Dissent of the day
A reader objects to the premise of my course on Gospel Music and American Literature:
As the father of three kids in college, I am uber-sensitive to the cost/value of higher education, which therein begs the question in my mind: “why in the heck do kids go to college to take a course like “Gospel Music and American Literature?” No offense to Doug, he’s a smart guy and I’d be pleased for my kids to have him as a professor. But American Literature is not the literature that distinguishes or otherwise defines Gospel Music. Don’t complicate it, the adjective says it all, it’s GOSPEL music and the only literature that matters are the 66 books known as the Holy Bible. “Gospel Music” is that form of music which results from stories of lives changed because of the Gospel. The ONE song that best captures that essence for me is “Ain’t That What It’s All About?” by the late great Rusty Goodman.
The reader raises a timely objection, given that just today in the first class we talked about this very question: how do you approach religious artistic expression in the classroom? The issue comes down to the difference between ready sacredly and reading critically. Sacred approaches to gospel music locate value in the music’s ability to reinforce certain religious assumptions and beliefs. Critical approaches inquire after the psychosocial function of an expressive tradition - like American fiction or gospel music - and investigate other non-sacred meanings that exist alongside (or beneath) the sacred view. In the reader’s words, critical approaches “complicate it.” That’s sort of the point … to (in the words of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz) offer a “construction of other people’s construction of what they and their compatriots are up to.”
Herein lies much of the tension between humanist academic culture and conservative or fundamentalist evangelicals, who often, I think, feel objectified and condescended to by ivory tower types who (so the thinking goes) turn people’s lives and beliefs into so many ant farms under glass. It’s a serious and legitimate concern, and there are plenty of examples of this sort of high-handedness ready at hand. I can only speak for myself as someone who studies religious culture for a living, but for my part, not only have I never been anywhere near an ivory tower (my office is on the ground floor … and overrun with black ants at the moment … ah the glamorous life of the professoriate), I also do my dead level best to keep these sorts of concerns uppermost in mind.
I don’t personally see humanist academe and orthodox evangelicalism as incompatible, but I’m also not naive enough to think that I can convince someone of that proposition who sees it the other way. What I would say to that person (in addition to referring them to my published work in this area), is that studying something ought to be (and for me is) a testament to the vitality of religious communities and their ways of life, a sign of taking religious people and traditions very seriously, of respecting the lives and beliefs and practices under examination, and of trying to make those traditions intelligible across often wide cultural divides.
Fortunately, though, no one who finds this approach unpalatable or irreverent or unnecessary has to take my course. It’s an elective (but even should one elect to take the course, the cost conscious parent can take some comfort in knowing that tuition in Florida is among the absolute cheapest in the country). And there are still some open seats. Enrollment ends Wednesday!Email this Post