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MONEY, Part 3: Suggestions to Chew Upon

I so appreciate all the discussion. Your comments have been moving and encouraging and have pushed me to think deeper about these things. Here’s the recap:

First: wealth is a burden. Poverty is a burden. As one of my Bible college professors Twila Sias (hey, Twila!) pointed out in last week’s comments, Proverbs 30:7-9 sums it up beautifully. In the words of good ol’ overlooked Agur:

“Two things I ask of you, O LORD; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD ?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.”

The beautiful Jill Phillips song “Daily Bread” was inspired by this very verse. (What’s that you ask? Is that song available in the Rabbit Room store on her album Nobody’s Got it All Together? Yes. Yes it is.) It’s a good way to remind yourself that to be stuck somewhere between relative wealth and relative poverty is a fine place to be, which is hard to believe when you’re stuck in the comfortable, entertaining, enjoyable, discontented mire of American culture.

Second: better what you can. One comment in particular from EmJ brought up the buzz word “sustainability”. I think he (or she?) is right that it’s a little faddish, but it’s not such a bad idea. Writers like Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan are refreshingly wise when it comes to the environment and local economy, and there are worse things in the world than practicing what those guys preach about food and land and community.

I’m going to make an analogy here, so bear with me for a paragraph or so. The much-debated documentary film Food, Inc. was fascinating. It was also disturbing. And whatever you may think of the film’s bias, the end is brilliant. After all the information is presented, the screen fades to black and we see a collage of practical ideas for how to change things. They didn’t just expose a gigantic problem; they also gave us a hundred small, attainable solutions. The big one for me was this: we cast a vote three times a day. Three times a day we choose what aspect of the food economy we’re going to support. We can either buy junk and fill the pockets of the corporations–or we can try to buy from local farmers, or grow our own vegetables, or at least purchase responsibly grown food. It’s going to cost a little more, sure. But if enough people make tiny changes, the corporations will feel it where it counts, and big changes will follow. The corporations won’t collapse, but they will follow the money; if it becomes more profitable for them to produce responsibly grown food, they’ll do it. I think that’s a sound theory.

What if we applied the same theory to music and the arts? What if we chose the artisan equivalent of locally grown food?

Whenever a new U2 album comes out we’re probably going to get it from iTunes (or Amazon or wherever), just like we’re probably going to get our spaghetti noodles at the grocery store. But if a local farmer (artist) is nourishing you by doing good work and working hard at it, then it’s worth it to go through the trouble to head to the farmer’s market (the artist’s website or–the Rabbit Room Store!) and cast your vote with your money. A little at a time, help the people whose art is helping you. If you’re reading this, you’re probably reading it on a computer. That means you aren’t starving. (If you’re starving and you own a computer, something’s very wrong.) That means you have–and this is a phrase that troubles me–disposable income. It means you have enough money to occasionally buy a book or album, and every time you buy one you’re casting a vote. So as often as you can, vote for the artists tilling their field and sowing seeds that bear (hopefully) lasting fruit. That’s all. Easy, right?

Having said all that, I thought I’d make some practical suggestions. Food for thought. Ideas to chew on. (See how well this food analogy works?) Feel free to print these out and tattoo them on your ankle like all the hip kids are doing. I propose the following:

1. Buy the record, don’t steal it. This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. If you like someone’s music, buy it. It costs a lot of money and time and heartache to make that album you love. Lots of artists are using things like Noisetrade to get their music out there for free, and that’s great. But there’s still an exchange happening–Noisetrade asks for your email address so the artist can communicate with you about their shows, new records, etc.–so whether it’s with your email address or your dollar bills, buy the music. You’ll be glad you did. I’ve downloaded free albums before, and you know what? I still haven’t listened to them. They’re sitting there on my hard drive gathering cyberdust because they were free. There was nothing at stake. On the other hand, I bought the new album by the Weepies last week and have listened four or five times already–partly because I’m a fan, of course, but also because it cost me something to acquire the songs. Whenever I do a concert for people who have bought tickets, it’s a more intense show than when I do them for free. The audience has something invested (even if it’s only $3); they’ve come with some expectation so the exchange carries more weight.

2. Go to concerts. You may think of yourself as a person who doesn’t like live shows. Maybe you don’t like the noise. Maybe it’s the crowds. Well, if you’re at a Square Peg Alliance show, chances are it won’t be loud and there won’t be a crowd. Har. Seriously, it may feel funny to choose a sit-down concert over a movie, but try it. Go to the websites of your favorite artists and see if they’re coming to a town near you. They’ll be glad you showed up, I guarantee it. Most of the time the tickets are about what you’d pay for a movie, only in this case your money won’t be lining Jerry Bruckheimer’s silken pockets–it’ll go to diapers or the new transmission or the mixing engineer for the new album.

There’s a local theater company here in Nashville called Blackbird Theater Company. Jamie and I went to an original production called Twilight of the Gods, a philosophical, literate murder mystery. It was really, really good. Tickets were $15 each. If we had gone to a movie we’d have paid ten more dollars, total. I think ten bucks is a bargain for the set design, the beautiful theater, and the twenty actors playing their hearts out on the stage not ten feet away.

Most of us who play music pay the bills by touring. CD sales are helpful, but touring is where the rubber meets the road. We need you to come to the shows. We like to play our songs for other members of the human race. We like meeting you. We love the crackle of spiritual electricity when our songs and your stories intersect. Bring your friends. Concerts–event bad ones–are usually more memorable than movies.  Plus, it pays the mortgage.

