Atheist Pulpit: About That Choir of Angels...


The Juice has invited New Times theater critic, Brandon K.
Thorp, to provide a running critique of one of the region's most popular, most enduring stage shows: Sunday service at Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale. With nearly 20,000 members it is the state's biggest church. In his first installment of the series Thorp considers the congregation's hymnal offerings.

Contemporary Christian worship music is pure hell. Yes, it's competently played. Yes, white Christian praise bands do sound a little like U2 -- like they're playing the soundtrack to some as-yet-unmade, wide screen epic, in which moral rectitude is enough to defeat the heathens and win the girl. But it's got no balls. It is sterile, niggardly, and if the praise band at Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale is representative, resoundingly insincere. Also, it's bad.

I'm not saying this because I'm an atheist curmudgeon who'd like to see Evangelicals gibbeted and thrown into an active volcano (though I am that, too). I'm perfectly willing to groove to godly music, provided it rocks -- Sweet Honey In The Rock, the Staples Singers, a whole generation of country pickers who stumbled through life with nothing but a bottle and the Book. This was music performed by people who lacked so much, who inhabited a world of such clearly defined boundaries and limitations, that it communicated not merely faith in salvation but an urgent, blood-boiling demand for it, fueled by a need that most moderns simply can't understand. "God grant me heaven," it seemed to say, "Because there is fuck-all down here."

Consider the case of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, born black and female in Arkansas in 1915. You must watch this video to get a sense of what she could do.

The song is "Down By The Riverside," and it begins with Rosetta ripping a distorted melody out of her guitar. It is a noise so fundamentally unattractive that it seems to prefigure Hendrix, and if you've never heard her before you're a little shocked. In a grainy black and white video this matronly black woman, who looks like she ought to be selling you cookies at a neighborhood bake sale, is making noises you ordinarily only heard out of long-haired white kids, and even then only ten years or so after the video was shot. But no -- in some corner of the early '60s, this black lady wanted to rock out. And she did. Watch as she cuts from her initial solo into a series of diminutive, strummed chords, and lays a structure over which her big choir and little band begin to play a fast, jubilant shuffle.

Then, watch as she sings. She doesn't look jubilant at all, at least not at first. She looks mean. "I'm gonna lay down my heavy load" is the first line, and she doesn't quite seem to trust her own message: casting her glance around the room, she seems to expect somebody to stand up and say, "No you will not!" But nobody does, and the second time she sings it, eyes closed, you can feel her imagining what it would be like to do the thing she's singing about. Yes, you can read in her face, laying down that load would be awful nice. She allows herself a smile.

Then comes the chorus, sung in a new key: "Now I ain't gonna study!" She shouts the last word as the tempo kicks up, as the choir of suit-wearing black men behind her sings "No more no more no more!" Confident that nobody in the room is going to get in her way, she's disregarding all the temporal responsibilities of a life that was thrust upon her -- a life as a member of a gender she never asked to be a part of, as a color she never asked to be colored, in a country she never asked to live in, during a century she never asked to see -- and suddenly whatever distance she experienced between her music and her audience is gone, dissolved by the music. In the music, all the life that her circumstances denied her can suddenly be experienced directly, and within the circumscribed world of a gospel song -- with a god on her side, with a heaven in her future, and with an audience that loves her -- she is constrained by nothing. She claps, her feet move of their own accord, her hands rise higher and higher in the air, anticipating the song's crescendos. Tharpe's intensity, both in her voice and in her long, fast guitar solo, is mesmerizing.

It's an intensity that didn't come free. Even without knowing the biographical details of her life, you can tell that Tharpe brought the capacity to feel and express this joy with a million unwilling sacrifices. She can do this thing only because there are so many other things she cannot do. In the second verse, she sings "I'm gonna meet my loving mooother," and on Tharpe's face you can read peace, excitement, longing, and the joy that is ubiquitous in all music of this kind. But you know for a fact that she'd rather meet her mother here and now than in the great beyond, just as you know she'd rather "lay down her heavy load" here and now than in some future heaven.

But in old Christian music, there is always an implicit understanding that this is impossible. Blues and gospel are, in this way, twin musics: blues acknowledges the implacability of misery and failure, while gospel acknowledges its ultimate impermanence. (Among old blues artists, only Robert Johnson was metaphysical enough to wonder if the doubt and helplessness of the blues might be the higher truth.)

Now watch the Calvary Chapel praise band. Specifically, watch their performance from Sunday, the 9th of November. Though I selected it at random from a long list of online church services, it's hard to watch this without thinking that American Christianity is in a state of extreme crisis.

Please note: I am not talking about the sermon that follows the concert. Pastor Bob is probably the most charismatic and effective preacher in America today, and his sermon is fine -- or, if not strictly "fine," it's at least got some verve. Even if Pastor Bob is a human jellyfish and a charlatan, as future blog posts shall contend, you can't fault his congregants for digging him. The same cannot be said of his band. It seems to me that the band, and the congregation's reaction to the band, suggest a moral and intellectual vacuity at the heart of Calvary that nobody would ever suspect from watching Bob preach.

