Sister tenor revisited
So John Piper, one of the best sources for accessing the theological id of contemporary evangelicalism, recently made the case for Christianity as fundamentally masculine.
“God revealed Himself in the Bible pervasively as king not queen; father not mother,” Piper said. “The second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son not daughter; the Father and the Son create man and woman in His image and give them the name man, the name of the male…God appoints all the priests in the Old Testament to be men; the Son of God came into the world to be a man; He chose 12 men to be His apostles; the apostles appointed that the overseers of the Church be men; and when it came to marriage they taught that the husband should be the head. Now, from all of that I conclude that God has given Christianity a masculine feel.”
Commentators to Piper’s left (not all of them necessarily liberals or leftists) have, perhaps not unsurprisingly, taken exception to this view, most persuasively (to me), on the grounds that Piper’s reading is the theological equivalent of going to a play solely for the set and the props and the costumes.
Piper—who I believe to be intelligent and well meaning—preaches as if the Bible exists outside of time and place. It does not. I believe the Bible contains the highest truths about God and his plan for the world, and I love that God chose to communicate those truths to us in the form of stories, situated in time and messy with the stuff of humanity. That we can recognize the heart of the message—the meaning imbued in these stories—is a testament not only to God’s power, but to the awesome power of story as well. But to act as if we are supposed to extract meaning not from the message, but from the details as Piper and others do, sells that power short. It’s like watching the first Star Wars film and taking away the lesson that all Jedi, like Obi-Wan, must be old, graying, British guys.
My point with all this theological throat-clearing isn’t to get into a debate here about the veracity of Piper’s or his interlocutors’ arguments. Rather, I’d note that for a large swath of evangelicals, Piper’s view or one very much like it is decidedly the dominant one.
Which puts me in mind of something about religions music in general and southern gospel in particular that isn’t necessarily new and that I submit to much fuller analysis and exploration in the (for some) ever-so-upsetting queer dimension of my book, but that’s worth going into a bit here all the same: namely, that sacred music - especially in hyper-masculine parts of Christianity like conservative evangelicalism, with its emphasis on intense filiopiety - is at some level a way for people to upend the oversimple reductions of contemporary theology that attempt to assign individuals a fixed role within the larger system of belief (head of the house, submissive wife, Mary or Martha, Saul or Paul and so on). This approach has its allure: it provides stability, or at least the allusion of it. Especially in moments of great historical or cultural flux, the belief that all reality - seen and unseen, here and hereafter - is grounded in a set of unchanging absolutes that, among other things, anchor individual and collective experience can be a source of reassurance or existential equilibrium for many of us.
And yet, one of the first things my students who are unfamiliar with southern gospel notice and comment on when they encounter the music for the first time is how fluid individual identities are, particularly with respect to gender, compared to what you’d expect from the official doctrines of evangelicalism (such as Piper’s brittle masculinism). I recall this discussion coming up most often around Peg McKamey and clips like this one:
My students watch this clip (and it’s not a one-off thing either; see here) and invariably make some version of the same point: the woman’s in charge, she’s doing the man’s work here, the preaching and charming and cajoling and showboating that historically falls to the men in the classic quartet tradition (and here, let me say in a not entirely unrelated vein, that Brother Arvin Wynn is one of my favorite overlooked southern gospel personalities of all time). Meanwhile, the males in this scene could hardly be more passive and pliable to whatever path Peg and the spirit take us all down. And yet it’s also true that there’s more going on here than just role reversal. A lot of what Peg’s able to pull off and get away with here is not despite but because she relies on and upends (all at the same time) gender norms surrounding Christian femininity. Imagine George Younce doing any of this stuff and you’ll get something of my point.
It’s an extreme example, yes, but the strong female lead - both in terms of music and personality - is not uncommon as an example of gendered coordinates getting scrambled in southern gospel, a world where it’s perfectly natural and acceptable for a man to write a song pleading to be held by Jesus while the singer cries, and of course we love nothing more than a singer who looks like a man and sings like a woman.
It’s not necessarily been something I was immediately prepared to see as something very interesting because I grew up in this world and, like many others, tend to take the paradoxes or disjunctions for granted as just the way things are. But once it’s pointed out or you start looking for it, it makes a good deal of sense: when the tenets of faith and the roles assigned to your expression of it are absolute, those avenues for stepping outside the prescripted role and creating a little idiosyncratic space to breath is particularly important, and powerful.
And I don’t necessarily think the only - or even primary - thing to take away from this situation is that it exemplifies some kind of self-discrediting contradiction lurking at the heart of male-dominated evangelicalism. In fact, part of what I take away from this kind of thing is that fundamentalism and the art it produces is more complicated and, frankly, much more modern and interesting than it is often taken to be.Email this Post