O Me of Little Faith

Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is one of those Christian universities that has an admirable focus on art and culture. It has a beautiful campus, and I really like the faculty there (at least the ones I met back in April at the Festival of Faith and Writing). But the recent flap over the school’s cancellation of a concert by The New Pornographers is, well, pretty hilarious. And sad. And frustrating. But mostly hilarious.

To recap:

One of the goals of Calvin College is to engage culture “through a Christian lens.” In pursuit of that goal, the school invited the band, The New Pornographers, to perform a concert on campus on October 15, 2010. “The band makes good, thoughtful music, and we invited them here based on their artistic merit,” the Student Activities Office explained in this press release. Many, many artists have played at Calvin over the years, including David Bazan, Bruce Cockburn, Howie Day, the Decemberists, Death Cab for Cutie, Lupe Fiasco, The Hold Steady, Liz Phair, and Sigur Ros.

Those are some legitimately high-profile (but not exactly Christian-identifying) acts, which is impressive for a conservative Christian university.

But, oh, was there a problem with The New Pornographers hitting the campus for next month’s concert. So much so that the concert has now officially been canceled. It’s off.

You can guess why: because of the band’s name. Not their music. Their name.

The Student Activities Office at Calvin College explains:

…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. The Student Activities Office regrets the way this has happened. We regret the message we have sent to the band and their fans with this cancellation, and any confusion this has caused generally. We have been in contact with the band to explain this regret and the breakdown in our own processes that led us to first invite them and then withdraw that invitation. Calvin College remains committed to the difficult, yet important work at faithfully engaging popular culture.

Yes, it’s true that “faithfully engaging popular culture” can be difficult, especially when you’re (apparently) dealing with alumni or other faculty members who get upset because a band uses the word “pornographer” in its name. With an ironic wink.

Two questions:

1. If it’s so important to engage popular culture, why back down because a few ignorant people are upset about what is essentially a big misunderstanding of a word?

2. This misunderstanding apparently has to do with the complainers worrying that the concert will literally involve “pornographers” — they are extrapolating that the band’s name is a literal description of what will happen on-stage. If that’s the case, then why weren’t they equally concerned when Lovedrug did a show at Calvin? Or when the Barenaked Ladies performed there? Or Explosions in the Sky? Or Pedro the Lion? Or Jimmy Eat World?

All of those artists have performed at Calvin in the past. If a crazy person was afraid Jimmy would, in fact, eat world during a concert, would Calvin College have canceled it? Why were there no press releases making it clear that Calvin College did not, in fact, endorse the consumption of worlds?


Dear Calvin College:

Good job for your history of bringing influential and thought-provoking bands to your campus. I am impressed.

Bad job for rescinding an invitation because of dumb people. I am less impressed.

[H/T: Hemant Mehta]


UPDATE: Please read my follow-up post about this issue from 9/21/10. I’m wrong. I take it back.

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