We'll confine our discussion to the very first song, a ditty called "Sovereign Lord." "For You are the Sovereign 'I Am,'" goes the refrain, giving the singers a chance to impress the Supreme Creator of The Universe by reminding him of his own name.

All of the lyrics to this song, as in so many modern worship songs, are written in the second person. The singers address their god directly, saying things like "You are deserving of all glory" and "You created the heavens." On the face of it, these sentiments are not so different from those expressed in the short songs that pepper the Catholic mass, but their aesthetic is a world away. In the Catholic mass, when the congregation sings the "Gloria" ("Glory to God in the highest/And peace to his people on earth"), they do it to a cadence that suggests tradition and permanence, or at least pre-Renaissance Europe. It is a ritual, and the words are sung with all the solemnity that a serious ritual demands.

At Calvary, the band is trying to create the atmosphere of a rock concert, and the singers mug for their tune as though Simon Cowell was in the audience. Problem is, the words simply do not lend themselves to the rock star treatment. What about the statement "You are the Sovereign 'I Am'"could make these singers look like they're cumming in their pants? (Pardon the crudity, but that's what they look like.) Either the singers genuinely are moved by this bizarrely circuitous statement, or else Calvary Chapel has consented to begin its services with a hideous little lie, just so some semi-talented housewife could pretend to be Janis Joplin for a few minutes. You be the judge.

Just as the song is about to end, a blond woman sings the bridge: "Your faithfulness is unending, for you reach the depths of me. You reach the depths of me! You reach the depths of me!" Forget for a moment that this borders on the pornographic, and forget the ungrammatical construction (which seems to suggest that Jehovah's "faithfulness is unending" precisely and only because he reaches the depths of this depthless blond hausfrau; an idea with the wild implication that prior to the hausfrau's existence, Jehovah's faithfulness was severely compromised). Instead, focus on how easily the song assumes that Jehovah's work with this woman is done. Look at how easily it assumes that she is saved, automatically, and that her god has "filled" her "depths" before she even began singing.

Those who know their Christian lit will note how shockingly similar this is to another, older piece of verse: John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV. John Donne was a poet, lawyer, and priest who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries, and whose work has never been out of print. You can read his Holy Sonnet here. Pay close attention to its language: this doesn't just "border" on the pornographic, like "Sovereign Lord." It is pornographic.

When Donne writes "except that you enthrall me, [I] never shall be free/Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me," he is asking Jehovah to rape him. And why would he need to be raped? Why can't he give himself over to Jehovah of his own free will? Because he is a sinner and a reprobate, just as the Bible says we all are, living in an evil world. Donne goes so far as to say he is betrothed to the devil. And so before Jehovah can "fill the depths" of John Donne, according to the poem, Jehovah will have to "batter," "knock," "breath," "shine," "overthrow," "break," "blow," "burn," "divorce," "untie," "imprison," "enthrall," and "ravish" him first. The bodily, worldly part of John Donne is at war with his soul, and without Jehovah's violent intervention, Donne's soul will lose.

This image of warfare is everywhere in the Bible, and the struggle of war can be found in every corner of Christian history, from early Christian martyrs through John Donne and his contemporary, John Winthrop, through the congregations who listened to Jonathan Edwards preach his famous sermon, "Sinners In The Hands of an Angry God," a century later. And in the black churches that birthed America's finest music, struggle informs every note the choirs ever sang. The contrast between the awfulness of this world and the perfection of the next is what gave Christian art its passion, its fire, its worth. And it was worth a lot. For all their philosophical iniquities and misapprehensions about the nature of the cosmos, "Holy Sonnet" and "Down By The Riverside" are beautiful, powerful pieces of art.

Not so with "Sovereign Lord." In this song and in all of the many Pastor Bob sermons that we'll dig our claws into over the coming months, there is no intimation that faith requires any genuinely painful sacrifice or struggle. Just ask and Jehovah is there, whammo, like a genie out of a bottle -- like Superman! -- saving you and making everything all better forever. Never mind that this is Biblically inaccurate -- never mind that in the Gospel of Matthew, 10:21, as in countless other places, Jesus explains to his followers that they "will be hated by men for my name's sake, but he who endures to the end will be saved." Never mind that the notion of Calvary Chapel being hated by anyone, or enduring anything more daunting than a pledge drive, would be entirely foreign to the congregants' sensibilities. The Bible is an incomprehensible muddle of contradictions anyway, so Pastor Bob may be right: maybe you've just gotta spread your legs for Jehovah and life will be beautiful. Maybe the early Christians didn't get the memo and had themselves martyred unnecessarily. Maybe Sister Rosetta Tharpe needed to lighten up. Life might be awesome in the Calvarian Utopia, and I don't mean to claim it isn't. I'm just saying that in a world where everything's perfect, the music is doomed to suck, and suck bad.

-- Brandon K. Thorp


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