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
Missouri State University
And you? Do you have "hope" in things unseen?
Lexicon Info: noun, elpis. hope; expectation; prospect/ verb, elpizo. Hope, hope for, expect, foresee.
Occurrence of elpis: gospels-0. Acts-8, Paul-20 (Romans 9), +20 others.
Occurrence of elpizo: gospels-5, Acts-2, Paul-14, +9 others.
In the gospels, Jesus never refers to his own hope, and only twice even references hope, and then in a very circumscribed way as a negative practice of others, e.g: “If you lend to those from whom you hope (expect) to receive, what credit is that to you?,” (Luke 6:34) and “…your accuser is Moses on whom you have set your hope.” (John 5:45).
And yet what is Jesus’ life about if not an attitude of ‘hope beyond hope.’ How else could one describe many of his teachings given the reality of human behavior and what he expects (according to the Jesus Seminar research): love your enemy, first look at the log in your own eye if you want to judge, if one strikes you on the cheek offer the other, you can’t have both God and wealth as masters, to be forgiven one needs to forgive, its not what goes in that defiles but what comes out, those who seek to save their life will lose but those who lose their life will find it, and so on.
Yes I do as I said on January 11, 2013:
But read carefully--it is only a hope not an expectation.
As always, thanks, Charlie!
You wrote, "...a fragile ambiguous hope parading itself as confident expectation...lies behind gospel music." I think that's what it may be for you and me, but I'm not so sure about the music gospelers. I was brought up in the Evangelical - United Brethren - United Methodist tradition, so that was pretty conservative, and I also know something about listening to and singing gospel music.
And there was a time years ago when I watched the Gaither ensemble on TV on a weekly basis.
But gospel music in its sloppiest form most always seemed to me like a love story - like two lovers walking 'In the Garden,' "and he walks with me and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own." Sorry, complete turn off.
I'm not so sure gospel music is built on fragile hope, but perhaps it is built on emotional need, a deep seated need that the universe is going to take care of me, and finding the truth in the love of Jesus that provides that assurance. Gospel, I think?, may have some roots in the Sunday school tunes of childhood, "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so, little one to him belong, they are weak but he is strong, Yes Jesus loves me! (repeated). Perhaps when we hear gospel music it is the child within proclaiming his/her rightful place in the arms of the Benevolent Beyond.
Good Evening Charlie,
What is the difference between having hope in Jesus and believing in Jesus? Is there a difference? You correctly stated that "believing it so does not make it so." ACIM says something similar "Your beliefs are not an important contribution to the truth." At what point does this spiritual, pie-in-the-sky, pious hope that we all sing about- at what point does this "hope against all hope" become a requirement to be saved and to please God? Can we be saved without faith or hope?
Isn't faith (and/or hope) supposed to be voluntary? You are must have faith in Jesus- but you must do so as if it were not required of you, you must do it voluntarily. Isn't that a double bind?
Having faith in God may give you confidence- but not clarity. People who believe in Jesus are very confident. They know they are going to heaven no matter what messes they create while they are here on earth. The problem is that they are trying to perceive something beyond this physical dimension with a physical mind and a physical context. That won't happen. If you perceive- then you know. When you can see clearly and know clearly what to do... When you have clarity... Then you don't need hope, faith, or belief. Am I wrong?
Sadhguru wisely stated "If you're unwilling to admit you do not know- then you believe. Belief is of social significance... To some extent psychological significance... But existentially it means nothing." (other than buying you ticket into the right church where you can sing songs and partake in rituals and fellowship with other believers)
What are your thoughts about having hope in Jesus and believing in Jesus- is there any difference between the two concepts? Many thanks, Elizabeth
Good Morning Gene,
So your proposal is that behind gospel music is the (blind?) trust of our inner child? Hmmm, I like that way of putting it, although I still think that in our mature selves it translates into hope. I like your last sentence as well--very poetic! But I am not sure how it breaks down into a logical concept. Can you translate for us?
I don't think I can answer most of the questions you posed in your comment. They seem asked in a way that requires an answer from within the Christian tradition. The early followers of Jesus Christianized hope. but hope is a natural human emotion that surpasses religious confessions. For example, your last question about the difference between having hope in Jesus and believing in Jesus. My answer would be it depends on who you ask. In my case I see no difference between the two. But others answering the question from within the Christian tradition may well disagree. In any case I was not talking about "hope in Jesus," for even non religious folk can have hope. Note Gene's last line in his comment that gospel music was about the inner child claiming its rightful place in the arms of a benevolent universe. Such an answer has to my ear no religious overtones but it does reflect a kind of hope, even if the object of hope is unclear (see my answer to him).
