Absolutism vs Pluralism

Reader JM writes:

Having monitored and occasionally contributed to the various discussions on this blog since mid-2007, I find myself mystified by the constant split represented by most of the posters. My wonderment specifically pertains to the honesty vs. righteousness battle.Seemingly, if my understanding is accurate, the blog master (Doug) has decided that this blog should reflect true, honest and accurate news and opinions regarding SGM and its culture. Seems straight forward to me. However, there are two distinct problems with trying to achieve the stated goal. One, both blog master and posters are pressed into the role of deciding exactly what content or story is indeed true, honest and accurate. Many different people with various backgrounds and sensibilities come to this site; therefore their interpretation of what is true and accurate and honest will be measured from their own point of understanding and vision. Secondly, all of the various threads and discussions which take place are wrapped up in a protective coating of spirituality and the mores of Christian conduct. Some posters to this site seem to demonstrate little regard for generally-agreed-to Christian charity. Others, would like to have this site stricken from the Web for its inability to conform to their specific interpretation of Christian behavior and communications. Perhaps the reality is that honesty and perspective are not valued virtues within the SGM community. If you talk about dress hem-lengths of female artists, some will support you, some won’t and some will be “turned on.” If you speak of singers with tarnished halos, some will accept it as an opportunity to pile on or drag out a story about how they didn’t get a solicited autograph from some SGM artist in 1972, while some will quote a favored Bible passage and warn us all against judgment. I guess my overall observation is this: the success and stimulating nature of the discussions which occur on this blog should not be taken for granted. This is NOT a site where the blog master kisses the posteriors of favorite artists to gain favor or free tickets or CD’s. Neither does he attempt to vilify any specific group or person to curry favor with their detractors. Because we all come from different places and lives and backgrounds, we are bound to view various topics and discussions from different perspectives. This should be a strength, not a weakness. The value of this blog is the diversity of the people who post.

When I started this blog one of my main goals (besides finding a way to remain actively involved in a form of music I grew up with and still am deeply fond of) was to encourage and maybe begin to sustain a conversation from a multiplicity of perspectives about southern gospel music and culture. At first it was pretty tough going (some of you may remember the Avery and Unthank wars of yore) and even now it ain’t always pretty. But I’m (mostly) proud of the way a certain sector of gospel music has responded to what I’m trying to do here (hits have now topped 10,000 a day on average). And yes, my thanks go out to those who come here just to see how much they disagree with me on any given day. Sure there will always be comments trolls and sockpuppets and SCREAMERS and the like. But that’s not unlike most public conversations (hello, talk radio?), I’m afraid. As George Saunders puts it, we live in the age of the Braindead Megaphone.

One response to JM’s point about the trouble with sustaining a plurality of viewpoints in a conservative Christian culture still dominated by absolutists: The trouble, I think, has to do with the confusion so many people make between having an opinion and making an argument (shorter version: assertion vs argumentation). Declaring what you think, feel, or believe about something is not the same thing as asserting your thoughts on a subject and then supporting that assertion with a claim that uses evidence and analysis to back up raw opinion.

The Bloggers roundtable at NQC mostly broke down along these lines: those who simply believed as a matter of religious principle that gospel artists shouldn’t be critiqued in ways that they perceive to be negative, and those of us who thought public art is strengthened and invigorated by a thoroughgoing discussion of artists and their works, good, bad, and everything in between.

That doesn’t mean I don’t understand the other side of things. For religious people who build a great deal of their identity taking Really Big Things on faith, argumentation can be anathema. The kind of dissection, analysis, and commentary that goes on around here strikes a lot of sg fan as an affront to faith. Submit the substance of things hoped for and evidence of things not seen, as the apostle put it, to the rigors of argumentation and analysis, and stuff starts to break down pretty quickly. And that is, it seems to me, what’s happening when conversations break down here or end up in people shouting at one another over the insuperable divide of irreconcilable world views. I don’t think it necessarily has to be this way. And at its best, which is not always or maybe even often, conversations around here model the way that absolutist and pluralist viewpoints can civilly and productively co-exist. And those are the moments I guess I’m proudest of.

