by Brian Walsh
The news of Calvin College cancelling a performance next month by the Canadian Indie band, The New Pornographers, has been all over the press and blogosphere in the last day or so.
It seems that a number of folks who support Calvin College just couldn’t get their heads around the idea of a band with a name like that ever playing at a Christian college. The fact that there is nothing pornographic about this band and that there is a delicious irony in their band name is not something that the college felt it could adequately explain to its supporters.
Let’s be clear that what is really at stake here is money. The administration of the college is afraid that they will lose money if they allow this band to play. One begins to wonder who the real pornographers are here.
And when you start being this concerned about money, then other matters fade in significance. Things like artistic expression, honouring contracts, and most importantly, concern for who might really get hurt in this situation. Now I know that from an administration point of view a few hundred supporters would seem to be more important than seven musicians who had agreed to play at your college. Maybe even more important than the few staff members of the college who are going to look stupid in this situation and even more important than the few students who will begin to wonder about whether they really want to hang on to their Christian faith because of this kind of conservatism.
Starts to sound like the one lost sheep and the ninety-nine who remain in the fold, doesn’t it? Jesus is concerned about the one lost sheep, the one vulnerable one, and goes off to find that sheep while leaving the ninety-nine on their own. It seems to me that the Calvin College administration has decided to let the one sheep go hang while it took care of the comfort of the ninety-nine. In that light I have written a letter to Gaylen Byker, the President of Calvin College, which I publish here as an open letter.
Dear President Byker:
A number of years ago a band called “The Barenaked Ladies” was scheduled to perform at Nathan Philips Square in front of the City Hall of Toronto. When the mayor of the time heard that some barenaked ladies were going to play outside of her window she immediately had the show cancelled. The fact that none of the band members were ladies and that they always performed fully dressed and that their music actually avoided the kind of sexually explicit and exploitive content common in the pop music world did not deter the mayor in her decision. The name was offensive and that was that. Years later the mayor admitted that she was short-sighted in her decision and that she clearly didn’t get the joke of the name of this band.
A name like “The New Pornographers” is clearly not meant to be as funny as “The Barenaked Ladies”. The latter name is a matter of humour, the former is, of course, a matter of irony. And I can understand that a name like that could cause some consternation in some sectors of the supporting community of Calvin College.
I am, nonetheless, disappointed in the college for cancelling this concert. My disappointment isn’t so much a matter of frustration that a college of such sophistication can’t handle irony in the arts, nor is it even that the community has now lost the opportunity to hear a very fine and deeply reflective band. No, my concern is actually evangelistic.
A group of artists get invited to play a venue that would not be their normal venue. A band that plays concert halls and large drinking establishments gets invited to play at a Christian college. And they decide that they will accept such an invitation. They will go into a cultural and religious context that is alien to them because they have been invited. They will take the risk to play for Christians, even though the reputation of Christians, especially American conservative Christians, is that they are non-receptive to other voices, tend to be self-righteous and judgemental. But they will take the risk anyway.
And then what happens? Their preconceptions about conservative Christianity are confirmed. An offer of hospitality is withdrawn. Why? Because of the name of the band.
President Byker, my concern here is the sad, sad witness that this cancelled contract represents. You are concerned for a few hundred supporters. I’m concerned for the members of this band and the possibility that they might somehow come to know Jesus Christ. I’m concerned that their taste for the gospel might have gone very sour from this cancellation.
I am sure that the college staff responsible for communicating with the band have done so with humility, embarrassment and apology. Might I suggest that a personal letter of apology and explanation from the President of Calvin College would be in order. It might go a long way to restore the credibility of the gospel for these fine musicians.
Mission is at the heart of all Christian education, and hospitality is at the heart of all mission.
Brian J. Walsh,
Christian Reformed Campus Minister, University of Toronto
Adjunct Professor of Theology of Culture, Trinity and Wycliffe Colleges.