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Iron and Wine at Wheaton

According to Relevant Magazine, Wheaton College is the fourth best Christian college in the country, as was reported last year. But Wheaton might move up a few notches in the rankings if they keep things like this up: Wheaton College hosted a solo Iron and Wine show at their Edman Memorial Chapel. Sam Beam, the indie-folk hero himself, came to Billy Graham’s alma mater for a night of awkwardly censored pagan-folk. A controversial move for sure, seeing as how one of the most recognizably evangelical schools in the country doesn’t intentionally bring many other faiths to the campus for community events.

I had to get a ride out to the suburbs from a friend for this rare event, and on the way there we talked about how cool it was to see a Christian organization break through the Christian bubble for the sake of good art. This wasn’t a couple of immature Christians getting excited for some swearing on a Christian college campus mind you, my friend is a proclaimed agnostic and hates prejudice against faith as much as any Christian. I know there are plenty of Christians who hate how fundamentalist stereotypes drown the progressive intentions of sincere people of faith, but non-Christians actually hate this too. So this was an exciting event for both of us.

Steve Ivester, the Student Activities Director at Wheaton, took a great cue from his colleague at Calvin College, Ken Heffner. As the Activities Director at Calvin, Heffner has been bringing more and more “secular” artists to the campus for shows that the students and public can all attend. He believes that there are good things to be found in good art, things that “point to the kingdom.” With this intention, Heffner allows the students of Calvin to practice Christian discernment, so that they might find out for themselves where their boundaries of art lie.

Of course, art is subjective. Many will hear Iron and Wine and find it completely boring. But some people will experience Iron and Wine and feel an intense emotional connection to the music. There is no right or wrong here. In Christianity, we call this subjective response, “personal conviction.” There are the Christians who will not go see a movie that’s PG-13, while some Christians’ favorite movies carry the “restricted” rating. But what did Wheaton do that may have stirred controversy? They basically played an R-rated movie on campus (live concert style). They pushed the boundaries of some Christians’ convictions.

But here’s where things get sticky. Sam Beam greeted the sold out crowd of 2500 with a disclaimer, “they asked me to refrain from swearing tonight, so at any point in the song where there was initially a wordy-dird, I’ll just not say anything, and you can fill in the blank with any number of words you can imagine. There are a few to choose from.” Laughter filled the chapel. Then he opened his set with “The Trapeze Swinger,” a nine and a half minute song of gorgeous lyrical imagery and the most gentle of melodies. A couple minutes in, the beauty was interrupted for one whole second. Beam stopped playing and singing, and then began again at the point after the F-word would have been uttered. Of course, laughter. But this censorship is a problem. Beam later mentioned that he even felt a little uncomfortable in his churchy environment. He actually couldn’t stop referring to Wheaton as “church.” I don’t want to get into the theology of that now, but what an embarrassing moment for all of the Christians in the building, and who could imagine how uncomfortable an iconoclastic artist like Beam must have felt singing “Jesus the Mexican Boy” to a chorus of crowd murmurs.

I don’t know who “they” were, when they told him to refrain from swearing, but to invite an artist to perform his original material under circumstances like that seems almost criminal. Did Wheaton really want the art of Iron and Wine on their campus? Or did they just want the event of it all?

But interestingly enough, it wasn’t an evangelical event at all. If anyone brought up any church talk, it was Beam. His Biblically stocked lyrics seemed more potent than ever at Wheaton. And eventually, he dropped his guard. “Hey, you guys are a lot of fun. I don’t remember church being this much fun.” This is the shining moment. The two sides tore down the invisible wall and came together for the sake of art. There was a freedom here, a realization by both parties that church doesn’t always mean praying together in a chapel on Sunday morning, but rather, church is sincere community amongst people.

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Beam was directing a church service at Wheaton College this weekend. He may have lost some creative control, and Wheaton alumni may have sacrificed some doctrinal statements in making the event happen, but it was certainly a great first step in removing the prejudice that non-Christians have against Christians (and absolutely vice versa). Not all Christians are art-snubbing tightwads, and non-Christians should know this, but events like Iron and Wine at Wheaton College should (hopefully) reveal to both sides that art is a gift that God gave to the world, not just the “saved” (or “unsaved” for that matter).

Let’s hope that Wheaton can keep this sort of thing going.

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