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  1. Aaron Swain wrote:

    I do hope we have another Roundtable at NQC 08. I had some input on the things mentioned, but the conversation jumped around so much that I never got a chance.

  2. RF wrote:

    Great blog entry. As usual.

    I’ll just say this (and no offense to DBM and others including AS above), the bog you are reading now is the only place where the technical aspects of the music are discussed (or not, as the case may be–at least the blogger discusses it).

    And I wish our leader would reinstate his byline from the early days of the blog:

    “Southern Gospel Music for the Rest of Us”

    It just seemed to fit.

  3. GospelMusicFan wrote:

    The “Think Tank of the Year” award should go to JM.
    I know it early in the year but it will be hard to beat this well written commentary not just on the state of southern gospel music but the entire evangelical movement today.

  4. YH wrote:

    The only issue that I have had with this blog, isn’t that the truth is brought to light, but that rumors or uneducated guesses are posted and believed to be accurate. I would like to see more research in what is posted as a way to find the truth. Other than that, the blog is good. A great place to spread gossip! Thanks Doug.

  5. Wayne wrote:

    I have been curious about something, and I thought this post might be an opportune time to explore this question. Why do people who are so militantly opposed to Biblical principles and a Christian worldview (those referred to as “pluaralists” in this post) drawn enough to the Christian Music genre most noted for its Biblical, doctrinal and overtly absolutist theological lyrical content to take the time to listen to it, become knowledgeable about it, and discuss it at such length.

    If music that professes pluaralistic faith is what you desire, I would not recommend Southern Gospel Music to you, unless you have an uncontrollable desire for frustration. There is an almost limitless musical library of brain-dead, substance lacking, doctrine bereft, praise and worship music that will more suit your sensibilities. If you like making up your truth and doctrine as you go along, Rodney Griffin and Phil Cross songs may just stimulate gastrointestinal ulcers for you.

  6. Phil wrote:

    To Wayne (#5)

    Amen! Amen! Amen!

  7. Derek wrote:

    Re #4: Somebody’s corn flakes didn’t digest too well this morning! The thing I like about this blog is that often the truth is brought to light and, you know the saying, the truth hurts! If you don’t want the SG paparazzi to post things you’d rather not have the fans know, then behave yourself and live right! I agree that gossip is bad…but if the so-called gossip is true then is it really gossip? Now there’s a question to ponder.

  8. J-mo wrote:


    What makes you think that all pluralists must be opposed to all biblical principles and not have a Christian worldview?

  9. Wayne wrote:


    I said “pluralistic faith,” which is to say, “there are multiple paths to justification before God.” This is definitely opposed to the Christian view which maintains the exclusive nature of man’s justification before God through Christ alone. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me.” This is not pluralistic; it is decidedly exclusive.

    God created the universe governed by absolutes as exacting and exclusive as mathematics itself. Isaac Newton’s watershed work, Principia, is based upon the laws of the universe being best expressed through the language of mathematics. 2+2=4, to the exclusion of all other answers. If God established the universe to be governed by absolutes, does it not logically follow that the path He would establish for justification before Him would be absolute and singular? Galatians 1:8-9 gives no quarter for the idea of “plural” paths to God.

  10. sockpuppet wrote:

    if you need further confirmation that there are all kinds of people in the SG world, check out one of Doug’s posts and connected article from late 2006. I found it interesting then and kind of connected to this thread:

