twitter account—to declare themselves tastemakers. They call men and women to follow them under the banner of discernment and purity, yet forget what the music of the gospel sounds like.
Those who drag the reputation of a Karen Swallow Prior, Russell Moore, Beth Moore or Thabiti Anyabwile for straying from the gospel, for succumbing to the consuming fire of liberalism, fail the test of serious people. As do those who chip away at the good work done by brothers and sisters in the areas of anti-racism, immigrant resettlement or other common-good issues—work done as an extension, not a rejection, of orthodoxy. They resemble record-store guys who get their kicks arguing over when and where Bruce Springsteen departed from the gospel of rock and roll.
Twitter thumb-wrestlers betray an extensive knowledge of church history, or working definitions of what “liberal” and “conservative” mean—if they mean much at all. Many lack definitions of justice and mercy the gospel itself provides. And in this, they preach an incomplete gospel. Not insufficient to save, but incomplete in its understanding of redemption’s implications.
We are not asked to choose between the cosmic and the earthy, the vertical and the horizontal, the present and the future. Rather than recognize the “both and” of Christ’s work, these critical spirits practice a “yeah, but” gospel.
Prickly would-be prophets turn good news into a clanging cymbal. Narrowing the narrow road even further, they leave it open only to people who look and think like them.
No theologian, pastor, or writer hits the center of the mark every single time; even Beck writes a few flat notes. But the oft-maligned names I named reflect the fruit of the Spirit. What’s more, they tune their ears to gospel chords wherever they might be struck. They hear the texture and beauty in the gospel—what the late, great Rich Mullins called the “wideness in God’s mercy.”
To miss this, and to attack faithful people with sticks and stones, means forfeiting a wonderful opportunity. The beauty of loving something good in the world—Jesus, music, or anything else—comes in sharing it with others. One set of ears cannot discern or discard all the world’s music. One soul cannot exhaust the length, height, width and depth of God’s gospel. Hearing out voices beyond your own tunes your ears to strains you once couldn’t identify.
Smallness marks the disciple who defines their practice of the gospel by what they’re against. Just like music, the gospel widens, deepens and softens our experience of God and his creation. Salvation frees us to be for something. We embrace more than we defend. We refract light rather than obscure it. We sing in the choir instead of fighting over the conductor’s baton.
High fidelity calls us to something better than theological nitpicking, wild exaggeration or gross slander. Following Jesus, we swing wide the doors, drop the needle into the groove and revel in the melody which surrounds us.