Church in a Minor Key: Lament

To begin, I should strongly voice my joy at seeing so many churches in America working toward recovery of a biblical ethic of life that matches their commitment to the authority of Scripture—and the reaffirming of many churches that have been striving toward this all along. In a fraught cultural moment, I am praising God daily for congregations that follow after the full counsel of God, not just offering a reassuring supernatural pat-on-the-back to the culture.

That said, I’ve got a small bone to pick—a friendly *ahem* to my brothers and sisters— I think it’s important that our music match our message, and I’m concerned that we don’t try hard enough to do that.

Put more bluntly, why don’t we sing more songs of confession and lament? Wrestling with sin and its effects (both individually and corporately) is a major theme of Scripture, including the part designed for our worship together: Psalms. By most counts, nearly half the psalter is focused on individual or communal lament, even more if you include penitential and imprecatory psalms. Kelly M. Kapic, in Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering, writes: “Biblically, we discover that lament is a legitimate, even necessary form of fellowship with God when we are in a place of pain. The Bible repeatedly affirms lament to be an honest and expected expression of our battle with the brokenness of ourselves and the rest of the world” (p. 29).

God clearly wants our sorrows offered up to him as surely as our joys, yet most of us sing the Psalms (or more modern songs based on them) infrequently, and when we do, we tend to stick with Psalms of ascent, enthronement, or thanksgiving. Of course, all the Psalms have a place in our public worship and private devotion, but it is perhaps time to lift up lament to restore a balance to our corporate songbooks.

So why don’t we sing more songs of a darker mood?

At least part of the reason comes from our Protestant focus on preaching of the Word as the key aspect of public worship. Our church leaders tend to put our energy into crafting the sermon and then building the rest of the service around that. This is a good habit, but too often it results in the musical accompaniments receiving less attention as part of the worship (sometimes, I get the sense that many congregants attach reversed importance to these, but that’s another subject). We spend hours poring over Scripture and commentaries to craft a 30-40 minute sermon, but we pull the 30 minutes of songs from a standard basket of tunes that our congregation has grown accustomed to singing.

When it comes to lamenting sin and the brokenness it brings to our people and our cultural institutions, we leave the pastor to do the heavy lifting through preaching. Too often, though, we set up our pastors for an impossible task. Prophetically preaching against sin and injustice is difficult. It is appreciably more difficult when it is introduced by 3 major-key songs about rejoicing in the Lord and bookended by another praising Him for our salvation. How much more effective could that preaching be at carrying this load when underscored by music and lyrics that reflect the tone and text of the sermon? This requires worship leaders to do the same quality of digging and study as preaching pastors, resisting the urge to stick to the same familiar rotation of songs.

Another, more troubling, factor here is that our “basket” of songs, hymns, and spiritual songs is very light on lament. Much of the Western (particularly American) church songbook reflects incomplete views of the Christian life. We need to remember that our song choices are not neutral, and that our songs often come freighted with the blind spots of the past. Sometimes this results in nothing worse than a bit of discord between a song service of gospel triumphalism and a sermon of lament; sometimes it seems almost completely tone-deaf to the emotional/spiritual tenor of a worship gathering, with the music all but encouraging us to forget and ignore the message.

In broad strokes (there are plenty of exceptions), our hymns from the 18th and early 19th centuries have a tendency to focus on a triumphal understanding of the completed work of Christ and personal devotion to Him, reflecting a postmillennial confidence that the culture itself was Christian and needed only encouragement down that path (nevermind the existential problem of the church’s widespread blessing of chattel slavery). Once Darby and Scofield popularized premillennial dispensationalism, the gospel songs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries tended to focus increasingly on a disembodied (yet very present) hope of glory, reinforcing piety as the main mode of faithfulness here and now. I don’t really have a good theory for why so many of the songs of the mid-late 20th century are so relentlessly cheerful, other than perhaps that they reflect a time when majority-culture churches were turning a blind eye to civil rights abuses, unjust war, and the effects of the sexual revolution—far be it from functional dualists to write songs of gritty, embodied anguish.

Historically, churches in the dominant culture of any given context have a tendency to drift from a consistent, holistic Christian witness that closely follows the “true narrative” of Christ (per Hauerwas). When this happens, we forget to trust Christ for all things, and only lean on him in areas where the culture fails to meet our deepest needs—we have “a gospel of of the gaps” (per Carl Ellis). This reduces the church to caring primarily about the metaphysical aspects of our faith, and so our corporate worship knows little of the deep concerns of this life.

