Monday, July 16, 2018

What lies behind Gospel Music?

As regular readers of this blog may have suspected, I am a recovering Southern Baptist; yet I still enjoy listening to gospel music. A great number of the older songs I learned by heart in my youth. It is not their words, however, that attract me today but rather the subliminal “message” behind the words—the existential attitude that evokes the words. Behind the song writer’s literary certainty and the singer's rapturous expressions, the gospel idiom, the pithy metaphors, vivid imagery, and sweeping idealistic visions of what lies beyond life in the world for the faithful, I am most struck by two real-world attitudes. On the one hand, the certainty masks the awful existential dread of oblivion that occasionally wells up in quiet moments for all of us; on the other, the music and its performance reflects a primal cry of hope. The songwriters and singers express confident hope that life is not an episode of three-score-and-ten years that ends in nothingness; rather the music holds forth the promise of a future on the other side of our terminal episodes.

            One can easily get lost in the emotional mythical expectations evoked by the words and miss the simple hope (nothing more or less) that lies behind the language of certainty. Behind the confident language of Zion lies a fragile ambiguous hope parading itself as confident expectation. The writers/singers may appear supremely confident in their expectations but hope reflects only uncertain prospects, and believing it so does not make it so!

Early Christian faith reflects this same dissonance between hope and confidence.

Paul: “We rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Rom 5:2; see also Rom 8:24-25; 1 Thess 4:13-18; 5:8).

Acts: “Having a hope in God … that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:15; 23:6).

Pauline School: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27; 1:5); “In hope of eternal life which God, who never lies, promised” (Titus 1:2; 2:13; 3:7).

Others: “Make a defense… for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15); “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for” (Heb11:1).

Early Christian writers do not call it a “certain” hope. I found only a few modifiers describing the nature of hope in early Christian faith. Once it is called a “lively” hope (1 Pet 1:3), once it is called “a better hope” (Heb 7:19); and another word that is used to describe hope is “blessed” (Titus 2:13). Once hope is described as “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Heb 6:18-19). It seems that the early Christians were under no allusions about the substance of what their faith held out for them—it was merely hope: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1-2). Paul described the tenuous hope of faith in this way: “hope that is seen is not hope—for who hopes for what he sees”; we hope for what we do not see (Rom 8:24-25). In early Christian faith hope was therefore not equated with certainty—that is, hope was not equated with a “bird in the hand” but rather with the “two birds in the bush.”

            Paul described Abraham, the Patriarch, in the following way: in hope he believed against hope that in his old age he would become the father of many nations (Rom 4:18). The dictionary defines “hope against hope” as “hoping without any basis for expecting fulfillment.” That definition, it seems to me, best reflects the character of early Christian hope as a whole; it is also what lies behind gospel music. Hope is a primal cry of faith, reflecting the attitude: I trust God in spite of the obvious finality of death.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Tuesday, July 3, 2018


Happy Fourth of July! At the suggestion of a reader, today’s posting is a reprise of one originally published on May 31, 2013

I do not have in mind political freedom, which is always limited. Fortunately in a representative democracy, however, the citizen has a voice in setting the limits and deciding how free "freedom" should be. Political freedom is not absolute. Ideally laws are drafted to give all groups the greatest amount of freedom possible under the law in a way that does not unnecessarily abridge the freedom of others who share minority views. So in a representative democracy all give a little to get a little.

       In this essay, however, I have in mind the ability of individuals to make decisions that have not been influenced, whether overtly or subtly, by their environment. From the earliest moments in life no one can independently envision their course of life. You cannot pick your parents, their social and economic status, or their prospects. You take what fate decrees for you. You cannot pick where you were born. Your birthplace is chosen by your mother. You cannot pick your native language, your skin color, or nationality. All these things happen by chance. Your religion or non-religion in the early years is the choice of your parents whom you did not pick. You are indoctrinated by their religious views, or lack thereof. You do not choose in the lower grades your educational institutions. Schooling hinges on where you live and/or your parents' economic circumstances. So the attitudes, values, quality and kind of instruction, inductively learned prejudices in the region where you live, and the acquired knowledge (both formal and cultural), which subtly mold and shape you, are also not of your own choosing. Your socialization happens almost by osmosis. By the time you think you have gained control from the dominant powers in your life (parents, local educational and political systems, religious institutions, regional cultural mores, etc.) you have already become something that may not be able to be changed, even if the thought occurred to you to do so. Your future choices have already been influenced by the powers outside you in your past. Thus people are free only to the extent that they can escape their own pasts.

       In later life you find yourself immersed in a culture whose expectations, moral values, and ideals demand compliance if you are to live successfully in society. The compliant are rewarded with status in the community and those who resist are marginalized. In later years you marry and become focused on job and advancement—each economic institution has its own rules that must be mastered. There are children to be tended, a home to be kept up to community standards, taxes to be paid, medical bills to be met, the children's future to consider, and retirement to be planned for. The demands are such that you have little time to give to abstract things as thinking about becoming—and anyway you have already "become" by buying into or resisting the culture and its expectations. You simply meet the requirements, without thinking, or challenge the expectations. In any case you are simply too far in to life to make radical changes.

       Nearing the age of retirement, some do find time for reflecting on where life has brought them, or perhaps better: on what their past and present have made them. In retrospect, they look back over their lives searching for the turning points that shaped them.

       Religion is part of the problem rather than the solution. All religions claim to possess Truth, particularly the missionary religions in their traditional forms: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three of these have attached themselves to certain cultures sympathetic to their religious systems.  They reciprocate symbiotically by helping to reinforce the cultural norms in their chosen societies.  This has always been the case with Christianity, for example. In the first century Paul urged his churches to be subject to the governing authorities, "for there is no authority except from God and those that exist have been instituted by God" (Romans 13:1-7)—and he said this about the Roman Empire, no less! The author of Revelation, whose time and situation were different, disagreed—calling the Roman Empire "Babylon the Great, a dwelling place of demons" (Revelation 18) and "mother of harlots" (Revelation 17:5). Paul, a Roman citizen found in the Empire a symbiotic partner; the writer of Revelation did not.

       Christianity in America thinks of its gospel as "freeing." Jesus said to the Jews "who believed in him": "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). And Paul wrote: "For Freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1). He of course was talking about freedom from the Jewish Torah. But Christianity has assimilated to American culture and its political system to such an extent that "Americanism" has become a synonym for "Christian." The American flag is displayed in churches, the pledge of Allegiance is taught to children in church schools, and patriotic songs are sung in worship. Not all churches are as blatant about the "Americanism" in their religious programs, however. Nevertheless, the religious instruction and preaching in mainstream churches aim to produce good Christian citizens who reflect American societal norms, so that their lives reflect well on the church, something the early churches were concerned about as well (1 Thessalonians 4:10-12; 1 Peter2:13-15; Titus 3:1-2). The early churches rejected the radical ethics of Jesus (if they happened to remember them) and turned to the ethical values (called "household codes") that governed private life in the early Roman Empire (for example, Colossians 3:18-4:1).

       Growing up in a lower middle class family in the Mississippi Delta in the 40s and 50s leaves me to wonder just how free I really was.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University