The reason that gospel music has no religious overtones for you is because you have a different association with it than I do. Quite frankly, I find it astounding that anyone could possibly remove religious overtones from gospel music, but such is the power of the subconscious mind. I have an entirely different meaning associated with that kind of music (as if you can't tell) and it has everything to do with what you astutely called "Christianized hope."
The way that hope has been Christianized (not just by early followers but by recent followers) sends a confusing message to me- which I stated previously. I can't separate the songs from the sermons, but you can. There are certain songs and certain music that make me feel peaceful inside, but as to where the peace comes from... I have no idea. It's just there.
Peace is more real in my experience than hope- I've never experienced anything positive by "hoping" it would happen. Elizabeth
I can't really translate the sentence because I don't think that the end point of existential and emotional truth is logic and critical thinking. In general, the emotional and interpersonal riches of life seem to me to make very little use of critical thinking.
Unexpectedly, I was driving across town today and switching radio channels and I came across a station playing gospel music. At one point the following words were constantly repeated, "I'm covered in the blood of Jesus and he's with me everyday." There's nothing logical or critical about that, but its true for millions without translation. And if that helps them to lead better lives, then it is a truth in which all have some participation.
I'm not sure exactly where we disagree here, but, to me, not all experiences are best understood in terms of a logical concept.
I am not sure if this is on point with your concern, but I have similar feelings having come from a SBC background. While many Southern Gospel lyrics are almost foreign theologically to where I am today, the music at some subliminal level is etched on my soul. I am a fan of the Gaithers and find myself reinterpreting the lyrics of many of their songs in a way that has meaning in my worldview today. Most of the time, I can make meaning, sometimes not. One thing about the Gaithers --- they embrace their friends, and I suppose others, even when there are poor decisions in personal lives. In action and deed they live out acceptance, forgiveness and restoration. Maybe too much can be made about the cognitive aspect of lyrics to the detriment of their affective impact. A number of years ago I was listening to an address by a seminary professor from an Episcopal seminary. While extolling one of the wonderful old hymns of the church, in disparaging tones he declared that we have lost something when all we can do is sing the simple chorus "Jesus is Lord, Jesus is Lord, Jesus is Lord..." Something inside me said "Is that all that bad?" I have been in environments when the quiet repetition of those phrases were healing for me. Maybe the "hope" and meaning of the musical message is more related to a person where one is at a specific time and place. Maybe its meaning is to assist one to make sense of and put life together in situ. Maybe that is a step along the way that leads to the right moment in time for a paradigm shift, a time in the journey when one moves into a new and different perspective on life.
Good Morning Elizabeth,
Separating the songs (i.e., the music) from the sermon (i.e. the words), as you put it, is never easy. The words keep getting in the way. In worship services in a Baptist church the sermons generally are meant for the intellect, the mind, but the music is aimed at the "soul," that is to say, the emotions of the inner person. See Richard's comment below.
Good Morning Richard,
I think you said what I was trying to say better than I did. Thanks!
I hope things are going well with you.
Good Morning Gene,
We will likely have to agree to disagree, as we have done a few times in the past. I think all experience is best understood through logic and critical thinking. Take the one illogical line of the lyrics of the gospel song you quote above. It is heightened poetical language that expresses an intense emotional experience stated as contradictory concepts: "covered in the blood of Jesus" (i.e., he is dead) and "he is with me every day" (i.e. he is alive). At bottom, however, the line is an expression of hope hurled in the face of the inevitability of death.
Do you think there can be two "truths" one that is emotional/existential and another that is logical? if so, which is the higher of the two?
I think that truth is relative in the sense that it depends upon how one defines and sets goals for humanity. For example, does one want existentially a world where the teachings of Jesus are paramount, or does one want logically a world where the rules of robotics are paramount. Or does one suppose that they can co-exist together productively. Which is the best condition of truth for humanity?
I agree, Charlie, Richard's insights were very well articulated and very wise... I'm glad that both of you receive a positive message from the old gospel songs of yesteryear... Many people (such as my parents) gain a deep sense of peace and stability from those lyrics which helps them get through the turbulence of modern life and the emotional uproar of today's society and news cycles. I don't place as much importance on the concept of "hope" as you do- hope doesn't do anything for me. When I am at peace with myself and the world around me, I don't need hope. I'm not looking for it because I already have the stillness and peace of mind that comes from something other than myself... (but don't ask me where it comes from, I couldn't tell you!) Many thanks, Elizabeth
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