Pluralism, absolutism, gospel music

I was at an academic conference last week presenting some work of mine on gospel music and the function of religious sentiments in artistic works. It’s part of a professional effort I’ve been dabbling with for several years to better understand my personal affection for the evocative harmonies and self-abnegating lyrics of gospel music. I’m particularly curious about how and why gospel music remains so forceful in the lives of people who (like me) are a long way away from the orthodox forms of evangelical belief associated with gospel music. I think I know what the mainline believer would say to this: though you’ve strayed far from God, you can still hear his voice through the music and are maybe trying to convince yourself you’re not as backslidden as you think, or maybe gospel music is as close as you can get to the gospel because if you were to hear the preaching of the word you’d fall under conviction etc.

But without disrespecting people who believe this, it’s simply not the way a lot (though not at all a majority) of gospel music fans interact with and remain connected to the music. For them, gospel music resonates – it has significance and meaning – in ways that other forms of evangelical life simply do not possess. I’ve heard this from countless people – within and beyond the industry. Just the other day I ran into a colleague in the copy room and what one of us was copying led to a conversation about blogging and the discovery that … Lo! Right here down the hall from my office in the ivory tower full of heathens and unbelievers has been a quaker who loves southern gospel music … even sings it occasionally with some family. Try as I may I can’t find any common factor that would explain this phenomenon demographically: old, young; male, female; gay, straight; north, south; black, white; theist, and (in at least two cases I know of) professing atheist.

What accounts for the, uhm, transcultural appeal of southern gospel (hey if DBM gets to use gestalt, I can use transcultural)? I’m just starting to work toward a theory about it, but my thinking right now goes something like this: gospel music isn’t void of theological content, but it is by necessity and design ecumenical. In all but a few rare cases, no exclusive theological meaning is given in a particular song (the Ruppes “Redemption Complete” is a good example of an exception, spelling out the doctrine of predestination in ¾ time, and still being downright listenable all the same). Rather it’s up to the listener to develop personalized responses to and make individual meaning out of the general religious or spiritual ideas suggested by the song. Here’s a clip the paper I presented last week:

The way vocalists interpret songs, the spontaneity of the live performance, and perhaps most important, a song’s tune and arrangement – in the case of “I’ll Fly Away” [the example I was working with], the song’s catchy melody and clappable rhythm organized around ascending chord progressions and high, bold whole notes that combine across the expanse of the chorus to suggest the very experience of spiritual flight – all of these elements interact dynamically to form a musical vessel passed back and forth between audience and artist. Into this vessel, listeners can (and, if they are to take anything relevant away from the experience, must) pour individualized draughts of meaning. In the “I’ll Fly Away” example, this might mean responding to the music with personal associations, memories, feelings, and beliefs that the song’s general description of a heavenly journey elicits. Shaded with personalized psychospiritual responses, southern gospel becomes the music of the individual and the collective body, simultaneously.

This is a mildly fancy schmancy way (yes, I get paid by the word) of saying that while officially we all more or less assume, pretend, or believe (depending on who “we” are) that the performers intend for the lyrics to be understood as meaning exactly what the preacher says on Sunday, we also as a practical matter construct individual interpretations for ourselves – or perhaps worry little about literal interpretations or meanings and experience the music for its harmonic and emotional resonances. And we do both of things – agree not to disrupt the common assumption that everyone agrees about the meaning even when we don’t, AND make our own meanings – at the same time. In other words, southern gospel allows for a shaky but workable religious pluralism to emerge just beneath its absolutist surface.

I don’t know. That’s awfully complicated for 10:55 at night. Maybe we should stick with radio comp discs and the blight of the turgid ballad. But in case anyone needs help getting to sleep or wants a little poor man’s musicological philosophy, here you go.

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  1. Tom wrote:

    Avery, this is one of the posts I’ve been waiting for you to write. I’m a convert to high church Anglicanism and the catholic tradition who was raised in a strict evangelical environment. A good theological education guided me on the journey to discover the Anglican roots of the Wesleyan tradition and abandon most aspects of evangelicaldom (although I am still a member and minister in the same denomination in which I was raised–I just view things much differently now!). Southern gospel is one of the few aspects of evangelicaldom that I still hold on to, although I could never let anyone in the theological academic world know about this or I would lose all credibility!

    Yes, I do construct individual interpretations of sg songs. It’s the only way to make sense of things, especially when one is not so certain that anyone is ever going to “fly away, oh glory,” let alone myself. But I tell myself that the imaginative language used in the 60% of sg songs that talk about life in heaven are just variations on the kinds of poetical language used in the Bible to describe the glories of the presence of God, even if the songwriters and singers and many fans most likely think they’re some sort of literal description.

    I think I can go along with you when you write that “southern gospel allows for a shaky but workable religious pluralism to emerge just beneath its absolutist surface.” But I’m an empiricist, and I need cold, hard facts. Is there any reliable polling that has been done about who sg fans are?

  2. Tim Eutin wrote:

    Perhaps Freud’s statement that, “Sometimes a Southern Gospel song is just a Southern Gospel song” applies. :~)

    “Rather it’s up to the listener to develop personalized responses to and make individual meaning out of the general religious or spiritual ideas suggested by the song”. Sounds like you are getting close to what I remember of Jung and his Archetypes.

    You state, “Shaded with personalized psychospiritual responses, southern gospel becomes the music of the individual and the collective body, simultaneously”.

    I don’t understand why you limit your observations to one genre of music. It would seem that the more general, vague lyrics found in today’s AC Christian music allow for an even more personalized constuct of meaning and it happens to a larger audience numerically.

    I’ve often wondered just how much of an emphasis the casual listener places on lyrical content beyond sonic appeal. SG music is not know for exploring deep truths, or more perhaps more properly, deepy into the Truth. IMO it is indeed the ” harmonic and emotional resonances” that attract fans and define the genre.

    It will be interesting to see where your mind takes you on this…..

    “How do we know what we know and how do we know that”, Woody Allen.

  3. Jeremy wrote:

    I don’t know if you even want to get into this, and I respect you either way, but what is your religous background? I’ve been wondering about that since I started reading your posts. For someone who has the depth of knowledge that you do about SG, it is a bit of a surprise to me to hear you say that you a long way from the “orthodox beliefs” of a SG listener. I guess that says more about my view about the SG fan base than anything else, but I’m just curious.

  4. SM wrote:

    Have you been studying symbolic interaction theory lately?

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