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Paying Attention

By January 1, 2010 No Comments

Attentiveness is in short supply
these days. Perhaps more accurately,
attentiveness is rarely practiced
anymore. There just isn’t much social
demand for it. Consider our relationship
with media: we have an unprecedented
freedom to choose what we watch, read,
and hear, as well as how and when. Music
may be the best example of this driver’s
seat-oriented paradigm. The ability to adjust
volume, skip tracks, or pause without
consequences is a deeply-ingrained
and widespread assumption. This sort of
control profoundly changes our interactions
with music, removing the requirement
to actually listen. Calcified by our
daily habits, these realities are pushing
careful and loving attention further and
further from our lived experience.

A recent issue of The Atlantic ran a
response to Nicholas Carr’s important
article Is Google Making us Stupider? in
which Carr explores the effects of our hyper-controlled, multi-tasking world. Jamais
Cascio’s Get Smarter rebuffs Carr’s
argument, instead praising induced continuous
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partial attention as central to
the evolution of homo sapiens. Instead of
relying on our own ability to focus, Cascio
enthusiastically predicts, we will outsource
that function to technology.

The impulse behind this argument
presumes that the world is a giant equation
to be solved, not something with its
own significant ontology. By gutting
this world of ontological freight, the
posture of attentiveness becomes passé:
success in a utilitarian environment
requires far less than love.

But a Christian perspective asserts
that this world is real, very real,
and places a high value on attentiveness.
Proverbs 21:28 points out that a
false witness is not only one who lies,
but also one who isn’t paying attention
in the first place. Seeing attention as
prerequisite to the ninth commandment
ought to give all of us pause.

In light of all this, the church and its
leaders stand to gain a lot from the arts.
Why? Artists occupy themselves with attentiveness.
One of the baseline requirements
of any artist is the serious consideration of
her medium. It is impossible to be an excellent
artist without deeply acknowledging
the substance. Art is not primarily about a
talented individual expressing himself; it is
primarily about engaging the already, then
imagining the possible into existence. Art
begins with attending closely to the reality
of this world, and then anticipating this
world mature.

Beautifully, works of art are standing
invitations for the rest of us to offer
up attention. As we engage those things
that have given others pause, we ourselves
are drawn into attention-giving. As
Christians, we need to be listening to layered
music, engaging complex plot lines,
discussing compelling drawing and potent
poetry, preferably while feasting off
finely-crafted earthenware.

Enter Anathallo. An eclectic seven-piece
band based in Chicago, the band is as theologically astute as their transliterated
name implies. Their sophomore
release, Canopy Glow is a stunning display
of attention. The album is beautifully
intricate, weaving together hand bells,
brass, drums, electric guitar, glockenspiel,
sandblocks, cello, piano, and much
more, swirling together with the glass-like
melodies and incisive lyrics like
cream in iced coffee.

One of the standouts in this album is
the rhythmic work. The band has an uncanny
ability to navigate complex rhythms
in ways that are native, not gimmicky or
forced. The metric turn-arounds in “Italo”
and whip-smart interplay between electric
guitar and drums in “Cafetorium” are arrestingly
delightful moments–well worthy
of multiple listens.

Lyrically, Canopy Glow is not for the
faint of heart. Inner-city realities, hearing
loss, and death find voice in poetry
neither immediately transparent nor artificially
dense. The paths that the album
takes are sometimes uncomfortable, usually
demanding, always perceptive.

This is the sort of music that makes
me want to head to a practice room,
prompts me to take up a pen and
work through my thoughts. If Oliver
O’Donovan is right, and “love achieves
its creativity by being perceptive,” it is
not a large stretch to call Canopy Glow
gospel work. While you won’t ever hear
Anathallo on your local family-friendly
radio station, this album belongs to
that rare circle of music that manages
to coherently engage a Christian worldview.
In short: Canopy Glow is worth
your time and attention–especially if
you get it on vinyl.

Noah Livingston practices attentiveness at Western
Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, where
he is a second year student in the Master of Divinity