Of sacred songs, and of tears and beers and beds taken up to walk
At the end of a long, thoughtful response to reading my book and reflecting on the spiritual and cultural labor performed by a variety of hymns and gospel songs in a southern cultural tradition of lamentation and world-weariness, a regular reader posts a link to “Farther Along” and then writes:
I guess the question could be asked, depending on one’s spiritual perspective, does this song make you want to drown your sorrows in a beer or “take up your bed and walk”? Does it induce sadness and despair or glorify Jesus Christ?
Music reflects the song of our soul, but what condition are our souls really in? Do we really have faith in God, or is Heaven merely an escape route out of physical suffering and pain? Do we really want to see Jesus or get out of paying taxes? Is it more about the physical troubles and trials or more about the spiritual victory given to us as a gift on the cross of Calvary?
Normally at this point I’d say, for my full answer, go read the book. But then, this reader has already done that, so rather than repeat slightly paraphrased versions of what’s in the book and that you can read for yourself (if you’re interested in this line of questioning, I address it most directly in Chapters 2 and 3), let me offer a series of thoughts.
First, on the question of southern music and existential escapism, I’d recommend two books and one article: on country music as a means of articulating a theological worldview, see David Fillingim’s Redneck Liberation: Country Music as Theology, and Tex Sample: White Soul: Country Music, the Church, and Working Americans. For a more direct engagement with southern gospel’s use of the hereafter to address the woes of the here and now, see Fillingim’s contribution to More Than Precious Memories, “Oft Made to Wonder.” If you’ve read my book, you know I take strong exception to Fillingim’s argument in the Precious Memories essay that suffering doesn’t matter in the southern gospel worldview. In fact I think the opposite is true (a version of my argument can also be found here, ca. page 41-44).
But no matter: as to the direct question about what kind of impulses a gospel song like “Farther Along” activates – “does this song make you want to drown your sorrows in a beer or ‘take up your bed and walk’? Does it induce sadness and despair or glorify Jesus Christ?” – I guess I’d say, why can’t it be and do both?
Faith isn’t a graspable fact (no matter how much one may wish it to be) - at least not to the extent that we can easily say, she has faith, or he doesn’t. Or rather, we may hear people put these words in that order when they speak, but what is really meant is, he strives to be faithful, or she works to live out a certain vision of faith in life and so on. Faith is an existential orientation toward a set of aspirations for life here (and for most of the religiously faithful) hereafter. Though orthodox theology and official religious culture as it’s preached from the pulpit tends to speak of faith as if it’s an objective thing that you either possess or don’t, I think most of us can admit to ourselves in the small hours of life that that’s not where most people live. The Apostle knew the score when he described faith as the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. In other words, faith is a term for what fills the space between the way things are and the way we want or need them to be – the way we believe they ought to be.
When you understand or approach lived religion as a perilous passage of negotiation between ought to be and is, then the creations and productions of religious culture – such as a southern gospel – matter not primarily because they show us what it means to be a “good” Christian or a “faithful” saint. Instead, the primary value of something like gospel is as a language of feeling to express and hold in productive tension two potentially conflicting positions: I have faith, but I often don’t feel like it. Or, as it’s been put in song: I believe, help thou my unbelief (“I long so much to feel the warmth that others seem to know … but should I never feel a thing, I claim him even so” … and Gaither songs are particularly eloquent at musically evoking faith as equally alluring and elusive.).
There are plenty of folks who can blink away this disparity, chalk up the persistent gap between orthodox doctrine and unorthodox experience as the work of sin in the world, and then head back in to Bible study almost merrily announcing that yea though he slay me, yet will I trust him. Or at least, there are plenty of folks who spend a lot of time insisting on these things.
But for just as many or more people, there have to be meaningful ways to validate the real threat of quiescence and despair or even just the low-grade doubts and griefs that constantly trouble the surface of faithful living – but without surrendering the identity of a believer in good standing within the membership of the faithful.
Gospel music isn’t the only means of doing this – of letting people participate in a form of religious experience that can simultaneously unite them with the wider community of the saints and sanctified, while also taking seriously as a fact of life the fallibility and negative feelings of ordinary living. But gospel is above averagely good at accomplishing this psychospiritual balancing act. Which is to say, folks wouldn’t sing “Keep on the Sunny Side” at the top of their lungs if they didn’t know how easy it is to slip into the dark side of things.
The original comment on which this post is based mentions the Civil War and the legacy of grievance, mournfulness, and general social struggle it bequeathed to many poor and working class white southerners. Just as I argue in the book that the origins of modern southern gospel are inextricably bound up in the social and economic and political fallout of the Civil War, it’s also true that gospel still bespeaks a way of life that is for most people who live it still very much is (or is perceived to be) a struggle – spiritually and materially - descended from the rural white southern life that was forged during Reconstruction and beyond. Gospel still puts that way of living and looking at life to music.
Compare this to the gestalt of the big suburban non-denominational megachurches. Is anyone really surprised that the emotionally univocal music of Praise and Worship has flourished in this part of the evangelical world, where religious authenticity is defined not by celebrating how you got over (as it long has been and still is in the gospel universe) but by the radiant ardor with which one expresses one’s unalloyed faith? If what is prized above all else is the blunt force piety of so much of today’s non-denominationalism, you really do need to sing that chorus six or seven or ten or eleven times to convey to yourself and others and God just how much you really mean it. It’s not so much “I believe, help thou my unbelief.” Rather, it’s “I believe … I believe I believe I believe, Oh Lord. I believe I believe I believe.”
I think gospel continues to resonant among people for whom life above-averagely keeps ever before them a host of enduring threats to belief and faithfulness as it is defined by their religious traditions, people who are on close terms with experience that balks and baffles and mystifies the soul’s progress - or at least have been taught to value narratives of spiritually struggle as character defining. At some point, it’s not enough to sing only about how wonderful it will be over there or about just how much one believes. One needs also to loudly and proudly declare the mystery that will only be solved farther along down the road - and do so with a little close harmony.
Which isn’t to say that devotees of Praise and Worship or any other genre of Christian music always suffer less or believe more, or more easily. Only, that suffering and believing happen in different proportions that are at least in part regulated by the material realities of where and how one lives and what one has been taught to value - just as the struggle between drowning one’s sorrows in a beer and taking up thy bed to walk takes a lot of different forms in lived religion. The extent to which southern gospel sounds different than Praise and Worship or black gospel or CCM or the Mormon Tabernacle choir is the extent to which folks sing about life in the key that comes naturally to their experience of struggling to balance the beer and the bed in their own way.Email this Post