Looking for the Gospel at a Gospel Concert

by John Robert McFarland

Mr. McFarland is directing minister of Wesley United Methodist Church in Charleston, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 18-25, 1986, p. 579. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


It was the note of incarnation that was missing in that contemporary "gospel" concert. The sounds and the technology were the latest, but the heresy was the oldest — Docetism. Christ was off in heaven, waiting. Resurrection and ascension had completely superseded incarnation.

My wife and children have not forgiven me yet; perhaps they never will.

We were in the small southern Indiana town where I grew up, and a gospel concert was advertised for the auditorium of the little Christian college there. It seemed like a grand opportunity to let my family in on a part of my cultural heritage. I could already hear the piano runs, the black and white spirituals, the gospel folk tunes from the hills, the glorious harmonies of the male quartets -- it all welled up from my memories of hot, humid nights in the small, dimly lit churches of my youth.

My steel-city wife and suburbanite teen-aged children were remarkably unanxious to witness this aspect of my past. Perhaps they were remembering all the watery homemade ice cream, the mosquitos under the elms, and the interminable nostalgic "talks" at the church homecomings to which I had subjected them in the past. But I wanted them to appreciate this vestige of the true, unadulterated, uncommercialized folk religion that had provided the foundation for the urbane, analytical, sophisticated Christian I had become.

Their skepticism was well founded. The concert was a disaster from the beginning. The local newspaper had announced that it would start at 7:30. We arrived at 7:20. It had started at 7:00. There seemed to have been a local underground communication network at work to get everyone else there at the right time. The only remaining seats were in the very front row, directly in front of a huge, rectangular, mesh-fronted black box, from which poured the combined sounds of a steel mill, a chicken farm and a day-care center, accompanied by a lone violin. The daughter with the hearing problem turned her deaf ear to the box and announced (we had to read her lips) that a miracle had already occurred: she was hearing through that ear for the first and last time.

The tinkly piano of my youth had disappeared. In its place were the huge black boxes and what looked like the control panel of a 747, with great round reels of tape spewing forth the prerecorded accompaniment for the singers on stage. At first I thought the singing was on the tape, too, and that the vocalists were only lip-syncing the words. But one of the ladies forgot to come in at the proper place and had to sing double time until she caught up with the tape.

A group called The Family something or other was on the stage. The men wore tuxes. No one had ever worn tuxes before in that town, even for proms or weddings. I was impressed. This was something special.

The women were something special, too. They wore spike-heeled, peek-a-boo shoes, dark stockings, short skirts, and the tightest, lowest bodices this side of lingerie ads. At first I ducked every time they drew a deep breath. By looking around, however, I discovered that this was improper behavior. Everyone else was staring fixedly, round-eyed, unblinking, certainly not ducking. Surprisingly, the women’s voices lacked the depth and range their appearance led one to expect. Whenever a high note approached, the soprano surreptitiously hit the volume control on the tape deck and opened her mouth a little wider. She seemed to be not only singing but doing a ventriloquist routine that mimicked Doc Severinson’s trumpet as well.

This group was only warming up for a group of brothers (familial, not racial) in pink tuxedos. Like the soprano, the tenor could not hit the high notes, but he made up for that by sporting a frizzy hairdo and by ripping open his ruffled shirt front, in the process making one wonder if he were really bald under the curls. The brothers sang songs of their own composing, they said, but they still used the ubiquitous tape deck and the unknown, uncontrolled orchestra which had previously occupied it.

Finally, there appeared the group de resistance. These were the college boys who had returned home, the ones whose individual names were known -- although not to me, since I had gone away to the godless state university and, incomprehensibly, received there "the call to preach." But these men were of my generation. We had received our calls to God’s church in the same era if not at the same school. Surely they would break the chain of ditties about how Jesus was coming soon, partially to reward us faithful ones, but mostly to get the others.

They did. Oh my, how they did! They brought us right back to a very real concern for the present. Everyone knew why they were last on the program. They were the showstoppers. They were what true Christianity was really all about. They were the "minutemen of song." They were the patriots.

The groups and the songs that had gone before had received enthusiastic applause. Those vocals about Jesus and the apocalypse and the inspiration of the holy book by the Holy Spirit were all thoroughly enjoyed. But now . . . . Applause! Applause!

According to this final group, Christ had chosen America, especially its white immigrants, as a special rod of iron to scourge his wayward world and return it to the pristine purity of capitalist Eden. The same spirit of religion that had made the U.S.A. the greatest military nation the world had ever known would surface once again to save the world from the twin terrors of communism and divorce.

