Calvin and the Pornographers

by Kristin on September 16, 2010

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by Alterna2

It was one of those stomach-diving moments: My alma mater was in the news.

Not only were they making headlines for what seemed to be a ridiculous reason, they happened to be trampling on one of the things I love most about the college: its determination to engage, enjoy and even celebrate the best of secular culture within its decidedly Christian framework.

In the case of this recent news item, most of the headlines read something like this:

“Calvin College cancels New Pornographers concert over band’s name”

Cringe. Double—no, triple—cringe. One more reason for non-Christians to think all Christians are ridiculous, rash, non-thinking extremists who don’t know anything about popular culture.

I happen to be a New Pornographers fan, and in an instant I went from being incredibly pleased that my small alma mater had booked the band to feeling mortified at the cancellation. It took me years to recover from the fact that George W. Bush’s delivered the 2005 commencement address at Calvin—I was just starting to embrace again the school that gave me a truly wonderful, rigorous education.

Trying to see all sides

I first heard about the New Pornographers incident Tuesday evening, and it took me a full day to get up the courage to dig further into the issue. To be honest, I just didn’t want to think about it. When I finally made my way through a variety of news stories to the Calvin website, I found this statement (here in part):

We believe that the decision to invite the band fit our rubric of engaging culture through a Christian lens. The band makes good, thoughtful music, and we invited them here based on their artistic merit. However, after weeks of discussion and consideration, the irony of the band’s name was impossible to explain to many. The band’s name, to some, is mistakenly associated with pornography. Consequently, Calvin, to some, was mistakenly associated with pornography. Neither the college nor the band endorses pornography….Calvin College remains committed to the difficult, yet important work at faithfully engaging popular culture.

After I read the statement, I took a deep breath and tried on some other people’s shoes. I tried to imagine being a 55-year-old conservative, Christian woman who has never in her life heard of a band called New Pornographers. I tried to imagine what it would be like to spend enormous amounts of money to send my child to one of the best Christian Colleges around, and to think that decision would provide some protection for my child from an often scary world.

I also tried to put myself in the position of the Calvin administrators, as they attempted to explain “irony” in relationship to the word “pornographers” to a bunch of conservative middle aged parents and even more conservative elderly donors and alumni. Irony is, of course, one of those things: If you have to explain it, it simply can’t be explained. (Unlike real pornography: You know it when you see it.)

Line-finding is hard work

A very tiny part of me gets it—at least I get the part about how hard it is to find that line between culture and faith, comfort and challenge, and to tread that line with grace. It’s this statement that I get: “Calvin College remains committed to the difficult, yet important work at faithfully engaging popular culture.” Yes, it’s difficult. Yes, it’s important.

But you know what? It’s too important to give in to a bunch of people with money and influence who “don’t get it”—not because they aren’t intelligent or capable of doing some research and finding out what the band is really all about. No, they don’t get it because they don’t want to even try. And people who are determined to shut down their minds, close up their curiosity, and resort to complaining and throwing their weight around shouldn’t have any say about what happens in a liberal arts institution where discourse, challenge and thought is the whole point.

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  • Alise

    I saw this mentioned over on Friendly Atheist yesterday and my thoughts were the same as yours. I get that it really is a difficult decision, but that it’s one that needed to be made. He also mentioned that Barenaked Ladies (who *I* personally like — not as familiar with The New Pornographers) performed there in the past, so it seems kind of weird.

    And yes, the level to which “money talks” is disappointing so much of the time. Like, ALL the time.

  • sarah louise

    wow, that’s too bad. and like Alise says, money talks ALL the time. Can’t Calvin send out a Press Release saying, THIS is why we have this band playing, we understand their name is bizarre, but give us a chance. Isn’t that what higher ed is about? Liberal Education?

    And huh, didn’t know you were a Calvin grad. My parents and grandparents and brother went to Hope. Guess we’ll see who wins in basketball this year…


  • Nancy Pagaduan

    Good lord! Talk about judging a book by its cover. I’m not sure where to start with this. Aside from all the censorship issues, there’s the question of what do they do with bands that might actually be offensive but have innocuous names. Ironic indeed.

  • Elaine Tolsma-Harlow

    Oh Kristin, you were not alone when your stomach dropped. I’m unable to walk in the shoes of the older money wielding people so I’m impressed you tried because I found their shoes pinch too much.

    I get quite angry just thinking of this debacle that they created themselves, after all it was Calvin who invited The New Pornographers to play there, & some forethought should have been in place or the Calvin community needed to stick to their guns.

    You are absolutely correct when you say that it, “One more reason for non-Christians to think all Christians are ridiculous, rash, non-thinking extremists who don’t know anything about popular culture.” So, I think what is needed is to continue the uphill climb to show that Christianity is more about compassion & dying to self to live for others and God (while taking in some good music on occasion:)) then judging & laying blame. Much easier said than done.

  • ed cyzewski

    Your last paragraph is solid gold. Well said.

