Roses are Red, Grass is Green, and the Sky is Blue: A defense for the relentless pursuit of beauty, or...

...Why a 35 year old preacher likes Owl City

How did it come to this?  I took a look at my iTunes “My Top Rated” playlist.  You know, that playlist that has all the songs you have rated four stars or more.  I used to take some pride in the eclectic nature of my musical taste, but over the past two years, the diversity in “My Top Rated” has seen a serious erosion.  My playlist has been captured, no hijacked, by the music of Owl City.  I find this unsettling for more than one reason, chief of them being the major demographic that enjoys this music.  It forces me to question, “How did I come to this?”

In case you missed the whole “Fireflies” phenomena, Owl City is the work of Adam Young.  A Minnesotan insomniac, Adam began writing music in the basement of his parents’ house when he couldn’t sleep at night.  After a phenomenal outpouring of interest in his offerings on MySpace, Adam eventually released the album Ocean Eyes and his first single “Fireflies”.  The single struck the charts with the force of an humpback whale falling off a Klingon bird-of-prey (gratuitous Star Trek IV reference).  Rocketing to the top, the song won hearts with its poetic evocations inspired by insects.

I caught whiff of this sensation from a cursory peek at the iTunes store.  The catchy and whimsical tune with its off-centered subject matter quickly captured my imagination.  Being of the investigative mind, I researched the artist (thank you Google).  On his website, he lists his influences, beginning with God.  For a pastor, this hardly leaves an impression.  So many popular artists pay some token gratitude to their creator without allowing a “supreme being” to influence them in any substantial manner that cynicism naturally follows.  Another influence Adam listed included C.S. Lewis.  This drew more of my attention, but remained unpersuasive.  Lewis fans envelop a wide and diverse group.  If John Cleese can narrate The Screwtape Letters (and do it so well), one cannot accept an association with Lewis as conclusive evidence of Christian orthodoxy.  The most telling influence he listed was John Piper.  In the reformed community, Piper is one of the great lodestone communicators of our day.  His magnum opus, Desiring God enjoys pride of place on my bookshelf.

Thus introduced to the music of Owl City, I quickly grew enamored of its simple melodies, upbeat music, and honest lyrics.  The event that solidified my self-identification as an Owl City fan occurred when I happened upon Adam’s blog post dated October 25, 2010 (which coincidentally also was my 35th birthday).  He chose to do a cover of “In Christ Alone” by Getty and Townsend.  The application his honesty, simplicity, and passion to such a song won me over.  His testimony for Christ even if it cost him supporters showed an appealing strength of character.  Now, this post does not constitute an isolated incident but reflects an often repeated theme in Adam’s writing.

There are many other Christians who work in music.  What makes Adam special in the realm of music is his artistic approach.  He specifically denies the title of “Christian artist”.  He is a Christian who writes music.  His subject matter draws from anything that takes his fancy.  His songs discuss fireflies, dental visits, hot-air balloons, and the prospect of going bald.  Even in the ubiquitous topic of loves gained and lost, Adam’s distinctive approach reveals his professed core message, optimism.  Even in heartbreak, Adam looks for the silver lining in life.

With all these positive attributes, why do I have such a problem with enjoying Adam’s music?  My problem is his fans.  How can I justify my appreciation of an artist whose fanbase seems synonymous with the screaming fans of Justin Beiber, the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Demi Levato, the cast of High School Musical, and assorted other Disney princes and princesses?  How can I, a thirty-five year old pastor,  enjoy an artist who appeals to those who seem preoccupied with the memes of adolescence?   Can I as a mature adult justify an appreciation for a musical genre so closely associated with the social phenomena known as “emo”?

My defense for my enjoyment of Owl city proceeds from a simple axiom.  “Roses are red, grass is green, and the sky is blue.”

From this simple premise, we can deduce not merely that there is form and color within the world, but also that these elements collaborate to produce a characteristic we call “beauty.”  “Beauty” has become a subjective quality in our contemporary understanding.  We say it is in the eye of the beholder.  Yet, our subjectivity toward the notion of beauty does not contradict the reality of beauty.  For instance, we may choose to sub-categorize the aforementioned axiom (red, green, and blue) as mere proof of what we call “natural beauty,” but if we conclude that “natural beauty” exists, then an underlying quality of beauty is a necessity.