  11. Alan wrote:

    Thanks to both you, Doug, and JM. Both were extremely thoughtful posts. I read them all again today, and I wonder if the pluralism you both mentioned pertains to two different forms. As JM said, theological pluralism states (simplistically, for purposes of this, albeit) that there are numerous ways to approach the same God; and I think I’m fairly certain that you didn’t mean that, Doug. The Bible itself can’t be a lot more absolute than it is, nor can the words of Christ be more so, when He stated in John 14:6 that He is “the way”, “the truth”, and “the life”; and that “no one can come to the Father except by Me”. I think we all recognize that, as it’s a fundamental tenet of Christianity. As I read your expressed thoughts, I think you refer more to the many right and/or wrong ways to make music better; be it the lyrics, arrangements, recording of it, and performance thereof. And yes, there are as many ways to express ourselves musically as there are individuals. Every group is no more or less than the sum of their individual parts, of course. And then, there’s the reality of taste and preference, and it’s nearly impossible to be objective in this. We all watch and listen with every visual and note filtered through our own prisms. So, may I introduce a subject that it has taken me a while to realize? Regardless the singer or group, those who can sustain a career for a long time, and those who separate themselves from the pack, are generally those who honestly find their strengths and realize their weaknesses, and then play to their strengths, and avoid trying to be what they aren’t, nor can ever be. Obviously, there are those select few, super-talented ones, who seem to be able to transcend any genre, and can’t be easily described by style. Janet Paschal, Guy Penrod, David Phelps, and Larry Ford come immediately to mind. I’m thrilled that these - and others of similar talent - have been saved, and have dedicated their talents to the Lord. This kind of talent would most likely have been major successes in secular music, as would Sandi Patty have been. But the majority of us are who we are, and sing as we can sing. Some of it is physiological, but it all comes down to the way that God has made us. He’s a God of infinite variety, and delights in all expressions of praise to Himself. And so, shouldn’t we try to stretch and do the same? When I listen to a CD, and a song comes on that I personally may not care for, I immediately realize that the same cut will undoubtedly be the very favorite of many others. And in this, don’t we have the best plurality of all? Many ways to praise and honor our Lord, not some monolithic and repetitive sound….So, as I read (too?) many of the posts here at times, I cringe. One person’s cup of tea may not be mine, and vice-versa. But, as we listen through a broadened prism, we can still find the good that the writer and singer(s) attempted to portray. And the majority of it touches the heart of the God of the universe. As the Hinsons used to sing - admittedly out of the context of their song - “Ain’t that what it’s all about?”

  12. J-mo wrote:

    YOU used the term “pluralistic faith” but I don’t see the original writer doing so. Besides, even if you do apply that term it doesn’t necessarily mean I believe there are multiple ways to get to heaven as there are different levels of plurality. I’d suggest there to be a very small percentage of people here who would argue with “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me.” However, I’m sure there are plenty of us who would disagree on plenty of other less black and white biblical topics. I could very easily spark a major argument simply by asking a few questions on what people believe about eternal security, communion, feet-washing, worship styles, alcohol consumption, the rapture, and on and on. I would consider myself pluralistic because I have no problem with the fact that other Christians here have a different interpretation of many aspects of Christian life than I do, and I’m even open to the possibility that some of them may be correct. And yes, also because I have no problems accepting, discussing music, or even befriending groups of people who I firmly believe are on the complete wrong side of things (i.e. atheists, homosexuals, Muslims, or Inspirations fans).

    I believe you’re sadly mistaken if you can’t see room for vast diversity in thought even among those of us who share the Christian faith. The great thing is that I’m enjoying having this discussion with you anyway…and that’s the difference between pluralism and absolutism as I see it.

  13. BUICK wrote:

    Alan (#11), I was trying to find a way of saying what you said. I couldn’t have expressed it nearly as well as you did. I agree that Avery and Wayne are using “pluralism” in two different ways.

    I don’t want to be unkind but I honestly think Wayne may have based his post on the headline of this thread without regard to the content of Doug’s comments. It would be as if Doug had posted “Evolution and the GVB”. Some would have a knee-jerk reaction to the word “evolution” and never realize that, in this context, it could refer to the development of a sound that, at different times, included people like Jim Murray, Gary McSpadden and Larnelle Harris - all of whom would seem out of place in today’s “evolved” GVB.

    Back to the point of the original post, JM is spot-on with his observations. We all come from different backgrounds, different regions of the country (perhaps even different countries) and we were all exposed to different influences during important times in our lives.

