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.

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  1. irishlad wrote:

    The Bible may have been written by clever Jewish men,but behind every smart man there’s an even smarter woman :)

  2. BUICK wrote:

    Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. I think that means that God didn’t use a man to bring Jesus into the world.

  3. Wade wrote:

    yeah irishdude like ode behind you!!! ;-)

  4. CVH wrote:

    Hmmm…I wonder what Brooke thinks of this?

    Interesting observation; one of the foibles of human behavior. We’re able to live with seeming contradictions as long as they don’t cross a certain line - which is at a different point for everyone.

    Growing up I had a friend whose family was very fundamentalist. Male-dominated, King James-only, legalistic to the core. But their favorite groups of the day weren’t the Blackwood Bros. or the Kingsmen; it was the Speers (mmm, Suzan), the Downings, the Rambos and so forth. (And while we’re talking gender, Dottie had a bigger set than Buck could ever dream of.)

    Apparently even in their narrow world a woman could do some things - sing, teach Sunday school, drive a car (to the store and back) - as long as they understood their true place in the hierarchy. If you asked them to explain it, they couldn’t. If you brought up some of the obvious inconsistencies, they just wouldn’t answer. (The earth is flat - don’t fall off!) That was it for me. I resolved that I’d rather stumble toward truth than live a life filled with superficial answers and questions that would never be heard.

  5. Ode wrote:

    3, LOL. We stopped being a thorn in English behind in ’48, when their mandate of Palestine ended. I refuse responsibility for anything that the crazy brits have done since, we got nothin to do with it.

    But as our ever chivalrous and gallant Englishman has said, women are usually the driving force behind men…. The head will only see in the direction the neck will turn it to. Mishnah says “Wherever a woman can kiss, she can also bite”

  6. VideoGuy wrote:

    Mary would also be first to evangelize Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.

  7. RF wrote:

    Interesting conversation. I remember the time, that when The Bishop assigned a woman to the pastorship of my Methodist church. Heads rolled. In time, she was accepted. But the men of the other churches in the area were brutal. I never forgot that and is one of the main reasons that I have a problem with evangelicals. She tended the flock well, but it was always something. If she had been a man, it wouldn’t have mattered. Conservatism at its best.

  8. Tony Watson wrote:

    RF - soooo that whole husband of one wife thing from Scripture . . . how do you process that in regard to allowing women to pastor a church?

  9. weber wrote:

    A couple of points, the McKameys cannot sing, Peg is a poser, which means she does the same moves every service.. There is no scripture to support a female pastor…for many reasons..

  10. Alan wrote:

    I haven’t been on this site like I once was, in a while. Doug, I’m curious…Are you just saving everything related to southern Gospel for your book? I just went back to your last seven posts, and the comments in total barely reach 100. Even when you’d throw out a bone or two and turn it over for an open thread, there was a day when you’d easily get close to 200 comments - even more - on one thread. Glory bumps, Christianity being largely masculine-oriented, Whitney Houston, some Swedish sisters, etc.? Has your passion for this blog disappeared completely? Once, even if I or other of your readers might have disagreed with your posts, they were thought-provoking, and elicited some exceptional comments. No longer. Will the day ever return when you comment on music?

  11. gina wrote:

    The McKameys can and do sing, but most importantly, they minister. They are about much more than “moves” or routines.

  12. cynical one wrote:

    Alan, I think you’re wrong. Yes, the Swedish sisters had little-to-nothing to do with sgm, and Whitney was a stretch (although quite relevant, due to her having sung some gospel). But glory bumps and this current thread are very much about sgm. The glory bumps thing may have been over analitical, and therefore over some peoples’ heads, but this thread is definately talking about the irony of the King James only male dominated churches vs their love for female-led sg groups. Pretty relevant, if you ask me.

    And I’d venture to say most of those older posts you refer to with 200+ comments were probably open threads, too.

  13. Alan wrote:

    Cynical One - Yeah, if you reread my post, I did mention that the 200-comment threads were open ones. I appreciate your thoughts, CO, and I really wasn’t trying to complain or pick any fights. I just miss the days when Doug’s posts weren’t such that trying to find relevancy to sgm was often such a stretch. I like the “Just Sing” posts, and the comments that follow them, usually, :-) but I mostly miss the real blogs that are directly related to the music. Best to you. And stop being so cynical! LOL

  14. irishlad wrote:

    …13 Alan,you’re way too nice! :)

  15. Alan wrote:

    Hah! Thanks, Lad - But is that a bad thing?!

  16. irishlad wrote:

    15 NO!! it depends on the heart behind the facade and i believe you have a good one my friend.

  17. irishlad wrote:

    …and that’s from a Baptist to a Plym (private joke) :)

  18. Ode wrote:

    8, you have to distinguish church traditions from God’s requirements. “Separate the first from the last”, as we say, or “apples, oranges” as you say in US. Don’t base your views on one verse, read the whole text to get the spirit of the Law, not just adhere to the letter.

    Frumspeak is my area of expertise, so I’ll help you here with what he is saying, Tony:
    Paul - apostle, genius, hothead, saint, fool and brother- is describing the strongest candidate for the job. Seeing a modern church’s management body up to their eyeballs in a pool of filthy politics, backstabbing and dirty fighting over finances, I DO see his point! I’m against women pastors –as well as women in combat, women digging ditches or doing hard masonry- it’s too hard physically, emotionally and mentally, esp.for a mother and a wife.

    But lack of a suitable man, or presence of a willing woman, better qualified for the role, makes rejecting her to be God-hating legalism and surely won’t help repair the nasty image of ourselves that we Christians worked so hard to establish for 2 millennia.

  19. Ode wrote:

    The pathetically poor state of theological studies in States saddens me…..Pop faith boasts ego stroking overconfidence, “know-it-all”-ness. Tony, scriptural truths have been a progressive revelation to us since before they were even written down. And Christianity existed way before the canon was complete. You can’t confuse eternal God’s truths with passing, ever-changing traditions of congregational life.
    We are just a couple generations away from believers who used the Bible to argue for slavery, racism and abuse of women. That’s all they knew at the time. We forgive them, as our grandkids will forgive us for the evil we do due to the lack of understanding. But we have to move ahead, it’s our duty as believers.

  20. Ode wrote:

    thumbs up, Alan, Doug can use a lil nudge ;)

    I do value the blog for its connectedness with modern culture. JustSing-s are great ONLY if they generate interesting discussions, not just dozens of timewasting, identical posts from rude, openly godless, ill-mannered old half-brains of both genders spilling obscure recollections : “I saw(own a grammophone record, remember listening on the radio ) _________ group, in the year______. It was good.”

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