Then, with the lights dimmed and the volume control turned counterclockwise, the bass soloed the finale, the benediction, his much-anticipated "talking song." He told the story of driving down a gravel country road. He saw an old man sitting alone on the porch of his farmhouse. He stopped to talk, and asked the old farmer why he sat alone when the farm work needed to be done. The farmer explained that he was too old to work, and his only son had been killed in Vietnam, so now there was nothing to do but sit.

The narrator noticed a gleam in the farmer’s eye, and asked him if his son’s fate did not make him sad. No, the farmer replied. He could not be sad, because his son had died for America, died for freedom, and even though the unchristian politicians kept us from winning that war, as we should have, he knew in his heart that we had really won, because his boy had died for a good cause, and now although the work at home did not get done, he was prouder than ever to be an American, and only another true American could understand what he meant.

Suddenly the place was up for grabs. The auditorium was on the second floor of the building, and I seriously considered the possibility that it might soon be on the first. People stamped their feet in unison. They clapped. They shouted. They cheered. They stood.

"They" did not include one area in the front row. My family and I sat stunned, although probably for different reasons. I suspect that my wife and daughters would have preferred to stand, at least, just to avoid being so conspicuous. Perversely, I refused. I even sat on my hands to be sure no one thought I was applauding. I was in the auditorium of a Christian college, listening to a "gospel" concert. This was not some meeting of the Bundestag, of the Party, of the VFW or NCPAC or NAM or the AFL-CIO. Why had these people not stood and stamped and cheered for the songs of salvation, of resurrection, of church?

Then I understood. These were their songs of salvation and resurrection and church -- of salvation through military might, of the resurrection of "the frontier spirit that made this country great," of the church that is a nation. These folks’ religious faith was very real, but for them the gospel story had been completely absorbed into the national story. Jesus walked the hills of southern Indiana, not of Galilee. The temptations he warded off in the wilderness had to do with smoking and drinking and dirty movies, not with power and its political manifestations. Paul said it did not matter if you were Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, as long as you were first an American. The Bible of those folks in my home town was summed up by the display I once saw in the window of a flowershop in Moline, Illinois. It was early July, and the florist had fashioned an open Bible from red, white and blue flowers. Where the Bible was "opened," flowers spelled out the words to John 3:16 -- "For God so loved the U.S.A."

Fear did not occur to me. These were, after all, my people. I had left 25 years before, but it was still my town. I saw few faces that looked familiar, but I recognized the hairdos the polyester suits, the farm-shaped hands. I knew the accents and I could still use the local vocabulary. I was at home, among a people with whom I no longer had anything in common, except a desire to serve and belong to God.

Normally that might be enough. After all, we are Christians together. And these are not bad people, the ones who surrounded me that night. They are good folk, struggling vigorously against the temptations of sex and booze, battling mightily against the considerable forces that work to tear apart their families, toiling hard to gain and keep a piece of the American economic dream in a society where they have very little control.

As we walked to our car, I hummed the church songs of my youth. "I walked today where Jesus walked, and felt his presence there." "The joy we share, as we tarry there . . ." "He lives! He lives1...." "He walks with me and he talks with me . . ." "How great Thou Art!" "Saviour, like a shepherd lead us . . ." "I once was lost but now am found . . ." "Were you there . ."

They were songs of incarnation. H. Richard Niebuhr echoed them when he said that "Christians are not those who are being saved out of the world but those who know that the world is being saved." We sang songs of heaven, to be sure, but they never suggested that Christ is absent in the present.

It was the note of incarnation, I decided, that was missing in that contemporary "gospel" concert. The sounds and the technology were the latest, but the heresy was the oldest -- Docetism. Christ was off in heaven, waiting. Resurrection and ascension had completely superseded incarnation.

If Christ is absent until Armageddon, who’s in charge here? Who’s the vicar of Christ for Protestants? It used to be the Bible, but the "paper pope" has been replaced by a modern version of "the chosen people." The U.S.A. holds off the chaos and evil of the world until Jesus comes back. In his absence, we are identified not by what unites us in Christ but by what divides us in the world.

In ancient Israel, among the first chosen people, the kings and high priests were anointed with oil. Then the whole nation was called "the anointed." Today, in the absence of Christ, it is the president of the U.S.A. who personifies the nation chosen to be God’s special people.

Christians need not fear the "devil lyrics" of current rock’n’roll. We know the devil was defeated on the cross and in the grave. We should, however, fear the anti-incarnation lyrics of contemporary, commercial gospel chic. Perhaps we should start singing "the old songs" again: "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine." "Beneath the cross of Jesus." "Are ye able. . ." Sentimental and old-fashioned? Sure, but perhaps they were better than we knew. Now, turn off those blasted machines and turn in your brown hymnals to Number 144. We’ll start with "He leadeth me . ."