Let’s go to the tape

Reader NJ clipped and sent me both the excerpt from the Homecoming video in which Bill Gaither made his increasingly infamous remarks about Marsha Stevens and a full transcript of what he said (the video quality is pretty poor). Since the contretemps in all this pivot on what Gaither said in a particular context (and since Gaither selectively quoted himself in the self-serving press he recently sent out about his earlier comments), it’s probably worth getting the complete transcript out there (many thanks to NJ):

I think 25 years ago my brother Danny who used to sing with us, and by the way, he passed away last year, and also, um, two days ago we buried my Mom, 88 years old, and um sweet lady, and uhm we said good bye to her - my dad’s still with us, here with us tonight, so I’m thankful for that - but we sang a song by a young lady who’s here tonight, Marsha Stevens and…[to Kim Hopper] Sing a verse of this ok?” [Kim sings verse one and all sing two choruses] “… and Marsha, we have sung that song all over the country and I love it because you may have seen and grown up with a Jesus that maybe was pushing you away, that wouldn’t let you in, and you were never too good enough [sic]. The only Christ I know is the Christ in that song, with his arms out very wide, saying, ‘come to the water’, that’s the only Christ I know. Come as you are, [big applause; Gaither is weepy at this point] and we’ve had a lot of fun tonight and Ken, I’ve never heard you funnier. You are a funny rascal, and Taylor and Mark, and one of the things I want to do - I know these can be tough times, but I want you to have a good time laughing and I hope you did laugh. But also somewhere along the way, you understood where our source of joy comes from. And it comes from this Christ who makes sense in a world that does not make sense at all. Let me see your lights on that one and sing the chorus.” [The audience lights their lights and everyone sings] “And Jesus said, ‘Come to the water, stand by my side…’” [Bill says “And why not? Why not?” and clip ends]

Aside from being a great primary text in the rhetorical style of Gaither’s stage presence, the transcript (and video) makes a few things pretty clear:

1) Gaither was speaking directly to Marsha Stevens when he says “you may have seen and grown up with a Jesus that maybe was pushing you away, that wouldn’t let you in, and you were never too good enough [sic]”;

2) Gaither was somewhat obliquely but nevertheless identifiably referring to Stevens’ sexuality and the alienation from faith and faith communities she has experienced; and

3) Gaither is describing his own view of Christian charity and Christ’s love as fundamentally inclusive: “The only Christ I know is the Christ in that song, with his arms out very wide … Come as you are …”

Gaither, of course, is a master of southern gospel ecumenicalism, of pivoting the spiritual and religious force of his shows away from theological specificity or denominational particularism and toward the much more spacious language of love and hope and faith. Rather than prescribing or espousing a particular theological meaning for these ideas, Gaither lets the people in his audiences fill the space he creates rhetorically with their own individual meaning. He also is a careful student of literature and art, which means this aw-shucks avuncular pose and his “it’s just us folks talking” routine from the stage are carefully crafted parts of a showman’s persona. I don’t think that makes him a fraud. In fact, I think that makes him a genius, but never mind. The point is that we can assume he chooses his words with great care and for a reason. So I guess one could argue that what he really meant was “Christ has his arms out very wide saying ‘come to the water’ … in order to be condemned for your sin of homosexuality and to repent of your abominable existence before God.” But when you hear hoof beats, why think zebras?

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