23 November 2005


I took another practice test for the Japanese Proficiency Exam and gave up halfway through the reading section. It isn't going to happen because I just don't have the vocabulary to do it. Giving up causes a couple of problems, mainly that I feel like I wasted a year getting ready for the damn test and will have not a whole lot to show for it.

I spilled about 500 ml of kerosene of my tatami. Kerosene is awful enough and it gives me a headache just in the heater, but now spilled in the tatami, I'm completely fucked. I spent the whole day airing out my apartment which would have been fine if it it wasn't fifty-five degrees outside and raining.

Today, during a leadership meeting for a Bible study group that I am allegedly helping to lead — although my agnostic tendencies aren't helping anything — I was whining about my Japanese ability and Emiko said that she thought it was getting better. Sure, I said, when I'm telling you what happened in my day. That's easy. But when I have to start talking about my feelings? Forget about it. She was confused, Feelings? Why do you have to-? and then she stopped and said, Oh, right, right.

The right, right, refers to Yoko and it's hard to talk about all the inner-workings and bullshit that goes on in my head during a day in English — but in Japanese? It's a fucking mess. I was trying to tell Yoko that I had given up on trying to pass the test because I realized that I just didn't have the vocabulary. She tried to encourage me to study more and assured me that I would be okay. And I said, again, that I wouldn't be okay and it had nothing to do with studying more or less, that it had to do with being able to retain enough vocabulary which has nothing to do with studying. But that didn't seem to make clear what I wanted and she just kept encouraging me to try harder.

We hung out with one of her friends from Tokyo and I was like telling all these dumb stories that, when I thought about them in retrospect made no sense in English and probably made less sense in Japanese. For example: "When I live in Fukuo- when I was lived in Fukuoka, I was-I had a woman, I mean, there was a woman that was my mother. My Japanese mother. And she was good English. So she, we talk in English. So we went to Sumo, right? And we are at Sumo and she say, she says to me: There is a--no, sorry, I say to her, I say, That man is bald. I mean, that wrestler, that Sumo wrestler is bald. And she say, That rude." Pause, no reaction. "She said, That's rude. The thing that I said. It was rude." Still no reaction.

I promised myself, it will get better as I get better at the language.

The following is a letter I wrote to David Crowder:

Mr. Crowder:

I stumbled across your blog this last week and have been trying to get a couple of questions answered by someone from the CCM community so I thought I would take a swing at writing you. To be honest, I don't really know that much about your music and saw you for the first time on a DVD at a church service in Korea. I guess that makes me a poor judge of your music, but since my question is more about words and artistic integrity, maybe my slim knowledge will suffice.

I also had heard about the accident that happened with your pastor and wanted to express my sympathy. I was reading comments on your blog and thought it might be frustrating to have people say things like, "Life is hard, but God is good" in times like these. I've always found those kind of statements to be trite and unhelpful. I pray that there are enough people around you willing to sit and say nothing.

I suppose what follows is significantly less important.

I'm interested in words as I suppose you, as an artist, are as well. I am particularly interested in how we can use words without meaning to illicit response that is divorced from an intellectual connection to or understanding of the word uttered. That is to say, we use symbols that, upon investigation, are empty.

This happens all around me, I am realizing. As an example, I mention a band like Slipknot saying something (as they do on one of their records) pointless and empty like "I want to slit your throat and fuck the wound," when in fact they have no intention of doing either of those things. They are, in fact, only saying it because the words illicit a reaction: a negative one among parents and a positive, aggressive one from youth. The result is more records sold without any information transmitted and no real artistic expression.

I am beginning to wonder whether or not Christian songleaders and Christian artists are doing the same thing with different words and for different purposes. Christian artists repeat phrases like, "There is no one like you" or "You are God" or "You are Holy," that don't convey real information so much emotionally groom listeners. This, of course, is common in any kind of music--the Beatles repeating "All you need is love" and so forth.

The problem comes when we start to think about the words that we use. I'll use your song about Jesus coming as a King. You sing, "Here is our God, Here is King," but I'm not sure that anyone who sings with you about the joy of a King coming has any understanding of what it means to live in an absolute monarchy where the coming of the King meant something. For the people of Israel, this meant any number of incredibly important things. But I am not an Israelite and I'm beginning to wonder why we have to cling to what is essentially a dead symbol to talk about God. The symbol works not because we understand it, but because we have been taught to think that it is a majestic thing, not because we know it from experience.

This disconnect can all be circumvented if we aren't asked to think about what it means for a King to come and I think that's the problem. We aren't being asked to think about what we're saying. We're being asked to feel, and words are just catalysts to feelings. Maybe we could argue that we need to recapture the world of the text, but that seems to imply that the world of the text was in some way better than the world we have now. It seems to me that the text only uses these symbols because they worked in the time they were written. If the text was written at a different time, I doubt we'd be talking about Jesus as King or throne rooms or servants. Those seem to be symbols that help people at the given time understand God better.

And that's fine, I think. As long as we don't think we have to in some way become 1st Century Jews to understand God. If that's true, then we have a big problem.

I guess I'm wondering if we can't do better, if we can't help create a discourse in our music for the gospel, for God, that fits into a 21st century words, images and symbols. That we can do for the gospel what Paul did for the Romans: made is accessible by using words that, when thought about, only grow deeper because we can understand them both intellectually and experientially. I think starting with the words of our music might be a good start. When we start to leave dead symbols and move towards a gospel that converses with the world as it is, I think we will start to move forward artistically and intellectually.

So, yeah, that's what I wanted to say. What do you think?

Thanks for your time. I wish you the best with your music and art.

Stephen Pihlaja
Niigata City, Japan