3. Choose individuals over avatars. Choose humans over screens. Know people by more than their screen names. Someone asked Wendell Berry what he thought of online community and his answer was exactly what I would have wanted Berry to say: “You’re not in community with someone until you’ve pulled their cow out of a ditch or spanked their child.” Hilarious. When the Rabbit Room left the cyber-world and took on flesh at Hutchmoot 2010, we caught a glimpse of this. Things were bettter, messier, more meaningful. They were more like real life and less like this pseudo-life we call social media (i.e., Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and, yes, the Rabbit Room). I’m not saying social media is all bad, but we must remember it isn’t a replacement for flesh and blood interaction with the crown of God’s creation. Social media can be a good means to the end of true community.

Everybody who plays music ought to have a website. They ought to have a Facebook page. It’s a great tool for interaction with listeners. But we need to defy the seduction of the screen and remember that when online communities become a destination unto themselves and have stopped being a way to something better–a way to incarnational connection with other humans–we be become disembodied, unmoored, lost in a world of ideas and theorems detached from the terrible mystery of flesh and blood, without senses, without the awkward mutual interaction of heart, mind and physical expression, without the ineffable language of human souls in proximity. (If you didn’t notice, I just described pornography.) Pull your eyes from the computer and the television screen, go outside and touch the bark of a tree. Dig in the garden. Muster the courage to accept the invitation to the cookout instead of staying home and updating your Facebook status. Try this: look someone in the eye. It’s scary, isn’t it? Scary because we’re not used to it, scary because the eyes are the windows to the soul and we’re as afraid of seeing as being seen. Facebook is a giant auditorium full of people hiding under the pews. Take heart and climb out.

4. Book a show. This is the one most of you will shake your head at. Concerts are planned by promoters with slick shades and limos, right? People often ask on Facebook and via email, “When are you coming to [insert state or country]?” The answer now and always will be, “I’ll be there as soon as someone like you is crazy enough to bring us in.” We don’t choose where we play. You choose us. We can’t open the phone book and call every church in every city and invite ourselves over. It would be a tremendous waste of time. I know because I’ve tried. We all have. Mike Petrucco and Sharon Frazier are just folks with jobs who like our music and made the call. It’s a ton of work (as I’m sure they’d attest), but I think they’d also tell you it’s rewarding. You may be surprised at how attainable it is, and how fun it can be.

5. Become a patron. Eric Peters was the first one in our community to try this idea. He needed money to make Chrome, so he set a goal: he needed, say, 200 people to donate $50. That’s $10,000. For that $50 everybody got a few copies of the album, their name in the credits, and most importantly the blessing of helping an artist create something beautiful and meaningful that would go on to bless many. The beauty is multiplied; the blessing is compounded. You, dear patron, can add to the beauty (thank you for that fine phrase, Sara Groves) by midwifing projects you believe in. A.S. Peterson did it with his novel The Fiddler’s Gun, and will soon be raising support for the sequel Fiddler’s Green. Randall Goodgame is about to head into the studio to record a Slugs & Bugs Christmas album (which I’ll help with as much as I can), and Ben Shive is about to record another album of mind-blowing songs. None of these people is rich, and all these people are doing beautiful work. You can help us tell our stories and shed light with our gifts. I mention all these upcoming projects because I know most of you aren’t loaded either, so you may need to choose just one. You can’t throw money at us willy nilly. But it looks like one of the ways the Rabbit Room is going to support local “farmers” is by helping artists and authors raise money by way of patronage, so I wanted to warn you: artist patronage is on the horizon.

Two more quick things.

6. If you have deep pockets, dig deep. If you’re wealthy and have a heart for authors and artists who are doing Kingdom work by telling the Story, let us know. Email us at info@rabbitroom.com. We have dreams too big for our current budget. I often drive past this subdivision of enormous houses in Brentwood and think, “If just one of those people caught the Rabbit Room’s vision there’s so much we could do.” If we need to set up a non-profit to make that easier, we’ll do it (and have been thinking about that for a while). If we need to come over and present our vision we’ll shave, shower, and bring laser pointers and Powerpoint. You may not make any money, but you’ll be a part of something that shines.

7. Finally, don’t give a cent to the artists before you’ve given to your church. We don’t want your money until you’ve tithed and given to those called to the far reaches of the world. I hope you don’t think we’re begging for money. Sure, it can be hard, but that’s fine. It’s part of the deal. As stressful as the artist’s life can be, none of the folks in our little community have missed a meal or a mortgage payment (though I know many of us have come really close). All I’m saying is, if you have enough money to go to movies, pay for cable, own a cell phone, and buy albums, then consider the artists who have blessed you, encouraged you, or have been a small part of your journey with Christ–and choose to spend some of your entertainment budget there. A little goes a long way. Trust me.

But as much as I believe in the importance of songs, books, and works of art that tell the truth and tell it well, we must remember the fatherless and the widow, the disenfranchised and abused and enslaved. We should support our churches and pastors and their families. We should support missionaries and IJM or Compassion International or World Vision or Blood:Water Mission–something, for Heaven’s sake. Do that first.

Tomorrow is part four of a three-part series that is actually five parts long if you include the 2.5 part. Oh! Six if you include Ron Block’s George MacDonald addendum. Either way, I have a quick story to tell you in closing. Thanks for reading.

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