Friday, November 11, 2011

The Agnostic Gospel Choir

I had a blast back in August singing in a Village Harmony adult camp. The obvious highlight for me was singing the solo part of a gospel number, “Ain't Got Time To Die." It felt good, was a fun stretch for me, I'm told it sounded good... and in reflection it was a very odd choice for me.

As I've discussed earlier, though I belong to a denomination that many think is a Christian sect, I am not a professed Christian, nor do I carry may of the hallmarks of such: I do not accept Jesus as my savior, nor do I accept God as Father, or believe most of the stories in the gospels as literal, if-you-had-been-there-with-a-video-recorder-you'd-have-seen-it-too truth. I'm some flavor of agnostic, one with pretty strong non-theistic sensibilities. Deistic, maybe, but... here I am really enjoying singing gospel tunes.

OK, there's really nothing new here. I learned “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and all those other spiritual standards back in grade school. They were cultural artifacts—good songs from the African-American tradition. I learned a lot of them off of Weavers records: Lee Hays was a lapsed minister's son. I sing and love Christmas carols. I sang Vivaldi's Gloria and Schubert's Mass in G in school. And so on, and so on. You'll have a hard time singing choral music in this society without singing music meant for church services—but over time we've developed a framework where if it's sung in concert, it doesn't count—the whole performance has a big frame, a set of quote marks around it, just as performing in HMS Pinafore doesn't suggest you have any experience as a sailor.

Out of concert, and the frame is not so clear. When the Blind Boys of Alabama opened for Peter Gabriel a few years ago, we were all singing and dancing in the aisles, and then one of them said something to the effect of his feeling the power of the Lord and this whole hall praising Jesus, and OK fine, who am I to say otherwise, but it felt a little awkward because, well, I was singing along but I didn't mean the words literally.

Or my atheist/pagan fellow singer who got in a huff about all the religious songs—old-time gospel, mainly—that cropped up in a row at a pub sing. Or the fellow singer at the camp who wondered what his fellow Jewish friends would think about him singing gospel with such gusto.

The “frames and quotes" think only goes so far. I find a lot of the white-folky versions of spirituals I grew up with pale and even a little offensive. I joke about forming an "agnostic gospel choir" for people like me who love to sing the songs but aren't interested in being the house choir for a faith we don't really share. But as I think about it, the built-in insincerity would end up showing, one way or another. It would be fake.

Because what makes gospel work is something I just don't have that explicitly: utter commitment. Not that gospel singers are free from sin, or perfected saints in any sense, but when they sing, and sing well, it requires the whole body to dig in and hold up the song, and the lyrics are about as un-ironic as you can get. And that's part of the appeal, and it's something I and a lot of urban liberals like me simply don't carry around with us in any sort of coherent package.