There was a familiar joke growing up about why the Devil got all the good music. The joke had no punch line. The joke lay in the asking.
As I got older, more pretentious, I’d sit around drinking red wine trying to find the punch line with my friends, self-touted intellectuals of the right-wing Christian persuasion. Education, they said, it’s because Christian kids aren’t educated in the arts. Or else: they’re copying Metallica and adding Jesus lyrics; of course it’s going to suck.
Sometimes: it’s because everyone’s standards are wrong. Really good music glorifies God, and man is in rebellion against God, so man refuses to acknowledge that God’s music is actually better than the Devil’s.
Then they would chortle; they weren’t going to kid themselves that much. They knew Tupac was musically superior to DC Talk. And in the split between God and the Devil, Tupac belonged to the Devil because Tupac had not declared himself theologically aligned with white boys arguing on leather chairs.
Punch lines are not actually that funny, deconstructed and mashed around in the mouths of mildly-intoxicated 22-year-old patriarchs. But they can provide fodder for hours of theological discussion. I sniffed my cabernet, sipped it, listened. As a woman, my job was to listen, to laugh at the right places. Not that I always did my job correctly.
The young patriarchs did agree on one point: it is hard to create compelling art as a traditional, conservative American Christian. The why eluded them, however.
Years later, I found the answer: because it is difficult to create compelling art by ignoring 80% of human experience.
I know because I used to try. I’d give it my darndest. Anytime I wrote an opinion piece for the school paper, a poem, a piece of fiction, I knew exactly what my ultimate conclusion was supposed to be — God has saved us. I knew the parameters I could use in my writing — no cussing, morality-based references to sex if it ever came up, plot lines venerating all heroes and condemning all anti-heroes. I knew this without thinking about it, without it ever having been explicitly spelled out for me. I remember a line from Anne of Green Gables that I immediately took to heart: never write anything you wouldn’t want read at your funeral.
It’s hard to express anything when the lines you can color in are so restrictive. Hard to express what it is you are feeling when this is not even a question you’re supposed to ask yourself. Feelings are misleading; only the rules are solid. So I lumbered along between those parallel metal tracks, trying to find some kind of flow as I bumped over gravel and thick ties.
I still wrote some clever and thought-provoking things; they tended to be popular with my friends and even strangers. I made a funny list of reasons not to get drunk; I tried my hand at satire and irony and allegory. I veered away from heavy moralizing and merely hinted. I wrote persuasive essays on everything just shy of rebellion against the Christian status quo: why I should be allowed to wear hemp fiber, in high school; why everyone should be silent enough to hear their own thoughts, in college.
Every so often, I’d try to write compelling fiction. It was good in places, less good in others. I translated a WWII journal from French and used that as a jumping-off place. My fiction was worse than the original, because of course I had to leave out all the cheerful prostitutes and anarchists hamming it up in Spanish Franco-era prison where the protagonist landed; casual jokes about sex work and socialism were not edifying.
I focused instead on a French pastor’s daughter helping people trek over the Pyrenees to Spain. I allowed her to be tempted by one of the young men she was hiding; she then converted him instead of giving in to his subtle pagan hints that they should make their short time on earth count for something.
To be clear: this storyline was not in the original. But it fit what I was supposed to write about; the dramatic tensions that were allowed in my artistic worldview.
Unsurprisingly, I got so bored writing this novel, I abandoned it. Apparently, writing formulaic plots is boring. Even if you’re basing it off a fascinating unpublished historical journal.
I was reminded of this story recently watching a YouTube video of a Christian singer. Her voice was good; the music also good. The lyrics, on the other hand, seemed predictable; bourgeois. She wasn’t trying to write Christian music, she was trying to write mainstream music. But, although it was technically adept, it lacked soul and a deeper sense of humanity. It was safe and formulaic. She didn’t intend for it to be, but that was her only option if she wanted her Christian friends to like it, if she wanted her Christian parents to clap for it.
Not all Christians, of course, write in safe and formulaic ways. However, the Christians who do not are often rejected by more conservative Christians, and this is particularly true if they’re modern, currently-alive women.
My little brother, a Christian singer-songwriter, can write lyrics I find somewhat formulaic and songs that bleed tears of beauty. One he initially deemed too “weird” and “dark” to record is artistically some of the best work he’s ever done. Philosophically, it resembles Buddhism as much or more than mainstream Christianity, but he didn’t censor it for unorthodoxy—he just wrote from the heart, which is when he does his best writing. The enemy I fight, he sings, the enemy I fear, is just a shadow of myself.
In writing, whether it’s music or prose, the more personal you can get, the more your words resonate. It can be tempting to take shortcuts, use glib phrases that sound clever and that follow the route of what’s expected. You can get laughs and applause by mocking approved things, but rarely will words like this last beyond the personality of the writer. To write, to really write, you have to find the kernel within yourself that everyone shares, that everyone is afraid to put words to. You can’t just evoke ideas. You have to evoke emotion. Not just logos, not just ethos, but pathos.
A few years after my failed attempt at writing a WWII novel, I tried going more psychological with the WWII angle. I came up with the idea of writing an entire novel from the point of view of a female character who believes she is part of the WWII French Resistance, ferrying misplaced English fighters across Nazi-infested waters, only to reveal at the end of the novel that she is actually living in modern-day France, smuggling refugees and North Africans across the English Channel. She has become so bored with her life that she’s created an alternate reality to amuse herself.
Although I was living in France at the time and even ventured out to the choppy and terrifying English Channel in a tiny sailboat for research, I discovered this novel was impossible to write. The malaise with modern life and longing for The Good Old Days was a great idea, but there was no emotional reason for it; I could not write the internal landscape of a character who behaved this way, except to suggest that she was somehow morally depraved. This was further complicated by the fact that I was supposed to think that modern refugees are bad, not good, for trying to sneak into England, so none of the refugees could be all that sympathetic. I tried writing a kissing scene into it, just to make it more interesting, but I had very limited experience in that realm.
My creativity was effectively hamstrung by what I was supposed to believe. So I abandoned that novel too.
So — why does the Devil get all the good music? Because the Devil doesn’t care how proper you are when you sing. Propriety is the enemy of creativity.
Because to create something new, by definition, you can’t follow the old rules. You have to dive into the darkest, grittiest corners of yourself — and not just to confess and immediately forget. Your humanity lies in the weirdness. You connect through the weirdness, and through the unexpected joys too.