Music has tremendous power to help us remember truth. That’s why we include it in our worship in the first place. What truths we choose to commit to memory via music matters. Our music, just as much as our sermons should shape us to weep with those who weep, turn our hearts to love the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, and the lost. Our music should call our attention to our own complicity in systemic sins by our love of comfort.

Again, Kapic says:

When contemporary churches cease to sing laments as part of their regular catalog of songs, instead only choosing happy or upbeat music, the people of God lose their ability to lament well: our muscles for godly mourning atrophy. We become ill-equipped to handle the pain that life throws at us. Without space for genuine lament, false veneers and bitterness easily take root, eventually bringing destruction in their wake. Suffering surprises and isolates once-active worshippers, often driving them away. When the homes of believers are hit by chronic pain or mental illness, they often find the contemporary church strangely unhelpful, even hurtful. A hurting family no longer fits the American Christian model of growth, happiness, and victory. When the church is robbed of its regular pronouncements, prayers, and songs of lament, then, like a shepherd distracted by the stars in the sky, it fails to protect and nourish the vulnerable sheep entrusted to its care. Rather than receiving special care and protection, the wounded believer is left alone to doubt and despair. The church that responds by entering their lament, however, participates in the healing that the wounded find at the feet of the compassionate Father. There we lay them; there we cry out with them; there we together long for healing and hope (p. 38).

So how do we begin to work against the grain here, and reintroduce the needed discipline of lament into our corporate worship? For starters, we just need to rummage a little father down the song list for the tremendous songs of weighty emotion that we so naturally gravitate toward in liturgical seasons of longing (Advent and Eastertide) and at times of overt grief (funerals). The African American tradition of Spirituals and classic hymns like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” and “Be Still My Soul” are a great place to start. Many modern hymns, such as Matt Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name” or Stuart Townend’s “The Power of the Cross” get closer to the mark as well. I can’t think of another songwriter working in the corporate worship space that gets the spirit of lament as well as my friend Wendell Kimbrough.

There are many others as well that we can learn from by listening to (even if they’re not designed for singing together)—the work of artists like Amanda Opelt (another friend), Propaganda, Sho Baraka, and Josh Garrells comes to mind as examples of bringing musical expression to the harder realities of life. And there’s plenty of room for new songs and songwriters here!

Again, this is a friendly nudge, and certainly not unique to me. I’m encouraged by what I see and hear already, and long for more. Songs that proclaim the fulness of the gospel (including the sorrow!) in ways that show God’s love to a hurting world are a needed witness for the church in every age. When we are in our greatest need of Christ, we are least likely to find him through the abundance of overly joyful music we’re apt to encounter at a given church on a given Sunday. Press on!

Image: Quarry & Fog, Hamilton County, Tenn., September 2018.

Doc, Gospel, and the Gospel

Last night, Rachel & I went to see May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers. I can’t commend this documentary enough, and not just because I’m an unashamed fan of this band. There is something on display in their music and this film that pushes back, gently but firmly, against so many cultural orthodoxies and idols.

I can’t quite name them all, but the desire to lean in to hard truths and deep pain (rather than fleeing them with all possible speed) is close to the core of it. At one point in the film, Scott Avett, describing the season when bassist Bob Crawford’s daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer and band members kept vigil with the family at the hospital, said, “That’s when we grew up as men.” It’s a tacit recognition that maturity only comes through suffering, and that the greatest joys in life lie on the other side of such experiences.

One other moment sticks out, as well. Seth Avett described his reintroduction to folk and bluegrass music through spending time with Doc Watson as a young adult. Doc is not a “nobody” by any stretch, but he is not as widely known as perhaps he should be. Quite a number of artists trace their career success back to his influence, and he is, in some measure responsible for the return of “Americana” music to mainstream consciousness. For me, Doc is an emblem of home, for reasons described below in some thoughts I wrote after learning of his death over five years ago.


May 30, 2012.

Growing up in Watauga County, North Carolina, you inevitably hear some really good folk and bluegrass music. It just seems like the natural soundtrack to green mountains and mist-filled valleys. In Watauga, especially, one name always epitomized the gold-standard of mountain music: hometown legend Arthel “Doc” Watson. Doc was a fixture on the nationwide folk circuit for the better part of 5 decades, winning 7 Grammy awards (plus a lifetime achievement award) and the National Arts Medal. He was completely blind from early childhood, but made his way in the world quite capably with his other senses.