    As an example, I was reared on the Jordanaires, Blackwoods and Statesmen. In college, I got very excited about the Imperials and thought SGM could do not better. But when the Imps went West-Coast-Praise, I abandoned SGM altogether. Many years later, I rediscovered SGM through the Homecoming videos and fell in love with the genre all over again. I also caught back up with some of my childhood idols (don’t take that wrong!). As a result, I squirm when I read posts from people trashing B&GG. I am grateful to them for having reintroduced me to a wonderful genre of sacred music.

    But that’s just me and my story. other people have other experiences and other perspectives and other tastes. In that sense, this is a pluralistic audience. And there is a certain conceit in believing that everyone should like what I like, dislike what I dislike and disdain what I disdain.

    Really, a very thoughtful thread here and I (with my peculiar set of prisms) appreciate it being started.

  14. Jeff wrote:

    #4 Young Harmony. I agree. I’d like to see more thorough research before attacks are made on your ministry. But hey, I guess here’s as good a place as any to clear the record - if it is indeed flawed.

  15. CVH wrote:

    In necessariis, unitas. In dubiis, libertas. In omnibus, caritas.

    In essentials, unity; in uncertain things, freedom; in everything, love.

  16. Jim2 wrote:

    Very funny! If it quacks like a duck …

    Thanks for the opportunity you provide for us to read not just your thoughts, but also those of others in the “community” - I for one appreciate the diversity - at least in one sense of the word. You always provide interesting, well written springboards for thought and discussion

  17. Dawn wrote:

    Pluralistic in our walk, Absolute in our Faith. Keep up the great work with the comments Avery. Maybe it will keep YH on their toes from now on. Maybe a “Certain Group” (_oet vo_ces) will define what genre they will be able to keep personnel for more than a couple years.

  18. James Bilkes wrote:

    Lets please not turn this into another YH or PV thread. I’ve heard enough about them to last me! With that being said comments like these dovetail with shows like Rush Limbaugh and are beginning to hold some of these group accountable for their actions and practices.

  19. Sandra Gentry wrote:

    Jeff #14 & Dawn # 17, You both mentioned Young Harmony in your post. Do you mind if I ask why? #18, I agree, let’s not turn this in to a nasty, damaging post. Why would people trash someone (or a group of someones) that they don’t know? I don’t know you Jeff or Dawn, however based on your post, I can tell that you are somehow involved in the industry. How come no one knows you? Stop trying to cause problems for others. Just for the record, I don’t know Young Harmony personally, however they have been to my church and I was very impressed. So unless you have some “REAL TRUTH” on them (or anyone else, for that matter), than let them do what God has called them to do.
    Thank you for taking time to consider what I am saying.
    Sandra Gentry

  20. cynical one wrote:

    Truth is not the primary criteria when considering whether or not an item is gossip. There is both true gossip and false gossip. I heard a preacher once say “if it’s negative, if it tears down another person’s reputation, it’s gossip — even if it’s true.” I believe this to be valid teaching.

    We see this on a regular basis: “We just need to know what’s going on in his/her life, so we’ll know how to pray.” BALONEY!!! If we want people to know specifics, we’ll tell them. If you don’t tell me specifics, you probably feel it’s of my business. And that should be that.

    Although I’m not a fan of either of the 2 groups alluded to above, I get weary of all the bashing that goes on here. But I continue to read (and occaisionally contribute).

    I suspect there are somepeople, who have no great love for sg, who read and comment on this blog, just because they love to argue. And some of those arguers claim Christian love.

    To quote an old pop song (”One Tin Soldier”):

    Go ahead and hate your neighbor,
    Go ahead and cheat a friend.
    Do it in the name of Heaven,
    You can justify it in the end.

    Yes, I know that’s out of context, but it could be appropriate for today’s church.

  21. Sissey wrote:

    The Truth will set you Free this is something my daddy always told me.

  22. cynical one wrote:

    Sissey, yes, the Bible says that, but it also says to “speak the truth in love.” There’s not always much love included in our truth-telling.

  23. Remi wrote:

    Thanks JM,
    Interesting comments and i really appreciate them.

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