In April, a group of us drove from South Bend to Chicago to listen to an Icelandic man sing high falsettos in a made up language that has no "semantic meaning." High pitched vocal noise, really. Blind in one eye and shy on the microphone when he's not singing, he plays his Les Paul with a bow, like a cello. He wears tassels on his sleeve that add some flair to his bowing action. He was surrounded on stage by instrumentalists — the usual rock band personnel but also string players and brass players and one guy striking metal objects that sounded like a dark, industrial wind chime — playing chords that were sometimes lush and sometimes dissonant and unsettling. It was utterly, objectively weird.
And it was beautiful. Overwhelmingly beautiful.
The music seduces you with its whispers, and then, when it has drawn your heart into an open place, when your ears are open wide like the pupils of your eyes in the warm darkness of a candlelit room, it overwhelms you with shimmering brightness. At times you feel like you're at the base of a waterfall, being hammered by dark, thunderous currents. At several points during the night I was almost in tears, trembling under the weight of the beauty. There were thousands of people there to hear Sigur Ros, and it seemed to me that most of them were feeling something similar.
It would be easy now to take Sigur Ros's success for granted, like it was predetermined, guaranteed. But before there were thousands coming to the shows, before the experiment called Sigur Ros was validated by the masses, the people who made it — Jonsi and his bandmates — had to believe in it. 18 years ago when they began making music, I can only imagine what kind of reactions they got. Not having a category to align with, a box to fit into, it would have been hard to say, "Oh, right, this music is kind of like [some top-40 band]. I see what you're going for."
A few years ago I played Sigur Ros in the background while leading a group of young adults at GCC through a prayer time. Most of them had never heard the band, and some of them made fun of it. ("Are there cats meowing in this music?!") At that point I could at least appeal to the band's growing cult following as justification for my taste. But before the cult following, before the ad placements and sold-out tours, there were just a few guys in Iceland who believed they were making something beautiful.
This is an example of something I've been learning: beauty will never make it into this world without conviction. You can make something sexy or attractive or desirable or marketable without conviction, but I don't think you can make something beautiful.
Like truth and goodness, I think beauty corresponds to something in God Himself. When we encounter beauty, it shakes us in deep places because, while in our anxieties and distractions and addictions we have forgotten the beauty of the One who created us, in those deep places we still remember. It confronts our forgetting and affirms our longing and somehow comforts us, too.
If beauty will remind us of things we have forgotten, it must be sheltered as it grows, because it falls outside the protected ruts of the things we have already created and commodified. Conviction shelters the new idea from the wind until its roots have dug deep enough for it to stand on its own. It is the grit that strengthens us to pursue what we understand to be right and beautiful when few others see it that way.
I have a friend who fell in love with a neighborhood in South Bend. My neighborhood, actually. I don't mean he fell in love with it because the schools are exceptional and the home values are growing nicely, since neither of those things is true of my neighborhood. I mean he fell in love with it the way you fall in love with your friends, with all their quirks, even after you've seen them at their worst, because they are who they are and you have discovered something wonderful about that. So he built a team and together they planted a church in our neighborhood. And they have some convictions about what they're doing.
They operate a coffee shop during the week. The only non-espresso coffee they serve is made in french presses, which takes way too long. I'm not even sure if they offer to-go cups. The furniture is more Goodwill than Pottery Barn or Ikea. It's housed in an old piano bar that, though they've done some serious work to remodel it, still bears the marks of a broken, abused building. They don't charge for the coffee. They have suggested donations — obscenely cheap — and the baristas won't take your money. You have to walk to the front of the shop and put your pocket change in a little wooden box where no one can really keep track of whether you paid. Somewhere along the way they forgot to do a Starbucks case study.
My friend often works at one of the tables in the coffee shop so he can be present and available for conversations with the people who come in for coffee. This seems like a terrible time management strategy to me. I've been thinking about buying him a Stephen Covey book.
They operate this way because they think there is something beautiful about a creating a space where people slow down and connect, where their neighbors are welcomed and loved. After two years of dreaming and planning and creating, the beauty of this dream is starting to be affirmed. There are times when the coffee shop is humming with people from the neighborhood. Their Sunday morning gatherings are rich and full. But there are challenges, too. The dream was launched on the promise of a financial commitment that's in jeopardy right now. Choosing a unique path and avoiding the pre-fab model of church means there are days when the right next steps aren't clear. My friend hasn't said this to me, but I wonder if there are moments when the challenges outweigh the affirmation his dream is receiving. But what I've seen in him is conviction. It's there with that dream, insisting on its beauty, sheltering it from the storms.
No one wants to be the guy in the American Idol audition who thinks he's great while the judges and the TV audience laugh at his delusion. It's scary to assert something that isn't affirmed. But here's my question: Is that really the worst thing that could happen to us? I'm beginning to think that the far worse outcome of our lives is that we would forever remain afraid and unwilling to create something beautiful because of the conviction it requires. We're not all destined to perform eccentric post-rock for arenas full of loyal fans, but I'm certain each of us has been given some fragment of God's own beauty to express. And conviction is the only thing that will usher that beauty into this world.
Before the semantically meaningless falsetto is cool, it will be questioned. Before the cacophony of dark industrial noise and shimmering, bright chords will be celebrated, it will be ignored. The community you're forging, the project you're creating, the loving act that you believe in, may be mocked or discouraged. And maybe that's a sign that what you're doing is irrelevant. Or maybe that just means it's irrelevant to the ruts we live in, and that's exactly why it is so urgently needed in our world. Believe and create. Have conviction and make something beautiful. And perhaps one day my friends and I will cross state lines to come stand in awe of the beautiful thing you've done.
(By the way, my friend Aaron was also at the Sigur Ros show, and his reflections on the experience are worth your time, too.)