Doc passed on yesterday at 89, still picking and singing joyfully in his old age. It feels close to home for me, as his family homestead was just across the highway from my parents’ “homestead” (since 2006) in the little farm community of Deep Gap. The few times I crossed paths with Doc (more often at the grocery store than any place music-related), he struck me as a genuinely humble and grateful man—the simple fact that he was still living on his family land in Deep Gap after his fame attests to that.

Like many of his folk, bluegrass, and country contemporaries, Doc wrote or recorded a lot of spiritually themed music, what could broadly be termed “gospel” songs. It’s difficult to separate the biblical content from those genres, even in songs not explicitly about Christian concepts. The music, is, as Flannery O’Connor might say, “Christ-haunted” because of the deeply Christian culture that birthed it. If the testimonies of those who knew him better and the frequency and passion with which he sang about Christ and the Church are any indication, Doc’s love for these themes was anything but cultural. If so, he’s now living what he said once at a concert: “When I leave this world…I’ll be able to see like you can, only maybe a bit more perfect.”

Can “gospel” music be simply a superficial nod to the Christian roots of our culture that doesn’t have anything to do with the true Gospel message? Of course, but I think it also can be an ember that keeps the cultural memory of God’s sovereign grace from fading completely. Satan loves to have nations relegate the truth of Scripture and the influence of the Church to their history or to certain subcultures. Even more, though, God wills to see nations transformed by His Gospel, and He uses even the histories and subcultures of those nations to plant seeds that can fan those embers into a flame once again.

I don’t want to be in the business of over-spiritualizing popular culture, but I do see a bright lining to the customarily dark clouds of American entertainment in the resurgence of traditional (or “Americana”) music over the past decade. Of course, the music itself doesn’t qualify as preaching. The seeds of the Gospel contained in that music won’t do much to change hearts and lives unless they are watered by clear, faithful teaching of Scripture and modeled in the faithful witness of believers.

If Doc was indeed a follower of Christ, I’m sure he could think of no better legacy than that his music would be used to stir the calloused soul of America to hope again. As he sang in a recording of an old hymn (below), so also we can know that our hope doesn’t depend on our culture or, mercifully, on our own merit.

“Uncloudy Day”
by Josiah K. Allwood, Public Domain

O they tell me of a home far beyond the skies,
O they tell me of a home far away;
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an uncloudy day.

Refrain
O the land of cloudless day,
O the land of an uncloudy day,
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an uncloudy day.

O they tell me of a home where my friends have gone,
O they tell me of that land far away,
Where the tree of life in eternal bloom
Sheds its fragrance through the uncloudy day.

O they tell me of a King in His beauty there,
And they tell me that mine eyes shall behold
Where He sits on the throne that is whiter than snow,
In the city that is made of gold.

O they tell me that He smiles on His children there,
And His smile drives their sorrows all away;
And they tell me that no tears ever come again
In that lovely land of uncloudy day.

Photo © Ken Ketchie, www.boonencinfo.com

Something Else Matters Most: Music for an Anxious Age

“Just do your best. It’s the only way to keep that last bit of sanity. Maybe I don’t have to be good, but I can try to be at least a little better than I’ve been so far.”
~ The Avett Brothers, “When I Drink”

I dearly love music.

The ability to create (good) music remains a bit beyond my grasp, and so I’ve always admired the creations of others—preferably at a volume suitable to parse nuances of vocals and instrumentation. This fact is to the frequent chagrin of family, co-workers, and fellow vehicle passengers. Thank the Lord for headphones. My tastes, such as they are, range all over, leaping genres and centuries from one hour to the next. I have affinity for particular bands or composers (and even interpretations thereof) more so than broad, industry-determined categories. I own plenty of albums/songs from years of gathering (more than I have time to listen to regularly), but even that collection doesn’t reflect the full spectrum of preference with access to of Pandora, Spotify, and the maddening diaspora of choice.

It is probably not surprising then that I could not name a single “favorite” song or musician. Taste is a horrible thing to quantify. Still, if there has been a soundtrack to life of late, though, it has been the Avett Brothers.

