Notes on ambiguity

I mentioned this a bit ago, I think, but I’ve spent a lot of time lately on planes and trains, in cars and subways, in hotel rooms, at the gate in the airport, on shuttle buses in the middle of parking-lot farms. As is my wont, I often capitalize on this solitude by listening to gospel music, since my daily life doesn’t offer many opportunities to listen to it in large, uninterrupted chunks. Lately, though, I’ve found myself not just listening but thinking - specifically, contemplating a question that I’ve vaguely batted around for years: what is so captivating about this music, this style, this genre? This isn’t just an intellectual exercise for me. One of my favorite jokes is that I’m a recovering Baptist, but I’m only really half joking, and in part that means I have a more complicated relationship with things like faith and theology than I once did. A lot of the things that used to “work” for me spiritually, religiously, theologically don’t any longer. Except gospel music. I know this to be true, and yet it’s not at all obvious why this should be so. It probably won’t shock regular readers to find out that easy answers don’t satisfy me much. By this I mean no disrespect to people who possess the surety of faith and unshakeability of belief that I’ve always only read about or heard others describe. But neither do I mean to surrender or disown the authenticity of my feelings simply because of their unorthodoxy. Something that I don’t get anywhere else keeps me returning to the staggered endings and suspended harmonies and I-IV-V and turnarounds and glorious encores of gospel music, and since I’m not given to disingenuous commitments, I assume that that something is of at least a little significance.At this point I begin hearing voices: “You just need to get saved” (any number of concerned readers’ - in the past and, after this post, probably in the not so distance future). “That’s the convicting power of the holy spirit” (my father). “I’m not the only one, though, right?” (my own). For a long time, I asked this question haltingly, feebly, a little defensively, shamefully almost. The sum of what I believe and don’t and can’t puts me beyond the pale of anything like the “simple faith believing” that’s so often interpreted by fans and artists of gospel music (and evangelicals more generally) to mean “don’t ask, don’t tell, keep your mouth shut and your head down, young man; just toe the line.” This kind of interpretation only worked for me so long as I internalized the self-denial embedded in it, and for a long time I did. And then I didn’t (the old way stopped working), which meant a lengthy period of exile from just about everything I had known and much of what I loved: family and family traditions, some friends, the familiarity of fitting in, of knowing “my place” without thinking about or working at it. But spiritual ex-patriotism has this benefit: you learn to rebuild bridges to the parts of the past that are worth reconnecting to, to grieve but ultimately begin to let go of what’s lost or unsalvageable. In my own experience, this has been my real salvation: a genuine process of regeneration rooted in the necessity of coming to my own authentic terms with questions of (un)belief and what it means to live justly, love mercy, walk humbly.

More voices: what’s this got to with sangin’? Well, more than you might think. In the middle of this spring’s craziness, in strange and beautiful places - alone in a monorail car outside Newark International Airport at dusk when “I Firmly Promise You” came on my iPod, or in a little cement-block church miles from the Middle of Nowhere, or with a group of friends I tend to think of as my recovering Baptist support group - I found myself feeling an answer to that question about me and gospel music. Answers that you feel don’t translate very well into plain words, but here’s what I’ve come up with so far: No. 1: (and this is a pretty low octane insight, I realize), any two people often do the same thing for different reasons, just as two people can mean very different things by words like “faith” and “grace” and “belief” and “spirit.” No. 2: I’ve seen enough gospel sausage get made to suspect that people who refuse to acknowledge No. 1 (or to insist that any reason other than the one THEY have is sinful, selfish, or misguided) are precisely the people for whom the illusion of some common denominational or theological cause in gospel music is perpetuated. No. 3: Gospel music would be a much more dreary and desolate place without the contributions of apostates and misfits. No. 4: Considering all this, I’m far less halting and defensive than I once was about being one of those people who’s had to find my own way, forge my own genuine faith, in the space between the absolutes of orthodox theology and the reality of unorthodox experience.

If that statement leaves you wondering precisely what I mean, well … that wouldn’t be the first time in literature or hymnody or gospel music that ambiguity abounded. Sometimes I think that that ambiguity of meaning is all that really holds something as paradoxical and mixed up as southern gospel together: start with the name - it’s called southern gospel music but, as James Goff has noted, it’s the music of much of America. It prides itself on traditional sounds, and yet counts a group like The Martins or LordSong among its best young exponents. This list could go on. I admire people who try to define southern gospel based on stylistics or lyrical content or whatever, but I never read even the best of these definitions without feeling that the most important part is missing. What is that, exactly? I’m not sure, but it has something to do with whatever it is that can hold the attention of tens of thousands of people at once. But, you say, that’s not so surprising, they’re all alike, so of course they can all be attentive to the same music at once. Are they really that homogenous, though? Scratch the surface of that audience and the apparent sameness of those thousands of lives dissolves into a prismatic variety of disparate needs and interests. And yet somehow, something about the poetry of lyrics and beauty of harmony transforms ordinary words and ideas into something else altogether that manages to meet those different needs and interests without being reduced to narrow commitments of any one of them. If there is a mysterious quality to this (and I think there must be), it is a familiar mystery, to be sure, one rooted in the deepset patterns of spirtuality and rhythms of religious experience, that like so much of our lives, transcend the limits of basic language to express, and so demand something greater, more spiritually responsive, more beautiful - something like music.

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