In defense of the playlist

C. Christopher Smith

“Making a mixtape (or playlist) is the opposite of indifferent. It’s heartfelt, purposeful - often a subtle form of flirtation. … [The playlist] is a way of making yourself known, an interpersonal form of show business, of making news, of replicating sounds and words you find important. It’s like poetry, because poetry is what you can’t say in any other way.”
- David Dark,The Sacredness of Questioning Everything

You might think of the playlist (or the mix-tape, if you’re as old as I am) as a relic of a bygone, youthful age, a careful arranging and swapping of our favorite songs with friends as a way of giving them a little peek into our own lives. Thanks to David Dark though, I am coming to see that the basic sort of collaging and interpreting we do in making a playlist saturates the way that we live in and engage the world. We are always borrowing images, drawing from our vast banks of experiences as we make sense of the world unfolding around us every day.

The playlist imagery is compelling to me because it holds in tension the Ecclesiastes’ refrain that “There’s nothing new under the sun” and the imaginative ever-newness of the way in which we arrange images and ideas with one another. There is a sort of vulnerability to it, granting others a window into our lives in the form of the images we draw upon to narrate our lives. In this election session, I am reminded how our collaging of the world is a gentle sort of iconoclasm. The glimpses into our personal story that we each reveal eventually break down the sorts of labels and generalizations that others place on us: Republican, Democrat, gay, white, male, etc. Every human is a unique creation of God, and the ways in which we narrate our stories - or more aptly, sub-stories within the unfolding Story of creation - are unique and much more complex than a singular label or image can convey.

I am coming to see that the basic sort of collaging and interpreting we do in making a playlist saturates the way that we live in and engage the world.

To think of our communications with one another in terms of playlists requires a high level of attentiveness. I love that Dark describes playlists as a type of poetry, because the reading and writing of poetry demands our keenest attention. We must be attentive to the world ever-unfolding around us, remembering the real or fictional scenes that clarify our experiences. We enjoy books, movies, music, but never simply as amusement (a word whose roots mean “not thinking”). Additionally, we must be attentive to others in our lives, engaging them not under a singular image/label, but as an ongoing playlist of images and scenes that they are revealing to us.

We must remember that, as followers of Christ, our playlist way of narrating our experience in the world is ultimately theological. Because God brought forth creation, and is now at work reconciling all creation, everything is theological. Working, playing, caring for others: we make sense of it all by narrating it in terms of images and scenes, and we do so as creatures within God’s Story. To be faithful is to be rooted and growing within God’s story, and as we read books or watch movies (of whatever genre), we must do so with the primary aim, not of pleasuring ourselves or becoming better individuals, but of continually cultivating our theology, our playlist of scenes about how God’s creation works. We also need spaces within our church communities in which we can openly share and discuss our lives with others.

May our playlist cultivation and sharing draw us deeper into God’s love and reconciliation of all creation!