So a Quaker, an atheist, and an academic take a car ride
Sounds like a set up to a bad joke (and if you know it, share it), but for our purposes today it is the actual circumstances in which I found myself over the weekend when the studio version of this song came on the iPod:
The atheist had heard me playing it on his new audiophilic speakers (Bowers and Wilkins, if you’re keeping score at home), and had declared straight away that “I’d go to church if they played music like this.” Then later, the atheist suggested we share it with the Quaker, who
was delivered is descended from the old timey deep south Church of Christers, and with whom we were sharing a car to dinner later that evening.
And so, about halfway into that transporting second verse - when the emotional curve of the song arcs plaintively across that aching line about tasting all the things that sin could think to offer me, and then levitates heavenward to claim the promise of manna from above - about that time, the quaker leaned up from the back between the two front seats, raised her left hand, and said, “I think I feel a little of the speaking in tongues within me.”
It took a while for this song to grow on me listening to it off the album. Partly, I’m sure, it’s because I’d come to know it in the arrangement the Talleys used, most memorably in A Night to Remember (the song, of course, was written by Kirk Talley in the early 1990s). Particularly in this GVB arrangement, the metronomic piano line bugged me at first, and I still can’t abide that treacly children’s choir at the end of the studio recording, which makes the track unnecessarily long and drags the otherwise powerful sentiment of the song down into mawkish sentimentality. So I just stop listening at that point.
Nevertheless, I came back to the song last week after having been away from it since its initial release, and at the moment, I’m finding it difficult to walk away from. Different songs, of course, resonate with people for different reasons, but in this case, for me, I think part of what has drawn me back is some kind of self-recognition that this music, by this writer, arouses in me - some sort of powerful articulation of a dilemma that I suspect almost all closeted Christians have known at one point or another: the feeling that grace seems simultaneously extended to and withheld from you by the people and institutions who claim the cause of Christ.
I listen to this song and recall lo those many years of feeling the pull of what I considered to be sin, a deeply felt tug on the very soul of me just as alluring and haunting and painfully real as the melody and lyrics conspire to render all the things that sin could think to offer. And I remember all the times I looked hard and long and hoped to find the countenance of graciousness resting on the faces of the faithful around me, among those whose community and affection meant everything to me. And most of all, there were all those long long seasons of wanting to be able to experience what this song achieves so gloriously and gracefully: to summon the presence of a life-changing redemption and self-transforming salvation by naming it with incantatory clarity: he is here, hallelujah, he is here, amen. … He is here, you can touch him, you will never be the same.
Well, in any event, I’m certainly not the same person I was when I first heard that song (and perhaps, neither is Kirk Talley), and it remains one of the abiding good fortunes of my life that gospel music continues to speak across the vast distance that separates me-now from me-then - the Southern Baptist sissy who seemed to sense an awesome moving of the holy spirit right along with this song. To hear it reimagined now in the voice of Wes Hampton, in the mind of the great Gaither machine, it’s almost as if the song has been carefully recalibrated to the changed circumstances of life now vs then, without losing any of the immediate vitality that made the original so stirring upon its first appearing.
Just to be clear, I’m not claiming the song was recorded to pacify unrepentant sodomites, nor is my aim to slur orthodox belief as homophobia, two of the common reactions this type of post ordinarily receives. So, if you will, hear me … well, out. I come not to put down piety but rather to unpack the knot of pious responses bound up in this music for me, and so to perhaps glimpse the greater glory it bespeaks for people as varied as my two companions and me in that car the other night. My point, then, is not that you have to be gay to get this song. Far from it. In fact, my point is exactly the opposite: after all, the song wouldn’t have succeeded and endured as it has if its appeal were as narrow as all that. Yet if it’s true that this song has spoken to many believers as a powerful statement of orthodox doctrine, it’s equally true that the song’s appeal derives in no small part the truths of decidedly unorthodox experience.
I sent a draft of this post to a friend of mine, and her response to that last bit was something along the lines of: hmmm, aren’t you kinda suggesting that it’s ok to go through what Kirk Talley experienced if it produces great music? Notwithstanding the history of the tortured artist, it’s a fair point. So for the record: emphatically no, I am not. I know far too well from personal experience some of the more expensive emotional and spiritual costs of the ordeal that Talley lived for years, including, by his own account, the era from which this song dates. And I don’t wish that on anyone. But my wishing won’t make much of a difference, and if you’ve got to suffer, boy howdy, if this isn’t a masterful way to repurpose that plight.
And so I find myself returning over and over to so many moments in this song: to the vision of holy presence in the eyes of everyone the singer sees; to the unflinching evocation of all the things that allure my sight (as an even older and more famous gospel song would have it); to the tremulous, tentative, expectant effort to claim the promise of making contact with the divine. In such moments, even my best angels are surreptitiously grateful for whatever grievous gestalt of suffering and penitence it was that forged these insights and brought forth this balefully beautiful meditation on the soul’s search for some personal peace in the places and faces of our daily habitation.Email this Post