I’ve been listening to Jack White’s new album, Lazaretto, incessantly over the last two weeks.
Running, reading, driving.
In case you’re one of those cretans who only listen to pop music or, worse, are still listening to the same 11 Steve Miller Band songs you did in high school, Jack White is the auteur garage rocker behind the White Stripes, Raconteurs and Dead Weather.
In the early aughts Jack White took a plastic guitar and a 2-man garage band and made blues relevant again. As White truthfully said in Rolling Stone last month (and got crap for it), without him there would be no audience for popular bands like the Black Keys.
As the world gets more pop, an article recently described him, ‘the more rock Jack White strives to be.’ White’s music consistently goes against the grain of what we’re told people want in today’s culture, but as with any good gift- or should we say grace- White’s music points out wants we didn’t know we had prior to the gift.
I often describe Jack White as ‘music you can run to without blushing.’
Nor is he boring. For his last album’s tour, White traveled with two completely different bands, one all-male and the other all-female. Neither band knew which one was performing on a given night until just before showtime. Rather than varying up the same set list of 20 songs as most bands do, White insists the audience shout out requests spontaneously. His new record has hidden tracks and alternate beginnings.
He’s not so eager to please that he’s cringe-inducing lame. Neither is he boring.
And running, reading and driving to him these past two weeks, I’ve been thinking that on those two counts at least Jack White has something to teach the Church. Because on those counts, in particular, we’re frequently guilty as so often charged.
His bands and albums are all a little different, but in each iteration Jack White simply takes an old, supposedly antiquated medium- 12 bar blues- and has fun with it. He happily accepts the constraints of his small, outdated canvas and plays with it.
And by playing with it, he makes the antiquated relevant.
Through sheer fun, the familiar seems fresh again.
This is no small lesson as the Church presently wrings its hands over the trends showing the meteoric rise of ‘the Nones’ who report they want nothing to do with traditional Christianity. Jack White, however, shows that to give up on the tradition would be every bit the mistake it would be to go chasing after whatever the culture tells us they want.
How could they possibly know what they (don’t) want if they’ve not yet experienced it?
Rather our trust in the tradition should be strong enough such that we have the confidence to play and experiment with it. The dichotomy between ancient and contemporary misses the point.
The power is in the play- and so is the engagement.
While this may be a helpful lesson to the Church, it’s not an easy one, for such play is inherently a personal, intimate experience. It’s no surprise then that White writes all his own songs, plays all his own instruments (even makes some of them) and produces all his own records.
Playfulness with a tradition requires the authenticity of
direct engagement with the material.
Christians and congregations, White’s music would suggest, need to be hands-on involved in experimenting with the small, antiquated canvases the saints have given us.
The Church of Jack White is the opposite of passive pew-sitting and pre-packaged messages and praise lyrics that speak to no one so desperate are they to speak to everyone. The Church of Jack White doesn’t want worship songs made to sound like Coldplay but neither does it un-ironically sing antebellum hymns exactly as our forebears sang them.
In odd dress, old sound and against the grain posture Jack White intentionally presents himself as the last true rock musician in a culture that wants ‘None’ of that anymore.
Counterintuitively- or maybe not counterintuitively at all- his very popular appeal is in the promise that he can offer you what everyone else has forgotten.
Therein lies a lesson if we the Church have ears to hear.
Plus, he’s not boring.