Monday, June 17, 2013

Our Macho God

During our three whole weeks as residents of the Bible Belt, we at the Egg have had a great deal of fun.  The new parish is a joy, and there are fewer Confederate-flag gewgaws on sale at the 7-11 than we had first feared.  (Although ....)

Almost as good, our first synod assembly in these parts was an unalloyed pleasure.  Although the underlying tasks are the same as in New York, they are addressed quite differently.  We'll go into more detail some other time -- the contrast is telling -- but suffice it to say that, at one point, we were standing in a college gym with a group of enthusiastic teenagers, mouthing out the lyrics to "Awesome God."

Ah, yes -- "Awesome God."  We were introduced to this little ditty by a few seminary classmates, trying to relive their days with Navigators or Intervarsity or Campus Crusade.  For those who have not had the pleasure, it might be described as the "Kum Ba Yah" of Muscular Christianity, the rhythmic praises of testosterone-heavy Deity:
When He rolls up His sleeves
He ain't just putting on the ritz
(Our God is an awesome God)
There's thunder in His footsteps
And lightning in His fists
There's nothing profoundly wrong with "Awesome God."  Most of  the imagery is from Genesis. The Creation, the expulsion from Eden, and the destruction of Sodom are dutifully balanced with the acknowledgment that "mercy and grace [were] poured out on the Cross."  

Such reservations as we have are less about text than tone.  Yes, God sends out some lightning in the Bible, mostly in Job and the Psalms, and there are plenty of references to the Almighty's upraised arm.  But  that first stanza makes it sound as though the Trinity ought to include Zeus and Thor.  And don't tell me that, when this number is sung at youth camps, the closeted gay kid doesn't feel singled out by that Sodom business -- creating one more damn pastoral care problem that may never be solved this side of Paradise.

And here's the funny part: apparently, we're not the only ones who feel this way.  When the synod's youth director played the song, he did two curious things.  

First, he decided to cut all of the stanzas, and sing only the refrain -- so that, without smashing any Sodomites with his electrically charged fists, our awesome God merely "rules from Heaven above / with wisdom, power and love."  Even liberals won't object to that, right?  Second, he announced that we would replace the missing stanzas with some from an entirely different song.  (A cento, they call that in hymnody).

Perhaps the most curious part of this maneuver, though, was the way he described it. When introducing Christian "contemporary" music, he was somewhat scrupulous about naming authors.  In this case, he began by saying,  "We're going to sing 'Awesome God,' by the late, great Rich Mullins."  Fair enough.  Then he added, "We'll mix in lyrics from the old camp song 'They'll Know We are Christians.' "

Old camp song?  Well, this is fair enough, in its way.  We ourselves did, in actual fact, sing that song at camp a few times, although not nearly as often as "Titanic" or "Hey, Meester Columbus."  But it's not as though "They Will Know" is some authorless bit of campfire kitsch.  

On the contrary, it was written by Father Peter Scholtes, a Roman Catholic priest, to be sung by the choir of African-American boys he was taking on tour. Decent guy, although to be honest we find Mullins' faith journey -- which culminated in RCIA -- more inspiring.  Scholtes later laicized, married, and became a successful author and management consultant.  Although he gets lumped in with the Folk Mass crowd, and not wrongly so, "They'll Know" is a pretty great song.  It's dated, but still certainly less kitschy than "Awesome God."

So why does Rich Mullin get name-checked at a synod assembly, and Peter Scholtes get forgotten?  Not out of malice, we are sure sure.  But because (we suspect) in the two decades between them -- one song was written in 1968, the other in 1988 -- an industry grew up around churchy songs that could be accompanied by an acoustic guitar.  What in Scholtes' day was the work of amateurs in church basements had become, by Mullins' and especially in the years since, a business for professionals.  It's not an enormous part of the music industry's portfolio, but it's a part.  So we imagine that, in our youth director's mind, a guy working in the 1980s gets a kind of respect that a guy doing similar work in the 1960s doesn't.  Which is weird.

Either way, we have to chuckle at calling songs like this "contemporary."  No kid in our youth group was born before 1995, and some of them are more recent than Bush v. Gore.  To them, this stuff is neither more nor less contemporary than the work of, say, Johann Crueger.

Speaking of which, here's how contemporary Crueger can actually sound:

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