Mountain out of a Hemphill, II
Well, I guess I should have a strong opinion about this Joel Hemphill kerfuffle, but honestly I find it difficult to get overly worked up about it. The best I can tell, Hemphill is coming from the general vicinity of Oneness Pentecostalism, which certainly is unorthodox compared to mainstream Protestantism, but is just one subspecies of overwrought exegesis and scriptural hairsplitting common to poorly trained theological thinkers that amounts to not much. When you go with the priesthood of the believer, you’ve got to be prepared to deal with this sort of thing, and unlike so many of the hand-wringers who worry about Hemphill’s “dangerous” thinking, I don’t think the fact that he wrote and sang some popular gospel songs 20 years ago gives his ideas any more or less weight than unorthodox views are typically given in conservative Christianity.
That said, there seem to be two points worth making.
One: from what I can gather, Hemphill didn’t arrive overnight at this conclusion about Jesus not being God in flesh. His view may not exactly coincide with Oneness theology, but as far as I can tell, he’s been moving in Oneness circles for quite some time now. A lot of people seem shocked and personally offended to find this out, acting as if they’ve been duped by a guy who led them to believe he was “just like us” all this time. But if people are put off by suddenly having learned about Hemphill’s affiliation with Oneness theology (or its derivatives, where Hemphill’s ideas seem to belong), that’s as much on them as Professor Hemphill himself. If what a singer or songwriter believes is so important to you, do your homework.
Which gets us to the second point: enjoying, liking, performing, or buying someone’s creative productions doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with everything the creator thinks, says, or does. People have enjoyed Hemphill’s songs for decades, before they knew about his theological leanings, and yet read the reactions to Hemphill’s book and you’ll see a number of commenters suddenly calling into question their appreciation of Hemphill’s music in light of his theology. This is a not quite a classic example of the intentional fallacy, but it’s in the same neighborhood.
Once an author or artist releases his work to the world, the meanings, reactions, and functions that build up around it are determined by the listening, reading, watching, interacting individual. At best, the author can be said to shape or intend meanings. To say that you can no longer enjoy Joel Hemphill’s songs because of Joel Hemphill’s theology is not just to deprive yourself of some really fine gospel music, but to invalidate the authenticity of your own experience and your capacity for making meaning.
You may want your favorite songwriters or performers to share your views, but this is at best a useful fiction, at worst a lazy fantasy. If it was more common knowledge how much of gospel music is the work of skeptics, agnostics, homosexuals, doubters, drinkers (social, casual, and otherwise), liberals, apostates, people who say shit and damn on a regular basis, and other varieties of outcasts and pariahs in the view of orthodox evangelicalism, your average southern gospel fan would probably be horrified … or else delighted to realize they’re not the only one.
The fact that southern gospel is full of garden variety human beings and worldviews shouldn’t be that surprising. And I assume that the standard-issue replies in situations like these - “Well, just goes to prove God can use anybody,” for instance – are a way of acknowledging that humanity even if officially it must be condemned. But acknowledging isn’t the same as dealing meaningfully with it, and when outsiders disparage southern gospel as sanctimoniously self-delusional in cases like these, it’s hard to deny that they have a point.
Mind you, none of this should be construed as a defense of theological Hemphillism (besides, I get the impression Hemphill’s main “sin” here is to have gone so far to the right theologically that he looks left). I haven’t read the book, don’t plan to, and probably wouldn’t find it terribly interesting even if I did. But, insofar as Hemphill’s unorthodox views on the trinity disrupt the idea of southern gospel as somehow theologically purer or otherwise reassuringly homogenous than other forms of religious experience or culture, it helpfully exerts a corrective force on some self-indulgent myths.Email this Post