So why does it matter?

When I grade my students’ essays, I use an old graderly stand-by of a marginal comment: “So what?” A student writes: “Crime in America throughout time has proven a major force in shaping history.” I jot in the margin: “SO WHAT!?” Which is to say, “yeah sure … ok, nobody’s disagreeing with you, but why does it matter?” I don’t mean it as sarcastically as it sounds, and I always explain to my students at the beginning of the semester that they can expect this short hand notation to show up on their papers as a sign that they need to contextualize their claims more fully. And God and anyone who’s ever taught freshman comp know how familiar you get with some version of this question. So familiar in fact that I reflexively apply it to my own writing. Thus I found myself asking “So What?” after my last post. I mean, I stand by it, but I feel like it needs a little amplification, some context by way of reflection. So here goes.A friend of mine, also a Midwesterner and loyal sg fan, wrote something to me recently that really resonates. We had been talking about some bit of self-dealing in sg and he said,

I must confess that I view sg from a skeptics’ perspective. I’ve seen enough Southern Baptist life up close to know hypocrisy, self- righteousness, and self-dealing all too well. I just love the music when it really kicks and when a moment of song can uplift you from your stationary world into a harmony of sorts with the singer, the instrumentation, the notes, the audience, or the spirit that only God’s music can deliver to me. I could name a number of concerts events and just lines on a CD or cassette that have done or do that for me. Perhaps I am a skeptic about the way sg is run because I’ve spent the majority of my life in the Midwest, away from the epicenter. We in this part of the country have been stuck for too long with substandard radio, almost no quality product in our stores, very few well-promoted events, etc. The thing is that I know enough about business to know that it doesn’t have to be that way.

I’m struck by this passage for a couple of reasons. First, because it’s very close to what I feel about things. And second, how sad that he and I (have to) feel this way. How sad that living within a long day’s drive of Nashville, the “epicenter” of sg, we might as well be seventeenth-century Americans settling the first rugged outposts of the British colonies in New England for all the connection to or value we have represent for the vital center of sg. The controlling interests of gospel music have with (what seems to us outposters like) a studied precision willingly contained the expansion of sg so that it is a hopelessly regional phenomenon for all practical purposes. Nevermind the convenient way this regional business model overlaps almost perfectly with the ideologically narrow view - pervasive in the industry - of what sg as an artistic style and statement of religious life means. To us who must pack a lunch and often a change of clothes for a decent concert, who must grope and scrounge, beg, borrow and burn (on cds, that is) the best music we can find from anyone who has access to real sg retailers and who will pity us, southern gospel seems like a grand idea that has in fact of experience ossified and deteriorated, withered on the vine. Instead of evolving with the people and the religious culture it grew out of, sg has become direly disconnected from the wider culture of faith that it purports to minister to, in all but the narrow region that surrounds Nashville in mostly a southerly direction. The disconnection having gone on for so long, having been taken as the operative principle of sg business since time immemorial (or least the 1950s), southern gospel now seems locked somewhat hopelessly in a cannibalistic cycle: a glut of well-intentioned but unsustainable “ministries” crop up, fritter away their meager resources on a project or two, some radio promotion, a bus, and other accoutrements of road life, only to disperse a while later. Having fed the beast (”the industry” of recording, promotion, distribution, and radio enterprises), the group disappears, dejected and embittered, but (astoundingly enough) no one ever learns from these ubiquitous object lessons. If anything, these victims of sg’s industrial cannibalism only seem to strengthen the resolve of the next group of sassy young things who just know THEY won’t be like all those other groups. They’ve got what it takes, will keep their eyes on the Lord, will fast and pray, or at least eat more sandwiches on the bus to save money. Thus another group, grist for the mill, food for the beast.

This is not some paean for the good ole days. No such days existed as far as I can tell. Nor do I eschew the profit motive or the financial logic that drives a movement like sg. But the gap between the ministerial intentions of and the reality on the ground of everyday life for almost everyone who fires up a bus and hits the road, and (more important) of almost everyone who stays back in the office and administers the daily financial affairs of the musical-ministry industrial complex of sg - well, that growing gap suggests to me that something might need to be done about the incommensurability of sg philosophy and sg practice. Wanna run your ministry like a business? Fine, then start acting like a real growth-minded entrepreneur, or long-term investor or a clearheaded music executive and set about expanding the reach and scope of your segment of the music business. And here’s a thought: reach out to adjacent sectors of the industry, think collaboratively and try strategizing in a way that doesn’t take as its First Premise the protection of your little plot of turf (a good first goal: reliable musical retail outlets and regular concerts by industry leaders within an hour’s driving distance of a guy like me and my fellow Midwesterners - as it is now, concerts come in unpredictable and unreliable spurts, as my recent concert reviews ought to suggest). On the other hand, wanna run your ministry like a faith-based non-profit? Great, but quit enmeshing yourself in the business cycle of the industry (the impossibility of that proposition ought to suggest how untenable the “ministry only” pose really is). At best, you can be a ministry AND a business. Apropos this false dichotomy, the deeply insightful JL wrote a while back:

What amazes me even after all of these years is the willingness of some people to take their show on the road, whether it’s from a Crystal Cathedral in California, a Prayer Tower in Oklahoma, a theme park or a Homecoming Video and proclaim that they are just doing ministry, or carrying on the work of Jesus in this age. If there’s a price of admission, if one needs to send in donations so the Lord won’t call someone home, if there are CDs to buy and a posse to feed, how can so many would-be worshippers accept it as a “ministry”?

Or at least, I’m inclined to say, how can so many would-be worshippers be expected to accept it as purely a ministry? For our part out here in the sg hinterlands (where there are about three places in the state of Missouri (and even less, I think, in Illinois) where I can expect to get a reliable signal from a tower-feed sg radio station, and even that’s only for a few minutes at a time and only when I’m driving somewhere hours away), I think I can confidently say I’d be perfectly happy with a little less faux ministry and little more emphasis placed on good, sound financial models for shoring up the longterm sustainability of this irreplaceable and inimitable artistic expression of American evangelicalism (and the way of life this faith points to). Get over the notion that you have to rhetorically genuflect before the false god of “ministry-mindedness” if you want to be taken seriously as Christian artists. Art history is one long record of angst-ridden artists torn between the purity of their form and the practical exigencies of having to eat, pay the bills, not go naked and out of doors. Christian musical artists focused on success in its fullest sense will bring along the spiritual dimension as a matter of course while running a soluble, profitable business (cf Gaither, Bill). And get over this parochial nostalgia for The South. Southern gospel may have once emphasized the geographical part of its name - indeed, that only made sense in the mid-twentieth century when the particular brand of pietistic evangelicalism that sg grew out of was located primarily in the south. But does anyone doubt that the evangelical tradition from which sg derives now enjoys, if not nationwide success, then certainly a national foothold to varying degrees (cf Bush, President George) in all but perhaps the eastern and western seaboards? That being the case, ought not sg to shift its focus and strategies so that they at least try to keep some comparable pace with the evolution of the religious culture sg claims to speak for and give artistic expression to? One would hope (unless one is Gaither comma Bill … in which case you’re playing to tens of thousands of adoring fans all the world). For my part, I try to hope, even though there’s plenty of cause for my frequent skepticism (cf News, The Singing).

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