    I have noticed that the innovators of today will become the old guard of tomorrow. At my school, Taylor University, the students and administration adopted a Life Together covenant that was really wonderful and innovative in its time (perhaps 40 years ago?). However, part of that covenant banned alcohol and dancing for students AND faculty. Years after that covenant, the innovators of the original covenant can’t innovate again as we move beyond prohibition to responsible drinking, etc. That is irony, and it’s something that I pray will never happen to me, even though I frankly fully expect it.

    Having said all of that… and I really don’t mean to disrespect anyone, but… “irony” and “mid-west” don’t tend to go well together. Having attended college in the mid-west, I found that folks were very kind and courteous, but also tended to be more literal (yes, I know there are exceptions). I often caught myself having to explain what I “really” meant. I think the difference is that many mid-western folks aren’t looking for sarcasm and irony. They’re not looking for it. And when it strikes, understanding it can require suspending disbelief.

  • Grant

    Interesting story and good thoughts. I’m wondering, what if the conservative 55 year old woman is a Calvin grad, does that give her the right to voice her objection, despite her ignorance?

  • Jennifer

    THIS is the kind of thing that drives me up a wall, around a bend and off a pier. I echo your thought that a tiny part of me gets where admin is coming from. At the same time, I’m so tired of bowing to the lowest common denominator. How about NOT explaining anything to anyone. It’s the name of a band. If you don’t understand it, then why don’t you do some research about it. If you still can’t understand it then walk away and pray. I mean it’s utterly ridiculous.

    Also, it reminds me of the time I staged a sit in at my high school because a “sex educator” was coming and might, just possibly might, use the word “masturbation.” As if by hiding their heads they could wish it away. As if by the time I was in high school, I’d not heard that word.

    I know words are important. Can’t we trust college students (and adults) to use them wisely and think hard about them and make their own decisions. You can tell I’m fired up because I’m writing run on sentences. You’ll forgive me.

  • Jennifer

    And another thing. If the parents who got all grumbly mumbly about this trust the administration enough to send their kids there, then why not trust the admin to bring in bands/artists/speakers/writers, etc which will engage the students on an appropriate level in dialog there are there to be part of in the first place?

    I see this at the private school where K teaches. If a teacher suggests a tutor, or a kid to stay behind a grade, parents get all huffy about it. BUT, they’re paying really good money to send their kids to this premier school. Don’t they want to give money to an institution they trust has the best qualified teachers who know what they’re talking about?

    That is all.

  • Esther

    Kristin I did not know you went to Calvin. GR is my hometown. I somehow feel more connected to you now :)
    While I did not go to Calvin, I do understand GR and the influences of donors and parents in that town. It truly is disappointing when you realize who holds the cards.

  • Trina

    Amen. And, you know I dont say that often…

  • The Modern Gal

    You know, it’s funny. When I saw the news report about this, I did the same thing that the close-minded conservatives who didn’t bother to try to find out more about The New Pornographers. Instead I judged Calvin for being narrow-minded and extremist — just like you were worried non-Christians would do — and I am Christian!

    I’m so glad you posted Calvin’s explanation since I was too lazy to do the research myself and learn that the school does seem somewhat committed to acknowledging pop culture can co-exist with Christianity. However, I agree more than anything with your last paragraph. Our society has got to stop letting money make all of our decisions for us. It’s made a mess out of politics, and it seems to often ruin other aspects of our life. Do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing. Don’t do the wrong thing because it means the path will seem more comfortable.

  • Rick
  • Kristin T.

    Alise, yeah, I guess pornography is just in a whole different category than nakedness (ie Bare Naked Ladies), and for good reason. Nakedness is something that can be celebrated and beautiful, pornography isn’t. It’s just funny that for someone like me who is familiar with the band (New Pornographers), the word ceases to become what it actually means and just becomes nothing more than the name of a band. You know? So I had to try to put myself in the shoes of someone who isn’t at all in tune with popular music culture. It still makes me really frustrated when people are so reactive and don’t take the time to dig a big deeper.

    Sarah, your comment made me think of an interesting angle, in regards to Calvin’s decision and the way it got covered in the news media. Maybe I’m naive about the ways media and power work, but wouldn’t it have been really interesting to put out a news release about the controversy, and use that moment to engage in a really interesting discussion, quoting people from both sides and educating people in the process? Rather than having most of the controversy behind closed doors and only the show’s cancellation hitting the news?

    Nancy, I guess when you’re a private, church-affiliated school you can censor whatever you want. The issue is where to draw the line—when does it get in the way of a really rigorous, engaging education? I think it gets in the way pretty darn fast, in almost every case I can think of.

    Elaine, the shoes of the older, money-wielding folks DO pinch—you’re right! I took them off almost right away. :) And I absolutely agree with this need: “…to show that Christianity is more about compassion & dying to self to live for others and God…than judging and laying blame.” It’s compassionate, thinking, talented Calvin alumni like you (and the many fabulous professors), that still make me very proud to be an alumna myself.

    ed, Solid Gold? Nice! And although I feel slightly defensive about the whole “Midwest” and “irony” don’t mix comment, :) as far as generalizations go, I think you’re right. Calvin College not only has to deal with funders and alumni who possess a Midwestern sensibility, but also a conservative nature (in every sense of the word), and, in many cases, a Dutch immigrant perspective. These are all generalizations too—Calvin’s broader community is becoming more diverse each year—but I suspect that most of the people with the money and influence fit this mold. There’s a lot to overcome in that mix, and Calvin has done a lot to gradually open up minds and hearts.

