reviewed by Russell D. Moore
How can artists like Willie Nelson end a concert by moving, without comment, from crooning “Whiskey River, Take My Mind” to softly singing “Amazing Grace”? The authors of Honky-Tonk Gospel— published four years ago but still the only book of its sort—contend that this is not as contradictory as it seems, since the popular music and the popular religion of the American South feed off a common understanding of theological questions, such as the relationship between sin and grace.
Gene Edward Veith and Thomas L. Wilmeth suggest that country music helps explain southern pop theology largely because this art form, unlike many others, “has a way of acknowledging the sinfulness of sin.” They root southern folk music in the revivalist worship of frontier Baptists and Methodists, for whom “the line between the camp meeting and the church service began to blur” in the nineteenth century.
The authors are both noted Evangelical worldview analysts. Wilmeth teaches English at Concordia University, and Veith is culture editor of World magazine.
Since country music has represented a kind of “secularized testimony,” it can focus attention, simultaneously, on drunkenness and infidelity on the one hand and marital love and Christian conversion on the other. Using country music as a test case for the cultural context of southern religion, the authors explore the theological assumptions behind the lyrics of country musicians, assumptions that resonate in the region’s pulpits as well as its radio airwaves.
They have identified some surprising—but deeply pervasive—theological underpinnings present in both southern music and southern religion. One such underpinning is a complex view of gender and sexuality. While southern folk culture, and especially southern religion, have been caricatured as reflexively misogynist and patriarchal, the lyrics of country music songs reflect a much more complicated tension.
Female singers like Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn sing about the need for respect for women, but they do so from the vantage point not of secular feminism, but of a Christian tradition of husbands honoring their wives and families by refusing to abandon them for the neighborhood bar or the woman on the next barstool.
Similarly, while a country music song might be as sexually explicit as its “Top 40” counterpart on the radio dial, the romantic overtures in country music are more often directed to one’s spouse than to an illicit lover. Veith and Wilmeth attribute this to a residual cultural nod toward the Christian belief in the goodness of marriage.
At the same time, they diagnose a trend in country music toward a postmodern rejection of universal truth claims or any overarching meta-narrative capable of explaining history and morality. The fact that postmodern lingo can find its way into the most conservative and tradition-laden of American popular art forms is, for the writers, a warning signal to the churches of an epistemological nihilism growing in the culture at large—and in their own churches as well.
But this nihilism was preceded by an even more longstanding antinomianism in southern popular culture, fed by the preaching of southern churches on the doctrine of salvation. Country music often illustrates, in full color, the kinds of “carnal Christian” soteriological concepts that are almost cultural givens in the American South. Thus, pastors who are familiar with what is being sung from Nashville should not be completely surprised to see the funeral of the town drunk feature the singing of “I Saw the Light.” After all, the writer of the song, Hank Williams, was himself an unrepentant alcoholic and adulterer—and a very public professing Evangelical Christian.
Veith and Wilmeth also very helpfully use country music lyrics to expose the culture’s love-hate relationship with the local congregation. They argue compellingly that southern culture has adopted an unbiblical, individualistic view of human spirituality that is the direct result of a truncated Evangelical ecclesiology.
Country music lyrics, therefore, speak incessantly of the church, but always of the abandoned little country church in which the repentant sinner bows and prays—alone. As the writers conclude, “In contemporary country music, the church as the place of salvation has all but disappeared.”
It can be argued that these lyrics simply reflect what southern Evangelicalism itself has embraced for too long: a gospel in which “Jesus saves” the individual soul, rather than the biblical message in which Jesus purchases individuals and calls them together as a church (Eph. 5:25–30). The cultural pervasiveness of this notion should spur Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals toward the project of emphasizing the need for a biblical and theological understanding of the church as the Body of Christ and the focal point of personal salvation.
Honky-Tonk Gospel offers a helpful method of cultural analysis. Unlike some contemporary Evangelicals, this book’s authors do not treat popular culture as in any way revelatory. The Spirit is not seen to be speaking through the lyrics of George Jones or the Dixie Chicks. Cultural analysis thus serves as a missiological exercise rather than an epistemological one.
This book, therefore, is a helpful tool for Christians seeking to navigate a region that Flannery O’Connor famously called “Christ-haunted.” While country music enthusiasts across the nation have hailed this book for its thoughtful treatment of the art form, the volume may prove even more valuable for pastors and theologians as they seek to diagnose the sometimes hidden theologies in the pews of southern churches.
As such, Honky-Tonk Gospel helps to remind us that the world is made up of theologians, some of whom acknowledge the Creator and some of whom do not (Romans 1). Evangelicals indeed must pay attention to the writings of John Calvin and John Wesley. But we must also pay attention to Johnny Cash. •
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