Unringing the bell
[Note: since this entry was posted, Mickey Gamble has addressed the issue over at Gospeleer]
When I first saw the post was missing, my reactions were, in order of their intensity:
- Disbelief: no way has Mickey Gamble, with whom I’ve had enough interaction to find a pretty self-possessed guy, had second thoughts on what he said in the post;
- Suspicion: someone or something has gotten to him;
- Cynicism: this figures … southern gospel types can’t figure out how to have the microphones on when a group takes the stage, but the hegemony of fear and insecurity running throughout the industry works with swift efficiency to punish public contradictions of the party line … and finally;
- Sadness and disappointment: Sigh.
This turn of events is not that surprising, but it’s too bad all the same. I think I’ve got a long and good enough record of encouraging the widest possible range of view points on issues and ideas to say with some authority that even if I hadn’t largely agreed with the content of the post, it would still be valuable to the degree that it brought to the surface tensions, blindspots, and contradictions in key parts of conservative Christian culture that dominates in sg.
But of course You Just Don’t Do That in southern gospel.
One reason the gospel music industry enforces such a narrow orthodoxy in matters of belief and business is that the more people who are allowed inside the gate, the more pressure gets put on the ideas and convictions people say they hold dear. Southern gospel performers and other insider types like to talk a lot about how hard it is to be a very visible Christian in an unsaved world. And that _might_ have been partly true 40 or 50 years ago when gospel music really was a dominant strain of mainstream American entertainment that interacted with all sorts of people from different backgrounds, beliefs, and ideas. But it’s been clear for sometime now that most gospel groups are overwhelmingly singing to the choir.
I’m don’t necessarily think that makes hypocrites out of the performers who insist that a career in gospel music is a modern day lion’s den, but it seems pretty clear that the strategic insularity of gospel music’s carefully policed borders guarantees a mostly safe, ideologically pure environment in which gospel-music professionals rarely have much meaningful, external pressure applied to their religious commitments or the doctrines they espouse. Singing about how hard it is to be a Christian in this ole world of sin in large part creates the reality it imagines. To sing the song – and listen to it as a fan – is itself a symbolic attainment of that persecuted, beset-by-sin status described by the music.
Posts like the one at Gospeleer essentially call bullshit on this arrangement by exposing the way key parts of the fundamentalist evangelical worldview are a construct of strategically contradictory, illogical, counterfactual, or disingenuous rhetoric (i.e. my freedom of religion requires the state to take away other people’s rights and liberties etc).
As I have suggested before, there is a significant, if unseen and largely unheard, segment of existing and future potential consumers of gospel music out there (vaster than any of us realize, I think), and they would eagerly support products and people associated with businesses that make an effort to get beyond this narrow way of thinking and living – to reach out to (in the words of one of Mickey Gamble’s artists at Crossroads) the broken ones … among them, the individuals and groups who have, for so long, been told their participation, their lives, their spiritual experiences matter less than others’ (yes, yes, I know, you’re just hating the sin and loving the sinner, but this is rather like whipping a child while claiming this hurts you worse than it does the kid … both claims are only true if you place disproportionate value on the experience of the people with most power and freedom in the situation).
I’m not just talking about gay people (or their straight allies, who are, as the fate of that Gospeleer post suggests, often singled out for attack in southern gospel culture), but this issue does bring into focus the fault lines that run throughout evangelicalism today, including the world of southern gospel.
Gospel music hasn’t had much trouble taking our money for as long we can all can remember. But the transaction has always been a begrudging, distasteful exchange for everyone involved, and the whole experience is more often than not engineered from the seller’s perspective to make the “sinful” consumer understand that a great favor has been done to him in the taking of his money.
Yet no one has fully, intentionally tested the hypothesis that southern gospel can survive and thrive if the people who make and sell it don’t try to put limits on what the music can mean, or to whom it can matter. Put a tshirt at NQC, this concept might read: let go and let God … and see what happens. Which is to say, doing the right thing in this case may be the beginning of a change that also makes record labels and artists more money. That shouldn’t be the only thing that matters, but it doesn’t hurt, either.