Have you ever heard a lyric and couldn’t help but feel that deep choke in the back of your throat, and holding off tears, you recognize something that maybe you hadn’t before? You realize that the artist has just connected with you on a much deeper reality than just enjoying a good song. You’ve realized that you’ve shared an experience with someone without necessarily knowing them.
Have you ever read a poem and felt this strange adherence to the reality that is professed? It seems that the poet is expressing something deep within your own soul, and perhaps the poet comes from a completely different era, place, religion, or experience of life. Yet, you’ve connected. Those incredible ripples of truth have touched your heart and you have heard expressed that which has been trapped within your own consciousness. This is the unbelievable distinctiveness of art and culture. It’s an experience you can’t really explain, but it’s more real than a majority of your other experiences in life, and the experience wasn’t even yours to begin with!
In a video by the Masterclass series this moment was displayed for everyone to see. Maggie Rogers, a girl from rural Maryland, offered a piece of music to renowned artist and musician, Pharrell Williams. Two people from two different cultures and backgrounds came together to discuss, critique, and enjoy the creation and expression of art. In the process of the Masterclass, Maggie shared that she had experienced something innately spiritual through a musical occurrence in France and this led her to continue making music. As part of the Masterclass, she was able to play one of her latest works which was later titled, Alaska. In the video you can see the slight bit of nervousness on Maggie’s face as she has one of the leading artists in the music industry listening to her work. In a way, she is unveiling a part of who she is. She’s unveiling an aspect of her experience and life that she imbued into the music she created. As the music continues, you see something in Pharrell. You see the experience and life that Maggie wishes to convey wash over him, and, in a way, he experiences that which Maggie conveys, nearly to the point of tears.
This is the power of culture. Unlike almost anything else in humanity’s expression, culture, i.e. art, music, the signs and symbols of our age, have an innate ability to express that which is inexpressible. It is able to unveil the true self of the creator. In this example, Pharrell was able to see, hear, and unite in the life and message of someone who he’d never met. Someone who hails from a completely different part of the country with her own background. Yet, through the medium of music, these two uniquely individual personalities found a bridge of trust, of connection. I think Pharrell was spot on when he said that the reason the music was so powerful for him, and why he didn’t have any feedback, was because Maggie put her true self into the music and allowed that authenticity to flow through it. Ultimately, what Pharrell met in listening to Maggie’s music, was Maggie herself. Within a matter of minutes, Pharrell and Maggie began to understand each other and appreciate the unique individual across from them and this is what we must strive to accomplish in our efforts to evangelize.
Authenticity of self and the expression of that interior quality in order to give that gift to others to see and experience is profoundly powerful at connecting cultures. We must have a deep understanding of how powerful our authenticity will be when Christ is the center of our life. The reason the works of Bob Dylan, Kurt Cobain, John Lennon, Johnny Cash, O’Connor, Hemmingway, and the like are so powerful is because the creator of the work unveiled their inner, true self for the world and their listeners and readers connected with that experience and understood the inner workings and emotions that went along with the arts creation. We, too, must be prepared and able to express our inner emotions and workings as disciples of Christ. Not seeing our relationship with Jesus as something that acts as a blinder to the problems, brutality, and incredible beauty of this world, but rather, by the very fact that we do know Jesus, we experience and know these things in a magnified sense. When we empathize with someone, we do it with the heart of Christ. When we have a spiritual experience, our spiritual barometer is gauging the very flow of the Source of all spirituality. When we express, then, our deepest, true self, it is a self that has found its center. A Center that has been searching for us.
You might be wondering, ‘sure it’s all well and good for poets, writers, and musicians to create culture, but I’m not a creative.’ However, I think that is limiting the very nature of culture and the power of authenticity. Surely you’ve heard a song that resonated with you and you couldn’t wait to share it. You rush to a close friend and either read a piece that touched your heart or a lyric that you couldn’t help but tear up over. This too is a great connection between persons. I think this also connects us to the deeper experience of the other in our life. For example, Kelly Clarkson’s heartfelt, and downright heart-wrenching, performance of her song Piece by Piece left me in tears without really knowing the experience of being abandoned by a father. I learned more about Kelly Clarkson and her experience, and in that way I am more apt to be able to empathize with someone who’d had such a terrible childhood experience. In hearing her story through the lyrics, the melody, and seeing her emotionally express herself, a new part of my heart has grown for her and anyone else who might’ve experienced a similar situation. Not only that, but it challenged me to be a great father. And no, I’m not too manly to say that every time I watch that performance I tear up.
Creating and connecting culture through our true selves in turn expresses the Source of all beauty, and we as Christians need to pay attention when a cultural artist like Maggie Rogers is able to achieve something so innate to the human heart.