By John Pierce
The Gospel Train carries me to church on Sunday mornings via satellite radio. The good picking turns exclusively to praising on the Bluegrass Junction channel for a few hours each Lord’s Day.
My daughter Abigail was with me recently when the lyrics of these songs led me to offer some unrequested background information on the culture out of which this music was birthed and grew.
I pointed to the consistent themes of enduring hardship with a hopeful eye to the future, suffering in the present moment with the promise of eternal relief, and living with little now while awaiting great heavenly rewards. Similar themes, I noted, are found in Southern Gospel — which I call “mansion music” since the four-part harmony often rises in hopes of moving into some grand house in the by and by.
The reasons for such themes, I added — though Abigail had no follow-up questions, or in fact, no initial questioning — was that such music came out of a culture of poverty and struggle.
“Our understanding of God and the ways we interpret the Bible, and therefore the ways we practice our personal faith, are shaped by the social contexts in which we live,” I added. “That doesn’t mean they are not real in any way; it just helps to recognize how our cultural experiences impact our perceptions of God, life and eternity.”
I was on a roll.
“Since we live in a comfortable home, for example, we don’t really yearn for a heavenly mansion,” I continued. “But if, decades ago, you had grown up in a cabin in the Appalachians or in an old farmhouse that had ice on the inside walls in the winter and an outhouse several freezing steps down a path, the idea of a heavenly mansion would be appealing.”
It dawned on me that an introductory course in sociology of religion at Berry College is when I first begin to see how cultural settings impact our understanding and practice of faith. In more recent years I heard someone say insightfully: “Tell me what you fear and I’ll tell you your theology.”
Being captive to the front seat of my car, Abigail tolerated my lecture. Perhaps because it drowned out much of the morning music of my choosing.
After listening patiently, she finally added that she understood what I was saying. She recalled being at church as a child when the teacher asked each of them to draw a picture of what Heaven looks like.
“I really liked bacon back then,” she said. “So I drew a house made out of bacon.”
Yep, she got it. And said it so much more clearly and concisely than did I.