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!

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  1. David Grant wrote:

    I took a “History of Rock and Roll” class at the University of Louisville back in the day. I was surprised and shocked when the instructor played a lot of Statesmen music as an example of influences on early Rock. Statemen and Elvis music were almost identical (chord progressions etc.) The lyrics were the only real difference. I think I was the only one out of about two hundred students that actually knew who he was talking about.

  2. Alan wrote:

    Personally, I think this course is a neat idea. And one line intrigued me quite a lot: “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.”

    It shouldn’t be incompatible, but all too often is, perhaps due mainly to the interpretation of the facts/concepts/data taught. When it’s merely academic with no regard for man’s spiritual basis, then these same ideas can become a weapon in a skilled teachers’ hands. When things spiritual are taught with no scholarship to back them up, that seems to become mere opinion. I’m reminded of words by C.S. Lewis: “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” I hope that the way you teach it, Professor Doug, will bridge what to many may seem to be parallel - perhaps even opposite - disciplines.

  3. Rusty Fan wrote:

    Rusty would never write dribble like “Ain’t That What It’s All About”


  4. Kyle wrote:

    I agree with Rusty Fan. Kenny Hinson wrote “Ain’t That What It’s All About,” not Rusty (unless he also used that title for a DIFFERENT song, but I don’t think so).

  5. Janet B wrote:

    I would LOVE to take this class! (Sorry, Doug, but commuting to Fla is more than inconvenient!)
    As I see it, one purpose of obtaining an education is to LEARN new things, including looking at something from a different perspective. It shouldn’t just be about the mechanics, but about the aesthetics, as well.
    Two of my favorite classes in college were a Rhet & Comp class that used 20th century literature as a base (Langston Hughes, Sylvia Plath, etc), and an American Lit class that used writings from early American History (pioneers, colonial leaders, etc). I remember them because they were different.
    No one, I believe, claimed that Gospel music is defined by American Literature; however, the opposite could be quite true in some cases. Bravo, Doug, for coming up with the concept for the class & kudos to the administration for allowing you to teach it!

  6. RF wrote:

    Why didn’t they have elective classes like this when I was in college? Best I could do was underwater basket weaving. Not as enjoyable, I might add…:).

  7. KDM wrote:

    To address the original poster, it doesn’t really matter what you’re majoring in; part of college education is broadening your horizons. If a student is studying literature, you should expect them to take lots of literature courses. But if ALL they take is literature courses, it’s easy to burn out and lose interest. There needs to be a good selection of elective courses that can break up the monotony of studying the major while appealing to students’ other interests, and encouraging them to think in new ways.

    Personally, I studied music in college, but my junior year, there I was in a class on Western European monarchy. What in the world does that have to do with music, and what’s more, who cares? The answer is nothing and nobody, but the topic interested me, and it was a welcome diversion from my steady diet of music courses. It’s good to know that there are interesting electives out there, and not just the proverbial underwater basket weaving some colleges seem so sold on.

  8. Lisa wrote:

    I’d love to be able to take a class like this.
    However, to refer to the original post:

    “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.”

    Actually, in my experience, and the good Professor can correct me if I’m wrong, Southern Gospel Music is INSPIRED by the Bible, but often has a peculiarly American influence, since so much of it is written about being different from THIS culture.

    I think it’s a necessary thing to contrast the message against the culture in which it is written…and the reason a student takes a class like this is to broaden his experience and give a sometimes blessed respite from keeping one’s nose to the grindstone. (I know. I’m a student.)

  9. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    On the surface, a class examining how Southern Gospel is displayed in American Literature seems a little too specific to be of much benefit to any particular major…but it’s an elective, as Doug has mentioned.

    A general class on Southern Gospel music in the context of a sacred music major would be of much greater benefit, though. My school sure didn’t offer that. In fact, my undergraduate sacred music degree fell short of equipping me on a number of levels. At some point down the road, I’d love to go back and advise my school on how to improve the major now that I have two decades of experience behind me.

    The dissent being discussed here was credited to Jim Cumbee, by the way. Is there any reason why are we avoiding mentioning the name of someone who used to be the president of Salem Publishing?

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