by Rachel Held Evans
Perhaps the greatest pleasure of releasing Searching for Sunday last month was introducing you to my sister, Amanda Opelt, a singer/songwriter out of Boone, North Carolina whose album, Seven Songs, serves as the perfect companion to the book as it features an original song for each of the seven sacraments.
Well, today is Amanda’s birthday, which seems like the perfect time to feature this piece she wrote about what it means to be a local artist in a global world. One thing I’ve always appreciated about Amanda is the deliberateness with which she approaches community life. In Chapter 16 of Searching For Sunday I explain why she embodies the spirit behind “the priesthood of all believers” and how “no matter where she lives or travels, no matter what her vocation or responsibilities, Amanda inhabits a place with such joyful and attentive openness, it makes everyone around her a neighbor.”
This post reveals how that attentive openness affected the production of Seven Songs and how engaging in local art may in fact be sacramental. Listen to "Snow (Baptism)" while you read:
It started as a fun idea Rachel and I cooked up over turkey sandwiches at a cafe in Waynesville, NC. As we were chatting about the still-in-process manuscript for Searching for Sunday and its emphasis on seven sacraments, it occurred to me that this might be just the impetus I needed to start another writing and recording project. It had been a long time since I'd worked on any kind of serious project, but I'd been thinking and writing a lot about the concept of baptism at the time, so it seemed safe to assume that if I was diligent, the other songs would steadily emerge.
Working for a disaster relief organization doesn't always allow a lot of free head space for being artistically productive, but I had a supportive and creative community around me to encourage me, along with a sister who has always been my biggest cheerleader. After the songs were mostly complete, I had to decide how I was going to get them out there—if I was going to call up some of my contacts in Nashville and connect with a seasoned producer and engineer there, or try to find a way to complete the project here in Boone. The more I listened, the more I felt like this new home we've made up here in the mountains was reverberating through every line of every song. It felt unfaithful in some ways to take it off the mountain and away from the community of musicians and friends whose influence were part of the reason many of the songs even existed.
Our experiences are linked to people and places, specifics spots of earth that we inhabit in community together. Everything about our world today seems hell bent on pulling us away from fully occupying the time and space God has, in His wisdom, confined us to. The internet gives us access to images, ideas, art, and people from all over the world. We are more mobile than ever; recent studies estimate the average American can expect to move 11.7 times in their life. And in many ways, that's an enormous privilege and blessing.
But lately, I've wondered what that mobility and access to global goods for unlimited consumption has done to our ability to invest in our actual spatial communities and grow roots in a place. This thinking has led me to become a huge advocate of supporting the local arts. Not just supporting artist, but also encouraging people to become artists for their own communities.
In his novel Bluebeard, Kurt Vonnegut writes about how back in the old days (before advances in transportation, trade, communication), there would be one artist or one songwriter or one storyteller in a village of, say, 1,000 people. And that one artist was loved and supported and needed by that whole community. His or her art was unique to that distinct population, and could tell that one community's particular, specific story. And while that artist may not have been a prodigy or genius, he added value and was valued by the community. Vonnegut writes:
“...Simply moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that. A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but world's champions.... A moderately gifted person has to keep his or her gifts all bottled up until, in a manner of speaking, he or she gets drunk at a wedding and tap-dances on the coffee table like Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers. We have a name for him or her. We call him or her an ‘exhibitionist.’ How do we reward such an exhibitionist? We say to him or her the next morning, ‘Wow! Were you ever drunk last night!’
And Vonnegut wrote that before the internet.
As a modern-day songwriter, I compete with the best and brightest from all over the world. As listeners, you have access to anybody and anything you want to listen to. And that's good! Access to such wonderful ideas has provided a rich quality of life. But in some ways, we can become art and information gluttons. Our brains and bellies are about to burst. The desire for more and faster and better is insatiable; the options are infinite in number and quality.
I'm encouraged by the "eat local" movement. Some studies show that our stomachs weren't actually designed to be able to digest such an endless variety of foods at all times. Thanks to globalization, we now have access to fruits and veggies from all parts of the world during all seasons ANY time we want. I wonder if the same may be true for the arts. While I wouldn’t advocate strict restrictions on what art people consume, I just wonder if there is something about local art, created in our own communities that especially resonates with and soothes the mind and soul in a way that other communities' arts can't.
I don't think that means we only release our art to our close family and friends, or only consume local art. I'm grateful that there are people in other parts of the world who have enjoyed (and bought!) my music. I guess what I'm saying is: I don't want the global competition to intimidate me or make me reticent. I don't want to feel like I have to be as good as the next genius coming out of New York or LA to feel like I'm adding value to the world and my community by sharing my art (and I don't want to be seen as the drunk exhibitionist Vonnegut writes about!).
Furthermore, when we support and spur one another on as a community of artist, we transcend art for the sake of art, and start tapping into good ole' biblical edification. Deciding to produce and record this project here in Boone with the talented musicians here allowed for a much more organic process, and led to beautiful late-night discussions about what God had been teaching us. There’s something really special about recording and producing an album about the seven sacraments with people with whom you actually partake of those sacraments. I regularly attend Sunday worship and take communion alongside Glenn Deuel, who produced the album. His wife Erin, who assisted in production, sang background vocals, and did all the art for the album is the worship leader at our church. She and I have labored together for years now as leaders and musicians in our church community, and we regularly commission one another to serve in strength and confidence. Everett Hardin played cello and mastered the album, and the smiles of his wife and new baby fueled us on to the end of the project. These are the people who lay hands on me and pray when I am sick. I am married to the piano player. I've broken bread with these friends on numerous occasions. We've confessed our sins and weaknesses to each other. And they know that some of the sounds on this album sound like winter in Boone and feel like the water and wind rushing off these mountains. To me the album is valuable because I grew closer to my community and to my own spot of earth while creating it.
The years prior to moving to Boone had been difficult ones from us; everything from ministry burnout, to artistic frustration, church struggles, health issues and relationship challenges. Our time in Boone has been incredibly restorative for us. I think the theme of the album is death— the slow death of our old selves and agendas, expectations and sin natures, followed by the new resurrection life that comes with following Christ to the cross. I wanted to honor the people and place that have participated in that death and resurrection process with me. And I'm happy there are people in other communities that can listen to those stories and enjoy. But I want to encourage my fellow songwriters out there to write purposefully for yourself and for your own community. Don't let fear of the global competition or your own demands for perfection intimidate you into silence. There are countless songs yet to be written and consumed, even if those songs are just consumed at the local level. Or even if it's just your own spirit's cry to the Holy Spirit, a sacrament of song, and an audience of One. This too is grace and beauty.
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