    Grant, just in case there’s any confusion, the 55-year-old woman I mentioned was a hypothetical Calvin parent. I honestly don’t have any information about who exactly complained about this issue—whether it was widespread or just a few influential people, etc. I’m inserting lots of speculation into my thoughts! But it’s speculation based on a good knowledge base about the college and the community that supports it. :) Having said all of that, I don’t think it matters at all if the hypothetical 55-year-old is an alumna. Sure, she has a right to voice how she feels, but I don’t think it gives her voice any special weight.

  • Laura

    While you feel you might be “naive about the ways media and power work” this is the exact type of situation where I feel so disenchanted with the media. So often I feel they just portray the angle they want to spin regardless of the newspaper, magazine, TV station.

    Where instead look at how this story could have changed had they done exactly what you said “and use that moment to engage in a really interesting discussion, quoting people from both sides and educating people in the process?”

  • Beyondmany

    First impressions can go a long way. Really. I was at a friends house last week, enjoying an imagination based board game together as a community. One of the fabricated answers offered was “butt hole surfers”. Now, I knew of this band, but the answer was not given in the context of music, so many people in the group found an offense for the term. It was a first impression. It mattered. Now, we did clear the issue by exposing the phrase as a band name. Like many of your readers, I encourage clarification in context as effective means of communicating intent.

  • Michael Van Houten

    Great stuff here, Kristin…you make some very good points, especially about people not even making an effort to try to understand. I think that’s one of the biggest problems in the CRC (and other denominations, I suspect) today. We saw that same problem when they tried to bring “The Last Temptation of Christ” to GR back when we were at Calvin.

    Usually when stuff like this happens, my first inclination is to think, “well, there’s NO WAY I’m donating to Calvin this year.” But you know what? This time I’ve been thinking the opposite. If Calvin is indeed “caving in” to a handful of wealthy donors and alumni on these types of issues (and there are many worse examples), then maybe it’s time that I stepped up to the plate financially so that I may be considered more of a stakeholder as well (not that I haven’t already given plenty of money to Calvin or have that much more to give!). I wonder what would happen if the hundreds or possibly thousands of us who are not “big donors” came together as a group, spoke up and started giving more? Would the administration consider us more of a force to be reckoned with?

  • Kristin T.

    Jennifer, I really relate to this frustration: “I’m so tired of bowing to the lowest common denominator.” Just to be clear, I’m not talking about the lowest common denominator in terms of intelligence, and I know you’re not, either. This isn’t an intelligence issue, it’s a matter of being open—willing to dig and work and stretch. This sentiment describes pretty accurately where I land: “I know words are important. Can’t we trust college students (and adults) to use them wisely and think hard about them and make their own decisions?” Amen. It happens to be an important part of the education process.

    Esther, I really love GR—there are so many great places and people there. But it is a very particular sort of place with a particular overriding perspective, isn’t it?

    Trina, all I can do is sit here and smile at your “Amen!”

    The Modern Girl, isn’t it amazing, when we do the very thing we despise in others? I’ve definitely found myself there before. In this case, I was able to take into consideration all of the complexity, because I know a lot about Calvin and love many things about it, but otherwise I would be right with you, jumping to that same conclusion. At any rate, you summed up the crux of the issue perfectly here: “Do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing. Don’t do the wrong thing because it means the path will seem more comfortable.”

    Rick, I’m glad about that, for the people who had tickets and were looking forward to the show. It’s sort of more awkward and embarrassing than ever, though—a stark reminder of the mess that many would love to sweep under a big rug. I don’t know how to really feel about it. What do you think?

    Laura, you make a really good point—another layer on top of my point. I was sort of thinking that Calvin “asked” for the bad press by canceling the show, but you’re right: The media could have still responded with the sort of article I was talking about. Maybe it’s out there somewhere—would love to see a serious, secular music industry or culture publication do something like that, with respect for both sides.

    Beyondmany, it’s true that these types of misunderstandings are common, and even understandable. They should be pretty easy to clear up, though, with a bit of additional information. In fact, the controversy probably could have been mostly avoided, with a little foresight and creativity.

    Michael, yes, there’s this shutting down, of sorts. It reminds me of a child who has his hands over his ears, and his eyes closed, and is saying “lalalalalala” in order to make comprehension of reality impossible. Your thoughts about how you might personally respond are interesting. Part of me doesn’t want to go that route, because it’s almost a way of giving into the “money talks” mentality (and there will always be someone who’s giving much MORE money). But on the other hand, I think you might be on to something. That’s one of the main ways Obama got elected—lots of people giving smaller donations, and feeling like they had a stake in the change. It’s very much in line with the Long Tail theory (Chris Anderson). So…should we join forces? And call ourselves something? :)