Having concluded the existence of beauty, we then take up the crucial question of where it originated.  God created the heavens and the earth and pronounced them good.  Although sin disfigures the world, it cannot eradicate all semblance of that goodness with which it was created.  It remains good but is no longer perfectly good.  From that remnant of goodness springs beauty.  The most deft hand of the artist cannot create a beauty greater than that which God inspires. (God’s voice breathed the universe into existence as He spoke creation)  He did not give us a monochromatic universe, but one filled with color.  Think of the beauty that He produces in the three primary colors included in that one scene: a rose in a grassy field under a pure blue sky.  This is the artistry of God.

This beauty does not appear in mere isolated areas.  Rather, God has filled the world with beauty.  You cannot look anywhere within God’s creation and not see His artistry.  The presence of beauty is inescapable, but we often don’t see it.  Our inability says more about us than about the world.  Perhaps we can’t see beauty because we have stopped looking for it.

The true artist seeks to emulate that beauty with which God has endowed His creation.  As the artist pursues beauty, he is endeavoring to learn the qualities of beauty God interweaved into creation.  Whether the artist perceives it or not, he is trying to think God’s thoughts after him.  God alone is the originator of all beauty.  Beauty is the product of God’s holiness. (II Chronicles 20:21)  Christians are commanded to pursue that which is lovely because it reflects God’s character. (Philippians 4:8)  That which possesses beauty or loveliness possesses, in some fashion, the imprint of God’s holiness.

Our line of reasoning also explains why modern art has devolved into its current form in all genres.  Whether the artist works in painting, sculpture, music, television, or film, the current trend leaves the pursuit of beauty and follows the path of chaos, deconstruction, and atonality.  The artist feels that the collapse of society ought to appear in his art.  He reasons that if there is no meaning in life, there ought to be no meaning in art.  Art becomes the effort to destroy the illusion of meaning, purpose, and optimism.  How dare we talk about beauty when children are starving in Africa?  Are not those who preach a vigorous optimism merely traipsing through the world with rose-colored glasses, refusing to see the harsh realities surrounding them?

“Christian artists” often appropriate this pessimistic approach.  Our evangelical Christian culture has imbibed the bitter draft of ostracism.  We have become inculcated with a persecution complex to the point that without resistance, we conclude the church has failed in its primary duty.  We ironically assert antithesis to the social order while becoming conformed to it.  The church accuses anyone who values anything secular culture produces of having abandoned their faithfulness to Christian orthodoxy.  Our hope in life is escape to the world beyond.  We view our sojourn in this life as a vale of tears to endure before the resurrection.  That which we permit ourselves to enjoy comes solely from the church or our family, our Christian community.  Thus, the “Christian artist” is free to wax lyrical about the woes of life, the salvation in Jesus, and the hope of the resurrection, but prohibited from praising the world or its beauties.

Such a pessimistic view does not accurately represent a creational view of reality.  Ironically, the Christian artist in his flight from a pessimistic culture ends in pessimism.  There exists true calamity but also beauty and blessing.  We have become prime examples of the curse Solomon describes in Ecclesiastes 6.  “There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it is common among men: A man to whom God hath given riches, wealth, and honour, so that he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth, yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof, but a stranger eateth it: this is vanity, and it is an evil disease.”  Solomon portrays the heathen as a man before whom God lays a sumptuous banquet but does not give him the power to eat it.  If this is evil for the unbeliever, believers actually excel him in his vanity.  We are the recipients of both beauty and the ability to enjoy it, but stubbornly refuse to put the two together.  We desperately need to see afresh the beauty God gave man in creation and every other aspect of life.

In recapturing this principle of the good creation, the believer achieves the freedom to rejoice in the beauty of all that God gives us.  We are not impoverished in this life in order to be blessed in the world to come.  God has not only given us beauty but also the ability to enjoy it.  I am convinced that because God created the universe, I can enjoy its present beauty.  My problem is I do not always perceive it.  I exchange true beauty for “the gratification of curiosities so feeble that [I am] only half aware of them”. (The Screwtape Letters, Letter 12) I regularly fail to appreciate God’s beauty in the world He created.  I need someone to remind and point me to it.

