Saturday, September 20, 2008

"The Gospel Truth"

"I’ve been running around the country for the last year, going to church on Sunday mornings (waking up early is a commitment for musicians, let me remind you). From Nevada to Memphis to Dallas, and all across Chicago, I’ve been going to meetin'. These eleven songs (and it takes all eleven of 'em) illustrate how I found the Church, and the Christian Faith, to be these days: uplifting, inspiring, generous – and – fearful, bigoted, backwards -so there's much to celebrate, and much to change, both " These are the words of Susan Werner regarding her release this past year of "Gospel Truth." This release is full of wonderful music which I commend to your listening, as well her other work which is of a very different genre. A lapsed Catholic who claims to now be agnostic, she wrote this set of songs in response to a friend's question, after witnessing a gospel singing performance, " Can you have the joy without the Jesus?" In her interview with Chicago Public Radio, Werner notes that there are lots of people who have cobbled together a combination of sacred and secular which is their "religion" for whom the idea that it doesn't have to be orthodox is being recognized in her songs.
She takes on and questions many of the differences and hypocrisy of "religion" versus "God." I listened to this album for a class I am taking entitled, "Song, Mission and Culture," with the task of determining in part, is there gospel in these songs, and while I would love to have been able to have posted music here, you can hear and see both at Susan

I have listened to this music now several times.Unlike those who researched her, I did not know anything about the artist when I began listening, but I do know that I recognized alot of what she had to say in my own faith journey ( where I was told women cannot be pastors because God does not intend it), and in the stories I have heard and continue to hear in my work as a chaplain, in the women's ministry at the Rescue Mission, and in the stories I hear from all kinds of people about why they struggle with "religion" versus "God."

Many people have experienced not getting to tell their story, or having their questions minimized or invalidated when they attempt to reconcile their Sunday school faith with their lived religion, that taking of faith to the next level- of doing more than blindly accepting and parrot-ing the code. My experience of listening to Werner was not one of hearing total rejection, but looking for affirmation that it is OK to question, that the intersection of faith and life is messy. She looks back on getting all "cleaned up" to go to Church, which I think represents putting on the right appearance even when it is not "alright." Getting there late, as the "not quite good enough." Praying to be "who they are supposed to be." Wondering if we are still loved children of God if we are not? Not happy with being told a judgmental answer. Yet on Sunday morning she thinks there is somewhere she is supposed to be.

"I know you’d damn me if you could.. if your God is so great, why is your heaven so small?" reminded me of the phrase our Dean used recently, the "idolatry of certainty.” Werner's query, "Someone somewhere excluded you?" confronts the process where though we all want to be loved and affirmed, the question becomes- by what process? This evokes the "God is on my side" philosophy that I too take issue with. Many of her songs strike me as being prophetic about the need for greater understanding and compassion, and reflect honest responses when this is not received. "How do you love people who want to shove you in front of the train? You’re bleeding- they hold their prayer meeting...Loaded their Bibles and armed their disciples..I can’t find forgiveness..Only God knows and He is not taking sides. I hope one day He shows us how to love those who will never love us who still we must love." I hear in this the challenge of the gospel message, and it reminded me of leading a Bible study at the Mission where the women studied the Good Samaritan and openly discussed their challenges in seeing others as their neighbor. Werner strikes me as trying to reconcile her own lack of acceptance with her belief that she is called to do more.

And in the midst of her reflections, she exhorts God, "Deliver us from those who think they’re you." I see this as being more than just about one denomination despite the references. My take on "lost my religion- because I saw too much and got off track" was more about abandoning a particular construct or experience than defintively abandoning God. In part because other songs wonder about the cosmic, and not wanting it to be rationalized, as well as her urging in response to what "some might say", she counters with "I beg to disagree." There is honest questioning about God- she is not ready to deny categorically, and she desperately wants to see the God with a human face and the time and place where everyone will come together, evoking eschatological hopes. While she is clearly disillusioned by the imperfection of her experiences with "religion," I see a person who is seeking faith and a meaningful understanding of God not just for herself but in community, who is challenging us to respond. Even if I am wrong about Werner, I suspect she is indeed proclaiming gospel for others that it is OK to not have it all figured out, to wonder why words and actions seem incongruous.

In my experience, a faithful response to someone seeking is first to truly listen, not just to the story, but the person behind the story. And to be willing to engage our faith in questioning- if our faith must be totally nailed down to be upheld, what does that say? As someone with an interest in urban ministry, and chaplaincy, I expect these are the stories that, if permitted rather than discounted, allow for real relationships with people and God to flourish, and as Tillich writes, " It is in helping others experience God, we experience God for ourselves."

So I wonder, when we encounter people who boldly challenge us to hold our "church" up to the bright light, do we stay and talk, or do we look for the escape hatch?


Ivy said...

Now that is a challenge. I do not find myself put off by people with honest doubts and questions like this musician. She certainly raises some good points and is like many in our day who have no problems with God or Jesus, but with the church. May God give us grace to be a transformational presence in this world.

Beth said...

A former Mormon, now an ELCA pastor, I'm very thankful for the folks I met along my journey who had the wisdom to do what your heart advises: Listen and love!

It will serve you well in ministry.

Anonymous said...

Love this entry! I'm a fan and friend of Susan Werner and have passed along this blog post to her personally. I'm sure she'll be thrilled to find out her album is now "required listening" at a seminary!

Much of what you said here resonated with me and my own interpretations of the album. Susan keeps insisting she's agnostic, but I keep telling her to "stop resisting it!" (faith). I was raised ELCA Lutheran myself but am now an Episcopalian and seeking ordination in that denomination, so I loved thinking about a bunch of seminarians sitting around analyzing Susan's CD. Awesome. I want to take a class on "Song, Mission and Culture"!! What seminary are you at?

in Decatur, Ga.

LawAndGospel said...

Hi Tracy and welcome! I am at LTSG- the ELCA seminary at Gettysburg. The class is online and includes some "in the field" research as well. I hope I have been faithful to Susan's ethos. Blessings for your journey and stay in touch.