Perhaps there is some deep, rumbling affection toward them from my North Carolina expat heart. Maybe it is their legendary engagement with fans throughout an always-full tour schedule. It could be their relentless creativity, as they reinvent themselves from album to album without losing their core dynamic. At bottom, though, I engage with Scott, Seth, Bob, Joe, et al., as poets as much as musicians.

Avetts

Photo © James Nix, Independent Tribune

The success of their recent albums comes as no surprise to those of us who’ve been listening for a while (and if having Judd Apatow direct a documentary on your band isn’t the heights of popular culture, I’m not sure what is). Plenty of better critics than me have reviewed the Avett’s music and chronicled their rise to fame. I’ll even sidestep the question of taste. What interests me is not whether their music is good (though I’d fight anyone who says otherwise), but why it has risen to the heights of culture right now.

Why, in a culture obsessed with the new, do songs dealing with the pain and sorrow of the past chart right behind poseur pop stars and forgettable tween idols? Why, in a world where familial, social, and political bands have all but dissolved, does simple, honest music cut through the mess to draw people together? Something else matters most, and, try as we might, there is no escaping it. The Avetts are among a very few musicians who dive right into the spiritual/relational hunger of our anxious age.

The Avett Brothers’ style is hard to nail down. Ostensibly beginning as a bluegrass group, they simultaneously evoke Southern Rock, folk, emo, and even electronica. Somehow they manage to be both high-hipster and down-home country. They remind me most broadly, though, of 70s music.

I know that’s not a genre either, but the 1970s were a golden age of music. It was the mainstream glam pop of Elton John and David Bowie, but not just that. It was the arena rock of Boston, Kansas, or Journey, but not just that. It was the R&B, Funk, Disco, or Memphis Soul, but not just that. It wasn’t even just the zenith of soft-rock, with James Taylor, Billy Joel, Carole King, John Denver, Dan Fogelberg. The 1970s was all of this, humming in the background of a decade-long cultural trainwreck.

That trainwreck (Vietnam, Watergate, Roe v. Wade, the Cold War, coups & revolutions, stagflation, and general malaise) could’ve been precisely what made the music go. In a time of political, economic, and social dysfunction, we turn inward, searching for our lost stability in love, family, and faith. Enduring art always needs a little prodding from external discomfort—when the black hole yawns widest, the artist feels most alive.

Culturally, it seems that we are now living through a 70s redux (though 2016-17 has seemed a little more 1968 than any of us are comfortable with). Musically, then, it stands to reason that the explosion of soul-searching indie-folk (Sufjan Stevens, Iron and Wine, Head and the Heart, etc.) would be a natural result. It is the Avetts, though, who emerge as the second coming of all your 70s favorites, because they manage evoke them all.

Though there is something reassuringly familiar about each of their songs, they do not subsist on nostalgia. Each album manages to be fresh and new. Rather than spending all their reserves on their debut project, they work and mature, genuinely getting better with age. They are even getting more overtly religious, boldly incorporating biblical language and flouting the increasing pop-culture taboos against Christianity.

The vapidity of much of what passes for “Christian music” these days may be driving the rise of thoughtful voices in the rest of the industry just as much as it has led to the decline and fall of the Christian Contemporary labels. When the Avetts can earnestly lament depression, alcoholism, pornography and rejoice in the promise of friendship and redemption (all in one song!) with musical excellence, why bother creating a counterculture? Moreover, they’ve recently announced that a new recording project (a joint effort with Scott & Seth’s dad, Jim Avett) will be a gospel album.

So it’s here I’ll take my stand, proclaiming an undying love for this band. Taste? Sure, but some things matter even more. While the mainstream continues rushing away from truth and beauty, we need more and more to be reassured that the simpler themes of life, death, love, loss, joy, and pain still carry the day. People are looking for other things to live by, and the mournful hope proffered by the Avetts is pointing the way for many.

I went on the search for something real.
Traded what I know for how I feel.
But the ceiling and the walls collapsed
Upon the darkness I was trapped
And as the last of breath was drawn from me
The light broke in and brought me to my feet.

There’s no fortune at the end of the road that has no end.
There’s no returning to the spoils
Once you’ve spoiled the thought of them.
There’s no falling back to sleep
Once you’ve wakened from the dream.
Now I’m rested and I’m ready,
I’m rested and I’m ready to begin.

~ The Avett Brothers, “February Seven”

Photo credit: James Nix, Independent Tribune