Our Man in Lou’sana
Next year, I hope to take a Spring missions trip to South Sudan, where the liberti network partners with local Christians and government officials to do things like dig fresh water wells and support churches.
This year, the liberti network sent your intrepid blogger on a missions trip to my hometown of New Orleans for the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival, so that I might in this very space give a report on the natives in their indigenous surroundings. (Unlike the other liberti blokes that blog, the sheer comparative quality and quantity of my writing has garnered for me a generous travel budget.)
(Most of the previous sentence is untrue.)
And truthfully, the sentence before that one may not be entirely true either, at least the missions trip part. Substitute “missions trip” for “vacation,” however, and we’re on the right track.
I counted, and although I haven’t lived in NOLA since high school, I’ve managed to make it back for Jazz Fest about eight times since 2004, despite all the hassle and expense involved in making the jaunt.
But I love Jazz Fest. Typically I’ll arrive in the city on a Thursday evening and have a great New Orleans meal. I’ll try and get to bed early, because Friday is beignets at Café Du Monde at 9am, park and get to the (outdoor) Fest by 11am, enjoy awesome music of all kinds at ten different stages while eating scrumptious food (for instance, see http://www.nola.com/jazzfest/index.ssf/2014/04/new_orleans_jazz_fest_food_wha.html#incart_m-rpt-1) until 7pm, stumble to a restaurant for a fantastic dinner, and finally regroup in time to catch an act at a local music club until 1am or so. Saturday is the same, ditto Sunday. (And boy howdy, was I tired when I flew back to Philly last Monday, although my wife Emily, who was sick along with two of our kids while I was gone, may not have lent me a fully sympathetic ear.)
What’s a good little Christian boy like me doing in Sin City at festival time? A couple things. Sometimes, if we live in an unhelpful Christian bubble, folks can forget life is really messed up. Our art needs to reflect all dimensions of reality, not just the pretty ones. I may be listening to the wrong bands, but to my ears a lot of contemporary Christian music isn’t honest about the ugliness of the world (or, the average CCM song is only honest about it until the uplifting bridge, after which everything is all better just in time for the anthemic reprise of the chorus). Philip Ryken in his book Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts has written, “So-called Christian art tends. . . to show beauty without admitting the truth about sin, and to that extent it is false—dishonest about the tragic implications of our own depravity. Think of all the bright, sentimental landscapes that portray an ideal world unaffected by the Fall. . . Such a world may be nice to imagine, but it is not the world that God sent his Son to save.” There are a ton of non-Christian musicians (and, of course, some Christian ones) who get this right. At Jazz Fest a couple weeks ago, I probably heard ten different versions of “St. James Infirmary,” and I loved every one of them, each rendition so cold, so sweet, so fair. (I remember in 2006 when I walked to Jazz Fest past houses still boarded up from Hurricane Katrina the previous Fall, many of which were branded with spray-painted death tolls that rescue workers attached to every property they entered. It was heavy music at that particular Fest.)
Because our world is broken, beauty without any pathos is facile. There is true beauty at Jazz Fest, too. From brass bands to trad jazz, to bop, to funk, to Cajun, to rock, to country, I hear more musical beauty in that one weekend in New Orleans than the rest of the year combined. Our souls shrink if we’re missing beauty. And the best part about experiencing beauty is that because of what Jesus has done, all beauty, no matter how satisfying in itself, is merely anticipatory of what’s to come. In Simply Christian, N. T. Wright has observed, “God has promised that, through his Spirit, he will remake the creation so that it becomes what it is straining and yearning to be. All the beauty of the present world will be enhanced, ennobled, set free from that which at present corrupts and defaces it. Then there will appear that greater beauty for which the beauty we already know is simply an advance signpost.” (“liberti” may mean “free people,” but in Christ we look forward to more than that. As the lyrics of “When the Saints” proclaim, there will be a new world revealed. Mundus itself will one day be libertus, not to mention cosmos.)
At the culmination of the ages, beauty will triumph over evil and ugliness. In the meantime, we’ll always have Jazz Fest.