Longer concerts & NQC altar calls
Chris Unthank declares that what’s really ailing southern gospel is not enough “revival”:
I’m not saying that the individuals in Southern Gospel need personal revival in their lives (though that may be the case) - I’m saying that our personal concerts and experiences with the fans are lacking that spiritual punch that was so prevalent in the Golden Age of this genre.
When’s the last time that an altar call was given at the National Quartet Convention? When’s the last time that an artist decided to stop worrying about a time schedule and started worrying about who needed a touch of God in the audience. All of this got me thinking - and then praying for God to move in this industry like he has never done before.
I appreciate the sentiment here, but really. Is this the best we can come up with? Longer concerts and altar calls at NQC?
More generally, this “back to the basics of old time revival” strikes me as wrong for several reasons. One is that it’s historically inaccurate. The heyday of gospel music was many things, but more “spiritual?” Hardly. I hate to poach my own material here, but one of the reasons I want to get to that long-threatened post about Pentecostalism and sg is, among other things, to point out that gospel music has become more - not less - “spiritualized,” so to speak. The influence of the Pentecostal holiness tradition (think Happy Goodmans and their stylistic heirs, which goes way beyond self-identified Pentecostals in sg) has shifted the emphasis in gospel music over the last generation or three. Instead of providing mainstream Christian entertainment to a demographically diverse audience, white gospel music focuses now on ministering in music to an ever-narrower subset of Protestant evangelicals.
If this process of “spiritualization” (or maybe charismaticizing) has seemed to coincide with an inversely proportional decline in music that tapped into what the Puritan divines of old called “the religious affections” (what Unthank calls “spiritual punch,” which I don’t think is meant to refer to a drink), it’s not because gospel music is less spiritual now but because it’s less musically disciplined and perhaps even less talented, on the whole.
And this brings me to my second point: generally, the more “spiritual” music is the more heavily it relies on false (or unconvincing) shows of piety. Southern gospel is an ecumenical genre. This means that even if every display of spirituality or religious enthusiasm from the stage were genuine, such displays always tend to alienate the kinds of denominationally diverse audiences that gospel music wants to attract in order to grow or simply not disappear, because these people are just the sorts of listeners likely to be put off by public expressions of faith that are unfamiliar or incompatible with their own, or simply distastefully exuberant.
To call for revival in southern gospel is at best to encourage even more well-intentioned but inexpert or clumsy musical revivalists to dilute an already weakened brand of music with demonstrations of spirituality at the expense of good music. At worst it’s to sanction more religious charlatans and showboating hucksters who can’t sing well enough to keep your attention and so resort to the melodrama of “revival” gimmickry. If southern gospel has a problem, it’s not a lack of spirituality or revival but an excess of badly staged religiosity. Sing well, be tastefully entertaining, and the rest will take care of itself.
Update: let me be a bit clearer here, since Eddie Crook’s comment suggests I may not have been to begin with. The Pentecostal legacy I’m describing here is not a strictly denominational thing but a broader and more pervasive emphasis on emotionalism that has become steadily more normalized and influential. The McKameys, the Greenes (when they’re in high holiness form), the McGruders, the Crabbs, the Pfieffers, The Ruppes (when Brenda decides to do some cry-singing). You can make your own list, I’m sure (and yes, I know these people aren’t all Pentecostals and that’s the point; Pentecostalism’s emotional influence reaches far beyond self-identified Pentecostals). Obviously emotionalism doesn’t always trump musicality (cf The Ruppes and the Crabbs and the Greenes and, when they were really good, the McGruders). And emotional expressions are often quite clearly a real part of how many artists experience and convey the religious origins of their music. But it seems inarguably true to me that emotionalism and emotionally charged spiritualism are a much larger part of gospel music today than in the mid-century “golden age” that Unthank alludes to as so spirit filled.Email this Post