That’s where Owl City comes in.  As all believers need reminding of scriptural truth and therefore appreciate the preaching of a pastor, so believers need artists who can see God’s beauty and remind us of its importance.  I exegete scripture for truth.  The artist exegetes creation for beauty.  While this comparison is necessarily crude (pastors must also work in beauty as artists must also work by understanding truth), it displays the individuality of both vocations.

You see, I don’t want Owl City to start making so called “contemporary Christian music”.  It may seem odd for a pastor to recommend to someone not pursue ministerial vocation, but if you accept the above, it becomes compulsory.  We don’t want pastor’s writing music or artists writing sermons.  It takes a supremely talented individual to write music for worship.  He must be equally facile in both artistry and theology.  Unfortunately, “Christian music” seems dominated by those who failed to achieve secular fame or refused to accept the rigors their chosen dual vocation demands.

I don’t want Owl City to fall into the downward spiral of so-called “church music”.  I don’t want to hear him attempting to explain the heady intricacies of Christian dogma.  I want to hear him expounding on the beauty of God’s creation in fireflies, dental visits, and toupees. (yes, even the beauty in toupees)  I want him to help me to see those beauties for myself.

While some may accuse me and Owl City of wallowing in banality, I would simply remind them of the words of Philippians 4:8.  “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”  It is not mere ethical and moral purity that Paul recommends, but those very elements that constitute beauty.  Owl City has captured the beauty that comes in the combination of honesty, reality, and innocence.  For the artist to mimic God’s beauty, he must reflect his honest response to the world in a morally pure way.  This separates him from the great majority of artists today who attempt for honesty and reality but do so at the expense of innocence and moral purity.  In maintaining all three attributes, Owl City excels in artistry.

One may justly question whether Adam self-consciously engages in the pursuit of beauty as I have outlined.  I have not seen in Adam’s writing an introspective investigation of his worldview.  I would not expect an artist to do so.  My position assumes that the self-referential Christian who properly understands God’s creation perceives true beauty.  Whether Adam understands this phenomena or not, his music seems indicative of the worldview I describe.

Someone may rejoin that I am merely reading into Adam Young mere peripheral religious attributes culled from erstwhile weblog, that I am seeing him through my own presuppositions.  Additionally some may wonder what makes Owl City’s “optimism” different from the rest of musics “upbeat” crooners.  Finally some may scoff pointing to the likely future desertion of Adam’s former ideals.  To the first, I remain convinced by the themes of Adam’s music that he maintains those values regularly presents in his blog.  Though he does not flaunt his theology, he does not shrink from its associations.  Considering the numbers of insider hints within his writing, it would seem unreasonable to assume that I have engaged in projecting my own presuppositions onto the music of Owl City.

To the second, I point out that only the believer can genuinely remain optimistic.  Only one who knows the redemptive power of God in his own life can see that redemptive power at work in the world.  All men disappoint.  All their attempts at reconstruction ultimately fail.  The one who looks to man for a future hope will end in pessimism. (thus explaining secular music’s current deconstructionism)  Only the God can bring lasting hope and optimism.  We hope, not for a different world, but a remade world, a purified world where sin no longer remains.  Adam can enjoy the beauty of the fireflies because the beauty they have now will one day shine free of sin and misery.  It is the honesty of his optimism that separates his music from the pack.  Others may sound optimistic, but their optimism has no root.  Owl City’s optimism draws from that divine source of all that is good and beautiful.

To the last objection, I remain convinced of man’s ability to fall.  My Calvinism begins with the truth of total depravity.  Christian history is littered with fallen heroes.  It has happened before and will again.  I trust not in the man, but in the One who made the man.  I have no powers of precognition, but for the moment, I celebrate the gifts God has given this amazing artist and pray that God would be pleased to use Adam for many years of faithful evocations on beauty.

Even if you do not find in the music of Owl City anything to stir your appreciation of God’s beauty, I hope you will perceive the importance of appreciating beauty in God’s world and the need for those who can deftly exegete it for the rest of us.  Other artists are needed to take this perspective and apply it to all other genres of artistic expression.